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CNN Photo by Brandon Ancil

CNN sheds light on family’s harrowing experience, Alaska’s highest rape rate

CNN Photo by Brandon Ancil

Convicted sex offenders are American pariahs, kept at bay by law and stigma. In the Alaskan wilderness, however, an experiment is underway to keep these criminals close to their communities.

“The Rapist Next Door,” by CNN.com columnist John D. Sutter, describes the approach through the harrowing prism of one family: a wife, daughter and the husband who raped the child. This remarkably detailed story blends a family’s tragedy and startling response with a policy-driven look at the state with the country’s highest rape rate, accompanied by absorbing videos. In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Sutter reveals how he reported, structured and wrote the story, grappled with ethical dilemmas, why he employs first-person storytelling and describes CNN’s unusual approach to choosing such stories. Read more

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Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013

This photo taken Aug. 2013 shows New England Patriots quarterback Tim Tebow throwing during warmups before a NFL preseason football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit. There wasn't much reason to dislike Tim Tebow, who never pretended to be anything he wasn't. Blame him for the Tebowing craze, if you will, but even that was worth a few laughs in a league that doesn't always embrace fun. There wasn't much reason to like him as an NFL quarterback, either. Three teams tried their best to make use of his unique talents, but even Bill Belichick couldn't find a way to turn him into a competent QB. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

How Sports Illustrated reporter captured the athlete in ‘The Book of Tebow’

Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lake embarked on a challenging project: to profile Tim Tebow, an athlete who’s been covered as thoroughly as any in America and who didn’t want Lake to write about him.

With limited access to his subject, what Lake produced was a robust, seven-part, 15,000-word story. It explores oft-analyzed Tebow topics – his successes and failures, his inability to get a job, his faith – but in a much deeper way. It’s a story powered by the author’s voice and transparency.

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Lake told us how he did it.

How did the idea for the story come about and what was the initial vision?

This all started last spring, around the time Tebow left the Jets. The editors and I wanted to understand how and why a quarterback could lead his team to the playoffs, win a game in overtime against the league’s top-ranked defense, and then find himself unwanted by all 32 teams in the NFL.

Around mid-July, I was ready to give up. Tebow had become too famous for his own good, and he was trying to stay out of the spotlight. Not only was he not cooperating, he was making sure his close friends and relatives didn’t return my calls. I had some material in my notebook from watching him speak in Dothan, Ala., so I filed 2,000 words on that event and prepared to move on.

Then I heard back from Chris Stone, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated. He liked those 2,000 words. He said that was one chapter. Now write six more.

It was quite a bold vision: Do a story twice as long as anything you’ve ever done, and do it with little or no access to the main subject or his close friends. Stone believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And I’m thankful for that. Because we came up with a story that I’d thought was impossible.

Access seemed like a major challenge – you even acknowledge in the first section that Tebow and his advisors wished the story would have never been written. So how did the lack of access change your approach?

That lack of access meant I had to do two things:

1. Study all the Tebow material from the public domain. Meaning his autobiography, a couple of other books about him, several documentary films, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, many hours of game footage, and so on. In that material I wanted to connect some dots that might not have been connected before.

2. Track down and interview people who had known Tebow in the past but didn’t currently know him well enough to ask his permission to give an interview. I printed out the rosters from his Florida Gators teams and just went down the list. Dozens of calls and e-mails and Facebook messages. Probably the most important discovery was Tony Joiner, his former roommate, because Joiner knew a lot about Tebow and the program but had essentially fallen off the map. After many dead ends, I tracked him down in Fort Myers, Fla., where he was working for a bail-bonds company. Joiner gave me a long, candid and deeply insightful interview that laid the foundation for the second and third sections of the story. Then I interviewed many other Gators who confirmed what Joiner said.

How did you ultimately convince Tebow, or his people, to grant you an interview?

New England Patriots spokesman Stacey James arranged my first interview with Tebow. That took weeks of negotiations. Once I met Tebow face-to-face, other doors began to open. He authorized a visit to his foundation headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. His older brother Robby talked to me. But after Tebow left the Patriots, it was very hard to get that follow-up interview in Los Angeles. Five months of effort led to only six minutes on the record.

You know how it works, though. We take what we get and we make the best of it. Six minutes are better than zero.

Were you ever apprehensive about profiling someone who had been covered so aggressively by so many reporters for so long?

Of course. I find it easier to write about people who have never been famous, or people who left the spotlight a long time ago. There’s so much more undiscovered material. But even with Tim Tebow, there was plenty left to discover. And even more to explain.

How many people did you interview, and how long did the process take from when the reporting first began to the day the story published?

I wanted to interview 100 people, but it was astonishing how many former teammates declined to talk about him. In the end it was probably 30. That’s just a guess. About seven months passed from the day I got the initial assignment to the day the story went live. (I was working on other stories during that time as well.)

The story ran at 15,000 words. How long was the first draft, and was anything cut that you wish had survived?

Very little was cut from this story. The assignment came with a prescribed length, and I turned it in very close to that length. Gary Smith, my mentor at Sports Illustrated, gave it a read and a fine-toothed edit before I sent it to the bosses in New York. (I also sent it to my writer friends Chris Goffard and John Timpe, as I do with many stories, and they were helpful, as always.)

It’s funny, though: Gary has won more National Magazine Awards than anyone else, and discussions about him often center on empathy and diligent reporting and having a heart and all that. Which they should. But you know what else gets Gary fired up? Grammar. Shortening a nine-word sentence to seven words. The correct placement of a comma.

Gary is obsessive about those small things. Listen up, young writers. Spell everything right. Double-check all names and facts. Study the work of Roy Peter Clark and William Zinsser. Become a skilled technician of the English language. The small things make a huge difference.

I think Chris Jones from Esquire said it best on Gangrey.com: Your story is brave. To me, that’s due in large part because of how open you were with your faith. Why did you decide to be so honest, and what did your editors say about that choice?

If I ever have to fight my way out of a dark alley, I hope Jones is there to lead the charge. Come to think of it, Tebow would do pretty well there, too. The guy is fearless.

I write stories for a living, and a few years ago I came to this conclusion: The story of Jesus Christ really is the greatest story ever told. Tim Tebow believes that, too. In a story like this one, that connection is a powerful thing. We can pretend to be “objective” or “unbiased” all we want, but we all believe in something. Atheism is just another kind of belief.

All that aside, the facts are the facts. I’m a reporter, and I want to be judged on the quality of my reporting. Which is why I didn’t shy away from Tebow’s shortcomings as a quarterback. Likewise, when I wrote “The Boy Who Died of Football,” I didn’t give the coach a pass. The fact that he was a Christian didn’t change the fact that he had behaved irresponsibly on the day one of his players literally ran himself to death in practice.

