Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Wed, 01 Jul 2015 16:16:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Peter Slevin tackles the biography of First Lady Michelle Obama Mon, 29 Jun 2015 13:37:42 +0000 Editor’s Note: Anyone who writes about politics and politicians knows how difficult it is to bring fresh insight to familiar issues and personalities. That challenge is even greater if your subject is the most well-known woman in the United States, First Lady Michelle Obama. In this installment of “Writing the Book,” an occasional Storyboard feature in which journalists turned authors discuss their work, former Washington Post reporter Peter Slevin examines how he looked beyond the two-dimensional narrative to find meaningful material for his biography, “Michelle Obama: A Life.” The book was just named one of the year’s 10 best biographies by Booklist and you can read recent reviews here and here

As I set out five years ago to write a biography of one of the most recognizable women on the planet, the first question was why do it. The second was how. Neither answer came easily.

Peter Slevin/Photo by Andrew Johnston

Peter Slevin/Photo by Andrew Johnston

I had written often about Michelle Obama as the Chicago correspondent for The Washington Post. During the 2008 campaign, I trailed her to Iowa, New York, Texas and a handful of other states. I interviewed her friends on the South Side and tracked her path through Princeton and Harvard and back to the neighborhoods of her youth, where she worked to unstack the deck for working class African Americans.

On the campaign trail, she spoke sharply and stirringly about inequality, not just in terms of race and gender, but class. She painted a winning portrait of the future president, of course, but she also discussed the world she inhabited as a black woman, as a mother, as a professional trying to keep all the balls in the air. Her message ran deeper than electoral politics.

Ever-expanding crowds swooned, but reaction to Michelle was often binary. Adore. Abhor. Respect. Reject. Warm, wise and embracing. Haughty, petty and disdainful. Her most fevered critics held up funhouse mirrors and called her angry, mean and unpatriotic. Mrs. Grievance declared one headline. Barack’s Bitter Half smirked another. Rush Limbaugh barely waited until she had reached the White House to mock her physical appearance. He labeled her Moochelle, or Mooch for short, a term that suggested a fat cow, perhaps, or a leech, and encompassed big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole.

By the time Michelle took up residence in Washington in January 2009, the existing narratives – variously superficial and contradictory – seemed ubiquitous. Clearly, there was more to tell, but a full-length biography? She was the first African American woman to serve as first lady, yet she had no constitutional duties nor armies to command. She was not the one who had been elected president. As Laura Bush once said, it only takes the vote of one man to make a first lady. What I came to recognize, however, was that Michelle, occupied the spotlight in a way that none of her recent predecessors did. Methodically and purposefully, she turned to issues of fairness and equity that had always animated her.

As I watched, I also realized that no writer had put the pieces together, nor had anyone told Michelle Obama’s story against the complex history she was living as a member of the first generation to come of age after the civil rights era. I sometimes wonder if the outlines of Michelle’s story emerged more clearly because I was watching from Chicago, far removed from bluster and scorekeeping that so often defines Washington politics and its chroniclers. It surely helped that I had no beat to cover. By late 2010, the Post had closed the last of its national bureaus and I was teaching at Northwestern University.

But where to start, on a project that would take nearly five years from concept to publication? My goal was to write a thoughtful and thorough book – and an enduring one. I wanted it to be rich with the voices of the people who knew Michelle, with my own voice most definitely quieter than the rest. With a formal assurance from the East Wing of the White House that I would have access to Michelle’s lieutenants, I did a round or two of interviews in Washington, then started in Chicago, where the book is anchored.

MOCoverFor guidance, I first looked to Michelle’s own words about where she drew her lessons. She said her role models were people she knew and she often spoke of her late father, “the voice in my head that keeps me whole and keeps me grounded.” So, who was Fraser C. Robinson III?  I rang the bell at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in search of one of his cousins, Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. After hearing me out, Funnye shared stories and led me to one of Fraser’s brothers, Nomenee Robinson, a Harvard Business School graduate working in the Chicago office of the Peace Corps. Robinson, in due course, told me where I could find one of his younger brothers on a Saturday morning.

I found a DuSable High alum who pointed me to one of Fraser’s classmates. The classmate had a 1953 yearbook with a full-page photograph showing Fraser working on a sculpture. Although he would spend his professional life tending boilers at a Chicago plant, I learned that he had attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago as a boy. He studied there at roughly the same time as Richard Hunt, who became a noted sculptor. I visited Hunt at his gloriously cluttered studio to learn what it meant to be an African-American youngster traveling across town to art classes.

As my work progressed, a DuSable contact called to invite me to a school reception and reported that two of Michelle’s relatives were expected. At a senior living facility, I located the minister who presided over Fraser’s funeral, and I found a Chicago phone number for Barack Obama’s great uncle. At the Harvard law library, an archivist handed me a mimeographed 1988 student newsletter with a long, revealing essay by Michelle Robinson about the need to reduce racism and sexism at the law school. By tracking comment boards about Michelle’s basketball-coach brother, I found Dan Maxime, a water plant colleague and friend of Fraser’s who had retired to Las Vegas. And as my deadline approached, I drove to a barber shop on Chicago’s South Side, where Krsna Golden, a former mentee of Michelle’s, was cutting hair.

This was the satisfying and familiar work of street reporting that I had loved for 30-odd years as a newsman. Finding people who had something to say and searching for common ground. It was like writing a newspaper profile, except about 130,000 words longer. In asking individuals to trust me, I described my purposes and ambitions and offered to answer questions. I promised transparency but not anonymity. (In the finished book, there are more than 1,200 endnotes and no blind quotes.) The outreach to prospective sources seemed endless, and it did not always bear fruit, but it forced me to crystallize my thinking. What was it again that I was hoping to accomplish? Where, exactly, did this person fit into the narrative? What was the most valuable question I could ask?

Any project this ambitious encounters unexpected obstacles great and small. When I was well underway, East Wing chief of staff Tina Tchen reneged  on her predecessor’s pledge of access, making it more difficult to interview people who knew the first lady, including sources otherwise happy to share an anecdote or detail about a woman they admired. Some honored Tchen’s dictum, others did not.

It was a setback, but by the time I pressed the button for the last time, I had interviewed scores of people, from all corners of Michelle’s life – friends, relatives, professors, mentors, colleagues, aides and campaign strategists. I drew on my own pre-White House interviews with the Obamas and studied hundreds of thousands of words that Michelle has spoken in public. It also helped that generous colleagues shared unpublished interviews with Michelle and her mother, Marian Robinson.

I often did not know exactly what I had or what I needed until I sat down to write a particular passage. Perhaps congenitally, I could not stop reporting. Two months before the book came out in April 2015, I was still adding details. (Thank you, Knopf.) Just as with shorter-form writing, individual figures and the surrounding landscape gradually came together, sometimes in ways I could not have foreseen.

Two things were at work, it seems to me. One was the sparkling stash of details that emerged from the digging, the reading and the interviews.  The other was the accumulated time to make sense of what I had. The time, in other words, to think.

One question led to another, one interview to another, one bit of reasoning to a deeper bit of reasoning and, slowly, some conclusions. The happiest stroke of fortune, and perhaps the least predictable, was happening upon a puzzle with enough great characters and enough complexity that I never grew tired of trying to solve it.

Peter Slevin spent a decade on the national staff of The Washington Post before joining Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he is an associate professor. He has written extensively about Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as political campaigns and policy debates from one end of the country to the other. Slevin graduated from Princeton and Oxford. He lives with his family in Evanston, Illinois.


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Annotation Tuesday: Jeanne Marie Laskas and Guns ‘R Us Tue, 09 Jun 2015 14:06:54 +0000 When Jeanne Marie Laskas set out to write about guns for GQ magazine in 2012, she knew it would be difficult but she didn’t expect it would become the story that, as she puts it, “nearly ate me alive.” She quickly found herself navigating a minefield of preconceptions and prejudices on both sides of the issue. Her ability to gracefully and candidly negotiate this tricky path is an important element of the story’s success, as is her hands-on approach, as she puts herself behind the counter at an Arizona gun shop.

Jeanne Marie Laskas/Photo by Scott Goldsmith

Jeanne Marie Laskas/Photo by Scott Goldsmith

Laskas is a correspondent for GQ and the author of six books. Her work has been included in a number of anthologies, including “Best American Magazine Writing” and “Best American Sports Writing.” She is also the director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Laskas and I talked over the phone. My questions are in red; her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button to the right. Let’s start with some questions: 

There are so many ways to tell the story of guns in America and they are all fraught with peril—why this story?

 It wasn’t a topic I had been stewing on, any more than a regular person might be. It was born of the event of the Tucson shooting, and that moment that I write about, the Walmart clerk who turned back [shooter Jared] Loughner, who apparently said, “I won’t sell you any ammunition.” And I just never realized, I never thought of the human transaction that was involved in all of this. It might have been born of a conversation of that moment: who is that guy and who makes these decisions? And it might have been one of my GQ editors who said, “You should go work in a gun shop and find out.” 

Something else that strikes me about this story is that you focus on a very ground-level issue in this debate: the exchange between customer and clerk. Most stories on this topic look at legislation or judicial rulings or other broad-based, complex aspects of this debate.  You picked the simplest, most direct point: the moment when someone buys a gun. How did you settle on this approach?

It was definitely the most interesting piece of it. I was working on this book called “Hidden America,” where I was doing that kind of view of America over and over again, so when I wrote about immigration, I didn’t start broad. I started tiny with someone picking blueberries in a field. Those little tiny moments– we rarely start from them. We start broad and then go small. I wanted to start small and go broad. That was just in general my way of thinking about any issue. The issue is not as interesting as the people and the transaction.

Can you talk about the early discussions with your editors and how you settled on exactly what you would do?

The one thing that really came through clear to me when we talked about guns, they thought it was really hilarious for someone like me to go work in a gun store, or someone like them, someone from the world I inhabit. That was their assumption. There are these two distinct sides of America, and they thought it would be funny almost to send someone in, who came from a non-gun world, into a gun world. It would be shocking. The thing that struck me is that shouldn’t be that weird. That shouldn’t be shocking. You guys are presuming so much about who I am. Maybe I like guns. Maybe it will be fun. They thought that was hilarious.

You told me earlier that this story nearly ate you alive. How so?

It was really hard to not do the expected joke, the one I was just talking about. I really wanted to understand the other side. I really and truly did. I didn’t want to get into a debate about gun rights. It was a cultural question: what is your mindset that you really truly believe in what you believe? It was really hard to find a way of doing that that wasn’t judgmental, that wasn’t silly. It was really hard for me to even talk about. Everyone I was writing back to, texting pictures of my guns that I bought, that I was really interested in, they all thought that was so funny. It is crazy that you can walk in and buy something like that, but these people [gun owners] really have a point.

Guns ‘R Us
By Jeanne Marie Laskas
GQ Magazine
September 2012

Out-of-state residents can purchase firearms in Arizona read the sign behind the counter at Sprague’s Sports in Yuma. ASK US HOW. I asked a clerk named Ron for details. Right off the bat, you are in the story. Why?   I hate doing it. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it made me a character, but I had to, the story needed a vehicle. I was keenly aware of my audience. My audience is not going to be reading this story unless I was starting where they were starting. I am a character in that story. That’s not me. I am writing for this audience of people who do not understand why America needs guns. I need to know how to be one of them. The story needed that tour guide.   Did you know, going to Arizona, that you were going to use first person, or was that something that came up in the writing process?   That came later. I never know. I just go. It was like, let’s find a gun store that will let me come in and hang out and let me work behind the counter as much as I could. They were great.  He was short, packed solid as a ham, with a crew cut and a genial demeanor. He pointed to the cavalcade of hunting rifles lined up on the long wall behind him. “Any of these you can get today—or these over here,” he said, leading me to a corner of the store where two young men in ball caps and a woman with a sparkly purse were admiring a selection of AK-47′s.  When did you identify yourself as a reporter during your conversations with the store owners and customers?   I would have done that all up front. I wasn’t in a spy mission or investigating. It would have been talking to the store owner first, “Here is what I want to do, here is what I am, here is where I come from, I want to write a story that bridges the two cultures.” I wanted to be a bridge between the two cultures. That was my ambition. And it genuinely was. I feel like it was impossible to become that. There is no bridge. I tried to find it, and I failed. I ended up just going and shooting zombies. That is literally what happened.   How did people typically react when you told them you were a reporter?   They were fine. They were happy. They were like, “That is so nice that you’re interested in guns.” It felt like you could be at any sporting good store. “Oh, you like volleyball too? You’re here to learn about volleyball? I love volleyball!” I had that part in the story where I say to Richard, he asked me what is the most surprising thing, and I said how normal it is.

“You have to admit this is pretty badass,” the one man was saying. He had a carbine shorty I’m guessing you didn’t know this lingo right away. How did you find out what he was holding and when?   In that case, I had to ask. I am not reporting on the asking. You don’t get to see that. I would have had to say, what kind of gun is that?   The lingo is important, so I was curious how long you let it go, if you let it play out.   I would let it play out a while, then say, “What is it you have there?” I wouldn’t disrupt the scene.  perched on his hip, Stallone-style.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “To me, it looks mean.”

“It’s supposed to look mean.”

“They should make it in pink,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be cute?”

“You’re shitting me.” Why did you decide to lead with this bit of dialogue?   It is just a glimpse of a moment. I’m writing about a shopping experience, and here is a glimpse of the shopper. Probably 15 of them happened, but here is a funny one. The idea would be to provide a quick moment. It’s not loaded, to use a pun here, but I don’t have a point. This is not a polemic. Almost trying to show that.

“They should make it in Hello Kitty!” she said. “I would totally buy it if it was Hello Kitty.”

Sweet holy crap,” the other man said. “That would be the worst possible death. Can you imagine? Shot dead by a Hello Kitty semiauto.”

