Good storytelling offers portraits of personal struggle

Public Editor

April 30, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

A good newspaper is about more than breaking news, front-page headlines, investigative reporting and sports. It also should help readers understand how others conduct their everyday lives.

Whether the stories appear in the features, news, sports or business sections, what distinguishes the incisive from the pedestrian is the reporter's ability to offer portraits, large and small, drawn from life, telling stories that frequently echo readers' personal struggles.

Several recent articles in The Sun illustrate the variety and scope of this vital journalism.

Reporter John Woestendiek's April 23 piece, "Home floats: For the newly single, living aboard a boat offers a refuge in rocky times," had a personal perspective that enhanced the reporting and writing. Woestendiek is also going through a divorce and could relate to the emotional and economic issues that his subjects are experiencing.

The article in the Modern Life section describes the lives of several men who live at various local marinas - from the modest to the upscale - and how their decision to move from house to boat was intertwined with their separation and divorce.

Over time, Woestendiek got to know the men through conversation and observation of their lives on the boats. One man vacuums the water out of the boat after a shower; another's bathroom is a trailer on the pier.

"To me it was a story about recovering and resiliency and a story about friendship," Woestendiek said. "These are the kind of stories I like, layered ones, that different readers will get different things out of, including - most importantly - getting them thinking."

The story was Woestendiek's idea. It evolved from his being out in the community talking to people, not from an editor's concept, Google searches or public officials.

In the same Modern Life section, Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl, who is single, wrote a first-person piece about negotiating the aisles of supermarkets after work in search of dinner for one. From the "Good Food to Go" to the "Quick Meal Solutions" sections, Kiehl takes readers on a voyage of discovery - or disappointment - that thousands of people take.

Reader Jennifer Carlson said: "I truly enjoyed and related to your article on singles being lost in the supermarket. And here I thought I was the only one who spends my afternoon commute wondering (a) should I pick up some take-out on the way home? (b) should I brave the busy supermarket? (c) should I make do with what little I have in my fridge? Now, I'll have a nice chuckle the next time I'm wandering around the supermarket."

Kiehl's article is part of the weekly series "Real Life: True tales from everyday living" in the Modern Life section. "Real Life" offers pieces drawn from a writer's experiences rather than from straightforward reporting.

Section editor Harry Merritt said "Real Life" has generated positive response from readers. The Sun recently made the smart decision to move it from the back of the section to the top of page 3, which gives it more visibility.

Woestendiek, a 30-year newspaper veteran who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, also has written a "Real Life" piece. His Dec. 4 article about how he went from being married to being alone to adopting a dog generated more reader responses than anything he's written in his five years at The Sun, he said.

Another everyday portrait came from reporter Sumathi Reddy's April 22 news feature about BGE customers facing big rate increases.

In "Pay now, pay later, or how to pay at all," Reddy describes a 60-year-old Baltimore resident's remarkably sanguine decision to absorb the 72 percent rate increase all at once. "There's no point in being upset," the man said. "It's coming. I'll just accept it." He already has begun turning off his refrigerator when it's empty, and he plans to start turning off his water heater during the day.

A Tuesday front-page article, "Signs of Strain: $3 gas raises the question: Where does it stop?" included a mini-profile that speaks volumes about everyday life.

The SUV owned by a woman quoted by reporters Rona Marech and Jennifer McMenamin ran out of fuel just before reaching a gas station and required a push. "I haven't wanted to fill it all the way up because it's so expensive," she told a reporter. "So I've been getting $20 here and $25 there every two days."

It cost $66 to fill up her SUV that day.

The woman said that she works two jobs, the second just to cover her gas and car insurance. (And yet, she's still driving an SUV. )

What all these pieces had in common was on-the-scene reporting about things that immediately affect people's lives. The more reporters get out and encounter people in their own environments, the better the journalism.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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