‘How I wrote the story’: When is it a brief? When is it 1,200 words?

A reporter finds deeper meaning in an everyday big-city crime

It’s Saturday morning. You’re a general-assignment reporter. You work in a a huge, impersonal county where two or three people are murdered every day, and here’s another one. Is it worth a brief? Is it worth 1,200 words? Something in between? How do you decide?

'How I wrote the story': When is it a brief? When is it 1,200 words?

'How I wrote the story': When is it a brief? When is it 1,200 words?

You could do worse than to ask that question Christians always ask about Jesus. Only this time ask it this way: What would Laurie Becklund do?

Laurie Becklund was one of the best reporters I ever met. She left my newspaper several years ago to focus on other writing projects, in particular an effort to develop journalism programs for high school students. She was one of those reporters who left a legacy that newspapers need to survive and flourish: the notion of always going deeper, always pushing yourself a little harder, not merely for facts but for meaning.

Here is the top of a daily story she wrote on anotherwise quiet Saturday. Once you get into it, I’ll bring her essay in. Keep thinking: What would you have done? What will you do next time?


SPIRITED WOMAN IS SLAIN IN A HOME SHE WOULDN’T LEAVE
By Laurie Becklund
Jan. 24, 1993

For 55 years–most of them as a widow living alone–Ruth Roberts resided in a tiny wooden bungalow on West 73rd Street. A woman of means who might have retreated to a mansion in her native North Dakota, she was also a person of mettle, a 78-year-old gentlewoman who on principle refused to abandon her increasingly crime-ridden South-Central neighborhood.

Miss Baby Ruth, people called her, because she often gave candy to children. Even gang members would salute her as they passed by. “Yo, Miss Baby Ruth!” they would say.

Then, as the white-haired Miss Baby Ruth sat at her desk figuring her taxes late Friday, some small-time robber apparently entered her house and stabbed her to death for a few dollars and a television set with a 13-inch screen.

Ruth Roberts was white; the neighbors mourning her are black. But less than half a mile from where riots broke out last year at Florence and Normandie avenues, no one was talking about race when they learned of the murder Saturday. Instead, they were talking about decent folks and criminals, about old values and young people gone awry.

“It’s real pitiful what’s happening these days,” said Pamela Wyley, who lives across the street and worries when she must leave her husband, who has no legs, alone. “They’re picking on the old people, picking on people who cannot defend themselves.”

For those who struggle in this neighborhood to live by the Golden Rule, tending by day to gardens and to drug dealers on the prowl by night, putting their children through college as teen-agers spray their curbs with graffiti, the murder of Roberts seems an attack on people everywhere who are put at risk simply because they are old. Or alone.

“I tried to get her to leave, especially last year when I saw the riots break out on TV,” said Eleanor Wisner, 60, a niece from Arizona who is her closest living relative. “But she was pigheaded. She loved California. She didn’t want to go.”

Ruth Isobel Roberts was, in many ways, the best of Middle America. A woman who paid her bills and wrote letters to her congressmen. A God-loving woman with guts who, come hell or high water or robbers at her door, wasn’t going to give up and leave the Southern California she loved.

“Just scares me to death–I didn’t sleep at all last night,” said a 90-year-old neighbor on his sixth pacemaker. ” ‘Twas somebody who knew her, all right, who knew she lived alone.”

He was lamenting her death with another neighbor, a woman who met Roberts 36 years ago when, she said, “the neighborhood was poor but the people in it had brains and dichondra lawns.”

“I’ll miss her,” said a gray-haired woman who was afraid to give her name. “She was almost the only one left you could talk to and learn something from.”

As they spoke, cars began driving down the street: a neighborhood pimp, an evangelist, an ice cream truck with its tinkling music, looky-loos with windows up and locks down, pointing at Miss Baby Ruth’s house as they drove by.

There are so many nice touches in the top: The way the two sentences in the first graf each form a core value of the woman. The example in the second graf of how her nickname was used. The unsentimental description of her death in the third graf. The discussion of race, and how little it mattered, in the fourth graf, capturing the transcendence of her life. The way the fifth and sixth grafs expanded on that theme. The way we return, in the seventh graf, to her refusal to leave, and to the fear in the neighborhood. Okay, enough. Here’s how Laurie told it in an essay she wrote way back then:

It was a little before 9 a.m. when I got to work on Saturday, January 23rd. I was the first one in, and sat down to read the wires. There was little of interest–another storm and another spate of overnight killings.

Still, I had the luxury of attempting a pre-emptive attack before the Saturday editor arrived and dreamed up an assignment that didn’t interest me. I toyed with trying to fashion in my mind a piece out of an incident in which gang members had shot up a party. But, I felt I’d read stories like that before; seems to me I’d written one myself.

