Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Nov. 19 — scene story critiques

Kaimin photo: Tim Goessman

On Monday we went around our beautiful circular wooden classroom table and began critiquing the scene stories that were filed Nov. 7.

Some of the stories have been published in the Kaimin once the writers filed to me first: Dustin Askim’s story on the campus Belegarth scene grew a little in word-count and became a Friday Kaimin cover story on Nov. 9, just when the editors needed it most.

Brooks Johnson wrote about a new go-kart/laser tag emporium in Missoula, which also ran in the Nov. 9 Kaimin. And Billie Loewen’s piece about the tailgating faithful — who remain resolute even if the Griz football season has been less than they hoped — ran on Nov. 16, in advance of the storied Montana/Montana State game. (Montana State won. The final insult.)

Overall, I think people did a fair job of finding and observing a slice of local pop-cultural life. Colorful details — check. Dialogue — check, mostly.

The hard part, as many in the class discovered, is how to make the details and vignettes cohere into a fully-realized feature story — something with a beginning, middle and an end, but also a section where we step back and suss out some theme or meaning: why do people participate in this scene? What does it tell us about ourselves, our culture, this moment? What does is feel like? What does it mean?

Many struggled with the literal beginning. We had a lot of stories start with the weather, or “the crowd’s not here yet,” in which the story (including the writer and the reader) just waits around. That strictly chronological structure is often a misstep. Instead, start with action; get right in there; use the second or third paragraph to tell us who/what/where/when/how. (And delay firing your big guns for the why, somewhere in the middle or near the end.)

A note on chronological structure: Novice feature writers are tempted to use exact time stamps in their stories as a structure or transition technique. (Example: “It’s 8:49 p.m. and …”) I call this the Jack Bauer effect. Unless the story follows the harvesting and transplanting of donated organs or a race against a bomb detonation — where seconds really do count — approximation is less distracting. “Early afternoon.” “Shortly before sunrise.” “After all the bars closed at 2  …”

Students also had to confront issues of, for lack of a better word, anti-climax. When you’re reporting a story, you have to play the cards you’re dealt; if the people and the scene aren’t so interesting, you have to report harder, interview deeper, find someone else to talk to or observe. Don’t feel obligated to keep hanging out with the owner or the person in charge of the event. Remember that an underwhelming crowd is still made up of people who cared enough to come check it out.

And even when something is eventful or exciting and you have lots of great notes, you still have to be the one who will entertain and inform the reader with the facts at hand. The answer is not to fill the story with bad jokes and snarky asides. The answer is usually found in feeling. Convey what it felt like to be there; what it meant to those who were there. While reporting, ask better questions. I’ve always believed that there is no problem that a full notebook can’t solve.

On Monday, Nov. 26, we’ll pick up the critiques where we left off — we have seven left. There are three stories in this batch that I really liked. I’ll share some more excerpts next week.

The second review is also due Monday, for those who haven’t filed it yet.

And we’ll be talking about the final assignment some more. Have you found your subject yet?

Meanwhile, no class on Wednesday, Nov. 21. Happy Thanksgiving!

Leave a Comment