Best Practices: Reporting and Writing and Editing

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Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes: How to Help Someone Tell Her Story

The day after 9/11, 2001, I got to interview my cousin Theresa, who escaped from the 57th floor of Tower I after it was hit by the plane. Thirteen years later now, I have read the story I wrote for the Poynter website based upon that interview. It gave me chills, not because of the way it was written or constructed, but for the sheer drama and terror of the catastrophe it describes. In my lifetime I can think of no story, no breaking news event – not even the Kennedy assassination – that affected me so deeply, that changed the way I view the world.

Screenwriter Robert McKee teaches that every good story needs an “inciting incident,” that sudden, unexpected moment that rips through the fabric of normal life and changes almost everything. On Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, gets a diagnosis that he is dying of cancer. To make money for his family, he becomes a drug lord. As the pitch for the story described it: Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.

With a story as big as 9/11, some reporters decided to go small. Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, for example, decided on a series of stories that were hiding inside small objects from Ground Zero: a squeegee used by a group to escape from an elevator; a family photograph that fluttered to the dusty ground; a Styrofoam water cup given by one stranger to another. He based his technique on a strategy he learned from an editor: “The bigger, the smaller.”

When I interviewed Theresa, I was struck by her reflection upon the smaller details in the dystopian landscape her workplace had become: the grapefruit rolling back and forth in a cart after the plane hit the building, the rosary beads in her purse, her sensible shoes.

At some point I realized that the story should be told from her point of view, not narrated by me. This technique, often used in oral histories or “as told to” biographies, sometimes earns the negative name of “ghost writing.” But I believe it can be a special, even noble form of journalism, when expressed with transparent standards, and when it attends to the mission of giving voice to someone with an important story to tell.

I don’t have a list of standards I applied 13 years ago, or even if I had them in mind at that troubling time. But re-reading the story, I can see (and hear) some of the things I was doing. Here is a list of them, translated as standards:

1. Cut and clarify when necessary, but don’t replace your source’s vocabulary or voice with your own.

2. When helpful, translate the various scenes into chronological order.

3. Think of the eyes of your source as a camera. See what she sees and then pass those distinctive images along to others.

4. Interrogate all the senses. (I’m struck as I re-read this how alert were Theresa’s senses. In this fairly short piece, she recounts things she saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched.)

5. In addition to the physical senses, tap in to the emotional ones: confusion, fear, horror, friendship, gratitude, family.

6. Through your interview, lend your source the essential tools of storytelling. As described by Tom Wolfe, they are character details, scenes in a sequence, dialogue, and point of view.

7. As you tell the story on behalf of the source, read it back to her, or if your policy permits it, share a draft. On occasion you will hear “I didn’t mean that,” or “I wouldn’t say it that way,” which is a doorway to revision, correction, and clarification.

8. Talk with your source about why your think the story is important. In the best moments, you will be able to embrace a shared sense of mission and purpose, in this case, what it was like to survive an act of terrorism that changed America and the world.

(At least two of the characters in the story have passed away: Theresa’s parents, my aunt and uncle Millie and Peter Marino. I dedicate this piece to their memory and to all those we lost on 9/11.)

Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes

By Theresa Marino Leone (as told to her first cousin, Roy Peter Clark)

I got to work about 20 minutes to 9. I told my boss I like to get to work a half hour early. But that’ll never happen again. I work in Building One, or what used to be Building One. I work for Lawyers’ Travel, and I’m attached to a law firm with offices on the 57th Floor.

I hadn’t had breakfast yet, just a cup of coffee, so I went to the cafeteria on the 57th Floor, saw my friends, said hello to everyone, and was just about to eat my English muffin.

We heard a loud explosion, and the whole building started to sway. We knew something had happened and it wasn’t good. I remember these grapefruits from a stand that were rolling back and forth, back and forth.

For years we’d had these fire drills, but at a moment like this, no one was sure what to do. I ran about 30 feet to my office and grabbed my purse. My cell phone, my rosary beads, my life is in that purse. I looked in the corridor and saw about eight people. We knew each other and headed for the staircase.

Now this is a big building with so many floors that when you take the elevator up, you go to the 44th Floor and then change elevators and take the local up to the 57th.