The only other real possibility was a 78-year-old widow who had been stabbed to death in South Central. I called police and got almost NO information. Literally three lines and no chance, I was told, of getting anything else until Monday.

I figured that if Ruth Roberts had lived 78 years, there had to be a story in her life. I firmly believe that a good reporter can make a story–a story both newsworthy and honest–out of anyone. The trick, I think, is finding the soul that makes that person unique and yet allows others to identify with him or her. Then, to fashion in your mind as early in the reporting process as possible the nut graph (I think of it as the GUT graph) that grabs the reader in an almost visceral way.

What about her life would make readers care about her death? The ancient Greeks always felt the protagonist’s station in life had to be exalted enough to make his death a tragedy. Hopefully, we’ve advanced a little in the past few millenia, but I still feel you have to find a special quality in someone to make readers care.

Using the cross-directory, I talked to a neighbor who raved about Ruth, said she was kind, generous, the usual good-little-old-lady sort of stuff. An angle: Good Samaritan dies untimely death at hands of unknown robber. Passable, but predictable. It’s a sign of too many years in journalism, perhaps, but I didn’t want to write the same genre of story that had already been written.

I noticed that Ruth lived a stone’s throw from Florence and Normandie, where the previous year’s riots began. Only when a neighbor mentioned in passing that Ruth Roberts was white did I realize I had just assumed she was black. While I was on the phone with her, the Saturday editor, Joel Sappell, came in, read the wires, and asked me to check out–guess who?–the 78-year-old widow. That’s not the first time that’s happened.

As I headed out to the neighborhood, I realized The Times was singling out for special attention a white woman who had been murdered in a black neighborhood where African-American women’s deaths undoubtedly went unreported. The fact that I found out her race AFTER deciding to do the story was beside the point; I knew it now.

Was race a factor in her death? I asked myself. If so, was I headed into a kind of slow-moving ['92 riots victim] Reginald Denny story? Was it possible, given the events in this neighborhood around Florence and Normandie over the last year, that race was NOT be a factor? Readers would assume it was. Then the thought occurred to me that there might be news here in a murder that had nothing to do with race at all. Something that doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to interests me.

Go in with no suppositions, I told myself. Listen.

In fact, as I began talking to neighbors, nobody mentioned black or white. Often, they stopped talking about Ruth Roberts altogether and started talking about the neighborhood. One white-haired lady came up with a wonderful image of how things used to be, when the neighborhood was filled with people who had ”brains and dichondra lawns.”

I loved that line. I could see it in the fifth or sixth graph, maybe higher.

On features, I think of myself as a writer who is reporting, rather than as a reporter who will later sit down to write. Reporting, even if done in a rush as this was, can be an act of luxurious self-indulgence, a finding and propping up around oneself of just the right pillows that cushion the writing process and make it a pleasure. That requires, however, that I visualize myself at the keyboard with material already in my brain. Otherwise, I’ll think too late of the questions I should have asked, and the story will turn out stilted and standard, driven by quotes that happened to find their way into my notebook.

I remember learning in an art class that the white space around a central figure is as important as the figure itself. So, I try to find a name for the white space around the story. Against what background did these people live their lives? Fear was the answer. These neighbors didn’t see Ruth Roberts as someone from another race; they IDENTIFIED with her because they were all afraid. They were afraid that one senseless morning they would be in Ruth’s shoes and I would be back, asking about them. They, too, were old and came from a time when order mattered. Ruth’s murderer, whoever he was, was assumed to be young and have no respect for what Ruth called ”all this” and neighbors saw as ”brains and dichondra lawns.”

With this, I found my white space. And, not coincidentally, the answer to my concerns about the race issue. It was newsworthy, I felt, that in this ravaged neighborhood, people could come together to mourn and never even think about race.

That left the easy part: finding out about Miss Baby Ruth. I asked the neighbors a question that for me is standard, one that hits paydirt maybe 10% of the time: What did people call her? ”Miss Baby Ruth,” I was told. That, because she used to give away candy. I wanted to know, point blank, whether the guys hanging out on the graffitied wall on the corner knew her by this name, so I asked. ”Yeah, even gang members called her Miss Baby Ruth. Yo Miss Baby Ruth…”

Her nickname alone could make the story. If I couldn’t think of anything better, that could be the lede. Now, who was she?

