In the Nieman Foundation‘s Narrative Writing class, we often contrast and compare stories done on the same subject, as a way of thinking about the various approaches available to a narrative journalist. We discuss:
Structure: How is the piece built? Chronologically? Does it move around in time? Where and how does the story begin?
Point of view: Whose story is it? From whose perspective is the story told? And how close is the angle? Is the story told in close third person? Second person? Distant third?
Voice: How is the story told? In what register? If you had to describe the voice with one word would it be playful, somber, elegant, wry…?
Dialogue: How does the writer use dialogue and to what end?
Detail: What details give the story a heartbeat? How did the reporter get those details? Through observation? From a document?
Focus: Is it a broadly told story, with lots of characters and a range of background or is it tightly focused on one narrative thread?
Reporting: How might the reporting methods have varied for each piece?
If you’d like to do the same, have a look at the following stories. Each was rendered in at least two different ways by different writers, and via varying degrees of multimedia. One writer told the same story twice — once in print, and once on Radiolab:
1) Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who has been called the deadliest military sniper in U.S. history, is fatally shot at a Texas shooting range, allegedly by a troubled vet he’s been trying to help.
“The Legend of Chris Kyle,” by Michael Mooney, D magazine. His lede:
There’s a story about Chris Kyle: on a cold January morning in 2010, he pulled into a gas station somewhere along Highway 67, south of Dallas. He was driving his supercharged black Ford F350 outfitted with black rims and oversize knobby mudding tires. Kyle had replaced the Ford logo on the grill with a small chrome skull, similar to the Punisher emblem from the Marvel Comics series, and added a riot-ready aftermarket grill guard bearing the words ROAD ARMOR. He had just left the Navy and moved back to Texas.
“In the Crosshairs,” by Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker. His lede:
On the morning of August 2, 2006, three Navy seals walked onto the roof of a four-story apartment building in Ramadi, in central Iraq. One of them, a petty officer and a sniper named Chris Kyle, got into position with his rifle. Peering through his gun’s scope, Kyle scanned the streets below; as other American soldiers searched and cordoned off homes, he waited for insurgents to appear in his sight line.
2) “The Steubenville rape.” A 16-year-old girl is repeatedly sexually assaulted after a drinking party, and details of the incident spread through social media, dividing a small town.
“‘A Town Destroyed for What Two People Did,’” by Katie J.M. Baker, Jezebel. Her lede:
A few hours before Steubenville High School’s first football game of the 2013 season, a six-year-old held my hand and showed me the two photos of cute teenage boys on her “big girl” bedroom walls: Justin Bieber and Cody Saltsman. She wore a tiny jersey with Cody’s number—he’s a senior wide receiver/defensive back for “Big Red,” as the team is nicknamed—and a black and red hair bow. “When will we see cousin Cody?” she asked me every few minutes. Cody isn’t really her cousin. But in Steubenville, Ohio, population 18,000, everyone knows everyone; it wouldn’t be a stretch if he were.
“Trial by Twitter,” by Ariel Levy, The New Yorker. Her lede:
One Saturday last August, a sixteen year-old girl in West Virginia did something that teen-agers do: she told her parents that she was sleeping at another girl’s house, across the Ohio River, and then, after her mother dropped her off there, she and a few friends headed into the hot summer night to a party. She brought a bottle of vodka with her, and she used it to spike a slushy that she bought at a gas station on the way to their destination, in a town called Steubenville.
3) A newspaper reporter desperate for a child makes a decision about whether to deliver her daughter extremely prematurely or to terminate the pregnancy.
“Never Let Go,” by Kelley Benham French, Tampa Bay Times. The lede:
Our baby came swirling into view in black and white, week after week, in the grainy wedge on the ultrasound monitor. First a dark featureless pool, then a tiny orb, then budding arms and legs and finally long fingers and a recognizable profile. Precisely on schedule, I felt her squirm and thump.
“23 Weeks, 6 Days,” by Kelley Benham French and the Radiolab crew.
4) The sinking of the Bounty. As Hurricane Sandy churns toward the East Coast, the crew of an historic replica of the ship used in the filming of The Mutiny on the Bounty tries to avoid the storm by keeping the ship at sea.
“Taken Under,” by Aaron Applegate, the Virginian-Pilot. His lede:
The ocean buried one side of the tall ship in a foamy froth. Deckhands exhausted from hours of fighting the hurricane huddled in a wet clump on deck. Some slept sitting up, deaf to the wind clattering through the rigging.
“The Last Voyage of the Bounty,” by Michael Kruse, Tampa Bay Times. His lede:
In the dark, in the wet, whirling roar of Hurricane Sandy, on a ship tipping so badly the deck felt like a steep, slick roof, the desperate, damaged sailor searched for a spot from which to jump. Close to the stern, he gripped the helm, now all but touching the water’s high black churn. He let go and paddled and kicked in the buoyant but clumsy blood-orange suit he had wiggled into not long before. The ship spat up a heavy wooden grating, and it landed on his head. Crack. His adrenaline surged. He thrashed, straining to get away from the heaving ship, her three masts of tree trunk heft rearing up and slamming down like lethal mallets, her thinner, sharper spars piercing the surface like darts, the ropes of the rigging like tentacles, grabbing, yanking. Pfffffft. The tip of a spar sliced down, catching the sailor, pushing him below. He gasped, choking on water, struggling back to where there was air.
