Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Orleans blogger tells moving stories

I've never been a big fan of blogs. Although my boyfriend gets practically all of his news from sports blogs, I'd rather stick with traditional news outlets in most cases. But in August, I got hooked on a weekly blog called "Joie d'Eve" on New Orleans magazine's website. Perhaps it's because the author, Eve Kidd Crawford, is also Louisiana native who got her master's from the Missouri School of Journalism. Or maybe it hit an emotional chord for me because it's been more than two years since I left Louisiana and every day I feel some cosmic force beckoning me to return. Either way, Crawford delivers well-crafted essays about her life in Louisiana each week, and the ongoing narrative about her sister's death due to alcoholism is one of the finest I've seen in online-only journalism.

In "The Best I Can Do" (May 28, 2010), Crawford writes about her struggle to fulfill her sister's only request: to write her obituary.
Brett Ashley Kidd was born Nov. 16, 1960, at the height, obviously, of my father’s Hemingway obsession. She loved Motown music and classic R & B, the color pink, Bud’s Broiler’s hickory sauce, the Saints, anything on the Food Network that wasn’t Rachael Ray, North Carolina barbecue, the Democratic party, dancing, cooking and talking on the phone. She was loving. She had a great sense of humor. She had goals.

And then … she wasn’t, and she didn’t. Alcoholism slowly took over her life, took away all of the good and bad parts of who she was until she was just 67 pounds of no one.

Ruby is obsessed with monsters lately. They’re under her bed, obviously, but they’re also in the car and in trees, and when she does something bad, it’s the monsters who are at fault.

When I got the phone call from my dad on Saturday and I told Ruby that Aunt Ashley had died, she said, very seriously, “Mama, I’m sorry that a monster came and made your sister dead.”

And I said, “No, baby. Monsters aren’t real. That’s not what happened. Aunt Ashley was very sick, and sometimes sick people die.”

But I can’t stop thinking about it. A monster did take her away. A long time ago.

This much is true: My sister died last weekend. She was 49.

But this is also true: My sister died years ago. A monster came and made her dead.
Her posts reveal the odd combination of humor and sadness following a family death, such as in "Ashley, as Ashes":
“The only thing I ever took comfort in about life after death,” my dad said, “was, ‘Today a man, tomorrow a worm, the next day a butterfly.’ I guess Ashley did it a bit different: ‘Today a woman, tomorrow an oyster, the next day …’?”

And I finished up, “A po-boy?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, she’d like that.”

And she would.

Rest in peace, Ashley. See you in a sandwich.
In "A Fitting Goodbye," Crawford describes her sister's New Orleans sendoff, and most recently in "Beaujolais and Bittersweet," she recounts her last good memory with her sister — drinking wine:
On the one hand, it felt awful to drink with her, like I was signing her death certificate in my own hand. On the other, this was probably the closest I’d ever felt to her, the most typical “sister” thing we’d done in years.
Crawford's posts about her sister seem uncharacteristic for a blog celebrating the New Orleans culture. After all, she's usually writing about being a mom, wearing searsucker or hosting Carnival guests, and she does so in a refreshing way. But somehow, she's also struck a balance in writing about her public personal life and private personal life. Occasionally revealing private details breaks down barriers between her and the reader as well as touches on universal emotions. When reading this blog, you don't just get a stereotypical dose of Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and great eats; you also pick up the nuances of the Louisiana spirit — the passion, grit and perseverance of the people who live there. Perhaps that's really why I'm hooked.

Please check out "Joie d'Eve" and share your favorite blogs.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sandy Rowe: Lessons from a life in news

One of the luxuries of working for Mizzou is getting to attend interesting campus lectures, including the Missouri Honor Medal master classes on Oct. 28. Below, I've posted my notes from the presentation given by Sandy Rowe, retired Oregonian editor and currently a Knight fellow at Harvard.

Rowe said her perfect newspaper would only have three types of stories:
  1. Kick-ass, original exclusives/investigative stories
  2. Stories on humanity built on character and details, the stories that make you want to laugh or cry
  3. Useful stories of high interest, such as explanatory pieces or news you can use
Her presentation focused on the first type, the most at danger in today's economy. She described these accountability stories as complex, high-risk, high-impact and original reporting. They're rarely about one thing; the best stories are at the intersection of topics and touch on what we value as a society/community. They require layered reporting. Of course, this is costly to newsrooms.