As for the editors, I guess they said all they needed to say by publishing the Tebow story the way I wrote it.

At times, you seem to let the reader know that you like Tebow, even quoting yourself after an interview with him: “ ‘Kinda gets you all fired up,’ the reporter said on the way down the tunnel.” Why did you reveal that?

Tebow was as likable as anyone I’ve met in my career, and there was no sense in pretending otherwise. I wanted the reader to know that explicitly.

The story sparked lots of discussion, including some criticism, particularly from Deadspin. Their review alleged, among other things, that your story offered little new information about Tebow. How do you respond to that (or any of the other criticisms)?

I’ll respond with a question of my own. At your funeral, what do you want people to say about you? Do you want them to say “the guy was great at cutting people down.” Or “he sure knew how to dish out ridicule and scorn.” Or “he proved his brilliance through relentless cruelty.” The smartest people I know are also the kindest. And that’s no coincidence.

How did you expect readers to react to the story?

I was pretty sure some people would like it, some would hate it, and some wouldn’t bother to read it. It’s very long.

How have they reacted?

The response has been 95 percent positive. A few criticisms here and there, but mostly people liked the story. The most pleasant surprise came from the frontman of a well-known indie-rock band, who followed me on Twitter and then responded to my direct message to say he enjoyed the story. I told him how much I enjoy his songwriting.

What was the hardest part about reporting the story?

All the rejection, I guess — all the dozens of calls and emails and letters that went unreturned. Sometimes it felt like punching a stone wall.

What’s your least favorite thing about the story?

I wish it had been an inside look at Tebow’s life — a piece about what it’s actually like to be him. I had to settle for “Tebow, From a Distance.”

What’s your favorite thing about the story?

The seventh section is the best one. But you have to read an awful lot of words to get there.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and webinars at Poynter News University. Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013

Poynterexcellence

Cage fighter’s faked death gives life to rich NYT storytelling

Last month, The New York Times continued its streak of publishing groundbreaking newspaper narratives with “Tomato Can Blues,” a longform account of a small-town Michigan cage fighter who faked his own death.

Reporter Mary Pilon crafted a mystery story amid the bloody world of amateur sports with a cast of carefully-etched characters, an eye for telling details and creative organization. “It combines lush illustrations and audio narration and reads like a graphic novel come to life,” praised the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mary Pilon is a reporter with The New York Times. (Nikola Tamindzic)

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Pilon, 27, unpacks the reporting, writing and collaboration behind this exceptional story:

How did you come upon the story and why did you decide to pursue it?

Having just finished some investigative work tied to our Westminster Dog Show coverage, my editors, Jason Stallman and Sam Dolnick and I met to talk about where I should next focus my energy. One of them threw a short wire story about an amateur cage fighter who faked his own death at me. We weren’t setting out to do anything big. I made some calls and got some of the Michigan fight promoters on the phone, but at that point, the Robinette robbery had just happened and even folks in Michigan were still trying to get a handle on what had transpired. Frustrated, I reported that back to my editors. Jason said, “Take a one-way ticket to Detroit,” which was a really gutsy move on his part. I threw some clothes in a bag and got on the next flight, unsure what, if anything, I would get on the ground. Was Rowan dead? Alive? What happened?

How much time did you spend in Michigan?

I was in Michigan, all told, about two weeks spread over two trips, but I continued to work on regular news coverage, chipping away at this story bit by bit. I drew maps and diagrams of where things happened and when, put together timelines, tracked down cage fighters and any public records I could get my hands on. I attended cage fights in Michigan, including at Streeters, interviewed dozens of fighters, but also tried to sneak in cage fights as I traveled elsewhere for other stories throughout the summer, hoping to get a context for the Michigan scene. YouTube clips, blogs, message boards and phone interviews with experts in the sport helped, too. Even when I wasn’t in Michigan, I wanted to be immersed.

How did you get Charlie Rowan to open up?

At first, I reached out to his lawyer, who told me no. My first stop when I landed in Michigan was the Gladwin County Courthouse when he was brought in for a hearing. I know this sounds crazy, but I felt like I had to see him with my own eyes, even if he wasn’t being interviewed, to confirm he was alive if we were going to report that in The Times. I began to find people — friends, neighbors, relatives — who told me more of the local buzz, taking me back in some ways to my roots as a small-town reporter in Oregon. People were incredibly kind with their time. I roamed in and out of gyms, coffee shops, people’s living rooms, fast food restaurants, the woods, just trying to absorb as much of that world as I could. Hard to not get a little Nancy Drew about it all. After a week on the ground in Michigan, I left thinking Rowan wasn’t going to talk, but I had enough for a modest Sunday story about cage fighting in the heartland, nothing more.

Soon thereafter, the bombs went off in Boston and I helped my colleagues cover the Marathon and the aftermath. Later that week as I was leaving one of the hospitals there, my cell phone rang and it was a collect call from a jail. I was shocked when the caller identified himself as Charles Rowan and said he wanted to talk. I pulled out my laptop there in Boston Common, exhausted and surrounded by police, and Rowan started to tell me everything. We kept talking on the phone and I flew to Michigan a second time to interview him in jail, then follow up on all the leads he gave me from our conversations. It’s not often a reporter gets to ask, “So was that before, or after you died?”

Your eye for telling details is remarkable, whether it’s the Rite Aid visible from the bedroom of Rowan’s girlfriend’s home where he hides during the memorial service to his many tattoos and the Skittles on sale at the local gun shop? How do you soak them up?

The Rite Aid bit I got from going to Rosa’s house, an address we had from a police report, and walking around the neighborhood. I use my phone as a note-taking device and took photos and videos of the house, Gladwin, the cage fights, which I returned to over and over again in writing and piecing everything together and shared with my editors. If a detail stuck with us over and over, we kept it in, thinking it would likely resonate with readers, too. The tattoos were buried in a police booking report and the Skittles came from a crime scene photo. I confirmed them with Rowan and the Robinettes, as well. We tried to verify as much as we could with as many people as possible and there were a lot of things we left out because we only had one source.

Attila Futaki’s illustrations helped tell The New York Times story of a cage fighter who faked his own death.

Evocative animated illustrations by Attila Futaki add a powerful storytelling dimension to “Tomato Can Blues.” How closely did you work with the artist?

We hadn’t done anything quite like this before and still wanted to be as accurate as possible. Attila lives in Hungary, so we used a file-sharing service to share relevant reporting materials (police reports, story drafts, photos and videos I shot with my iPhone, etc.). He sent us back sketches that we reviewed…then refined and inked them. One example: the shot of Rowan’s feet at the gun store originally had him in boots. We knew from interviews and the police report that he wore sneakers, so we changed it. Another: the “ROWAN” tattoo above his navel in the cover shot where Rowan is getting punched was in one of his old fight photos and confirmed in a police report.

