Editor’s note: Our third Shop Class – part of our Story Craft posts – grew out of breaking news stories and blogs that offer rich lessons on how to do the work we do. Even in narrative, we need to know and employ the fundamentals of good journalism: precision, context and clarity.Someday several someones will write definitive narratives of these confusing political times, and I can only hope I’m still alive to read them. The first draft of history is essential for information and significance. But it is, by default, rushed, and can raise more questions than it answers. The fuller story often has to wait for a look in the rear-view mirror of history.
So for now, I take delight in gems of storytelling that shine through each day’s deluge – a turn of phrase or precise word or moment of thoughtfulness that provides a bit of creative spark while it helps navigate the chaos. When done well, these aren’t literary baubles that decorate, but writing tools that educate – not only about the world we live in but about how to do journalism that explains that world.
I often find such gems in the reservoirs of vocabulary being drawn on by political reporters and opinion writers. Bless the writer who, chasing the crazed churn of news, can cause me to pause and marvel at the use of a single word. I started keeping a list of such words, but that just added to my time-suck in the abyss. So now I use them as incentive to dive into a happier abyss – the dictionary – and then move on, a bit enriched. (Or maybe just do a bit better at the next game in my 25-year domestic Scrabble smack-down.)This past week’s word was “tranche,” courtesy of a July 24 column by Max Boot of the Washington Post, in yet one more piece about the truly bottomless abyss that is the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections. Boot used the word twice as he laid out a timeline of data possibly stolen by the Russians. He wrote in a three-graf rhythm that gave his piece a musical note while it built his argument:
The first tranche of stolen documents…
The second tranche of stolen documents…
And then the slightest change-up:
A third release of stolen emails…
No spoiler here. You’ll have to look up “tranche” on your own. That way, if you don’t already know the word, you are more likely to remember it. But even if you stumble across it and don’t want to look it up, it is understandable in context, especially with the switch to more common language in that third line.
The takeaway: Fancy words for fancy’s sake are no more than fancy. But unfamiliar words, precise to the issue or moment, should be used as long as their meaning is clear in context or, if needed, with a brief clause defining them.
I also look for stories that demonstrate how to put today’s events in the broader context of history. That can often be found in the work of Esquire politics blogger Charles P. Pierce. (Full disclosure: I went to college with Charlie, and still count him an important friend. I have always been floored by his ability to weave history, sports, pop culture, politics, mythology, literature, music, religion and more into the same piece; sometimes into the same sentence.)
I think of Charlie’s Esquire Politics Blog as Pierce Unplugged. It probably should come with a parental warning button. And it is unapologetic about its opinion – though not as predictable as you might think. But no matter my point of view going in, it never fails to challenge my thinking about current events by connecting the dots between yesterday and today.
Consider this July 25 post about the current administration’s efforts to dismantle environmental regulations, and the history of those regulations, which can be traced to Republican values of an earlier time. He builds it around the recent death of Nathaniel Pryor Reed, an Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks under Presidents Nixon and Ford – Republicans all.
He was instrumental in shepherding the Clean Water Act through Congress and, in 1973, Reed co-wrote the monumental Endangered Species Act, which one historian has called the “Magna Carta of the environmental movement.”
Pierce is taking his own slam on the Whack-a-mole politics of the day. But consider this elegant lede to his post, in which he braids a tiny narrative moment through a series of phrases to the foreshadow of his piece, and his core point:
On July 11, a man named Nathaniel Pryor Reed died. He was 84 years old. He’d fallen immediately upon having hooked a salmon in a river in Quebec and never regained consciousness, which is perhaps the most wonderfully prosaic way for him to have died because, without Nat Reed, this country would have been a much different, and a much more ruined, place.
Other quick lessons from news of the past week:
Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics of July 20 was another intelligent if depressing piece about the state and fate of the newspaper industry. In it he referred to “Black swan events” – a term I had never heard but that he had the smarts to explain:
Black swan events — like sudden oil shortages, 9/11 strikes, stock market meltdowns, volcanic eruptions, the Black Death of medieval Europe — unexpectedly and sometimes catastrophically swoop in, causing, exacerbating, or proliferating great change, as author Nicholas Taleb wrote in his bestseller The Black Swan.
A similar bit of respectful writing came from the Washington Post, July 25, when news broke that a federal judge had denied President Trump’s latest attempt to stop a lawsuit involving the “emoluments clause.” To anyone tuned into our nation’s serial drama, “emoluments” is no longer an unfamiliar word. But names, events, terms, legality, chronology – pretty much everything – can get blurred in the bouncing balls of blame flung around D.C. So bravo to reporters Ann E. Marimow, Jonathan O’Connell and David A. Farenthold and, no doubt, their editors for delivering a complex story with great clarity. To their credit, they didn’t even use the oddly spelled “emoluments” in the lede, but instead wrote this:
A federal judge on Wednesday rejected President Trump’s latest effort to stop a lawsuit that alleges Trump is violating the Constitution by continuing to do business with foreign governments.
Then midway through the story, after running through the latest news and its significance, the story offered two simple transitional paragraphs that led to straightforward explanatory material. I especially appreciate that they introduced that explanation with the very question begging to be answered.
The next unsettled question: What, exactly, is an emolument? That remained unanswered for more than 200 years.
Some reporters dismiss such plain-speak explanation, or its blatant set-up, as “dumbing down” a story. I actually think of it as “smarting up.” It considers readers outside the closed club of insiders and welcomes us in. If we already know the explanation, we can skim past it – something fast-paced news readers do as a routine anyway. But if we aren’t constitutional scholars, or happen to have been cleaning the house the day someone first explained “emoluments,” we are included and educated – two hallmarks of respectful, useful journalism.