She said it's foolish to think that more money will come into media outlets to fund investigative reporting, and most bloggers don't have the resources or a wide distribution. So, what could keep investigative stories going? Rowe suggests that media have to stop serving their newsrooms rather than their communities first and form partnerships with nonjournalistic organizations, universities, public radio stations and nonjournalistic experts. Northeastern has an investigative seminar in which student stories are funneled to the Boston Globe. So far 16 student-reported stories have appeared on Page 1. Another newspaper formed a partnership with a librarian and three retired lawyers who were willing to do research. Even Facebook could help newsrooms find experts in their communities whom they could network with.

As an editor, she employed "prosecutorial editing" when her staff worked on high-risk stories that made the reporters feel both thrills and pure fear. In editing, she asked herself and the reporter:
  • Could the opposite of what we're writing be true?
  • Is there another explanation for this?
  • What don't I know that might change things?
She argued that investigative stories don't have to be five-part series. They can appear in several formats, including:
  • Breaking news: In "Confusion hampered search for Kims," which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, a team of Oregonian reporters pieced together details that not only provided a harrowing narrative of a family of four stranded and freezing in the Oregon woods but also evidence that rescue agencies failed terribly:
"In the end, the family was found by a volunteer pilot, one of several key breakthroughs achieved by people not connected to the official search. The confirmation that the family was south of Roseburg came from a citizen tipster; and the cell phone evidence narrowing the search was provided by amateur detectives at an Oregon wireless carrier.

Many of the key missteps came in Josephine County. The search-and-rescue coordinator now acknowledges she was overwhelmed by the demands of the search. She failed to call for help from the National Guard, which meant that heat-detecting helicopters stayed on the ground in the crucial two nights James Kim slept in the forest.

Her direct supervisor, an undersheriff in his last week on the job, said he ignored a late-night call from her about the case because he was watching an Oregon State football game on television."

  • Profiles: Oregon's governor and several members of Congress called for the resignation of David Beebe, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, after complaints of high numbers of Asians being rejected at the airport. The next day, Julie Sullivan convinced Beebe that there was more to his story than what had been reported, and she wrote "I have to be who I am," explaining Beebe's character and motivations.

"Last year, 94,000 "customers" approached the counter of the Portland INS. The line of immigrants, refugees, adoptive parents and newlyweds forms outside the stained stone walls of the unmarked federal building on Northwest Broadway as early as 7 a.m.

But Beebe is always there first.

Neighbors can set their watches by the 55-year-old civil servant: up at 3:45 a.m. for calisthenics, out the garage door by 6 a.m., in the office 14 minutes later in a dark suit and silk tie. Beebe is 6-foot-2, 170 pounds of self-discipline who controls high blood pressure through habit. He takes the stairs, never elevators. He takes walks, not lunch. He never has more than a single glass of wine. He trims his lawn Tuesdays and Thursdays, like clockwork."

  • Editorials: "All the lonely people" won the 2006 Pultizer Prize for editorial writing. It uncovered the shortcomings of Oregon State Hospital, including a room with 5,000 unclaimed remains, and called for the legislature to fund improvements to mental health care services.
Rowe also suggested reversing the journalistic lens. Instead of localizing national stories, start with a local story. Follow it through; keep reporting on it. Chances are that the story touches onit an issue that will have larger implications and might turn into a regional or national story.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A person's room speaks volumes

Jacqui Banaszynski's intermediate writing class wrote the feature package in this week's Vox issue, which proves how a person's room (bedroom, workroom, closet, kitchen, man cave, etc.) reflects so much about his or her identity and character.

The story idea itself is pretty intriguing, and the specific details nestled in each vignette will draw you in.

My favorites include:
  • "Memory Cues," about the nursing home room of a woman with dementia: "The view from her bed falls on a patchwork of photos of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The names of the youngest are written carefully in Magic Marker on white slips of paper tacked above their pictures: Jacob, Connor, Addie, Ryann and Caiden."
  • "Room of Dreams," about the bedroom of an imaginative 3-year-old: "It is miles high, vibrantly green and covered in beans — the magic kind, of course. 'It's a beanstalk!' the boy says with a smile as bright as the sun. He grips the vines tightly and begins to climb. Is he Jack? 'No, shh,' he whispers just loud enough to hear. 'I'm not Jack. We're pretending.'
  • "On the Inside Looking Out," about a pastor's office where she writes sermons: "On the other side of the window is the real world: a dumpster, a parking lot, a playground and a stretch of Locust Street. The window shows her kids playing, students walking by and a homeless man crawling around in the dumpster."
More than anything, though, this package has inspired me to ask more questions about a subject's surroundings; ask to see the rooms that hold importance for a subject; and spend more time reflecting on how a person's space can add another dimension to the stories I write.