In “We’re Numb to the Numbers and Deaf to History,” the Esquire columnist explores how we’ve worked the pandemic into “the habits of our daily being,” from the numbing forward march of the death toll to the grim sameness of news segments. For evidence, he connects discouraging dots from the Influenza Archive at the University of Michigan, which chronicles the history of the deadly 1918 flu, to wrenching reporting at AL.com, which chronicles the current crisis there. His point: we have grown inured to stats that show we’ve learned less-than-nothing in the last 100 years.
But the column accomplishes the opposite of the numbing he decries. It jolts.
The effect of the overall piece is electric. And Pierce is, of course, was writing about a highly charged subject.
But his newsletter is constructed with building blocks journalists can employ to enliven any subject, from a budget story to a lopsided basketball game.
- Repetition with a twist
It’s no shock Pierce uses the phrase “numb to the numbers” in the column; after all, it’s in the headline.
But in addition to the phrase’s internal repetition — “numb” folding so neatly into “numbers” — he also uses it several times throughout, with each use accompanied by more evidence and gaining more power. He also changes its placement within paragraphs. The first use is the lede; the second emphatically ends a paragraph; the third and fourth are in back-to-back sentences, allowing Pierce to chain one theme (numb to the numbers) to another (deaf to our history).
In an earlier interview with Storyboard, Pierce said, “I write with echoes — refrains, actually — a lot. Maybe it’s how the musical muse came down to me from my mom, who used to play piano in saloons. I try not to overdo it. It’s one of those things I keep an eye on. Sometimes, it really doesn’t work.”
Clark also writes, “Repetition craves variation.” That’s worth keeping in mind at the end of Pierce’s column, when he remixes its signature phrase: “Over 104 years, we should have known better. Numbers should never have made us numb.”
It’s a small twist; the rearranging of a few words. But it provides a final surprise and a lesson in changing a pattern to make it stick.
- Trust readers
Pierce compares COVID statistics that ring out like “Angelus bells over city traffic.” He references the “butcher’s bill.” He dares to name the roll of COVID stories seem to sort themselves into categories: “the Exhausted Nurses story, the No Beds Available story, and, most maddening of all, the Radio Talk Show Host Who Railed Against Vaccines and Masks and Died of COVID story.”
This is a journalist who trusts readers to understand cultural references, pay attention to the world around them and generally keep up with his pace.
He earns some latitude because he’s writing a newsletter for subscribers; his audience has opted in. But while journalists should always guard against becoming opaque, it’s more fun to catch up with a writer than always be a few steps ahead.
- Ground news in history
Pierce recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his blog, and over the decade his readers have come to expect two things from him: a robust use of the word “shebeen,” and a passion for history. A post on gerrymandering invokes Elbridge Gerry, the eccentric politician the term was named for. A piece on the moon landing, explored here, mused on what’s changed and hasn’t in the decades since.
Now, in a few paragraphs of his COVID newsletter, Pierce brings in a biting piece of history: a premature celebration by The Boston Globe at the apparent end of the 1918 flu pandemic —which proved not to be the ending at all. Pierce writes, “The amusement and mirth (referred to in the Globe story) had a short shelf-lilfe. In the fall of 1918, nearly 5,000 Bostonians died from the resurgent flu.” In another portion, he references a similar sequence in Birmingham, Alabama, from 104 years ago.
Marking these historical echoes gives the column further context and richness; it’s always a good idea, if time and resources are available, to search for such echoes so they can sound in your stories, too.
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career.