Details ‘are what make people connect’ with stories, says student who wrote about Waffle House closing

Jessica Contrera’s “The End of the Waffle House” begins on the morning when a big change comes to a small square of Bloomington, Ind.

“Tap, tap, tap. Bud Powell’s aluminum cane led the way as he circled the floor of Bloomington’s Waffle House. His Waffle House. That Wednesday in September, the owner didn’t know what to do with himself. The smell of frying oil, the same greasy perfume that had greeted customers for 46 years, wafted into his nose as he wandered past the vinyl booths. He sat down, then stood up again.”

Contrera had never been to the old restaurant surrounded by new student apartments before, but when the senior from Akron, Ohio, started her semester at Indiana University, she saw the sign reading “We will close Sept. 4.” And she wanted to tell the story.

Her piece ran last week in the Indiana Daily Student and was produced as part of a class at IU’s journalism school called Words and Pictures, which brings together reporting, photography and multimedia. Contrera worked with photographer Anna Teeter and multimedia reporter and designer Emma Grdina, she told Poynter in a phone interview.

Contrera visited the Waffle House a week before it closed, when she met her three major characters, as well as the day it closed and the day it was torn down. She also spoke with about a dozen other customers and staff who didn’t make it into the story, but did help her understand what the business meant to the community. In her reporting, Contrera’s professor of practice, Pulitzer-prize winner and Poynter writing fellow Tom French, pushed her to find details.

Fifteen drafts later, those details include many small things that help readers feel what the closing of the old restaurant meant to its regulars, the owner and the community.

Contrera met customer Rose Thomas on her first visit, but only discovered why the restaurant was significant to the aging woman while visiting her at home. There, Contrera saw a photo of Thomas’ late husband. And she asked about it.

Contrera at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she interned this past summer.

From her story: “Other than her church, the Waffle House was about the only place Rose felt comfortable going alone since Stan, her husband of 65 years, passed away last year. They used to eat at the restaurant together. From time to time she’d retell how the two of them met, a long and winding story involving a Ouija board and a flirtatious secretary rival. Now going on two years without him, Rose still talked to Stan’s picture on the wall above her piano.”

After the story ran, Contrera said, French asked her what she’d learned from telling it — and she laughed when Poynter asked her the same question.

Her answer: “Those little details that some people would just call color? Those are what make people connect with it.”

For example, the wife of Dr. Dick Leyda wasn’t simply hoarding as Alzheimer’s settled in: “Without Dr. Leyda ever really noticing, his wife had begun filling up their children’s old bedrooms with newly bought items. Shoes still in their boxes, beautiful shirts and dresses from Talbots in the closet, never worn.”

Contrera will graduate at the end of next semester from IU’s School of Journalism, though she’ll be among the last class since the school announced a merger with other departments.

The more she’s learned about that merger, the better she feels about it, she said: “The most important thing to me is that the New Media School keeps journalism and your core reporting skills at the center of its focus.”

It’s great if reporters can code, she said, but if they can’t report the story, then they can’t do the work.

After graduating, Contrera hopes to find a job as a beat reporter, with time for enterprise stories on the side. When her Waffle House story ran, she said, she heard from other reporters but also from people in the community, including a Bob Evans employee and someone who works at the library, adding that such interactions showed her the value of these stories and the small details behind them.

Good storytelling, she said, still matters.

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