Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Nov. 14 — Won’t you be my neighbor?

We spent a fair amount of time Wednesday discussing Tom Junod’s 8,100-word profile of Mister Rogers. It ran 14 (!!) years ago in Esquire and it’s still one of those pieces that makes me tear up. It’s beautifully constructed. Its paragraphs are dense but many of its sentences are deliberately simple, mirroring Fred Rogers’s way of speaking to children. Yet the story is also very deeply felt and intellectually considered.

The access Junod got to Mister Rogers can only be admired and envied — the paragraph where Mister Rogers strips down at the health club to change for his daily swim is, I think, one of the best ever written, not only because it describes Mister Rogers naked, but it does so without a trace of snark or humor. It’s just so real and true. Which is what Fred Rogers was about.

Now. A word about Mister Rogers. I was born in 1968. One thing I’ve noticed is that people my age and younger have, for the most part, a deep and abiding respect for Fred Rogers. He was a real friend to us. We trusted him. This Esquire piece was the first time I’d seen Mister Rogers regarded with reverence and depth and no awkward humor. I think this article validated Mister Rogers’s elevation to pop-cultural sainthood during the last five years of his life. This story taught me a lot about tone.

But baby boomers? Anyone who was too old for Mister Rogers’s first demographic? For them it’s all pedophile jokes, all the time; morning-zoo crew gags and Eddie Murphy’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” etc. (And my students, born around 1990? They’re a little “meh” on him. They knew him, they respect him. I sensed a little ambivalence.)

Back to the story: Does the resonant use of “once upon a time” work? Should Junod have led with Old Rabbit? (Should Old Rabbit have factored in at all? Is it necessary for Junod to weave in his own childhood?) Are there places to cut? Should there be more biographical information of Rogers? Should we learn more about his television show and how it’s made? Are the paragraphs too long?

I think you know my answers. (This story is perfect.)

Meanwhile …

Thanksgiving is upon us and it’s time talk turkey and face reality. We have five classes left. I’ve adjusted the remainder of our syllabus accordingly, and — the big news — I’ve changed the final assignment a bit. I just don’t think it’s possible to pull off a longform narrative in under three weeks. I was starting to get some signs about this from some of the students. All semester I’ve been suggesting that it was never too early to start the final project, but I should have been more emphatic. And even then I’m not sure that would have worked. So, in my ongoing effort to not be perceived as a pushover, I went ahead and pre-pushed myself over.

Not because I’m a wonderful guy. I’m just using an ancient editor Jedi mindtrick of re-budgeting. For the record, I think everyone in Jour494 is capable of doing an intimate, surprising, 3,000-word feature about someone’s relationship to making or consuming popular culture. I don’t doubt the ability; what worries me is time. And I just don’t want to read any half-assed efforts or last-minute Hail Mary drafts.

So, the new final assignment is still going to be a long(ish) story, but the target is now 2,000 words instead of 3,000. It’s to be more like the scene story you just did, with a little more intimacy and a broader use of scenes; it will also require a bigger “step-back” section, which will get at the real meaning of the story. It’s a hybrid feature story, blending aspects of the scene story and the reported essay. I’ve also pushed the due date as far as it can go, to Dec. 5.

We spent a lot of time Wednesday brainstorming and came up with some great ideas that can be turned around in 21 days. Now get to work.

• • •

For Monday, Nov. 19: We’ll be doing roundtable critiques of the Nov. 7 scene stories — please roll up your sleeves for a good scrubbing and mark up those copies with feedback, raves and criticism.

And take a moment just to admire the range of subjects your Jour494 colleagues have covered: a wild house party, a karaoke night, Belegarth players, Dead Hipsters, drag queens, a roadside tourist trap, a sports bar, tailgaters, a go-kart track, a mixed-martial arts competition, a weekly pub trivia night, the Day of the Dead parade, an estate sale, a spook house, a videogame smackdown, a charity ride, a psychic fair.

All that!


  1. DZ on November 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Part of me thinks that if the Rogers piece appeared today, in 2012, in The Washington Post, bylined by someone who was not named Tom Junod, it would be chided as purple, over-wrought and self-indulgent.

    • Hank Stuever on November 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      Probably it would have been chided similarly at any point in the Wash Post, then or now, glory days or not. And it didn’t emerge unscathed in Esquire, either, as I recall. But I think you’re mainly right — in any event, I can’t think of any feature that could run at 8,100 words in the Post, now, at least not in one take. This is why Esquire has been such a happy home for Junod, et al — it encourages the writing to go all the way out there.

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