Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Six More Favorite Journalism Stories

This is a continuation of a series talking about some of my favorite journalism and writing experiences that began with this post.

1. Lining Up for the Harry Potter Premiere, Connection Newspapers (2011) (Link)
For the midnight screening of the final installment of the eight-part Harry Potter series, an intern (who took pictures because my camera was broken) and I went to the local multiplex and interviewed a bunch of costumed moviegoers about their fandom. The midnight screenings of a new film are generally when movie going has its most communal aspect and for this much-anticipated screening, Harry Potter fans went positively berserk with costumes and revelry. Movie writing and local journalism don't intersect often but this story was a fun exception to the rule that turned into a great scene piece.

I also have a lot of fondness for this story because I don't believe Box Office Mojo tells the full how and why of why people make their way to the movie theaters and I used this assignment as an opportunity to dig deeper into a cross-section of Harry Potter watchers and discover their entry point into the fandom.

2. Newt Gingrich Rally, AOL Patch News Service (2011) (Link)
This marks the only time I've covered politics outside of a county board meeting. I did a couple articles for Patch at this point after having just left The Connection and I heard about a Newt Gingrich rally taking place at the Key Bridge Marriot (my gym at the time was on the bottom floor) so I pitched that.

This ended up being a last minute assignment. I don't follow politics as much as I should (if memory serves, this was the only presidential rally I've been to period) but I learned as I went along that Newt Gingrich was trying to get himself on the ballot for the Virginia primary in late 2011 and was trying to get legitimacy from the Mitt Romney (the eventual presidential candidate the next year) campaign and get him to agree to a debate.

The event itself was a whirlwind of activity and it helped that some of the other reporters filled me in as I went along. There's a good chance that I will recognize another reporter if he is in Northern Virginia but political reporters are a different species entirely. 

The person who helped the most was a guy dining at the hotel bar with the other political wonks.  I asked him for a quote and when he seemed amenable,  I asked him for further assistance in clarifying what I had just seen. It turned out he was a former campaign manager of Christine O'Donnell (who was parodied on SNL and other comedy shows for claims of practicing witch craft) and it was interesting to hear his take on the reality of the person verse the caricature.

I had little chance at getting close to Newt Gingrich that night as there was a blizzard of people trying to shake his hand and get his autograph. The only time I've ever seen a famous person at an airport, it was Newt Gigrich approximately 10 months later in October of 2012. He watched the Romney-Obama debate analysis on TV in the Delta Lounge (that he could have been in if he played his cards right) then walked down the concourse like any ordinary joe. It was just so sad that everyone wanted to get close to him and no one even cared ten months later that he was walking through the terminal with them.

3. A Day on the Set of Parks and Recreation, Washington City Paper (2012) (Link)
I am on the DC Film Office's e-mail list and got a notice about filming for Parks and Recreation and because I felt like I had a good idea where they'd be, I decided to take my chances, blindly e-mail the editor and commute into the city to see if I could catch the production.

Up until I got to the location, I had no idea if any of this would work or if the editor would write me back saying "thanks but no thanks." What I'm about to write is a pretty cool story but keep in mind if you think my livelihood is as cool that there are a lot of stories that start off this way and end up not materializing. In place of this exciting tale, I could fill pages of extremely boring stories of ideas that did not pan out.

In any case, this was a time where everything did work to plan. They were filming on the far end of the National Mall (a wide open space) so I walked several blocks seeing this camera crew turn from a blip into the thing I was looking for.

All at once, I was part of a lively zoo of activity despite the fact that the only shots being done that afternoon were talking head segments with Chris Pratt (Aubrey Plaza was on hand as well). I was in the mix of several dozen D.C. office drones playing hooky from work so they could catch a glimpse of their favorite show (I suspect the bureaucratic satire angle of Parks and Recreation plays well with D.C. wonks). At one point, I was an unapologetic fan boy myself shouting "hey Chris!" at Pratt. I was even an extra on the set (because they had one of those signs saying "if you cross this line into the shot, you are now an extra, hope you're OK with that").

Moreso, within approximately five or ten minutes of arriving, I was officially a reporter on the scene as I got an e-mail giving me the green light. From there, it was a pretty easy process of just absorbing everything around me and there was a lot of activity to go off. At one point, I got a couple minutes with director Dean Holland: I just asked him what he was shooting and whether he had figured out that DC has an ample amount of P & R fans. The latter was fairly apparent because their DC shoot had been ambushed by fans all week. I got to yell at Aubrey Plaza, "Could you move a little to the left?" as I was trying to take a picture of her meeting Mayor Vincent Gray (she complied). I also got a minute with Chris to say I loved his character and got to take a picture with him.

4. Maccabeats Come to Town, Richmond Times Dispatch (2012) (Link)
I moved to Richmond in January 2012 and lived there on and off for approximately nine months. It wasn't until I moved back to Northern Virginia that I broke into the Richmond newspaper market. I lived on the fringes of the Jewish Orthodox community of Richmond and thought that was a fascinating subculture but I never succeeded (despite some talks with Richmond Magazine) to publish anything about the Richmond Jewish community during my stay there.

