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From Lead Onward

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2011 at 10:27 AM

An article that tells and shows what solid reporting, deep understanding, and passionate writing can accomplish.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Yes, I've said to you that when it comes to leads, be careful about using questions. They're too easy. Any story, every story can start with a question that the writer then sets about to answer. But sometimes, a question lead makes for the very best way to get things underway.

An Exception to the Rule

Take a powerfully written piece that The New York Times ran on a Sunday in May that closely followed the brutal invasion of Joplin, Missouri, by that monster tornado. Dan Berry wrote the story under the headline, "When Everything Is Gone, Including a Sense of Direction." And to give due credit, Barry did the reporting, along with colleagues Richard Oppel, Jr., and A.G. Sulzberger.

Here's the lead; it covers three paragraphs:

"Where is Dude's Daylight Donuts, whose glazed treats made mornings better? Where is the Elks lodge, the place to go on Friday nights for a meal, a few beers and a lot of laughs? Where is St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, and the parochial school always by its side, like an obedient child?

"Where is the El Vaquero restaurant, with its tangy margaritas? And Jack's barber shop, where the world's problems were solved snip by snip? And the Glory Days music store, with those drum sets daring would-be Ringos to find the beat? And the houses? The thousands of houses?

"Where is one-third of Joplin?"

This is not a question but a questions lead, one consisting of a series, and it really works to establish the scope of physical and historical loss that the storm caused. The landscape, the cityscape, was wiped clean of its past. Each question identifies one element now gone and bound to be missed.

Solid Reporting

Barry and company discovered the facts through on-the-scene observation. Then, Barry tied them together, question by question, and with each, the devastation grows. Think how much reporting was needed to make that lead possible. Think how much reporting it took to go on. The lead by itself leaves the reader hanging. The meanings must be filled in.

"All this was here last Sunday afternoon, rooted in the Missouri ground and in the Joplin psyche, as permanent as anything of concrete and routine can be," the next sentence explains. With it, you immediately discover that Barry seeks, through his copy, to give us an understanding of how a disaster, by ripping to shreds the landmarks of a community and the gathering spots of a neighborhood, can tear away the bonds of togetherness as long forged through local traditions and habits.

Answering the Questions

As the story develops, the subjects of those questions posed will receive a follow-up. "Down at the donut shop, Dude Pendergast looked forward to another predawn Monday of rolling dough and making coffee for his early-bird pals. At St. Mary's school, Monday lunch was to be Mexicali chicken, Spanish rice and golden corn. Now all this is gone."

We're told that "Longtime residents, including the mayor, will tell you that even when on the central thoroughfare of South Main Street, they are not always sure where they stand. There is a splintered landscape, defined by remnants of houses, overturned cars and bark-stripped trees that jut from the earth like hands reaching for help. The devastation can become one endless, numbing landfill..."

Deep Understanding

Barry's story has a sense of direction that the unfortunate citizens of Joplin, so soon after the storm, lack. It also features rich detail so that the reader, though not on the scene, can get at least an idea of what has happened, as much of one as words on paper can provide.

"But then some stray piece in the sprawl of brokenness will catch the eye, demanding context," the story continues. A short list comes next: "a small oxygen tank, a full jar of oregano, a Kermit the Frog doll. And the context is Joplin, a specific place with a specific American history."

Passionate Writing

The writing is so sensual: the "sprawl of brokenness" mentioned above. And this: "Traffic crawls at a stunned pace, with cars carrying the traumatized and those who need to see to believe." And: "The stillness of the piles along the roadside is disturbed only by people, digging."

Dude's Daylight Donuts: it is "Gone. But Dude is still here, hip-deep in the rubble of the business he ran for more than half a century, standing right where he used to stack the sacks of flour." St. Mary's is "sacred shambles ... where the wood pews are crumpled, the organ smashed and the baptismal font filled with ripped-away insulation."

Barry writes: "Turning right or left on any street leads to houses gone or close to it, as well as to stories and moments of heartbreak, weirdness and resolve." A "distraught man" relates one story, of how, "while helping to dig in search of the living, he heard the distant cry of a little girl. 'Don't worry, honey, I'm getting there!' he called out, again and again, digging so frantically that his hands began to bleed. Then, suddenly, he was there. He uncovered a talking doll, and he wept. Then he dug elsewhere, he says. This time he uncovered a dead girl, and he wept."

Just one article, and from it one learns again about tragedy and courage, from it one is reminded of the human need to go on, to reclaim and rebuild. From what one reads throughout, the signs are there that Joplin and its people will not only remember but mend and, once more, thrive.

Journalistically, that one article tells and shows so much about what solid reporting, deep understanding, and passionate writing can accomplish from lead onward. You'll find the story on page 16 of section 1 in The New York Times of Sunday, May 29.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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