Before I left the office, I’d spoken with a niece inside the house who was there trying to pack her things up. I went inside the ramshackle cottage, and found books, magazines, maps, a catalogue for upscale Pogenpohl Kitchens, of all things. Stacks and stacks of dusty evidence that to Miss Baby Ruth, what went on inside the mind meant more than physical surroundings. I mean, her place was a wreck; I didn’t see cockroaches, but they had to be there.

I spent 90 minutes there-too long, but I couldn’t resist. Here was indeed an intriguing person. The daughter of a Norwegian pioneer from Idaho, a woman with a fatal flaw that was a lot like hubris. She was NOT going to be pushed out of this house. She was NOT going to cut down the tree that hid her cottage from the street-despite the fact that it provided a perfect screen for a crook.

This may sound odd, and I’m not sure every reporter would work this way, but I wanted to look around BEFORE I asked many questions. I wanted the reader to get in on a little of the wonder and mystery I felt looking at her home. I also wanted to report in the order the information would appear in my story, which would save me thinking up a new structure, and which would allow me to witness things first hand so I wouldn’t have to stick in clumsy attributions.

I asked the niece if I could just sit in her aunt’s bedroom by myself for five minutes. There, I tried to imagine Ruth’s daily routine. I noticed the fine cosmetics on the cheap plastic of her dressing table. Miss Baby Ruth would risk her life, it seemed, but not her complexion. Similarly, I noticed what appeared to be taxes on her desk; she was working on them when she died. Also, I saw boxes of typewriter ribbons and old-fashioned secretarial supplies.

(A couple years ago, after hours of wheedling, I finally got entrance to the room of an AIDS victim suffering from dementia who had started shooting at sheriff’s helicopters, and then blew his brains out. Overlooked by police were the art on the wall, and wild ramblings he had apparently written in his last hours. The writings were ignored because they were in Spanish. The kid had no known relations, so I read some of them. In another story a couple years ago, I asked to see the bedroom of a murder suspect, a teenaged girl. There, like faded graffiti on the wall beside here, was a scream, complete with date: ”Somebody, please, help me!” Anyway, there’s something revealing about looking about another person’s room after death.)

When I finally talked to the niece, the questions I asked grew out of what I saw in Ruth’s home. The secretarial supplies yielded her history at SoCal Gas. (I also asked for her coworkers’ numbers.) Fishing around for material for the middle of the story, I asked if Ruth had had problems with crime in the past and, if so, what she’d done about it. I asked if there were any letters she’d written, and got evidence of her attempts to clean up the neighborhood.

In the end, the zinger was that Ruth Roberts was reasonably rich; she could have moved out any time! And she had been killed, according to her niece, because of a 13-inch TV set. That, the niece said, and her own pioneer pigheadedness.

On my way home, I called Joel, gave him the name, Miss Baby Ruth, and the gut graf. Based on blind faith and my own enthusiasm, I suppose, he pushed it for Page One.

Driving back, I started thinking not about the lead, which always seems just to spill out, but about the graphs that follow and set up the structure. Unfortunately, I think with my fingertips, so this is always hard for me. But it was nearly 3 p.m., and time was short. I realized the bottom line was this: someone of worth, an old person who abided by the system, had fought to survive and lost the battle to youth and chaos. There were others like her, people of a different color, who identified with her and were scared stiff they were going to be next. This was essentially my gut graph.

When I got back to the office, I read through my notes, circled a few things, and didn’t look at my notebook until I’d written probably 20 inches. (Direct quotes I revised later.) I knew I had to punch out her wider symbolic value. I wrote:

”For those who struggle in this neighborhood to live by the Golden Rule, tending by day gardens that drug dealers prowl by night, putting kids through college as other people’s kids fill up their curbs with graffiti, the murder of Ruth Roberts seems an attack on people everywhere who are put at risk simply because they are old. Or alone.”

I’m not wild about the lede. The story was a rough draft. There were transitions whose wires were exposed like bare lightbulbs. (I am sloppy about this stuff, writing clusters of copy off the top of my head and then figuring out ways to glue things back together.) Moreover, I turned it in so late, as usual, so Joel barely had time to smooth out any bumps. The next morning, when I read it over (something I don’t usually do), I found the gut graf had gotten garbled. Somehow, the old people were tending to the drug dealers in their gardens.

”Turn it in earlier next time,” I told myself in Joel’s voice. ”…Spend a little less time playing detective…”

Let’s return to the story. The last graf we read gave us the scenes of tneighborhood:

As they spoke, cars began driving down the street: a neighborhood pimp, an evangelist, an ice cream truck with its tinkling music, looky-loos with windows up and locks down, pointing at Miss Baby Ruth’s house as they drove by.