Why did you wait a long time to reveal that Rowan is a source for your story?

We wanted there to be suspense, but at the same time not feel like we were “tricking” readers. Same with the opening. We wanted readers to step into the world as we had — completely confused — and keep them enticed as we had been in the unraveling.

In the process of reporting my upcoming book, “The Monopolists,” I did a lot of research on story structure, a new and foreign art to me as someone with more of a background in shorter news stories. My editors are longform veterans and we tossed around movie trailers, true crime articles, book chapters, to try and get a handle on the structure. “Tomato Can Blues,” too, was an exercise in figuring out how to keep readers hooked while still being factual. I think journalists can learn a lot from screenwriters and novelists about how to arc facts, which was a huge task here.

What were the most helpful resources?

I found myself dissecting works that I have long loved (“The Third Man,” “Casablanca,” Coen Brothers films, Woody Allen’s humor writing and movies, anything F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ken Kesey, Alice Munro, on the nonfiction front, passages from Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Truman Capote, dog-eared copies of The New Yorker, etc. ) and thinking about what made them so effective. I reread Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and also find the writerly manifestos of Steven Pressfield, Christopher Vogler, Stephen King and Robert McKee to be great roadmaps when lost on the proverbial drafting highway.

The kicker quote is very poignant. When did you decide that would be the way you would end the story?

Rowan, often without realizing it, had oddly prophetic offhand comments about life and death throughout the course of our interviews. As soon as he said that, I knew it had to go somewhere important in the story and it quickly made sense as an ending note for the piece. It’s a bizarre, George Bailey story in some ways, set against the backdrop of a really economically hard-hit part of the country. Rowan is one of only a few people in the world who had a glimpse of what life would be like for others if he was dead. We knew early on that these themes of life and death, feeling caged, had to be woven throughout the story and somehow resonate in the end. As cheesy as it may sound, it was through “dying” that Rowan said he learned about life.

What has been the reaction to “Tomato Can Blues?”

You can never predict the outcome of a story, but I’m thrilled people liked it and the reaction was great. Many people picked up on some of our inspirations — Truman Capote, Gay Talese, the Coen brothers, Ernest Hemingway (his work on boxing, in particular), to name a few.

Some readers have asked what Rowan thought of the story. Due to restrictions at his jail, Rowan has no Internet access, but his lawyer passed along a copy of the paper to him and I spoke with Rowan on the phone after the story ran. “I wish I went global for other reasons than this,” Rowan said. “But you know, maybe someone will take my story and use it to help themselves.”

Chances are that many journalists would read “Tomato Can Blues” and say, “I want to do stories like this.” What advice would you give them?

It sounds obvious, but try and report the hell out of a story and be okay with not knowing where a story is going to take you. When we started, it’s not as if we said, “Let’s do a big written piece, audio book and graphic novel about cage fighting in the heartland.” We started out with curiosity and went where the reporting took us. I’m lucky to have editors who embrace the unexpected and we have a dynamite multimedia team that helped us take the project to another level. Another huge lesson is that stories like these are really team projects. There’s sometimes a temptation to be a lone wolf reporting, but Tomato Can would not have been possible without the patience and effort of my colleagues here.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and webinars at Poynter News University. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 02, 2013

University Of Alabama Sororities

How student reporters ended discrimination among University of Alabama sororities

In the weeks before school started, it was widely known on campus at the University of Alabama that a well-qualified black woman was pledging the white sororities. Her high-school resume was stellar, her family were alums and her grandfather was on the Board of Trustees.

The staff at the student newspaper, The Crimson White, was poised to document the seminal moment when she was accepted, which would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the university’s integration.

But the woman received no invitations to join any of the school’s 16 white sororities.

A couple days after the invitations were issued, Culture Editor Abbey Crain and Magazine Editor Matt Ford both stepped up at the Crimson White. Crain said in a phone interview for the Poynter Excellence Project that she assumed someone else was already working on the story and just wanted to help. Instead, she found herself as the lead reporter. Ford said he just wanted to tell a good story when he volunteered, and wasn’t even aware of the 50th anniversary.

Over the next three weeks, the two asked dozens of sorority members if they would describe the closed-door negotiations that led to invitations. Nearly all of the people approached said no.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Heck no, I am not talking about that. ” Crain said. “You know some of the sororities instruct their members to never ever talk to us about anything.”

Eventually, sources within four sororities agreed to tell their stories. One of the women even agreed to talk on the record.

On Sept. 11, The Crimson White published its investigative piece, “The Final Barrier: 50 Years Later Segregation Still Exists.” The story documented a rush process in which members at several sororities actively tried to pledge the student in question, only to be thwarted by their alumnae and advisers.

The story caught fire on social media. Jezebel linked to it the next day. Within a week, CNN, USA Today, The New York Times and The Guardian of London had published similar stories.

It’s a remarkable piece of journalism for three reasons.

  • The story itself is clear-eyed and insightful, taking readers into a secret rush process that’s rarely been documented.
  • The tone of the story was authoritative, yet lacked any hint of sensationalism. The writers were careful not to overreach in their conclusions, which made their assertions that much more powerful.
  • The impact was even more remarkable. Students and faculty protested. The college president, the governor and the U.S. Attorney General trained their sights on the rush process, and news media around the world took notice.

The outcome: Several sororities reopened the rush process and invited four African-American women and two other women of color into their ranks.

Alabama student Yardena Wolf, right, speaks at a campus protest. Khortlan Patterson is at left. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

This wasn’t the first time The Crimson White had criticized the sororities, Crain said — it was almost a rite of autumn. In Crain’s time as a student, the paper has published three columns or editorials calling the Greek system discriminatory. Each time, the Greeks responded that the paper was biased, online comments flew, and nothing changed, Crain said.

This year offered the prospect that things would be different: The weight of history was pressing down on the entire South, with commemorations of the integration of several universities and remembrances of the death of the four girls in the Birmingham bombing making headlines.

But the outcome was also different because the story was different.

On Sept. 18, about 400 students and faculty members protested on campus. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

One of Crain’s first moves was to track down Melanie Gotz, the only named source and the backbone of the story.

“I knew her from my freshman year. I thought she might be the kind of girl that would stick up for this stuff,” Crain said. Sure enough, Gotz had unsuccessfully spoken up during the rush meetings at her own sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta, demanding to know what happened to the African-American pledge. When Crain called, Gotz was ready to talk. She described her sorority sisters standing with her to oppose their alumnae, only to be overruled.

“The entire house wanted this girl to be in Alpha Gam,” Gotz told The Crimson White. “We were just powerless over the alums.”

