Beyond the Fold: March 1

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

I got the chance to attend an amazing seminar with Louise Kiernan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning features writer who now works at The Chicago Tribune. She's written some amazing stuff: an extended profile on a Chicago man who learned to read at age 62; a look at a woman killed by a piece of glass that fell from a skyscraper; and an in-depth expose on the airline industry.

She could've spoken on her work alone - it's astoundingly good - but the presentation focused on things that reporters can do to tell better and more worthwhile stories. Story-telling, she noted, is what newspapers do best.

I won't go into every bullet point from her list, but some of her techniques have already helped me out of some recent ruts.

Pulse: Strength in Numbers When we do a Pulse package aimed at giving information about a large event happening in town, my tendency is to format the intro to be as short and conversational as possible. Most aren't meant to win awards, but to introduce the nuts and bolts of the weekend's goings-on.

This week, I chose a different approach.

Ms. Kiernan spoke at length about the use of documents - from court records to news archives - to give to stories a sense of time and place. Several years ago, she wrote a story about a series of suicides in Chicago. Gathering info about them, she discovered that suicide notes are included in autopsy reports and used the touching last words of one victim in her article.

My work in "Strength in Numbers" was by no means as interesting or clever, but I felt that looking back at the first Dispatch preview of the Arnold Classic showed how drastically the event had changed since 1989. Knowing that Arnold came to Columbus a week before leaving the country to film Total Recall was an interesting twist.

Locals Only: Moments in Time Coming from an academic background in creative non-fiction, not journalism, I've admired Tom Wolfe for his insistence that stories should include "status, life, details." In layman's terms, this means that the best stories transport readers into scenes by including the smallest details about an event.

Ms. Kiernan reminded me of that premise and added that it's imperative to ask questions about situations we don't understand. Sometimes playing dumb, she said, can allow the most interesting elements of a story to surface.

That's exactly what I did when I talked to Mike Brewer, lone member of the Sportsman's Club. On the press release accompanying his new album, Falling Scenery Converts, he included short descriptions of where and when he recorded songs.

One struck my eye: "recorded on the drive way to my in-laws farm, featuring guest musicians bugs of the night '05." At first glance, this short excerpt is interesting enough to include in a story, especially if paired with other short notes from behind the scenes.

But it intrigued me, so I started asking questions. Where is the farm? What do they grow on it? How late was it? What month? How warm was it?

He seemed a bit puzzled that I was interested in the details, but the lead for the piece is one of the best I've ever written. Because I played dumb, I got all the little things that made the night so special to Brewer - the warmth of the pavement, the fields near the farmhouse, having his family safe inside.

For a look at Louise Kiernan's story "The Longest Day: How September 11 Exposed the Weaknesses of the Nation's Air Travel System," which won her a Pulitzer, click here.