In the stairwell there was room for two people, so you could go down side by side. There was no smoke on the 57th, but there was a smell that I now realize was gasoline. Our staircase went down only as far as the 44th. We walked past two banks of elevators. I looked to the right and could see smoke coming out of one of them.

We went down the next staircase, and thank God, the lights were on, we could see, and talk to each other. Amazingly there was no pushing or panic or people getting trampled. Thank God, too, that He made me tall, five foot nine, because I can’t wear heels, only a pair of black, very sensible shoes.

Then above us, we heard these firefighters say, “Move to the right. Injured coming down.” This meant we had to get in single file and along the way I lost track of all the people I started out with.

When the injured walked down past us, you couldn’t tell if they were black or they were white. They were all charred with skin just hanging off their bodies. And the look on their faces, they looked like the walking dead. Remember, we didn’t know what had happened. Our cell phones didn’t work, but some beepers flashed and word spread that a plane had hit our building, and that a jet plane had crashed into the other building. It was such a beautiful day. At first I thought maybe it was an accident with a helicopter, but two commercial jets?

I didn’t know what we were going to face as we made our way down, a fireball in the stairwell, or what. I’m a 40-year-old Italian-American girl, so I took out my rosary beads, the ones I got at St. Francis of Assissi Church when my mother was sick, and said to God, “I don’t want to die in this building.” The lights were still on. But alarms were going off everywhere.

I hadn’t had breakfast, so my stomach was empty, and at one point I felt my knees buckle. I said to myself, “If I faint, I’m gonna die.” So I held on to my rosary beads, and I tried to turn to the girls behind me to make a little joke. At one platform there were five or six firefighters. “Here, take a drink of water,” said one of them, and I took a sip. “God bless you,” I told him. I now realize that those guys are probably dead.

When we got down to the 10th Floor, water began seeping down the walls and under the doors. As we moved down to the 8th and 7th Floors it was getting deeper and deeper, until we were walking through maybe six inches of water.

Finally, when we got down to the Concourse Level, the cops were pointing us down toward the stairs near the escalator. “Don’t look outside,” they said. The Concourse is surrounded by glass walls, maybe 50 feet high, and of course when he said, “Don’t look,” I looked. What I saw was something out of Beirut. Glass, debris, pockets of fire everywhere.

As we made our way down the steps to the ground level, we were soaking wet. We were walking in water up past our ankles, and water was poring down on us–like walking in a soaking rainstorm, but inside. Firefighters had to lift some women who had taken their shoes off over the broken glass. Thank God I had on my sensible shoes.

I saw my friend Indra, the cashier in the cafeteria. I grabbed her. We ran toward World Trade Five across Church Street toward Broadway. We were now physically outside. “Keep going. Keep going,” said a cop, “there may be another plane on the way.”

A couple of blocks away we finally stopped to catch our breath and looked up and saw that the building was on fire. We didn’t see any bodies, but we were starting to see people who were bleeding. I saw two ladies who are housekeepers in the building, Miranda and Teresa. My cell phone didn’t work. From the time we felt the crash, it had probably taken us 45 minutes to get out of the building. In 15 minutes it would fall to the ground.

We decided to walk another six blocks to my father’s apartment on the East River, at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. We were buzzed in and took the elevator to the 23rd Floor. My father was standing in the hallway on the phone with my husband, Gary, who was frantic, up in the Bronx.

At least Gary knew I was safe. All the girls called home. “Come on,” my father said, “have a drink.” At that moment, anyway, we preferred his coffee to liquor.

The girls lived in Brooklyn and decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I had to go and see my mother, who lived about 10 minutes away in the apartment complex where I grew up, Knickerbocker Village. I knew she would be going crazy. When I got to Madison and St. James, I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the Twin Towers. All I saw was smoke. I didn’t know that they didn’t exist any more. I remember years ago looking out the window and watching as they were being built.

My mother wanted me to eat something. So what’s new. She’d make me cereal or an egg, but I settled on cold chicken cutlets from the night before. I had just lost 30 pounds and was on a diet, but who cares. You know, it was the best chicken cutlet I ever had.

