Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

You’ve been staring at the pages for hours, but you haven’t found him. You feel emasculated, befuddled, humiliated. This is a book for children ages 8-12 and it’s beating you. Where the eff is Waldo?

You found Wenda ages ago. Wizard Whitebeard? Check. The weird guy dressed in bumblebee stripes? Also check. The minuscule pair of binoculars and the minute scroll tied with a red ribbon? Check and check.

But no Waldo.

The pressure builds behind your eyes. They’re bulging, cartoon-like, almost touching the illustrated page, looking, looking…

But he’s nowhere to be found.

This is the process of searching for an original story idea in Columbia, Missouri.

Yes, Columbia is great. It’s a safe, small-town place with a big-city vibe, a hotbed of local businesses, and an unusual mix of hipster townies, budding families and college students. Charming. It’s also the home of the best journalism school in the country. Less charming.

Mizzou’s presence in Columbia means that j-school students have a monopoly on all happenings there. It also means that nothing in the city hasn’t been covered at least 23 times. Unless you’re talking fire or flood, chances are your story idea is woefully unoriginal.

This semester I’m in intermediate writing (more difficult than its title suggests). Our current assignment: find someone to profile. Someone interesting, original and easy to embody in text.

I thought I’d found the ideal subject when I stumbled upon Frequency Coffee and met Ryker Duncan. He was dressed in cutoffs, a v-neck, vans and a fedora. He had a cackling laugh that bounced off the walls and echoed in the basement space. He weighed each bag of specially-chosen coffee beans on a series of tiny countertop scales. He had sliced up 150 wood palettes with a circular saw to create the unique pattern of woodblocks on Frequency’s walls. He made steam engine noises while operating the coffee machine. He was perfect.

Like any good reporter, I began my background research with a google search. My optimism concerning Ryker dwindled when I discovered he’d been covered previously. A lot. Here and here and here and here and also here.

Every media outlet in Columbia had jumped at the chance to write about something (and someone) novel. They’d dived at the jugular of Frequency and its all-too-interesting owner, devouring sources and subject matter until nothing but scraps remained. Scraps that I couldn’t cobble together into an original story to save my life.

My professor soundly rejected my profile proposal. His motive? Too much previous coverage.

I saw it coming from a mile away, because everything in Columbia is covered and covered and covered again. People and businesses are interrogated to the point of exhaustion. If you’re a Columbia citizen and have never been interviewed, you’re in the shrinking minority.

Journalism professors and editors alike bleat that a good reporter can uncover stories anywhere. They feed us tips and tricks: “The five steps to finding stories,” “Notice what you Notice,” etc. etc. I agree that good writers should be able to uncover stories that others don’t, but I also believe that every location has its limit.

My theory is that, at some point, Columbia’s news potential will be exhausted. Ideas will dry up. The Ryker Duncans  and Frequency Coffees of the world will be the only things left to cling to.

And soon even they will reach their coverage limits.

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Finding Waldo: A (failed) search for original stories

El Sol also rises

It was dark, and I was lost.

The bus had dropped me at the edge of San Telmo, and all the streets looked the same. I was looking for Carlos Calvo 578 — a nameless, faceless bookstore. (Addresses are written backwards in Argentina, by the way.)

I asked a fruit vendor which street I was on. “Calvo,” he said, and smiled when I answered with “¡Gracias a Dios!” Three more blocks and I was there. I opened the door, and fell in love.

Literary love is a powerful thing. I’m obsessed with bookstores of all shapes and sizes, particularly those independently-owned, paperbacks-piled-higgldy-piggldy types. This one, Fedro Libros, was divine: yellow painted walls, two stories, a rickety spiral stair and an enormous section of classics.

Oh, and there was a cat.

I pet the cat, Maurice, while I browsed the bottom floor and waited for my first meeting with the staff of El Sol de San Telmo to start. Isabel, Diana and Clara were expecting us (Evan and Nick, two other students on the trip, are also working at El Sol), but we didn’t find them until we climbed the stairs.

