Sorry for the delay in recapping. You can tell that the semester has reached the frenzy point here at the School of Journalism. My crew in the Pollner seminar (aka this class) is spread so thin that you can hear the knives clanking in their mayonnaise jars; just being around them makes me vicariously exhausted. I remember this part of college quite well: all the term papers coming due at once, the looming finals, the registration (and graduation) deadlines for next semester, and the inescapable realization that the student newspaper still has to come out. A good number of my students went to Helena on Tuesday to cover election night for their advanced reporting classes, but managed to return, bleary-eyed, in time for our Wednesday Skype session with the multi-Pulitzered Gene Weingarten. (Depicted above, as he is every Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine, by illustrator Eric Shansby.)
On Monday (the 5th), we had discussed seven stories in Gene’s book, The Fiddler in the Subway, and once again, it turns out that a Weingarten story will start about 100 different discussions about 100 different things — some of them related to the topic, many of them tangential. That’s why his Washington Post online chat has evolved into a free-associative conversation among like-minded strangers/readers about the many ways that the human condition is both funny and horrifying.
I was happy to let the class conversation spin out too, so long as we kept noticing how damn entertaining (and gripping) Gene’s feature stories are. Remember: They all ran in a newspaper. Stories like this can and should run alongside the day’s news, in print and online. If you ghettoize (or elevate) great feature writing to some special twee place on the web or in heavy-paper-stock journals, a la McSweeney’s, you significantly lessen their power to surprise. You also reduce the potential audience.
Talking to Gene in person (or as close as we can get — Skype really is amazing, when the signal is strong) can give readers a whole new insight into why his stories are the way they are, and why they are so good.
Our one-hour conversation addressed some of the stories we read from The Fiddler in the Subway — especially “The Great Zucchini,” “The Armpit of America,” “Doonesbury’s War,” and “Tears for Audrey.” (Shockingly, we never even got to talk about “The Fiddler in the Subway,” probably Gene’s best-known piece, in which he installed master violinist Joshua Bell in the Washington, D.C., subway system as a busker, to see if anyone would notice greatness in their hectic midst.)
The real takeaway from Gene’s work — the lesson I’ve always taken away, anyhow, from reading him and knowing him — is the sense of adventure or quest that defines almost all of his stories, whether they are humorous or tragic. They’re all trying to answer a question, sometimes not always answerable, but always about the human condition in one way or another: Why does Washington’s most successful children’s entertainer-for-hire have such a disorganized personal life? Why did the Hardy Boys books seem so great to a 12-year-old Gene and yet so awful to a middle-aged Gene, and who wrote those books anyhow? What’s the “worst” town in America, subjectively speaking? What’s up with someone who never votes?
Many of the stories are written and structured as a quest, in such a way that you can see how the reporting went, how the facts were discovered, how the story is built. It’s like visiting a cathedral that is still surrounded by the scaffolding.
We talked to Gene about reporting and structure. I noticed — and tried to get him to explain — how easily people tend to let him in, even when he is upfront with them about the sarcasm and humor that may work against their best interests when the story is published. Such as when he calls up a non-voting Michigan man named Ted Prus and asks if he can profile him — a conversation recounted at the top of the story:
“Hi. This is The Washington Post. Are you registered to vote?”
“Are you planning on voting?”
“We’d like to write a long story about you. Would you be interested? It would make you famous.”
“You mean a famous idiot?”
“Actually, we’re not sure. There’s no guarantee one way or the other.”
A similar exchange happens (and is recounted in the story) with Sharlene “Shar” Peterson of the Battle Mountain, Nev., Chamber of Commerce before Gene embarks on a 2001 story pronouncing the little town to be “the armpit of America”:
She told me a little about the town, and then I told her what I was proposing to do.
She laughed, then didn’t say much of anything for a bit.
The Battle Mountain Chamber of Commerce was thinking.
“Well, I mean, who wants to be called an armpit? But, you know …”
I sensed where she was going. I wanted to kiss her.
” … This could be an asset. We’re just a dying, ugly little mining town without a real identity. It could be an opportunity.”
Is this a great country or what?
“Listen,” Shar said, a trace of concern creeping into her voice. “I have to tell you we now have a Super 8 Motel and a McDonald’s. I hope that doesn’t knock us out of the running.”
How does Gene do this? He is upfront with people right away, perhaps more than most reporters are. Why do people still say okay to it? Many of us are already socially awkward about calling people up and asking for permission to hang out, take notes and publish intimate details. Gene says he is too, but that he’s pretty much always told all his subjects, right away, that if they let him write about them, three things will happen when the story is published and they first read it: 1., They will feel like it is fair. (If nothing else, it’s fair — people get their say and are quoted accurately and attempts have been made to depict the situations from all sides; complexities have not been sanded down into oversimplified descriptions, etc.)
2., They will end up liking about 3/4 of it.
And 3., They will be upset — possibly very upset — by 1/4 of it.
He tells them this at the beginning. He also follows up with them after the story runs to see what their reaction was; even if it they’re furious at him, he wants to know.
Gene and I both agree that your allegiance is to the truest possible story you can tell, even if it’s painful for the subject. I’m more of the Joan Didion “writers-are-always-selling-somebody-out” type. I do a lot of what Gene does at the end of the process, in my fact-checking and farewell phase, instead of the beginning; but I do agree that sources need to know what they’re getting into at the beginning, how deep things will get, and they also need to be reminded of the journalistic process while the reporting is going on.
The most important thing is that you have to sweat this out every time. You have to wake up at night and fret about the struggle between staying true to the story and potentially hurting some feelings. I think the balance we’re all looking for exists in those anxiety attacks.
Gene says he saves the hardest questions — the most sensitive, painful things — for last. Smart man.
• • •
There is NO CLASS on MONDAY, NOV. 12 (Veterans Day).
For Wednesday, Nov. 14: Our time is running short — only six classes left. We will continue brainstorming and nailing down ideas for the long(ish) narrative feature story, which is due Dec. 3. I’m going to ease up on the readings for the duration of the semester. (There are many fantastic pieces I’d assign if we had another semester to keep going, but I want us to get as much time as possible to discuss, troubleshoot and pre-edit the students’ features.) I have assigned one reading for Wednesday: “Can You Say Hero?” Tom Junod’s classic Esquire profile of (Mister) Fred Rogers in 1998. Read it, mark it up, and come ready to talk about it.
And don’t forget: Your second review (of a film, album, live performance, video game or book, etc.) is due by Nov. 26. That’s most of you. The last of the TV recappers are finishing up in the next week.
PS: Everyone successfully filed their scene stories — some later than others, but all got it in by late Wednesday night, so thanks very much. I’ll bring printouts for you on Nov. 14 and we’ll do our roundtable critique on the 19th.