New reporters aren’t going to get lots of time to do big things, said Lane DeGregory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning features writer at the Tampa Bay Times.
But they can do small stories.
“Find something that you can own a little piece of,” DeGregory said, “and practice.”
DeGregory spoke with Poynter’s Lauren Klinger on Friday for “Feature Writing Foundations: Master Class with Lane DeGregory.”
Klinger and DeGregory covered how she found the story behind her Pulitzer-winning “The girl in the window,” how she works to build trust with sources and why she always asks to go to the bathroom while at a subject’s home.
Here are some of the lessons DeGregory shared.
— Check out the bathroom. DeGregory wants to interview people in their homes. She wants a tour, if they’ll give it. And at some point, she always asks to go to the bathroom.
“I think you can learn a lot about people from their bathroom.”
In one piece she worked on, DeGregory went to the home of a man who’d lost his wife the year before. DeGregory asked to go to the bathroom. There, she discovered Lisa Wagenman’s perfume and makeup still sat on the counter.
“I never would have thought in a million years to ask, ‘did you throw away her makeup?'”
— Go there. Talk to people. While reporting “The girl in the window,” DeGregory and photojournalist Melissa Lyttle went to the Plant City, Florida house where the main subject of the story was once kept and abused. The family didn’t live there anymore. DeGregory started talking to a neighbor kid, who told her his grandma bought the house and let them in to look around.
— Find common ground. Last year, DeGregory spent six months reporting on a story about a young man trying to make it out of a poor high school to play football in college. She knew nothing about football. But the boy was a teenager, and DeGregory has two of those.
They started talking about video games.
She tries to find common ground with people, DeGregory said, “and sometimes it has nothing to do with the story itself.”
— Offer something of yourself. DeGregory wants to give the people she’s writing about a little bit of herself, too.
“I’m Lane. Wife. Mother. Dog owner. Whatever, not just scary reporter,” she said.
— Use your senses. All of them. “I want every one of my stories to have something that you can smell and taste and feel. You’re going to see and hear stuff, that’s a given,” she said.
Those tiny details are what make stories come to life.
— Look for real people. DeGregory started her career working in bureaus, and often that required interviewing officials. But the people who had the best stories were the people doing the dirty work.
“You get to live these people’s lives with them,” she said. “It’s so much more fun than just interviewing them over a desk.”
— Remind people that you’re the reporter. DeGregory wears a badge when interviewing and she holds her notebook up higher from time to time to remind people that that’s what she’s there for.
— Stick the landing. “I always over-report. I over-gather,” DeGregory said.
It helps her to have time to process after reporting, to think about the underlying theme of the story and where she wants to start and end. That helps her cull all the details she has collected. And yes, she knows where her stories will end.
“I can’t really write until I know where I’m going.”
— Put the notebooks away. After she reports, DeGregory reads her notebooks, indexes them and then she puts them away. She works to get the bones of the piece out, then goes back to fill in details from her reporting.
— Remember rhythm. Klinger asked DeGregory if she’s also a musician, her stories always contain rhythm. DeGregory isn’t musical (although she’s married to a drummer), but she does read her stories out loud.
Editors, assignments and advice for young journalists:
— Feed the goat. “The goat will eat anything,” DeGregory said of the daily news cycle. “Sometimes you have to fill the page.”
But for every assignment she gets, DeGregory tries to do something she loves, too.
“You gotta cover the news, that’s what we’re here for,” she said.
— Make it your own. Early in her career, DeGregory covered a municipal meeting about the size of mailboxes. In the back of the room was an old man with a giant, ugly owl mailbox. His grandson made it in shop class. DeGregory wrote the story around him. And her editors loved it.
— Find secret editors. “Finding people you admire, whether writers or editors or not, is important,” DeGregory said, “especially if you don’t trust or respect the person who was assigned to you.”
— Don’t be writerly. Write like you talk, she said. You might not sound like Shakespeare, “but you might sound like Dr. Seuss.”