An interview with Dan Barry, the writer of the NYT’s ‘The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail’

October 19, 2018

“A woman begins to fall. With her long dark hair in a ponytail and her
black-and-red scarf loose around her neck, she is plummeting from a fourth-floor balcony, through the neon-charged November night.”

Thus begins “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail: An epic tragedy on a small
block in Queens,”
 published by The New York Times on Oct. 15.
Reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Barry and Jeffrey E. Singer, and written by Barry, it is a textured narrative masterpiece
that focuses on the mysterious and heartbreaking death of Song Yang, a 38-year-old Chinese sex worker on 40th Road, the Dickensian street where she serviced johns, dodged police and longed for citizenship and a better life.

Dan Barry. Photo by Tony Cenicola
Dan Barry.

Photo by Tony Cenicola

In an email interview with Poynter, Barry describes the story-behind-the-story. In detail, he reveals the reporting and writing strategies, the
stunning interactive presentation of images by Pulitzer winner Todd Heisler, the challenges of reporting in a vulnerable immigrant community, the contributions of his colleagues, and the time and emotional commitment that made the story possible. 

Poynter: Normally Song Yang’s would be an untold story, lost in a vast metropolis. How did you get on to her tragic tale and why did you pursue it?

Dan Barry: I had finished a long-form piece last November called “The Lost Children of Tuam,” and was looking for the next thing to do. A few days after Thanksgiving, I was reading the New York Daily News, and came across a very short story with the headline: “Prostie Death Jump As She Flees Police.”

I don’t know how else to put this except to say: This really pissed me off.

I didn’t like — or even know — the term “prostie,” and I really didn’t like how a woman’s life and death was summarized so crassly. At that point I felt almost obliged to tell the story of this woman, who wasn’t identified in the Daily News piece. I wanted to explain who she was, where she came from, what her massage-parlor world was like, and how, if possible she came to this tragic end.

It struck me that illicit massage parlors are ubiquitous but almost invisible, and that when women are arrested — and it is almost always the women who are arrested, rather than the patrons, the operators, the traffickers — many of us see names that are foreign, and so we make private assumptions and move on. I saw a faint chance to shed light on a world that is often ignored or not seen.

 

Poynter: You open with a close-up of Song Yang’s fatal fall and then halt — ”her body freeze-framed in mid-air” — and pull back to paint her life and set up the police sting that ends with her death. What lay behind that decision, what were you trying to accomplish? You divided the story into nine sections; how and why did you decide to structure the rest of it?

Barry: I don’t want people to think that I am so focused on craft and technique that I am oblivious to the true tragedy that is the fall and death of this woman, Song Yang. The moment greatly affected me, especially after having watched, over and over, the video of her fall, and video and photographs of the aftermath. So please keep that in mind.

I wrote many attempts at an opening for this piece, and it is best for everyone that they have all been deleted; they were that bad. I knew so much, and was trying to convey all that I knew too quickly. Finally, I took a deep breath and thought about what was before me.

And that became the first sentence: A woman begins to fall.

Pausing the moment, with Song Yang in mid-air, was designed to invite the reader to become invested in whom she was, and to inform the reader of some of the background leading up to this moment. In this way, when she does eventually land on the pavement, I hope that the reader cares about her, even identifies with her on some level, and is now willing to read a long narrative about the before and after of this horrible moment.

I have to confess that in a small way, I sort of cribbed from myself.

In 2004, I wrote an “About New York” column about a mother standing on a burning building, holding her baby, while a stranger on the ground exhorts her to throw the baby, throw the baby. In the column, she reluctantly throws the baby — and I pause to ask: Who’s this stranger she just tossed her beloved child to?

As for the structure, with nine separate chapters, that did not come easily. (At one point it was eight, but one chapter was too long, so we figured how to break it in half.) I knew all along that I needed a section of context; that 40th Road had to be a character all its own; that I had to get Song Yang from China to Queens; on and on. So you write through, and you write through again, and again, and a structure begins to emerge organically, step by step: The prologue; context; sense of place; who was Song Yang…

 

Poynter: As a columnist, you write solo. Here you share a byline with Jeffrey E. Singer and acknowledge reporters Al Baker and Ashley Southall and researcher Doris Burke. What did they contribute and what would the story look like if you’d produced it on your own?

