The Orange County Register Gets It Right

A riveting examination of a decades-old murder reminds us that newspapers, if they're willing to devote the time and resources, can still bring us gripping narratives.

When was the last time that you read an article in the newspaper that started like this:

She showed up unannounced on the front porch of her father’s house in the early 1960s carrying two battered suitcases and an umbrella. She wore a sleeveless yellow dress gathered at the waist by a plastic belt, with white sneakers and a white sweater draped over her shoulders. And all that hair. She had this huge shock of nearly uncontrollable auburn hair reaching midway down her back.

No, the Orange County Register isn’t serializing a novel. These are the first few lines of a series of eight gripping articles that appeared in the paper in December, telling the incredible story of Linda Cummings, and one reporter’s attempt to uncover the source of her death over 30 years ago.

Haunted by a driver’s license photograph of Cummings he first saw in 1974 and a lot of circumstantial evidence he picked up over the years, reporter Larry Welborn never believed that the young woman had committed suicide as had been first reported. He thought she was murdered, and he was pretty sure of who had done it: a man who strangled another resident of the apartment complex where Cummings lived.

In his series, Welborn explores her death and his role in the recent reopening of the case (he was even present at an exhumation of Cummings’ body that yielded no DNA evidence) up until the arrest in November of the man now charged with her murder.

Welborn writes in simple, straightforward, mostly declarative sentences shorn of any adorning adjectives. He also isn’t afraid to switch into first person, nor to acknowledge the fact that he became part of the story. It means that he has to expose his own motives for focusing on this case, and doing so makes it that much more compelling. “I wanted people to know that Linda would not commit suicide,” he writes. “Linda could not stand up and speak for herself. I felt I had to stand up for her.”

The whole thing works, and it’s hard to put down. And it got us thinking about how rare it is to find a truly transfixing narrative these days, a good story, in a newspaper.

Many editors might have dismissed the notion of running thousands of words and devoting prime space to a thirty-year-old murder case. There might be news deemed more important that happened the day before. Thankfully, Register editors did not.

There is a lesson here. Newspapers have been lamenting the steady loss in readership. They fear other mediums can tell the story much quicker, and they’re right. By the time we read our morning paper, most of us know what’s in it before we see it. Editors too often forget that there is one thing that a paper can still do extraordinarily well when it wants to — tell us a good story.

Rather than focus on being first, why not focus on being more interesting? Welborn himself said in an interview on the Poynter site that after reading his piece, “people who knew I wrote for the Register suddenly wanted to subscribe, because of the series.”

The Register also brilliantly used the Web for this one, creating a site that doesn’t just print the story, but adds to it, with video and a timeline. And it figured out how to take attribution out of the copy in order to allow the narrative to read smoother — just provide the details through hyperlinks (in the paper, the attributions appeared in a box at the end).

And while we’re praising the Register, there’s one more thing it has gotten right. The Cummings series appeared with a label, “Morning Read,” just above the headline. Apparently this is something the paper introduced a year ago, pointing readers every day to, as Weldborn put it, one article “they can sink their teeth into, a story beyond the breaking news of the day about people doing things, with a beginning, a middle and an end. A writerly look, if you will, at something intriguing.”

What a great idea. Newspapers that have forgotten what they are about would be wise to return to these basics. When they give it time and they give it space, it’s what they do best. And it’s a real reason for people to keep buying newspapers, and reading them.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.