Why the best journalism of 2001 is 200 words long

The NYT’s WTC mini-obits are lessons in saying more with less

Wouldn’t this be a great year to cancel the Pulitzer prizes and all the egoism that goes with them? Any other year, we’d be entering the season when many larger newspapers start cramming project after project into their pages less for their readers’ benefit than for the consideration of Pulitzer jurors.

Why the best journalism of 2001 is 200 words long

Why the best journalism of 2001 is 200 words long

Obviously, that’s not an option in ’01–most resources are being appropriately devoted to daily terror coverage. I would like to make one exception and maintain the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service, and I would also like to take the liberty of awarding it five months earlier than usual. It goes to the New York Times for a series of 200-word profiles on the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks that will ultimately number 3,000 or more articles.

Every day, a new batch of these profile-like obituaries appear at the end of the Times’ “A Nation Challenged” section, and every day, as you skim them, your heart breaks a little more. The series is performing the service of allowing you to grasp the true magnitude of the attacks–slowly, the way reality sinks in. The stories are told with intimate detail, expert distillation and a sense of distance. They let the reader glean the collective emotional truth of what happened without ever feeling that the newspaper is trying to shove pathos down your throat.

They sound like this:

The question, at last, is put to Andrew Caspersen: Did your girlfriend have any flaws?

Long pause.

Catherine Fairfax MacRae, granddaughter of a founding partner of the law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, won the math prize at the Brearley School, was editor of its newspaper, and was a ferocious field hockey player. At Princeton she made varsity squash and graduated magna cum laude in economics, with concentrations in math and finance. She never pulled an all-nighter and usually finished her work a week ahead, said Channing Barnett, a friend.

Cat was never late and expected the same when you met her for dinner. She was inexhaustibly thoughtful, always checking in, sending small gifts, and fretting that she was not being a good enough friend, seemingly to hundreds. She was beautiful and funny and charmingly self-deprecating and talked on the phone to her mother at least three times a day.

People always wanted her at their parties.

She was 23, and a stock analyst at Fred Alger Management on the 93rd floor of 1 World Trade Center.

Mr. Caspersen?

“She was not great with driving directions and we’d get lost quite often,” conceded Mr. Caspersen, a Harvard law student. “But that was a bonus. It allowed us to spend more time together.”

The profiles also teach us a few things about saying more with fewer words. Consider five from one day last week, Oct. 24:

1. The writers allow the survivors to comment on the tragic dimensions. Watch how intentionally simple, almost flat, the first graf is constructed, so the quote that follows can do the work:

Patricia Greene-Wotton is planning a memorial service and a baptism. Her husband, Rodney J. Wotton, disappeared in the attacks on Sept. 11, and their son, Rodney Patrick, was born eight days later.

“It’s like death and resurrection,” she said. “The baptism was to have been a happy occasion, but it’s a sad thing knowing that Rod will not be there for the baby’s baptism.”

Mr. Wotton, 36, who worked at Fiduciary Trust, never found out whether his child was a girl or a boy. At the couple’s request, the doctor who performed the sonogram wrote the sex on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope. Meanwhile, the Wottons picked names for a girl and a boy: Amanda Helga and Brendan Stewart. Now, the baby is named for his missing father.

Mr. Wotton loved children. He had a daughter, Dorothea Jean, 2, whom he loved to bathe and tuck in at night. Five years ago, he and his wife looked at 65 houses before settling on a ranch-style home on two acres in Middletown, N.J.

Watch, also, how the last graf in these profiles allows a survivor to have the final say:

“It’s our dream house,” she said. “It has a big yard that we thought would be nice for the children. It has a big garden that he put in because he loved gardening. A couple of weeks ago, I gave Dorothea watermelon that her dad grew. She loved it.”

2. When the protagonist has a central or obsessive trait, the profile explores it throughout the piece:

As the A train gently rocked her, Carrie Progen would sit with a small pad in her lap and sketch hurried portraits of the commuters sitting and standing around her in silence. These fleeting moments were among life’s truest, she told her boyfriend, Erik P. Sharkey, “the moments when New Yorkers were thinking the most.”

In all, she filled four notebooks with sketches that seemed to reveal the thoughts of strangers. But they also reflected a young artist’s passion for her adopted city, Mr. Sharkey said. “The one thing, if you could, is to say how much she loved New York.”

