The difficulty of sticking to a story

When the reporter's quest becomes the narrative structure, the revelation of surprising details--ones that might not otherwise serve the story--suddenly becomes justifiable

It’s happened to all of us: We’re reporting a story and find one of those weird cul-de-sacs, a story within the story, that is incredibly interesting but ultimately kind of a nonsequitur. This is, as far as I can tell, what happened to freelance writer Caleb Hannan as he reported a widely criticized feature, published by Grantland last week, about the inventor of a celebrity-endorsed golf club.

Though the display copy touted it as the story of a “magical putter,” it was a sprawling thing. It might have more accurately been sold as the writer’s personal account of his strange obsession with the club’s inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt. And this is where Grantland ran into trouble. The inventor of the putter was a transgender woman, something Hannan discovered in the course of reporting (“a chill actually ran up my spine”) and then revealed to other people. A few weeks later, Vanderbilt took her own life. An understandable uproar ensued as soon as the piece went up online.

In his explanation and apology, Grantland editor in chief Bill Simmons writes that Hannan “had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more.” But anyone who’s completed a big feature knows that “curious reporter” is merely one early phase in the process. After you’ve conducted all those interviews and done all that research, you’re a storyteller. You must select the most relevant information your curiosity has yielded and, with the help of your editors, mold it into a cohesive narrative.

In the series of overlapping editorial failures that produced “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” from ignorance of basic style-guide rules about pronouns to a disregard for the lives and sensitivities of sources, I’m struck by the most basic: the failure to tell a single coherent, relevant story. Any good features editor will tell you that this is the crux of the work. Editing is about asking tough questions. What is this story about? Why does this detail matter? Why is this quote important? It’s about taking everything that a reporter has gathered and saying, “Which pieces of this do we want to highlight to create a single, engaging narrative?” This is why nutgrafs are important. It’s journalism 101.

In an era when one wild quote holds the potential to become a viral tweet, it can be tempting to retain juicy details that fall outside the narrow scope of the thesis. Many sites—including Grantland—have experimented with footnotes as a way to include the little details or asides that, in the past, were usually left on the proverbial cutting room floor. Maybe that partly explains the editing decisions that created this piece.

Of course, the difficulty of determining which details are essential, which provide color that serves the story, and which are unnecessary is precisely what makes editing an art and not a science. This stuff is subjective. Which brings us to another major criticism of the piece: that its insensitivities were enabled, in part, by a lack of newsroom diversity. When all editors and writers collaborating on a piece share the same set of blinders and biases, you’ll probably get a pretty uniform set of subjective answers to questions about what belongs in the story. Hannan introduces this debate into the story when he writes, “The other question to consider was if any of the lies actually mattered.” On one level, this is a great question about whether the details about Vanderbilt’s background belong in a story about a golf club. On another, its very phrasing betrays a certain level of ignorance; a more sensitive journalist would probably not have used the word “lies” to describe Vanderbilt’s attempts to maintain her gender identity.

I’ve noticed a strong push, especially in longform, magazine-style journalism, toward blending the personal essay with narrative reporting. As a freelance writer, nearly every editor I work with has encouraged me, at some point, to reveal more information about myself and insert myself into the piece in a more obvious way; to explain why I’m invested in the issues at hand; to use myself as a vehicle through which readers can experience the world I’m reporting on. I usually think that’s a good thing. But when the reporter’s quest is the narrative structure of the feature, then the revelation of surprising details—ones that might not otherwise serve the story—suddenly becomes justifiable.

When I was an editor, I often tackled a messy draft by challenging myself to write the hed and dek first, then going back and refine the nutgraf and fix the structure. If Grantland had taken that approach—giving Hannan’s piece a subhed like “How I became obsessed with outing the woman who created a popular golf club”—they may have stopped themselves before hitting publish. At least no one in the newsroom could pretend it was a story about a putter.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk