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Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario hopped rail cars, visited border encampments, and otherwise absorbed the demimonde of illegal immigration to write “Enrique’s Journey,” the tale of a Honduran boy who emigrated to the United States to find his mother. The story won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
Nazario’s work offered the Pulitzer judges multiple attractions:
* Human drama: Before finally reaching the North Carolina home of his mother, Enrique made seven failed trips to el norte. Along the way, the boy endured beatings, heat, hunger, and hopelessness.
* Relevance: In 2001, 48,000 children from Central America and Mexico entered the U.S. illegally and unaccompanied by a parent, according to Nazario’s research.
* Epic scope: “Enrique’s Journey” spans six “chapters.”
* Footnotes: Should the reader have any questions about the reporting, the package contains 197 sourcing notes.
Footnotes? In a daily-newspaper feature story? The ancillary notes didn’t wind up ghettoized on the Los Angeles Times Web site, either. Instead, they ran side by side with the feature series itself. Whereas the series clocked in at 24,000 words,* the footnotes totaled 7,000 words.*
The Los Angeles Times’ notes couldn’t have come at a better time. According to Pulitzer juror Neville Green, award bosses issued a special directive to the feature panel this year. “It went along the lines of ‘The Pulitzer board would like this jury to pay special attention to reconstruction in narrative stories,’” recalls Green, who is the managing editor of the Tampa edition of the St. Petersburg Times.
The directive confirmed speculation among large papers that Pulitzer honchos distrusted some of the feature writing that had crossed their desks in recent years. Writers and editors say that the climate of suspicion can’t be traced to any story or incident in particular. “There’s been an ongoing academic and somewhat professional debate about it,” says Wall Street Journal staffer Bryan Gruley, who helped write an October 2001 footnoted narrative about the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Against that backdrop, the Los Angeles Times’ law-journal approach to attribution may well stand as the most effectively Pulitzer-targeted piece of editing in the history of journalism.** “Some people would say that those footnotes may have had a shrewd appreciation of the climate in which that story would be viewed come prize time,” says Green, who voted for “Enrique’s Journey” as one of three Pulitzer feature-writing finalists. (The 17-member Pulitzer board chooses the winners.)
Green is familiar with the Pulitzer’s skittishness vis-à-vis feature writing. Back in 1999, his paper published a feature by writer Anne Hull titled “Una Vida Mejor: A Better Life,” a three-part series that chronicled the annual migration of Mexican women to work in the North Carolina crab industry. The story reached the finals of the 2000 Pulitzer competition and stopped there. “What we heard about [the] story…was that there had been discussion about sourcing issues,” recalls Green.
The misgivings, says Green, concerned the opening scene of the feature, in which a woman in the Mexican village of Palomas gets a call summoning her for another season of labor. The passage is written in an omniscient narrator’s voice, as if the writer had witnessed this annual transcontinental phone call and the commotion that ensued.
Well, she had. “Anne was able to describe that scene because she was there,” says Green.
Yet Hull’s story still gets cited as a reason papers should pay more attention to feature sourcing in Pulitzer entries, according to Green and several other journalists. Says Pulitzer Prize Administrator Sig Gissler: “All I can say is that among the board members, no less than other journalists, there are concerns about sufficient attribution. You have to take it case by case.” Hull, who now works at the Washington Post, declined to discuss her story’s Pulitzer fate.
In retrospect, says Green, an editor’s note could have cleared up any concerns about Hull’s reporting.
Los Angeles Times editors left no room for prize judges to second-guess the paper’s reporting in “Enrique’s Journey.” The footnotes take care of the second-guessing, apparently operating on the assumption that the writer has no credibility without them. In Chapter 1 of the series, for example, the story recounts how Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, feels guilty when she takes a job in Beverly Hills caring for a girl.
Here’s how the passage reads: “Every morning as the [Beverly Hills] couple leave for work, the little girl cries for her mother. Lourdes feeds her breakfast and thinks of Enrique and [his sister]. ‘I’m giving this girl food,’ she says to herself, ‘instead of feeding my own children.’ After seven months, she cannot take it. She quits and moves to a friend’s place in Long Beach.”
And here’s how the relevant footnote reads: “Lourdes’ remark about feeding another child: from Lourdes.”
The time-pressed reader might use the footnotes as a Cliff’s Notes for the sprawling series. The 36th footnote reads:
“Promise by Lourdes that she would return for Christmas: from Enrique, confirmed by Lourdes.”
