Giant Footsteps

Dan Barry: BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — Down Clown Alley, in the backstage tent for Circus Smirkus, a slight boy of 14 studies his clown self in a jagged piece of mirror. This is Sam Ferlo, the son of a former circus clown and a former circus showgirl, and the godson of a man once known as the Human Cannonball.

Guess what Sam wants to join when he grows up.

Seeing the need for a touch more of the garish, the boy dabs a finger into the greasepaint he keeps in his most precious possession, a makeup kit that is small, red and well traveled. His every move is watched by the tiny photograph of a clown taped to the inside of the kit’s lid. Practice, this clown tells the boy. Take clowning seriously. And always: Be big.

And Now We Turn To Baseball

Two for you from the Twittertron:

A series by Rich Radford: Two dozen sailors and a handful of officers have come to McClure Field on a Tuesday to play softball. Some have their shirts off on this steamy summer day as they toss the ball a few times to warm up before the first pitch.

McClure is a lot of field for such an informal game. It seats 3,500 and is the second-oldest brick baseball stadium in the country. Games have been played here for almost a century. Years ago, the Navy put up a series of markers to tell its history, but these days few stop to read them.

The one near the entrance on the first base side has been bleached by the sun.

“During World War II all Americans pitched in for victory. Several major league baseball players enlisted in the United States Navy and reported to Norfolk for training.”

And then you see the names.

Phil Rizzuto. Pee Wee Reese. Bob Feller. Dom DiMaggio.

In September 1943, the best baseball on Earth was being played on this field, because almost all of the day’s star players had enlisted.

And a story by Andy McCullough: CHEYENNE, Wyo. — This is the field. A sign fastened to a black chain-link fence advertises Powers Field as the home of Cheyenne Post 6 of American Legion baseball. On a Tuesday afternoon, some 1,750 miles west of the ballpark in Queens, the field hosts an 18-year-old who expects to become a millionaire before the summer ends.

Broke And Broken


Rose Woodworth stood in the center of a weedy parking lot off Fifth Street, surveying what was left of her life:

A wooden coffee table. A plastic dish drainer. Three Southern Living cookbooks.

Everything was strewn around the asphalt. Off to one side, she kept the things she wanted to take with her: Blue flowered sheets. Red Huffy bicycle. A portrait of Jesus, drawn by a friend.

“Hey, is this a garage sale or what?” asked a man walking by.

“Yep,” said Rose. “This is all our stuff. We just got evicted. . . . We’re trying to sell enough to get $99 so we can get a motel for three days.”

Long-form Journalism Online

In the event your boss tells you to keep it short because nobody reads long stuff online, refer him to this:

One last note before the tale of the tape: These monthly memos quite frequently focus on our online-only efforts. But once again, as we’ve reported in past months, the significant long-form journalism that is a hallmark of The Times also produces many of our top-trafficked pieces on the website.

Christopher Goffard’s riveting two-part series recounting the ordeal of a man falsely accused of viciously attacking the mother of his young son took top honors among the most-viewed stories in June 2011. By the way, social media played a big, big role in this. accounted for the overwhelming majority of the readers to this series.

That probably would not have happened, however, had Deputy Editor for Online Megan Garvey not spent extra time prepping the story for the online audience. If you make it easier for visitors to read the story, they will. Readability is something we’ll be focusing on a lot in the near future, and, as we saw in this example, it will pay off.

Shoe Leather

Big thanks to Tommy for passing along this interview with Mary Bishop, who won a Pulitzer with a Philadelphia Inquirer team for stories about Three Mile Island. Reading this feels like sifting through a I-Team time capsule. Read it all here.

You’ve covered a lot of other stories, including Three Mile Island. What was your part in that?

I had just been at the Philadelphia Inquirer about two months when the first nuclear leak took place. I happened to be sitting near the environmental writer. This was 1979 and very few papers had environmental writers. It took her a few days to get the top editors to realize what a very big story this was. As far as we know, it had never happened before.

The place could have melted down and caused tremendous death and destruction. Eventually she convinced the editors this was a really big story, and that we needed to put a lot of us on it. I, and probably 10 other people, drove to Middletown, near Harrisburg, and spent a couple of weeks there. It was really thrilling to watch a really good paper with deep resources invest them in a story of this kind.