It was difficult to tell if Ron was listening in on any of this; both of us had our lips pulled back in pretend smiles. “Now, what can I show you?” he asked me while the one guy went on faking his bad death and the woman continued her torture with something about rainbow-colored bullets.

I didn’t really want to buy an assault rifle, or even a handgun, but I was curious to know what buying one felt like, how the purchase worked, what-all was involved. Nobody in my circle back east There’s a distinct voice you’re establishing here: ‘what-all’ ‘back east.’ It’s a little country, almost. Is this you? Is it a character you’re creating for this story?   You know, I have no idea. I guess maybe it’s a tone I’m trying to establish there, this character that I am is friendly and not snobby. Probably folksy. I’m creating a folksy character you would want to hang out with. I don’t think it’s me, though.  had guns, nobody wanted them, and if anybody talked about them, it was in cartoon terms: Guns are bad things owned by bad people who want to do bad things. About the only time the people where I come from thought about guns was when something terrible happened. A lunatic sprays into a crowd and we have the same conversation we always have: those damn guns and those damn people who insist on having them.  This is such an important paragraph because it lays out your views going in. Was there ever discussion as to where this paragraph should be, or how detailed it should be? Did you worry that anyone who didn’t agree with you would stop reading right here, give up?   It’s such an important moment, and it has to happen right there. It has to happen early up because you have to establish a starting point and be honest with the starting point. It needs to have a definitive point of view. This is something like an experiment, and I feel like I need to be really clear about that, even though it’s exaggerated, even if it’s the point of view of my editors. I have a more nuanced view personally because I live in Pennsylvania, where deer hunting happens in my backyard. But I’m starting where my audience is.

I had come to Arizona, the most gun-friendly state, How did you determine what is the most gun-friendly state? Were there other states you considered? I think Utah and Arizona are the top, because of just how easy it is to get a gun, and the carry laws. But Arizona was a natural fit because Tucson shooting had just happened. It was kind of like a ground zero for that kind of thing anyway. What I didn’t understand until I was there is that since it borders California, people come from California to buy guns. There was a lot of talk about that, how weird (Californians) were, and so that was nice too, to have that influence. They were getting people who were desperate because they couldn’t get guns in California.  to listen to the conversation the rest of America was apparently having. One in three Americans owns a gun. About 59 million handguns, 46 million rifles, and 28 million shotguns—nearly 135 million new firearms for sale in the U.S. since 1986. We are the most heavily armed society in the world. If an armed citizenry is a piece of our national identity, how is it that I’d never even met it?

In Arizona, anyone over 18 can buy an assault rifle, at 21 you can get a pistol, and you can carry your gun, loaded or unloaded, concealed or openly, just about anywhere. The IHOP was said to be the only restaurant in Yuma that prohibited you from bringing your gun in. “Needless to say, most of us won’t eat there,” Ron said. On the rack behind him, assault rifles stood stupid as pool cues, black and blocky, with long magazines protruding erotically this way and that.  What were your thoughts the first time you walked into the store?   I was really surprised by the assault rifle section. That was startling. But the rest just seemed like a pretty good store, like going into Dick’s Sporting Goods except everything was guns. But the assault rifle section was really, wow, and it literally did happen that way. I walked right back, and said, “I can just buy one of these?” And I knew nothing. They were like, “Just pick one, okay that one.” That is how simple it is. That to me was startling.   Also, you’re using language here in a very provocative way—‘stupid as pool cues,’ the reference to the magazines being phallic and a substitute for masculinity. This must be deliberate. Why did you make this choice?   Truthfully, I was just having fun there. I think it’s more to take the pressure off instead of being like I’m about to get into an argument.

“I’m kind of surprised you carry assault rifles,” I said to Ron.

“There’s no such thing as an assault rifle,” he said. “These are ‘military-style rifles’ or ‘modern sporting rifles.’ ”

“But they’re assault rifles,” I noted. I knew that much from TV.

Assault is one of the worst things the media has ever done to us,” he said. “Have any of these rifles ever assaulted anyone?”  I’m curious here… We know you were up front with everyone you talked to, so Ron knows you’re a reporter. Still, how did you set everything up with the store?   I think it was just a real honest approach. It helped that I came from Pennsylvania and I have hunters in my background. They were so proud of the store, so it wasn’t hard to get them to agree. The only time they had any publicity was the stuff from running guns into Mexico, and I dug into that and realized they really did get a raw deal. That was a trumped-up charge, it really was. That seemed to be unfair, and that was the publicity. They were attacked and it was unfair, and so I think I was just really straightforward. I want to learn about this culture that I don’t understand and just come and hang out and work behind the counter.  

He went on to say I could buy as many of them as I wanted and walk out with my arsenal today. “These guns have helped our industry tremendously,” he said. “They’ve attracted a whole new generation…. Is there one you want to try?” He brought down a Colt AR15-A3 tactical carbine, slammed in an empty magazine, and handed it to me. It felt disappointingly fake, an awesome water pistol, perhaps, or a Halloween prop. Was this the first time you had held a gun?   A gun like that. I had held revolver types.   What was it like?   Enticing. It was easy to get into the toy thoughts of it all, the gadgetry. It was fun. I got it. The lethal part doesn’t enter your mind in that moment. But then it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be, and I was kind of disappointed. I thought, “This is kind of cheap.”  I asked if I would need to tell him why I wanted to buy a gun like that or what I intended to do with it. He squinted and smiled and appeared politely speechless. “Would you have to do what, now?” he asked.

It was difficult for us to find a comfortable, common starting place, but the reach was certainly genuine. Among the things I wanted to talk to Ron and the people at Sprague’s about were killing sprees. America has had a bad run of large-scale gun violence, including the theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and, closer to home, Arizona’s infamous 2011 Tucson massacre. I wondered when would be an appropriate time to bring up the subject; a massacre is, well, a massacre, and I feared it would dampen the mood.  As I read this story, I kept thinking about all the massacres that have occurred since it ran, including most notably, Sandy Hook. Do you think about that?   All the time.   Do you think the story had any impact on the issue at all? Was that even a goal?   I don’t think my goal would have been to change minds. My goal was to try and be a translator between the two cultures. Both sides think the other side is crazy. I did not understand that. At the end of the story, I talk about the crazy neighbor, and that metaphor is exactly it. It’s almost like it takes great courage to go down to that crazy neighbor’s house and you’re prepared to forgive and have this moment of reckoning only to find out that they think you’re the crazy one. I was blown away by that notion.

A few reported details from the Tucson incident always stuck with me. Before Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords, he ran some errands first. He stopped at the Circle K on Ina Road to get something to eat. He went down to the Walgreens to pick up some photos he’d gotten developed. Then he went to the Walmart Supercenter at the Foothills Mall to buy some ammo for his Glock. Something happened there. A snag in the plan. The clerk at the register, who was never identified and whom Walmart officials refused to talk about, said no. He, or she, denied the sale to Loughner, who left and went to a different Walmart six miles away, where he bought enough ammunition to fill two fifteen-round magazines and the thirty-three-round extended magazine he would unload a few hours later into the crowd over at Safeway, killing six and injuring another thirteen, including Giffords.  Why do you think these details have stuck with you for so long? Is this what made you want to tackle this story?   That one was fresh in my mind because it was the most recent. I get angry at this issue. Get rid of guns! Just get rid of guns! What is going on? Look what happens in Canada. Nothing like this! But I really felt that people in the store would be embarrassed or have some kind of moment of “Oooh boy, that was a terrible thing that happened, those people are right.” But I didn’t find that at all.

Why did the first Walmart clerk refuse the sale, and how? Did you try to find this clerk, and if so, when did you give up?    We did, and Walmart would not cooperate. I did go to that Walmart, and just kind of walked around there and their ammo section. I would have loved to have found that person, even just a clerk who is ringing someone up. Oh, there’s bananas, shirts, there’s some bullets.  What did that person see in Loughner, and where does a private citizen get the authority, or the gumption, to refuse to sell ammo to someone? These questions were never answered, if they were even asked by media providing day and night coverage in the bloody aftermath. The mysterious clerk at the Foothills Mall Walmart dropped out of the headlines almost as soon as he, or she, appeared. What may have lingered then for some, or at least it did for me, was a nagging sense of unfinished business. So these are the people who stand at the front lines, guarding America against its lunatic mass murderers? Clerks at Walmart. Clerks at sporting-goods stores. Minimum-wage cashiers busily scanning soccer balls, fishing tackle, and boxes of Tide.  This ends the first section of the story. Can you talk about why you wanted to end here, with these anonymous cashiers?   I always like ending a section with something you’ll think about. It’s a great place to plant whatever the lingering thoughts are that you’re having, almost like the echo that you’re looking for in a story.


Ron grew up in Yuma and had worked at Sprague’s for twenty-seven years; several of his co-workers had put in at least twenty. That’s an amazing longevity for retail. Were you surprised at that?    Yes. That went with the whole general notion that they were all so proud of that place that they created. They will not leave!   When you found that out, did it change any preconceived thoughts about who these people are?   Definitely. It made me like them.   Was that a bad thing?   It was confusing; it was a really freaking confusing story.   Why was it hard?   It’s all of these things you’re talking about. I like Ron, who is working there all these years with his name on his shirt, but he’s telling you to buy horrible things that you can go kill people with. It’s really confusing.  All the clerks milling about the store were clean-cut, dressed in crisp button-down shirts with their names embroidered on the pockets, and the respect they showed the merchandise reminded me of department-store shoe salesmen in the old days who wore suits and used shoehorns. This is a really interesting comparison.   That popped into my head while I was there. It was one of the phrases I used when I called my editors. While I’m reporting this thing, I went there for a week twice, and while I was there, I was calling back, and we would have these conversations. Here is what is going well. I’m really confused. It’s like a shoe store, but it’s guns! They thought I was so crazy that this is what was bothering me.  The store was brightly lit and impeccably clean—no dust or cobwebs on the hundreds of bobcat, coyote, elk, and other taxidermy mounted on high. Stray scraps of paper were instantly swept up, Disneyland-style. The merchandise was arranged in boutique fashion: colorful boxes of ammo stacked like candy by the register, a library of gun books and magazines near the restrooms. There was a holster department, a gun-safe department, and an optical-equipment department—OVER 75 MODELS of Binoculars in stock. OVER 100 MODELS of Rifle Scopes in stock. The guns were in the back of the store, and this is where most of the customers hung out.  How much time did you ultimately spend in the store?   Two trips of approximately a week each. It wouldn’t be a full week because I would get sick of it before that. But a long time. I would spend a long time at these things.

“I have six handguns—bought five of them here,” an old man said to me. I was waiting for Ron, who’d gone to the back room to find a gun he thought I might like. “I have five rifles, got all of them here,” the man said. “I spend most of my time reloading shells. All my friends are dead.”  I don’t think there are any customer names in this piece. Did you go into the reporting knowing you would probably not use some people’s names?   I don’t think I needed them. I just tell the story. I needed the names of the clerks. That one guy telling me his whole violent fantasies while he is buying his new gun, I knew I would have to blur his identification, but I probably got his name in my notebook. I’m usually pretty frank.   In some ways, I think it works because these people could be stand-ins for any gun owner.   I think once you make it specific and you get, “Here is Charlie Smith, 53, who lives in a town you’ve never heard of,” it’s distracting to a story like this. You want your characters to stand for something.

He had thin white hair and a long, sagging face dotted with age spots. “Do you know what the biggest problem with divorce is? It’s the bedroom. And a lot of it’s the man’s fault. Like a damn rabbit, on and off.”  Why do you include this last quote, given that it doesn’t really have anything to do with guns?   Because my larger point there is I am trying to demonstrate this general store feel and that is how it felt. That conversation lasted probably 20 minutes. That is what you do. You start talking about guns but then you’re talking about marriage and wife, the old bag. I was just showing that.

It felt like we should have had rocking chairs, perhaps a set of checkers between us. This was one of the things I liked most about Sprague’s: the general-store feel. Groups would form, strangers becoming neighbors, sharing stories. “I lost my wife in November,” the man said. “Sixty years. Now my kids keep trying to get me to go live with them in California. My doctor said, ‘What’s your lifestyle?’ I told him guns. He said, ‘Stay in Yuma.’ “  There are moments of humor throughout the story. Why did you want some humor in here, and how did you go about setting it up?   I think this kind of story needs humor. There is so much at stake, really, but I’m not presenting an argument. It’s a cultural study, almost anthropological. If it’s all of us, we need to laugh at ourselves. We’re not laughing at our neighbors, but we’re laughing all together that our neighbors are pretty wacky.  And you know that is just where we come from. That is our culture looking at that culture. You need humor in that kind of story, if it is not at the expense of somebody.

Ron came back carrying two assault rifles. “Hey there,” he said, greeting the old man. “What brings you in today?”

“Same as yesterday.”

Gently, Ron placed the rifles on the counter. He told me one was a Smith & Wesson M&P15 and the other a Heckler & Koch 416. They looked every bit as formidable as the first one I held, but these were .22s, and Ron said they’d be easier to shoot.

“So more like beginner assault rifles?” I asked.  Was it a conscious effort on your part to keep referring to them as assault rifles?   Oh yeah, because I let him make his point, and that is actually truly his point and he gets so mad at me for not accepting it, and I’m not going to accept it. But I am going to remind the reader that he is still making his point. For me to accept his terminology without making fun of my own refusal to accept it would be missing a whole little spin.

“There-is-no-such-thing-as-an-assault-rifle,” Ron said.