“Sunk,” by Kathryn Miles, Outside magazine. Her lede:
On the night of Sunday, October 28, 2012, Coast Guard lieutenant Wes McIntosh and the crew of his C-130 transport plane were holed up in a hotel room at North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham Airport. They’d been relocated there the day before, after winds from Hurricane Sandy had forced runway closings at their base in Elizabeth City. The seven-man flight crew congregated around the TV, flipping between Sunday Night Football and the Weather Channel.
“The Sinking of the Bounty,” by Matthew Shaer, The Atavist. His lede:
Five hundred feet over the Atlantic Ocean, Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Randy Haba jammed himself into the rear bucket seat of the Jayhawk helicopter and waited for the doomed ship to come into view. Through the window he could see the crests of the waves and a flotilla of detritus that seemed to spread out in every direction toward the horizon — wormy coils of rope, sharp splinters of yard, tatters of sailcloth. The phosphor screens of his ANVIS-9 night-vision goggles rendered the ocean neon green — a flat, unceasing green that bled into the gray-green of the clouds and the yellow-green of the sky. The kind of green that made it difficult to distinguish distance or depth of field, let alone the blink of the chest-mounted strobe that the guys up in the C-130 transport airplane had sworn was out there, somewhere in the hurricane-roiled sea.
5) The Zanesville zoo massacre. A troubled man who keeps a private zoo on his property in a small Ohio town cuts all his creatures loose and kills himself. Sheriff’s deputies, fearful for their community, spend a tense night on an improbable safari.
“18 Tigers, 17 Lions, 8 Bears, 3 Cougars, 2 Wolves, 1 Baboon, 1 Macaque, and 1 Man Dead in Ohio,” by Chris Heath, GQ. His lede:
A little before five o’clock on the evening of October 18, 2011, as the day began to ebb away, a retired schoolteacher named Sam Kopchak left the home he shared with his 84-year-old mother and headed into the paddock behind their house to attend to the horse he’d bought nine days earlier. Red, a half-Arabian pinto, was acting skittish and had moved toward the far corner of the field. On the other side of the flimsy fence separating them from his neighbor Terry Thompson’s property, Kopchak noticed that Thompson’s horses seemed even more agitated. They were circling, and in the center of their troubled orbit there was some kind of dark shape. Only when the shape broke out of the circle could Kopchak see that it was a black bear.
“Animals,” by Chris Jones, Esquire. His lede:
The horses knew first. Terry Thompson kept dozens of them on his farm just west of Zanesville, Ohio, a suffering river town and the seat of Muskingum County. Most of the living things in Zanesville had been born in Zanesville, or in the county at least; Thompson was one of the few importers. He had a particular eye for the unwanted. His horses weren’t pretty animals except that they were horses: worn-out chestnuts, muddy grays, a semihandsome paint named Joe. There was even a donkey and a fat little pit pony in the mix, and now they were together in the pasture, more tightly packed than usual, running in a wide circle. They were rolling almost, the bunch of them moving slowly at first and now finding their old legs, picking up speed like starlings, like the bands of a hurricane.
“Man or Beast?” by Jonah Ogles, Cincinnati magazine. His lede:
Terry Thompson knows all 56 of his animals by name. There is Solomon, the white tiger. There is Jocelyn, the pregnant tiger. Elsa, the lioness cub that puts her paws on the counter to snatch a piece of meat. Simba, the very first lion Terry ever owned, the one he bought as a sickly cub 14 years ago.
“Rough Beasts,” by Charles Siebert, Byliner Originals. His lede:
Near 5:30 p.m. on October 18, 2011—the day the world’s remaining wildness seemingly died in Zanesville, Ohio, of all places—Sergeant Steven Blake, of the Muskingum County sheriff’s department, inched his patrol cruiser up toward the brick farmhouse at 270 Kopchak Road and sounded his horn. A simple knock on the front door would have been standard procedure for verifying the whereabouts and well-being of any local citizen. But as Sergeant Blake well knew—and as much of the rest of the world was about to discover—the sixty-two-year-old owner of the home was anything but your average citizen.
6) West, Texas. A fertilizer company explodes in a town of fewer than 3,000 people, killing more than a dozen, injuring nearly 200 others, and destroying some 150 buildings.
“Love and Loss in a Small Texas Town,” by Zac Crain, D magazine. His lede:
If you were asked to draw a picture of a cowboy, you’d end up drawing Buck Uptmor.
“West Explosion: Through the Fire,” by Dave Tarrant and Sarah Mervosh, Dallas Morning News. Their lede:
He sat alone in the dark, the tip of his Marlboro glowing red with burning ash.
“The Line of Fire,” by Katy Vine, Texas Monthly. Her lede:
Although the city of West sits just off Interstate 35, on a stretch twenty miles north of Waco that is saturated with harried drivers, the town itself is tranquil. A couple of blocks from the highway, past the public elementary school and the 1912 yellow-brick city hall, a set of raised railroad tracks offers a view of West’s small, historic downtown, where on late afternoons the city’s relaxed rhythm is apparent. At Sam’s Barber Shop, Sam Pinter is usually sweeping the hair off the floor and tidying the combs and clippers. Around the corner, the night-shift bakers at the Village Bakery are starting to make kolaches in the cavernous back room, while locals begin to trickle in at the Czech-American Restaurant (“Home of the original Czech fries”) and Nors Sausage and Burger House, where they know to order the spicy link with a side of sauerkraut.