Over the next month, we’ll be spotlighting big lessons from the Stry.us team. Up next: Zach Crizer, and what he learned about the value of communication — and the need to make readers think.
story by Zach Crizer
published August 16, 2012
Editor Jordan Hickey and I were meeting with a couple sources last week when one referenced a story we published earlier this summer. The story, the source said, was about Springfield’s E-Verify controversy. Crowded around a small circular table near the front of Mud Lounge on a quiet afternoon, my editor and I turned to stare at each other in confusion. Unless our memories were seriously mistaken, Stry.us hadn’t penned a word about that topic.
Seeing that we were clearly perplexed, he continued to explain that the story showed how local political issues often make it difficult or discouraging for moderate voices to be heard, for moderate citizens to be engaged. And then we knew what he was talking about. He had mixed up his local political battles, but the same concepts dominated both the E-Verify debate and the smoking ban saga, which is the topic I covered with my first story in Springfield.
And while it may seem less than desirable for a reader to misremember what a story was about, it was actually a victory that he had found a salient concept that applied to more than just the topic at hand. See, when I showed up in Missouri — actually, when I interviewed for the chance to earn my most-expenses-paid summer in Missouri — I was told our stories would explore a theme: an “Interconnected America.”
Turns out that was accomplished without really trying. Many a night in the Stry.us apartments-slash-offices was spent dissecting the underlying themes of stories we were writing — discussing and distilling until we had one word that cut to the heart of the matter. One of the advantages we had, as reporters coming to the Springfield area from afar, was fresh perspective. Arriving with no preconceived notions, the stories we found in this community could and should be described by a whole bevy of adjectives that are listed in the thesaurus under the listing for “unique.”
So much of what goes into forming a story idea is focused on what makes the topic surprising, one-of-a-kind. Everyone has heard the tired adage: “Dog bites man” isn’t news. “Man bites dog,” is. Stories should have a certain level of shock value. Stories are about what’s new, what’s different. But working with the Stry.us team, I repeatedly found myself trying to express what made our stories familiar.
What I’ve learned in Springfield: Great ideas may be novel, but great stories are relatable.
The fact is, my story on Springfield’s smoking ban told a story of outside influence and polarization that epitomizes the political struggles in hundreds of communities across America. Roman Stubbs’ piece on Fast Eddie evokes the sort of shock that so many have felt upon learning the true identity of their neighbors. Much like a song that people sing themselves into, stories — especially works of long-form journalism — offer readers the chance to empathize with neighbors and those facing similar situations across the country.
News of the weird is great for online pageviews, but getting people to read thousands of words about a nuanced subject requires a different level of thinking. And trust me when I say we have racked our brains to deliver that level of thought in all of the stories on this site this summer. Our stories have revealed previously unspoken details and explained previously murky trends with in-depth reporting and analysis. But at the end of the day, even the notable sociologist I was interviewing at the Mud Lounge didn’t remember the specifics of the data in my story. He remembered the implications of it. He remembered what it said about this community and about the current American political landscape.
Hopefully, our stories allow readers to better understand the world around them a little bit more completely — in addition to providing interesting reading material. Hopefully they immerse people in narratives that leave them with a thought or two. And in a week or a month or a year, hopefully those people express that thought to a friend over a drink somewhere. If so, then our writing has done its job, it has left its mark.
My time at Stry.us has, more than anything, reminded me that what we are doing is, above all, a form of communication — one that seeks to inspire further communication. In my fellow reporters and editors, I’ve found a group of thoughtful journalists — and people — who will continue to give the world things to talk about, things that allow people to understand their lives in the grander scheme of their community, things that help them to relate to the man they see on the sidewalk.