The Smith M&P15 sold for $425 and had a snazzy bright orange cardboard wrapper on its fat barrel that read “Kick Brass.” “I’ll go with this one,” I said.  How did you choose?   That orange label on it was very exciting. I wanted it to look rough and mean but to be easy to learn on. But that is how confusing this story is, because when I found out that that guy bought it for his six-year-old, I was both horrified and embarrassed by my choice. I had both of those reactions. That is how confusing this story is.   Did you go out knowing that you would buy a gun, or is that something that evolved while you were there?   Most definitely that evolved. It was all the better for it. I didn’t want to write that story; here I am a character, naïve East Coast girl going to buy a gun, but that is what turned out to happen. But it happened because of being there and actually wanting one. I wanted one. I wanted to see what it was like.   You called your editors and said, “I’m going to buy a gun?”   Yes. I told them I’m buying this Glock, and is it okay if Conde Nast buys me a Glock? I just really need one. They’re like, “What’s happening to you, what’s happening?”   And you asked if the magazine would pay for it?   It’s expensive! I’m like, “I’m going to have to expense this. What do you think they’ll say?” They said, “I don’t know, just put it through.”   Did it go through?   I think it did.

“Okay, you’ll need to fill this out.” He handed me a six-page government-issued form, told me not to make any mistakes or else I’d have to start all over. “No cross-outs,” he said.

Anyone in America who wants to buy a gun has to fill out ATF Form 4473, with thirty-six questions in all, and hand it in to the dealer selling the gun. [ How much of this stuff did you already know going in? How much research did you do before heading to Arizona?   I knew that there is something called a background check, and that this is our safeguard. I wanted to walk deliberately through that. I had never read one of those forms before, but once I’m in the store I have every reason to. I wanted to be like, slow down everybody, this is what actually happens. I am pretty much learning that live. I’m learning what the process is, and that it’s a kind of a bogus situation. The clerk takes the form and contacts NICS, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (open every day of the year except Christmas), where an examiner runs your answers through a series of databases to make sure you haven’t lied and, within minutes, tells the clerk what to do: proceed with the sale, deny it, or delay it for three days while NICS does some deeper digging and decides later.


Are you a fugitive from justice?

Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective?

Are you subject to a court order restraining you from harassing, stalking, or threatening your child or an intimate partner or child of such partner?  How did you decide which questions to include in the piece? I imagine there were so many to choose from.   I chose the most ridiculous sounding ones. Some of them were boring. Are you a citizen of the United States? I think at that point, just in general in America, it was all about the mental health issues and how someone could get hold of a gun if you’ve got problems, so I probably focused on those types of questions.

I stood there puzzling through the form when a guy walked up, replacing the old man beside me, and he, too, struck up a conversation. He was a man of some heft in a red T-shirt and sunglasses wrapped behind his neck, as was the fashion in Yuma. “You say you’re just starting out?” he said. “You picked a good one. With the HK, you would have just been paying for extra steel you don’t need.”

“That’s sort of what I thought,” I lied.

“I just got that same Smith for my kid,” he said.

I looked at him. He appeared far too young to have a grown son.

“Wait, how old is your kid?” I asked.

“Six,” he said.  Were you taking notes at the time or did you reconstruct later?   I do notes while I’m there. I tape record a lot and I take notes at the same time. I’ve got things pretty well documented. I depend on my notes more than my tape but I have it there in case I need it.


Richard Sprague, the owner of Sprague’s Sports, is a slender man in his fifties with a tapered face, coarse graying hair, and an easy smile. Other Arizona gun stores would not even entertain my request to visit and ask questions about selling guns and ammunition, but Richard without hesitation invited me to spend as much time as I wanted at Sprague’s—behind the counter, in the back room, at the shooting range, anywhere I wished. How many stores did you approach?   Maybe two or three. We wanted big ones, legitimate ones. There are lots of shady places and we were turned down by a few.   Why place this information here, fairly far down in the story? It’s a way of helping you know Richard a bit, knowing he is the kind of guy who would say yes.  I thought it a somewhat courageous offer, especially given that a 2010 Washington Post investigation spectacularly put Sprague’s eleventh on a list of top U.S. stores that sold guns traced to crime scenes in Mexico. Attempts to stem the flow of arms south of the border began intensifying during the last Bush administration and have continued with the ATF’s infamous Fast and Furious operation.

In response to the hoopla about his store, Richard said that he and his employees were always on the lookout for straw purchasers: a person buying a gun for someone who hadn’t passed the background check. “Unfortunately,” he said, “some people do break the law once they leave our store.” The Mexican border was just eight miles away, and so proximity, rather than reckless selling, was the truer though far less titillating explanation of the ranking. And the number-crunching behind the headline was misleading: The actual number traced to Sprague’s was just fifty-five out of a spectacular 60,000 guns smuggled to Mexico.  Again, I’m curious. Did you know this information before you went to Sprague’s, or is this something you found out while there?   I knew that that stuff was reported but I don’t think I learned the reasons why it was unfair as I illustrate in the story until I got there.   How did it change your perspective on the store?   A lot. It was like, “Wait a minute.” It made me think about how quick we are to attack on our side and to find it was really an unfair claim, and an easy brushstroke, making this guy sound like he was some bad guy. And you get there and he is some shoe salesman, and it’s like how can that shoe salesman have been a bad guy and you dig a bit further and you go, “Oh, he really is just a shoe salesman who sells guns.”

Richard was a busy man, with quick eyes, and he spoke of “firearms” and “the industry” in the dry, responsible way a man might discuss flood insurance. Still, he talked more about his family than he did guns. He spoke proudly of the long line of Spragues (his father opened the store in 1956), and the raw weirdness of being the last of his generation left. He toured me around Yuma, a cozy town of 93,000 with parks stretching along the river where families picnicked under the ironwood trees. He took me to the Yuma county fair. He was proud of Yuma and wanted me to like it, and I told him I did. How much time did you spend with Richard?   Quite a bit. I liked him. I went to his house and met his wife. We went to the fair together. He very, very accommodating, and they love Yuma so much, I would go on a tour with them. I loved his wife. She was great, and we went shooting together. I think that got cut.  He was proud of the firearms industry and wanted me to like that, too, and I was working on it.  This is one of the places where you are attempting to signal your open-mindedness on this issue (the implied critique of the Post piece above is another, I think.) I would love to know your thinking on this and why you made it an element of the story.   I wish I made that more of an element of the story, frankly. I wouldn’t get to know this world if I stayed an outsider looking in and judging. It was almost a conceit that I had for the world for my audience. I don’t think they would have been with me if I didn’t enter with that cynical way, but I feel like I did change and I needed the reader to watch me change, if ever so slightly. It’s not a big change. I’m not going to be a gun owner, but it definitely changed. Maybe that is the arc of the story.

“What’s the most surprising thing about your trip so far?” Richard asked me one morning. We were driving back from a daybreak session at the outdoor range where he had given me some lessons on my new M&P15. Learning to shoot it wasn’t hard. Virtually no recoil, just as Ron had promised, and while in that way I was satisfied with my purchase, I found that I could not let go of a feeling of disappointment, of some kind of tangled shame that had nothing to do with shooting guns, or gun ownership, but that somehow I had wimped out and bought an assault rifle a 6-year-old could use.  Are you indicating here that you’re starting, at least a tiny bit, to adopt the mindset of the people you’re writing about?   One thing that got cut, but it’s in the book version, is a whole sequence where I go toddling off with my guns to the airport, driving around with it in the car, to the airport. I confront the US Air people and say I have a gun. It’s about what that experience was like, and how I feel judged and how I’m just a regular person and it’s not fair. I’m trying on what it’s like for [gun owners].   Was that cut for space?   Yeah. And also it was too much me. My character was starting to take over.

“The most surprising thing?” I said to Richard. He was backlit against a morning sky exploding with red and pink and orange. “That’s going to be hard to summarize.”

“There must be something,” he said.

“I guess the most surprising thing is that everyone thinks guns are so normal,” I said. I told him it wasn’t like that where I come from, not like that at all.

He nodded in consideration, and I wondered if he understood. I offered him a piece of gum, and he took it, and for a while we just chewed and admired the passing mesquite. “Think of just the hunters,” he said. “Thirteen million in this country. That’s 13 million Americans trained with firearms—the equivalent of the largest army in the world.” He flipped his visor down to cut the sky. “Anyone thinking of invading this country has to take that into consideration.”

Well, wow. Hunters? Hunters rising up? It took me a moment to conjure the image. I wondered whom Richard imagined an army of guys dressed in orange rising up against. Al Qaeda? The Chinese?

I asked him who. Who?

He shrugged, said it could be anyone, another country, anyone. He said the whole point of guns was personal responsibility: taking care of yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your country. The more people there are with guns, the safer the society. “That’s part of what has made this country great,” he said. “That we have the freedom to make sure we’re safe, that we have the means to protect ourselves, to be ready for the occasional wackos out there.”  Given that this piece starts with your curiosity about Jared Loughner, it strikes me that Richard is saying the guns keep us safe because they protect us from occasional wackos. But aren’t the occasional wackos people like Loughner and James Holmes and even Adam Lanza, who attacked Sandy Hook just four months after this story ran? Did you push Richard on that?   I tried. I tried to push all of them, not push, but question that perspective, and didn’t get anywhere with it. You get a lot of the same argument that you hear all of the time, if we had been here with our guns, that wouldn’t have happened. To them, they can use that as an argument for more guns.

I hadn’t come here to discuss the Second Amendment, but it kept coming up, as pervasive as the constant hot sunshine. People wanted to talk about it, explain it.  Is this something that really changed the way you reported and ultimately wrote the story?   I’m glad you bring that up, because that was a masterstroke by my editor, that line, “I didn’t come there to talk about the Second Amendment,” because that was another problem with the piece. I kept getting sidetracked by digging through the Second Amendment and arguing that in the story. This story was a gazillion pages long and I couldn’t stop myself. It got me going. And I had to figure out where I landed until my editor [said], “You‘re not writing about that and that’s not your point; you have to get rid of it.” I thought, “How can I get rid of it, how can I avoid it?” And she said, “That is not why you went. Just say it.” We got rid of five pages of my rant with that single stroke. It was the right choice, totally.

“The largest army in the world,” Richard said again. “Bigger than China’s. And if you think Afghanistan and their populace is well armed, wait till they try to come into this country. It should give you some cause for comfort.”

He looked at me. I had my head jutted forward, my thumbnail between my teeth.

“That’s just how I look at it,” he said, and continued driving. The heat on the horizon was already visible in wobbles and waves.  How much did the story change in the editing process?   Oh my God, I’m telling you, it was really unusual how much it changed and how many versions we ran through. Probably a dozen actual final drafts of that thing before we were satisfied, and that’s a lot. I do drafts. I’ve had a dozen unfinished drafts to get to it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. A dozen finished drafts, where we think we have it and then no.   What was the thing that kept pushing it into another direction? The distraction of the Second Amendment definitely, and the fact that I changed, so that if I am starting the story as an already changed person, I can’t get my audience, so I had to unpack, wind back time. I had to be two people in the story. You had to walk through my change. That’s a good question about the ‘why me’ in the story. Because my character has to undergo a kind of reckoning. And that, that is really hard for me to mentally get. I kept getting really defensive about the fact that I got a gun and it’s okay, and I’m trying to justify that and everybody back at the office is laughing at me, like something is wrong with me now.


Nearly all the shoppers I met at Sprague’s came in asking for something for self-protection. They wanted guns for their nightstands, guns for their purses, guns for their pickups, guns for holsters on waistbands, ankles, and bras.

“The people I hang out with back east don’t talk about shooting bad guys as much as you folks do,” I said one day to a gathering of customers and clerks.

“You depend on the government to protect you,” said a middle-aged woman dry-firing a Ruger. She was admiring the smooth trigger action and regretting her clunkier Glock. “We depend on ourselves.”

“It’s an entirely different mind-set back east,” said Kevin, a slim clerk with thinning black hair who had sold me a ticket for the Yuma Catholic High School 125 Gun Raffle. This is amazing, a school raffling off guns (of course, the Fraternal Order of Police in my town raffles off an assault rifle every year to raise money). What’s interesting to me here and at several other points in the story is how you drop this detail in without comment, without blowing it out and making a big deal of it. Why did you handle it this way?   I’m laying detail down, peppering it with detail. It’s a cumulative effect of those observations.  ”You can get a permit in New York City to own a gun,” he said. “That’s the thing. They’ll permit you. In Arizona we don’t care. Our government doesn’t allow us; our government stays out of our ability to protect ourselves.”

But—from what? I’d never been attacked by anyone; I hardly know anyone who has been attacked. I follow the news, of course, and I see violence enacted all the time on TV. But I didn’t walk around in fear of getting mugged or worse. Was this simply naive? The people shopping at Sprague’s were saying yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Anyone without a gun was inviting disaster.  At this point, how much time had you spent in the store? Did you find that you had the same conversations every day? Did it get tiring?   Eventually. That is when you know you’re done, when everything starts repeating. When I can predict what people are going to say, then I’m done.   Did it happen faster or slower than you would have expected?   Slower in that one. It starts repeating but my reaction changes, so it’s repeating but I’m hearing it differently.

Standing at the counter with Kevin, I asked him to show me something small, for my purse. It is difficult for me to say what exactly was prompting me, or what kind of corner I was turning. Perhaps buying an assault rifle—even as a joke or an experiment—puts you over some sort of threshold. Or it could be something about anyone’s capacity to get caught up in a shopping frenzy: Hang around people buying stuff long enough and pretty soon you want to buy the stuff, too. I do know the gadgetry of guns appealed to me. The clicking and the clacking, the feel of steel so expertly shaped to fit a human grip.  Did you ever find yourself thinking that maybe you had been missing something in your life, with regards to guns, after these discussions?   In that moment when I’m trying to buy a .22, and he’s telling me to get something stronger, more powerful, and he’s saying, “The guy’s on meth, the guy’s on meth, and your kids are sleeping, and you’re going to be poking holes,” at that moment, I was like, “Holy crap he’s right. I’m really going to die. I have to save my children.” Those kind of moments, when the fear was really revved up.

