‘Narrative on Deadline’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Sitting in on a workshop at the Nieman narrative journalism conference with St. Petersburg Times reporter Tom French and editor Mike Wilson.

Good examples of narrative writing on deadline:

St. Petersburg Times story, “Brazen Meets Kind in a Courtroom,” by Colleen Jenkins. Reporter saw this story in the courtroom. She didn’t name the characters. As a result, the reader sees the subjects of the piece — “Pinstripe Suit” and “Red Velour Sweatshirt” — the same way that those in the courtroom do.

The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier story, “Firefighters Grieve after Deadly Blaze,” by Glenn Smith. Notice the first paragraph. The whole story doesn’t have to be a narrative. Sometimes, a story can just have one solid narrative paragraph.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch story by Todd Frankel. (See 10/10/07 story)

St. Petersburg Times story by Tom French, Anne Hull, and Sue Carlton (4/22/00)

St. Petersburg Times story by Tom French (2/28/03)

The question isn’t so much if you’re going to write a narrative piece or an investigative piece. The question is, “What’s the best way to tell the story?”

You don’t have to go to Baghdad for The Washington Post to do narrative work.

Common reasoning behind not writing narratives is the idea that “my editors won’t let me.” If you propose an article, sometimes the real problem is if they say yes. At that point, you have to deliver on that ambition.

Sometimes it seems easier to be dejected and assume that your editor will say no, but you have to take the responsibility to bring the story to your editor. Take stories that have a low risk factor. Take the story about a mom and daughter going back-to-school shopping. Take the spelling bee story. Take the stories that others don’t want to do and go with them.

Try to get your editor to give you objective reasons for criticisms. “Why didn’t x or y work for you?” Good editors listen. The best reporters are hungry for good, strong suggestions about how to make their stories better. Welcome high expectations, embrace revisions.

“What’s the best possible outcome of this story? How do we get there?” Good questions to ask about a story. Make it clear to your editor that you don’t mind if he/she calls you at 8 p.m. You want the story to be good, so having that willingness to collaborate is key.

If your editors ask “How do you know that?,” the detail they’re referring to may not be clear enough in the story.

Narrow the frame. Human trafficking, for example, is a topic, but it’s not a story. Zoom in tight and focus on one family, one girl, to explain the larger issue.