Anonymous sources at Delta Delta Delta, Chi Omega and Pi Beta Phi described similar scenarios to Crain and Ford.

Crain was particularly worried about Gotz being the only named source. Throughout the reporting she kept Gotz informed of her progress, including the fact that no one else was going on the record. But Gotz insisted on keeping her name in the story.

“I didn’t want to throw her under the bus,” Crain said. “But she told me she would regret it if she didn’t put her name to it.”

Crain’s father, an Alabama alum, was back home in Huntsville and worried about his daughter.

“At first he was like, ‘Oh Abbey you are playing with fire. These are all well-off women. You are going to get yourself in trouble,’ ” she said. But as the reporting went along and she revealed what she was finding, her father changed his mind. “He was just like ‘Oh my gosh, I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was like this.’ My parents are really proud.”

Mark Mayfield, the Crimson White’s adviser, said Crain, Ford and Editor-in-Chief Mazie Bryant approached him early with the story. They were particularly concerned because one of their anonymous sources had implicated an administration official who doubled as a sorority-house adviser as one of two people in the room when votes (which sources said were unanimously in favor of inviting the student) were counted and the pledge was removed from consideration.

Crain and Ford worked hard to get that woman’s response in the story, rather than settle for her initial “no comment.” The sorority adviser later responded that “Our recruitment processes and procedures were followed, and while I cannot take away the disappointment a potential new member or chapter member may feel, I can share that all women were treated fairly and consistently in our process.”

While that response doesn’t really explain how a pledge who had unanimous support from the members didn’t get an invitation, it at least allowed the adviser to respond to her critics. “It was the right thing to do,” Mayfield said. “Abbey was a bulldog about it.”

The morning the story was published, Ford said he went to bed at 3:30 a.m. When he awoke much later that day, his phone was overloaded with text messages. Jezebel had picked up the story, and people on Facebook and Twitter were talking about it.

National networks sent crews to campus, protests erupted, and after the bidding process was reopened, six women of color accepted invitations into sororities on campus. (Ford noted his disappointment that some of the national stories wrongly suggested the pledges had been blocked by current sorority members and not the alumnae.)

Ford and Crain are both on track to graduate next spring. Both admit they’re already behind in their classes, mostly because of their devotion to their journalism. After college, Ford hopes to move to New York to be a journalist — or maybe a screenwriter, or maybe an actor. Crain wants to be a fashion writer.

You should hire them before someone else does.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 04, 2013

.223-caliber bullets

The story behind a compelling investigation into how Aurora shooter got his ammo

Earlier this summer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published “How the Aurora shooter got his ammo” — an investigation into how James Holmes managed to purchase some 6,000 rounds of ammunition before he killed 12 people and wounded 58 in a theater in Aurora, Colorado last year. The answer? He bought the ammo online, from a company determined to elude anyone trying to find it.

Todd Frankel’s story brims with surprising facts, and he writes with an understated authority. The reporting is smart, thorough and creative. As he notes below, he even managed to use dead ends productively.

In the end, an important piece that could have crippled readers with boredom reads like a mystery, as Frankel takes us on a journey to find out exactly where the ammo that fueled Holmes’ killing spree really came from.

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Frankel, an award-winning enterprise reporter who has been at the Post-Dispatch for 10 years, answered questions about the choices he made as he reported and wrote the story. An edited version of that interview appears below.

What do you usually cover?

I’m an enterprise reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, so I don’t have a traditional beat. I look for stories that strike my curiosity and for different angles on stories in the news.

How did you get on to this story?

By accident. In April, a judge in Colorado unsealed some records with various new details about the Aurora shooting. I happened to read a brief wire story about the records and one detail caught my eye: Holmes bought ammo from a St. Louis-based online ammo dealer. That was the first I’d heard about it. So I started poking around, really just curious to see who this dealer was. I didn’t imagine it would lead anywhere all that interesting.

 Why ammo (instead of the weapons themselves, or some other aspect of the story)?

Todd Frankel

That was my opening. That was the local connection. I’d done some stories earlier in the year about the national debate over gun violence, so I was interested in the topic. The source of the guns in the Aurora shooting was quickly traced back to legal purchases at sporting goods stores. But there was less scrutiny of the ammo — not only in Aurora, but in other mass shootings. So it felt like the topic needed exploring.

How long did it take you to do the piece (from the start of your reporting to the day you and your editor sent it to the copy desk)?

The story was a little unusual in that I wasn’t working on it consistently. I’d gather some string, hit a wall, do something else, come back. I started in April. I produced an early draft in May, talked it over with editors Jean Buchanan and Adam Goodman, and we agreed I should develop it further, travel to Knoxville and Atlanta and wherever else was necessary. Then I had to set up the trip and go.

All that reporting changed the story. I probably finished writing at the end of June. Then we had to find room for the story (it’s kinda long) in the newspaper, and online graphics guru Christopher Spurlock needed time to do something different with the online presentation. The story ran July 13, the Sunday before the one-year anniversary of the Aurora shooting.

What major challenges did you face reporting and writing the piece, and how did you deal with them?

The biggest challenge was the subject of the story didn’t want to talk. Confirming even the most basic details was a slog. The regulations that apply to gun dealers — which provide at least a little information — do not apply to ammo dealers. State laws on businesses are pretty loose too.

The story notes that “it can feel like chasing a ghost,” and it really did. It was frustrating, but also revealing — because it didn’t seem like this really should be so hard. That informed how I approached the story and structured it.

Public records seemed to play a pretty prominent role in your reporting of the story. Is that correct? And how difficult were they to access?

Public records were crucial. Not only the records I could find, but the lack of public records. (I needed to be certain that certain records really did not exist — in these cases, the negative was actually harder to confirm than the positive.) I think reporters (including me) sometimes fall into the trap of believing that if Google doesn’t turn it up, it doesn’t exist. But lots of records are not online or exist in unsearchable formats.

You have to call and ask for these records or go to some far-flung courthouse and talk to the clerks and make sure not only that they have the records, but that you’re asking the right questions, that you’re not missing records you didn’t even know existed. For example, I used U.S. Department of Labor records that showed a company entwined with the ammo dealer had applied for a H1B visa. Finding that was important. But I didn’t know that data even existed when I started. I had a hint the information was out there, but had no idea how to find it.

So I called immigration attorneys and government officials. And finally one mentioned that there might be a record trail I could use. Eventually, I found the data, which led to an address — an essential link.

You frame the piece as a mystery/quest, and that works really well. Talk about how you made that decision. What were you hoping to accomplish?