“Women always come in saying they want something small,” he said. “Then they find out how much harder a small gun is to shoot. Save yourself the time and get something big.”

He unfolded a felt pad and put it on top of the glass case, then brought out a Glock nine-millimeter semiauto. It felt solid and serious. I asked to see an alloy Smith & Wesson on the top shelf of the case. It was wearing a little tag about being featherlight. Kevin said it was too small for me and the caliber was worthless.

“You’re not going to stop anybody with a .22. It’s going to poke little holes in the guy.” I’m curious… Did you ever start to feel the paranoia that so many of the people buying those guns felt, that not having a gun meant you were in mortal danger?    I got it. Here is also how you get it: It’s really a rural-urban split. Where I live, 911 doesn’t mean much. It’s going to be a long time before anyone gets there. And when you’re driving through Arizona with an assault rifle in the back seat, there is nobody, no cars, nothing but desert. You can pull over on the side of road and load that thing and aim at some brush and you realize it’s just no big deal. It really would hurt no one. It couldn’t possibly hurt anyone. But you know, you can’t have that thought if you’re driving through suburban anywhere. It’s just a different conversation.

“He’ll run off after that,” I said. “Anybody would.”

He’s on meth,” Kevin said. “He’s got your kid by the throat. It’s the middle of the night, and he’s going to take your whole family out. He’s coming after you. He’s dragging your kid. He’s on meth! He’s not feeling your little .22s hitting him, I promise you. Those bullets are going right through him, and the ones that miss are going through the drywall right into the baby’s room—”  This seems like a sales pitch to me. Was it? A story created to generate fear in the customer so they will buy the more powerful (and probably more expensive) gun?   It was. Oh, it was. It got at it. It got me.  Fear is a great motivator. I don’t think it was cynically for him. I think he believed it. It was completely honest. I don’t think it was just to make any money. They needed to help me. In their minds.

I put the Smith down on the counter and shifted my weight in consideration. If anything like that happened to me or my kid, I definitely would want something capable of blowing a guy’s face off.

I paid $450 for the Glock, a used one—a bargain. Normally a gun like that would go for $100 more. Kevin said he would ship it to a licensed dealer near my home in Pennsylvania, in accordance with federal law, and that I could pick it up there. I could then go to my local sheriff’s office, and in the time it would take to snap my picture, print it out, and laminate it, I would be able to get a license to carry my new Glock concealed. Why did you feel like you needed to buy a second gun?   That just sounds so preposterous. Well, it was clear to me that the assault rifle wasn’t practical. I didn’t know what I was going to gain from that. I decided to get what they said I needed for protection.   Did you keep the guns?   For a while. But then I really truly didn’t know what to do with them. There’s another whole section, I think I cut it from the story, about living with a Glock. I wanted to then go experience that. What would I feel like with a Glock in my purse. And going to the pool with my children and your purse has a gun in it. It really affects how you go about your life. There’s a whole sequence in there that I did end up cutting, but I did use in the book version. They’re in my brother’s gun cabinet. I didn’t know what to do with them. I’ve just sort of ignored it to this point.

All of it was so easy, and that really was the only confusing part about buying guns. So easy. And yet why should it be difficult? I wasn’t a criminal. I wasn’t going to commit a heinous act—not unless I had to defend myself or my family. Defending yourself and your family is what good people do. Getting a gun should be easy for good people and impossible for bad people. The only trick is telling the difference.  This harkens back to that unknown Walmart clerk and all the other clerks who stand in the way between the good and the bad, who have to be able to tell the difference, which seems an impossible task.   I agree. I love that Sergio the gun clerk was able to speak to that: “I don’t wear a badge. I don’t have any authority. And yet I’m making these decisions.” These are some of the practical matters as to having a society where you’re allowed to buy guns.


Working in a gun store is hard on your feet and your back. There was a stool behind the counter at Sprague’s, and I was trying not to hog it. I sat and watched customer after customer feel and fondle and dry-fire guns, and I thought about the burden on the clerks whose job it was to dole out firepower.  Why did you want to work in the store?   I just wanted to get as close as I could to the action of the transaction. It’s just a matter of perspective, which side of the counter you’re on, and I didn’t want to be a customer the whole time.  I wanted to see what that experience is like, just as close as I could get to that experience, even though it’s a made-up experiment, really. I don’t work at a gun store, but you get as close as you can.

I saw customers get turned down, most commonly teenagers getting carded when they tried to buy bullets. You have to be at least 18 to buy rifle or shotgun ammo, 21 to buy rounds for a handgun. “Sorry, man,” the cashier would say.  Had you ever worked retail before?   I worked at a drug store.   When you were much younger?   Yes. First Drugs. Loved it. But it’s not the same.   How did it compare with working in a gun store?   Well, you still had to deal with the public, but nothing like this.

Sergio, one of the clerks, had some thoughts about what it felt like to work behind the counter and size up people like Jared Loughner. Sergio was quiet, small, with a broad swarthy face and a big, rugged nose. He’d been in the business for twenty-five years, and he often sat on the stool.

“You get suspicious,” he said. “A woman yesterday. She was with a guy holding a baby. She said she wanted three guns, but he did all the talking. He kept saying ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and ‘my money.’ They were just bad actors. I don’t mean bad people. I mean they couldn’t act. I said to the guy, ‘I think you’re trying to get her to buy guns for you,’ and he said, ‘Oh, er, ehhh,’ and he shoved the baby back at her and flew out the door.”

Looking out for Loughners and other lunatics was part of the job, he said, and he didn’t like that part of the job. “I remember years ago going to an ATF seminar. The agent was talking to us, the counter people, and he said, ‘I need you as a front line of defense. To watch out for criminals.’ And I remember thinking he was out of his mind. How can I tell who’s a criminal? And I don’t have any rights as far as enforcing anything, I don’t have a badge, you know, what can I do?”

He could refuse a sale. That’s what he’s supposed to do, according to the ATF agents I spoke to, and according to the YouTube “ATF Channel,” where you can watch informational skits featuring clerks doing the right thing. If a clerk feels iffy about selling a gun to someone, he or she should simply say, “No.”  You write that you only saw a clerk reject customers when they were underage. Did that surprise you?   Not given what I saw except for that one guy that truly struck me as someone who may not be thoroughly stable, but that is only because he was standing there telling me about his life and his rage and his hospitalization. That is just not on a questionnaire. We were just chatting.

The ATF has little else to say on the matter, because the ATF is busy. A network of twenty-five ATF field divisions, essentially one for every two states, oversees America’s 57,500 licensed dealers. About 650 inspectors monitor how the large-scale gun stores, like Sprague’s and Walmart, conduct business. Inspectors are supposed to go into each store once every three years but are lucky if they make the rounds in six or seven, given the paltry manpower (thanks at least in part to gun lobbyists, who have worked hard to keep the ATF small).  I like how you take short sections like this and work in factual details. How did you decide where to sprinkle information like this?    Sprinkle is a really good word. I don’t tend to do long fact-heavy sections. You only need them when you need them. You need the knowledge when you need the knowledge. If you get it too soon, you forget it. If you get it too late, it’s irrelevant. It’s a whole timing thing. Yet you need it. I didn’t know anything about the ATF until I started this story, but once I got it, I really got it. It’s important for the reader to have that background.

Meanwhile, NICS, the FBI’s background check, is designed to weed out the criminals and the wackos.  I wonder if “wackos” was used on purpose, to echo what Richard said earlier in the story?   I think I’m echoing and being colloquial so we’re all in this, almost like code, you know what I’m talking about. so the clerks don’t have to.  In 2010, NICS did not flag Jared Loughner’s application to buy a gun: He’d never been legally declared mentally ill, and so there was no official record of his lunacy. Nor did NICS object to the paperwork submitted by Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. He had been ordered by a court to receive involuntary outpatient treatment in 2005, and yet there was not an official record of his lunacy, either. The Commonwealth of Virginia didn’t report it to NICS because, at the time, Virginia only flagged inpatient treatment, and anyway, nobody really has to report anything to anybody, because NICS is a voluntary system.

The system is only as good as its databases. And critics say the databases suck. Did you ever try and talk to the NRA for this story?   Not for this story. I had thought maybe I would, but frankly being in the store talking to all these people was the NRA. I didn’t need [NRA executive vice president and CEO] Wayne LaPierre to offer thoughts on top of what these people were saying. They represented the NRA thoroughly.   Similarly, you don’t include any voices from the gun regulation/control movement either. Why?   I wasn’t even tempted to have that voice in there. It wasn’t my point. It was not a story that was going to further an argument. I didn’t want to debate. I had to keep pulling out the Second Amendment bit. It was crowding the … experiment of doing a cultural study.

Beyond NICS, and discounting an impotent ATF, refusing a sale was typically an in-house matter, according to Richard: “It’s not unheard-of for a salesperson to come upstairs and talk to management. We’ll take a look at it, and we can refuse the sale—and we do. I don’t know if it happens more than a few times a year, but it does happen.”

I asked him if there was any specific training regimen for his clerks, teaching them how to spot people with bad intentions. What would the threatening person look like? Was there some manual or something somewhere with pictures?

“We deal with a lot of people who would scare you,” Richard said. “They’re tatted up, they wear their hair different than you do, they dress different than you. It’s quite a responsibility to see through that. Because you know, they could be good people.”

I spent the better part of the day with Sergio, offering him the stool, him giving it back, both of us sharing sore-feet stories. I saw a guy checking out an AK-47 who had a tattoo that said there is only one god and his name is death, and I wondered if I should say something.  Did you feel like you stood out, like you didn’t belong behind the counter and customers could tell?    Internally, I did, but everybody treated me like I was one of them. I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Most definitely, to me, but I don’t know that anyone understood that.   Could customers tell that you were not a normal salesperson? They could tell that I was obviously naïve, but they would see that as someone in training. And it wasn’t that I was trying to pretend. And to the clerks themselves, I was trying to get their point of view. It wasn’t to fool customers. They knew who I was and they were training me.

Later, when I got up to stretch my legs, a guy walked up to me. He had a military haircut and a wrestler’s build, and he showed me the SIG Sauer P226 nine-millimeter, a tactical semiauto he was buying. “Finally,” he said. “Do you know how long I’ve been wanting a good practice gun?” He brought the gun up to one eye and aimed it at the wall behind me.  Did you find that people wanted to come up and talk to you? Did they ask you any questions you couldn’t answer?   Oh, sure. I couldn’t answer most of the stuff, because it was very technical stuff about guns. But I would have my buddy with me.  Everybody wanted to talk. It wasn’t like most people were there to buy. It was really a general store feel, like they were visitors. Kinda browsing and wanting to talk about what was going on in town.  

“I don’t know if you ever heard of the term pressure cooker?” he asked. “I’m one of those people. I help everyone else. Never help myself. I don’t know why I do that, because then I get mad at everyone.” He put the gun down and went on to recall a time when he got handcuffed in a hospital after hurling a nurse who had tried to sedate him.  He told that story in a gun store?   I know. And it was not with any apologies, let me tell you. And I’m only giving you a sliver of it.   How long did he go on?   Oh, gosh. He had me, at least a half-hour. He was one of those people where you’re thinking, Okay, I’m going to have a hard time getting away from this conversation. That was the one creepy moment.

“But the SIG is just for practice,” he said. “I have a .380 auto at home. That’s a sexy gun. I wanted a body stopper, so I got a Smith & Wesson 1911 .45-caliber. I’m a pretty good shot. I can empty an entire clip into six inches. Consecutively. Head, throat, heart, gut. If you’re within fifty feet of me, I’m going to take you out.”  How do you even respond to a conversation like this?   There is the one time when you feel like you’re not being honest, because what I really want to say is wait a second, you shouldn’t be having a gun, but that is a really judgmental thing to say, and it’s not my place and I don’t want to insert myself in the story, as a reporter. I don’t want to nudge the story along or interrupt.   And did you find it gave you any insight into how difficult it might be for a clerk to say no—could you have said no to this man?  Is that your purpose here—to show how impossible it is to make that call and if you do, to actually refuse a purchase? Yes. It gave me insight into that. I don’t know if I pull that off in the section or not. But most definitely, it gave me insight. It feels rude (to say he can’t have a gun). But I’m seeing it everywhere. I’m seeing red flags everywhere. The tattoos I mention. Stuff like that. These guys, though, they’re eh, not red flags really. It’s me being a scaredy cat, coming from another land that doesn’t know this culture.

He gave me a little salute, and then he went up to the front register to pay for his new SIG, and he was out the door.


One day I got into a productive discussion with some clerks and customers about shooting sprees. We were gathered on a quiet Thursday, chatting beneath the $4,500 Barrett Model 99 “Big Shot” sniper rifle.

It was the most powerful gun in the store, capable of firing .50-caliber armor-piercing rounds—gigantic bullets as long as a human hand. The gun was perched on a display stand so you could walk all the way around and admire it, like any work of art.

“So how about the Tucson shootings?” I asked our little group, two clerks and four shoppers, all male. “I imagine that was a difficult day around here.” I thought it an obvious statement that translated roughly to: Surely Loughner’s killing spree must have given you pause and forced you to face the dark side of an America that allows its citizens to own guns. But that’s not what anybody heard.  Can you talk a little bit about your reporting approach for this story? It seems like it would be very difficult to talk about this topic without it turning ugly fast. What tactics did you use throughout the reporting?   I waited until people really knew me and I really knew them. That was the thing I’m walking in with, how am I going to break this to everybody, be a Debbie Downer in this happy land of guns. I really thought it was going to be a very difficult moment, so I waited and I watched and I broached it very carefully, which was just completely naïve. They would love to talk about it, it’s just that they had a completely different perspective on it. It was nothing like what I thought. Nothing. That totally surprised me.

