The words appear on a blank white screen, accompanied by an atonal, ominous peal of music.
“One frosty October morning, a newborn baby boy is found inside a plastic bag inside an Oslo graveyard.
The baby is about to die.”
The screen fills with an extreme close-up of a baby’s face, and the title materializes:
THE BABY IN THE PLASTIC BAG
A true story in 9 parts.
In less than 10 seconds, the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet has done two striking things: got our hearts racing with the specter of a defenseless infant dying in a plastic bag in a cemetery, and boldly committed itself, and its readers, to what may be the longest serial in the digital era.
And, amazingly, it worked.
Over five weeks last fall, the series by reporter Bernt Jakob Oksnes transfixed Norway, drawing more than 1 million unique online users – which translates to a stunning 20% of the country’s population.
And it did so with a story that opens with such velocity, it feels like it’s happening even as we read it. But it all happened 25 years ago.
Oksnes spent 2½ years unraveling the story of the baby, who he learned had been left in the cemetery by his Philippine mother, who thought the infant boy was dead. Oksnes tracked down all the people who helped save the baby, and then went to great lengths – literally – to find the boy, now an adult, in the Philippines.
“Slowly we saw this massive tale of mystery, family, human compassion and international cooperation growing and growing,” Oksnes says.
It’s a testament to the newspaper’s commitment to the power of the story, and of narrative journalism, that his bosses let him keep working on the project in this time of speeded-up news cycles and short attention spans.
I chatted with Oksnes via email about the series, which was recently translated into English by Rosie Hedger. The answers have been edited for length and flow.
This all happened 25 years ago. It was a big deal then, but I’m guessing it wasn’t on the minds of many Norwegians today. I’m dying to know the origin of this series. Was it your idea? Why did you decide to follow up? And was the driving idea always finding Victor Olav?
It was certainly my idea. I have always gravitated toward unusual characters and stories. This time I wanted to document a story where a newborn baby was found abandoned, either dead or alive, without a known parent. I remembered from my childhood and youth that a few of these cases had made an impression on me from the media coverage.
In my research, I found 10 such known cases in Norway over the last 30 years. But one differed markedly. It had something to do with the bizarre poetry: the churchyard, the plastic bag, the frost on the grass on the graveyard, the bloody receipt in the plastic bag, the spectacular reuniting of the mother and son. But there was marginal information, apart from the press coverage at the time, which blew over after a week. I thought this way: Here is a huge story, a huge, epic tale of life, death and love. A story about a newborn baby boy found in a plastic bag in a graveyard in Oslo. And I had never heard about it before.
“Slowly we saw this massive tale of mystery, family, human compassion and international cooperation growing and growing.”
As a piece of journalism, I tried to make a series that wove factual events with striking prose. We worked extremely hard to pull together an expansive piece with many elements and contributors, and slowly we saw this massive tale of mystery, family, human compassion and international cooperation growing and growing.
Everything about the story attracted me: It was psychologically intriguing and complex. It was not a one-dimensional story of an unwanted child who was abandoned. This story had several layers, and so potentially thrilling and naturally exciting. Tremendously exciting. But as Jon Franklin, the first Pulitzer Prize-winner in the feature-writing category, once said, “Most news stories are endings without the beginnings attached.” They say nothing about the beginning of the story, about the hows and whys. The answers typically make a far more interesting story than the mere facts.
That’s where narrative journalism is so powerful. The attempt to find the deep contexts — and tell them. That brings me to your last question: “Was the driving idea always finding Victor Olav?” Yes, I think so. It took me 2 1/2 years, from start to finish, to solve and reveal it all. The road was cumbersome and unpredictable.
When did you realize that you had the material for a series?
Good question! After three months of work, in May 2014, we had a kind of pre-finished text that could have been published. With a decent start, a rather exciting middle section with a pair of strong turning points and a satisfying ending. But I felt the piece had many unanswered questions; I felt it had something unresolved and incomplete. The scenes had the potential to become richer. I had a strong feeling that there was more here. I knew that there were other witnesses and people who could shed light on these 33 minutes, from the time the baby was found in the cemetery until it arrived at the hospital, and details of the investigation, and the work in the hospital with saving the child’s life. In the following research, we found new people, new twists constantly. In this way, the story could become even more authentic and true. We had an incredible story, basically. Now we would give justice to it.
After half a year with the collection of material, reporting and digging in documents and attempts to track down key people, I realized: The story had grown too massive, and beyond the framework of a regular feature narrative. Then I saw the outlines of a series. Not only did we have a potential series, we would also present it in an innovative way. That part was difficult to get immediate goodwill on internally. The bosses realized it would take a lot of resources and time. But our newspaper has some funds earmarked for quality journalism. A foundation. We can apply internally for funding a few times a year, and a committee decides who will get money for extraordinary journalistic work.
Clearly you had a TON of material. How hard was it to organize into a narrative that had the right amount of flow and tension?
