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Denver Post staffer Kevin Simpson was exhausted after completing December 18's "Letting Go: Dylan's Last Days," a beautifully rendered tale about the agonizing decision by Dave Walborn and Kerri Bruning to withdraw life support from their young son, a victim of severe cerebral palsy whose condition was rapidly deteriorating. "You're working on it so hard," Simpson says, "that you don't realize until you get to the end and exhale how taxing, how emotionally wrenching it's been." He pauses briefly before adding, "But as a writer, you love to tell those stories."
"Letting Go" truly is a story rather than a typical newspaper feature. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, much like a traditional novel, plus a dramatic situation, plot twists, highly relatable protagonists and, as a bonus, vivid visuals supplied by photographer Andy Cross, who first brought Dylan's plight to the Post's attention. This combination makes the piece a sterling example of what's known in the media trade as narrative journalism. When it's done right, the technique can be more affecting -- and more memorable -- than the vast majority of breaking-news items or much-ballyhooed scoops.
Given slipping circulation and surveys showing that an increasing number of folks prefer to get their info from online sources instead of their driveways, newspapers are desperate to hang on to every reader they can. More efforts like Simpson's might help the Post do so, yet narrative journalism is a rarity in the paper. Indeed, prior to "Letting Go," Simpson last got his narrative on in a big way in December 2003, with a three-parter about competitive bull riders.
Although Post editor Greg Moore would love to get more narrative journalism into his broadsheet, he lists a load of factors that stand in the way. "One of the difficulties is identifying a subject that really warrants that kind of dedication of resources and space," he says. "And another is finding the right person to do it. A lot of reporters and writers want to get something into the paper tomorrow or next week. For them, the idea of following a subject or a theme for six months would make them pull their hair out." Moore is also concerned about maintaining a high standard in a format that succeeds or fails based on first-rate prose and compelling topics. Following the September 2005 publication of "Resurrecting a City's Spirit," a weighty William Porter paean to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Moore recalls, "We had people writing letters to us saying, 'Why don't you do more of this?' Well, we don't do more of it because there aren't that many stories that deserve that type of telling."
Of course, not all narrative journalism must be as sprawling as "Letting Go," which filled a special section and clocked in at more than 6,600 words. Post reporters have employed elements of the style in shorter offerings and packages spurred by events such as the 2002 Hayman fire. When size matters, however, "there may only be three or four good possibilities a year where we'll say ŒLet's go for it,'" Moore allows. "From a resource standpoint, that's about all you can really do."
Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple echoes many of Moore's views, particularly when it comes to finding scribes with the chops for narrative journalism. "Long-form writing is something that most journalists are not trained for or skilled at," he says. "Some people are incredible reporters but weaker writers, and some are great storytellers but not great hard-news beat reporters."
Nevertheless, Temple is a self-professed fan of narrative journalism, and his hiring of Jim Sheeler demonstrates that his claims are more than empty jabber. Sheeler once freelanced obituaries to the Post that went beyond the mere basics to get at the essence of the dearly departed; many of these gems will appear in a book tentatively titled The Woman Who Outlived Her Tombstone, which Boulder's Pruett Publishing plans to release this spring. But when Moore arrived at the paper in 2002, he moved a staffer into the obit slot and shoved Sheeler off the page. Temple took advantage of this extremely dubious personnel move by hiring the castoff and giving him room to stretch. The culmination of this approach was "Final Salute," a Rocky Mountain News saga about the Marine Corps' approach to bringing home and honoring fallen soldiers. It preceded "Letting Go" into print by a few weeks, and in the coming months, Sheeler and photog Todd Heisler, whose stunning images were reproduced in magazines such as Time and Paris Match, are likely to be showered with prizes for their toils. But the terminally modest Sheeler insists that he's already received enough rewards. "We've gotten hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from all over the world," he reveals, "and when you read letters from people who really know what's behind those words, whatever comes next just doesn't matter."
"Final Salute" was nearly twice the length of "Letting Go" and required a special section of its own. The Rocky can't often afford such commitments, but Temple is pushing to get more narratives into the paper. He's encouraged ventures such as Tina Griego's series about North High School, which alternated slices of life with more typical opinion columns, and supports a writers'-group initiative conceived by Jim Trotter, the assistant managing editor/news, who works in concert with columnist Mike Littwin. Reporters who participate work through specific projects with an eye toward improving the overall writing -- and if narrative values can be augmented, that's fine by Temple. "I think a love of storytelling is almost hard-wired into human beings," he says. "We get a satisfaction from it that's the same as some of us get from music or food."