How to be a playah

Playing off the news: a graf-by-graf breakdown of local-angle journalism

One of the most common assignments you get, especially at small- to medium-sized papers, is the local angle. At my first paper, we joked about doing a story about one notorious national figure because we assumed she had passed through our California town on the state highway. The stories we actually did weren’t much further-fetched.

When former President Johnson died, we did a feature on the guy who had run Johnson’s first U.S. Senate campaign in Texas and happened to live in town. When the first TV movie about Charles Manson ran, we profiled a local sheriff’s deputy who’d been among the lawmen who arrested Manson.

Most of the time, the idea to do a local-angle story comes from your editor, not from your heart. Which is the first strike against you. You’ll often have to listen to a preconceived story theme that may not match the truth. Which means you’ll have to work harder at (a) finding a true angle, (b) selling your boss on an idea different than his own, or (c) finding out that no approach works and breaking that news to him.

How to be a playah

How to be a playah

The question to keep asking yourself as you report and write these stories is: Is there a real connection between the larger event and the perceptions I’m collecting? Are people aware of the phenomenon? Am I having to work too hard to introduce them to it, and perhaps working too hard to shape their opinions? Is the local angle real or imagined?

Here’s a breakdown of an everyday, off-the-news story I edited a few summers back, with my comments interspersed between the grafs in bold-face. It started on a Thursday. Shaquille O’Neal had joined the Los Angeles Lakers and signed a monster contract–one of several huge ones that took place in the National Basketball Assn. that week. I was talking to one of my reporters, John Mitchell, and we wondered (I’ve forgotten whose idea this one was): How was this playing out on the playgrounds of L.A.?

John is one of my newspaper’s best street reporters, so I was convinced that he’d bring meaning to the story. He found more meaning than I expected, so instead of publishing the story on Friday, we waited one more day so he could work into the night Thursday.

As you’ll see, several structural principles make this story work–summation, foreshadowing, quotes, transitions–but none of it would matter without the validity that John’s reporting brought to the concept. See what you think:

1st graf: Engage the reader by presenting the essential conflict simply.

Every time an NBA star signed another impossibly huge contract this week, Dave Koch’s job got tougher.

2nd graf: Expand on who Koch is and explain his mission to better describe one half of the conflict.

Koch directs 400 teenage athletes at USC’s National Youth Sports Program, trying to instill not only athletic skill but also an appreciation of discipline, long-term planning and the need for education. You can’t rely on the slim chance of a big pro contract, he tells them.

3rd graf: Remind the reader of the news:

Then came the wave of unprecedented pro basketball contracts, so fast that it was hard for the boys to keep the names straight, hard for them to conceptualize the dollars: seven years, $56 million; five years, $50 million; seven years, $98 million. By the time Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Lakers for $120 million for seven years Thursday, almost a billion dollars in free-agent money had been thrown around the NBA.

4th graf: Show how the news affected the kids:

And Dave Koch’s athletes, youngsters whose bodies have yet to catch up with the size of their feet, fantasized yet more about getting their share, getting it fast, getting it all in one shot.

5th graf: Expand on the 4th graf with an example:

”I’m a baller,” insisted David Santana, 13, stretching to show his full 5-foot, 11″-inch frame and size 13 shoes. ”I want to be a professional ballplayer too. I can do it.”

6th graf: Most stories like this would continue to bring in quotes from other boys. But that sabotages the mission of the story, which is expanding on the theme–the contradiction–developed in the 4th graf. At this stage, one voice is enough. There’ll be room for others later if the reader isn’t bored. The key right now is: move the story along. Keep up the pace. So the story uses statistics to make a couple of points.

O’Neal will make about 500 times as much as a Los Angeles public school teacher. What coaches like Koch tell kids like David is that the odds of emulating the lowest-paid pro, let alone Shaq, are overwhelmingly long. First, David will have to make his high school team. That will cut the chances of making the NBA down to about 10,000 to 1.

7th graf: Now it’s Koch’s turn to talk about his dilemma. We could have used him earlier but it would have been less credible; we needed to hear a kid’s voice first, because the kids are the focus of the top. Koch, by contrast, is more intersting in the context of what the kids say.

”Kids read about these one-in-a-million athletes getting mega-million-dollar salaries, and it’s hard to convince them that it’s all right to be one of the other 999,999 individuals working hard to make a decent living,” Koch said.

8th-through-10th grafs: Now we can hear some more of the kids, having laid out our story hypothesis. So far, each paragraph had a specific mission. Now, our context developed, we can slow the pace and go a little deeper on each step. The reality of what John found was that many of the kids had a measured reaction to the mega-bucks signings.

Word of O’Neal’s deal zipped through the USC camp as the teenagers moved through their organized schedule, from basketball and swimming to discussions about first aid and AIDS. They tried to imagine the sheer size of the contract.