Barry: I do usually work alone, and certainly did so with the columns I’ve written (Though with “This Land” I was almost always traveling with a photographer and/or videographer, ALL of them great observers who helped me.). In this case, it had been a while since I routinely dealt with the NYPD, and so Al Baker and Ashley Southall kindly helped me to dig up sources, stats and old stories that might be applicable.

But “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail” would not be if it were not for Jeff Singer, a freelance journalist who is often called upon by the Times for various run-and-gun missions. He is a linguistic genius who speaks fluent Mandarin, and who can identify a person’s Chinese hometown by her accent (I witnessed this). In addition, he is an indefatigable reporter who also happened to have lived in Flushing for several years, and so knew its ins and outs.

Jeff is the one who convinced the women along 40th Road to talk to us. He did this with his linguistic gifts, of course, but also with gentle persuasion and with kindness. On warm days, he would bring women some bubble tea; on frigid days, hot tea.

I did the writing, and certainly did a lot of reporting. But the story simply would not be were it not for Jeff’s fluency in Mandarin, his ability to get people to trust him, and his determination to get a small fact, a slight detail, a proper translation of a sign — all that granular stuff that elevates storytelling.

 

Poynter: The story’s omniscient voice, and 40th Road, the Dickensian block where Song Yang worked, a major character in the story, echo Joan Didion’s journalism. Did you have any models in mind as you worked on the story?

Barry: I hear many voices in my head, from Didion to (Jimmy) Breslin, from (Katherine) Boo to (Gay) Talese, on and on. Sometimes they quarrel, and sometimes they are in concert. Ultimately, though, I hear my own voice. Once I thought of pausing poor Song Yang in mid-air, I struck upon that omniscient voice, as if God were looking down on this forgotten street of Queens. Honestly, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and the faint melancholy of the inevitable.

 

Poynter: At a time of slashed budgets and buyouts, what lay behind the decision of The New York Times to devote enormous resources to produce an ambitious interactive story about a death that went, except for a Chinese-language paper and a couple of local news sites, largely unnoticed and was never reported by The Times?

Barry: I can’t give you a definitive answer, but I can guess a little. Part of it is that I am a kind of freelancer within the Times, not really assigned to any particular desk, sitting in Sports (and I LOVE sitting with the Times sports staff), helping to write a Trump or immigration story, and then returning to my project of the moment. After I saw the Daily News item, I told the editor I most often work with, the brilliant Christine Kay — she edited “The Children of Tuam” — and she got it immediately. (In fact, she came with me to 40th Road one day to see things for herself; not a lot of editors would do that.)

Then we presented the story idea to Wendell Jamieson, the Metro editor at the time, and he too got it immediately. He said go for it — and we did.

As the weeks and months passed, Christine would inform the masthead of what was coming down the pike, so that a long story — make that a really, really long story — would not come as a surprise. After a couple of months we showed the editors a draft of the lede, as well as a few of the truly evocative images of my friend and frequent collaborator, Times photographer Todd Heisler. This clinched the deal.

More and more, I think, the Times understands the worth of narrative storytelling. This story, about this anonymous woman in a forgotten stretch of Queens, was not going to put anyone in jail. But it needed to be told. That it was told, at this length, is a credit to Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Assistant Managing Editor Matt Purdy, and the rest of the Times leadership.

 

Poynter: How long did it take to report the story, write and revise it?

Barry: I saw that Daily News headline in late November, and began gathering string. Then I was dispatched to do an unrelated Trump piece, as well as a couple of other stories. I then returned to the 40th Road story in early March, I think.

I had a too-long draft by mid-July, but Jeff and I were still reporting, following leads, and just spending time in Flushing (especially Jeff).

There were some delays along the way, due to summer vacations and other assignments, but by late summer Christine had helped greatly in distilling the piece, sharpening focus here, shedding a few hundred words there.

Then we found out that the piece would be a special section, using the design work of Fred Bierman and Wayne Kamidoi. This put it on the runway, along with other projects. And a date was picked. In other words, a deadline — which focuses the mind.

 

Poynter: Many nonfiction writers inject themselves into their stories. You rigorously adhere to the third person, even when you might congratulate yourself on hard-to-get interviews and the scene where you ran after the boss who controlled Song Yang’s business. Why did you keep yourself out of it?

Barry: In earlier drafts there were moments when Jeff or I appeared, including when the boss Lao Li runs away and into traffic. Jeff actually ran after him, shouting, “Lao Li, Lao Li, please be careful.” But Christine rightly excised these references, saying that they took the reader out of the moment. Everything must be in service to the reading experience.