“The lines were out the door.”

“Well, not out the door, but I remember this place was packed.”

“Not as bad as the day after the election.”

“Oh God, no!”

“Ha, ha, ha!”

“Ha, ha, ha!”

In fact, one-day sales of handguns in Arizona jumped 60 percent on the day after the Tucson shootings. It was not a time to reevaluate a blithe attitude toward anything, but rather a time to hurry and stock up in case the government made its next move to take privately owned firearms away, leaving law-abiding citizens defenseless against the criminals and the lunatics.

“Mostly it was people wanting Glocks. The 19, like Loughner had, but really all the Glocks.”

“A story like that just gives the liberals more fuel.”

“The problem is, liberals are more feel than think. They don’t understand logic, and so what the hell can you even do with that?”  Do they see you as a stupid, scary liberal?   Yes, if I brought my own thoughts into it, and to the degree that I did, yes. They would talk about people like me.

“It’s so ridiculous. It’s sad, really.”

“It’s so scary.”  This is an interesting bit of dialogue, in that it starts to get to the point I mentioned earlier, about how you can’t even really talk about this. You can’t change minds.   Definitely. And nor would I even at that point begin to even try. What really got me, as soon as I got home, I happened to have people who were more anti-gun than I was over, and I was trying to explain that perspective to them and it was even harder. They were mean. They were angry. They were yelling at me, whereas the other side wasn’t like that. I’m left with that kind of frustration in the story. There are these two conversations and I couldn’t be the bridge.

Everyone in the group agreed on the stupid, scary liberals in the most casual and obvious way, like people at a grocery store railing about the rising price of beef. I asked them about a more recent event, right there in Yuma, when Carey Dyess, 73, drove his silver Mazda to the home of his ex-wife’s best friend and shot her in the face. Then he killed his ex-wife at her home. Then he drove over to some other houses and shot three more of her friends. Then he drove into downtown Yuma, where he walked into his ex-wife’s attorney’s office, shot him dead. Then he drove off to the desert and killed himself.

“Oh man, that guy was running around and I didn’t even have a gun in my shop!” someone said. “I got so scared I went home and got my Judge. A .410 pistol. It was all so unexpected. He didn’t announce himself. Walked in, shot people, walked out. He must have had tiny bullets—did you see her neck?”  Did you ever feel like you were able to understand the people you were hanging out with when they start talking about stuff like this?   I had heard enough of that version that it was almost expected of me. It’s almost like when you’re writing a character, you know your character so well, you know what they’re going to think, and it’s not that I sympathized with it. The thing I really couldn’t sympathize with was when Richard went off on people attacking America and we’re all going to be armed. That stuff really surprised me. I never understood that.   Were you surprised by what you were able to relate to?   Yes. And I think that was part of the trouble I had coming back to my regular life. My editors were making fun of me. They were like, “She’ll get over that.”

“Had to be a .380.”

Nobody talked about the shooting victims, and the only mention of the neighbors shot by Dyess was the size of the bullet holes in a woman’s neck. If there were any victims at all to be singled out in the discussion, it was these people here, threatened by tighter gun laws and a government determined to impose them. This is a tough sentence. Did you get flack for it afterward?   Not specifically related to that sentence. It’s an observation. In the moment, do you point that out? What about these people’s lives?
“Everywhere now, it’s all an anti-gun maneuver. These liberals think, ‘Well, if we get all the guns away, there will be no crime, no one will get shot, everybody will live in harmony.’ That’s how stupid they are.”

“It’s so scary.”

I was surprised to hear them use the word scary to describe those who, back home, tend to describe them as “scary.” This is a really interesting observation. Did you point this out to the people you were talking to?   I would say by that point we were all getting to know each other well enough, I would be like, “Oh my gosh, you think we’re scary, well I think you’re scary.” That way. But in a kind of aliens and earthlings finally got a chance to speak the same language and they’re laughing almost. Like wow, we really don’t understand each other. But that is as far as it goes. That’s right, we don’t, let’s agree to disagree and move on.   It doesn’t go that one extra step, to let’s try to figure out how to not see each other as scary.   I guess that’s the next round on this kind of story. I don’t know how you get there.

The conversation was interrupted when a young guy in Bermuda shorts walked up and said he was interested in the Barrett.

“The Barrett!” one of the clerks said, while the rest fell silent as if to take in the words, and we all looked up at the magnificent black sniper rifle.


In the end, I went over to the indoor range to blow off some steam and to release my mind from the endless loop of stupid-scary.   I see so many people who say shooting at a range helps them blow off steam. Was that the case for you? Why do you think it helps release stress?   Oh yeah. I really liked it. And that was good too, to experience that. I kind of got to see the fun part. It’s fun. I get why if I were a regular, if I grew up with guns and enjoyed target shooting and stuff like that, and someone was saying, “You can’t do that, it’s against the law,” I would be like, “What are you talking about? This is fun. I’m not hurting anybody. I’m responsible. I’m normal.” Or they would say to me, “You can have guns, but you can’t have a clip with more than 12 rounds.” I get it. I remember saying something to Richard, I wish I could just have a giant clip so I could do this at night in front of the TV and it would be done. I just have to keep stopping and loading the clip and that was annoying. That would be a moment when he would say, “Yes, exactly.” We should be able to sit in front of the TV and load our clips as much as we want because we’re not bad people out there hurting anybody. That is the point. That is one of those moments when I got it.

The range was sort of like a bowling alley, only instead of renting shoes you rented a gun. You had to have a friend with you. This was a precaution against suicide, the thinking being a friend would talk you out of it. You could also bring your own gun, no friend required. Whole families came to shoot, Friday night was ladies’ night, and people had birthday parties here.

A young guy came out of the lanes, carrying the target he had just shot up. “Ahhh, that feels better,” he said, taking off his ear-and-eye protection. “Whew! Re-lax-ing!” He had sweat on his brow, and he grinned up at the zombie targets hanging on the wall that I was quietly admiring. You could buy one of those targets to shoot at instead of the same old boring concentric circles or classic bad-guy silhouettes.  Was there any one person who really stood out to you in this entire reporting trip? One person who you still think about? I would say I have them blurred, a combination of Ron and Sergio and the guys that are there day after day after day doing what they believe is a good job, solid citizens, no one could dispute it. I really liked them. I had a fondness for them, which surprised me.

“Oh God, aren’t those awesome?” the guy said. “Me and my boys came and shot the hell out of the Paris Hilton zombie.” Paris was wearing big pink sunglasses and a pink miniskirt and was carrying a zombie Chihuahua. “We just have fun with it. Shoot out her earrings. Take out her dog. Me and my boys having a good time.”

“Boys?” I said. “You have boys?” He did not look old enough to have any sons at all, and I was not prepared to handle the image of one more armed 6-year-old.

“My boys!” he said. “My friends.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.  Why include this little bit of dialogue with this guy?   The point of that whole scene was me enjoying a gun. And those guys to me are in the background, the people I’m with in the moment.

I kept thinking about neighbors. You have this crazy family living next door. One day you go over with a pie, figuring if you just confronted the crazy, you’d understand it and find acceptance. Then you discover that all this time they think you’re the crazy family. The more you try to explain yourself, the crazier you sound, and if you stay long enough, you probably will be.  This is such a great way to describe the discussion over guns. How long did it take you to come up with this analogy?   That was one of those ones that was percolating during the research, maybe not articulating that way but percolating. I still remember it, that moment of thinking that way. It was articulated in the writing. As I’m writing, I’m wondering, how do I get at that? I need a metaphor. I need an analogy. I need an image to connote that weird feeling.

These were burdensome thoughts, and I wanted to get rid of them. I rented an Uzi, fully automatic.  Why the Uzi?   It was the star performer for everybody. It was an automatic as opposed to a semi-automatic which is a big deal, It was the most powerful, dramatic thing there. It seemed famous to me, like a movie. If you were going to do the most famous gun thing you could do, it would be shoot an Uzi.

I chose the male zombie. I think he was supposed to be a lawyer. He had a briefcase. I aimed for his left eyeball and pulled the trigger. The patter of thirty-two bullets lasted maybe three seconds, and then the eyeball was gone. The release felt like one gorgeous, fantastic sneeze, and the satisfaction reminded me of cold beer.  This is a really interesting ending, given at the beginning of the piece, you are a complete novice when it comes to guns. Why end here, with you shooting an Uzi?   Well, it’s a really honest ending. It’s my surrender. Where I am not going to figure this out. I am not going to solve this. And I am really frustrated by that fact, and I need to just let it go. I don’t think I’ve ever done that kind of ending before. Where I am just saying, if you unpack that, it’s saying, “Sorry reader, I know I set you up for this thing I’m going to figure out. Well, guess what? I can’t. It’s not figure-outable. And I gotta go.” I don’t know that I’ve ever ended a story like that. It’s a good ending because it’s the end of your transition. You go from being someone who knows very little about guns to somebody who goes to a shooting range and shoots an Uzi. And who genuinely enjoys it. I am doing that because in that moment, I need that like I need a beer.

What kind of feedback did you receive on this story?   I found all these links, people on the other side talking about me. There’s one where they really made fun of me, “Oh wow, places in Arizona where anybody could buy a gun, imagine that!” I think it was a good reaction in that it was surprising to my audience, the audience who would read GQ. The response was that it was thought-provoking. That to me would be a success. Did you hear from Ron or Richard or anyone at the store?   They were thankful. I think they thought it was edgier than they wanted, but people always do. They want you to basically tell the story they want you to tell, but it was pretty good. What did your friends back east think about the piece? A lot of them just didn’t believe me. Really. That is the hardest group I had. What happened to you? That was partly why the writing was so difficult and important. I felt like I really needed to explain myself. But I’m not done. That’s one of those stories where you leave and you’re not done. Do you think you’ll write something else on this topic?   I wanted to as soon as I was done. I thought, I’m going to stick with this topic because it is so rich. I thought of different ways of doing a book. I just haven’t cracked it. It doesn’t mean I won’t.



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City, Regional Magazine Awards Announced Tue, 02 Jun 2015 14:25:26 +0000 If there’s anywhere that crime pays, it might be at this year’s National City and Regional Magazine Awards, where a majority of the winning stories, announced last night at the annual CRMA conference in Dallas, document murder, mayhem and bad policing.

Texas Monthly dominated the CRMA contest, winning seven prizes, including four writing categories. Executive editor and Storyboard regular Pamela Colloff won the feature writing award for her profile of Michelle Lyons, a former spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who had witnessed 278 executions.

“She cracked her window, grateful for the cool air on her face. Mornings, when her commute offered time to think back on everything she had seen at the Walls, were the hardest. She was flooded with memories from her time inside the Death House: of the conversations she had shared with particular inmates in the hours before they were strapped to the gurney; of the mothers, dressed in their Sunday best, who had turned out to attend their sons’ executions; of the victims’ families, their faces hardened with grief; of the sudden stillness that came over the prisoners soon after the lethal drugs entered their bloodstreams. She could still see some of these men—their chests expanding, their chins stiffening as they took their last breaths.”

The writer of the year honor went to Colloff’s colleague Michael Hall, who was cited for telling “illuminating stories with a voice that resonates.” Among those stories was this extensive investigation into the murder of three teenagers at a lake in Waco in 1982, told from the perspectives of five people involved in the case, including a patrol sergeant who arrived at the crime scene that day.

“Simons, walking among the bodies as he searched for clues, was shaken. Who would do something like this? And why? On instinct, he kept returning to Jill, who he sensed had been the main target. Standing over her, he felt overwhelmed by the evil that had befallen her.

Simons crouched down next to her lifeless body. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to you,’ he whispered in her ear, ‘but I promise you one thing. Whoever did it won’t just go to jail—he is going to pay for this. I promise you that this won’t be another unsolved murder case in Waco, Texas.’”

Also, Texas Monthly’s Sterry Butcher took the column-writing prize and the magazine was recognized for excellence in writing for its September 2014 issue.

Other reporting and writing standouts included Robert Sanchez, who earned the profile-writing award for his story in 5280 about an anti-gang activist whose life fell apart when he shot another man.

“He’s hunched at the shoulders; his face is drawn. His soft brown eyes belie his usual street confidence. He’s wearing his ball cap, a solid black T-shirt, and baggy black jeans he’d recently purchased for $10 at Walmart. He apologizes for his appearance, says he’s been living out of hotels since his release from jail, that the pressures have weighed heavily on him. He’s worried about paying his bills, about a potential prison sentence, about his four children, about the bangers from his old ’hood who would love to even the score from behind the barrel of a semiautomatic. ‘In a week’s time—in a second’s time—I became jobless, homeless, and I’m on the run,” he tells me. ‘I can’t go back to my community.’”

Los Angeles magazine won four awards, including the reporting prize for Celeste Fremon’s examination of the LA Sheriff’s Department in “The Downfall of Sheriff Baca.” The civic journalism honor went to David Bernstein and Noah Isackson of Chicago magazine for their ongoing investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s manipulation of violent crime statistics. And Boston magazine, recognized for general excellence, also took the essays and commentary category for a piece by Jennifer Roberts about growing up black in the Irish, mob-ridden Boston neighborhood known as Southie.

“What was clear to me, even as a little girl, was that my mother wanted no part of our shared racial heritage. The bubble of denial she created for herself was solid Teflon. Everything rolled right off of her and onto me. At home, I was Irish. On the street, I was something different: “jigaboo,” “nigger,” “Oreo,” “Jenny the spook.” These names were spoken to me almost as if they were endearments, nicknames. Nearly everyone in Southie had a nickname.

I was from Southie; I was one of them. I was their black girl.”

For the full list of CRMA winners, go here.

