St. Petersburg Times


Shark-hunting for ‘Old Hitler’ reveals storytelling tips

When I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, the first writer I bonded with was Jeff Klinkenberg. We were the same age. Our desks were side by side. We both had young families. Our oldest daughters became best friends. We played in a rock band together. You get the idea.

On Tuesday, Klinkenberg took a buyout from what is now the Tampa Bay Times. His announcement on his Facebook page inspired more than 500 likes and almost 400 comments. These fervent expressions of admiration and respect from readers and other writers did not surprise me.

There is pride in knowing that a great newspaper could sustain the work of such a talented feature writer for almost four decades, especially one who is so identified with a place and a culture and the odd and interesting Floridians who have created it. There is also some sadness attached to the realization that newspapers, weakened economically, find it so hard to retain and sustain such talent until they’re ready to leave.

But today I am focused on the pride, not the sadness.

It turns out that Klinkenberg was the first writer whose work I studied at the Times, and the first of many that I interviewed to learn their habits, values and best practices. Here’s an example. On July 21, 1977, this story appeared on the front page of the sports section of the Times. Here is the top:

Ron Swint moaned in the dark about the shark called Old Hitler, the largest shark in Tampa Bay, as traffic roared by on the Skyway Bridge. Somebody in a car shouted and Swint automatically winced. He has been hit by beer cans thrown from passing cars. A huge truck rumbled by so fast the bridge shook. Diesel fumes hung in the air.

The first shark to come along was not Old Hitler, but it was a big one, a shark Swint later estimated at 500 pounds, a shark that swallowed a three-pound live ladyfish bait and swam toward the lights of Tampa. The shark almost killed Swint.

Swint was pulling on the shark rod with all his strength when the line snapped. His own momentum carried him into the lane of traffic. The truck never slowed down, but Swint was quick enough to scramble back onto the sidewalk with his expensive rod and reel. Shaken, he said: “That’s why I never drink when I’m out here. You need all your faculties to fish for sharks. If I’d had a few beers tonight, I may not have been quick enough to get out of the way. I’ve almost been pulled in the water by sharks, but this was the first one that almost got me killed by traffic.

“And that wasn’t even Old Hitler.”

Four times Ron Swint has hooked the shark he calls Old Hitler and four times it has escaped. “Last year I wasn’t even a challenge,” Swint said. “Old Hitler ripped me off.” Last time Swint was ready. “Old Hitler took 1,500 yards of line and I turned him. I thought I had him. Then my line broke.”

Swint is obsessed by Old Hitler, the most intimidating shark in the bay. Old Hitler, Swint says, is a 22-foot hammerhead. Its head is 5 feet wide. Old Hitler, Swint says, weighs 1,500 pounds, easy. If Old Hitler is indeed that large, it is twice the size of the biggest hammerhead ever taken on rod and reel. The world record, captured off Jacksonville in 1975, weighed 703 pounds and was 14 feet long. Swint intends to catch Old Hitler and break the record. “That SOB is mine,” Swint said, voice rising in the night. “I’m gonna get him.”

I republished Klinkenberg’s story in a newsroom newsletter I named “The Wind Bag,” and introduced an interview with this text:

In this excellent story about shark fisherman Ron Swint, Jeff gives us a character sketch about a modern day Captain Ahab. Ron Swint engages in an obsessive hunt for a shark called Old Hitler. Jeff captures Swint’s peculiarities with effective description, interesting anecdotes, and lively quotes.

The lead paragraph reveals the power of active verbs to give prose precision and vitality. And Jeff makes his prose readable by varying the length and structure of his sentences. In the following conversation, Jeff discusses this particular article. He also touches on his “method” for organizing his stories and for making “specialized” topics accessible to all his readers.

[Note: Howell Raines, mentioned in the interview, was political editor of the St. Petersburg Times in 1977. He eventually became executive editor of the New York Times.]

RPC: Under what circumstances did you meet and interview Ron Swint?

JK: Howell Raines and I went fishing one afternoon on the Skyway. And while we were standing there on the bridge catching nothing, this guy came walking by with about 60 pounds of equipment. He looked at my puny stuff and said “You’ll never catch anything with that.”

Then he just launched into a monologue about how he was going to catch this shark “Old Hitler.” For a few minutes he talked about catching Old Hitler as if I should know who Old Hitler was.

I called him up about two weeks later, and I went back out there with him. We went out to the bridge about 6 p.m. and stayed until about 2 a.m., fooling around with sharks and ladyfish. I hoped that he wouldn’t be pulled off the bridge and leave me out there.

The next day I came into the office and wrote out my notes. I had three pages of single-spaced notes. I typed them out, underlined my best quotes, and organized my story from there. I started writing it that day and finished it up the next.

RPC: Is it a general method of yours to organize your story around the quotes you’ve collected?

