Coaches’ Corner: The story behind 'The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck'
Once upon a time, there were writing coaches in newsrooms across the country, and then, they began disappearing. In this monthly feature, we hope to help writers and editors by sharing advice about storytelling and enterprise.
The story: "The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck," by Lane DeGregory
From: The Tampa Bay Times (Disclosure: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times)
When it ran: Jan. 7
Questions: Maria Carrillo, enterprise editor, Houston Chronicle
Answers: Kelley Benham French, professor of practice in journalism, Indiana University, and former enterprise editor, The Tampa Bay Times. French was a contract editor on this story.
What inspired the story: The idea came straight from Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times, or as Kelley calls him, “The Man Himself.” Phoebe’s death had been the talk of the town for months, and Tash thought the paper needed to explore more fully why it happened.
Time from idea to publication: About seven months.
When we revisit tragedy, we’re hoping that people will learn from what happened. Did you have a moment during the reporting process where you really felt that payoff?
When Lane got angry, I knew she had something powerful. Lane’s whole career has been writing about people who have lived hard lives with tremendous sensitivity. But when she called me and laid out John Jonchuck’s lifetime of vindictiveness and violence and drug abuse — the seven times he was arrested for domestic violence, the 27 times he was involuntarily committed — when she started talking about the time he broke his uncle’s rib, the time he threw a cinder block at his mom and cracked Phoebe’s mom’s head on the tub, I could hear the outrage in Lane’s voice. She’s the most compassionate and forgiving person in journalism, and if she was mad, then our readers were going to be livid – at him, and at the people and agencies who let him get away with it.
The story begins with Phoebe being thrown off the bridge, which is obviously the most dramatic moment, but also so wrenching that some readers might feel like turning away. Did you consider starting somewhere else? What went into that decision?
Lane’s first instinct was to start with the father scooping Phoebe out of bed. Anyone with a child knows how wrong it is to wake a sleeping 5-year-old — there’s something so jarring and troubling about that choice. He could have left her sleeping. Why did he take her out into the cold?
From there, it was a matter of how far to take that scene, and in how much detail and from whose perspective. Our readers remembered the little girl who was dropped off the bridge. It had been exactly a year. There was no avoiding that awful moment, no withholding of the result. Instead, we just tried to keep the opening swift and spare, establish the characters and the stakes, and return to the bridge in more detail in chapter two.
We avoided the perspective of Jonchuck, because he’s at best crazy and at worse evil, and we avoided the perspective of the police sergeant, because we wanted to use his observations in more depth later. We tried to keep the camera on Phoebe, because the rest of the story was going to focus more on the people around her, so we thought it important for the reader to see her first, to think about her on the bridge that night, in her father’s arms, the place she felt safest, surrounded by the things she most feared — the dark, the cold, the water below.
I did offer one alternate beginning, but it made Lane cry, and not in a good way, so I reslugged that file “The Thing Lane Hates” and never brought it up again.
The story is structured as three chapters, essentially looking at the before, that long day and the aftermath. How soon into the process did you all decide on the structure? And once you locked in, did you ever reconsider?
It felt natural to break the story into before, during and after. Our first conversation about that was probably in June, when Lane was beginning her reporting and I’d just been brought on board to edit the project remotely. We even considered doing it as a three-day series.
We wrestled at great length with making the reader delve too quickly into background, because background can be so deadly. We worried they might not hang with us as we described decades of dysfunction, as interesting and relevant as it was. Lane is a very cinematic writer, and there wasn’t as much scene in chapter one as she would have liked. So we just tried to make hard choices about what to include, and to allow single examples of depravity to stand in for dozens of others in Lane’s notebooks.
We never found a viable alternative to the chronological structure. There are too many characters, too many complications. Any gimmicky structure would either cheat the story out of its nuances or confuse the hell out of everybody. We just hoped to keep the thing moving, and trusted that anyone who made it to chapter two, with all its action, and chapter three, with all its outrage, would not stop.
At the beginning of the third section of the first chapter, you use the second person to introduce John Jonchuck’s history. Throughout the story, you use first names and even nicknames, like MawMaw, for the characters. There are times when you step back from the narrative to stop and ask questions, about the system and how people reacted. All these are interesting choices and ones that not all editors would embrace. What guides your thinking as you edit a story like this?
The names were a huge challenge. The story had three Michelle Jonchucks in it. Michelle — two L’s — was Phoebe’s mom. Michele — one L — was Jonchuck’s mother. A third Michelle, Johnchuck’s stepmom, went by Mickey. John Jonchuck’s dad was also named John Jonchuck. He went by Chuck.
The whole thing was a salad of Michelles and Johns and Chucks. I really wanted to use last names for everyone, and I tried. It was a nightmare. So we went with MawMaw and John just for clarity’s sake.
As for the second person, the stepping back and asking questions, you can blame me for that, because I pushed for each of those sections.
This story needed a guide. The story only had one character who had a clean record who the reader was likely to relate to, and she didn’t appear until chapter two. We were asking the reader to invest a huge amount of time, and we wanted to signal to them that they weren’t wandering into the woods alone, that we were showing them things for a reason. Without those pauses, the story was just one long chronicle of misery. So at certain points, we step away and say “here are some of the people you’re going to meet, and why,” and "you might be wondering what DCF’s problem is, so let us give you some context..."
We made a printout, and, as is my habit, used different colored highlighters to mark out the scenes, the meaning graphs, the transitional narrative. We tried to break up any large blocks of any single color.
I’m sure some editors would disagree with our choices, but I think the greater harm is to bury the reader under an avalanche of anecdotes. When we choose do a story like this as a narrative, it’s because we know it has meaning. So we have to constantly recalibrate the balance between the chronology and the meaning.
Knowing Lane, I suspect you had a lot of copy to work with. Were there scenes or background that you hated leaving out?
Her draft was about 20,000 words, and the story ran at around 10,500, I think, although near the end I promised her I would stop checking the word count.
When we had a draft, we printed it and laid it out on Lane’s dining room table. I said, "Lane, we’re going to have to cut it until it fits on the table." She said, "No, I’m going to get a bigger table."
I don’t miss the cuts. I hacked it to below 10,000, because that number just felt right to me. I thought if Gene Weingarten could tell "Fatal Distraction" in under 9,000, we could tell this story with around the same number of words. But once we had a leaner draft, one where the bones and angles were more visible, we added back things that we missed for various reasons, and we didn’t fight much about those elements. Lane had a line or two she loved. I think she got to keep them all.
We never had a mandate from above about length or page count. The marching orders were just to tell it whole and tell it right.