By Erin Valentine
Shoe-leather. A great word that tells you to get off your tush and go wear some holes in the soles of your shoes. Great reporting involves moving. Talking to people and interacting with the community is the best way to find stories that people can connect to because THEY are telling YOU what they want to read about. Take out the second-guessing. Stop hiding behind a computer monitor. Go out and physically find great stories.
Traditional journalism used to uphold that journalists had to be as objective and neutral about their story as possible. However, while balanced writing is still a necessity, journalists can now lead their readers towards a story that holds a solution for the common good.
“All She Has, $150,000, Is Going to a University” by Rick Bragg; The New York Times, August 13, 1995
Bragg uses so much great detail that he brings the reader directly into the story. The reader can imagine this small, frail woman, surrounded by years of contentment in routine. His story also showcases the ideal product of hitting the streets and talking to the community. This woman, who clearly kept to herself and worked hard, would not just be seating on the street corner, screaming about the fact that she was giving all of her money to education. Instead, she even interviews quietly and takes in the buzz about her donation instead of jumping in joining the fray of excitement. Bragg describes not just her appearance, but also her personality. He allows the reader to see her entire being, and allows him to appreciate the story of Oseola McCarty.
“Losing It: Careers Fall Like Autumn Leaves” by Thomas Boswell; The Washington Post, September 30, 1980
A rarity in this time-driven world, Boswell makes his reader slow down and savor his story and use of language. Instead of speeding through the words, he makes the reader stop and process his words, using phrases such as “Age is the sweeper, injury his broom.” He brings a different spin to a sports story by not referring to just stats, but also encompassing stories and backgrounds. He even references a quote from Emily Dickinson, something that is rarely found in sport journalism. He uses beautiful metaphors to help his reader relate to ballplayers saying goodbye to their glory days and draws in the reader until they find themselves sucked in to his flowing words, forgetting they’re reading about baseball.
“It Fluttered and Became Bruce Murray’s Heart” by Jonathan Bor; The Post-Standard, May 12, 1984
The fact that Bor wrote this story in 90 minutes while suffering from lack of sleep for 48-hours makes his already impressive story even more appreciated. Enthralling his reader, he brings in his interest, tells the timeline of events and then finishes the story up neatly, just like the surgery described. He makes an otherwise complex operation completely understandable, yet not too simplified that it loses its sense of difficulty.
“Mackenzie Football Star Another Gunplay Victim” by Mitch Albom; Detroit Free Press, December 22, 1995
As an opinions article, this is incredibly interesting since it begins as an article and goes through Dewon Jones’ entire story before Albom’s message is stated at the end. The holding of the opinion allows the reader to learn about Jones’ story and draw their own conclusions before any walls are put up. Albom also has a great use of sectioning in his article. Jones had clear events in his life that lead him to be where he is today, and Albom allows for those to sectioned off. The reader is given a brief break, and also forewarning, of the article to come, since each section starts with title, similar to a book.
“Even for Trees, Age Could Have Its Privileges” and “Domino’s Bites Back at Tax” by Russell Eshleman, Jr.; The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 12, 1991 and June 13, 1991 (respectably)
Beat reporting can be difficult, depending on the subject, because translating it to a general audience can sometimes come across as dull. To bypass this issue, Eshleman harnesses his wit, and his ability to write concisely, to make an otherwise dry article entertaining and engaging. From simple jokes, such as pointing out the irony in two government officials having “green” in their names and also being involved in the Historic Tree Act, to just simplifying the information, he makes the article easy to digest. Not all information is going to interest the general public. However, a well written article can grab any reader if it gives them a chance to laugh.
“Caught Up in the Crossfire” by Dan Neil; Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2003
Ignoring Neil’s cheesy headline, this automotive critique is filled with Neil’s voice and style, instead of just a listing of the pros and cons of the Crossfire’s specs. From using unusual verbs to fun slang, Neil brings in a huge spectrum of readers, besides just car enthusiasts. He breaks down the aspects of the car and analyzes them with humor and easy-to-understand descriptions. He writes TO his reader instead of AT reader, which makes a big difference in the overall experience of the article.
Other Examples of Local Reporting and Beats
“Raised By Women To Conquer Men” by Frank Deford; Sports Illustrated, August 22, 1994
Based on the tennis player Jimmy Connors, Deford tells the story of Connors quick rise and unfortunate fall. He shows how Connors was brought up to be strong and a winner. Known as the “conquerer,” it was difficult when Connors knee began to slowly take away his game. Instead of ending it there, Deford tells the backstory of how Connors became depressed and gained weight until he eventually got himself back on track. This article gives a great new angle to an athlete’s story, and really portrays the human element of Connors’ tennis career.
“CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons'” by Dana Priest; The Washington Post, November 2, 2005
Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for Beat Reporting, Priest describes highly secretive interrogation centers known as “black sites.” Breaking open information usually only known to the President and a few high-up intelligence officers, these centers are known by a select international group of leaders. She addresses the fact that foreign governments and human rights groups were questioning the transparency of the CIA and the nature of their methods.
“Medical Student Takes On A Rare Disease – His Own” by Amy Dockser Marcus; The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2004
Marcus won the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 2005 for her series of stories on the stories behind cancer patients. In this particular article, she addresses a medical student who has a rare form of cancer, and instead of traveling the world, he instead decided to spend his remaining hours studying his own cancer. Marcus talks about how cancer research has funds, yet it goes to the forms that affect the most people. Unfortunately, rarer forms of cancer do not have as much opportunity for research. In order to leave his mark, Marcus tells how one cancer patient fights to find information, and maybe even a cure, for his own cancer for the benefit of future patients.