To make beat writing more compelling, let’s rescue the offbeat story

Each morning with breakfast I read the Tampa Bay Times, a habit I have indulged since my arrival in St. Petersburg in 1977. I spent that year as writing coach for the newspaper and two more years writing for what was then the St. Petersburg Times. In 1979 I moved to what is now the Poynter Institute, the non-profit school that owns the publishing company.

From my childhood reading the New York City tabloids, I have read the paper back to front, starting with the sports pages.

The Times sports section has been good for many years with strong columnists, such as Tom Jones and hard-working beat writers such as Marc Topkin, who covers baseball. New to the staff is Martin Fennelly, once the best sports columnist at the Tampa Tribune before that paper was purchased and then closed by the Times.

I have not yet met Fennelly but look forward to the chance. His photo — gray beard and unruly silver hair — make him look like an art history teacher at the University of South Florida. Like his colleagues, he is a productive and versatile writer, and that versatility shone Thursday morning on the cover of the sports section.

Before I describe his story, let me add this context: that the Tampa Bay Rays were playing on the West Coast, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were just eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. On other days, a columnist might have been backing up the beat writers for those teams.

Liberated from routine support of the standard beats, Fennelly took the opportunity to write something offbeat. Here’s the lead:

Rain fell at Spectrum Field on Wednesday afternoon. The Clearwater Threshers and Fort Myers Miracle sat out a two-hour delay. So did the pitcher who would make the first toss.

“Well, I’ve waited this long,” she said.

There are a lot of great pitchers. Clayton Kershaw. Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander. Wednesday my favorite pitcher was a 5-foot-4, silver haired right hander named Ila St. John. She lives in Largo — and turns 100 years old Friday. Sometimes big gifts come in small packages.

What follows is a description of the scene in which friends and supporters from her independent living facility are gathered behind home plate to cheer her. She does not look her age. She is dressed in red, white and blue, an expression of her patriotism, marked by a 20-year Army career. She retired as a major.

We know you should never pay a source, but Fennelly buys her a hot dog. She likes it “just plain.” The brief profile includes her daring experiences in the military, her continuing volunteer work, her love of baseball, and her desire to take a ride on a Goodyear blimp. “I love the clouds” Ila said.

The rain stops and Fennelly describes the payoff pitch:

Ila stood about 15 feet from home plate. Her ball had some break to it, bouncing twice before being fielded by Clearwater’s catcher: On the way back to her seat, she asked if I knew anyone with Goodyear, the blimp people. The unsinkable Ila St. John sails on. No word on her next scheduled start.

I’m a news junkie, too, but I confess this was only one of two stories in the Times that I read from lead to kicker. My enthusiasm reminds me of my long-standing affection for the offbeat story.

For a day, at least, this piece allayed my fears that the offbeat story is a dying genre in journalism. We all know what is going on in the news business: fewer reporters and editors, shrinking news holes, many corners that have been cut. With a smaller staff, editors are challenged to cover the essential beats, with little time or room for something lighter, weirder, or more surprising. With news space more precious, papers have lost some of the habitats in which such stories might be told.

Let me go against this grain. The more pressure on news staff, the more valuable is the offbeat story. Here is the value of the offbeat:

  1. It surprises the reader, who might be enticed to come back for more such features in the future.
  2. It invigorates the writer, especially the beat writer, whose work is tested every day by the need to feed the beast with comprehensive coverage.
  3. It sends out the message to the community that news people are paying attention to people and events that are interesting and important to the community.
  4. It often holds the writer in a good light, revealing humanizing elements of character not often seen in routine coverage.
  5. Offbeat stories do not always need to be whimsical or bizarre; they can also offer an insightful angle on events.

Perhaps the classic example of an offbeat story, as I describe in my book "Help! for Writers," was carried out by columnist and author Jimmy Breslin, who, on the day of John F. Kennedy’s burial at Arlington Cemetery in 1963, wrote a story about the gravedigger.

If you can’t think of anything else to write about, go spend a day with a gravedigger. (Hamlet did!)

My friend Jeff Klinkenberg built his career as a Florida feature writer with an eye for eccentric characters performing quirky jobs. He learned his trade at the old Miami News, which specialized in offbeat coverage. In St. Pete, he wrote about a sponge diver, a plume hunter, a hog catcher, the original Coppertone girl, a highway patrolman, a fish smoker, a taxidermist, and a Holocaust survivor turned burlesque queen who now repairs roofs on apartments she owns.

No newspaper mastered — and took advantage of — the offbeat story more than The Wall Street Journal. For most of its history — before a redesign by Mario Garcia (who taught at Poynter) — the Journal was one of the grayest newspapers in the world. Its vertical design and lack of color gave it an omnivorous solemnity, reinforced by reams of business and financial news.

What saved the front page from sinking was a column that flowed right down the middle, called an “A-head” because of the design and typography of the headlines. When readers turned to that spot, they never knew what to expect — except for the possibility of surprise and delight.

To this day I remember columns from decades ago on old soldiers who still eat Spam, on pickle inspectors, on the history of the Camel cigarettes pack.

My favorite was about a club devoted to clear writing in public life and the avoidance of jargon. When they communicated with each other, they were required to use only words of one syllable (or “one beat"). A writer and editor at the Journal decided that the only way to cover this group was to write the column in words of one-syllable. The writer, whose first name, I believe, was Joseph, became Joe for the day, not a staff “writer,” but a staff “scribe.”

The popularity of these features led to the publication of an anthology called "Floating Off the Page." If you want to learn how to write offbeat, the way to begin is to read offbeat. My thanks to Martin Fennelly for the inspiration. I owe you two chili dogs at Coney Island Sandwich Shop, unless you want them just plain.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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