I wanted people to actually read the story. I didn’t want it to be boring. The story relied on lots of public records and research. That can be tedious reading. The story needed action. It needed movement. And so a natural solution was to bring the reader along on the reporting journey, let them follow the hunt. This also allowed me to employ moments that were essentially reporting miscues — like getting doors slammed in my face.

You write in the second person throughout the piece. What made you decide to do that, and what impact do you think that has on the reader? (At one point, referring to a blog post written by a character in the story, you say, “Go online and find it.” At another spot, you say, “Type ‘bulk ammo’ into Google.”)

I didn’t have a character to build the story around. No one else was chasing this angle. The reporter was the driver. And the second person allowed the reader to enter into the story. It made them active participants and showed I was being transparent — telling the reader, “Really, go ahead and type these terms into Google and you can see it for yourself. I’m not making this up.”

How did you figure out that the various websites all belonged to the same company?

First, the domain names were all registered in Tennessee to the same corporate owner. That almost would be enough. But the sites also shared certain design and coding traits, almost like fingerprints. They had common wording, especially in the boilerplate pages. There were other things that pointed to their shared heritage, too. Taking all that together, we made the connection.

Do you know much about guns and ammo? How did you manage to get the details right (when reporters often get them wrong)?

I know enough to write .22-caliber and not 22-caliber. But a colleague who knows guns proofread the story for that reason. He was a great help. And the editors and copy desk were alert to making sure we got it right. For example, the headline couldn’t be “Where the Aurora Shooter Got His Bullets” because he also bought shotgun shells, which are not technically bullets.

Your tone is pretty understated throughout the story, although your point-of-view is clear. Again, it works really well. Did you choose that tone deliberately? Why?

I didn’t want the story to sound like a polemic — and I didn’t want readers to think I was steering them. So I worked hard to that end. Stories tend to more effective when readers reach their own conclusions — especially on a topic as sensitive as guns and ammo.

It’s a story about ammo, but it’s a very human story, too. Were you conscious of the need to make the story human (by interviewing the pastor at the church in Knoxville, for example)?

Yes, stories are best when they’re about people. So I looked for opportunities. I was lucky to find the pastor. And I decided to put a bit more focus on the shooting’s youngest victim, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, to illustrate that this was not an academic exercise, but one with real consequences.

How did readers react to the story?

Overwhelmingly positive. The kind of stuff that makes you blush. I was surprised. I expected more blowback, especially on a piece about guns and ammo. But readers really liked the story. Even readers who said they strongly supported gun rights, they said they understood why this story needed to be written. That meant a lot.

What other lessons did you learn?

Follow the story. I didn’t know where this would lead. It could’ve been a short article in the back of the business section. It could’ve never run. But you’ve got to try and see where it goes.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University Read more

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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013

Justin Bieber

Story about Justin Bieber concert shows how writers can zig when everyone else zags

I learned a new term from a high school teacher, who introduced me to “mentor texts.”  A mentor text is a story that teaches the reader something important about storytelling.

The stories that we have selected so far for the Poynter Excellence Project — a newspaper profile of a poet and an audio story narrated by the parents of a dead soldier — were chosen, not just for their content, but because they reveal strategic aspects of the craft.

When I think of my mentor texts, the one that stands out was written 50 years ago for the New York Herald Tribune by the Brobdingnagian Jimmy Breslin. He was covering the burial at Arlington National Cemetery of assassinated president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. What made Breslin’s piece memorable was that he focused on the gravedigger, a man named Clifton Pollard, who made $3.01 an hour digging graves and considered his work on behalf of JFK “an honor.”

Famed editor Gene Roberts had a name to this approach to news writing. He called it zigging when everyone else was zagging.

This long introduction leads me to a page one story in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times by one of my favorite writers Stephanie Hayes, known for her edgy versatility. It’s newspaper title was “Teen Bieber fever…and those who wait.” (The online title was “Outside Justin Bieber concert, parents find their own groove.”)

An editor approached Hayes two days before the Justin Bieber concert with news there would be a waiting room for parents. “Did I want to check it out?,” she writes in an email, “Duh, of course I did. If there’s a chance to find a black truffle in a bin of carrots, you must try.”

The story, which we’re honoring as part of Poynter’s Excellence Project, is quite short, but surprises and delights the reader with its unpredictable and whimsical turns.

It roars into action with this cinematic lead:

The fans charged like wildebeests with flat-ironed hair, and they screamed, literally, at nothing. They chewed chicken nuggets and swilled soda through gum-clung braces and crumpled paper towels in volcanic masses in bathrooms. When they could finally take their seats to see Justin Bieber perform, a cloud of glitter revealed their left-behinds.

This is high-energy writing to be sure, the camera moving in and out, from establishing shot to close-up, the sound and visual images competing for attention — from that first simile (“like wildebeests”), to the alliteration of “chewed chicken” and “swilled soda,” to that parade of ‘u’ assonance: nuggets, gum-clung, crumpled. It’s all about to spin out of control. A marching army leaves a cloud of dust behind it. An army of teenage girls leaves a cloud of glitter.

But there are two sides to this story, and there is the beautiful rub. To cover just the teens would be to zag. To zig, Hayes also covers ….

The guardians. The beleaguered moms and dads and aunts and uncles who did not have a concert ticket, nor want one. But they had to be there, caught in a rite that happens when your child worships a teen idol but is too young to do it alone.

Turns out there is a parent waiting area. “They slumped in chairs, slept on floors, inserted ear buds, read the paper, looked at calming nature photograph on the walls.”

So far, so good. An army of teens on fire, a reserve unit of guardians cooling their heels. It’s the kind of natural tension a talented feature writer can build a story upon.

But then something happens. A character appears who may have the best name in the history of human interest stories. He serves as a kind of deus ex machina, an out-of-nowhere wisdom figure who brings serenity and meaning to the whole.

Welcome an 81-year-old grandfather, wearing Velcro shoes, by the name of Rusty Peacock. In case you were not paying attention, let me repeat that name for you: Rusty Peacock.

We wind up cheering for Peacock because of his loyalty to his granddaughters, his historical vantage point and his own youthful aspirations. He has no interest in Justin Bieber, but understands the passion and enthusiasm expressed by young girls for their idols.

“Little girls are the same, ever since Sinatra or Frankie Avalon,” he says, but suddenly is addressing a “pretty lady” nearby. The quote becomes dialogue, “…who did you like?” he asks 45-year-old Kimberley Moritz. “Donny Osmond,” she said.

What follows is a litany of his own youthful idols, which gets weirder and weirder as it develops: Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Debbie Reynolds, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charo. “Remember Charo? the hoochie coochie?” Peacock says. “Oh, she’s good.”

Suddenly, I realize that this has become a story of modulated sexual energy and aspiration, and that old Rusty Peacock may not be so rusty after all. We learn that he lost his wife 20 years ago, but likes concerts because he can meet new friends.

