Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 15 — the divine scene story

We’re delving into scene stories now, and what do I mean by that? It’s a feature that’s not too long, heavy on narrative and vivid detail, that takes a reader into a place they might not normally go, or were too busy to get to, or don’t have the access to. Reporting on a trial is, in a way, a scene story: What happened, but also, what did the courtroom feel like as it happened? What did people say during court recess, in the hallways? What did people wear? How did they react to evidence, testimony, verdicts? And, of course, what is the news?

Is there news? A scene story in the features department must often work from a much more nuanced notion of what is news. (“That’s news to me,” is often a reaction you hope to elicit from your readers– especially when it involves cultural events or subculture scenes that the reader might have only been vaguely aware of, or not at all.)

The Jour494 students must find a local(ish) scene story and file it by Nov. 7, and it must be 1,000-1,300 words. We launched into a terrific brainstorming session for most of Monday’s class period, but first I set forth the following parameters:

• It can’t be a scene you already know too much about or participate in. Never write about your own scene. These pieces should not be personal or involve the vertical pronoun. (“I.”)

• It must have narrative in it. Which, above all, means the reporter needs to go to something that is happening and follow it through from beginning to end. In some cases, what happens in a scene story transpires in a couple of hours — or sometimes less. In other cases, you’re up at dawn and see it all the way through for 12 or 24 hours.

• It should be pegged to an event, but in some cases, it can be a scene that occurs every day, and is therefore more along the “day in the life” (or “night in the life”) genre. Be careful, though, about being too broad. The best scene stories are specific.

• Don’t just show up unannounced. You are not on an undercover mission, you’re a journalist. Pre-reporting is the key to success with a scene story, even if you’re assigned a day-hit, where you only have an hour (or less) to prepare. Before you go out to your scene, interview the people in charge. Get a feel for what’s planned to happen, what the scene is like. Gather sources. READ UP — read everything you can find that’s been written about it before. And make sure that people know you’re coming as a journalist, that you’ll be taking notes. Establish rules ahead of time about permission, on/off-the-record, etc.

photo via cultofmac.com

• For this class, it must have a popular culture angle, but this can be so broadly defined that almost everything qualifies. Something people do in their spare time for fun. (Or faith? Or belief/politics/devotion?)

• There must be a “step-back.” This is where the writer/narrator steps back and provides broader cultural context. What does this scene mean? What does it represent? Why are we here? Why do people love it? This isn’t an opportunity to be opinionated; it’s an opportunity to be smart. It’s a payoff for the reader. The step-back can usually be accomplished in a perfect paragraph or two. Sometimes it can be done in one amazing sentence. (The reported essay and personal essay assignments were meant to limber the students up for writing step-backs.) If you ever find yourself at odds with an editor who wants to take your “step-back” out of the story, I say it’s probably worth dying on the hill for. Fight for it.

• Find a scene that occurs no later than Nov. 4 or 5, or else you’ll really be pushing deadline. But, having said that, there is Election Night on Nov. 6 — scenes galore. (Bars, political victory/defeat parties, etc.) Some of my favorite scene stories were written in an hour, on a tight deadline. If you feel up to the task, go ahead, but don’t file late.

Brainstorming ideas took off from here. I encouraged the students to give one another feedback and ideas/tips for more angles. It was like a giant story meeting. And fear not — Missoula is a small town, but it has an endless number of scenes. Halloween itself is a gift from the scene story gods. I’m liking what I’m hearing, but get out there and pre-report; make a plan.

For Wednesday, Oct. 17: We’re going to deconstruct five scene stories and see how they worked. I’ve also solicited advice from the authors (one of them is me), asking them what they remember about this particular assignment and how they did it. Read these, mark them up, and come to class ready to talk about reporting techniques and writing mechanics.

• “The Cycles of Fashion,” by Dan Zak — The Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2009.

• “Life of the Party,” by Robin Chotzinoff — Denver Westword, Feb. 14, 1996.

• “In the dark of holiday retail, a scented candle lights the way,” by Michael Kruse — Tampa Bay Times, Nov. 27, 2010.

• “The Koan of Roshambo: You Are Paper. I Rock,” by Hank Stuever — The Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2004.

• “Patiently waiting for the Green light,” by Monica Hesse — The Washington Post, July 16, 2012.

See you then.

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