No wonder the Pulitzer board called the series “exhaustively reported.”***
The story is a massive reconstruction effort, recounting 11 years of Enrique’s life. Nazario spent two weeks with Enrique in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and then visited him three times after he’d arrived in North Carolina. To round things out, she retraced Enrique’s steps and interviewed scores of family, friends, and people he’d encountered in his journey. (Nazario was unavailable for comment.)
But the story omits all of the “according to”s, “as told to”s, and “based on the accounts of”s that writers have always struggled to integrate into feature stories without disrupting the narrative. The Los Angeles Times punted all that work into six separate files. “It’s a powerful story, and it just shows you how much more fluidly a story reads without that attribution mucking it up,” says Mary Hadar, features editor at the Washington Post.****
And that’s precisely the impact that Los Angeles Times editors plotted. Rick Meyer, who edited the series, says that the paper was seeking “the best of both worlds” by separating attribution from the narrative. “Just as certain as you don’t want to bog people down with ‘He said/she said’s, you also don’t want to bog them down with questions about how they know this,” says Meyer.
The footnotes, says Meyer, were in no way calculated to position the feature for prizes. “It hasn’t got anything to do with winning the Pulitzer. It has everything to do with winning the confidence of those that read your newspaper,” he says.
Despite the Pulitzer’s approbation for the Los Angeles Times’ footnote project, some news outlets aren’t quite ready to abdicate one of the central tasks of feature editing. “I wouldn’t recommend doing [footnotes] on one of our stories,” says Jack Hart, a managing editor at the Oregonian and a juror on this year’s feature-writing Pulitzer panel.
Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll says, “Footnoting is appropriate in books.”
The marketing brain trust at the Washington Post is working on a new TV ad that depicts the buzz of news-gathering at 15th and L. Trouble is, there’s not much excitement in this business anymore: Editors yell less and e-mail more. Reporters don’t slam their phones; they turn off their headsets. Pressmen don’t mess with clanky machinery; they sit at computer monitors.
Drama deficits notwithstanding, a film crew camped out in the Post’s newsroom earlier this month to capture a day in the life. To amp up the bustle factor, the crew dispatched a platoon of extras to scurry about. One staffer said the ringers were equipped with dummy documentspicking them up and dropping them off at random points for the camera. Post Director of Consumer Marketing Jeri Flood confirmed the deployment of extras but didn’t specify what they did.
The crew created some commotion in the financial section, where they found a camera-friendly face in reporter Yuki Noguchi. According to nearby staffers, the production people brushed Noguchi’s hair and coached her on how to infuse her reporting with a bit of cinematography. “They were saying, ‘OK now, Yuki, reach for the phone….Move your hand!’” says a financial staffer who asked to remain anonymous. Noguchi declined to comment on the episode.
The previous week, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie assured staffers in a memo that the crews would “make every effort to minimize the disruption to our work.”
At one point, national editor Liz Spayd asked the camera toters to back off. “I had a reporter on deadline, and if they had gotten that camera any closer, it would have been a stethoscope,” says Spayd.
Post marketers and ad agency Arnold Worldwide are hoping the close-ups yield a smashing new campaign, which is slated to debut next week. For the better part of a decade, the paper used its trademark slogan “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it” as a pitch to new constituencies. Focus-group research, however, showed that clever and effective run on separate axes. Active types who didn’t have time to read the paper every day found it exclusionary, says Flood.
So the Post in 2002 hatched a gentler promo campaign”If it’s important to you, it’s important to us.” With that appeal, no one could accuse the paper of copping an attitude. “It highlights the Post’s commitment to serving all of its readers, and that’s what we like about the line,” says Flood.
Previous ads in this campaign have used actors to depict newsroom scenes. In one, an editor lectures a cub sportswriter on the paper’s reporting standards.
The real newsroom scenes may not pack such camera-ready confrontations. In the end, the paper may have to pair the footage with a new tag: “The Washington Post: We work in modular office-pod configurations.” Erik Wemple
*. Word Count Figures: Microsoft Word, Word Count function.
**. Basis for sweeping generalization: less than one year’s experience as a media columnist.
***. Pulitzer praise of Los Angeles Times feature winner: Pulitzer Web site.
****. Comment by Mary Hadar on narrative flow: from Mary Hadar.