I know it’s crazy, but I just wanted to go home, from the Lower East Side to the Bronx where Gary was waiting for me. I still had my sensible shoes, so I decided to start walking. I figured I could catch the train or the bus as I headed north. I walked to 23rd Street and then to 59th. Along the way there were nice people on the streets, nobody was trying to gouge you. They gave you a cup of water. Or a Handi Wipe. I stopped once and bought a pretzel, but I thought if I stopped walking I’d never be able to move again. I was just so happy to be alive.

It’s not my usual part of town, but I walked all the way to 125th Street. I figured that, all in all, I may have walked eight miles. I was ready to walk over the Triboro Bridge to the Bronx if I had to.

Thank God, the trains were running from 125th Street. I decided to get on the #6 train. A lady moved over for me. “I’m sorry for the way I smell,” I told her. “I walked from the World Trade Center.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I walked from 19th Street.”

When I got out of the station, I thought I couldn’t take another step. Just then, Gary turned the corner in our silver Chevy.

This is like a bad dream. When I see people I start to cry. I realize that my favorite picture of Gary and me that I kept at my desk is gone. When I see the news and understand what happened, I realize that I was 15 minutes from that building falling down on me. Today on the subway, I looked over the shoulder of a lady reading the newspaper, and when I saw the pictures, I started to cry.

My legs are pretty sore. But I’m a walker and will be OK. Gary and I went to Union Square Park where people are creating a memorial, leaving flowers and notes. One note said, “Now is the time when we should be so proud to be American.” And I thought, “You know that’s true.”

I know I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life. I’m going to save three things from my experience: my cup from a guy who gave me water. A used Handi Wipe. And what’s left of my sensible shoes.

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On profanity: As language evolves, should the media?

The New York Times | The Wall Street Journal

On Sunday, Jesse Sheidlower wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times making “The Case for Profanity in Print.”

Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples.

Sheidlower, author of “The F-Word” and president of the American Dialect Society, wrote that often the words themselves are the story, and other times, they’re integral to the story itself.

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal’s “Style & Substance” covered the same issue, in part. The piece refers to a March 7 story which included the word “ass.” In the past, the story reports, that word would have been a–.

What has changed? Standards Editor Neal Lipschutz says the change is slight. Use of impolite words should still be rare, but there are certain words that we’ll publish now that we wouldn’t have used a decade ago. There still has to be a compelling reason to use the quotation, including demonstrating insight into someone’s character by his or her word choices, but there are times when ass, jackass or yes, suck, may be allowed to appear, in cases where they might have been “Barney-dashed” before.

The reasoning is that we want to be classy without being Victorian, in line with the evolving language. “We still want to be tasteful, but we also want to as much as possible reflect how people speak in this era,” Neal says.

I stopped by the office of my colleague, Roy Peter Clark, Monday morning to talk about these articles and the roll of “bad” words. Clark stood up, walked to a tall book shelf and pulled down his copy of Sheidlower’s “The F-Word.”

In many ways, some words that used to offend don’t do so any more, he told me, and new ones rise to take their place. Read more

SXSW Interactive and Film Festival attendees crowd the Austin Convention Center, Saturday, March 9, 2013 in Austin, Texas.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Poynter at SXSW: Welcome back to the WED dance

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the first in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

One of the great libels against newspapers is that they’re averse to change. It’s true that newspapers could have changed more to forestall their decline. But they have changed — the newspaper of 2014 little resembles the newspaper of 1984.

I recall Orwell’s famous year – 1984 – as a tumultuous one in the history of the news business. Old gray papers were suddenly filled with color. Vertical columns gave way to modular boxes. Word processors replaced typewriters, and new forms of news writing challenged the inverted pyramid. Page designers entered the building – some with little experience in journalism – bringing with them a new lingo about white space, grids, and color saturation. Women and minorities began to establish themselves in newsrooms, reforming our sense of mission and purpose.

These innovations challenged old ideas and created friction among the players. One memorable standoff pitted the “word” journalists against the “visual” journalists. The VJs disdained writers who produced endless columns of gray text, while the Wordinistas ridiculed designers who wasted news hole with poster pages that crowded out more important content.

