Thursday, April 28, 2011

The term 'a portrait emerged'

On the blog Capital, Tom McGeveran writes about about New York Times staffers' use of the term "a portrait emerged" and variations thereof. In providing plenty examples, he shows how the term has lost a clear meaning, because it is thrown around in a wide variety of circumstances.

McGeveran writes that the term "is so distinctly Times-ian that it is used everywhere someone wants to project the gravitas of the Times." It strikes me as absolutely right. Many people outside that newspaper have borrowed the term, perhaps for the purpose McGeveran cites. Search Google News now and then for evidence of the term's popularity.

What other terms can reporters choose when summarizing research? Perhaps it is not a matter of alternatives or options, but what words can work in a given situation. Or, to take a step back, do reporters need to summarize in the first place?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Marzorati on the future of long-form journalism

Last month, Gerry Marzorati, formerly the editor of The New York Times Magazine, told journalist and author Mark Danner some things he sees on the long-form horizon. In a post by Lois Beckett on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, a partial transcript of the conversation, which took place at UC Berkeley's journalism school, is online and worth reading.

As he has in the past, Marzorati mentioned that the longest pieces in the magazine during his tenure were often the most read and most e-mailed. It's a good sign—the statistics invalidate the idea that people just don't want to read the long stuff anymore.

An issue Marzorati did acknowledge is the falling number of outlets interested in publishing such work. "The problem," Marzorati told Danner, "is who’s going to pay to have these pieces reported. That’s the problem. That’s really the crisis. You have fewer and fewer news outlets, you have fewer and fewer magazines, willing to have a journalist report for five or six or eight months, or send them to the edge of the world—and then have the edifice in place to edit and fact-check these pieces. There is a feeling among these magazines that they don’t have to fund these pieces to create readership. It’s a really, really big problem."

Marzorati went on to share several ideas that could help draw attention to and funding for long-form journalism. For instance, he said, a publication could have a writer following a story tweet occasional updates on her progress and build suspense and interest in the final product.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Creating and maintaining suspense

The comment I was leaving on the lede-writing post started to become more about creating suspense and less about writing a lede, so I figured I ought to cut it off and make my first post about it—embarrassingly months after Jordan first asked if I wanted to contribute. Sorry I've procrastinated, buddy.

So, to the issue at hand. I dug up some old college notes from Mark Kramer (curator/author of "Telling True Stories"), and he had this to say about pacing:

· Pace is a reader’s urge to continue.

· Determinants of pace

o The emotional valence of the topic

§ Topic w/ highest emotional valence is: Kid In Danger. Don’t have to characterize anything for all of our alarms to go off.

§ If I am writing a story about a surgeon in the operating room, and suddenly—the scalpel slips! It cuts a major artery and the patient is bleeding to death. Then a pause. You can then go on for a while about the history scalpels, and the reader will still stay with you.

§ However, they won’t stick with you if you leave a Russian nobleman walking in a field to talk about the history of Russian plows.

o If you have high occurrences of the verb “to be”, your writing will suffer

§ But if your description is lucid and lively and vivid, then they might stick with Boris in the field, and they may even run away from the surgeon (TMI).

Of course, that just scratches the surface, but I thought it'd be a nice brain stimulant on the issue. Anyone else thinking about pace lately?

Quick note, for those of you who don't me: I graduated in aught-10 from the Magazine sequence. After a summer at a lively city newspaper in Mississippi, and midterm political coverage at the KC Star, I jumped head-first into the world of freelancing. I'm living and pitching in Chicago now, and I just got my first assignment for RedEye, which is the Chi equivalent of Ink, Vox, etc. Slowly but surely, you know. To those who do know me, good to see you again.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

When the lead strikes you

A new article on tries to get at the cause of the so-called aha lead. The article, written by Tony Rogers, features quotes from Rick Bragg; rewrite man Corky Siemaszko of the New York Daily News, Lisa Eckelbecker of the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette and other reporters. It's worth checking out.

Sometimes that perfect idea for the top of the story can come when you're not really hunting for it. At the wrong time, in other words. A sportswriter quoted in the article mentioned above, Mike Rushton of, realized what the lead should be hours after he'd filed the story and left the stadium. It happened after he'd put himself to bed. So he pulled out his iPhone and wrote a new top. Eckelbecker, of the Telegram & Gazette, is quoted as saying her best leads occur to her when she alters her mind—sans drugs, mind you.

"This is kind of embarrassing, but I feel my best (leads) come to me when I'm almost in a trance," she tells Rogers. "If I'm struggling to come up with something, I take a deep breath and try to clear my mind. Then I think about what I want to convey. That usually helps me focus and come up with an anecdote, a scene or even an attitude that can be turned into (leads)."

Leads have come to me in the bathroom. Leads have murmured themselves out loud in my head while my body was busy walking, and I have had to stop and pull out a notebook and pen before the words disappear. If I'm without a writing implement, I pray the the words repeat inside, and when I return to my desk, I dutifully transcribe. Either way, I don't cross-examine, because I'm not smart enough for that. If it's a lucky day, a lead will pop up in my head when I'm driving back to the paper after reporting. But usually I feel I don't get adequate time to come up with a lead that does all the things I want it to do, and it ends up being second rate, because I like to spend more of my time reporting and writing the hard, nuanced parts. Maybe I need to change my behavior, or maybe I need a few good-luck charms, to get the miracle leads flowing. Then again, to quote an editor I have known, an article has a 24-hour shelf life; in other words, it doesn't have to be a masterpiece to stand the test of time. Usually the bigger stories allow for a little extra time to think about what the lead should be. In those cases, I have felt compelled to write one idea or another at the top, as if nothing else could go up there. It's not much of a creative experience, I guess. But at least I can go home satisfied.

How, when and where do you come up with leads?