April 5, 2016

Diana Sugg’s favorite place to be is on the trail of a story, her skinny notebook tucked into her purse. Years ago, the Baltimore Sun projects editor found herself in that place again, in her car headed for a cemetery. She was looking for a grave that no one would speak to her about.

When she found it, she found toys and notes there, too.

Tucked in carefully among the toys are handwritten notes that tell of heartbreak. ‘Happy Birthday to you. Every year, please remember, we will never forget you,’ said one card. ‘We love you and miss you. Love, Mommy and Daddy.’

Sugg’s story about the lack of research around stillbirths was part of the work that led to her 2003 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. But it didn’t start with a drive through the cemetery. It started with a notice for an organization that she found while working her beat.

“Be like someone in a submarine with a periscope, constantly scanning,” Sugg told a room full of people gathered for a recent writing seminar at Poynter ahead of the centennial edition of the Pulitzer Prizes. The afternoon featured 10-minute sessions from more than a dozen journalists, including NPR’s Eric Deggans, former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines and the Tampa Bay Times’ Lane DeGregory.

Here are a few tips from the session:

Find the secret door into your story

From the outside, a lot of stories look like cookie cutter houses, Sugg said. You have to get inside them to discover the most interesting elements.

“These stories are like old houses, rambling old houses…and you have to find the secret door into your story,” she said.

Constantly scan your beat and don’t be cynical about small things, like meetings or notices, that could be the first door into something much bigger, Sugg said.

Thousands of stories get overlooked by reporters, but the clues are everywhere, she said.

Stop asking so many questions

Tom French was getting ready to leave the police station when an old sergeant at the front motioned for him to wait.

French, then a reporter at the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, finally looked at the man in front of him. The man wasn’t wearing a shirt. His body was shaking. Over one shoulder, French could see the man was splattered with blood. The man had just killed his girlfriend with a machete. He was turning himself in.

French wrote the story that day. After it ran, some friends in the newsroom thought he’d missed an opportunity by not interviewing the man.

“I don’t agree,” said French, who won a Pulitzer for feature writing in 1998. “I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now…I don’t know what answer he could have given that was more profound that what I saw. His trembling was his testimony.”

Many journalists are more comfortable with a quote from someone with a title at a press conference than they are sharing what they witnessed themselves. Interviews are important, but we also need to remember to observe, said French, now a professor at Indiana University’s Media School.

“You can have something right in front of you, and you can think that you’re good at seeing things, but you miss everything.”

People are complex, don’t just publish their resumes

If you want to tell a story about Jacqui Banaszynski’s life, start with where she was born and when she graduated high school and when she graduated college, but don’t end there.

“That’s standard biographical material,” she said, “It’s where you begin on Ancestry.com. It’s the stuff that goes in obituaries, it is not the stuff of our lives.”

Banaszynski, who won a Pulitzer in 1988 and was a finalist in 1986, has developed a method to help her students at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism get past those obit details.

Draw a timeline that runs parallel to the first one. Then, ask your subject about the defining moments in their lives. What crucial choices have they had to make? What moments have impacted them deeply? What events influenced them, sent them on a certain path or helped shape their views?

If you’re looking at Banaszynski’s timeline, the year she graduated high school will show up on the first timeline, but the year before she graduated high school will show up on the parallel one. That year, she was madly in love with a farm boy in her hometown. One day, they sat on top of a water tower watching airplanes land and talking about what they wanted in the future. He wanted to get married and have kids.

“And I wanted to go everywhere in the world and see everything and know everything,” Banaszynski said.

They looked at each other then and knew they weren’t going to do those things together.

The last timeline lays out the historical and social context of the person’s years, the “wallpaper” of their life, Banaszynski said.

That third timeline forces journalists to think about other events that could have shaped a subject’s life. Banaszynski asks her students to draw all three timelines and then go over them with their sources.

Ask people about their lives and you might get the bits that will run after their deaths, she said. Ask about the moments that shaped them, and “you start getting stories out of people.”

Get people out of the story as well as you got them in

Leonard Pitts Jr. planted the seed for his ending in the fifth paragraph of a 2001 column.

I’m standing on a subway platform waiting for the train. A group of teenage boys is standing nearby and I’m watching them with a wary eye. You know the type. Loud and profane city kids dressed like street thugs. Hats to the back, shirts hanging open, pants sagging low so you can see their drawers. When the train pulls in, I wait to see which car they board. Then I board another.

In journalism, we spend a lot of time talking about how to get people into the story,
said Pitts, who won a Pulitzer in 2004 for commentary and was a finalist in 1993.

“But we never really spend a lot of time talking about how to get out.”

Pitts likes endings that are memorable, that button a column up and give a sense of finality. Don’t let the ending of a piece just happen, he said.

He recommended three strategies:

  • Plant the kicker — the end of a story — higher up and circle back at the end.

    “There’s a wonderful sense of finality that goes with that,” he said.

  • Pitts almost never ends with quotes, but…

    …Sometimes you just have to let a person speak for themselves. In a column from February, Pitts asks if GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is a man of faith.

    As the pope said, faith is about bridges, not walls. It is potting soil for the things we hope. It is an obligation to serve and protect” the least of these.” And it is an assurance that at the end of the day, no matter how bad it looks, we win.

    You see little of that in politics. And the pope was right: you see none of it in Trump.

    Monday night found him campaigning in Las Vegas when a man in the audience apparently staged some kind of demonstration Donald Trump, man of faith, watched as security guards hauled the protester out.

    “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said.

  • Add a twist.

    Often, readers think they know where you’re going, “and then at the very last sentence, I stick in a knife, just a little twist,” Pitts said.

    Remember that piece from 2001 about the young men he encountered on the subway? Here’s how Pitts ended that piece:

    I often hear such kids insist that dress is neutral and how dare you stereotype them based on what they wear. Fine. It’s the argument you would expect them to make. But it’s an abrogation of responsibility for adults to encourage them in that delusion. Better to explain to them that what you show to the world, how you allow yourself to be perceived, will have profound implications for the way people treat you. This is a fact of life that has little to do with stereotyping, racial or otherwise.

    I mean, I perceived a threat by those boys on the subway platform and acted accordingly. Anyone who thinks that constitutes racial stereotyping needs to understand something.

    They were white.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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