The cold case file is a staple of today’s television programming. These shows lure audiences with a sure-fire narrative form — the whodunit — and the tenacity of law-enforcement characters obsessed with unsolved crimes with evidence trails long gone cold.
Last month, The Orange County (Calif.) Register published “Murder by Suicide?” an eight-part serial narrative that departed from the form in a significant fashion: one of the key players is a journalist.
In it, Larry Welborn, a legal affairs reporter who also specializes in newsroom training, describes his passion for solving the mysterious 1974 death of a young woman named Linda Cummings, which happened shortly after Welborn joined the paper three decades ago.
It’s a riveting read, accompanied by evocative illustrations by Craig Pursley and bolstererd by a resource-rich Web presentation that provides video interviews, an interactive timeline and original source material that demonstrate the advantages of what the influential news designer Mario Garcia terms the “fusion” of print and online.
To be sure, police and prosecutors played the major parts in this 30-year-old mystery. Even so, Welborn’s unwillingness to shake free of the pathos of victim Linda Cummings’ image testifies to journalism’s power to influence the institutions that can either deliver justice or leave it forever out of reach for victims and their survivors.
To learn more about the story behind the story, Larry and I exchanged questions and answers by e-mail.
CHIP SCANLAN: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from this story?
LARRY WELBORN: That a good story, well-told, will still capture and hold readers. Even if it is an eight-part serial.
What surprised you the most about the experience?
It surprised me how easy it was for nearly everyone in 1974 to feel in their hearts that Linda did not commit suicide, and then just do nothing about it.
What has the reaction been like?
I have been amazed at the response. More than 175 e-mails. More than 100 phone calls. One woman is going to name her baby girl Linda. Several people wanted to donate to a headstone fund. I was able to put Linda’s cousins back in contact with her stepsister and half-brother. People who knew I wrote for The Register suddenly wanted to subscribe, because of the series. Sources stopped me and wanted to talk about Linda.
Why didn’t you ever give up?
Her photograph. I saw it in 1974 and never forgot it. Her image would pop into my mind at the darndest moments. It wasn’t that I thought about this case all the time. Not at all. It was more like when something came up that might have an impact — like a DNA story, an old case arrest, or someone committed suicide — her image would pop into my mind. I couldn’t let it go.
What’s your message to other journalists?
Never give up on a good story. Never, never, never. Trust your instincts.
In addition to being a legal affairs reporter, you’re a newspaper trainer and director of a National Writers Workshop. How do you manage to juggle all these jobs?
Actually, our training is now under the competent auspices of Dennis Foley, but I still handle the National Writers Workshop in Orange County. We have our 13th annual celebration of good writing, by the way, on April 29, 2006 at California State University, Fullerton. Our key speakers are Thomas French of the St. Petersburg Times and Julia Prodis Sulek of the San Jose Mercury News. If some of your audience wants further information, they should go to www.ocregister.com/nww. So much for the commercial. The main thing you do when you’re juggling a lot of balls is to never let one hit the ground. You just keep juggling until you get the job done. Plus, it helps if you like what you’re doing.
How did you manage to gain such extraordinary law-enforcement access — from the exhumation of Linda Cummings’ body to the suspect’s arrest in Nevada — over the years?
The thing was, I had more information about this case than law-enforcement did, at least in the beginning. So I shared what I had with them — piquing their interest. I parlayed that with the famous old reporter line, “Glad to help you out there. Now, what are you going to do for me?” It also helped that I had developed a good reputation as a reporter you could trust over the years of covering the courthouse. I was never actually invited to the exhumation or the arrest. But I knew when and where they were going to be. So I just showed up.
What advice would you give budding crime and court reporters who want to do better on their beats?
You know, I have spoken at three NWW sites in the last couple of years about beat reporting. I will include my tip sheet here. But the primary things I do that help make me a better beat reporter [are]: I get out of my office, off of my phone and out into the field. Talking to your contacts face-to-face makes things happen. And secondly, I make an effort to remember names. And when I call [people] by name the second time I meet them, they remember who I am, and they will remember that I took the time to remember their name.
It seems clear that you had a lot of support from your editors. What did they do to make it happen, and why?
For 30 years, this story was a long shot. For most of that time, I worked it on my own. When I needed resources, I somehow was able to convince editors that this would be a really, really terrific story if it came to be. I didn’t know I could be that convincing, because editors over the years allowed me to travel to Wisconsin, Florida and Nevada pursuing parts of this story. And once it became likely that the investigation would lead to an arrest, editors gave me the time to re-write the series, do some more reporting. The biggest contribution, I thought, was their enthusiastic support of the possibilities of this story.
For many journalists, writing in the first-person, using the “I word,” is scarier than a libel action. Was it difficult to write in the first-person? How did you overcome those challenges?
I pitched the writing of the serial as a typical fly-on-the-wall reporter simply telling readers about the death of Linda and why it was suspicious. But every time I told the story, people were more intrigued by why I stayed with it for so long after everyone else let it go. And then when every single editor who had a hand in the series told me the same thing, I couldn’t ignore it. But I will tell you this: writing the first-person parts about my role was the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted. It was excruciating. If you must do something that is uncomfortable, there is only one way to go: give everything you got, heart and soul. Don’t do it namby-pamby. Don’t do it halfway.