“I’m starving,” says the pretty lady nearby, about half his age.

“Are you?” he responds. “Do you want to go get a hamburger?”

Inside the concert hall pre-teen girls exude glitter like pheromones, testing out their sexuality and emotions on a handsome boy who may be twice their age. Inside the hall, a handsome grandfather tries his luck with a mom young enough to be his daughter.

In an email interview, Hayes explained her main character this way:

He was an extrovert who had lost a love, and his life now at 81 was about finding connection, making communion everywhere he went, with a dose of twinkling charm to back it up.

I went back and wrote chronologically, trying not to think too hard about it. I knew it would be gratuitous and a spoiler to put Rusty right at the top. I wanted to start in the action, carve away the clay of the teenagers to reveal the Venus de Milo of Rusty Peacock.

In the end, it was a story about connection — the false connection that happens when you scream for a teen idol versus the authentic connection that’s possible in a quieter space.

I remember an argument from a scholar on his experience reading old newspapers. He noticed how dated the more serious stories seemed: the budget battles, the tax proposals, the races for mayor. What stood out from those conventional stories were the brief human interest stories, the boy whose bike was stolen and whose dad made him a new one from spare parts, the girl who put a note in bottle which was answered — 10 years later.

The key to doing this well is looking for an opportunity to give your story a surprising turn. Who would guess that a story about a Justin Bieber concert would wind up starring a dashing 81-year old man — named Rusty Peacock, for goodness sake.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University. Read more

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Wednesday, Aug. 07, 2013

anna_tends_grave3

Story about a Marine’s suicide shows power of letting sources narrate

National Public Radio brags about its ability to produce “driveway moments.” The idea is that you’re driving home from work listening to a riveting story on NPR and pull into your driveway, but the story isn’t over yet so you sit there — with the AC thrumming — until the tale is told and you can turn off the engine.

The story we highlight today for the Poynter Excellence Project was a driveway story for me. It’s called “Coming Home: Nick’s Story” and it was produced independently by Long Haul Productions, run by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister.

Collison & Meister.

Listening to the full version takes about 20 minutes; the version I heard on NPR took about 13. I encourage you to listen to “Coming Home: Nick’s Story” either before or after reading the Q&A between me and the producers, which was conducted via email after an initial phone conversation. (The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)

We’ve selected this story for two key reasons, related to the mission and the craft of journalism.

It’s one of the primary missions of journalists to write about war. War has been and will always be with us. Think about the earliest two stories representing Western culture. The first is “The Iliad,” which describes the consequences of waging a great war for a trivial reason. Its sequel is “The Odyssey,” which still reminds us how easy it is to go off to war, and how hard it is to get home.

“Coming Home: Nick’s Story” takes the tale a step further, to the realization that getting home from war isn’t enough: Soldiers are changed forever, and often not for better. Post-traumatic stress disorder can drag a soldier, a family and a nation deeper into darkness.

On the craft side, we experience Nick’s story not through the voice of a reporter, but directly from two of the main characters: Nick’s mother and stepfather. This form of storytelling — direct narration — is a specialty of Collison and Meister. Here’s how they do it:

1. What qualities did you see or hear in Nick’s parents that made them good subjects for delivering this story?

Maybe we should begin with a little background on our approach.

We’ve always believed that the keys to powerful aural storytelling are finding and developing great characters and presenting their stories in an intimate, direct way, without reporter narration, expert commentary or other filters. Outside analysis and investigative reporting has its place, but the stories listeners tend to remember — the ones people feel most viscerally and remember the longest — tend to be intensely personal stories told by ordinary people.

Anna & Michael’s son, Nick.

And because our narratives rely entirely on the voices of our characters, it’s critical that we find people who can tell their story — intimately, specifically, and completely. If they don’t say it in our tape — or at least allude to it — we can’t include it in the final story. All this requires us to be extremely choosy when we decide whom to work with, and painstakingly thorough when we sit down to interview them. It can take months or years to find the right storytellers.

In the case of Anna and Michael, we met at a Veterans’ Day event in Pennsylvania, where Iraq war vet Jason Moon played songs about his experiences returning from combat — it’s part of his terrific Warrior Songs project. When Jason told the story of his attempted suicide, we noticed a woman rush out of the auditorium, followed by her husband. They later returned, bleary-eyed, and introduced themselves to Jason after the show. (You can hear some of their exchange here.) Anna and Michael had just come from a funeral earlier that day for another young soldier who had committed suicide. We did a very brief interview on the spot in which Michael told the story of the phone call he got from Nick just before Nick killed himself — a story that left us both teary.

Because we spend so much time with our characters, it’s important to us that we really like them — and we immediately liked Anna and Michael. We also look for people who are honest, comfortable, and articulate — good storytellers who naturally provide illustrative details that help set scenes and trigger emotion. Ideally, they’re in the middle of a major life event — a major personal transition, loss, or a situation that speaks to a larger social or economic issue we hope to explore. Often, they genuinely want to help others by sharing their experience, which can makes an interview akin to a therapy session — and that often leads to incredibly honest and intimate tape.

Such was the case with Michael and Anna. They were absolutely genuine and spoke with candor, passion and sadness. Their stories were peppered with evocative, everyday details many might not think to share — things that added life and dimension, and a particular melancholy, to their tale. It was clear that they wanted — even needed — to tell Nick’s story. We were scheduled to leave town immediately after the show, but made plans to return and met them at their home a few days later where we interviewed them for five hours.

In the end, we spent about three days with them, and have kept in contact since our initial interviews as their other son — Nick’s twin — has struggled with the loss of his brother. In other cases, we’ve spent a year following our characters, and have in some cases maintained friendships over decades.

2. When choosing narrators, how important are their speaking voices? Are there particular characteristics of speech that are particularly desirable?

A character’s speaking voice is less important to us than their ability to tell their story. That said, it’s a definite plus if a character’s voice is by its own nature illustrative — in Anna and Michael’s case, there’s definitely a hint of that western Jersey/working-class Pennsylvania affect, and we think the cadence and tonality of their voices is a particularly evocative layer that adds depth to their story.

3. How many hours of interviewing are necessary to produce a 20-minute narration?

It varies. In this case, our initial interview lasted five hours, and ended only because we ran out of drive space on our digital recording equipment. We went back a month later and interviewed Anna and Michael for another three hours or so. We also had Anna take us to Nick’s grave and to a nearby veterans’ memorial that refused to inscribe Nick’s name because he did not die in combat.

It’s not unusual, even for shorter stories, for us to collect over 40 hours of tape. Where we can (and where it makes sense), we like to include at least one verité scene — an active scene helps with production. In this case we had a tiny travel budget, so our options were limited.

