Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 17 — How they did that scene story

Washington Post photo: Evy Mages

We spent most of Wednesday’s class period talking about the five scene stories I assigned for readings. These are each different kinds of scene stories, and I want the students to keep these handy as they work on their own scene stories, due Nov. 7.

The first one is a ride-along (literally), as Dan Zak follows the scene at Washington, D.C.’s first-ever “tweed ride” of people who share the common wish that the 21st century could be more dandy and old-fashioned.

(For links to all of these stories, go to the bottom of Monday’s recap.)

The next one is mostly reconstructed scene from a very good, thoughtful interview, as Robin Chotzinoff talks to a widow who made the uncoventional decision to have her husband’s wake at home, with the guest of honor propped up on the couch, which turned into a party that last for days.

Another one is short — almost a vignette really. It’s pure scene with a very smart layer of cultural rumination, as Michael Kruse hangs out in the Yankee Candle store at an outlet mall on Black Friday morning.

One is a bar story/event story — a dispatch I wrote from Washington’s first-ever Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament. (Was there ever another tournament? I never heard of it again. But for a minute there, RPS really seemed to poised to be the next hipster kickball.) I am stunned that this was already eight years ago. It seems like five minutes ago.

And the last one is one of those great scene stories in which a bunch of people all believe in something hopeless — in this case, Monica Hesse’s weekend at the Green Party’s presidential nomination convention this summer in Baltimore.

We got some advice from the writers of these stories — what they remembered specifically about how the story got to them (was it assigned? Or was it something they pitched?) and how they reported. The key to all of them is pre-reporting. In some cases, the writer only had a few hours to read the clips, get familiar with it, set up interviews and access, and then go. But every bit of preparation counts.

Dan Zak says he did three “phoners” (interviews) before the tweed ride, and then got there way early so he could see it come together. He rode alongside the tweed crowd and spoke his observational notes into his tape recorder. He hung out a lot — before, during, and afterwards, at the bar. He listened a lot — as much as he directly interviewed participants. The ride was on Sunday afternoon, which means Dan had to file no later than 6 p.m. to make that Monday’s Washington Post Style section.

“At a macro level, I just kept all my senses open,” Dan told me in an email, which I read to the class. “It was a very tactile, noisy scene. And hot. Lots to absorb, for all the senses. I remember toggling between each to make sure I had notes for all five senses. What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I see *beyond* the scene itself? … And because this scene had a lot of details, sartorially, a good portion of each interview involved asking a person *exactly* what they were wearing or riding, down to the manufacture year of his/her bike and at what garage sale and when they got their fighter-pilot goggles. And so on. And it was in reporting these details — many of which clashed, in terms of eras — that I found my way to one of the themes of the piece: The mash-up generation, and how it loves a tweed ride of course.”

For general advice on reporting deadline features, Dan says:

“Talk to people. Most importantly, I guess, is WHY are they here? WHY are they part of this scene?

But don’t talk to people constantly. I actually prefer observational reporting. Just fading into the background and watching, and switching into anthropological mode, and observing behavior. If all you do is interview people, you won’t get any sense of the scene. I also like to imagine myself looking at the scene from a height of some kind. What must it look like from above, or from a distance away? … Wander. Lurk. But stay fixed sometimes and let things move around you.”

• • •

On the Yankee candle piece, Michael Kruse says, via email:

“Early in the week before Black Friday I read around the subject, which basically means read as much as I can, which I always do, and in this case that meant some swimming around in the history of Yankee Candle, the specs of the industry as a whole, and also I re-read a few parts of Tinsel. [Note: I had completely forgotten this piece contained a reference to my book. Not trying to self-promote, honestly! Not more than usual, anyhow. — HS] The “lost aroma of the real” — the actual phrase as well as the interesting idea(s) behind it — had been bouncing around on the inside of my head for a while.

So come Thanksgiving night, Lauren and I finished up a game of Scrabble and then we drove to the outlets, together, because she’s a good wife and because the holidays are about family goddammit. We got stuck in the traffic.”