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Memorial Day Reading List Fri, 22 May 2015 13:49:39 +0000 It’s easy to forget, amid all the cookouts and trips to the beach, that Memorial Day was created to remember the men and women who have died in military service. In honor of the holiday, we’ve gathered a few outstanding stories about wars and the soldiers who fight them:

“The Other Walter Reed,” Dana Priest and Anne Hull, Washington Post. 2007. A searing investigation into the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, this project prompted public outcry, spurred federal reforms and received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

“Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Black Hawk Down,” Mark Bowden, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1997. Before there was the Ridley Scott film or the best-selling book, there was the 29-part newspaper series documenting an attempt by American forces to capture the lieutenants of a Somali militia leader which, instead, erupted into the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since Vietnam.

“STAFF SGT. Matt Eversmann’s lanky frame was fully extended on the rope for what seemed too long on the way down. Hanging from a hovering Blackhawk helicopter, Eversmann was a full 70 feet above the streets of Mogadishu. His goggles had broken, so his eyes chafed in the thick cloud of dust stirred up by the bird’s rotors.

It was such a long descent that the thick nylon rope burned right through the palms of his leather gloves. The rest of his Chalk, his squad, had already roped in. Nearing the street, through the swirling dust below his feet, Eversmann saw one of his men stretched out on his back at the bottom of the rope.

He felt a stab of despair. Somebody’s been shot already! He gripped the rope hard to keep from landing on top of the guy. It was Pvt. Todd Blackburn, at 18 the youngest Ranger in his Chalk, a kid just months out of a Florida high school. He was unconscious and bleeding from the nose and ears.

The raid was barely under way, and already something had gone wrong. It was just the first in a series of worsening mishaps that would endanger this daring mission. For Eversmann, a five-year veteran from Natural Bridge, Va., leading men into combat for the first time, it was the beginning of the longest day of his life.”

“Generation Kill,” Evan Wright, Rolling Stone, 2004. Wright spent two months embedded with U.S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His three-part series, which won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, was later adapted into a book and an HBO miniseries. 

“Culturally, these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the “Greatest Generation.” They are kids raised on hip-hop, Marilyn Manson and Jerry Springer. For them, “motherfucker” is a term of endearment. For some, slain rapper Tupac is an American patriot whose writings are better known than the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. There are tough guys among them who pray to Buddha and quote Eastern philosophies and New Age precepts gleaned from watching Oprah and old kung fu movies. There are former gangbangers, a sprinkling of born-again Christians and quite a few guys who before entering the Corps were daily dope smokers; many of them dream of the day when they get out and are once again united with their beloved bud.

These young men represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children. More than half of the guys in the platoon come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents. Before the “War on Terrorism” began, not a whole lot was expected of this generation other than the hope that those in it would squeak through high school without pulling too many more mass shootings in the manner of Columbine.”

There are many other excellent examples of writing about war and its aftermath, some of which we’ve previously highlighted on Storyboard. Esquire writer Chris Jones discussed “The Things That Carried Him,” his 2008 story about the return of one soldier’s body from Iraq, during a visit to Lippmann House in 2011. And Washington Post national enterprise editor David Finkel spoke to the most recent class of Nieman Fellows in October about his two books documenting the experiences of an infantry battalion in Iraq and upon their return home.

What stories would you add to our list? Tweet to @niemanstory.




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Annotation Live! The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and Richard M. Daley Fri, 15 May 2015 15:48:37 +0000 If you’re read the most recent Storyboard feature for the Nieman Reports magazine — and, if you haven’t, here it is — you may know that narrative is increasingly taking to the stage and streets as journalism goes live to connect in new ways with its audiences. Storyboard just joined that phenomenon ourselves when, last weekend, we presented our first live version of the popular Annotation Tuesday feature from our website.

The annotation was part of the program for a conference in Chicago on covering the 2016 presidential campaign, co-hosted by the Nieman Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. If you weren’t at the event in Chicago or couldn’t watch the live feed on Periscope, we’ve got good news: the video version of the annotation is here.

In keeping with the conference theme, we went in search of a political story with strong narrative elements and quickly chose the landmark profile of former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. Osnos won the 2014 National Book Award in non-fiction for his book about the modernization of China,  Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New Chinaand, yes, he reported the Daley profile from his former base in Beijing (he now writes for the magazine from Washington, D.C.). We selected this article in part because, aside from its sophisticated storytelling, it poses a dilemma faced by reporters in every genre: how do you write about someone that everyone thinks they already know?

To answer that question and many others, Osnos joined Nieman Fellow Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, for a discussion that touched upon everything from The New Yorker’s famed penchant for detail to what he regrets he didn’t include in the story. To read the profile before you watch the annotation, click here.


Nieman Storyboard: Live Annotation from Nieman Foundation on Vimeo.

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Exploring the Rise of Live Journalism Thu, 07 May 2015 20:44:15 +0000 In 2001, while interning at the Associated Press bureau in Rome, Samantha Gross started working as a guide, giving walking tours of the Vatican, meandering through St. Peter’s Basilica with visitors, telling them stories about the artworks around them. Over the next 10 years, Gross bounced among AP postings from Tallahassee to New York City, covering courts, city hall, politics, crime, and more. But she never lost her taste for tours.

“Probably my favorite part of the [AP] job was getting to enter into the lives of so many people whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise and hear them tell their stories,” says Gross. That piece of her job, though, was the part that her readers never really got to experience. “I never felt that I was able to fully convey that to the people who would then read the stories. They were always missing out on some piece of that experience. Why couldn’t we share the best of our jobs with them?”

So last year, Gross founded StoryTour, a live, experiential magazine comprised of guided stories that take place in New York City. In one recent story, “The Land of the Slow Food Startups,” the tour guide took the audience to an old Pfizer building deep in South Williamsburg to meet the entrepreneurs behind the burgeoning slow food businesses there. “Our nonfiction story tours are like an equivalent of walking into the pages of a narrative feature in a magazine,” Gross explains. Whereas in a feature, the journalist might describe the row of tall silver machines lining the walls of the Kelvin Natural Slush Co. or the building’s bricked-up windows, in a StoryTour the audience sees all that for themselves. Once inside, they watch as the journalist interviews the staff of Dinner Lab, a pop-up dinner club, and they eat pasta made by Sfoglini, an artisanal pasta company.

The piece is more than a walking tour, according to Gross; it’s journalism that uses many of the same narrative techniques any magazine feature might. “The StoryTour begins with a narrative focusing on the seismic shifts many work-obsessed New Yorkers have faced in the wake of the economic downturn, and the ways that many people began re-examining their priorities and finding the motivation to start something new,” Gross says. Zack Silverman, founder of Kelvin Natural Slush, left behind a promising legal career to start his business. The audience hears him speak about the ups and downs of leaving a stable job to start something new and risky. They can even ask questions. “It’s not just seeing a list of places or hearing interesting facts or tasting interesting food,” Gross says. “It’s really an experience that’s guided by narrative and story.”

Instead of having people read about a business, StoryTour brings them inside it

Gross fondly recalls her experience as a tour guide in Rome. “It was thrilling to look directly into the eyes of my audience and see them react as I told them stories,” she says. “Having experienced that allowed me to envision how StoryTour could work, and how exciting it could be.”

Gross is just one of an increasing number of reporters looking to take their work beyond the paper or the screen or the speaker in the form of “live journalism.” The format is flexible, and the boundary between journalism and journalism-adjacent forms—first-person storytelling, theater, lecture—is blurry, but live storytelling events like The Moth and ideas festivals like TED could provide news organizations with viable models for moving stories from page to stage.

Outlets like The Texas Tribune and The Atlantic now put on events that bring together experts and journalists to talk about everything from higher education to national security. Pop-Up Magazine, a live show that started in San Francisco, sells out in minutes. It has also extended its brand through a partnership with TED, putting on a mini-magazine at last March’s conference. “Radiolab” has done a number of popular events; its most recent, “Apocalyptical,” ran 29 times in 21 cities and featured an original score, dinosaur puppets, and a team of multimedia projection artists. “The Heart,” a podcast about love and sex, hosts live listening events nestled in dark, pillow-padded rooms. “This American Life” also puts on live variety shows, with performances by comedians and musical acts.

And people are coming. Pop-Up Magazine’s early shows filled a 360-seat theater; today, it sells out a 2,600-person venue. “Radiolab” and “This American Life” fill theaters across the country. (“This American Life” has streamed its variety show into movie theaters.) And start-ups like StoryTour can exist on ticket sales alone. Journalism outlets are experimenting with all kinds of new formats and technologies to enhance storytelling and engage audiences. Now is a good time for the art of live storytelling.

During “Truth and Dare,” for which Pop-Up Magazine teamed up with TED, Dawn Landes performed a song from her musical called "Row"

During “Truth and Dare,” for which Pop-Up Magazine teamed up with TED, Dawn Landes performed a song from her musical called "Row"

In the early 1990s, Anna Deavere Smith, whose background is in theater, explored complex political topics on stage, interviewing people involved in a series of controversial events, like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights riot in 1991 and the Los Angeles riots in 1992. She interviewed people on all sides of each conflict then edited the transcripts into monologues, playing each character herself.

In “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities,” the performance that recounted the Crown Heights riot, a three-day span in which the neighborhood’s black and Jewish communities clashed, Deavere Smith played 26 different people, from Rabbi Joseph Spielman, a spokesperson for the Lubavitch community, to an anonymous young black man who lived in the neighborhood. The televised version integrates black-and-white images of the neighborhood and a soundtrack with a mix of hip-hop and traditional Jewish chants. “You could describe Anna Deavere Smith as a documentary filmmaker who has simply decided to dispense with the camera,” wrote David Richards in a 1992 review for The New York Times.

By that definition, Pop-Up is a magazine that has simply decided to dispense with the paper. Over the past six years, Pop-Up has built a loyal (not to say, fanatical) following and has sold out shows in minutes. Its founder, magazine writer Douglas McGray, realized that he had never met the photographers who shot images for his pieces. McGray launched Pop-Up Magazine to bring together all the creative people who make a magazine and have them show their work on stage, and then go out for drinks with the audience afterward. (McGray also recently launched a print/digital publication, The California Sunday Magazine, which is inserted once a month in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sacramento Bee.)

Most Pop-Up events are not recorded in any way, and that’s a big part of the appeal. “The audience is very committed,” says Pat Walters, a Pop-Up senior editor. “They buy in: ‘I’m just going to be here.’” Stories happen in the moment. As soon as they’re done, they’re gone.

In 2011, Walters produced something that highlighted what a Pop-Up experience can be. During a show produced in partnership with ESPN the Magazine, Walters made a “weird little short story, half animation, half radio story, half playful moment” about a time when record-breaking free diver Tanya Streeter nearly died.

Before beginning, Walters asked the audience to take a deep breath and hold it. They then heard from Walters that Streeter packs enough air into her lungs to fill four basketballs, and then from a scientist who studies free divers about how one’s heart rate slows down to as few as 10 beats per minute during a dive. They heard from Streeter herself about how the pressure of a deep dive bends her eardrums in. The piece also discusses how on one dive, Tanya may have suffered from nitrogen narcosis, a condition that induces disorientation and potential loss of consciousness from the effects of breathing nitrogen under pressure. During the dive she became confused and nearly didn’t make it back up to the surface.

As the audience listened, they saw a projection screen filled with Caribbean blue slowly darken, paralleling Streeter’s descent, until at the bottom, where Streeter almost died, the room went black. As Streeter recovered and rose, the blue returned. When the story ended, about four minutes later, roughly the duration of one of Streeter’s dives, Walters invited anyone still holding their breath to exhale.

In a more recent Pop-Up event, the audience enjoyed a dinner in which the elements of the meal connected to the stories they were being told. Water glasses were filled to a line that illustrated how low Lake Shasta had dipped during the drought. The napkins had word art describing “topics of conversation” for the diners. The plates were made of clay pulled up from an oil well. The dessert was made of fruits bred by a rare fruit collector. With live journalism, “the possibilities are virtually unlimited,” Walters says. “You can do everything you could do in radio, on TV, on the stage, and the people are there. You’re talking to them.”

Live shows give “Radiolab” more opportunity to improvise than when in the studio

The creative possibilities are what bring many journalists to live events. When “Radiolab” put on “Apocalyptical,” staff combined the music of Noveller with comedians like Reggie Watts and Ophira Eisenberg, and puppetry. As hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich started a segment about the long history of scientific debate over what, exactly, took down the dinosaurs, a large dino puppet crept out onstage. “It would be so much easier, for the scientists, and for you and I right now, frankly, if we could just ask somebody who was there, an eyewitness,” Abumrad said during the show, unaware that the dinosaur is on stage, cocking its head at the audience in a distinctly bird-like way. Abumrad and Krulwich, with the help of a “dinosaur translator,” then asked the beast what exactly happened to its friends.

“What we’re trying to do is something that’s creative-feeling,” says “Radiolab” executive producer Ellen Horne. “We try to create a system where there’s a lot of reporting and facts and storytelling but there’s also this opportunity to rehearse and play.” She also says live shows allow producers and performers to improvise, something that’s much harder to do in a studio: “With ‘Apocalyptical,’ we wrote maybe 20 endings for that show. Every night we’d go out and try something new.”

“Rabiolab” co-host Jad Abumrad explores the science of extinction during his show’s “Apocalyptical” tour stop in Oakland

“Rabiolab” co-host Jad Abumrad explores the science of extinction during his show’s “Apocalyptical” tour stop in Oakland

Kaitlin Prest, host and creative director of “The Heart,” came to live events looking for ways to have her work live on beyond the one-time broadcast. “How can you appreciate something culturally that is only listened to in transit?” she wonders. At one event for “The Heart,” in partnership with an experiential travel organization, seven couples travelled to an abandoned honeymooners resort in the Poconos full of heart-shaped bathtubs and round beds below mirrored ceilings. They were told to call the front desk when they arrived. When they picked up the receivers of the old phones on the bedside tables, they heard a special audio piece by “The Heart.” Other “Heart” events have included a kissing booth and the blindfolding of participants to create a new sensory experience.