How much time did you have to write the series?
Thirty-one years. That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but I have been writing and re-writing parts of this story for years. At first (this will date me), I saved hard-copy from my old Smith Corona typewriter. Later, I saved segments on our server. So when it came time to craft the series, I had large blocks of copy that I simply cut and pasted, and re-wrote. And re-wrote. I took advantage of Chip Scanlan and John Sweeney (editorial page editor at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.) and other writing coaches I knew across the country, and several wonderful narrative editors at the Register. And then I re-wrote it again between the arrest in mid-November and when the series began on Dec. 11.
Have you ever had such an experience before in your three decade career?
Nothing even close.
Why did you use illustrations?
Because we were writing about many things that happened 31 years ago, we didn’t have photos to capture many of the critical moments. And we had on staff the incredibly talented artist Craig Pursley. We talked at story meetings about what he could draw that would best illustrate each chapter, and then I talked with Craig about those moments.
Pursley’s work and the Web presentation are spectacular. What role did you play in these elements? Does it mean a reporter has to know how to use Flash and video?
I shared my reporting with the Web editors, helped with the timeline and other components, and sat for the video interview. And yes, it does mean reporters have to do Flash and video. The day of one-dimensional newspaper stories is over. We must think of different ways to bring our stories to our customers.
Could you talk a bit about the organization? How did you organize the series and why did you choose that shape?
For three decades, I had it in my mind to write the series through the story lines of the four key players: Linda, Louie, Sandy and Harriet. But then when the editors wanted a fifth story line — about me and my role, I re-directed to a more or less straight chronology. We felt readers would best understand the complicated developments if they learned about them in the order in which they happened. If jumping back and forth over time confused me as the writer, just think what it would do to a reader.
Why did you wait for the suspect’s arrest to run the series?
It was still an ongoing investigation, an active investigation.
Did the timing make any difference?
The series would not have had the same impact had there not been some action on the case. We were worried about tipping our hand too early. But when we finished with the final re-writes, we were satisfied that readers would stay with the story. We dropped a few gold coins along the path that kept readers in suspense… and there were some unexpected surprises at the end.
Like many narrative series lately, most installments were accompanied by brief sidebars with what amounts to a type of footnote that detail the source of information. How and why did those appear with the story?
By the time I wrote the story, I had talked with more than 60 people and had collected hundreds of pages of documents. Telling readers where we got the information is essential, but putting attribution — many different sources of attribution — in the narrative could prove more cumbersome than helpful. So, we told our readers in the newspaper where we obtained most of our information. In our Web version, we linked essential facts to attribution — if readers wanted to know where we obtained certain information, they simply clicked on that part of the story.
The series carries a “Morning Read” logo. What are the elements of this form?
About a year ago, we introduced the “Morning Read.” Readers want something with their morning paper they can sink their teeth into, a story beyond the breaking news of the day about people doing things, with a beginning, a middle and an end. A writerly look, if you will, at something intriguing. For eight days, Linda’s story was the “Morning Read.”
You can tell the presentation of this story required many hands. Who else contributed and how?
Line editors were Rebecca Allen, our narrative “Morning Read” editor, and Andy Horan, our Sunday editor. They provided a constant stream of guidance and enthusiasm. They helped convince me of the need for more first-person information. Deputy Editors Jeff Light and Brenda Shoun became champions of the story and organized the presentation in the newspaper and [on] the Web. Craig Pursley nailed the illustrations. Ernie Slone helped early on by finding some of the key people we needed to contact. Back in 1999, Nick Koon photographed old archive photos. Editor Ken Brusic never flinched.
You describe yourself 30 years ago as a “bit of a Pollyanna. Things were pretty simple to me. Mysteries needed to be solved. Questions deserved answers. No murder was left unsolved.” Have you changed?
I’ve changed a lot. If this story came to my attention today, I might blow it off. But early in my career, everything seemed like a great story, everything needed to be checked out, every mystery needed to be solved. Back then, I would even listen to those people who had aluminum foil on their windows. Not now. But when I was 25 and eager, learning of the details of Linda’s death was like seeing a car accident on the freeway. I had to stop and help.
I think sometimes that I should have made a bigger deal of Linda’s death back in 1974. Maybe by being a more aggressive reporter, something would have been done about it then. But I believed then that law enforcement would hold onto the case as closely as I did. I was flabbergasted when they didn’t.
You’ve been in the newspaper business for more than three decades. What keeps you pumped up after all these years?
I still get pumped up with a good story. I still get pumped up when I walk out of my front door to pick up the morning paper. I still get pumped up with the notion that we can make a difference. I still get pumped up talking with other journalists who get as pumped up as I do.
Where is your “murder book” — the one Det. Romaine suggested you use to compile the evidence you had collected, just as homicide cops do?
It’s in my desk. The drivers license photo of Linda Cummings is in the opening flap.
Editor’s Note: Chip Scanlan has been writing a Poynter Online column for more than three years and is ready to experiment with a new form. So, he will be writing about writing on his blog at The Mechanic and the Muse. He will continue to contribute to Poynter Online occasionally.