What newspapers generally need is to be able to pin a cultural phenomenon to an event. When I first moved to Richmond all the buzz my first weekend was about an a capella group of Orthodox Jews called the Maccabeats that came from Yeshiva University which is the preeminent Orthodox University in the country. When the Maccabeats came to perform they apologized that one of their members, Ari Lewis, couldn't make it down. Lewis was a local and it was a sign of how tight the community was that nearly everyone in the audience knew him and lamented his absence. They also said that they'd return next year which gave me two crucial things I needed for easy story placement: a local angle, and a date to pin the story to.

For the first time, Richmond Times Dispatch (the largest paper I would write for at the time) greenlit a story. One snag was that Ari's mother had known me as an attendant of the Jewish Community Center where she served as the arts director but hadn't known that I was a reporter so there was an understandable degree of caution that she had about entrusting her story to me. She wanted final approval of my draft which newspapers do not generally provide. She and the JCC called the newspaper to double check about my status. This could have been a red light but arts editor Cindy Creasy said I did work there (despite only being a freelancer who'd never written anything for there) and backed me up completely. This was an extremely kind gesture of hers that got the story moving along and turned it into a success for everyone. On another story, Creasy took time out of her day to meet with me personally to help revise my story.

Although Creasy never let up on rejecting most of my story ideas, she did go out of her way on a couple occasions to help me and I would love to say that I continue to have a relationship with her and the RTD. Unfortunately, Cindy passed away of a heart attack in July of 2014. RIP

5. Richmond Violinist, Richmond Style Weekly (2015) (Link)
After Cindy's passing, there were no other editors at the RTD who knew me made it difficult to continue an association to the newspaper. I essentially had to get in the door again and didn't have luck.

In mid-2013, I went to the Richmond folk life festival: Partially to get out of the house and partially to search for stories. Among them was a fiddle player who had made his own fiddle and had a business making violins from scratch.

It wasn't the fact that he made violins (a profession that most towns have) but that he made his violins from scratch and sourced his own ingredients. It was also the explanation and enthusiasm he had for his craft that made him a good story. If someone can explain something about themselves in a detailed and interesting manner, it's going to help your story because you'll have ready-made quotes and they will be able to fill in the gaps in your research well.

The most interesting thing about this story is that it took nearly two years to see this story in print. At the time, I thought I might have a chance to sell stories to the Richmond Style Weekly or the Richmond Times Dispatch as I had written for both of those publications. Aside from Cindy's passing at RTD, the editor at the Style Weekly had moved to the Washington Post leaving one of my articles stranded in transit along with any other pitches (including this one).

The Style Weekly was kind enough to give me a small kill fee for the article that had been submitted before the editor left, but the newspaper was too busy reshuffling its organization to receive my stories. I randomly called them up a year later and a guy who was the new style editor heard my pitch and basically said "sure."

Another interesting thing about this article was that it was done remotely. Being on site is crucial to articles some times. In this case, I had a hard time grasping some of the terms he was using in violin making and his process in general. To better understand this, I visited a violin shop in Baltimore when I was passing through that area and asked that store's proprietor for a little tour of sorts. He wasn't enthusiastic that I was writing about a violinist other than him, but he eventually obliged.

6. 12 Classic Movie Moments Made Possibly by Abuse and Murder, Cracked (2011) (Link)

Cracked is an internet offshoot of the old humor magazine that specializes in listicles packed with heavy doses of sophomoric humor and the kind of interesting tidbits of trivia that ordinarily require deep research. I fell in love with Cracked in 2007 and decided to try to write for in 2008. They have a policy that anyone can pitch for them on their forums but it wasn't until the 2010's that Cracked had an orderly process for going about it with intermediaries between the editors and writers called moderators.

Before that, it was the wild wild west and civility wasn't particularly strong either. I was laughed off the boards when I first tried pitching ideas and otherwise ignored by editors unless I could get hold of them through a personal message. One editor named Kristi Harrison gave me a whiff of encouragement after I left a complimentary comment on her block but that was about it.

A couple years later, I had an article idea about great directors that were hell to work with citing John Ford, Michael Curtiz, Gene Kelly and one-time director Marlon Brando. Generally with Cracked, you make the connection that two or three pieces of trivia in your head are grounds for an interrelated topic and then research from there. I was so unsure of myself, that my introductory message read:

"I have an article that could be very funny because there are some pretty far-out stories here and they aren't particularly well-known either. People know the names of many of these famous directors and it's a valid assumption that directors can sometimes be temperamental geniuses on set, but the extent of some of these directors will surprise.

I got all the research, I've got the article, I've even got the outline of something funny. So much of being funny, however, comes down to wording...choosing the right words for hyperbole and the like-and I haven't proven that I can do that yet to the satisfaction of the cracked team and have had no articles published to date."

What I didn't know was that in 2011 when I pitched this, Cracked had become a much more civil environment so they just responded with a blunt response here:

"It doesn't work that way... Pitch it. Get feedback. If it works, and the worst comes to the worst, the editors are dick joke ninjas." [ed. note: I'm just quoting the responder, I have no idea what the last three words mean]

From there, people surprised me by giving me helpful feedback on formatting and notes and eventually I got the attention of editors who pared me up with other writers which eventually lead to my first completed article. Because it was my idea, I was considered the lead writer, but many of the entries were written by other people and even the content on my article was spruced up by the editors (especially in the humor department). The article ended up getting 6 million views and there have even been a couple people in real life who knew of my article before knowing I wrote it. Despite all that, I'm generally prouder of the artices the consist more of my own words or original intent. Yes, 6 million page views for something with my name in the byline but the byline doesn't tell the whole story.

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