Michael noticed/found Sue Newman, and decided she would be the one customer he quoted in the piece:

“How I glommed onto Sue Newman was I didn’t. I watched her come into the store. The red wagon made her interesting. I watched her shop. This wasn’t as creepy as it sounds, I swear, because there were LOTS of people crammed into this place, and so it’s not like I was just following her all weird and doo-doo-doo. I noted what she looked at and what she put in that wagon of hers. I made notes in my notebook but I didn’t have my notebook out all the time because frankly I didn’t want some employee coming up and asking me questions and telling me to call some PR person. Fuck that. When she checked out, I got close enough to hear “106.46, please.” Then I followed her outside. Introduced myself. Told her what I was doing. Asked her some questions. We talked for maybe 15, 20 minutes, and then I thanked her and went back inside. I did this with probably five Sue Newmans. Sue Newman was just the Sue Newman I eventually picked. All the other Sue Newmans didn’t make the cut. I needed just one Sue Newman.

Why’d I pick her?

The red wagon.

“106.46, please.”

“I flip on the security system …”

We got home at something like 4 and I slept till like 9 and then went to the office and wrote pretty quick. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving. Quiet in the cubicles. I like it at the length it ran. Said what needed to be said. To me the three most important parts are: 1. Christmas up the nose. 2. His company doesn’t sell wax and wicks. 3. Everything’s like. Nothing is.

The “nut graf” doesn’t always have to be, like, the third paragraph, and there’s no rule that says it all has to be in the same place.”

• • •

On her Green Party story, Monica Hesse recalls (again, by email) that she had part of Thursday to read everything she could about Green Party politics, history, etc. Then … :

“I drive to Baltimore Friday morning. Word starts buzzing that Roseanne is not going to show. I call my editor to tell her that. She asks if I want to bag it and come home. I tell her the story is funnier because Roseanne isn’t coming and they’ve been dissed by a joke of a celebrity.

I go to a bunch of sessions. I interview any people who say something interesting at the sessions. They’re all very excited that a reporter has been sent to cover the convention. I go out of my way to be straight up with them: I am a feature writer. I don’t cover politics. I was sent to cover the scene of this convention. I will probably make fun of you a little bit.

I come back [to Baltimore] on Saturday. That’s when they actually nominate their candidate. I barely interview anyone that day. I just sit and observe for hours as the states go up to the podium one by one. Everything I get on Saturday is 10 times better than the research I did on Thursday and 20 times better than the interviews I did on Friday. Mostly because I’m just watching people be themselves. That’s probably the biggest “tip” I could give your students: shut up. Sit in a corner. Watch. If you overhear someone say something wonderful, you can go up to them at that point and say, “I couldn’t help but hear you talking about blah blah. I’m a reporter, and I think that’s a wonderful quote. May I use it, and ask you a few other questions?” That way you get the wonderful quote, whereas if you just walked up to someone cold and introduced yourself, you never would have been able to pry it out of them.”

Monica finished her reporting on Saturday night, late, drove back to DC, slept on it, and filed her piece Sunday evening by deadline. She spent five hours writing it. It ran in the Monday Style section (and went up online Sunday night).

• • •

There’s a lot more here that we discussed (as did the authors), but you lurkers aren’t paying University of Montana tuition, so we’ll leave it at that. The Great Robin Chotzinoff was on the road when I contacted her, and she wanted to send some thoughts on “Life of the Party,” and may yet still — if so, I’ll post them next time.

And as for what I remember about reporting/writing “The Koan of Roshambo,” it mostly comes down to the same tips and techniques that Dan and Monica offered. You just gotta go, pay very close attention, and make something of whatever you’ve got. You have to make it interesting for the reader.

Of course what I do remember is that I had to cut a few hundred words because the paper was so tight that day. I can’t remember what those words could have possibly been, or what they would have added to a story that is already plenty long enough, but a writer never forgets the whacking.

For Monday, Oct. 22: It’s Pollner Day. I’ll be giving the 2012 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor lecture Monday night at 7 in the U.C. theater. It’s called “Liner Notes for the End of the World: My Adventures in Covering Pop Culture Journalism.” Please come if you can.

For class, we’re going to be discussing the students’ personal essays, aka The Riffs. Mark up your copies and come ready to critique one another.

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