The Washington Post has made a living off of multipart projects. Going back at least to the mid-’60s, the paper has kicked off every big piece of journalism—-feature pieces, investigations, other stuff—-with what one analyst called the most dreaded words in Washington: First in a series.
The paper’s series penchant has prompted complaints over the years that the Post puts its best stuff in bloated, unwieldy packages.
Now, a solution: Break your series into 27 chapters. I’m speaking, of course, of the Bob Kaiser project on the life and times of Gerald S.J. Cassidy, the wealthy power broker and founding father of earmark lobbying. The first in Kaiser’s serial opus dropped on the front page of Sunday’s paper, with 25 chapters to follow online, and then a finale in the paper.
Thus far, the Kaiser serial concept appears to be working pretty well. The Sunday opener was a bit slow—-it was anchored to a scener of a party thrown to honor Cassidy—-but today’s chapter on Cassidy’s early years was an interesting tale well told.
Knopf has bought the book rights. Kaiser won’t say how much he got.
The following are City Desk’s questions for Kaiser. The answers are synthesized from the author’s written responses as well as from a phone interview.
Desk: Twenty-five installments—-that’s a lot of chapters. Does it all break down along a chronology. Or are there themes—-like Cassidy gets rich, Cassidy misreads Abramoff, Cassidy falls on hard times?
Kaiser: I will beg off telling you what’s coming; we want you to read them as they happen. It’s also Post policy not to talk about unpublished material. But you can assume that chronology plays an important part in the series, though it is not the definitive part.
Desk: Your main character’s speech at the end of the first installment wasn’t exactly electric: “I’ve had a great time over the years because of all of you. I’ve loved being in Washington working on important issues.” Can we be looking forward a bit more color from this fellow?
Desk: The Post has just issued new guidelines on story length. How would you characterize your series?
- A more complex news feature of ambition and altitude
- Major enterprise, involving in-depth reporting or narrative storytelling
- Extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation, magazine-type stories
- Other (please specify)
Kaiser: This is an experiment to see if we can use the Web for a new kind of long-form journalism. We don’t have a name for it. I think of it as a Dickensian serial, without Dickens.
Desk: Are all of the chapters already written?
Kaiser: All but one.
Desk: Are you tired of talking to lobbyists?
Desk: What’s the most idle, transparent compliment paid to you by a lobbyist during your reporting?
Kaiser: Don’t remember any such compliment.
Desk: Help me out a bit with the cliches: How many times did you hear the one about no permanent enemies, no permanent allies, just permanent interests? Any other repeat offenders?
Kaiser: You’re on your own….From your questions, it’s clear you haven’t spent a lot of time with lobbyists. It’s as diverse as any world. Attempts to pigeonhole them are doomed to fail—-that’s trying to turn lobbying into a cliche, and I think that’s a mistake. Every do-good bleeding heart association in America has a lobbyist in Washington….It’s become the American way.
The one line that you hear from many different lobbyists is, “Read the constitution—-the right to petition the government for redress of your grievances is in there, and we’re helping people do that. That’s what we do.”