 

Poynter: The interactive presentation of Todd Heisler’s photos is stunning. How was that approach decided on? And how did you get the surveillance footage showing Song Yang’s last moments?

Barry: The Times graphics designer Rumsey Taylor spent a lot of time trying to come up with a digital presentation that captured the mood conveyed in the text and in Todd’s remarkable images. What he came up with, using Todd’s stills to slide over Todd’s cinegraphs, worked beautifully.

As for the surveillance video, I would like to say that some source slipped it to me at the White Bear soup-dumpling place in Flushing. Instead, the Queens District Attorney’s office publicly released the surveillance videos in early summer to supplement its report concluding that no police officer was in the apartment when Song Yang jumped or fell. I had already written a version of the lede, based on other reporting we had done, but the surveillance video added so much more — the detail, for example, of her cellphone casting a glow on Song Yang’s face as she led the undercover officer up the stairs for an assignation.

 

Poynter: You are a white male American, and I assume, a non-Mandarin speaker. How did you gain the trust of Song Yang’s family, her Asian co-workers and move through this diverse immigrant community with such empathy and understanding? Your emotional commitment to Song Yang and the people in her world is obvious. How did that affect the writing? Did it present any ethical challenges?

Barry: A lot of this is due to Jeff Singer. He, too, is a white male American, but his linguistic abilities broke down barriers. His level of fluency in Mandarin, coming out of the mouth of a white guy, often created titters when we’d eat in the Chinese restaurants of Flushing. People were fascinated by him.

In addition, we came back, again and again and again, to the neighborhood. Trust was won this way; a familiarity; a demonstration of commitment to the story.

I don’t think there was any ethical dilemma in how we went about our business. From the start we explained exactly what we were up to. We wanted to tell Song Yang’s story, and were open to all possibilities about the nature of her death.

The difficult part came in having to explain to Song Yang’s brother, Song Hai, again and again, that we had found no evidence of a great police cover up in his sister’s death. He remains grief-stricken over the loss of his only sibling. While Jeff and I set out to honor the life and death of Song Yang by telling her story fully, we are bothered by the realization that our commitment and our story ultimately may not have brought him any solace.

 

Poynter: The questionable police sting that led to Song Yang’s death is described in detail. How were you able to reconstruct it? Why didn’t you name any of the officers involved?

Barry: I was able to reconstruct that sting by poring over the Queens DA’s report, which describes the night at some length; by meeting with police officials and prosecutors to go over the night and police protocol, step by step; and by repeatedly watching the surveillance videos — counting, for example, the minutes that lapse between the peck on the cheek that Song Yang gives the officer to the moment she lands in front of him on the pavement.

As for the identities of the officers involved, they were working undercover, and the NYPD would not release them. In addition, a story like this can only have so many named characters for the reader to follow. Others may disagree, but in terms of storytelling, I believe that the officers — including the lead sergeant, a woman — are best left unnamed, so that your focus is on Song Yang.

Having said that, I did repeatedly request to speak to the undercover officer who went up the stairs with Song Yang, and then saw her fall to the pavement. In this way, I argued, the police would become more than an anonymous blue bloc; their humanity would in some way be revealed. The best I got was an acknowledgment from the police inspector overseeing vice that the officer was deeply affected by the encounter.

 

Poynter: What role did your editors play?

Barry: My direct editor on this story, Christine Kay, was a full partner the entire way. She understood why the story needed to be told; she did not push back on length, other than to make sure things were tight and the story maintained topspin uninterrupted; she went to 40th Road; and, once we had a serviceable draft, she and I went over every single word. Literally. I can’t say enough about this collaboration.

Then the story was turned over to Lanie Shapiro, a senior staff editor and an absolute wizard with copy. She did all those things that a reporter prays for — double-checking facts and spelling and context — but that was only the beginning of her work. She became immersed in the narrative structure, in the language, in helping us to decide what word worked, and what didn’t.

If I have a fond memory of the writing process, it is sitting in a small room with Christine Kay and Lanie Shapiro, working to find the exact right language for each of the 9,500 or so words. I am indebted.

 

Poynter: What do you think happened to Song Yang?

Barry: I’d rather leave that unanswered; partly because I don’t know the answer, and partly because that uncertainty adds to the drama, making her story somehow more relatable.

 

Editor's note: This story was modified to correct the spelling of Wendell Jamieson.