They immediately rented us an office and put six phones in there. It was a very well organized thing, especially for 1979. We started interviewing the people who worked at that plant, catching them at home. Two of the other people on the team went to the three big parking lots of the plant and got license plate numbers. Then we had to sort through them. We had a source at the state who gave us the names and addresses of the license plate holders.

Two [reporters] got a short band radio and went out along the river and just sat out there all night one night listening to the radio communication between the nuclear plant and the conventional power plant and the administration building. [The guys] heard them report that there had been yet another leak right then.

Because they were out there, they were able to confirm it. No one would ever have known that these leaks were still going on. It was very frightening.

Giving Lift To Documents

This strikes me as a good example of how to use records to tell a story.

John Barry and Alexandra Zayas: TAMPA — The Schenecker home in Tampa Palms North appeared, in ways, a portrait of ordinary American family life — kids’ Crocs kicked off by the pool, desk calendars jammed with soccer practices, a note board promising “2011, Best Year Ever.”

But on Jan. 28, police discovered other layers over this canvas of suburban beige: Blood. Bullets. Pills. A mother in her housecoat, breathing alcohol, mumbling, struggling to stand.

Officers found 50-year-old Julie Schenecker lying on the patio, near an ashtray stuffed with cigarette butts and a Real Simple magazine opened to “9 Easy Ways to Be Happier.”

RIP Borders

Richard Lake: Behold the carcass, once proud.

Borders, the national bookstore chain founded in 1971 by two brothers in Ann Arbor, Mich., died a horrible death the other day.

It died with a line at the front door.

It died with its mouth shut, the employees forbidden to talk about it.

It died screaming like a carnival barker.




Chain World

Jason Fagone: Jason Rohrer is known as much for his eccentric lifestyle as for the brilliant, unusual games he designs. He lives mostly off the grid in the desert town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. He doesn’t own a car or believe in vaccination. The 33-year-old works out of a home office, typing code in a duct-taped chair. He takes his son Mez to gymnastics and acting class on his lime-green recumbent bicycle, and on weekends he paints with his son Ayza. (He got Mez’s name from a license plate, and Ayza’s by mixing up Scrabble tiles.)

On the morning of February 24, Rohrer took a break from coding and pedaled to the local Best Buy. He paid $19.99 for a 4-gigabyte USB memory stick sheathed in black plastic. The next day he sanded off the memory stick’s logos, giving it a brushed-metal texture that reminded him of something out of Mad Max. Then, using his kids’ acrylics, he painted a unique pattern on both sides, a chain of dots that resembled a piece of Aboriginal art he had seen.

The stick would soon hold a videogame unlike any other ever created. It would exist on the memory stick and nowhere else. According to a set of rules defined by Rohrer, only one person on earth could play the game at a time. The player would modify the game’s environment as they moved through it. Then, after the player died in the game, they would pass the memory stick to the next person, who would play in the digital terrain altered by their predecessor—and on and on for years, decades, generations, epochs. In Rohrer’s mind, his game would share many qualities with religion—a holy ark, a set of commandments, a sense of secrecy and mortality and mystical anticipation. This was the idea, anyway, before things started to get weird. Before Chain World, like religion itself, mutated out of control.

The Bomb That Didn’t Go Off

Charles P. Pierce: In 2009, in the city of Spokane, Washington, the Public Facilities District bought a bench. It was metal. It was aluminum, its powder coat a bronze that ran toward brown. It sat three people. The city bought the bench from a company called Landscape Forms in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The bench cost $2,679.46, delivered.

The city placed the bench in the corner of a downtown parking lot at the intersection of Washington Street and Main Avenue, near the Performing Arts Center and tucked between two low brick walls that formed an L shape behind it. The bench faced up Main Avenue, toward City Hall and the roar of Spokane Falls beyond. The bench faced a couple of pawnshops, including Millman Jewelers, which indeed did sell jeweled items, but which, unlike, say, Tiffany’s, also had a rack of guitars for sale in its front windows. The bench was directly across the street from Auntie’s Bookstore, which takes up most of the bottom two stories of an old brick pile that is still called the Liberty Building.