Anna tends to Nick’s grave. Photo courtesy of Long Haul Productions.

4. With two narrators going back and forth, how do you decide who says what? Are you interviewing them together or separately?

We strongly prefer to interview people individually. It’s generally easier to produce stories this way, as in our experience people tend to talk over one another, which yields confusing and unusable tape. Plus people tend to get sidetracked when they’re interviewed in couples or as a group.

Taking people one at a time — and asking them many, if not all, of the same questions — is also useful in production. In constructing a vignette, we can choose from different versions of the same story, told in different voices. Having several takes allows us to cut back and forth, to play with cadence, voice, and presentation, and to fill in any gaps.

All that said, we broke that rule in this story by interviewing Michael and Anna together at their dining-room table; we simply didn’t have the budget to stay an extra day. So before we got started, we asked them to, as best they could, speak one at a time — and for each of them to respond to each question separately. We were lucky in that even when they strayed, they played off each other, fleshed out stories, corrected each other and reminded each other of things the other forgot.

As an aside: We always let people finish talking before asking the next question. This honestly can try our resolve — and it results in a lot of completely unusable audio — but we think it helps create a safe place for people to explore a topic or story and know they are being heard. Often, people will wander around as they talk through something. We’ll think it’s going nowhere and they’ll surprise us by ending with some truly great reflection or observation that ends up a key moment.

5. How do you keep track of chronology to tell a coherent story? What happens, for example, if your sources tell you about Thor and then about the gun and then about the band and then about Thor? Do you take the Thor parts from the interview and put them together, and then the gun parts, etc? Does the chronology and arc of the narrative govern more, or does topic govern more?

Almost all our initial rough cuts are chronological; it’s a critical organizational tool, especially for initial edits that cull tens of hours down to 20 or 30 minutes. Once the skeleton in place, we’re in better position to “dress” a narrative with detail, or reorder things for better understanding or effect.

As an example, in “Coming Home” we really didn’t talk with Michael and Anna about Nick’s love for the superhero Thor until our second set of interviews — but once we had the general chronology in place in our edits, we were able to weave Thor into the narrative arc throughout the piece.

6. How much editing do you have to do to create a coherent order? How much are you moving stuff around? Do you work from a plan, a storyboard, a script?

We probably went through 10 to 12 edits on the full version of “Coming Home” — and that’s not unusual. Not only do we have tons of tape to sort through, but this kind of character-driven storytelling requires that we craft the full narrative without scripts, “expert” drop-ins, or other devices that might get us from one chapter to another. If we don’t have it in interview tape, we don’t have it. So we have to do our best to adapt to what we have without compromising the story. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where you have to search the entire house for the last few pieces.

And to that end, we always have the interviews transcribed word for word — this helps us quickly find a phrase or even a word that might connect the dots, or perhaps make the narrative clearer. And we do move things around from time to time, but with “Coming Home,” where there was such a clear timeline, it’s usually a case of removing or adding something in the chronology.

7. Is anything scripted? Are the narrators ever working from notes? Do you have to ask the characters to repeat anything?

Everything Anna and Michael said was the result of an interview question. We didn’t script anything, and they were not working from notes. We did ask them to retell or clarify things — to elaborate on details — and occasionally we asked questions that may have anticipated a theme we thought we’d draw out in production. Asking them to tell stories separately, from their own perspective, helped immensely in filling out the narrative.

That said, we have had moments of desperation where we needed a character to help us move from one section of tape to another — situations where we pored over transcripts and couldn’t find anything that would get us from Point A to Point B. In those cases (which thankfully are few) we have gone back and asked questions specifically designed to yield tape to would bridge the gap. Scripted copy usually sounds like scripted copy, especially when read by a character who otherwise is speaking very naturally. We try to avoid that like the plague.

8. Radio and music go hand in hand, of course, so what role did the sound features have? Do you have any standards and practices related to natural ambient sound versus sound you edit into the story (like a musical score for a movie)?

Usually, we do collect more natural sound — we call it ambience — in the process of documenting verité scenes with our character, and use it quite often. “Coming Home” was an exception, though, as we recorded only one very quick verité scene — that of Anna going to Nick’s grave — so there’s very little natural sound in the story. The “drunken” Auld Lang Syne and the M-80 on New Year’s Eve were production devices used to suggest scenes and give the story more texture.

As for music, we try to use it sparingly, only when it really contributes something to the narrative. We were lucky that Uriah Heep’s “Lady in Black” ended up serving as a key component in the story. This allowed us to use the song as a production device, with music allowing listeners to take a breath at key points as the story progressed, and offering an aural through-line that we feel really holds things together. Read more

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Magnifying glass showing excellence word in white on grey background

Atlanta Journal Constitution writer shows what it takes to craft an excellent profile

It is an honor to kick off the Poynter Excellence Project with Rosalind Bentley’s elegant and insightful profile of America’s poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Bentley’s profile appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution as part of Personal Journeys — an innovative weekly feature “for readers who like good writing and good storytelling.”

Read the profile first, followed by my commentary, or use this essay to guide your reading. The goal of this project is not only to show you something worth reading, but also to inspire conversations about why it is worth reading. In addition to comments about the piece, I will include things I’ve learned from a recent telephone conversation and email exchange with the author.

What makes a great profile

In an age of celebrity journalism, we have lost the art of the great profile, or at least I thought we had until I read Bentley’s profile of poet Natasha Trethewey. Any great profile takes time to report and write and space to display, so it’s easy to understand why newspapers have ceded the ground to magazines. Beyond the content of her specific story, we can thank Bentley for reminding us what a good profile looks like and how it works.

So what is a profile? A dictionary definition says it is a “concise biographical sketch.” The word “sketch,” of course, is a metaphor from drawing, and it reminds us that in the visual arts, the profile only shows us the head or face from the side view. What we see (in words and visuals) we see intensely — but with the knowledge that a lot has been left out.

The subject is not looking us straight in the eye. The savvy profile writer must build a sense of the person from the accumulation of revealing elements: detail, observation, history, reading and research, creating a kind of literary pointillism. Notice, for example, how Bentley creates the big picture of the poet’s life by stringing together a litany of narrative fragments. We see these details from a distance until they form an image:

The shorthand of Natasha’s life reads like words plucked from a free verse poem:

Native Mississippian. Black mother. White father. Poet father. Poet daughter. Atlanta and DeKalb public school student. ‘A’ Student. UGA head cheerleader. Trauma survivor.Big sister. Decatur resident. Meticulous housekeeper. Proud wife. Exacting professor. Historical poet. Nobody’s pushover.

