Screenshot of a journalism class at Stanford taking place on Zoom

Former Washington Post Metro Editor R.B. Brenner (second from the left in the top row) now teaches journalism at Stanford University. He had to switch his narrative writing course to Zoom sessions because of coronavirus isolation orders.

Every year as I put together my syllabus, Hank Stuever’s list makes me smile. A decade ago, I came upon the 13 questions that my former Washington Post colleague would ask himself to judge whether he had spent enough time getting to know the subject of his story. 

But like everyone else, I now see the world through the prism of  COVID. So when I pulled a printout of Stuever’s list from a file folder in late March, eager to share it with Stanford University students enrolled in my spring narrative journalism course, his questions made me want to reach for the Purell.

#3. Have I been a passenger in their car? Are you kidding? I muttered. The distance between the driver’s and passenger’s seats is way closer than 6 feet. 

#7. Have I helped with a task (hanging Christmas lights, etc.), or am I waiting to cross that line? Sooo much mutual touching of things. Would it be rude to insist that we both slip on plastic gloves and N95 masks? 

#10. Have I been to their office or out with them on their rounds? Have I seen them do what they do? Forget about it. Neither of us wants to roam far beyond our own living room. 

Even so, I ended up including the 13 questions among readings on the syllabus. There will come a day — date uncertain — when my students can hop in a source’s car, unmasked and ungloved, and spend countless hours seeing “them do what they do.” It also dawned on me that until that day, with a little creativity, it’s possible to achieve a majority of things on Stuever’s list and still maintain social distance.

#2. Have I seen the inside of their fridge?

#5. Have I seen them with wet hair?

#11. Have we gotten out the photo albums?

All are possible using FaceTime video, Zoom screen sharing, and other tech tools. My friend Manny Fernandez, a Houston-based reporter for The New York Times, recently did police ride-along reporting via the body-cam footage of an Oklahoma patrol officer.

That’s also true of narrative reconstruction. You can write powerfully about an event that happened days, weeks or years earlier, even if you weren’t at the scene. It requires considerable skill, and years of experience helps, but it can be taught — and learned.

In April 2007, as Metro Editor of The Washington Post, I worked with the incomparable David Maraniss as he wove notes and dispatches from more than a dozen metro reporters, along with documents and his own meticulous phone interviews, to write “That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under.” It’s a haunting reconstruction of the shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 students and teachers were killed, told from the perspectives of survivors. Six years earlier, Maraniss had written the paper’s narrative reconstruction of September 11, 2001. “News cycles had changed so much between 2001 and 2007 that I realized we had to publish this narrative on Thursday, three days after the shootings,” he explains in his book “Into the Story.” “I wrote it in one day.” 

The start of Stanford’s spring quarter this year was delayed by one week, until April 6, giving me extra time to reimagine COMM 277D/177D. Eighteen students had registered, and I was determined to make this the best version of a course I’ve taught since 2012. I invested in a high-definition web camera to enhance my Zoom presence. I decided to change the order of readings from the course book, Jack Hart’s “Storycraft,” to front-load material related to narrative reconstruction. I searched for examples of reconstruction in long- and short-form; there are some beauties that weigh in at under 1,200 words. 

Changing up a class — but keeping the joy

I made sure to still assign a 1997 Nieman Storyboard excerpt from one of Walt Harrington’s essays. “The simple goal of intimate journalism should be to describe and evoke how people live and what they value,” Harrington writes. This can be achieved through thinking, reporting and writing in scenes; capturing a narrator’s voice and point of view; gathering “interior monologue” as well as physical details of places and people; and, above all, being faithful to the truth. With a few exceptions, Harrington’s road map can be followed to a T by journalists today, while taking every precaution to keep themselves and others safe. 

The most cosmic question on Hank Stuever’s list is #13: Am I scared of this subject? 

The thought of teaching online while essentially quarantined — searching for connection through the tiny lens of a $40 web camera — didn’t scare me. It did feel unnatural, though. I searched for ways to help my students collaborate and support each other, as if we were still on our palm tree-lined campus instead of scattered across the country. As we head into the second week of classes that will continue through early June, the stories my students are chasing, and their excitement to immerse in the craft of narrative journalism, have brought back the smile.

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