That was the historical context in which I began to work with Mario Garcia, the man who in the last three decades has changed the face of news across the globe, redesigning newspapers, magazines, websites, and now tablets and mobile platforms. I was the first full-time teacher hired at the Poynter Institute. Mario was the second. I taught writing. He taught design. We came to admire each other’s work. What can I say, we fell in love.

And one day, we decided to get married.

That marriage, of course, was metaphorical, a union of the minds and of professional disciplines. Mario gave it the acronym WED, the marriage of Writing, Editing, and Design. The WED concept became the subject of numerous conferences, seminars, essays, and countless newsroom conversations across the globe. We even created avatars for ourselves (though we didn’t call them that back then), manifestations of our more single-minded points of view. My avatar was Raymond Burr, the actor who played Perry Mason, a solid gray eminence so stoic and purposeful he never seemed to smile. Representing Mario was the Brazilian film actress of the 1940s Carmen Miranda, a woman of a thousand colors and textures, often photographed with a headdress that looked like a bowl of fruit.

If Raymond Burr (who in real life was as gay as a day in May) hooked up with Carmen Miranda, Mario and I could have been their love twins.

The WED honeymoon turned into real work, a re-imagining of how creative and effective news organizations could be.

We imagined:

  • that the old assembly-line production model of news could not and should not survive.
  • that collaboration across disciplines would improve journalism and serve the public good.
  • that visual and word workers had more in common than they thought, including elements of craft such as focus, emphasis, shape, color, dimension, detail, information, the power of white space, and, most important, story.
  • that versatility would become an increasingly important virtue. Versatility did not require designers to write stories or writers to design pages – although we tried that in workshops — but it did require the development of a common critical vocabulary that allowed one craftperson to speak to another “without an accent.”

One example will suffice: I learned from designers that white space was a crucial element in the creation, say, of an informational graphic describing the primary causes of an economic downturn. That white space was an antidote to clutter, visual ventilation that let the page breathe and helped relax the reader. I took that concept and began to apply it to text. Turns out there’s white space within a story or report too. Most of it occurs in the margins. But within the text itself there are bars of white space that mark the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. I teach journalists that the words immediately before that white space get special attention from the reader. Save a key word or phrase to use in that location, I tell them. It will play jazz.

One objection to the WED concept was that it did not include enough of the players or disciplines. Where was leadership? a colleague asked. Where was photography? Why limit the players? If we added leadership, they argued, it could become the LEWD concept. Well, I said, we could add Leadership, Photo, and Ownership and create the PLOWED concept. “Turn your weapons into plowshares,” could have been our motto.

But we never intended for our WED concept remain an exclusive club of three. Writing’s W included all the word workers in the shop. Design’s D included all the visual workers. And Editing’s E included all those in a position of leadership, who needed to build bridges across disciplines. The editor needed the ability to work with words and visuals the same way that the director of a film had to understand the elements of acting, cinematography, editing, music scoring, and all the other tools of filmmaking.

During Mario’s travels around the world as a news designer, it’s become clear to him — and now to me — that the values, virtues, and practices of WED are more important than ever. In the age of the Internet, more disciplines than ever must be integrated into the creative process — including, for example, computer programming, Big Data, stories written from Big Data, data visualization, and multimedia. Journalists of every stripe must work across platforms, including mobile delivery systems. Maybe in the morning, it’s our job to help the reader lean forward with her iPhone; or at night to lean back with his iPad.

So Mario and I would like to welcome you to iWED, the integrated marriage of writing, editing, and design – a collaborative process of planning and execution that gets the very best from all creative workers in the enterprise and produces multiple products designed to build audience and serve the public interest. The two of us know no better framework for balancing the enduring values of journalism with the innovations necessary in an age of tumultuous change.

Please join us at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on Monday, March 10, at 12:30 pm. Who knows? Maybe we will end our session, as we did 30 years ago, with a dance. Read more

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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Five questions answered about reporting on your local confession site

Confessions sites are popping up in teen communities all over the country. There is a Twitter feed called yococonfessions, targeting the community of York County, Pa. A post about a weapon on the Facebook page, Amherst Regional High School Confessions, closed the high school for a day.

