Experimenting with Narrative: The Race To Save Mary Lynn
Narrative journalism as presented in American newspapers has usually taken one of several forms: a single monster story breaking from the front to mostly open pages inside; a series of multiple monster stories published in five or six installments; a collection of short installments presented over many days -- sometimes 25 or 30 of them. In recent years, some reporters have used the narrative form in short, daily pieces.
In telling the story of a Coast Guard rescue of a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico, St. Petersburg Times reporter Curtis Krueger experimented with a different combination of length and frequency: relatively short stories published in relatively few installments.
Krueger is no stranger to innovation, as suggested by this 2003 account of a St. Pete Times project that included his own illustrations of story subjects to accompany the text.
Reading his answer to my first question below, I recalled David Halberstam's comment at the 2003 Nieman Narrative conference about the best beat for narrative journalism. And if you're looking for tips on covering that beat, don't miss Meghan Martin's recent centerpiece or this new course from NewsU.
How did you hear about the rescue in the first place?
I was working a day cop shift, filling in because our regular police reporter is off on Mondays. The Coast Guard wrote a news release about the rescue and made their crew available for interviews. I wrote a daily story. TV covered it also.
But I knew there was another side to the tale none of us had touched, namely the experience of the three people on board the Mary Lynn, who spent the whole night battling the hurricane on their crippled fishing boat.
I started looking for these survivors in my free time. It took two weeks to find them, because none had a permanent address or phone number.
What options did you consider in terms of story formats?
The first question was whether to write a story at all. We already had written a daily and covered the news. So I did not feel obligated to write another one. I mostly just wanted to find the crew of the fishing boat and see what they had to say. I think the idea of a series was already percolating in my mind, but I was trying not to get too far into planning out the story until I knew I had one.
How deep into the reporting were you when the idea of a six-part series emerged?
My first interview on this story was a phone call to Lt. Craig Massello, the helicopter pilot. I later told him that after this 45-minute phone call, I felt like I had just walked out of a movie theater.
The story he told had so many twists and turns, and the tale almost seemed to divide itself into chapters: The helicopter crew flew toward the Mary Lynn, but got delayed by another emergency; the helicopter flew all the way to the Mary Lynn, but was forced to leave for refueling; the helicopter returned, but had to wait until daylight; finally, the sun rose and they could start the rescue.
The story Massello told was so episodic, it seemed to suggest a series. Two weeks later, I sat down with Mark Gutek and Anita Miller, survivors from the fishing boat, who gave me a wealth of extra details. That confirmed my idea about writing a series. So afterward I made a brief outline of how a series would work and showed it to my editor Neville Green, who fortunately said yes.
Why six parts in short takes as opposed to two longer chunks or other configurations?
We liked the idea of six short parts because it would be easy for readers. Each part was so short, you could read the whole thing in the morning each day and still get to work on time. And I felt the tale had enough drama that readers would want to come back to it to see if the three on the fishing boat were going to survive.
I have always remembered "Three Little Words," a series of 29 short parts by Poynter's Roy Peter Clark which ran in our paper in 1996. I thought it was a great form for a story and always wanted to try it. This was in the back of my mind too.
How did you pinpoint potential cliffhangers as you looked at the chronology?
The basic cliffhanger throughout was -- are these people going to survive the hurricane? So even in the early parts, I tried to allude to the danger that was coming.
My editor, Neville Green, helped me with the organization of the story. He encouraged me to make each part of the series a full chapter of the story, so readers would feel like something important happened in each part.
For example, in my original outline, readers would have waited until halfway through the second part to learn that Hurricane Katrina was definitely heading toward the fishing boat. But Neville thought that should be the end of part one. That was a good suggestion, because it did become a cliffhanger. It also was a very natural break in the story.
What was reaction like among readers? In the newsroom?
We got a lot of reaction, both in and out of the newsroom. Some of it was negative, from people who strongly dislike longline fishing, because of its environmental consequences. But most comments were positive. My favorite e-mail was one from a reader who said:
"Great series. I start reading most of them, but usually get bored and don't finish. 'The Rescue of the Mary Lynn' was one I followed from start to finish.''
What kinds of stories might you consider trying this with again?
I think it's a great form for the right story. It seems to me a series of short parts works best in narrative stories with strong plot lines that contain twists and turns. You want the reader to feel like he finished a chapter in a book each day -- even though it's a really small chapter.
After illustrating your own story and creating this serial, what else have you got up your sleeve? I appreciate that question! Well, one of the nice things about all the changes affecting the newspaper industry right now is that editors are more open than ever before to trying new things. There are a lot of great possibilities for multimedia presentations and interactive stories on the Web, and I think I would like to explore those in the near future.
Other things we should include?
Somehow, writing a series of short parts feels almost as hard as writing a series of long parts. You have to do so much reporting, you could easily double the length of each story. But I think in this case, short was good.