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 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. Read more


Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013


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. 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. Read more


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. Read more


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. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 07, 2013


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. Read more


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. Read more

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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 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? Read more