When I left on an out-of-town assignment a few weeks ago, I was handed a piece of equipment that showed me just how quickly the concept of “reporting the story” is changing within this industry.
Reporting used to mean little more than grabbing a notebook and a pen and heading out the door. As newspapers move to embrace the Internet, however, those simple days are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and reporters are going to have to rethink what elements make a story strong.
My story was a long profile of Curtis Salgado, a popular local blues singer who had liver cancer and hepatitis C. His name might not be familiar, but he is the soul-and-blues singer and harp player who inspired John Belushi to create the character of Jake Elwood in the movie “The Blues Brothers.”
Salgado, now in his early 50s, was dying. He had no health insurance and needed a liver transplant, expected to cost as much as $300,000. He didn’t qualify to get a cadaveric transplant — a liver from a deceased donor — and time was running out.
Then a former girlfriend offered to become a liver donor, willingly giving up half her liver to save the singer’s life. It turned out she was a medical match, and they flew to Omaha to be treated at Nebraska Medical Center.
My initial plan was to travel to Omaha, witness the surgery and write a profile about Salgado’s struggle and outcome. By the time I arrived, however, everything had changed.
Doctors, days before the scheduled surgery, had qualified Salgado for a cadaveric liver, and almost by fluke, a liver was found early one morning and the transplant had been successfully completed.
In addition to my trusty notebook, I carried with me a small digital tape recorder. The editor of the feature section where the story was scheduled to run asked me to bring it to Omaha so the paper could give readers an Internet experience.
The paper is looking for ways to use the Internet more frequently. His plan was to run excerpts of Salgado’s music along with comments from Salgado, his sister and the former girlfriend at the paper’s Web site.
My instructions were to get quotes, and that anything over a minute would seem like “an eternity on the Internet.”
When I arrived in Salgado’s hospital room to interview him, I first thought only of quotes and scenic description for my printed story. Then I turned my attention to the tape recorder and stuck it in the face of each of the characters, gathering what I would call traditional comments, telling each of them that this was their opportunity to “speak directly to the readers.”
When the story was printed, I looked to see where I could have used the recorder earlier in the process to create an almost parallel story for the Internet.
Part of the problem, I realized, is that quotes — without context — are meaningless. Another liability is that the sight of a tape recorder causes people to clam up. It reminds them they are being interviewed.
The opening of the printed story starts with Salgado looking over the menu for a healthy breakfast. It includes this paragraph: “And lots of water,” he called out to the waitress, who hustled to the kitchen. He turned his attention to the table and fiddled with a napkin. “I’m told it’s the miracle elixir,” he grumbled, “and I’m supposed to be drinking it. But I can’t stand the stuff. It has no taste. It’s … it’s water.”
He took off his blue tam and ran his hand through hair graying and thinning.
“I’m dying,” he muttered. “I’m in a race to save my life.”
A perfect scene for the paper, but I’m not sure how it would have worked on the Internet. The narrator’s voice — pointing out the action off screen, so to speak — is what gives the scene context. The blend with quote and narrator’s voice also gives the section a nice back-and-forth rhythm. It also sets up the final quote to be not just a punch line for the scene, but an overarching theme for the entire story.
Salgado’s quotes alone don’t have the heft that comes from being paired with the narrator’s voice.
As I looked over my story, I felt that the best place that I could have used Salgado’s voice alone was in the summary narrative, places where chunks of history are combined and dispensed with quickly before plunging back into the dramatic story line.
This is what I wrote in the paper: His body turned on him long ago. He hit bottom in 1988 but cleaned up. Five years later, he learned he had hepatitis C — an incurable liver disease likely caused by injecting drugs — and cirrhosis from the booze. At 50, Salgado went in for a physical. His spleen was enlarged, and the platelets in his blood were off the chart.
“My liver was like a brick,” he said. “Only 20 percent of it was useable.”
That would have been a perfect place to let the reader listen to Salgado. His voice would have drawn them closer to him than I ever could in the middle of summary narrative.
The experience taught me that no matter what the tool, we have to think like storytellers, realizing the strengths and weaknesses of each of the various platforms in which we present our stories.