JK: One of the things I’ve done when I’ve had the time: I’ll type them, and then I’ll assign different values to different quotes. My best quotes I’ll try to get up high in the story and then proceed in kind of a descending order. I’ll try to save a couple of good ones for the end. I think it’s a good way to organize a story.

RPC: What about the structure of the story? It’s blocked off into section by checkmarks [design elements]. Is that your doing?

JK: Sometimes I think it’s a good way to structure a story. It’s easier for the reader to handle. When you break up a story into anecdotes like this it gives each littler story more impact. They’re not lost 15 paragraphs down. You can use the checkmarks to introduce a new littler story.

RPC: Why did you choose to end with a short section…two or three short sentences? [“Last summer Swint says he lived four days on the Skyway. He slept during the day on the sidewalk. Old Hitler never touched his baits.”]

JK: I thought it was kind of a dramatic way to end it. And to punch home the fact that this guy was fanatical about the thing to spend four days on the bridge to track down a shark. I have some misgivings after I did it. Someone asked me if the story had just been chopped off at that point.

RPC: I notice at various points in the story you are careful to attribute statements he has made about what he can do with the sharks once he has caught them. Fishermen are notorious BS artists….Do you often encounter problems of credibility in the people you interview?

JK: No, but in this instance, some of the stuff he was telling me was so remarkable I had to protect myself a little bit. Many of the things he told me I double-checked and found them to be true. Things I couldn’t check I went with an attribution. And there are quite a few in this story.

RPC: Did you try to balance the dramatic story with news about fishing equipment and fishing techniques that might be of interesting to shark fishermen?

JK: The story needed some hard information. Some of the things he was saying were so sensational…you needed some hard facts about exactly what this guy does and how he does it. I think the secret, if there is a secret, to writing about any kind of special interest is to make it accessible to people who ordinarily wouldn’t give a damn about it. But at the same time you have to satisfy certain number of people who are looking for information. How do I improve my own fishing or whatever. But general that type of ‘how to’ information in my stories is incidental to the rest.

RPC: What techniques do you use to make the story accessible?

JK: Well I begin with some kind of personality sketch. Try to find a person to build the story around and kind of sneak in the facts…maybe after a quote. What makes outdoors writing bad in many newspapers is that the writer is writing for other experts in the field. The average reader finds it incomprehensible. Anyone who has done any fishing or hunting has a lot of personal experiences that he can’t wait to tell and embellish in many instances.

RPC: How about your lead? What were you trying to do there?

JK: I was trying to set the whole picture in three paragraphs. I also wanted to set the scene of the area that he fishes from. All of his problems: the cars going by, this Old Hitler that threatens to drag him into the bay. It establishes him as a character right off…This is what I call a can’t-miss story. You’ve got a shark. You’ve got Hitler in the same story. All I needed was a retiree and a dog and it would have been the perfect story.

It surprises and delights me how many of the themes and strategies raised in this interview 37 years ago continue to capture my attention: reporting and storytelling; developing characters; being on the scene; getting the voices of people in stories, beginnings, endings, and other structural elements; writing for multiple audiences; attracting non-specialists to a text and so much more.

It reminds me that I owe a debt to reporters and editors at the then St. Petersburg Times, who not only tolerated my presence in their newsroom as one of the first writing coaches, but who were willing to talk with me endlessly about the craft and about their sense of mission and purpose as journalists. Klinkenberg will have to stand in for all of them as I say, “Thanks, brother. Keep writing, man. And let’s keep talking.” Read more


Will a name change help the St. Pete Times the way it did the South Florida Sun-Sentinel?

The St. Petersburg Times is trading in the name that bears its storied past for a new one targeting the future, Chairman and CEO Paul Tash said in an interview Tuesday.

The decision to become the Tampa Bay Times is a competitive move aimed at taking name space away from cross-town rival The Tampa Tribune, and is raising new speculation about the Media General paper’s viability. The name change has unsettled some;  Twitter reaction decried the lost legacy, weakened identity, and potential confusion.

“I’m honored by any objection here, because it means that the St. Pete Times counts. And I agree — it counts,” said Tash, also chairman of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times. “But the important part of our name is ‘Times,’ and to make the most of the success that we’ve had and to continue as a first-rate news organization, we need to draw fully on the support of the entire Tampa Bay region.”

It’s not unheard of for newspapers to change their names. A flurry of consolidations and mergers since the 1970s led to many newly hyphenated hybrids. Once in a while a paper will just drop the city from its name, like The Nashville Tennessean in 1970 or The Norwich Bulletin this year.

The Sun-Sentinel (of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) in 2000 expanded its coverage and changed its name to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. That move worked out well, said Earl Maucker, who was the paper’s editor at the time.

Previously the paper was just The Sun-Sentinel, but readers and especially competitors often pigeonholed it as “The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,” Maucker told me. Adding a regional title to the name helped the paper in the years that followed.

