Shoot for the moon: Preparing to write the biggest story of your life

July 18, 2019

It was a crazy summer in New York City, 1969, and I spent it working in a mail room in Rockefeller Center. It was a summer of protests against the Vietnam War, a summer when drag queens fought back against police harassment in Greenwich Village. The Amazin’ Mets were headed for a World Series championship. And thousands of hippies made their pilgrimage to Yasgar’s farm, north of the city, and the mud and drugs and music of Woodstock.

I met the girl I would marry, so yes, I remember 1969 as the Summer of Love.

Oh, and human beings setting foot on the moon.

I was among the unimpressed, arguing that the billions spent by NASA could be better directed to anti-poverty programs. Over a half-century, I have experienced a conversion of sorts, still concerned about social ills, but now impressed that Americans had the will, the guts and the technical know-how to shoot the moon, so to speak.

There were plenty of big stories that year – and every year. Over time, the biggest of the big stories are stored in the annals of history: the stock market crash, the bombing of Hiroshima, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One litmus test for big stories is that you remember where you were the day it happened. In the old days, readers would save that day’s newspaper, especially the front page.

Every journalist I know wants to cover a big story — the bigger the better. But what does it take to report and write such a story? What right stuff do you need to write a lead or craft a narrative about the day that human beings set foot on the moon?

To help me answer these questions, I called upon a veteran reporter named Mark Bloom. He is 80 years old and now lives in South Carolina and remains a lively writer and conversationalist. He also sports a bushy mustache. He was clean shaven on July 20, 1969, when he banged out a story on his portable typewriter, a story that for decades earlier would have been the stuff of science fiction.

In 1969, Bloom worked as science editor and writer for the New York Daily News, my favorite paper growing up on Long Island. At the age of 30, he was already a seasoned reporter. For two wire services, he covered many types of deadline stories, learning the crafts of clean reporting and fast writing.

He knew the tricks of the trade. When the Beatles performed their first concert in New York City — a pretty big story in its own right — Bloom knew he would be competing after the event with an army of teenage girls trying to call their parents from a phone booth. So he slapped an “Out of Order” sign on one of four phone booths and, when the time came, made his way past the pony-tailed hordes, slipped a dime into the slot, and called in his story.

In 1969 the New York Daily News had a circulation of 2 million, 3 million on Sunday. Bloom understood that he would be writing the biggest story for the biggest newspaper. His confidence grew out of years of experience covering NASA and the manned space program. By the time of the moon landing, Bloom had already covered dozens of big stories, triumphs and dismal failures, from American’s first ventures into space to the deaths of three astronauts from a fire in a space capsule.

From the newsroom of the Manned Space Center in Houston, he was ready to write. The size of the story – and its adventurous romanticism — did not temper his skepticism. He learned to cut through what he now calls NASA propaganda, being ready to write with an expectation that the landing might fail.

But the Eagle did land, and Bloom launched his lead for the first edition: “Man landed on the moon today.” There is an old newsroom maxim that goes “the bigger, the smaller.” Maybe a corollary could be “the vaster, the shorter.” Or in Bloom’s words: “You can’t hype the moon landing.” Six words.

The front-page headline of the Daily News for Monday, July 21, 1969, was Men Walk On The Moon, with Neil Armstrong’s still puzzling quote underneath: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That paper cost 8 cents. Bloom has written his own spirited account of that day of reporting and writing, which Poynter is sharing here.

I interviewed Bloom by telephone and then submitted some questions to him focusing on the writing craft of his story, the techniques and strategies he used to make it memorable. That Q and A is here.

From a close reading of Bloom’s 1969 story, and from interviews with him and other writers, I have distilled this list of best practices when it comes to writing the big story, whether it is about the Apollo astronauts or the Women’s World Cup champions – both who got a tickertape parade in New York City.

Here are the most useful strategies:

1. Be ready. If you know something big is about to happen, or might happen, do your homework well in advance. That may include writing background or contextual copy ahead of time, even if you are not sure you will use it.

2. Rehearse your story in your head — and talk about it. Rehearsal is the antidote to procrastination. Weeks or days or hours or even minutes before writing down your thoughts, work it out in your head. Every good reporter I know learns how to write leads – even endings – in their heads.

3. Be ready to write the story inside out, like sports writers covering a big game. You write the highlights, even without yet knowing the outcome of the game. Would the moon landing be a success? Would the mission abort? Would the astronauts be marooned on the moon? You may have to rehearse and even scribble multiple leads for unpredictable outcomes.

4. Time is on your side. If a tick-tock structure works, by all means use it, including time markers. Even if the chronology is not strict, you can take advantage of moments, scenes, anecdotes and vignettes rendered in chronological order.

5. Convert a big report into a big story by using story elements: scenes, character details, and different points of view, but especially dialogue. Among the most enthralling moments in Bloom’s story are those when the two Apollo astronauts are chatting with each other while doing their moonwalk.

6. Gain some altitude. How big is big? It is possible to write a big story straight, leaving the interpretation to the reader. “Show,” some teachers advise, “don’t Tell.” I prefer the kindergarten lesson: Show AND Tell. At various points, Bloom’s story achieves altitude — that is, it reaches for meaning above the purple moon rocks.

7. Don’t wait – collaborate. When the plane crashes at your airport, responsible coverage means “all hands on deck,” even if there are fewer hands in the newsroom than there use to be. The big story is never the work of a single actor. It is created by all the available players, and the good writer will invite help and support from all corners of the enterprise.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for a human Mars landing to put these ideas into practice. Some big stories are predictable — we know the monster hurricane will make landfall. But others come as a surprise, as we learned on 9/11.

Big stories can come in a variety of sizes, and what feels big to one reporter may seem routine to another. I have written before of a famous foreign correspondent and novelist, Laurence Stallings, who was assigned in 1925 to cover a big college football game between Pennsylvania and Illinois. The start of the day was Red Grange. Known as the Galloping Ghost, Grange dazzled the crowd with 363 yards of total offense, leading the Illini to a 24-2 upset over Penn.

The famous journalist and author was awestruck. Red Smith wrote that Stallings “clutched at his haircut” as he paced up and down the press box. How could anyone cover this event? “It’s too big,” he said, “I can’t write it!” This, coming from a man who had once covered World War I.

Someone should have quoted Shakespeare to him: “The readiness is all.”

In 1969, Mark Bloom was ready.

Read the rest of our Apollo 11 moon landing coverage here