“My secret goal is that every radio piece I make will live in the real world,” says Prest. She and the other producers are considering how to take their work from earbuds and speakers, listened to while closed off from the rest of the world, and make people interact with those same stories in person, together with other listeners.

The desire to bridge the gap between isolated listeners and shared space is one of the driving forces behind a new series produced by WBUR, one of Boston’s public radio stations, called “Listen Up,” which pulls together radio pieces around a theme and plays them for an audience gathered at the Institute of Contemporary Art. With the lights down, audience members hear radio stories without any visual component. They can close their eyes or look out onto the Boston Harbor through the theater’s vast windows, but there is nothing specifically designed for them to see.

The audience at the first “Listen Up” event heard the story of a woman whose family communicated with her kidnapped father in Colombia through a radio program that was broadcast into the jungle. They listened to the viral “bad haircut” story, where a reporter interviews his daughters about the terrible makeover one gave to the other. They heard Abumrad and Krulwich of “Radiolab” discuss the story behind the Golden Record sent floating out into space on the Voyager spacecraft.

The stories are all powerful celebrations of the human voice, but Lisa Tobin, senior producer of innovation at WBUR, wasn’t sure the format would work. “Asking people to focus on audio as a lone sensory experience was one of the most exciting things about it, and also the thing that terrified me,” she says. “Are they going to be bored out of their minds?” They weren’t. Tobin says audience reaction was positive enough to do another listening event, this time pegged to Valentine’s Day.

And advocacy groups are embracing the power of live events as well. In September, the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), a social justice organization, will take about 100 people on a train along the Capitol Corridor Amtrak line, from Oakland to Sacramento. Along the way, riders will hear three live stories about the history of California agriculture. “We picked this neat and vibrant swath of the state,” says Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, the project director at Cal Ag Roots, a new set of programs from CIRS. “About two million people ride that route a year, and its past is full of all kinds of stories.”

One story riders will hear is of the invention of the mechanical tomato harvester, a long-running collaboration between scientists at University of California, Davis. “They were the laughing stock of UC Davis, because they had so many prototypes that failed,” Carlisle-Cummins says. But when they finally designed a machine that could pick the tomatoes, and a strain of tomatoes that were hardy enough to survive picking, they completely changed the tomato farming industry. Tens of thousands of farmers were out of work, and the university system was sued.

“I am wading into this world of putting on this storytelling project and then recording these stories because I have listened to so many episodes of The Moth and ‘Radiolab’ and ‘This American Life,’” Carlisle-Cummins says. “I just find listening to things, first-person perspectives to be really powerful and just an interesting way to go through the world.”

Live events have potential financial as well as storytelling benefits. In some cases, the events themselves make money. Pop-Up tickets generally go for $25 to $55 a pop. StoryTour’s ticket sales pay Gross’s salary, and her storytellers get paid based on a profit-sharing model. “Radiolab” breaks even on its live events. Other publications have managed to turn their events into moneymakers. According to a recent study, The Wall Street Journal’s series of live events—in which journalists interview invited guests on stage—earns over $10 million a year.

Listeners are invited to interact in real life with stories they hear on the radio

Even if the events themselves don’t make money, they can still be a net gain for the outlet. According to “Radiolab” ’s Horne, live shows are a crucial way to grow audience and foster community, which can then be monetized, if necessary. “A lot of people are brought to a ‘Radiolab’ show by a ‘Radiolab’ fan,” Horne says. “It seems to be a way that fans are able to introduce ‘Radiolab’ to people who aren’t listening to podcasts.”

The community aspect is also one of the reasons live events are so popular. “There’s been this incredible rise in all of our lives of virtual experience and virtual community,” Horne says. “One of the things that interests us in doing these live events is that it satisfies a need for the ‘Radiolab’ creative staff and the audience to have a real physical experience together. It’s almost palpable this hunger for these real experiences.”

StoryTour’s Gross agrees. When she was doing market research for her venture, she went to Moth events and asked audience members why they were there. “What almost every single one said to me was some variant on, ‘I care about these stories because I recognize a piece of myself in them.’ Which is, as writers, the reason we all think stories are important.”

Ultimately, doing a good live show is hard. Journalists often excel in their chosen medium, whether that’s print or online or radio or television, but live theater is a whole new set of skills. Reporters aren’t necessarily used to blocking things out onstage, thinking about lighting and live pacing and the set, figuring out the motions of their storytellers, the facial expressions, or working with audio and visuals and music. The arc of a print story might hinge on a quote or a phrase or a description, where the narrative of a stage show might pivot on a turned back or some other movement. Turning a story from a print or radio piece into a stage performance means learning all those skills. If done well, though, live events can bring a whole new level of interest and impact to narrative nonfiction.

“Journalism can be really effective when it actually entertains people,” says Pop-Up’s Walters, “and they don’t feel like it’s something they should be paying attention to but it’s something they want to pay attention to.”

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A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Diana Marcum Thu, 30 Apr 2015 12:39:03 +0000 Diana Marcum is the first to acknowledge that her path to a Pulitzer Prize may be an unexpected one.

“My parents died when I was young. I didn’t get through college. I didn’t have any of the right credentials,” she says. “But I could write. People seemed to think I could write.”

That certainly was the judgment of the Pulitzer Prize Board, which last week awarded her the 2015 prize for feature writing for her series of stories in the Los Angeles Times about the impact of the drought on people living in California’s Central Valley.

Diana Marcum

Diana Marcum

Marcum, 52, had freelanced for the Los Angeles Times on and off for years before being hired as a staff writer in 2011. She covers the 900-square-mile Central Valley for the newspaper and pursued the drought stories in between chasing fires and the other news a beat reporter has to manage. And while she and photographer Michael Robinson Chavez knew from the beginning that they wanted to explore the impact of the drought in a serious and sustained way, the series never carried the self-important imprint of a capital-P “Project.” The pair just went out, looked for stories and found them.

She wrote the pieces late at night at her dining-room table, fueled by Diet Coke and a copy of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” a gift from her editor that she set out to remind herself of the stakes of doing her subject justice.

We talked by phone as Marcum sat on her front porch in Fresno, where our conversation was momentarily interrupted by the arrival of a congratulatory bouquet of flowers and Marcum’s friendly chat with her mail carrier, whom she knows by name. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

How did the drought stories come about?

I cover the Central Valley. I live here, and where the drought was hitting wasn’t the city. It was out in the little towns and the farms, way far off the road. You can’t just go around and knock on doors. It’s pretty hard to just find the doors. This was an area where life is hard and people are incredibly resilient and there’s just these stories of just trying to make your way in the world. Little stories that fascinate me. I mean they’re not little stories, but they’re little-told stories.

I had already been driving around and going to all these little places because we were thinking about doing a series of stories on people who were hungry in the middle of the bread basket. And then we started seeing the drought hit. And remember, these stories were written about a year before anybody was paying attention to the drought. So that was how it started. We just started talking to people and seeing where the drought was hitting and it was in pockets. Like you could even go to a town, and you could talk to the first people you saw and they’d say, “Oh we’ve been fine, we all found jobs, we’re still farming.” But it’s because of California’s weird water rights, right? You could go three blocks away and there was a whole neighborhood of people out of work. So you had to really, really look.

You and the photographer, Michael Robinson Chavez, had envisioned from the beginning that it would be a series. Did you think of it in any more specific terms than that?

We started with the most vulnerable. We started with the farm workers who didn’t have papers. We did that story. And then, oh my goodness, you know, this is so much worse than we realized. And then we just kind of worked our way up. We started with the farm worker, then we did the small farmer. By then, a whole entire town was out of water. So we went there and then the land was sinking, so we found a small town where the land was sinking. It was always just kind of following the journalism gods.

These people are in really difficult circumstances but they opened up to you. How did you gain their trust?

We just go out and make friends. It takes a little bit of time. We hang out, we just sort of invite ourselves in, and we eat samosas with the Singh family, and say, “Oh, can we look at your almond tree?” And we do a lot of listening, maybe to things that would never end up in the story. People really want to talk, you know. I mean we all do. You know when you find someone that will really listen to you, most people appreciate that opportunity. I know I do.

This image of farm worker Hector Ramirez ran with the first story in the series. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/ Los Angeles Times.

This image of farm worker Hector Ramirez ran with the first story in the series. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/ Los Angeles Times.

Talk a little bit more about your relationship with your photographer. It sounds like you were together on this from the get-go.

Oh yeah, very much so. He’s very well-traveled, and he loves food, and he’s just charming. So he’s very good at talking to people, striking up a conversation. You know, if they’re from Yemen, he covered a story in their hometown. He always seems to have some touchstone with people, which is really handy. And I think he’s the more driven one of us. He’s the more, “Oh this is a national news story, this is gonna be a series.” And I’m more the writer, just kind of feeling it out as I go and thinking about exactly what’s in front of me in that moment. I think we make a good team.

I think that the other thing that’s kind of interesting about us working together is that our stuff doesn’t match. We work together in that we’re finding the people and figuring out the stories, but we’re not the kind of team where we’re telling the same story. There’s always some quirky side element to his photographs. I mean, you’ll see the certain farmer leaning on the fence and the dry landscapes, but there’ll always be a kid in the corner playing the trumpet or something. Which is I think pretty much how I write. So it’s interesting when I finally see his pictures and he finally sees my stories, and we saw such different things, but we saw the same overall story.

Walk me through the reporting process. How long were you out in the field? How long did the stories take to write? What were some of the challenges putting it together?

I think that where most of the time gets used is walking around and just talking to people. It’s interesting because I don’t know when I’m talking to people a lot of the time that that’s going to be part of the story. I find that what’s in my notebook is not what goes in the story. There’s like some back part of my brain that’s videotaping everything we do and later on, those are the things that I suddenly realize are key when you start putting it together in your mind.

How long did it typically take you to write a story?

Central Valley is my beat, and we were keeping it to ourselves that we had some grander vision. So we had not a lot of time to work on them. I would say a couple of weeks maybe.

So it’s not as though someone was saying to you, an editor was saying, “Go off for six months, Diana, and tell the story of the drought.”

No, not at all. I was covering fires and everything else. We still had our regular work to do. Which I kind of like, you know? I mean it’s so exciting winning the Pulitzer… I just wasn’t sure how a newspaper reporter who covers 900 square miles on top of trying to do this would ever compete with magazine writers that have a whole year to work on a story. So secretly I’m kind of jazzed.

The stories are very highly focused, without a lot of outside experts or data, etc. Did you have to fight for that approach?

Well, these stories ran in Column One. And Column One is this tradition at the Los Angeles Times. I’ve been reading it since I was a child. So there’s always been a place on the front page of the Los Angeles Times for stories that were quirky or sad or just full of humanity, just full of life. Just stories that were interesting to read. I think that we’ve not even ever defined it any more narrowly than that because we want them to run the gamut, right? I mean, they just have to be interesting. They have to be special. They have to be different. And that’s it. Just have at it, you know?

The LA Times has this umbrella that allows storytelling. I mean real storytelling, where you take somebody into a world and keep them there from the beginning to the end, and the main thing is about the characters and the feelings. And now it’s not like you’re going to be telling a story and then interrupt yourself and say, “Oh, and let me explain the history of almonds in California.” It breaks things up. That’s why it doesn’t work if too many fingers get in the pie. And I’m not talking about the paper I’m at now. I think that any feature writer has been through that thing where they start deciding they need two graphs of this and three graphs of that. And the story gets lost.

What was the editing process like?

It’s a dream. It’s just a dream, a dream come true. When you finally, finally meet somebody who’s like-minded. Kari Howard is the Column One editor. I’m a state reporter so it goes through the regular editing process with Steve Clow. He’s the state editor. He’s more hard-news minded. So he’s looking for facts, kicking the tires, which is great. And then it goes to Kari. And we’re reading the lines out loud, and we’re weighing connotations… We’re having a very back-and-forth conversation. It’s not that kind of editing where, “Oh, here’s my changes. Take a look and see what you think.” It’s like, “Well, I think you’re missing a beat here… Oh I see what you’re saying. Why don’t we move this line here? Oh yeah, we did that, but do you think we have too much of this?”

It’s very back and forth. We’re almost like those chipmunks from the Disney cartoons, you know? It’s very respectful and very warm, and we’ve developed a friendship from working together on so many stories. So we can almost complete each other’s sentences at this point. And sometimes if something isn’t working, we’ll say, “Let’s take a pass at this and see what you have.” And we’ll come back the next day and find out we changed the exact same things.

What did change in the stories and what didn’t, from start to finish?

Well, the leads and the ends hardly changed. I mean if you have your beginning and your end, sometimes, things move around in the middle in service of those two things. But as long as you know for sure this is where we have to start and this is where we have to end, then you’re home.

Do you start with the beginning or do you start with the end or do you start somewhere in between?

Ugh, it’s really my weak point. But I start at the beginning and I go to the end. Certainly, when I was a younger reporter, and editors are trying to hurry you up, and they always say, “If you don’t have your lead, just go write something else.” No.

You know, I have to have the blank page, and I can’t do anything until I have my lead. I have to really believe in the lead to at least get everything else on paper. Even if it changes later, you know? I’m not suggesting it for other writers, but for me personally, I’m a top-to-bottom kind of person.

One of the things I thought was really striking about these stories was the use of detail and imagery. For example, there’s a line in one story, about two girls, “a tangle of giggles.” I would love to hear about your process. Do you just see those things and put them in your notebook? Do you have to work at it?

