Our bookmarks have been busy lately what with all the good stuff to read and watch and hear. Some of our recent favorites hail from CNN.com, Grantland, the New York Times magazine and Esquire. In case you missed them, here are four pieces worth your time:
For the CNN.com multimedia narrative “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” reporter John D. Sutter and photographer/videographer Edythe McNamee spent eight days in Mauritania, the last country to abolish slavery but one in which an estimated 3.4 million people still live enslaved. Sutter and McNamee ferreted out an ugliness that the government denies still exists:
We ducked into the shade of a tent to muffle the sound of our potentially dangerous conversation. Within eyeshot was another tent camp, slightly larger. There, we met a man who appeared to be Fatimetou’s master. Mohammed, an older man with a toothy smile and slightly lighter skin, told us in a nonchalant manner that he holds workers on the compound without compensation.
“We don’t pay them,” he said through a translator. “They are part of the land.”
Sutter and McNamee produced a prose narrative, photo slide shows and a 23-minute documentary film that tell the story of Moulkheir Mint Yarba, a slave who believes her baby was left outdoors to die:
The usually stoic mother … wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.
Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work.
“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.
The project’s massive audience – within the first three days of launch the piece received 2 million page views – owes to the importance of the subject matter but also to the powerful presentation. CNN.com broke from its regular design for this package, as Justin Ellis pointed out recently, with a magazine format that works: “big photos, big, full-width text, type treatments, dropcaps, integrated slide shows and video, and a general design depth that indicates this isn’t just another CNN.com story.” We’d add that the rapid-read sidebars wrap the story in quick (but not shallow) context. “Why slavery still exists in 2012” breaks down the politics, geography, poverty, religion, racism and education in one-graf nuggets. The sidebar on ethnic groups explains – sometimes in as few as 36 words – the interrelationships of white Moors, black Moors, black Africans and Haratine.
Altogether, as a model of multimedia narrative journalism, it’s hard to do better than this.
Fantasy baseball’s first pitch
In “The Lost Founder of Baseball Video Games,” from Grantland, Bess Kalb tells the story of John Burgeson, a Midwesterner who coded an early version of fantasy baseball for an IBM 1620 computer and who, at nearly 80, Wikipedia’d himself some credit. (Good for you, dude.)
The only 1620 in the country available for viewing is in a storage hangar at an IBM office complex outside Fishkill, New York. The complex is a sprawl of identical, brutalist buildings with labyrinths of corridors that lead to clean rooms and windowless offices and locked doors marked with biohazard signs. There, I’m greeted by Paul Lasewicz, IBM corporate archivist, who leads me into an enormous storage hangar where the old machines live under plastic tarps. It’s an eerie place, inert, echoing, cold.
A hundred or so grandfather clocks retrofitted with oversize rotary dials hang in rows from ceiling to floor on the far wall. Dissected typewriters are splayed out on shelves. There are old power cords peeking out from under the tarps, and Lasewicz tells me several of the machines could be fully operational if switched on. This is electronic computing’s zombie graveyard.
We step around a forklift parked in the middle of an aisle and stop in front of a covered mound the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Lasewicz looks pleased. “That’ll be your 1620. Almost mint.” He unveils the machine. It’s a desk mounted with a cockpit dashboard attached to a typewriter. Nothing about it screams, “Play baseball on me.” Next to the “IBM 1620” decal on the mainframe, in faded pencil, someone had drawn a smiley face.
A cool story, well told.
Robert Caro, squared
Chris Jones has been such a Storyboard regular this past year we’re about to give him his own archive. Last July, he dissected the classic W.C. Heinz story “Death of a Racehorse” as one of our first installments of “Why’s this so good?” Last December, he visited Nieman Narrative Writing students as part of the class’ speaker series and hosted Gay Talese in conversation at Harvard. In February, we selected his Zanesville zoo-massacre story as a Notable Narrative. Just when we assumed him to be collapsed on a beach somewhere with a cold one in each hand, he turned out a magnificent profile of Robert Caro in the May issue of Esquire.
As it happens, the New York Times magazine published a stunningly good profile the same day. The Times magazine piece, by Charles McGrath, came with “Robert Caro’s Painstaking Process,” a slide show. And in a “Behind the Cover Story” Q-and-A on the Times magazine’s blog, The 6th Floor, McGrath was asked what attracted him to Caro as a subject. McGrath: Caro’s patience for “spending this much time on any one thing,” a trait not often found among newspaper writers. “He doesn’t need the crackhead fix of seeing his name in print,” McGrath said.
How do the two pieces compare? First, some basics plus analytics, as of this morning:
We included social media because it’s hard to talk about story power without considering reader connection, and Twitter and Facebook figure hugely in the metrics of impact and reach. We’d argue for the inclusion of visible social-media analytics on more stories, in fact. Comments, not so much. Sometimes reader feedback reveals true impact but other times the Comments section behaves more like a cesspool.
We also could compare the craft elements, or the story-building decisions each writer made, such as structure, voice and the use of first-person authorial presence (Jones: no; McGrath: yes), but instead, just have a taste of each.
Jones, in Esquire:
His research is finished, he says. “Mostly, anyway.” His outline is pinned up on the wall, and it will not change. He even has some sections of it written, first drafts — including the first of two chapters on Bill Moyers (“He wrote a lot of memos,” Caro says, “so I got him”) — and he knows what to do with the rest. Nobody believes it, but he writes very fast. “I think I can write the next book in two or three years,” he says. He tries not to think that people are waiting, the way he tries not to think about many things, but he knows that they — Mehta and Gottlieb and Hourigan, and Andy Hughes and Lynn Nesbit and Carol Shookhoff the typist, all the people who have touched his books from the beginning, who are touching this one now — are out there waiting all the same, just around the corner.
McGrath, in the Times magazine:
One reason Caro’s books are so long is that he does keep burrowing through the files, and he keeps finding out things he hadn’t anticipated. Before beginning the first volume, he thought he could wrap up Johnson’s early life in a couple of chapters, until he talked to some of Johnson’s college classmates and found out about his lying, conniving side, which no one had previously described. That volume also includes a minibiography of Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mentor in Congress, and a brilliantly evocative section about how electrification changed the lives of people in the Hill Country, much of it based on interviews conducted by Ina, who visited the women there with homemade preserves and eventually won them over, she says, because she was as shy and nervous as they were.
So, who “wins?” With two great writers on one legendary subject, readers do.