Issue 2, No. 9 – Sept. 7, 2007

Shout Outs

It all starts with the reporting. After a summer of internships, we’ve got some real-world proof of that maxim.

Tim Catts’s reporting for literally helped an Ohio waitress win $1 million. Presented on his second day on the job with nothing more than a tip that a CNBC stock-picking contest might be rigged, Tim spent half his summer investigating every angle on the story. He showed how the contest could be manipulated, showed how the top four finishers probably gamed the system, how another had a long record of stock manipulation complaints. His reporting prompted CNBC to investigate its own contest and disqualify the top four finishers. That led Tim to Ohio and the “fifth-place’’ finisher, a waitress who had never owned a stock in her life (This story appeared three weeks before the winner was announced, showing just how fully Tim owned this story):

It’s Friday afternoon in the tiny Appalachia town of St. Clairsville, Ohio, and Mary Sue Williams is about to begin her shift as a waitress at Undo’s, a spacious Italian restaurant that overlooks Interstate 70. She enjoys taking care of her regulars, she says, and after nine years in her job, she has accumulated plenty of them. Even with dozens of the restaurant’s tables empty, she cuts quickly across the floor to the bar to refill an empty water glass. “I’m going to do this until I can’t walk,” Williams says, insisting that she wouldn’t quit for a million dollars.
That conviction may soon be put to the test.

Tim’s writing puts you into that restaurant and helps you see what kind of person Mary Sue Williams is. He also cleverly sets up his punch line. But it’s the reporting that made the difference. We asked Tim what he learned:

It was really just a matter of working the phones until I found a few people who could tell me what was going on. It turns out the players knew something was fishy and had more or less figured out what had gone wrong. But no other journalist had bothered to even call them. Hard work is 90 percent of reporting… There are no shortcuts. Sometimes getting a story means starting at the top of a list of 20 people and calling them again and again until you find the ones who can actually help you.

Danny Massey took what could have been a routine feature story and turned it into a weeks-long, multi-media examination of how a community rallied around a hometown soldier who’d returned from Iraq severely wounded. With video interviews, a terrific time-exposure photo, and eloquent writing, Danny and his Star-Ledger colleagues demonstrated the power of local reporting in whatever form a reader wanted it. In this lead, notice how Danny masterfully reproduces the sights and sounds of a dramatic moment with powerful, telling details:

The staccato pops of nail guns and the screech of power saws stopped. For a moment, there was silence as Spc. Jim Benoit climbed out of a gold minivan and walked with the aid of a cane toward what will later this summer be his new home.

Then a dozen volunteers, covered in sawdust and sweat, broke the hush with applause.

With his wife Pam and black lab Edison at his side, Benoit took measured steps toward the house going up at No. 9 Eileen Court in Wharton. He paused to hug his grandmother and mother, then made his way to the skeletal frame of his soon-to-be garage. Grabbing a hammer, Benoit celebrated his 25th birthday by pounding a nail into a three-quarter-inch sheet of plywood.

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