Our first Editors’ Roundtable of the month looked at “Diving Headlong into a Sunny Paradise,” by Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times, in which a young couple arrives in Florida hoping to start a new life. DeGregory won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2009 for “The Girl in the Window” and has received many other awards during her years at the Virginian-Pilot and in St. Petersburg. Even though she insisted that her editor, Mike Wilson, “carves the story from the block of wood I give him,” DeGregory agreed to speak with us by phone last week about her work. In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about chasing a story all the way into the “ocean,” the value of riding the bus, and the sad aftermath of Dan and Jenna’s tale.
How did you find Dan and Jenna, the couple fleeing Wisconsin to make a life in Florida?
We were actually with one of the girls we’ve been following for this project about drug court. She rides the bus to work at this pizza place every day. She said, “Hey, you should ride the bus sometime with us and see all the people pushing pills.”
So we just hopped on the bus with her one morning. Of course it takes an hour and a half to get 20 minutes down the road. But we were sitting on the bus watching the world go by. This couple was across from us, and they kept kissing and kissing. They were really young and cute and as pale as could be. They each had a little duffel bag and a backpack. She kept asking questions: “What kind of bird is that? Is that a gulper bird? What kind of tree is that? Oh, my god – do oranges grow on trees?” She was so in awe of the world going by.
So John [Pendygraft], the photographer, was sitting next to me, and he snapped a picture of them kissing. They looked up and smiled, and I introduced myself. They told us, “We just got to Florida for the first time. We’ve been on the Greyhound for three days.” They had switched from the Greyhound to the city bus right when we got on.
We left our drug court girl at her pizza place and followed them. They said, “We’re going to go find the ocean today. The first thing we want to do is find the ocean.” Of course, we don’t have the ocean here; we have the gulf. But we looked at each other, and went “Hmmm.” We asked if we could come along. So we spent the rest of the day following them, changing buses – basically doing the journey that’s in the story. We left them after they got into the water about 4:30 or 5that evening.
So it was one day of contact?
One day of reporting. And we got his aunt’s cell phone and called back and took them out to lunch and ferreted out more of the story. But we didn’t know until after that initial day that he was on probation. That came up after we backgrounded him the next day.
Did you ask him about it?
Yes. That story happened on a Friday, which is also perfect. We backgrounded him Monday and said, “Ay-yi-yi.” I asked my editor, “What do we do with this?”
My editor said, “Ask him about what happened.” Because most of the stuff that he had done was pretty minor. It’s not like he was an ax murderer. So we took him out and talked to him about it, and he said, “Yeah, I did some stupid things when I was young.” He went through the litany of each of the things. The worst thing he had done was steal a car. He told us vignettes about each one of them, which matched up with the police report we’d pulled. He said, “I just need to check in with my probation officer. I should have done that, but he’s not going to come looking for me.”
We said, “Well, do you want us to still do the story?” It was supposed to be a happy story, sort of a Florida fairy tale story. And so many people are running from something. My editor said, “If we’re honest about it, and he’s cool with it, we’ll put a line in there, saying we know he’s on probation, so we don’t get caught looking like we weren’t aware of that.” That’s where we left it. It was totally up to him if he wanted to do the story, and he did. He was excited about it.
In terms of the story itself, you weave in their backstories, but mostly you keep focused on this moment in which they’re suspended between the past and the future – a very narrow slice of time. Did you know from the beginning that you would frame it that way?
Yeah, I did. We have a thing in the Times called “Encounters” that runs on the front page. They’re usually 20 inches, but this one was a little longer. It’s just a moment when something happens, someone is on a precipice, or something is about to change. So from the first time they said, “We’re going to go to the ocean today,” I thought, “That’s a great Encounter.” They’re on a quest. It’s going to end – either they find the “ocean” or they don’t. It can be self-contained on this bus and this journey.
Some people commented and asked if I had ridden with them all the way from Wisconsin. Dang, I would have loved to do that. I had a lot more about their journey before they got here, but my editor thought I should frame it as tightly as possible and start from that moment they arrived in Florida – which I think was the right decision.
You create two levels of experiencing the story. On one level, we’re right there with Dan and Jenna, seeing Florida for the first time. And then there are two sentences tucked into the middle, where you speak directly to the reader, to the Floridians who read the paper. Can you talk a little about that?
I had more of that that got edited out, which in the end was probably a good thing. I had a whole section where I waxed about how Florida has hardly any natives. If they’re native, they’re my mom’s age – they haven’t been here for eight generations or anything. And most everyone has a story about the first time they visited Florida, and they fell in love.
