A narrative journalism notebook you can read

The Post‘s late-night riding on the Metro is a good read today, but the individual filings from its writers on the Story Lab blog are a great read.

By their nature, they get to the wonderful experience of a lone person observing something ridiculous. This experiment is up there with the Gallery Place group-report for the Story Lab’s team most interesting collaborative work so far. Among the weekend’s postings in the blog:

From Annys Shin, with the quote of the night:

Valentines Day has been good for sock sales, he says. He sold nearly 200 pair today. His bestsellers were pink. “Or they got ‘Love’ on them,” he says. “Or stripes.”

“Girls love roses. It’s romantic,” he says. “Socks? They gonna go crazy.”

From Brigid Schulte, who ends up caring for a drunk stranger:

“I like Long Island Iced Teas, but they don’t like me,” she said. “They should not be allowed to go down that smoothly and that nice. They should not be allowed.”

From J. Freedom du Lac, always nailing description:

“It smelled like a sweat sock in there,” Dizelos says.

The Dupont Circle station has a peculiar, after-hours odor itself. It’s part distillery, part dirty ashtray and part Victoria’s Secret body lotion, with a box of Krispy Kremes and an overflowing barf bucket mixed in. Especially that.

Another from Annys Shin, summarizing:

A young woman in a red peacoat glances up at the display in horror. “Seventeen minutes?” she says to her companion in a sober-looking dress coat. “That is almost a half an hour.”

“I know,” the friend says. “I’m saying, it’s not New York.”

This would be the greatest story about Cheerios ever

Via the Post‘s Story Lab blog this month, we find Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien’s 2009 Atlantic essay on narrative, “Telling Tails.”

The blog post is a sign of how Story Lab has democratized its views on storytelling, and the essay is terrific. “MY SONS, TIMMY and Tad — both fans of Winnie the Pooh — have taken lately to wearing tails,” O’Brien begins to tell us. “At our local Wal-Mart, and occasionally at church, the boys sport lengths of clothesline dangling from their trousers.”

More of the lede: “They prowl the neighborhood trailing an assortment of ribbons, coat hangers, telephone cords, fishing line, belts, blankets, drapery tassels, and electrical extension cords. People notice. Things have gotten out of hand.” O’Brien sews as a master. Reading further, you get a great story about Batman, and then you get the Cheerios.

Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary. In daily life, one would not say to a drinking companion, “Hey, here’s a great story for you. Yesterday morning I ate Cheerios. Then I set off for work. Work was boring. Nothing happened. I left the office at five o’clock sharp. That night I ate a steak, not a great steak, but a pretty darned good one. I went to bed about nine.” Very quickly, I think, one’s drinking mate would seek more interesting company. A better story, though not necessarily a good one, might begin: “Yesterday morning, over my usual bowl of Cheerios, I was alarmed to note that the Cheerios were shaped not as standard circles, but as semicircles, as if someone had used a surgical scalpel to slice each individual Cheerio precisely in half. Odd, I thought. And odder still, those particular Cheerios tasted only half as delicious as Cheerios usually taste. And even odder yet, I found myself half hungry at work that morning, half wishing for a bowl of Cheerios. My hunger was soon tempered, however, by the disturbing realization that I was now but half a man.”

The scruff makes less sense

Penn Quarter is one strange neighborhood these days. In the heart of downtown, you get the feeling the streets don’t know which way is up anymore. The neighborhood isn’t home to the most political power, or business, or social. Uneasy scruffiness has persisted for decades. But after Williams, after Pollin, amid Fenty, the scruff makes less sense.

Gallery Place gets credit for doing the mammoth work of revitalization, and points in Penn Quarter offer sparks of a renewed downtown day. Just the name “Metro Center” ups expectations. Here we have a place close to the power but enough blocks away to provide a more human orientation. In a sense, the area is where a wave of metropolitan life begins. Consider the other directions. Capitol Hill jumps quickly into residential. South Capitol is support staff and barely post-industrial. North Capitol remains undefined. Penn Quarter, though, is the city rising from a swamp — more Peter Stuyvesant than Pierre L’Enfant.

So, when dysfunction persists through the sparks, you wonder where things are going wrong. If you can win on part of a block, why not the whole block? If you can win on that whole block, why not around the corner? And if you can win those multiple blocks, why not… Come on, Washington. My city. You’ve let a budget bus depot and a teen lock-in take over downtown’s best hopes since the arrival of Metro? I doubt New York and Chicago would put up with as much. There’s no coding here, just summertime exhaust and a kid yelling “Fuck” in your ear.

Good for the Post‘s Story Lab for a long, textured look at Gallery Place this week. (A photo gallery and videos would have helped, but maybe cupcake disorder is a narrative stepping stone to municipal disorder.) The storytelling finds chaos and minimal authority. Good for the Post ombud for calling out the paper’s otherwise weak coverage of the big Metro brawl. Anyone who’s spent time in the neighborhood in recent years could tell you Broken Windows have been escalating, putting unneeded edge on rare, diverse, professional opportunity. When the fancy bowling alley bans gang wear, you know you have a problem.

The Post ombud should go further along those lines. TBD needs to do the same. (This interview is a start.) Story Lab’s work last week tells the city as it is, between the headlines. Those stories matter, and we have rarely heard them. All signs in the fall’s mayoral race point to an electorate ready to vote their experiences, instead of any politician’s events. The city is going through a stretch without big wins or losses, and the quietly stuttering middle is an uneasy, impulsive street.