Sometimes confessions sites disrupt schools, making it likely that local reporters will pay attention. Here are five questions to consider when writing about confession sites: Read more


Avoiding ‘suitcase leads’ can help reporters and readers sort out the truth

News organizations change the leads of stories all the time: to update, clarify, and correct. When it happens with The New York Times, it gets more attention, especially when the subject of the story is a political scandal.

Here is the original lead of the Times story posted Friday on Chris Christie and Bridgegate, written by Kate Zernike:

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening, and that he had evidence to prove it.

One of the standards for judging an effective news lead is considering its length. Is it six words or sixty? Can it be contained in a single sentence, or does it need a bit of breathing room? Is the lead long enough to cover the key points? Is it short enough to focus attention and achieve comprehensibility? Read more

Cover of "Secrets to Prize-Winning Journalism" (The Poynter Institute)

Learning from prize-winning journalism: tips for executing an investigative journalism project

In Poynter’s new e-book, “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism,” we highlight and examine 10 award-winning works from 2013 through interviews with their creators. Starting with the “secrets” shared by reporters and editors, we’ve extracted some great lessons on producing outstanding journalism.

In the first installment, we explored lessons for covering breaking news stories based on The Denver Post’s coverage of the Aurora theater shootings.

In this our second installment, we share tips for executing an investigative journalism project based on the Chicago Tribune series “Playing with Fire,” which earned a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, Scripps Howard Foundation Award for Public Service Reporting, Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism, Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers, National Headliner Award, Gerald Loeb Award, and Pulitzer Prize finalist honor.

Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne spent two years researching and writing the expose on the dangers and ineffectiveness of flame retardants used in household furniture, including baby cribs.

Poynter affiliate faculty member Chip Scanlan interviewed the investigative team via email to deconstruct their research and the reporting techniques they used to create the prize-winning series.

Use records to backup interviews

Callahan viewed each record in the Tribune investigation as a puzzle piece that made little sense on its own. It was the writers’ job to expose the real story. She said one sentence in “Playing with Fire” took months of reporting.

Roe told Scanlan: “Documents help you establish what’s true and what’s not.”

His colleague, Hawthorne depends on FOIA requests because they illuminate “what officials actually think, not what has been sanitized by public affairs staffers and political appointees.”

Tip: When a source makes a statement based on a fact, ask for the data or evidence he or she has to back it up. Verify the accuracy of statements and records with data from multiple sources. When working with government agencies, request public information with FOIA requests.

Interview sources in person whenever possible

Investigations need to present findings in a compelling way. In “Playing with Fire,” Callahan, Hawthorne and Roe were blessed with interesting characters who helped them flesh out a narrative of how flame retardants wound up in the bodies of every American.

For example, Callahan found value in flying to California to attend a hearing in person, rather than watching it from afar, to capture essential details about the characters driving the strong narrative thread.

“Had I simply watched a video of the hearing, I would not have picked up on the sway that [the subject] held. On tape, you can’t hear the audience’s gasp,” said Callahan.

Tip: While it is not always possible to interview someone in person, tools like Skype let you see your sources and pick up on their body language and expressions. This results in a more authentic engagement that can lead the interview down an unexpected path and illuminate critical details. An in-person interview is better than a video interview; a video interview is better than a phone interview; a phone interview is better than an email interview.

Strong interviewing skills are critical

Roe stressed the importance of the interview. “Stories often rise and fall on the ability of the reporter to go toe to toe with the subjects on their investigations,” he said in an interview with Chip Scanlan for the e-book, “Secrets of Prize-winning Journalism.”

Tip: Callahan told Scanlan that she usually ends her interviews with an open-ended question, “What should I have asked you but didn’t?”

Recognize the impact your story has on the community

Callahan said “Playing with Fire” inspired substantive reform. As a result of the series, California no longer requires flame retardants in furniture and many baby products — for the first time since 1975. Also, the EPA launched an investigation of the chemicals highlighted in the series. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said it would test babies’ exposure to flame retardants from crib mattresses.

A key U.S. Senate committee voted to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety law. Because of the tougher regulatory climate, the two largest manufacturers of chlorinated tris, the family of fire retardant chemicals found in baby mattresses, ­vowed to end production.

Tip: After you publish, continue to follow the story. Stay in touch with sources: What changes have they noticed as a result of your work? In addition to indicating the impact you made, the source may continue to provide information you could use in a follow-up story.

