This week, journalists had their version of the Oscars (minus the red carpet and catty remarks about who-wore-what). The Pulitzer announcements are always an electric moment in a newsroom. Back in the old days, we’d gather around one designated computer and wait for the AP bulletins; now, the Pulitzer gang live-streams, and live-tweets, the winners. But one thing hasn’t changed: It’s wonderful when the winner in even the Breaking News category has stories that take their cues from literary journalism. I highlight some of the winners below, but first, some cool things on Storyboard this week:
Kent Russell and “They Burn Witches Here.” Contributor Davis Harper thinks the lede to this piece about real-life witch hunts is the most shocking one he’s ever read. Yeah, it’s pretty blood-curdling. Russell wrote the story for The Huffington Post’s digital magazine, Highline (hurrah — more of these, please). He says, “I had a graduate school professor, David Samuels, and his advice was if you can think of something kind of nuts and build a realistic idea of it in your mind, it probably exists in the world somewhere. I’ve often used that as a springing-off point.”
The soundtrack: “Burn the Witch,” by Radiohead. I’m not sure a song has ever fit a story better. “Stay in the shadows/Cheer at the gallows/This is a roundup.”
One Great Sentence
“I go to sleep every night knowing I have the blood of so many on my hands and no amount of soap could ever wash these stains away.”
C.J. Chivers, “The Fighter,” The New York Times Magazine, December 28, 2016. Read why we think it’s great.
Hunter S. Thompson and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I found it hard to believe we’d never done a “Why’s This So Good?” piece on this ur-Thompson story when David Ulin pitched doing an essay against the backdrop of our current unreality reality. (Prescient? “When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.”) Ulin writes, “To reread ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ at a distance of 40 years is to see anew the metaphor Thompson is creating, the echo between his inner disorientation and that of the nation through which he moves.”
The soundtrack: “Viva Las Vegas,” by Elvis Presley. I don’t remember this song being such a fever dream. You get the discombobulating feeling that the backing music has been speeded up to play at .45 speed while Elvis’ vocals are at .33 (until the end, when he gets pretty helium-powered himself).
What I’m reading online: As I said in the intro, I’d like to spotlight some of the best storytelling found in this week’s Pulitzer winners.
- Oakland’s East Bay Times won the Breaking News category for its coverage of the “Ghost Ship” fire. The winning package has this well-told reconstruction of the deadly inferno, including a final text (will those ever fail to haunt?) from a daughter to her mother: “I love you. I’m going to die, Mom.”
- In case you didn’t click on the One Great Sentence above, it’s from The New York Times Magazine piece that won C.J. Chivers the Pulitzer for Feature Writing. The subject, PTSD, has sadly become a stock feature topic; Chivers fills the story with so much detail and pathos, it seems like we’ve never read one before.
- The Salt Lake Tribune won the Local Reporting Pulitzer for its series of stories about the horrible treatment of sexual abuse victims at Brigham Young University, whose Honor Code Office sounds a little like Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. This piece by Erin Alberty is eye-opening.
- The New York Times won the International Reporting award for its coverage of Vladimir Putin and the sinister apparatus that has built up around him. The most chilling story is this one by Andrew Kramer about the growing body count of those who dare defy the Kremlin.
What’s on my bedside table: “South and West,” by Joan Didion. This book proves that I will read anything by Didion. It’s a slim volume of notes that Didion wrote (no doubt on the typewriter she traveled with) on trips across the South and in California. They feel a bit scant, even stillborn. But she still amazes with her observational skills. Has there ever been a better eavesdropper in journalism? And this line, about a Gulf coast resort laid bare by a hurricane, is wonderful: “But even in the good years there must have been an uneasiness there. They sat on those porches and waited for something to happen.”
What’s on my turntable: Although I spend most of my time listening to music on Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. This week’s vinyl: “Dusty in Memphis,” by Dusty Springfield. I thought this might make a nice companion for the Didion book. Of course, it outshines the book by a long shot. It’s in my Top 20 albums (and her beehive is in my Top 20 pop-star hairstyles). Feeling down? Put on “Son of a Preacher Man.”
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.