Voters, standing with more feelings than facts, know there are causes. Courtland Milloy writes: “Forget about the feasibility of putting a police officer on every train, let alone every car. Would it really help — or hurt — to put the squeeze on these teenagers without bothering to find out where all that pent-up rage is coming from?” Milloy puts his finger on Penn Quarter’s central issue, I think. The neighborhood has begun to feel like a flip in a shell game. The bomb scares and corner shouters are nothing when you know unresolved civic forces control your fate.

I love the New Yorker, but…

Good for the Post Story Lab. Steve Hendrix noticed this line in a New Yorker blog item and posted about it: “The biggest play of the game may have been Alex Ovechkin’s open-ice demolition of Jagr, which led to a quick Russian goal and an arena-wide gasp (it was the hockey equivalent of the collapse of the North Tower).”

Like Hendrix, I’m a big fan of NYer writer Nick Paumgarten, but what a bizarre comparison. One other blogger thought the same: “I mean, I love me some Ovechkin talk on newyorker.com, but this may be a tad inappropriate.” (The one funny thing was Hendrix’s initial post title, still reflected in the URL: “But what can he do with curling?”) No one else on the Internet seemed to notice. I posted the line and Story Lab link on Facebook yesterday, and friends were similarly mystified.

But as the day rolled on, friend Andy noticed the New Yorker quietly removed the North Tower reference. No explanation, no note. The line lost its parenthetical and joined with the next sentence, “The biggest play of the game may have been Alex Ovechkin’s open-ice demolition of Jagr, which led to a quick Russian goal and an arena-wide gasp, but Datsyuk’s defensive work, as resolute an expression of skill as any spinorama or one-timer, was the secret to Russia’s success.”

Not a cool way to edit online, New YorkerSee the post here.

How you take person-on-the-street to the next level

If you are J. Freedom du Lac of the Post, you give your story strong framing: “In Washington, the story of Gilbert Arenas and his guns is yet another in a long line of sports embarrassments for a town that has a tough time finding winners. But in the rest of the country….”

Your first local quote comes from the mayor even though he’d talked to someone else. It’s solid. “I think a lot of what people will think about this incident is, is he truly remorseful? Does he want to change?”

You find relevant streets to add context, like “… while standing on Abe Pollin Way, the one-block stretch of F Street NW named for the late Wizards owner, who dropped the team’s old name, the Bullets, in 1997 because of violent crime rates in Washington and the assassination of his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.”

And such as those streets around the court where a grand jury has begun hearing evidence on Arenas and the Wizards. There, you find possibly my new favorite person-on-the-street paragraph.

“Gil needs to be serious,” said Tommie Williams, who was on his way to a pretrial drug test at D.C. Superior Court. (“Coke charge,” he shrugged.) “Guns — that’s a serious offense in D.C. He’s gonna find out.”

Good too, the tweets amid reporting. Cool for du Lac and Story Lab.

Journalism’s next frontier is patronizing the Web?

(Isn’t that its current frontier?) Post Story Lab blog, you’re gonna kill me. “Reporters, readers and the quest for journalism’s next frontier,” really? Let us review your two weeks of publication and the types of content you’ve published, in the order in which you’ve published.

Note: I say all this because I still have hope for the team/blog.

Week 1: Build-a-story, pick of the day (magazine archive, with a dig at the Web), reporter’s notebook, build-a-story, build-a-story, pick of the day (current magazine), reporter’s notebook, reporter’s notebook, pick of the day (dead magazine archive), reporter’s notebook, build-a-story, build-a-story, build-a-story, build-a-story, pick of the day (current, asks “Is this journalism” on Web video), reporter’s notebook, build-a-story.

Week 2: Pick of the day (archival speech on papers and magazines), reporter’s notebook, reporter’s notebook, pick of the day (long-form paper story, current), reporter’s notebook, Q&A on long-form beating Twitter, pick of the day (mocking Web minutia), long-form over Twitter Q&A II, build-a-story, pick of the day (current magazine), build-a-story, build-a-story, poll, long-form Q&A III, poll, pick of the day (book cut).

Coming two years late to the reader journalism party is better than not coming at all. But there’s a weird tone in between story building that suggests, with rare exceptions, you’re a dumbass for visiting.

Early Tuesday a.m. addition: Forgetting to link to my previous post about Story Lab left this item somewhat out of context. Here you go.

The team that saves the Post?

After repeated nav redesigns and dynamic page switchouts killed my daily reading of the Post print edition indexes (if I’m missing a feed to get all of the headlines at once, please point me to it), I found that Edward P. Jones profile linked in the paper’s new Story Lab blog.

Yes, as an ex-Post.com-er rightly vented to me today, the Post needs to realize everything should not have its own blog. Here’s a scary full list of them, somewhat out of date. But I may try Story Lab for a while. The blog comes from the new local enterprise reporting squad, under the direction of Marc Fisher, formerly the country’s best combined local columnist/blogger. His small team is narratively dangerous and young enough to have a chance at being the voices that save the paper.

What’s the team missing? Web journalists. That’s inexcusable, and I hope they’re knocking down merger walls now to integrate talent. If the team sees its mission as just newspaper writing, with only Web integration on the initial reporting end, then… that’s too bad. I hope not. You can’t save writing alone. You have to save storytelling.

The blog posts so far give me some worries there: hard-launching the blog with a call for tattoo anecdotes, talk of reporter notebooks, the uncomfortable conflation of crowdsourcing and transparency debate. Same with a team reporter saying in his bio that he doesn’t tweet (I don’t care if you don’t until you proclaim it) and linking to the printer version of an Esquire story (torturing Web folks on a line-width rack).

I am hopeful. A life Post fan, I have to be. It just needs to get around harder online. Getting half the great minds into a room isn’t enough.