On Track

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).

As for the readers who've contacted Vaughan since "The Crossing" bowed, most fall into one of two camps. Early on, he says, "I got reaction along the lines of 'Why are you reliving this horrible tragedy? Why are you hurting these people again?'" But as the series wore on, these naysayers were overwhelmed by those with positive comments. At the second forum, he notes, "There wasn't a single critical question." A full week after the series wrapped, Vaughan was still receiving more than a dozen e-mails daily saluting his accomplishment.

To the Poynter Institute's Clark, this reaction is heartening. He's written a primer on serial narratives called "Creating the Breakfast Serial: A Starter Kit" that began appearing on the Poynter website on February 19, and he's convinced that newspapers can use this approach to hang on to readers who might otherwise abandon them in favor of alternative media. "If I ran a newspaper, I'd have a serial going at all times," he says.

Vaughan's become a believer in the form, too, even if it's pushed him closer to the spotlight than he'd like to be. "In this world we live in, newspapers are going to have to be more transparent and more open to the people who read them," he says, "and anything we can do to help them see who we are and why we do what we do is good."

He's game: For more than two years, David Thomas, who writes about video games for the Post, has been working on a style guide to help professionalize the coverage of this burgeoning beat -- and it's finally done. The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual, which he penned with fellow game journalists Kyle Orland and Scott Steinberg, is slated for publication on June 1 and will be available electronically to the working press in the coming days. See www. for more details.

Among the most contentious question the book tackles is, should "video game" be one word or two? As evidenced by the book's title, Thomas believes in the power of one; although he feels the two-word usage is acceptable, he thinks the space-free spelling acknowledges the rise of this rapidly growing industry -- and besides, he argues, "'video' isn't really a modifier of 'game.'" Plenty of people disagree with this logic, though, and Thomas says "some of them get really violent about it. There was a posting on one blog that said, 'These guys are idiots. "Video games" is two words, so that makes everything else about the guide suspect.'"

Sorry, David: The folks in the Westword copy department concur that two words are better than one. The fight is on.