Now Laurie goes deeper into her key theme: why the woman stayed

Roberts had stayed even though her bungalow had been broken into maybe a dozen times over the years. When a battery was stolen from her sedan the day after she bought it, she learned to park the car sideways on her front lawn with the hood against the fence so no one could open it. When a young thief burst through her kitchen window, she ordered him right back out the same way.

She coped, corrected and fought back with tools learned in civics classes.

In 1986, she wrote a letter to the late Councilman Gilbert Lindsay informing him that the alley behind her house was being used by drug dealers and transients. “We do not intend to stand by and see our neighborhood develop into a Skid Row,” she wrote on behalf of an ad hoc neighborhood committee.

She didn’t demand the vagrants’ arrest. A generous woman, she asked that they be provided “housing and sanitary facilities.” Then, when the alley was cleared and cleaned, she wrote a thank you note to Lindsay with copies to the mayor.

Still, Roberts learned to buy nothing “of value” that could be hocked at a pawn shop for a quick fix. Instead, she kept to her books, her correspondence, her tapes of Kate Smith and Luciano Pavarotti, and her garden.

Now we move into reaction

“To older folks, all this had great value,” Wisner said Saturday afternoon as she and one of Robert’s neighbors, Ruth Talpert, tried to sort through Roberts’ things. “But to young people today. . . .”

“All this” was a 600-square-foot bungalow filled with books and magazines and keepsakes of a woman who considered herself a civil servant. For more than 30 years, Wisner said, Roberts worked as a clerk in Southern California Edison’s wage and salary division, not retiring until she was 70.

As news of her murder was broadcast on radios Saturday, former co-workers began calling her home.

“She was our institutional memory, the walking encyclopedia everyone in the company would call if they needed something,” Edison employee Ruth Iwasaki said. “She was also very kind, always giving to others. I’m very, very sad about this. We’re all just in absolute shock.”

Just last week, Roberts called to console her about her father’s death, Iwasaki said.

“I asked her: ‘Ruth, have you thought about going up to your home in North Dakota?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’ll do that–someday.’ She loved her home and just didn’t want to leave.”

We learn of the woman’s roots, her biography, briefly stated:

Among the hundreds of books in the tiny space Roberts occupied was a history of Edison. There were also histories of the Civil War and histories of railroads. She particularly loved the history of a pioneer America when railroads were not drains on U.S. taxpayers but a means of forging through the wilderness.

It was on a train known as the “Empire Builder” that Roberts came to Southern California 55 years ago from her home in Devil’s Lake, N.D., her niece, Eleanor Wisner, said. The grand-daughter of a Norwegian-born Civil War major who once managed a fort near Devil’s Lake, Roberts went to business college and got her pilot’s license in the 1930s–just because she wanted to learn to fly.

She came to California, married only to lose her husband early and have no children. In a later age, those who knew her say, she undoubtedly would have become an executive. Instead, she took back her maiden name and became a secretary with pride.

She farmed–by telephone and by letter–160 acres in North Dakota. Barley, wheat and sunflowers were her crops–the latter a cash crop for feed that bore the bonus of beauty. Her home was filled with flowers–paintings of sunflowers and poppies, hangers heavy with dried roses from the garden.

She owned a historic mansion on Devil’s Lake, where she and Wisner often spent summers. Yet, her own home was barely livable–the rain-soaked roof seemed ready to cave in Saturday, and walls had probably gone decades without paint. Yet, Wisner said, her aunt was “pigheaded” about staying.

Moving to the woman’s final days

Roberts’ aging refrigerator still bears yellowed political cartoons about five presidents. This week, she told a neighbor she thought poet Maya Angelou had upstaged President Clinton at his inauguration. She had been busily writing letters opposing the proposed free trade agreement with Mexico, yet she was the first to give clothes and money–and her English-Spanish dictionary–to illegal immigrants moving in down the block. She eschewed luxury, but had the finest facial cream delivered to her peeling door by Bullock’s Wilshire.

Roberts took computer classes by night but she could not bear to part with the standard Remington typewriter she kept dust-free on her desk by the front window. Out that window, she could see one of the things that kept her in Los Angeles–a fir tree, maybe 40 feet high, that she planted in her front yard decades ago.

And then her death:

It was at her desk that Miss Baby Ruth was sitting, apparently calculating her 1992 taxes, when someone killed her. Police and neighbors suspect that it was someone she knew because there was no sign of forced entry, and she always kept her doors locked to ensure her safety and that of her eight cats.

On Saturday, Talpert was helping Wisner sort through the things Roberts left behind. Wisner said police had warned her to leave before dark and take anything “of value” with her.

