Coverage of officer shooting models 6 ways to turn breaking news into a narrative
In the aftermath of a shooting that killed two police officers, journalists at the St. Petersburg Times were searching for answers.
What kind of relationship did killer Hydra Lacy Jr. have with his wife Christine, who shortly before the shootout told officers that he was hiding in the attic? And why did he kill himself and the officers in a house that the city has since razed?
A team of reporters dug through court records, revisited the crime scene and interviewed Lacy's friends and the woman he raped years ago. Their work came together in a 3,400-word narrative that ran in last Sunday's paper. I talked with Ben Montgomery, who wrote the story, and his editor Kelley Benham to find out what they learned about turning a breaking news story into a narrative.
Find gray areas to make characters more 3-dimensional.
The goal of this narrative, Montgomery said, was to show that Lacy and his wife were neither all good nor all bad.
"I think that the power of good narrative comes from complexity, and characters are complex," said Benham, enterprise editor at the Times, which Poynter owns. "You want to believe that Hydra Lacy was evil every day of his life, but that's not what the reporting shows. On some days, he was pretty ordinary, even successful. We're not trying to make a cop killer look like a saint, but we want to show him as a three-dimensional character."
Related: Click here to view an X-ray reading of the St. Pete Times story, with a deconstruction of the writing.
To capture the multifaceted lives that Lacy and his wife led, Montgomery quoted Lacy's employer, who said he was "one of the best workers we ever had" -- information that's in stark contrast to a passage about Lacy raping a woman and attacking Christine with a sword. Similarly, Montgomery used dialogue from a deposition to show that while Christine was a victim, she could also be abusive toward her husband.
"For whatever reason, nobody up to that point had gone very deep in terms of their relationship," Montgomery said in a phone interview. "They just reported on the domestic violence issues in a black and white, bureaucratic way; he was charged with x and convicted with y and he served this number of years in prison. There was no real context, so we wanted to get more."
Pay attention to scene-setting details that breaking news stories often miss.
The first few paragraphs of the Times' narrative are full of descriptive details about the crime scene.
"Sprinkled among the cracked cinder blocks and broken tiles are photographs of a wedding cake, a Valentine's Day card and a string of Christmas lights," the lead reads. "Pioneer Brand Brown Gravy Mix and a crunched tub of Country Crock. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 4 and a red dictionary splayed on the heap like a dead cardinal."
Many of these details came from Cherie Diez, a Times photographer who had come across a pile of debris from Lacy's house. Deiz took hundreds of pictures and brought them back for Montgomery and Benham to view. When they saw a hint of color, they'd zoom in on the image to examine what was there.
"We were abstracting from these photographs ... personal information that brought to life their house a little bit," Montgomery said. "So I thought, that's where their relationship is right now -- this pile of rubbish -- and I wanted to start the story right there."
Other details presented challenges, such as the nickname Lacy's friends gave him. Montgomery worried that if he spelled the nickname "Hide," it may have seemed too gimmicky given that Lacy hid in the attic during the shootings. If he spelled it as Hyde, it may have evoked a comparison to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ultimately, he mentioned the nickname twice and spelled it as "Hide" to match the spelling in a photo of a memorial message that Lacy's friend had written.
The nickname was a good detail, Benham said, but "it was almost too good, so you have to really not overplay that. We didn't want to hit that note too hard."
Split up the work, based on each staffer's strengths.
The reporting for the Times' narrative was split among several reporters, many of whom had covered the story since day one.
"What was cool about how these writers came together is everyone has different areas of expertise and we needed all of it," Benham said by phone. "Everybody brought something really different to the story. It was a beautiful thing to watch."
Breaking news reporter Kameel Stanley, for instance, had been at the crime scene for several days and was able to get some of Lacy's friends to talk. Steve Nohlgren and Curtis Krueger are skilled at interpreting court documents and other public records, and running down the clues inside them. And Leonora Lapeter Anton -- who talked with the woman Lacy had raped -- has a gift for getting people to open up, Benham said.
Having other people do most of the reporting enabled Montgomery to focus on writing and include narrative elements that don't always make it into breaking news stories -- scenes, dialogue and quality writing that take you back in time.
Montgomery's nut graf did an especially good job of this: "If you could untwist the metal and re-shelve the books, stuff bullets back into Glocks and bring Hydra Lacy Jr. down from his attic, you'd find a tidy house owned by two people who said they were in love."
Montgomery got the idea for this passage from former Times colleague Thomas Lake, who wrote a similar lead in a Sports Illustrated story a few years ago. "Some people might try to tell you they're original," Montgomery said, "but everything I do is basically begged or borrowed or stolen. I just try to do it in a different way."
Create a time line of events.
When so many people are working on a story, creating time lines can be an effective way to organize information. Montgomery collected everyone's notes and, using Google Docs, created a time line that began with Lacy's birth and ended with the minutes leading up to his death.
Other news organizations have also turned to time lines to organize information -- not just for themselves but for their readers. The Seattle Times, for instance, published a Dipity time line to accompany its breaking news stories about police shootings in Lakewood, Washington.
Montgomery's time line served as an outline that helped piece together the various parts of the story. "You could see how one thing led to the other, which made the writing easier," Benham said.
Don't underestimate the power of good editing/reading stories out loud.
The narrative was a "beast" to edit, Montgomery said, because he had to check with multiple reporters to make sure he interpreted their notes correctly. During the editing process, Benham helped him tighten the piece and identify cliches.
"Typically when I write, I'll include cliches because I'm flowing, but then you go back and turn your cliche radar on and you pick that stuff out of your copy and hopefully turn in a draft that's void of those kinds of cliches," Montgomery said. "I kind of look at it as scaffolding; you need it to support the story, but once the story is building, you go back and take it all down."
Montgomery, who pulled an all-nighter writing the story, needed to cut 20 to 30 inches from the piece. So he read the story out loud to Benham and a few other reporters who helped him identify wordy passages and awkward syntax.
"If your tongue gets tied and you have to start the sentence over again, you know the sentence isn't constructed appropriately," Montgomery said.
Follow your curiosity.
Ultimately, any good narrative stems from reporters seeking answers to their own questions.
In the aftermath of a breaking news story, asking simple questions such as, "What do I want to find out more about?" and "What questions are still not answered?" can help you figure out your angle, Montgomery said.
"The beauty of stories like that is you're given the chance to follow your own curiosity," he said. "You get something incredibly interesting like a guy who's hiding in an attic and kills two cops and you say, 'Why?' And you get paid to run and chase that answer. These are the types of stories I would do for free."