I’m a night owl. So I’m usually writing at two o’clock in the morning with a Diet Coke, you know, getting a little punchy. And I’m usually playing the scenes in my mind. I’m seeing things. I’m kind of replaying. I’m watching what happened in my head. And a lot of times what ends up in the story is not what ended up in my notebook. I think it comes more from those mental images. And I was thinking about Francisco’s daughters, and I just typed “a tangle of giggles.” I just typed it. And I remember it just came out of nowhere. I remember feeling delighted. You know that feeling like, “Oh! I like that.”

There are some light moments in these stories, too.


Why do you feel it was important to include those?

I think my overall purpose was to introduce people to each other, to let them get to know one another. And I think how we bond with each other is through laughter. Like, the people we like to be with are the people whose sense of humor we share. I mean that’s how you make friends with people, like when you’re traveling. If you can share a little laugh with someone, that’s what breaks the ice and makes you feel a little comfortable.

There’s a saying. I don’t remember who said it, but my dad used to say it a lot: “Angels can fly if they take themselves lightly.” I think that’s true for a story, too. When you’re talking about something that’s very wrenching and has a lot of pathos, if it’s just all the grit and despair, it’s not servicing telling the reality because the kind of people that I’m writing about are very resilient, and they have humor. And there’s something to be admired there. And it usually comes through in the lighter moments. And you don’t care as much about the dark unless there’s at least a little pinpoint of light.

Pistachio farmer Fred Lujan   struggled to keep his trees alive. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

Pistachio farmer Fred Lujan struggled to keep his trees alive. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

I described the stories as quiet because they feel understated. There are moments, like when Fred Lujan starts crying, that other writers might have been tempted to really blow out or overdramatize. But you didn’t feel the need to gussy it up.

Oh, God no. Well, extraneous things never add power. Power comes from essence, right?

What was the moment like when you heard you had won the Pulitzer Prize?

When they said my name, I just did that thing you do when you’re a kid. I closed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Because when you’re a kid and you want to check if something’s real, you know how you just close your eyes for a minute? And then it was a whirl and I was happy and there were speeches and there was champagne.

Why do you think these particular stories resonated both with the Pulitzer Board and readers?

I’m of a divided mind on that. Because I always worry that no one’s going to be interested in reading them. You could argue that nothing happens. I mean my editor Davan [Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj] — his favorite story in the series is the one with the farmer who gives the water to his neighbors. And he says it’s his favorite story where nothing happens. So I guess there’s a part of me that always expects, and always does get some of those letters saying, “What’s this doing on the front page?” And then they’ll run down the list of news that day that they find far more important. I don’t know why it resonated, but I feel that it’s such a validation of this writing that it did. It just makes me so happy to think that there are stories whose main purpose is just to introduce people and make them understand a certain way of life or make them feel like they know this person.

That’s narrative, right? That’s what narrative does.

Right, exactly. That’s what narrative does. So at least this kind of narrative. Even though they’re very sad stories and very tragic circumstances, people will write me and say, “You know, I was having such a bad day, and then I read about this guy. And it made me want to do something kind for someone.” I get these “Thank you for the story” notes. And I am really the wrong person to be thanking; I’m just telling the story. But you get the privilege of being the go-between, of saying, “Hey, this is part of the world too.” If we only write about the bad, that’s not a complete picture.There is a lot of perseverance and faith and friendship and humor. There’s everything. It’s a big, complex world of good and bad. And the good counts.



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Three Pulitzer Winners to Read Now Tue, 21 Apr 2015 19:04:51 +0000 The Pulitzer Prizes are revealed in one fell swoop, winners and finalists alike, 21 separate categories that cover everything from music to history to local news reporting. And many of the winning stories consist of multiple parts. So, if you’re like most of us, yesterday’s announcement of the 2015 prizes suddenly dumped a lot more reading on your nightstand.

Where to start?  We’ll try to help with the suggestion of three prize-winning entries that stand out for their storytelling. A caveat, though: don’t let your exploration of this year’s best in journalism stop here. These are just a few highlights among many excellent pieces of work.

The New York Times won the international reporting award for its coverage of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, with a team who, as the newspaper’s nominating letter notes, included a Pulitzer-prize winning physician, a videographer so familiar with the area that he speaks a local tribal dialect and a staff reporter who is Liberian-American and returned to her homeland to write about the outbreak. The entire package is well worth your time but begin with the two videos by Ben Solomon. These taut, stark stories — one about ambulance drivers, the other about patients dying at the hospital door — illustrate the power that sophisticated visual journalism can bring to a complex issue.

Many narrative journalists, of course, turn first to the feature writing prize. This year’s contest was of particular interest because, for the first time, the Pulitzer board allowed the submission of entries from online and print magazines here and in the investigative reporting category. While The New Yorker fielded a finalist in Jennifer Gonnerman’s article about the three-year imprisonment of a teenager at Rikers Island, the winner was Diana Marcum’s intimate, detailed portraits of people affected by the drought in California for The Los Angeles Times. These are quiet stories in the best sense of the word, offering subtle but striking moments like this one, when a struggling store owner is asked for credit by a man buying two packages of hot dog buns and a roll of paper towels:

“Hey, Kenny, OK if I pay for these after Friday?” he asked, lowering his voice.

Alrihimi nodded. But his stomach dropped. This was a man who had never asked for credit before.

The store owner had 29 receipts that constituted the week’s IOUs. On the backs of two torn-up cigarette cartons, he wrote the running accounts: the ones where they owed $34, paid $12, then charged $8.

“It’s too sad to say no. I think of their kids,” said Alrihimi, a father of five. “They don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. We’re all trying to get through, little-by-little-bit.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for its coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., but the images are anything but fleeting. Some, like the photograph of a young man tossing back a tear gas canister, have already etched themselves into our collective memory of the events; none shy away from the raw emotions and uncomfortable aspects of this story, including one photo that portrays a gun-toting looter. It’s clear from the depth and range of the work that, as the newspaper’s director of photography told The New York Times photo blog, “The staff are experts at St. Louis.”

Again, this is just an introduction to a collection of remarkable journalism, both winners and finalists. So when you’ve finished these, move on to the Post and Courier’s stunning series on deaths from domestic violence in South Carolina, which won the medal for public service, and keep going from there.






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Ari Daniel: “It’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads.” Wed, 15 Apr 2015 12:32:54 +0000 If you heard a story last week on NPR’s “Here and Now” about a new kind of nuclear reactor or perhaps remember a recent piece on PRI’s “The World” about the death of the word “uh,” you’ve encountered the work of Ari Daniel Shapiro, a scientist turned science storyteller.

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Shapiro, who goes by Ari Daniel professionally to avoid confusion with the other Ari Shapiro on public radio, earned a Ph.D in biological oceanography from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution but realized he didn’t want to continue doing research. Instead, he now works as a science journalist for public radio and NOVA and also hosts and produces the Boston branch of Story Collider, a live event and podcast where people present personal stories about science.

After a talk on the Harvard campus, he stopped by the Nieman Foundation to chat about the world of science narrative. An edited conversation follows:

You’ve spoken about the need to tell stories that include a thread of hope, especially in science journalism. Can you elaborate on that?

I feel very strongly that one of my roles as a science journalist is to achieve science literacy, is to help educate the public about science. I think that sometimes people have a kind of automatic response to science or to math where when they know that’s the topic coming, they shut down for a variety of reasons.

I think it’s important that I come up with strategies to help circumvent that shutting down. I speak specifically around the notion of stories around the environment or climate change. I think one reason why people would shut down is if they think that they’ve heard the story before, or that by listening to the story, nothing’s really going to get better.

I’m not saying that you delete the reality, but I think it’s about how you contextualize it. I think that it’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads in them… It’s not like all the stories have that, but that’s one thought for how to create an entry point.

I think it’s just who I am. I try to find ways of adding positive sparks to narrative, to life.

What are some of the other challenges of doing science narrative and how do you address them?

I feel like one role I have when I’m doing my job is to empower my interviewee to participate in the story… During an interview, if someone gives me an answer that I know is not usable, I work really hard during the course of the interview to get — I want them to be a participant in the story. If we’ve taken the time to set this up and I’m spending all this time, I want them to be on tape in the story.

I think it creates a better radio piece when I can find this other angle in. Sometimes I’ll know we’ll have the science done, but there’s no story yet. Then I go around poking a bit.

I did an interview just last week about a new startup that’s experimenting with a different kind of nuclear reactor, and they’re hoping to make clean, safe, and very efficient nuclear energy, environmentally friendly at that. One of the scientists I interviewed was speaking in incredibly dense language.

That’s a big challenge. Because scientists can feel safe around vocabulary and sentence constructions that they write and that they express their technical ideas in, which don’t work on the radio. As he’s talking, I know it’s not going to work… I forget what I said, but it was something like, “I don’t understand that. That’s way too technical.” Basically, “What’s happening here? What in general?”

Then he gave it. He was like, “I want to help make clean, safe, energy.” Then, the young woman who started, co-founded the company said, “And save the world.”

That’s a good thing that I can use. They’ll both be in the piece.

How do you deal with story fatigue, especially when it’s regarding an important issue that should be talked about and reported on?

I try to be a bit of a proxy for the audience. Because I sometimes feel fatigue with this subject. The question is how do I take a story and make it feel different?

One of my editors asked me recently to find stories about climate change that were positive. I find climate change really tough. It’s the sort of thing where I have to find the right in. Someone had suggested a story that was taking place out in Arizona, in Tempe. Even going into it, I wasn’t feeling thrilled about it.

It’s about a team of people that are there who are working on carbon capture, coming up with a material that will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that they can then use to sequester somewhere else.

With this one, during the interview I found myself feeling really hopeful. Like, buoyant by the possibility of what they were suggesting… I felt the fatigue drift away. That’s an example.

I think part of it is I spend a lot of time just looking for the stories that are not going to feel fatiguing. If they do, then trying to find a different angle or a different topic or a way to address it. Ultimately I think I try to shed that. I try to make sure I don’t feel fatigued by it, and if I feel excited, then hopefully I can convey that excitement in the piece.

You’re the Boston producer of Story Collider, a live show and podcast that presents stories about science. What role do you think live events now play in narrative and storytelling? How is it similar or different from your other work?

They’re all variations on a theme. What’s different is that it’s live and you can rehearse…The other producer on the show and I work with the storytellers in advance to get them ready for the big night. In some ways, it’s a bit like working through drafts of a radio piece.

The live storytelling has this wild element to it, which I think makes it a kind of — what’s the right word? It makes the experience, brings it alive and makes it electric.

… The sense of it feeling real and visceral and raw — I think there are ways of doing that with radio. Each provides its own magic. The story, the live storytelling is, it’s a real thrill. To be up there and to have such a positive vibe in the room, people have come out to hear people talk about science. It’s like a social night out. It’s really gratifying.

What else would you want to include or emphasize in a discussion of storytelling, particularly science storytelling?

I think that ultimately what drives many, many scientists is this curiosity that remained active from when they were kids. Many kids are scientists just naturally. They don’t take things for granted and they’re asking why and how about everything. Scientists just pull that forward.

Science can be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Because I think that questioning and curiosity is inherent to the human condition. People can tap into that. As a reporter, you can tap into that to hopefully reawaken that sense of questioning.

That’s why I don’t like to think about dumbing something down. I think people can handle complexity. Because I think people are curious beings somewhere inside.


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Weekend picks: Child stars, scandal and poetry Fri, 10 Apr 2015 14:28:05 +0000 Want some smart, provocative, moving stories for your weekend inspiration? Here are Storyboard’s picks of some notable recent work, ranging from poetry about race to essays on journalistic misdeeds and a tale about a forgotten child star from the 1970s.

Claudia Rankine’s fifth volume of poetry, “Citizen: An American Lyric” won this year’s National Book Critics Circle poetry award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a remarkable book, weaving together prose poems, essays and visual images in a sharp, haunting exploration of racism. And, in a week that featured the release of a horrific video showing a South Carolina police officer repeatedly shooting an unarmed, fleeing man in the back, her voice takes on even more resonance. Here, in a poem that explicitly addresses the issue of black men being pulled over by police, she writes:

“Then flashes, a siren, a stretched-out roar– and you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

This YouTube video, depicting 1970s child star Mason Reese breaking down into tears on “The Mike Douglas Show,” prompted Jonathan Goldstein, host of the CBC radio progam “WireTap,” to investigate why clips of the precocious television and film actor had suddenly begun showing up on the video-sharing service 40 years after his heyday.

In a co-production with the podcast “Reply All,” Goldstein tracks down Reese to find out what became of him. The story is a beautifully structured hourglass, seamlessly leading you from general musings about late-night nostalgia to the claustrophobia of a memento-filled two-room apartment in New York and back out again. And, like the best of this kind of work, it takes you through a narrative that is far more complex and nuanced than you might expect.

In the chorus of reaction to the release this week of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on the discredited Rolling Stone article about campus rape, two pieces stood out. The first is the Columbia Journalism Review Q-and-A with the report’s lead authors, journalism school dean Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs. The interview offers valuable insights into what the two discovered during the investigation and believe should be its lessons. Coll, in particular, emphasizes one interesting point that did not get as much attention elsewhere:

“If anyone thinks there was a golden age of excellent reporting practice, that’s probably wrong. But certainly now, there are a lot of new entrants and a lot of young self-educating reporters who need a way to talk about these practices at a level of real ethical detail and seriousness. Because if you get it wrong that can not only have consequences that are serious for others but you can end your career, real quickly.”

And in The New Yorker, George Packer implicates the “tyranny of narrative” in the debacle, citing various points where the reporter and editors made decisions that favored story over truth:

“One can imagine the impulses competing in the feature editor’s mind—carefulness and transparency on the one hand, the stylistic pleasure of an uninterrupted flow of narrative on the other. It’s a question that comes up in every piece of literary journalism worth the name.”






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