Fact-checking a singer: Washington Post makes journalism from a ballad, a poem, a board game

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Ben Folds writes a song about Rod Rosenstein and bullying in Post alternative storytelling issue; Montana alt-weekly closes; a #MeToo moment for photography?

Washington Post Magazine editor Richard Just had been looking to tell stories differently. Singer-songwriter Ben Folds was up for something new. 

Folds composed a song for The Post, "Mister Peepers," about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's struggle with Trump acolytes. It has been the centerpiece of the magazine's alternative storytelling issue, which includes poems by Eliza Griswold and Robert Pinsky, verse by Gene Weingarten, a Betsy DeVos board game, a three-act play and a Trump-themed Mad-Libs DIY "story."

The issue is an attempt to break out of an incessant facts-information overload; to try to find ways, akin to an arresting 6,000-word long-form article, in which a story could "rattle around in your brain and stay with you," Just said Tuesday from The Post.

Last spring, the magazine staff had an intriguing charge in conceptualizing stories for the issue: How creative could it be?

“There are a lot of storytelling forms that people don’t use in journalism,” said Just, a former editor at The New Republic and the National Journal. “Once we started thinking about all the forms you possibly could do, the list kept getting longer.”

For Folds, known for sharply drawn songs like "Brick," "Rockin The Suburbs" or the depressing journalist's portrait of "Fred Jones, Part II," writing for a news organization was a challenge. He spent three weeks researching Rosenstein's life and developing a factually based theme of a dedicated bureaucrat buffeted by willy-nilly political moves. He said Post editors wanted to make sure his use of "thugs," for example, was toned down, more clearly metaphorical. (In his song, the browbeating of Rosenstein by the House Intelligence Committee and the dismissive nicknaming of the bespectacled official as "Mister Peepers" stood in for the bullying and smashing of a character's eyeglasses in "The Lord of the Flies.")

Ben Folds
Ben Folds

So, the song was edited? Yes, Folds responds by telephone from Nashville: "I was fact-checked by The Washington Post."

"Mister Peepers," available for streaming today, represents his modest attempt to reverse decades of demonization of bureaucrats and lawyers, something Folds acknowledged engaging in previously.

“What does Mister Peepers get out of this?" Folds asks of the Rosenstein's berating by Trump and his allies. "He’s dragged to hearings. What does his wife say? She jokes that he should have taken a private sector job at twice the pay, but he has a commitment to public service.”

The last lines of the song get to the fragile underpinnings of civil servants in these times. “Because when all those Mister Peepers fall," Folds writes, "God help us all.”

Just, the editor, said efforts of alternative storytelling by his magazine and others represent a resurgence in fortunes from a decade ago, when conventional wisdom said short digital "takes" would replace the considered, creative magazine story that makes people think.

"Now we're asking, 'Could a board game be journalism? Could a play be journalism?'”

While Just's not committing to an annual alternative storytelling issue, he said this week's experiment has built an appetite for working at the intersection of two different forms, of “journalism and something else.”

Readers, what's the most experimental thing you've read in a news outlet? Did it work? Send me a link if you've got it to dbeard@poynter.org.

Quick hits

CLOSED: The Missoula Independent, the Montana alternative weekly bought last year by Lee Enterprises, which also owns the daily Missoulian. The closing of Montana’s largest weekly was sudden, with the Independent’s offices locked and employees told to make an appointment to collect their belongings, or have them delivered by mail. Readers attempting to read articles from the Independent’s 27-year history were redirected to the Missoula homepage, and the Independent’s vibrant Facebook and Twitter feeds were deleted.

BACKGROUND: The Missoula Independent’s employees had voted in April to unionize and had been optimistic as recently as last week that the company was negotiating in good faith with the understanding it would remain open. The Missoulian and Independent’s general manager, Matt Gibson, who had owned the weekly for two decades before selling it to Lee last year, called it a chronic money-loser. Lee also has faced unionization efforts this year at The Southern Illinoisan and its Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.

FULFILLING A PROMISE: The NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi, under criticism for removing ISIS documents from areas retaken by Iraqi forces, had said the newspaper was negotiating with a university to digitize and make them public. On Monday, the Times and George Washington University agreed to do just that. Callimachi said she had struggled with the provenance issue from the time she found the first of the 15,000 documents in 2016. The originals will be returned to Iraq’s government.

PHOTOGRAPHERS, TOO: Why photography needs its #MeToo moment. “When an industry is so dominated by men at every level and at nearly every major institution, a toxic culture toward women is the inevitable result,” writes Vox’s Kainaz Amaria. “Thus, it’s disappointing but not surprising that many in the photojournalist community — whose job, ironically, is to bear witness to injustice in the world — want very much to look away.”

TEAMING UP: One way that nonprofits are reaching bigger audiences. By Magda Konieczna.

PODCASTS: The Guardian is joining the crowd launching flagship podcasts, with political editor Anushka Asthana set to host it. Among six audio journalists hired are executive producer Leo Hornak, the BBC World Service journalist who did this amazing full-hour episode of "This American Life" on a Somali immigrant who won the U.S. visa lottery. Also hired, as lead producer: The New Yorker Radio Hour’s Mythili Rao, formerly of WNYC. (h/t Nick Quah)

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