On Track

The Rocky pushed its hugely ambitious serial about an early-'60s schoolbus crash as if the fate of newspapers rested on its success.

People who know me know how averse I've always been to the idea of journalists as celebrities," says Rocky Mountain News reporter Kevin Vaughan. "For every invitation to appear on other media that I accept, there's many more I turn down."

Nevertheless, Vaughan finds himself at the center of what's arguably the biggest media campaign the Rocky has ever mounted, for "The Crossing," a just-concluded 33-part series he wrote about a schoolbus/train accident that killed twenty children in 1961. Since the 40,000-word epic's debut on January 23 in conjunction with the paper's much-ballyhooed redesign, he's been interviewed on Channel 4 and KRCN radio, participated in a slew of web chats and appeared alongside photographer Chris Schneider and other "Crossing" guards at two public forums -- a February 21 gathering in Greeley, the city nearest the crash site, that drew approximately 700 people, and a March 7 get-together at the Rocky's new headquarters attended by around 125.

At the latter, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple, who's hyped Vaughan's work in four separate columns, told the audience that "The Crossing" will be reprinted in a "72-page magazine" that should be on sale through the Rocky beginning this week. (A DVD compilation of all the online videos assembled in conjunction with the tale by Tim Skillern and Laressa Bachelor will follow soon.) In addition, Vaughan reveals that a potential television documentary is in the talking stages, and he plans to explore the possibility of turning his opus into a book -- a tack currently being taken by fellow staffer Jim Sheeler, author of 2005's "Final Salute," who's under contract with Penguin Press.

Does Vaughan have enough material to go the book route? Absolutely, he says: "Some of my original drafts of chapters were three times the lengths we ended up publishing, and it's not necessarily because they were full of junk. A lot of good stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor."

That's a surprise, since size has always mattered at the Rocky. In the wake of the 1999 assault on Columbine High School, the paper printed damn near anything having to do with the slayings for months on end, as if the Pulitzer Prize committee based its awards on sheer volume. (In the end, the Rocky won a Pulitzer for its Columbine photography, while the Denver Post was honored for news coverage.) This period also solidified the Rocky's rep as a purveyor of so-called victim stories, in which subjects recount calamities in detail that can be either cathartic or excruciating. Vaughan has heard criticism of this focus and says, "I understand why people feel that way about the news media in general, and about our paper." But his own Columbine work convinced him that such reporting has value, even as it got him thinking about the parallels between the school shooting and the "Crossing" collision, which he learned about during the mid-'80s as a Metro State student. For one thing, he says, "a lot of parents sent their kids to school one day, and their kids didn't come home."

Finally, in mid-2005, Vaughan made his pitch to Temple, who was intrigued by the topic but uncertain that a single article could do it justice. When the editor gave the go-ahead a few months later, he provided Vaughan with some examples of previous newspaper serials, including Roy Peter Clark's "Three Little Words," a family drama about AIDS that the St. Petersburg Times published in 29 parts circa 1996. Clark, who's currently a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, says his methodology was shaped with modern newspaper subscribers in mind.

"I had a very clear idea, which was to reconcile the number of days a story ran with the length of the stories," he allows. "It made sense to me that readers would have difficulty committing themselves to thirty or forty minutes of reading to follow a series. So I wanted to find out how that would change if we lengthened the number of days and shortened the chapters into smaller bites that only took five minutes or so to read."

The experiment was a success, with "Three Little Words" becoming a local obsession among many readers. (Like the Rocky, the Times staged a public forum inspired by the series. About 300 people turned up.) Afterward, dozens of papers around the country followed Clark's narrative lead -- most famously, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which unleashed reporter Mark Bowden's landmark serial "Blackhawk Down," the precursor to the book and movie of the same name, in November 1997. But the trend eventually waned. According to Clark, "There was a burst of interest and activity, and then a kind of retreat to more basic routines when other things intervened, like shrinking news staffs."

In a sense, then, "The Crossing" is something of a throwback, and an unusual one. As rendered by Vaughan, the crash and its immediate aftermath hang together chronologically (especially when read in one chunk). But subsequent segments, which tell what happened to survivors or the loved ones of those who died, necessarily shoot off in a slew of directions. These chapters are generally self-contained and relatively brief, in the "Three Little Words" tradition. However, they often have little connection to those they come before or after other than the accident itself, and because they skip forward and backward through time depending upon the events of particular characters' lives, the narrative flags at times. As a result, the series feels a bit like a relatively succinct feature with a couple dozen sidebars, some of which are extraordinarily compelling (like chapter sixteen, about crash survivor Glen Ford, who became, of all things, a schoolbus driver), others not so much (e.g., chapter twenty-five, about three individuals who more or less shrug off what happened to them).

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