Lane DeGregory finds and follows stories that give nonfiction storytelling loft and range. From her 2009 Pulitzer Prize for “The Girl in The Window” to what she calls a “quickie” feature about “Stormy Daniels: The President’s Porn Star,” DeGregory has built a career out of seeing, and then landing, the stories other journalists dream about, or that catch them by surprise: Damn, why didn’t I think of that? One of my all-time favorites was her profile of “the THE guy:” A rodeo cowboy who carried the flag that said “THE” in the lineup that declared GOD. BLESS. THE. USA. As I remember the story, DeGregory was at a rodeo with her sons, watching the pre-show pageantry, when the banners galloped by. “You wonder: Who’s the THE guy?” she wrote. But she didn’t just wonder: She found out.
DeGregory did that again this week when she hunted down the scamps who plotted a dramatic streak that briefly interrupted the late minutes of Super Bowl LV. By the time one of the two buddies took to the field, costumed in a woman’s pink thong onesie (which, he told DeGregory’s in an interview, gave him a wedgie), there was little drama left in a one-sided game between the victorious Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the struggling Kansas City Chiefs. For me, the game had become background noise by then. The quick blurt about the streaking event left me amused, wondering Who does that anymore?, before I went back to heating some soup.
DeGregory followed up on her curiosity — and that of millions of others — and found out. It’s not the stuff of sober public affairs journalism. Many people, including some within the Tampa Bay Times newsroom, argued that publicity-seekers shouldn’t be given publicity; I couldn’t easily find an AP image of the event, and other news sites have since reported on the streaker’s financial troubles, taking a less light-hearted approach to their profiles. But stories beget stories. DeGregory’s piece was a hoot to read, mentioned the money issues, and demonstrated the kind of journalistic chops that have led DeGregory to compelling stories that range from silly to profound. After reading “Super Bowl streaker recounts ‘the greatest moment of my life,'” I had two questions for DeGregory. Here are her answers, and my comments on the lessons they reveal:
I imagine a flock of reporters were eager for access to the Super Bowl streakers. How did you track them down and land the interview?
Luckily, both of these guys have very unusual names — and Vitaly is all over social media. I tweeted at them both on Monday and sent Yuri a Facebook message but never heard back. So Tuesday, I started poking around some more on the internet and found an email address I thought might be Yuri’s. I sent him a message, and within two minutes, he called my cell. I thought he was back in Boca Raton and was going to talk to him via phone since that’s four hours away. But he said: “We’re still in Tampa, at the jail, re-enacting my release. We’re heading back to Boca this afternoon, but if you can be here in 10 minutes, we can meet in person.” I live about 40 minutes from the Hillsborough County jail, so I begged them, please, can you wait a little longer?
LESSON: It’s not easy to push forward when the request for an interview is met with “no.” Even complications of time and place can cause a reporter to give up on a story. But DeGregory hasn’t built her career by letting complications or hesitancy stop her. She asks, and asks again, for what she needs for her stories — and if you have ever met her or heard her speak, you know she asks with such enthusiasm and sincerity that any early resistance melts. She uses that technique again here. When Yuri said he’d talk if she could meet him within 10 minutes, rather than fold, she “begged.” For reporters who think that approach might be too pushy or embarrassing, consider this: Letting a story subject know you are that interested in their story can convince them of your commitment, and be flattering.
We agreed to meet outside at California Pizza Kitchen, where there’s a patio, and he brought his pink bikini-thong thing, and all the waiters and diners wanted selfies with him. I only had an hour, including time for the photographer to make portraits, so it wasn’t nearly as long of an interview as I would’ve wanted.
LESSON: Even Lane DeGregory can’t always get what she wants. So she has learned to make the most out of what she can get. That means having a grand plan about the ideal story, then being deft enough in the moment to zero in on the essentials. That changes with every situation, but usually you don’t want to waste time reviewing what can be found elsewhere. You do need to take time to verify that information (a quick fact-check), but mostly you zero in on what you need for a fresh piece. DeGregory went into the interview with three big questions from the standard six: Who, How and Why. All three questions are evident in her feature. I was especially impressed that she didn’t leave out “how.” As a result, she unpeels a fascinating glimpse of the planning that went into what seemed like a spontaneous stunt.
How did you track these guys down for the interview? Was their discussion about, or have you gotten any heat for, celebrity their scampery?
Yes and yes. Before I even started trying to get a hold of these guys, I raised that very point: Do we want to give publicity-seekers more publicity? And I guess you have to try to balance that with people wanting to know. So many outlets had recounted the streaking at the stadium, and reported this guy’s arrest, but we still had questions.
LESSON: Remember that last phrase: “We still had questions.” Almost all stories, no matter how well or widely covered, leave unanswered questions. It is those questions that can lead to investigative, explanatory and narrative stories that put the original news in compelling context.
A sportswriter at the Times vehemently disagreed with doing the story at all, thinking that it would encourage this type of behavior. But we had published three stories online in the aftermath and clearly there was an appetite for follow-ups. Also, we considered the severity of his crime: No one got hurt, no one was naked, the game was only delayed for a few minutes — not derailed. So far, I’ve gotten two emails and a comment on my Facebook questioning the ethics of doing the story. But most people seem to appreciate it for fulfilling their curiosity. In fact, I was talking to a Clearwater police officer about a different story yesterday and he was eager to read what I found out about the streaker, because he wants to learn how to stop those guys.
LESSON: Journalistic curiosity often lives within journalistic conventions: A long-time colleague calls it “craft attitude.” Those conventions make sense, and provide the foundation of what we do to serve the public with clear, vetted information. But the stories that stick — the talkers — are often driven by the kind of curiosity that bubbles up not in newsrooms, but around the kitchen table or at the bar or during a walk with a friend. That means it helps to be plugged into a community that includes non-journalists, and not to get dismissive of their interests. The reaction from the local cop shows that curiosity comes from all corners.
There also was a lot of talk on sports websites about whether there was an over-under on the streaker. So I reached out to the betting site to confirm it — and doubled back with Yuri to ask if he’s actually gotten the pay-out. About 11 o’clock last night, he texted me a message from the betting site saying his account had been blocked. So I had to re-write that part of the story. Then, after it came out today, the online betting site finally released a statement saying they’d shut him down for chicanery.
LESSON: The work we do takes work. There’s no other way to say it, and no way around it. DeGregory didn’t stop with a fun, one-source feature. She figured out what radiated around the central event and reported that out. Then she went back to her original source — the streaker — to confirm her new information. She tracked things as they changed, and updated her story when they did.Postscript: Reporters like DeGregory have arguably earned the right to pick their stories. Many narrative journalists don’t want to be distracted by dailies or what they think of as small stories. But DeGregory is one of those reporter/writers who understands that the quick turn can help her skills stay sharp. In a brief follow-up to our e-chat, she sent this:
It was a fun story to do! I like diving into quirky news stories for quickies sometimes … Like Stormy Daniels.
And don’t miss DeGregory’s podcast, WriteLane, available through the Tampa Bay Times or Apple Podcasts.