Related: Learning from prize-winning journalism: how to cover a breaking news story
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As a New Jersey state trooper stands at attention nearby, Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Blindsided: How Christie used passive verbs to turn himself into a victim

My brother frequently drives from New Jersey to New York across the George Washington Bridge to visit our 94-year-old mom. Her name is Shirley Clark, and she likes Chris Christie. She prefers her politicians to be straight talkers. She would agree with George Orwell that the best political rhetoric is “demotic,” a fancy word for the “voice of the people.”

If I could bring Orwell back from his early grave, I would have loved to have sat next to him during the New Jersey governor’s press conference apologizing for dirty political tricks, or at his subsequent State of the State of New Jersey speech. Based on what Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” I think he would have given the governor a mixed grade.

Reviewing Christie’s words, there are moments when he seems to take responsibility for the traffic disasters as political vendetta in the city of Fort Lee. He says, for example, “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee” and “ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch – the good and the bad.” Read more

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 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 If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and webinars at Poynter News University. Read more


Newtown’s media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs

The one-year anniversary of a tragic event is a significant moment. But for journalists, such moments too often become opportunities for emotional exploitation rather than real journalism.

The citizens of Newtown, Conn., and the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims have drawn a hard boundary around their homes. No media, they’ve said to the outside world. Don’t talk to the media, they’ve said to the 28,000 people who live in the community.

In doing so, they’ve deprived newsrooms of the easy visuals and rote storytelling that have sometimes substituted for meaningful journalism. And that’s good: It forces journalists to do the hard work they should be doing on the first anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

In a way, it’s a gift to the audience everywhere that Newtown is spurning public events. Without requisite sights and sounds such as flickering candles, tolling bells, and names read aloud, journalists have to do something other than tap into the grief and rehash the horror of that day.

But it would be wrong to leave the anniversary itself unnoticed. Anniversaries, especially the one-year mark of a tragic event, are sometimes the best opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the world. This is why counselors tell grieving people not to make major decisions for the first year after a loved one dies. A year later, the world looks much different — maybe not better, but certainly not as fuzzy as it looked then.

Here’s what the best anniversary stories will look like:

  • Many will offer updates on the national debates we are having about guns and mental health. Sure, these are obvious subjects. But done well, they can advance the conversation by describing the likely paths forward. And the best stories are those that bring new data or studies into the narrative. USA Today’s Behind the Bloodshed interactive graphic is a particularly good example, while this New York Times update on gun laws and Frontline’s look at the gun lobby are both sobering.
  • Any perspective from the families will come through newsrooms that have established strong ties with the families of the slain children and teachers. This blog post by Emilie Parker’s mother is a strong example, and this AP story is particularly well done.
  • Outside essayists will offer their thoughts in a variety of op-eds and columns.
  • The journalists who do go to Newtown will have a plan. They will document the town and its people from a distance, instead of fighting with each other to interview everyone and anyone. And I’m OK with that. I don’t want to live in a world where journalists are afraid to cover important stories in ways they think serve the story. I want some journalists to be in Newtown, just not hundreds of them.

How to cover the Newtown anniversary depends on your audience. Local news providers need to focus on local stories, turning to their own communities. The wider your audience, the tougher the task of finding a relevant story.

Finally, here are a few things to avoid:

  • Gratuitous use of images from that day. This may be tempting given the absence of fresh visuals, but using the image of the children in a line rushing from the school or the crying woman on the phone will likely cue the audience to move on.
  • Political grandstanding. It’s possible that politicians and pundits will try to use the anniversary of these deaths to make a political point, and that cable news, talk radio, or other media with lots of time but few resources will allow them to do so. But let’s hope not.
  • Oversimplification. It’s tempting for journalists who are used to making sense of complicated things to try and make sense of this. But some things defy such efforts, however well-intentioned. And trying to change that causes us to fall back on clichés about good and evil that will never be universally embraced.

We live in a media world of excess. With self-discipline, restraint and a sense of service to our audience — rather than to our ratings or web metrics — journalists should be able to provide meaningful stories a year after Newtown. And possibly such efforts can set the tone for future tragedies.

* * *

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more


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