Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan’s ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’ on Local Reporting and Beats

by Dalton Cox

The chapter begins by dusting off the antiquated expression “shoe-leather,” which describes a type of reporting in which reporters “hit the streets, talk to folks about their needs and concerns, listen and learn, they create special opportunities to discover useful and powerful stories.”

Clark and Scanlan write about two models of journalistic activism. There is an old-school model in which journalists remain detached and objective, and a contemporary style in which reporters lead their audience towards a solution for the common social good. According to Clark and Scanlan, good reporters combine the best aspects of these two methods.

Infographic by Dalton Cox
Infographic by Dalton Cox

Rick Bragg of The New York Times provides an example of the importance of detailed storytelling, even in local reporting. These details are important and stay with readers. A native of the Southeast, Bragg utilizes his bond to the region and makes his stories come alive. As his one-time editor Henry Belk use to command, Bragg makes his readership “see” and feel the story.

Bragg’s 1995 portrait of Oseola McCarty, an African-American washerwoman who became a legendary benefactor of the University of Southern Mississippi, employs such details. For instance Braggs writes that McCarty “spent almost nothing, living in her old family home, cutting the toes out of her shoes if they did not fit right and binding her ragged Bible with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out.”

Thomas Boswell utilizes his knowledge of beat reporting to bring cultural insights to the seemingly simple subject of baseball. His 1980 “Losing It: Careers Fall like Autumn Leaves,” written for The Washington Post, is an example, insightfully illustrating the aging process of players who will one day be discarded.

Boswell mixes in unique references to literature and poetry in his writing. He also takes readers up and down the latter of abstraction or literary metaphor. Storytelling takes readers in and out of such pensiveness without divulging the reality for too long. According to Boswell, “the most important thing in the story is finding the central idea.”

Jonathan Bor’s “It Fluttered and Became Bruce Murray’s Heart,” which won a 1984 ASNE award for deadline writing, was written in just 90 minutes after Bor had spent 48 hours reporting on a record-breaking open-heart surgery. The story uses a standard hourglass pattern, but nevertheless provides an example of how detail in a story can make the writing unforgettable. Bor suggests taking time on the lead, as it will set the tone and theme for the whole story.

Mitch Albom’s “Mackenzie Football Star Another Gunplay Victim” follows a structure of column writing in which a columnist gives the reader a wealth of detail and leaves the message at the article’s conclusion. Albom shows that a variety of writing devices create rhythm, and varying sentence length can set the particular pace of a story.

Russell Eshleman’s writing demonstrates that quality work can still shine through in small tight packages. Eshleman has a particular eye for the ironic in his brief writing style; for example, he notes in “Even for Trees, Age Have Its Privileges,” that two of the Pennsylvania Historic Tree Act’s sponsors are named “Greenwood” and “Greenleaf.” Such succinct touches still allow for memorable writing in less than 500 words.

Finally, Dan Neil shows that even writing automobile reviews, which often feature dry writing aimed at a select readership, can present opportunities for greatness. In “Caught Up in the Crossfire,” Neil utilizes a variety of techniques to make his review of the Chrysler 2004 Crossfire particularly poignant, and considers a wide range of readers. This latter consideration is an especially important trait in writing reviews.

Neil uses unusual words to add style and determine the article’s mood. His lead, which references Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, sets the tone, while also catching readers off guard; audiences are persuaded to not skim but to “go along for the ride.” He paints a picture of the car, using modifiers – a “boat-tail hatchback” converging in a “teardrop shape” – to allow readers to visualize the automobile. Most significantly, Neil’s review is a balancing act; he mixes teenage slang with highbrow references to architecture. He considers automobile history and considers a diverse range of drivers. He is constantly teetering between the irreverent – “The most exciting car of the year is made of leftover Mercedes” – and the task of revering a quality product.

“Whether the beat is weather, politics, education, health care or sports, communities need writers with a distinctive vision and a powerful voice, one that speaks directly to readers,” Clark and Scanlan write.

Some other articles and series of articles which exemplify local or beat reporting at their finest:


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