It’s never a good thing when my editor says to me, “Except for this one part, I can’t tell if you’ve ever left the newsroom.” What he means by that is he wants more reporting, more observation, more evidence that I saw it with my own eyes and if I describe it well enough, my reader can see it too. Despite how my editor’s advice is never wrong, it can be hard to contextualize sometimes. Then I read the latest installment of Dan Barry’s amazing NYT series “This Land”– about a struggling diner in Ohio that is a microcosm of depressed Elyria town it’s in- and saw exactly why my editor values quality observation.
“She wears her blond hair in a ponytail and frames her hazel eyes with black-rimmed glasses that tend to get smudged with grill grease. She sees the world through the blur of her work.”
[A simple observation leads to a very poetic metaphor.]
“It is a short walk from the sleek new courthouse, where the Judge, a regular customer (grilled chicken, cottage cheese, fruit), ruminates in his chambers with an unlit cigar in his mouth and a portrait of Che Guevara on his wall.”
[These regular orders pepper the story, the mark of a detail oriented writer who knows that what someone’s “usual” is conveys a lot about their character.]
“When the diner’s door is open, Donna can hear the aching thrum of another one of the Norfolk Southern freight trains that clatter day and night through the city. Bound for Cleveland or Chicago with endless containers of goods made across the country and overseas, they slice through Elyria, once more prominent as a maker of things.
The familiar freight-train siren can conjure memories of the writer Sherwood Anderson, who once ran a mail-order and paint business down by the railroad line. One Thanksgiving Day, he said goodbye to his secretary, walked out the door and followed the tracks east, out of Elyria. A breakdown, apparently, one that led to his fictional classic “Winesburg, Ohio,” whose inhabitants, including some with distinctly Elyrian traits, ache for fulfillment.”
[This observation helps to put Elyria in a larger context, historically and currently. Also, Winesburg, Ohio is one of my favorite books.]
Bonus: This story is also a wonderful multimedia interactive feature. Sometimes I think reporters are worried presenting a story via multimedia will deter people from reading the actual article, but if anything, this pulled me in more.