January 20, 2016

A man raced to the top of a bridge over Tampa Bay. He pulled his five-year-old daughter out of the car and dropped her into the cold water below.

You couldn’t help but hear about the story, especially in the Tampa Bay area. Everyone knew what happened to Phoebe Jonchuck in January 2015, months before Tampa Bay Times reporter Lane DeGregory even considered reporting on her killing.

It was easy to find over 70 written stories and countless television news pieces about the murder in Florida alone. What would DeGregory have to add? She pushed back against her editor and the executive editor when they asked her to report on it. She didn’t want to spend the next six months thinking about an over-reported story, especially one that was devastatingly sad. It would be too hard. There was no hope.

Then Times publisher Paul Tash made his case. The story was important to the community, he said. It was a story he thought and thought about. “How could this be? How could this cherub, just after Christmas, be dropped into the ocean to die?”

DeGregory, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for chronicling the recovery of a feral child, was the right person to tell Phoebe’s story, Tash said. “We made some good early efforts, but I knew we didn’t have the full story,” Tash said. “I thought that if we could tell it whole — that’s what we needed.” (Disclosure: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times)

Fast forward to two weeks ago. “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck,” the story DeGregory feared no one would read, accumulated 98,000 views in its first week online. Readers spent more than twice as much time reading about Phoebe’s story than they do a typical article at the Tampa Bay Times, said John Schlander, the newspaper’s digital manager.

First, DeGregory knew her writing had to be compelling enough, her details strong enough, to get readers to finish the story. This is always a challenge. But when an audience feels like it already knows what happened — and what happened seems hopeless and terrible — it’s especially hard.

Watch Degregory give a Master Class on storytelling. 

Once she agreed to do the story, DeGregory, collaborating with photojournalist Cherie Diez and editor Kelley Benham French, began her reporting. She knew that she needed to act more like an investigative reporter than she had for other stories, to dive into the records and to talk to as many people as she could. She spent the first day orienting herself. She sat in her living room surrounded by boxes and boxes of DVDs and CDs of police recordings and 911 tapes. She read and listened and made notes.

In the story, DeGregory gives readers a glimpse at her life over the past several months:

Go looking for answers about John Jonchuck, and you’ll find scores of people who were fed up. You’ll read police reports spanning generations: theft, drugs, domestic violence. You’ll comb through court cases, listen to calls to the child protection hotline, uncover a lifetime of lies, rage and revenge.

You’ll meet people who were too numb to recognize the danger or too scared to stand up to his temper. People who wonder what clues they missed or ignored.

From the beginning, there were so many signs.

DeGregory made a list of nearly 100 people she wanted to interview. When she first started asking people to talk to her about Phoebe and about her father, John, she was afraid no one would want to.  The people closest to Phoebe felt intense guilt and sadness, and many had spotty legal histories themselves. But before her reporting was through, DeGregory ended up interviewing more than 50 people.

She knew she needed to interview Phoebe’s kindergarten teacher, and she wanted to see her classroom. “I wanted to see the little kids who have to deal with this,” she said. “What does this do to a five-year-old?” But it was June, and there were just two days of school left. She reprioritized her list. She had to get to the school before she did anything else.

Coincidentally, the school was dedicating a “reading garden” for Phoebe on the last day of the year. DeGregory wrote about it for the paper and met Phoebe’s family members there. Her grandmother, Michele “MawMaw” Jonchuck, agreed to talk to DeGregory if Phoebe’s teacher would also be present. “That was the key that opened everything,” DeGregory said.

DeGregory and her editors made a number of strategic decisions they thought might ensure people would read to the end of the story. Because everyone already knew the story’s end, DeGregory decided to begin with it. If people thought they were building to that moment on the bridge, they might not be as willing to keep reading. But if she got that out of the way at the beginning, perhaps they’d see right away that the story was about much more than Phoebe’s death. “The action sequence picks up in [chapter] two,” French said. “We felt pretty comfortable that once people got to day two, that they were going to keep going.”

Despite being thick with details, the story is tight. The first whole draft of the piece was more than 20,000 words but what actually ran was a bit over 10,000, French said. This meant a careful selection of details and characters. DeGregory always collects vivid details in her reporting, which was a blessing and a challenge because of “the sheer volume of it, and choosing, because you’re never going to tell stories by cutting. You have to focus and choose.”

Having a one-word focus is key, but DeGregory struggled to find her word for this story. Outrage? Indictment? Loss? The focus shifted and moved. At first, editors suggested the story be an account of Phoebe’s life. DeGregory and French knew she could get details about Phoebe but that the story was truly about her father, the family, and the system that failed to prevent her abuse.

Profiling a five-year-old is really hard, French said. They all like the same things. Cheez-its. Fairies. Pink. Some of the best details they included came from people who weren’t high on French’s list. Most of us would talk to the kindergarten teacher, but how many of us spend time with the preschool teacher? And then the preschool teacher’s son?

Linda’s son Nick, 16, took Phoebe to their backyard pool and tried to teach her to swim. But Phoebe was terrified of water; she wouldn’t even take a bath.

“John would tell her, ‘Phoebe, it’s okay!'” Nick said. “But she was always so scared.”

To get her into the shallow end, Nick had to put pirate floaties around Phoebe’s arms, a Neverland doughnut around her waist, then ease her into a blowup boat.

Even then, she had to hold on to him.

This passage is one of several in the piece that not only give the readers details about Phoebe’s life but also foreshadow its end. DeGregory includes a scene of Phoebe learning to swim, a detail about her being afraid of the dark, several sentences about her clinging to her dad and even a scene in which John Jonchuck, high at the time, speeds across the interstate. Readers may not be aware they’re being led through 10,000 words with these telling bits of foreshadowing, but in hindsight, it’s clear they are.

Journalists are often asked to work on assignments they wouldn’t have chosen. They are often tasked with finding a new angle on something that’s already well known. DeGregory told me that even her own mother was hesitant to read the story, knowing how it would make her feel. For months, DeGregory was caught up in the thought that Phoebe’s story was hopeless. Journalists — and readers — want to read stories that make them feel uplifted. But that wasn’t possible in this story. “Sometimes the character that is redeemed, the person that can learn and grow and take something — sometimes that person can be the reader,” French said. “The reader needs to say to themselves, ‘What would I do if I see something like this happen? Will I intervene? Will I think about that differently?'”

Eventually, DeGregory came to believe that there was hope for kids like Phoebe, so long as there’s a safety net to catch them.

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