That’s why I thought this was such a Florida story. Unlike any of the other places I’ve ever lived, there’s something magical about the first time you see a palm tree or the first time you put your toes in the sand. But when you live here for 10 years, and you don’t want to get sunburned, and you have kids’ soccer, and homework, and work, you forget. It becomes part of the background. So I wanted to incorporate some of that, something that would turn the camera away from them a minute and toward the reader and say, “Remember that? Remember what that was like?”
The kids seemed like everyman characters. I got lucky and ran into them on a bus. I couldn’t have gone out and found them, but every day there’s someone like that who lands here. I wanted it to be about the experience of coming to Florida as much as it was about those kids experiencing it.
What happened after the story ran?
It was actually really unsettling, the way things played out. The story ran on Memorial Day, which was a great beachy day for it to run. We had the day off. That morning I was with John, the photographer, at the beach. The kid in the story, Dan, called. He loved the story. It was maybe 10:30 that morning. He was asking if we could get extra copies. Could we bring him some pictures?
That afternoon he called back, and there were like 60 or 70 comments online. All of them were snarky and negative and saying his girlfriend was going to end up dancing on a pole, and they would end up pushing drugs. Readers can be mean sometimes. A lot of it had to do with the fact that since he’s on probation, “Do we want another loser living in Florida?” He got really upset about the story. We tried to talk to him about it, and we got the comments shut down and taken offline, so that wouldn’t be part of the context of it.
Before we published the story, I had called his probation officer. He said, “I know he’s in Florida. His boss called from Wendy’s. He’s not a big deal, he just needs to go register with the Florida probation people down there and let him know he’s there.” That was before the story ran.
They held it for a couple weeks – I don’t know why. They probably wanted it to run on Memorial Day. In any case, Jenna called me like three days after the story ran and said, “Dan’s in jail.” And she was crying.
We couldn’t figure out how that played out. She said, “You all turned him in.” I said, “No, we didn’t.” I was careful not to put his aunt’s last name or where they were staying in the story. I didn’t put where he was working or anything identifiable in there. Come to find out, his aunt actually turned him in. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with the story or not, but she turned him in for violation of probation, and they sent him back to Wisconsin.
You had talked to his probation officer before, but as far you know, it was due to his aunt making some more formal complaint?
As far as I know. And he also had missed a court date. He had up until his court date to register in Florida. You can just change your state, if you’re on probation – at least for some things. But he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t called in. I think that when he missed his court date, there was also some flag that went up – one that wasn’t issued by his probation officer but was issued by a judge.
It felt terrible. John and I were both so upset that this had happened, because it was never our intention.
You’ve done a lot of different stories over the years. Was there anything with this story that would make you approach reporting or writing differently in the future?
I think if I had known from the beginning that he was on probation, I might not have been as enamored with the “happy story” idea. I might not even have done it if he had told us that day on the bus. It doesn’t make me want to do these stories any less, and I’m really glad we backgrounded him. It would have been worse if his aunt had turned him in, and we hadn’t known he was on probation, and then we had to write a follow up.
It was hard not to feel guilty that in some way we had affected this kid, but once I found out it was his aunt and not some random reader or bounty hunter that had tracked him down, that helped a little bit.
These stories are out in our communities all the time. I give this little talk at newspapers and colleges about how to find stories. The first tip is to ride the bus. You can always find stories on the bus. People so often are at some kind of crossroads, and obviously, they’re on a journey if they’re on a bus. You have time to talk with them. It’s a whole different demographic than a lot of the people we write about.
I think it happens a lot to reporters, where you’re out on one story, and you see another story that’s a little bit more intriguing, or it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a while. You have to be able to turn the corner midstream.
Is there anything else you want to say about how the story came together?
One thing that’s hard to do when you’re on a story like that is to not interfere. We kept wanting to help them find the beach. It was really hard to let them take all these wrong turns. It was 100 degrees out and we were all dying to get out to the water.
Also, following the story in the moment is so important. We had other things we were supposed to do that afternoon. I was in a dress. I lost my watch that day. John got his camera wet. We were both in the water up to our chins in our work clothes just following them in for that last moment. It was so much fun. I was thinking, “Oh, yeah. This is how you go find a story in the world instead of sitting through another meeting and trying to pull something out of that.”
I think just being open to stories when they happen around you is probably the most important thing.
You went into the water up to your chin in your work clothes?
Oh, yeah. We wanted to hear what they were saying. John followed them way out – he was soaked. We ended up two hours away from our car. I had to call my husband to come pick us up, and we got the car full of sand and salt water. But it was just really fun. And it was great to see it through their eyes.
That’s why I think the unhappy ending made it that much harder. You don’t find a story like this every day.
Do you regret writing the story?
I regret what happened to Dan, but I don’t regret writing the story.