One thing is finding and collecting material. Another thing is: A story’s success is not determined by what you find alone, but the way the findings are told. But that was challenging. I had dug deep and investigated, sitting with hundreds of pages with notes and documents. And we had an enormous number of threads going on simultaneously. When I read my text at one point, in the middle of the process, I felt that it some places stopped, the rhythm was staccato, it didn’t move enough forward. I wanted to push the readers’ emotions, but without pushing too hard. More subtly, which often triggers stronger emotions.
As in music and in all composition, you’ll need an interlude, a rhythm shift, or a bridge. In order to break up action-packed parts, I snapped into these longer, emotional, lingering, literary-themed sections before I returned to the harsh reality.
I also wanted to use what the American feature press and literature call “the telling detail.” It’s the details that matter, that move the story forward and provide the information the reader needs. I had to try to steer away from the descriptions of things or conditions that at best only provides slightly diluted taste or smell.
I also had an excellent editor in the final phase of the work, Arve Bartnes, who gets the credit for our newspaper, Dagbladet, receiving three SKUP Awards in a row (the highest award for investigative journalism in Norway) and European Press Awards twice. He pushed me and constructively challenged me in the final stages. It was world-class coaching and editing.
“As Jon Franklin, the first Pulitzer Prize-winner in the feature-writing category, once said, ‘Most news stories are endings without the beginnings attached.’ They say nothing about the beginning of the story, about the hows and whys. The answers typically make a far more interesting story than the mere facts.”
In this world of short attention spans, it was pretty courageous to decide to do it in nine parts, spread over five weeks. Can you talk about that decision?
We ran the series mostly twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays. But after we released Chapter 3 on a Sunday, we jumped deliberately over Wednesday, so it was a week before Chapter 4 came. The hope was as the series created interest, it would spread even more among people before the next chapter. At that point in the narrative, the tension was very high and we had released the first three episodes in an intense week, to an explosive amount of hype. Both in hits and the amount of time spent on the stories, it scored great. (The 3rd chapter is actually the most widely read in the series after the first.) But the frequency and over how many weeks to run the series was a great experiment. We had the knowledge and experiences of series in the podcast world and from TV, but this was long stories with cliffhangers, nine chapters, and there was little empirical evidence to rely on when it came to contemporary stories with a running narrative. In the history of literature, you had the 19th century masters of serialized genre, like Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas, who published works like “The Pickwick Papers,” “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” as serials. The television world and streaming media have long taken on the strategies of serials. But in magazines and newspapers in the modern era, it is new to serialize text. Spreading chapters over several weeks actually had a commercial upside, it turned out. Halfway into the series, our management decided to offer the next chapter early for our premium subscribers. It led to an avalanche of new subscribers. No story in the newspaper’s digital history had generated more subscriptions. (Although it’s now been topped by a story on how to lose five kilograms in a week by eating crackers! Ha-ha!)
I’m going to focus on the writing, but the series is a beautiful multimedia presentation, with gorgeous images and ambient sounds. How important was the online presentation in the package?
The presentation and packaging strengthen the project. Clearly. There are 25,000 lines of code there. Everything is made from scratch to fit this piece of journalism. It’s probably one of the most ambitious digital projects in the Norwegian press ever. It was essential that the effects and the digital, multimedia details should not stand in the way of the history, but rather reinforce moods, make an emotion linger, press the right buttons. It was like creating a small film.
OK, now down to the writing itself. That quote from Revelation at the start: Even without knowing where it came from (as we learn later in the story), it’s powerful, both comforting and a bit spooky at the same time. When did you know that was how you wanted to begin?
Thanks for the great reflection! I love the description that it’s “both comforting and a bit spooky.” I agree that it has both a light and a dark side — as I certainly was looking to create. I decided to use the quote as a start when I saw Victor Olav even posted it on his Twitter account. (Oh, this is a spoiler; forgive me for that.) From then I knew that this had to be the intro. This Bible quote has so many dimensions. It stands perfectly alone, and it also works as a foreshadowing of something to come. One should not scatter Bible quotes about; it’s easy to inept and misplace such symbolic and heavy quotes. But here I believe it had a function and a mission.
The pacing in the first chapter is incredible, with such velocity. It happened 25 years ago, but it feels like we’re watching it right NOW. It’s aided by the recurring motif of the exact time things happened. Was that a lightbulb moment, realizing the source material was so extensive you could do that?
In order to build such a rich narrative I had to do countless hours of research, interviews, new interviews with the same people, digging through police documents and hospital records, searching in media clips, both in newspapers and TV from that time. I wanted to find as many people as possible who could give us the truest possible picture of what exactly happened. But there was no single lightbulb moment in which I realized the source material was so extensive that I could write in that way.
You’ve got a lot of characters. Did you decide that the story was as much about the people who saved the boy as Victor Olav himself?
Good question. The first part of the story, the first four to five chapters, takes place exclusively in 1991, the revelation of the story, the intense drama of the cemetery, the rescue operation and the spectacular investigation and all it leads to. The story runs from 8 to 21 October 1991 in these episodes. After that there were no traces of the mother and the son. The engine of the fifth to the seventh chapter is the pursuit of the key people in the story, the boy himself and his mother. Yes, if they are alive at all. We knew nothing about that when we started our investigation. But I would also try to find out what happened to those who rescued the boy. And since I found several stories within the story here, like the senior consultant who rescued the boy from death at the hospital is close to death himself 23 years after (and dies during the story – sorry, another spoiler). I decided to merge these in the narrative. Partly because these stories had a power in themselves, but they also served a function in the main narrative. They could delay and sharpen the tension further. We could leave the action in the main plot of a dramatic or unresolved point in Manila, where we were looking for the boy, THEN go back to Oslo and try to track down some of the heroes of the time, before we went back to the main storyline.