It was Talpert’s son, Hodges, who came looking for Miss Baby Ruth when Wisner called them from Arizona on Friday, saying that her aunt had not answered the telephone. Hodges Talpert found her on the floor beside her desk and gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It was too late. Her head was beaten and she was stabbed near the heart, he said.

Hanging on the wall above her desk was a cloth calendar that read: “Bless This House, Oh Lord, We Pray. Make It Safe by Night and Day.” Pinned to the curtain were the numbers of the three closest police stations.

“Color doesn’t make any difference to some guy who just needed a fix,” said Talpert, in tears. “Ruth was a . . . nice person to know. I’ll miss her.”

RECOMMENDED READING:The Tom Friedman Fan Club opens its doors again to say: If you keep reading this guy, you will (1) understand the world better, and (2) get inspired to use your own intelligence to bring deeper meaning to everything you write–stories, letters, mash notes, you name it. Here, in his Feb. 27 New York Times column, Friedman hammers his favorite theme: understanding Saudi Arabia and the way its past and future affects us. He finds an elementary but brilliant device and stays with it:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — An acquaintance here in Saudi Arabia told me this story: He was touring the countryside by car and got slightly lost. He saw a car down the road and approached it to ask directions, but each time he drew near, the car sped away. Eventually he caught up to it, the car pulled over, and a terrified driver jumped out to flee: it was a Saudi woman dressed like a man. In a country where it is illegal for women to drive, that’s the only way for a lady to get behind the wheel.

This story is a good reminder that not everything here operates in real life as it appears on paper–which is what makes predicting Saudi Arabia’s future a very inexact science. As such, I’ve concluded that there are two possible models for Saudi Arabia’s future. I call them the “Soviet school” and the “China school.”

The Soviet school argues that Saudi Arabia is an Islamic version of the Soviet Union: an absolute monarchy that is, like the Soviet Union, ultimately unreformable. The core of this regime is an alliance between a modernizing, but corrupt, theocracy led by the al-Saud family, and the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious establishment, which provides the al-Sauds with legitimacy, and the minute you try to reform it, the whole system will come unglued.

This is how the Soviet school sees it: The ruling al-Saud brothers are like the old Soviet Politburo; the 50,000 al-Saud princes and relatives are the equivalent of the Communist Party. Wahhabism, the puritanical Saudi Arabian brand of Islam, is used by the al-Sauds to unite the 40 fractious tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, just as Communism was used by Lenin to unite the 100 fractious nationalities of Russia and its neighboring republics. Osama bin Laden is just the evil version of Andrei Sakharov–the insider who steps outside the system to declare that the king has no clothes. Sakharov was exiled to Gorky for that and bin Laden to Kabul. And ultimately, both systems went into decline after unhappy encounters where? In Afghanistan.

The intense Saudi competition with Iran for dominance over the Muslim world–which involves financing competing conservative Moslem schools and mosques from Pakistan to Indonesia–is identical to the Soviet competition with China for influence over the Communist world.

The Soviet school concludes that Saudi Arabia has about five more years before its population boom, declining per capita income, need for education reform to create skilled workers and attract foreign investors, excessive defense spending and influx of satellite TV and the Internet combine to explode the Saudi system, just as they did the Soviet one.

The China school, by contrast, begins with the assumption that Saudi Arabia is a country that makes no sense on paper but in real life has a lot more cushions and ballast, which enable it, like China, to pursue two seemingly contradictory policies at once. In China it’s Communism and capitalism, and in Saudi Arabia it’s Wahhabism and rapid modernization. Oil is to Saudi Arabia what huge direct foreign investment is to China–a natural resource that allows the system to buy off a lot of discontent and enables people to cheat on the system, and thereby let off steam, behind closed doors.

In the China school, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah is the equivalent of China’s reformist Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. In particular, like Zhu, Abdullah is trying to push Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization to create external pressure for more rule of law and transparency– but this move is resisted by more corrupt elements of the elite who benefit from the status quo.

Finally, like China’s rulers, the Saudi ruling elite knows how to stay in power and will do whatever it takes to do so. In China’s case that meant bringing capitalists into the Communist Party and crushing students at Tiananmen, and in Saudi Arabia’s case it will mean confronting the radical Islamists–just as the al-Sauds did before when they wanted to introduce radio, television and women’s education. Like China’s leaders, the Saudi monarchy can garner support from the middle class–not only by buying them off, but also by arguing that the alternative to their rule would be chaos or extremists.

The China school dismisses the idea that Saudi Arabia will collapse in five years. It notes, instead, that for 50 years, someone has come out with a study every five years that says Saudi Arabia has only five more years.

Which school would I bet on? Ask me in five years.