Getting Personal: Writing the Reported Essay, Part 1

January 27, 2003
Category: Uncategorized

One day last July, an e-mail arrived from Dan Meyers, an editor at The Denver Post. Like journalists around the country, if not the world, he and his colleagues were trying to come up with a compellling way to write about the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.


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</TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE></TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE><!–“We in Denver have been talking about the need for an authoritative *something* for the 9-11 anniversary,” Meyers wrote. “We’re calling it a reported essay — something that distills reporting and presents it sure-footedly. Not an opinion piece. I’m an editor hunting for ways to explain this to reporters. Can you think of some examples that might illustrate this? Any advice, ranging from ‘Brilliant, thanks for pushing the envelope,’ to ‘Are you nuts? The inverted pyramids have stood for millenia.”’


About six months earlier, I had heard Alex Tizon, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Seattle Times, use the term “reported essay” during a writing seminar at Poynter. I believe he meant it to describe long magazine-style pieces told with a strong voice that derived its authority from exhaustive reporting. I suggested to Meyers that he get in touch with Tizon and also read “Crossing America,” a series of reported essays that Tizon wrote about a post 9-11 cross-country trip he took with Times photographer Alan Berner. (In 2002, the pair continued the journey with a series of “reported postcards.”  I also shared with Meyers the fruits of a Google search I did on the subject, along with a few of my own reflections: 
 
William Powers, the National Journal’s media columnist, used the term to describe a piece of political journalism: “the passionate, reported essay. Often attempted, rarely pulled off, this kind of piece requires two things: 1) a deep factual grounding in the subject, and 2) a willingness by the writer to abandon the safety of ‘balanced’ political writing and reveal his most earnest personal beliefs, often at the risk of embarrassment.”


I told Meyers that if you asked me the difference between a reported essay and a newspaper story, I’d say it lies in the quality of the reporting, the depth and value of the insight, and perhaps most of all, the power of the writer’s voice, which derives from those two characteristics.


While it may not be an opinion piece, I’d expect it to reflect the writer’s opinions supported by evidence that is strong and verifiable.


Whatever the structure of the piece, I’d look for it to have a strong and supported theme, a wealth of information, and a variety of documentation. Perhaps the reported essay is the record of a reporter’s journey of discovery, the tale that not only lays the prize at your feet but describes the hunt. As Powers suggests, it’s a risky undertaking, but one the reader will believe worth the effort


“That is wonderfully helpful,” Meyers responded. “In two decades as a writer, I did precisely one reported essay, for the Inquirer, on an anniversary of man landing on the moon. So I know it when I see it. But I was struggling with the words I’ll need to explain it to others.”


On Sept. 8, three days before the one-year anniversary, The Denver Post published a special section, that included “Four essays on a healing America.”

After I read the four stories, I e-mailed Meyers that “I found them poignant, powerful, authoritative. They take us across the country and inside people’s hearts and minds, combining careful attentive reporting and graceful, incisive writing.”


I also asked the Post team’s help in sharing the lessons they learned from the experience.


I posed four questions:

1. What surprised you about reporting and writing (in Dan’s case, editing) a reported essay?
2. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
3. What were the biggest challenges of the assignment and how did you overcome them?
4. What advice (tips, techniques, cautions, etc.) would you give to someone interested in producing a reported essay?


I’ll report their answers Thursday in part two.