Once you meet the grown Victor Olav, why did you decide to hold off on writing then? Why wait until he came to Norway, many months later? I know a thing or two about journalists, and I’m stunned by the patience.
Thanks for the compliment. As I’ve mentioned; we COULD have published the story when we finally found Victor Olav in Manila. It could have acted as a totally nice finish. But I felt that the story had a much greater potential. Moreover, it was an important ethical side; we had a very clear sense that Victor Olav did not know about his first minutes and days on Earth. He knew he was born and baptized in Oslo, that there were some complications, and he and his mother came to Manila. And that was it. We could not run a story that revealed everything to him, things he did not know, until things were properly talked through. Therefore we had to act carefully, take it down, and slowly but surely working on him. Our hope was that his mother herself would tell him the essence of the story, without our pushing. I am proud that it was so. And eventually another thought came to me: I was obsessed with the idea that the boy would come back to Oslo, the city where he was born, but left when he was 13 days old. To see him back at the same cemetery, walk over the graveyard and meet the man who found him in the plastic bag. The idea was too good to put down. We could end up with a very good story, but when we had the chance to make it perfect, we had to do everything we could to get to it. But it was a painful process. Having waited for the opportunity for over one year, that Victor Olav would return to Norway as he had said, my bosses’ patience began to grow thin.
I am happy for the patience and willingness to wait. It took us more than a year, but it was worth it. Without Chapter 9, it would have been a great, touching story. But it could never have matched the end we got after waiting and waiting and waiting for him to come back to Vestre Aker Cemetery and Oslo.
I will say that as an editor, I felt a tiny bit stymied by the sixth and seventh chapters. You meet with Victor Olav, and then the story shifts to interviews with the rescuers today. I felt those interviews repeated material from earlier chapters, and disturbed the flow. Maybe you can talk about how you and your editors decided to organize those chapters.
In retrospect, I have to agree. Chapter 6 and 7 could have been compressed down to one chapter. I asked my excellent editor about this, if it was too repetitive, but he encouraged me to keep these parts. Ninety percent of the information we got from the interviews with the key people we used the to establish the first chapters. But then we would save the remaining 10% to build those scenes where we actually meet these people today. How have the events influenced their lives? And especially: What are your reflections on the matter today? We believed that these parts of the story gave the story even more weight and credibility, and made it even more special. I know that we broke a few rules in the narrative playbook here, and these parts might have frustrated some readers. Maybe we’ll do it differently next time. But it is also worth mentioning that these scenes and meetings with the rescuers and police people today gave the series a greater authenticity.
Talk about the reception. You told me it attracted more than 1 million unique online users, which translates as 20% of the entire Norwegian population. That’s amazing. Why do you think it resonated with readers?
We thought it was a universal story that would work and touch across cultures and borders. The series now has been featured and tweeted about by individuals, media organizations and bloggers from 40 to 45 countries. Last week it was hot in Kenya. This week it finally went viral in the Philippines. It is incredibly gratifying, and I am humbled that so many find it interesting. The readers have now spent close to 23 years, all in all, in reading this story. It is pretty wild to think about. The fact that our newspaper invested so much in the series, and gave each episode distinct and priority space on the front page of our website, meant much in the beginning. Virtually all chapters were presented as a major happening, almost like a breaking news story. When the seventh – out of nine — chapters were released, it fell on the day of the U.S. presidential election. Nevertheless, our desk placed it right up there in the top of our website.
You said this was the most rewarding story you’ve ever done in your 20-year career. What meant the most to you, either in the reporting, writing or reception?
What I meant was that this is the best natural story I have come across as a journalist. When I researched it, I hardly believed what I found out. The reality exceeded the fiction. The story about The Baby in the Plastic Bag is the most extraordinary, exceptional and pure I have encountered. It cost a huge amount of work and pain. I was almost about to give up for a while. It was about to kill me. But then the story won in the end.
P.S. Last, but not least, I will add something very special to me.
A week ago I received a message from the son of one of the baby’s rescuers, who was able to meet Victor Olav as he returned to Oslo:
Again, reality beats fiction, in a sad, beautiful way.
I’m borrowing these lines:
“Hi! I am the son of Berit Pihl Johansen, from your article series about the boy in the plastic bag. My mother died today after a period of illness. A few weeks ago we talked about the story of Victor Olav, and my mom was clearly pleased that it had gone well with him and that she got to meet him again. I well remember the day when she came home and told what had happened at work. The work you have done in connection with the series of articles, research and finding Victor Olav, is simply outstanding.
She wanted – and we are working for – that she is buried in the same cemetery as Victor Olav was found up at the office where she worked in close twenty years.
On behalf of my mother and our family: Thank you for the job you have done!