There’s more than one way to skin a topless wiretapper story

(Ed. note: Sometimes it seems like the folks who criticize “traditional” journalism don’t actually, um, read the stories. So, in the interest of pointing out that there’s more than one way to write the news (he-said/she-said), here’s a pair of winners.)

Reporting the public record

First, there’s “The Nine Lives of a Topless Bar” from yesterday’s New York Times.

The writer, Michael Brick, lets readers know early on what kind of reporting this is:

“The survival of the Sweet Cherry, told in court documents, interviews, legislative correspondence, business reports and public hearings, traces the vestiges of a presumed bygone in New York: Down by the waterfront, an unreconstructed house of sex, drugs and violence fights City Hall. Its weapons are its obscure address and a decent Court Street lawyer.”

Most of the information reported in the story sounds like it came from those documents. The story is peppered with documentation, facts and figures. Of course with bottles getting broken over the heads of passerby and dancers alike, it’s hard to blame Brick for not hanging out too long. He does work some description of the club itself into his lead, but it’s never totally clear that he was there.

It looks like he did five interviews, although there might have been a sixth – in one or two cases it’s hard to tell if someone is being quoted from an interview or from documents. I am sort of missing a token *the manager and owners were contacted but declined to comment* line, but I’m not sure what NYT policy is on that disclosure.

So it’s a great investigative and explanatory story, with sex and violence and topless dancers. Built on public records. Cool.

Good old New Journalism, more or less

Somewhere else on the reporting continuum, in “Crashing the Wiretapper’s Ball,” posted today at Wired News, Thomas Greene stalks “a trade show featuring the latest in mass communications intercept gear,” chatting up attendees in the hotel bar, diligently overhearing conversations in the lobby, and eventually strutting past security to hit the floor.

Greene puts himself in the story, mixing his first person account of trying to get into the event with explanatory paragraphs on the law and policy that’s been popping up in the recent NSA wiretapping news. The interviews are unconventional…

“Although I had identified myself as a journalist, an enthusiastic reseller of the equipment decided to hold forth. We drank a great deal, so I won’t name him.”

Actually, the more I look at this story, the less I see. I was hoping for much, much more description and storytelling, but the perhaps the truth is that it really wasn’t that dramatic. A little ethical debate in the bar about who should be held responsible for how governments choose to utilize wiretapping gear does not a Hunter Thompson at the Kentucky Derby story make.

But at least Greene gives us an accurate taste of truth:

“While there was little or nothing at the conference worth keeping secret, the sense of paranoia was constant. The uniformed guard posted to the entrance was there to intimidate, not to protect. The restrictions on civilians attending the law enforcement agency sessions were, I gather, a cheap marketing gesture to justify their $6,500-per-head entrance fee with suggestions of secret information that the average network-savvy geek wouldn’t have known.”

Accuracy can be creative

So I’ve been reading New Journalism, the book, by Tom Wolfe. It’s fun, and scary, and depressing. Not Wolfe, but the stories in the book. I’m trying to figure out how much of this is still, well, allowed at most newspapers. Maybe it still goes on in magazines. Gay Talese’s 1966 “Frank Sinatra has a cold” was for Esquire. (The story is available on this page, if you look for it.)

But where’s the dividing line? What makes one story hard news and another a feature? I’m starting to like the term narrative journalism. That makes more sense to me, and it belongs in newspapers, especially online, where no one will notice that they’ve clicked on the “next page” button a few times because the story is 2000 words long. If you write a pageturner, readers will turn the pages. I hope.

Here’s a hint for newspapers: Publish stories that require reading past the second paragraph to get to the payoff. Make me want to be more than informed.

Thanks to Gangrey for pointing out “Nine Lives” and BoingBoing for linking to “Crashing.”

3 Replies to “There’s more than one way to skin a topless wiretapper story”

  1. I swear, everything old is new again! Wolfe’s New Journalism was new when I started taking journalism classes back in…well, we won’t say how long ago that was. I’ll just say that a little penciled notation inside the book’s cover indicates it cost me $6.95 new.

    I remember being blown away by Wolfe’s “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby” (see http://www.tomwolfe.com/KandyKolored.html for a link to an excerpt from the intro…you might even consider Wolfe’s comments about totem newspapers and totem stories a bit prophetic about the current state of news and newspapers…but I digress). Anyway, that story inspired me to loosen up and write a feature on car collectors and their cars. I wasn’t even a car buff, but it sure was fun.

    Another good book on narrative journalism is Jon Franklin’s “Telling the Story.” I heard him speak at UT-Knoxville when I started grad school there a decade or so ago. He also advocates using the story-telling techniques honed over the decades by fiction writers to create more compelling non-fiction (a.k.a. narrative journalism). That made sense to me. Still does.

    The problem is finding a venue for it. Most newspapers don’t print that kind of thing any more, and neither do many magazines. I don’t see much like this online either. More’s the pity.

  2. To be fair, I’m predisposed to this sort of thing based on my previous engagements with the works of Mr. Thompson. Throw in Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid and seeing Capote awhile back, and the fact that the book just jumped right off the library shelf at me, and there you have it.

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