There were kisses all around, murmurs of “Chau” and “Mucho gusto,” and we settled into chairs. Isabel outlined our jobs for us. I will be published twice this summer, since El Sol is a monthly magazine. Deadlines are strict, and topics pertain to the neighborhood of San Telmo.

The point, said Isabel, is to get to the heart of the neighborhood — to write about issues in a compelling way, but also to cover the neighborhood beyond its surface. Hands flapping emphatically, eyebrows raised, she spoke in earnest about the publication’s role in the community. It serves the neighbors — the vecinos. It gives them a voice and an insider’s look at what’s going on in their unique barrio.

The meeting ended soon after and we made our way back to Recoleta, with instructions to return at the same time on Friday for a meeting of the vecinos. Of course I gave Maurice a goodbye pat.

Friday rolled around and we were upstairs again, this time with cookies and Mate, an herbal, tea-like drink. The vecinos assembled. Most were older. I sat between Norah, a pixie-like woman in her 30s with cropped purple hair, and Diana, one of El Sol‘s staff.

Issues were discussed and pitches assigned. I was surprised at the heated disputes over gates on a local park, uneven paving stones and untimely trash pickup. Voices were raised, arms flailed, and one man even stood up to make his point.

These issues may seem small to us foreigners, but they matter to these people. The vecinos come because they live in San Telmo, and they want to see a change.

When all was said and done (which took a couple hours, what with the shouting), I ended up with an assignment about “Eco-Cuadras,” a green organization that plants trees and flowers in public spaces. I’ll start work on it this week and will turn in the final draft on June 26.

On the 28th there will be another meeting of El Sol. I’ll get to re-visit my one true love: Carlos Calvo 578. Let’s hear it for the books.

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The glorious, glorious view at Fedro Libros from the second floor.
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Second floor browsings. (Evan is to the left and Nick on the right.)
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Yellow walls, artsy collages, plush chairs and Clara with her nose in a book.
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Couldn’t snag a pictures of Maurice, but here’s what he looks like! This is one of Fedro’s “tarjetas de regalo,” or gift cards.
El Sol also rises

Where do ledes lead?

In every newsroom one person sits blithely at his/her computer, churning out fabulous ledes in 10 seconds flat. This person is dressed well. This person has clean fingernails. This person probably has his/her life together, a beautifully decorated apartment, a perfect relationship and a regular exercise regime. Everyone hates this person.

Most journalists struggle with writing good ledes – I know I do. For Vox we are required to submit two versions of a lede, to give the editor as many choices as possible. The number of times I’ve left the second space blank is embarrassing.

A good lede is compelling and makes the reader want to, well, read. Good ledes are relatively rare; when we find them, we want to give the author an encouraging pat on the back.

Really good ledes are even rarer and induce jealous thoughts: Stop being so perfect or I’m going to murder you in your sleep, for example.

In scanning the news of late, I was struck by the lede for this Atlantic story about possums in New Zealand… I believe it actually induced a chuckle.

Then, out of curiosity (and because my professor assigned it), I went on the hunt for not-so-great ledes. I can usually rely on my trusty low-budged local paper, The Villager, for these. I checked the website and sure enough: a cringe-worthy lede. Triumph!

What makes it cringe-worthy? For one, it could stand to lose a few pounds. It’s chunky and, believe it or not, all one sentence. A 42 word sentence! I remember being taught somewhere along the way that ledes are 25 words, max. The shame.

In addition, it’s boring. The writer used a hard-news lede for a story with plenty of describe-able action. Why not a descriptive lede, or an interesting fact?

Finally, the use of the word “special” twice in one 42-word sentence does this lede no favors. If you’re going to write a lede that actually induces headaches, at least do it with better adjectives.

Overall, kudos to Rachel E. Gross for the Atlantic lede. I actually read about possums on a Sunday morning, an unusual event at the best of times. Jonathan Garris‘ lede, however, could use some love.

Where do ledes lead?