”Los Angeles is going to have the best basketball team,” said Shangameir Sutton, 15. Yes, he admitted, he too has a secret desire to be a pro. ”They wouldn’t have to pay that much for me.”

Alan Hatcher, 13, has the same dream, but recognizes that education comes first. ”You need the experience of college,” said Alan, who plans to be a pediatrician. Fourteen-year-old Ronald Pennington, who is a head taller than Alan and constantly told he is an NBA natural, also demurs. ”I’m not good at it,” he said shyly. He thinks he’ll be a veterinarian.

11th graf: We embark on a second venue. I’d wanted reaction from young kids, but John suggested adding older, more hardened young men from a midnight-basketball league designed to keep them off the streets. In the first sentence of the 11th graf, the story establishes the change of scene. The second sentence establishes the contrast in attitude.

Hours later, a few miles away at a midnight basketball league game at Harvard Recreation Center in South-Central Los Angeles, the unfathomable millions were again the topic among basketball junkies. Only here the players were older, 17 to 34, chastened by life, aware their glory days were over, playing for fun.

12th and 13th grafs: The story expands on the contrast of scenes: Kids don’t worry about who pays for the tickets. The older players do.

Here there was a realization that the boys at USC had yet to grasp: Somebody was going to have to pay the bill for Shaq’s payday, and that somebody was the loyalists. The Lakers had already announced that the cheapest ticket at the Forum would rise to $21 from $9.50.

”That makes it impossible for many families to go see a game,” said Marlan Morton, 35, a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters who was playing in the night game. Still, he acknowledged, ”This is business.”

14th graf: We need to establish what midnight basketball is. We could have done it in the 11th graf but we didn’t need to yet. What’s coming in the 15th graf requires context in the 14th:

Midnight basketball has been popularized around the country as a way to draw young men in tough neighborhoods off the streets at the most dangerous hours. The league at the Harvard center, which includes the Los Angeles Clippers as a main sponsor, began seven years ago as a way to persuade gang members to stay off the street. At first, gang members were among the players, as the organizers had hoped. Today, the gangs no longer come, only the connoisseurs of hoops.

15th-through-18th grafs: The 15th graf is long, but it’s effective because (a) you now appreciate midnight basketballers and (b) this graf contains a powerful litany of feelings and viewpoints, and shows how the big contracts play out down at this level of fandom. It distills a lot and doesn’t waste space on quotes.

The players of the midnight league complained that the professional game is no longer a people’s sport, that they were being squeezed out of seats by corporations and celebrities. They expressed disap pointment in athletes who grew up on these same rough streets but disappeared as soon as the ink dried on their fat contracts. They shared their shame over athletes from O.J. Simpson to Michael Irvin, who seemed to get caught up in a lifestyle that brought disgrace on their families. They suggested that Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ 17-year-old basketball phenom, sent the wrong message when he skipped college and went directly to the NBA from high school.

”Education goes out the window,” said one player.

For the pros, the young men complained, basketball is about nothing but money. Here there were no paychecks, only an intense love of the game among athletes whose bodies are finely tuned, if past their prime. It was almost 9 p.m. The first game of the evening was about to start. The sneakers squeaked on the hardwood floor.

19th-through-23rd grafs: In a pinch, these five short graphs could have been cut. They do not directly contribute to the primary local-angle theme. I left them in because they expanded–by showing, rather than just telling–on the tangential theme in the 18th graf: that basketball at the street level is about love for the game, a purity that seems to be disappearing at the pro level with these huge contracts.

”I’m one of the old guys,” laughed Craig Washington, a 24-year-old UCLA lab assistant. ”I have a 9-to-5.”

Washington plays each week in a league with Byron Mayhan, a high-flying point guard, and Brian Bennett, a deadly outside shooter, both students at Los Angeles Trade Tech.

There is a payoff from playing in this league, but it is not financial. If you play here, you are less likely to be hassled by gangs from rival neighborhoods.

”People know us as basketball players and don’t bother us,” said Bennett, 23.

That’s the difference between this league and the NBA, Mayhan said: ”One is a way to survive. The other is show business.”

24th and 25th grafs: This is our closer. What you hope for is that the back of a feature story will resonate–remind the reader of the top, say something that makes the reader feel he has been on a journey, and that the journey is now complete. Something reflective can be helpful. John was taken with the slave metaphor that an administrator of the midnight league saw in the big salaries.

Ed Turley, the league’s assistant director, saw mixed implications in O’Neal’s contract. Fine, let him get as much money as he can. But there was something disturbing about the language he kept reading and hearing as teams bid for these free agents. It reminded Turley of the auctioning of slaves.

”Free agents aren’t really free,” he said. ”And this bidding sounds too much like some auctioneer asking: ‘What will you give me for this big 7-foot-1 strong center?””

AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL YOU BEAT WRITERS: I like to think of myself as a normal guy when I read a newspaper. That is, I don’t read every story every day, and every once in a while I realize there’s an important running story that I’ve paid insufficient attention to, and it’s time to get engaged. Here’s where you betray me: Too often, by the time you’ve written your third or fourth consecutive daily story about a running development, you forget that people like me exist–you forget to tell me, somewhere in the first four or five grafs, what the hell the story’s about.

I have an example, and then I have an even more poignant reaction from another normal person.

The example ran in my paper the early part of last week. It was one of the scores of stories written so far about the Enron scandal. Pretend to be normal, and read the first eight grafs, and keep asking this question: What exactly is the furor over Enron’s collapse about?

Enron Corp.’s collapse could take years and involve a review of millions of paper and electronic records, so the agency has begun looking for a shortcut: an insider who would tell all in exchange for leniency from potential criminal or civil prosecution, authorities confirmed Sunday.

It is a path well trod by federal authorities in other complex white-collar investigations of corporations: Gain the full cooperation of someone high up enough in the hierarchy to have extensive knowledge of its operations–and potential culpability in questionable acts–but not so high that there aren’t others in even loftier positions to merit offering a deal.

Current and former Justice Department and FBI officials confirmed that such a process is underway but did not discuss details, saying it is perhaps the most sensitive part of the investigation as it gets up to speed.

“It’s obvious: You look for the weak points, someone you have leverage on, who is in a position where they know a lot and has a great deal to lose,” said one FBI official, who spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity. “That will be one of the first points of the investigation. You gain enough information against that person to say, ‘This is the only course of action for you that makes sense.’ ”

And, said two high-ranking senators investigating the burgeoning scandal, it appears as if some executives both at Enron and at its auditor, the accounting firm Andersen, may have engaged in potentially criminal behavior.

See what’s happening here? I’m interested but the writer cruises past the words “burgeoning scandal,” oblivious to the fact that he has yet to defined it.

“Clearly, on the face of it, some of the activities carried out by the [Enron] corporate executives were not legal, and in violation of rules and regulations–if not laws,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), on the same show, also had harsh words for Enron executives.

“We know that they were trading fast and loose with offshore corporate entities that were hiding their debt from the public,” said Lieberman, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which is conducting one of several congressional investigations into the company’s failure. “We know that they were saying things to the public, to shareholders, the retirees . . . about how the stock was going to go up and–at the same time they were selling their stock right then.”

Okay, that was where I stopped reading. I felt like an outsider at a party. There I was, watching Sen. Lieberman make allusions to “trading fast and loose…” as if I were supposed to know what he meant. Am I being too critical? In case I am, the prosecution now calls to the stand a screenwriter named Patricia Marx, who a couple days later wrote the following op-ed piece in the New York Times in which she wrestled with the same dilemma:

Here’s the thing about following current events. When an item first appears in the news, you must make a quick decision: Will it turn into a daily front-page story or will it end up being filler, buried next to an article about Connecticut opening its motor vehicle tax records to the public? All too often, I make the wrong call.

The first time I heard the name Enron (about a month or so ago), I thought: Football play? High-performance drink? New fabric that’s part enamel, part rayon? When I learned that it was an energy trading company accused of, um, something Very Bad, I thought: Well, whatever it is they’ve done, it will all blow over. Enron, I concluded, was the Y2K of 2002. Rather than waste my time on a story of no consequence, I resolved to concentrate on something that would be discussed on news shows and at dinner parties for months to come: the unveiling of the Segway scooter.

Boy, was I mistaken. Now, after having discounted the Enron crisis early on, I am a hopeless nitwit on the topic–unlike those Enron insiders who only pretend to know nothing.

Major news stories are complicated, and the window of opportunity for learning the rudiments is, unfortunately, limited. Sure, you can read all you want at any time, but if you miss the first crucial days, you will never catch up. It’s like missing the first few weeks of kindergarten; you’re going to have a tough time in graduate school, not to mention first grade.

I learned this lesson years ago when the friction in Yugoslavia began. How could a country with such pretty beaches, I figured, become an international problem? I never did get everything straight over there. But it may not be too late to get in on the Enron crisis. At least the story involves no maps.

So how do you determine if a news germ is going to blossom? (1) If the key players deny there is anything to it, it will be a big deal (the corollary: if the key players say it will be monumental, it will turn into the next Segway story). (2) If it involves a name you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce, you’d better at least read the headlines every day. (3) If it seems boring, it will be the sensation of the century.

The other night, in an effort to catch up, I watched the news on PBS. Jim Lehrer asked Senator Fred Thompson if he ever thought, “Oh, my goodness, we’ll never figure this one out?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “there are too many people that play here.” I knew exactly how he felt. I turned off the television and returned to deepening my expertise on the long-term implications of the retirement of Yves St. Laurent.

The moral of this story, beat writers, is that normal people are out there, and they’re interested. It’s just that they get left behind sometimes, and you have to remember what that feels like, and take pity on them.

Thanks in advance.