Short Takes

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Innocence and suspense: David Grann’s "Trial by Fire"

By Short Takes October 4, 2009

“Trial by Fire,” from the September 7 issue of The New Yorker, recounts the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas for setting fire to his house and killing his three children. Reporter David Grann uses disturbing details to reinforce the doubt expressed in the article’s subhead (“Did Texas execute an innocent man?”) , and the drama continues to unfold as more evidence comes to light suggesting a mistake was made. The facts of Willingham’s story are compelling enough, but Grann’s structure maximizes their impact. He opens the piece with the fire itself, giving readers just the information that was available for investigators to examine. Those fire investigators are the next characters we meet—the people we count on to interpret the facts and explain what happened. Grann gives us a list of their credentials; one is a former firefighter and recipient of multiple Purple Hearts with decades of on-the-job experience. We follow as Grann recreates their visit to the ruins of the house, which leads them to classify what they find as a clear case of arson. Read more

The Oregonian’s Shawn Levy on how to find the story

By Short Takes September 28, 2009

At last weekend’s American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference, keynote speaker Shawn Levy spoke about "getting the story" and the connections between writing books and journalism. The film critic at The Oregonian, Levy has written five books, including King of Comedy, about comedian Jerry Lewis, and his most recent biography—Paul Newman: A Life. In addition to his work at The Oregonian, he blogs about film and professional soccer, and tweets compusively, suffering from what he calls “monkey brain.” Levy suggested reporters should “look high, look low, and look sideways” when researching, and he praised the investigative reporters who taught him how to dig for a story. He talked about the “high”—academic institutions and libraries that offer arcane documents and details. He connected the “low” with tabloid accounts and stories on a subject, and the concept of looking “sideways” with looking for what else was happening in the life and community of a subject at any given point in his life. Read more from his talk. Read more

The Boo Radley character

By Short Takes September 24, 2009

Today at the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors (AASFE) conference, St. Petersburg Times reporter Lane DeGregory talked about how her Pulitzer-winning feature “The Girl in the Window” came together. The multimedia project … Read more