“Readers began to identify the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as a more regional newspaper that was competitive in the South Florida market with the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post,” Maucker said. “Additionally, we got more recognition from our peers outside of South Florida because people could identify where The Sun-Sentinel was geographically located.”

Removing or broadening the geographic label in a newspaper name can help a paper appeal to new advertisers, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for The Poynter Institute. He explained that some national ad buyers might assume a paper named the “St. Petersburg Times” doesn’t reach the whole Tampa metro area, but the “Tampa Bay Times” does.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg area (Google Maps image).

The Times is also concerned with audience. It says that three-fourths of its readers currently live outside St. Petersburg. And while long-time residents may know the St. Petersburg Times covers more than just St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, that’s not as obvious to new residents or to some advertisers, Tash said.

“This is a very competitive world, not just between newspapers but among all media,” Tash said. “And so we are trying to appeal as broadly as possible.” Market research showed that people in different parts of the metro area identified with different regional names, he said, but “Tampa Bay” carried strong recognition everywhere.

The name change takes effect Jan. 1. It will cost a “significant” amount of money in the context of any one quarter or even fiscal year, Tash said, but in the long run “it is a bargain that we would be foolish to pass by.” (He did not specify the cost, but said it would not affect other operational spending.)

It remains to be seen whether the existing community that knows the “St. Petersburg” Times will adopt the new name. While it may make business sense, the public doesn’t always follow.

Steve Buttry noted on Twitter Tuesday that when he was at the Des Moines Register (1977-85) it was already known as a statewide paper but didn’t need to change its name to make that point. He also recounted that “years ago the Cedar Rapids Gazette became The Gazette to push regional reach. Everyone still called it Cedar Rapids Gazette.”

I had a similar experience in 2005 when the morning and afternoon newspapers I worked for in Scranton, Penn., The Tribune and The Scranton Times, merged into a single new morning edition called The Times-Tribune.

Dropping “Scranton” from the flag was an attempt to position the paper as a journal of the seven-county coverage area, not just the one city at the center. But over the following five years I worked there, most of the readers, politicians, police officers and newsroom callers continued to refer to it as “The Scranton Times.” After 135 years, habits don’t change overnight.

It’s still too early to know how the Tampa Bay Times will be received, Tash said.

“You never really know until you do it, what the impact is going to be,” he said. “In some ways, the impact depends on how well you do it.” Read more


St. Petersburg Times to be renamed the Tampa Bay Times
Five years after settling a court case with the Tampa Tribune, the Poynter-owned St. Petersburg Times will become the Tampa Bay Times, a name that signals “the growth of our newspaper and our vision for this region,” says Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, who also serves as chairman of the Poynter Institute.

The Times began using the name Tampa Bay Times in 2004, for what was then its free weekly tabloid, called tbt*. When the tabloid became daily, the Tribune sued, saying the name infringed on “its trademark for the Tampa Times, an afternoon newspaper that ceased publication in 1982.” The November 1 settlement in 2006 allowed the St. Pete Times restricted use of the name for five years and unlimited use thereafter.

The new name will appear on the masthead starting January 1 — the 100th anniversary of Pinellas County, where the paper is headquartered, though three-quarters of its readers live outside St. Petersburg, Tash said. The paper bought the naming rights to the St. Pete Times Forum (where the Lightning play) in 2002. It will become the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Reaction to the name change has been mixed. Read more


Layoffs follow pay cut at Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times

Romenesko+ memo
When he announced a recent 5 percent pay cut for staff and change in severance payments, St. Petersburg Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash said the cost-cutting “will likely include further job reductions,” and now it has. In a memo to staff, editor Neil Brown acknowledged that layoffs at the Poynter-owned paper had started. “The economy affords us no guarantees,” Brown wrote, “but we hope to wrap up these staffing decisions by the middle of October.” We’ve been told about eight people who were laid off, but have confirmed only three. The full memo follows. || Related: How can there be layoffs at a newspaper which was recently written about as the fourth best newspaper in the country? (St. Petersblog) Read more


Politico, Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times team up to cover GOP convention

The St. Petersburg Times and Politico will begin immediately sharing content both in print and online, and at the Republican convention in Tampa, they’ll combine reporting efforts to write in-depth enterprise stories related to the August 2012 event. In addition, the Times and Politico plan to co-produce daily newsmaker events in the Tampa Bay area. Read more


Blogger posts results of St. Petersburg Times staff survey
“I don’t think Tash and Co. will be too happy about me publishing it,” writes Peter Schorsch, referring to Times Publishing chairman Paul Tash. Actually, he probably won’t have a problem with it; the survey results should please the Poynter-owned paper’s management. Seventy-seven percent of St. Pete Times‘ staffers said they were satisfied with the company, and 76 percent said they were satisfied with their jobs. Read more


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