Along the way, Bentley pulls at several of these threads, especially as we come to understand the full implications of “trauma survivor,” how her mother was abused, stalked, and brutally murdered by her stepfather. While this crime is described in the profile, it is not overemphasized, as it might be in the hands of a clumsier or less-experienced writer. There is restraint here — and proportionality.

Think of the best profiles you’ve ever read, and you are likely to remember a feature that made a point, that was sharply focused rather than rambling, that strove for some keen understanding of one key manifestation of a person’s life. I remember, even now, a 1979 profile that Cynthia Gorney wrote for The Washington Post about Dr. Seuss.

Given the rich creative life of her subject, Gorney had many choices about what she would describe. In the end, she chose to marshal evidence of Seuss’ perfectionism: how he displayed in his home a 1902 rifle target his father had used for perfect shooting practice, how he rejected 60 shades of green to draw a parrot because not one was “parroty” enough for his liking.

What makes Bentley’s profile stand out

Rosalind Bentley

Bentley has been schooled by editors who believe the writer and reader benefit when the author can describe in just a few words — maybe one word — what the story is really about. Evidence can then be gathered from voluminous notes to prove a point. She describes this as “boiling things down.” The Trethewey profile, she says, is about “self-definition.”

If you read this profile with that hyphenated word — self-definition — in mind, you will begin to admire the discipline required to stick to it. Trethewey will not permit anyone else to define her — as a person or as a poet. Not her admirers or critics. Not her teachers. Not other poets. Not even her beloved father.

In an email message, Bentley described her process this way:

At first I thought the boil-down word was ‘exacting.’ But after a first pass at my lead, I realized that no one would want to read a story about someone who was simply exacting. After another attempt at a lead I realized that she was [controlling her image] because throughout her life so many people had sought to define who she was, from her race to her professional ambitions. Her struggle had been a battle against labels. She knew who she was, even if that image ran counter to what the rest of the world thought that image should be.

As you read through this profile, here are some other things to make note of:

1. How the subheads — “In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi” — and the bold-faced year markers help index the story for the reader, creating a sense of coherence and progression. The big parts fit together and they point us down the road. Bentley wrote these subheads herself so they reflected the structure and tone of the parts of the profile.

2. Notice the clever way in which Bentley uses the lives and dates of earlier poets laureate to connect with aspects of Trethewey’s life.

3. Notice the selected pieces of poetry throughout the profile. These excerpts work on more than one level, giving the reader not just a feel for the poet’s writing voice, but also aspects of her life story.

4. Notice how Bentley uses the present tense to narrate scenes from the past, creating a sense of immediacy — that “you are there” feeling.

5. Notice the savvy selection and use of details: from Trethewey’s licking the soap as punishment for lying to the civic celebration of her honor occurring in the town square of Decatur, adjacent to the old courthouse, “where the mother’s killer was sentenced.”

How Bentley keeps all her materials organized

Bentley’s story tote.

All writers struggle at keeping their materials together so they can find what they need when they need it. It was a delight and relief to know that Bentley solves the problem by storing her working materials in a canvas “story tote.” The one for this story was a cream-colored canvas pouch with blue straps. She agreed to share some of the contents with us:

  • Seven filled reporter’s notebooks.
  • One legal pad (not all filled) with lists of questions for various interviewees and a handwritten first draft of the story.
  • Numerous print-outs of the story with her editing marks.
  • Copies of all AJC stories written about Trethewey’s mother’s murder in 1985 and subsequent stories about Natasha written once she moved to Atlanta. (“I like to hold stuff in my hands and mark it up, which is why I like paper print-outs,” Bentley said.)
  • Copies of key emails with Trethewey, a copy of a speech she gave about her writing practices, and other documents.
  • A copy of “A Narrow World Made Wide” — a profile of former poet laureate Rita Dove, written by former Washington Post writer Walt Harrington.
  • A printout of “The Meaning of Work,” by David Finkel of The Washington Post. (“Sure, he has written many, many great stories, but that one just gets me every time I read it,” Bentley said.)
  • Sharpie highlighters to emphasize quotes in her notebooks.

Bentley describes herself as analog and tactile when it comes to the strategic use of her working materials. She reads her notebooks to “relive the interview and visualize what I saw.” Names get highlighted in pink. Salient quotes get marked in yellow. Really good quotes and things that get to the heart of the story get underlined in red pen and marked with a giant scrawled star.

Bentley told me:

One of my former editors said this to me years ago and it’s so true: report, think, then write. Many reporters will skip the thinking phase. I used to skip it and I’d struggle. But you just can’t skip the middle. Even if the thinking stage is three minutes or three hours or three days. That’s the phase where you’re really refining your argument and rehearsing your story, so when you sit down to write you know where the guardrails are.

She went on to say:

Part of that thinking process, for me, is talking with someone I trust, someone who is much better than me, someone who knows how to laser in on the essential truth of a story. This helps me see where the holes are in my reporting, helps me to make sure that I’m not getting distracted by elements that might be very glittery, but ultimately not very revealing for the reader or good for the story. By then end of one of those conversations, if I can’t articulate the heart of my story then I know I’ve got to do more work.

The Poynter Excellence Project highlights excellent journalism and explains why it works so well. We will feature all types of journalism — videos, interactives, radio interviews, written stories and more. We’d like to highlight projects that Poynter.org readers nominate, so please email nominations to ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your nominations, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University.
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Today we launch the Poynter Excellence Project

It has been a hallmark of Poynter over its history to call attention to excellent journalism. No action is more consistent with our mission and purpose. No teaching has proved more effective. To take that teaching to a new level of energy and discernment, we create today the Poynter Excellence Project, or PEP for short.

Starting with the lost art of the newspaper profile, we will showcase excellent journalism in all its variety and help readers of Poynter.org come to a better understanding of what makes it excellent. There is so much excellent work across genres and media platforms going on out there, that it’s hard to know what work demands our attention. The PEP project is designed to help.

What makes journalism excellent? The usual standards apply: strong news judgment, excellent use of evidence, good writing and narrative strategies, cogent analysis.As we consider examples submitted by Poynter faculty and friends, we will also ask these three questions: Is it innovative? Is it enterprising? Is it well-intentioned?

About once every two weeks, a PEP project will be highlighted on the Poynter website. In addition to a link to the original work, the feature will help readers figure out what makes the work effective, either by first-person accounts written by the creators, close analysis by Poynter folks, or by interviews or chats.The goal will be to produce about 25 of these features per year, hoping that the examples we find cover a full range of topics, tones, voices, genres, technologies, and platforms.

Our selections may at times be controversial, subject to argument and debate. We can and should disagree on both what is good and what makes it good. Your feedback and participation will enrich the Poynter Excellence Project, especially if you help us model the kind of productive strategic conversation about craft and values that can be carried back to the newsroom and classroom.

If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University. Read more

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