Darts and Laurels

A Lincoln Journal Star series digs through the paper's archives and finds treasure

In an effort to fill the Monday edition, traditionally a thin news day everywhere, city editor Peter Salter has tried a few gimmicks in his ten years at the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. One was a feature he called “An Hour Here,” which asked reporters to write a vignette after doing exactly what the title implies. Another was “Long Story Short,” challenging reporters to tell a sharp tale in four hundred words or less. Then last year, a good novel gave him an idea for a recurring Monday feature that would also help the paper solve a persistent problem that was bigger than slow Mondays, one that plagues newsrooms everywhere: lack of follow-up.

The novel, Twisted Tree, by Kent Meyers, is about what happens in a small South Dakota town when a local girl is murdered. It made for a riveting tale, Salter says, but the most interesting part came after the plot ran its course. The epilogue, he says, “tied up some loose ends but also told a new story. And I thought, ‘How can we do an epilogue thing in the paper, where we write so many stories every day but don’t always know how things turned out?’”

So Salter came up with a feature in which the paper’s twenty-two city desk reporters and editors take turns following up on old stories from their files or from deep within the Journal Star’s archives. There is no statute of limitations, just an expectation that entries will revisit something the paper has published in the past and go beyond a mere update. He calls it “Epilogue.” In an e-mail announcing the assignment, Salter instructed the newsroom, “We need to find new stories—not just a retelling of the original story. So feel free to shift the focus of the story, developing secondary characters and sources: not what happened to the killer, for instance, but what happened to the killer’s daughter.”

The first Epilogue appeared at the end of January and revisited the story of Amber Ramirez, a severely epileptic young woman. The paper had first reported on Amber a decade earlier when half of her brain was surgically removed in an effort to quell the debilitating seizures—as many as a hundred a day—that had plagued her since she was in the fourth grade. The surgery worked, but she lost use of the right side of her body. She had to learn to talk and walk again, but now she shares an apartment with three girlfriends, has a boyfriend, and works at a dog-grooming salon.

Another Epilogue delved into a local man’s investigation into the possibility that a 115-year-old train “accident” that killed eleven could have been sabotage by a rival railroad company. Still another followed up on a controversial couple five years after the husband, then twenty-two, was charged with statutory rape and jailed for impregnating and marrying his then thirteen-year-old girlfriend. They were still together but struggling to make ends meet with three kids, including one with cystic fibrosis, and a fourth on the way.

The paper’s health reporter, who was eighteen when his father, a veteran newspaperman, died, wrote an Epilogue about finding his Dad’s 1930’s-era scrapbook of news clips. He used them to paint a picture of life eighty years ago—and to have the conversation he never got to have with his father about covering life in the same Nebraska town. Survivors of a school-bus crash, tornado victims, the unsolved mystery of a couple that went missing in the early 1970s, a woman kidnapped as a toddler by her father—these stories too have been revisited in Epilogue. Each piece includes a link to, or a scanned version of, the original story that inspired the follow-up, and the paper solicits readers for tips. Salter says the Epilogue stories consistently make the front page because they’re often the best thing in the paper.

In the March/April issue of CJR, Darts & Laurels told how the Des Moines Register had resurrected a story about an Iowa turkey processing plant and the mentally disabled workers who were paid sub-minimum wages to work there—a story the paper had uncovered thirty years before, but that had then languished in the paper’s morgue until a call from one of the workers’ relatives brought the men’s plight to light again. We gave a Laurel to the Register for hammering the story a second time around, spurring hearings and enacting reforms, and a Dart to journalism’s bad habit of firing one shot at big stories and then moving on.

Of course, it’s tough enough keeping up with today’s nonstop news cycle without digging into the past for more work, especially at newsrooms stretched to capacity by the double whammy of personnel cuts and the insatiable maw of the Web. These factors often make the journalistic ideal of “follow-up” exactly that—a wish-list, practiced in fits and starts.

The beauty of Epilogue is that it makes the follow-up systematic, thus serving as a partial antidote to journalism’s institutional memory loss, and sometimes connecting the random dots of news that bombard us each day. Readers love it. When the paper published an account of a woman shot three times by her ex-boyfriend thirty years ago, who since has struggled for a full life from her wheelchair, readers raved in the comments section: “Good story…. We need more like this one.” “Love this series!” So to the Lincoln Journal Star, a LAUREL for digging through old notebooks and finding treasure.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.