March 3, 2008

Shout Outs

Some of the South’s best writers remind me of the best beat reporters. In travels to their literary haunts, I’ve been deeply struck by how William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Willie Morris and Flannery O’Connor brought to life the character, and characters, of their native South. These authors so saturated themselves in their surroundings, it pours out in their writing. It’s a good lesson to remember. The more reporters immerse themselves in their neighborhood, the more they can evoke a sense of place in their writing.

O’Connor spent much of her adult life – she died at 39 – in and around her farm home near Milledgeville, Ga. Consider the detail and imagery she packs into this description in her story, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer than Dead”:

The old man had started an acre of cotton to the left beyond the fence line and had run it almost up to the house on the one side. The two strands of barbed wire ran through the middle of the patch. A line of fog, hump-shaped, was creeping toward it, ready like a white hound dog to crouch under and crawl across the yard.

I was reminded of this command of detail by Henry Stewart, who also invoked an image of fog in his story about a recent exhibit of Coney Island photographs:

But today, much of Coney Island looks less like a place people go to than a place people once went, an area where vacant lots and decrepit buildings are as common as the seagulls scavenging the shore…With little to attract photographers anymore save its ghosts, Coney Island seems in danger of being overwhelmed by its own fading legend. One of Robert Polidori’s photographs in The New Yorker highlights this by featuring an encroaching fog that looks as though it’s swallowing people as they walk down the boardwalk.

Henry talked about how “walking my beat” helped him write so evocatively about his neighborhood. “Spending a lot of time taking in the sights definitely provides a comfortable familiarity with the neighborhood, so that writing about what it’s like to be there and look around becomes easier over time, as it’s easy to conjure up those images in the mind,” he said.

The same sense of place comes through in Joe Filippazzo’s description of the Queens neighborhood of St. Albans:

St. Albans is a quiet middle-class neighborhood in eastern Queens, but just beneath lies a level of culture, politics and heritage that not all New York neighborhoods can boast.
Once home to some of the greats of jazz and sports – Count Basie, Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few – St. Albans is now home to modest working-class families, mostly African Americans and Caribbean Americans. But some residents believe the neighborhood is coming back.

Writing Tips

One of the tougher transitions in the second semester here at CUNY is going from straight news coverage of an event or meeting to analytic reporting on an issue or trend. Hey, it’s not just CUNY, either; most reporters stumble at this point. The challenge of an analytical story is to provide the reader with a different way to examine a story, controversy, trend or idea – with or without a news peg. It should provide context and meaning for readers/listeners to make sense of events in their lives.

Prof. Strasser asks students to take a controversy they’ve already reported – or at least one they know from the districts where they’ve now spent more than a semester – and guide the reader through it. For example, preservationists want to keep the decaying Admiral’s Row in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. But the community wants the blighted old homes razed and replaced by a shopping area. Rather than covering both sides shouting at each other at a meeting, the analytical reporter should wade through the arguments and precedents – i.e., report, report, report – and guide the reader toward reason: This part of Brooklyn needs commerce, whether or not the Admiral’s Row project takes shape. Rather than organize the story around the debate, the reporter organizes the story around a reasonable outcome. There’s no less reporting in the second approach than in the first. And of course, the preservationists get their say in both versions.

My bias is that the analytic approach probably takes even more reporting. A thesis, no matter how layered or complex, can be illustrated by strong reporting on recent events, scientific or cultural breakthroughs, or by what’s happened in the past. It also requires critical thinking to frame the story around an outcome not suggested by the usual back-and-forth among different sides in a traditional news story.

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One Response to March 3, 2008

  1. C.W. Thompson says:

    Heath – I recently re-read this entry, and thought of the Flannery O’Connor piece in the Times, an impressive travelogue about her hometown:'connor&st=cse&scp=2

    I was also the student who was working on the Admiral’s Row story, and thanks to yours and Steve’s advice, I think in the end, the piece turned out OK.


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