Ms. Progen, 25, came from Ashburnham, Mass., where she celebrated her high school graduation by getting a Celtic-style tattoo. “The correct terminology for Carrie is free- spirited,” recalled her mother, Kathleen.

Ms. Progen, who lived with Mr. Sharkey in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was an administrative assistant at the Aon Corporation. But her passion was her art, including illustrations she had just completed for a children’s book about “two parents trying to find their little girl who’s hiding from them,” he said.

An exhibit of her artwork (including her subway sketches) is to be held at 8 p.m. on Nov. 17 in Manhattan at Anderson’s Martial Arts Academy, 35 West 31st Street.

3. Small, poignant facts are allowed to hang in the air, often at the end for extra impact. The effect is that of a single piano note sustained for 5 or 6 seconds at the end of a composition, the plainness of the technique giving the audience the space it needs to feel something profound:

It seemed as if everyone in Astoria knew Frank Mancini. He might as well have been living in a Greek or an Italian village instead of the big city of New York.

He met his future wife, Anastasia, in first grade at Public School 17 in Queens. They went to the prom at Long Island City High School. By the time they were married on May 21, 2000, they considered it their 10th anniversary of dating. Frank was Spanish and Italian. Anastasia was Greek. They went to Mykonos for their honeymoon. Six feet tall, red- haired, riding a motorcycle and laughing, he stood out.

“Everybody loved Frankie in Astoria,” said his doting mother, Lea. “Frankie was No. 1.”

Mr. Mancini, 26, had been a laborer with Local 79, his dad’s union, since he was 18. When his father retired, Frank continued working construction at the World Trade Center, the only job he had ever known. About two weeks before the plane hit the north tower, he had moved from the basement to the 107th floor.

Mr. Mancini couldn’t wait to take his 3- month-old daughter, Sophia, to Disney World. “How old does she have to be?” he asked his wife. “I think we should wait till she’s 3 or 4, at least,” Anastasia said. He was also planning her wedding.

4. When the writer feels he knows enough to take the risk, he sums up the victim’s soul in a sentence. Watch the first sentence of this one, and watch how, as is the case in so many of these profiles, the writer takes the risk only if he can find a way to bring us back to the theme at the end:

Growing up in Atlanta, Adam White was like an electron zinging through an always-interesting orbit, or maybe several orbits at once. “He was an exhausting child,” said his stepmother, Georgia, who joined the family when Adam was 4. And also a charming one, who packed more into his waking hours than anyone she knew.

He loved surprises and drama and being the star of the show. When his high school put on a production of “Amadeus,” he landed the role of Mozart, playing all the piano passages himself. He had hundreds of friends, scattered all over the world, and dozens of interests, like mountain climbing and traveling and oratory, into which he poured his heart.

Adult life took him to San Francisco, and then to New York, where Mr. White, 26, was developing an electronic trading program in carbon dioxide for Cantor Fitzgerald. “The bigger the city, the better for him,” Mrs. White said. “His brothers used to go and visit him, wherever he was, and say afterwards that they felt like they had been there for a month when it had only been a few days.

“His dad went up to visit him in New York for a weekend last year, and when he got back he had to rest for a couple of days before he could go back to work. Everything was so exciting with Adam.”

5. When several of these techniques are used simultaneously, the effect is devastating. In the piece that follows, we’re given a reoccurring scene, followed by a stunning litany of a day’s chores in the next two grafs, followed by mini-vignette, a counterpoint observation and, finally, a return to the theme that began the profile, ending with an understated observation by the widower:

“Michele, it’s 11 o’clock!” Dennis Eulau would shout. “Could you just come to bed?”

After all, her day had started at 5 a.m., with the NordicTrack workout, then the frenzy to roust, dress and feed their three little guys (ages 2, 5 and 7) and get herself to work, two days a week in the city and one at home, as a systems analyst at Marsh & McLennan. On city days, she arrived early so she could jam in a lot and leave on the dot.

Mrs. Coyle-Eulau, 38, would go home to Garden City, N.Y., dine on cereal, then supervise the boys’ homework and bedtime rituals. Then she would plan weekends. A skier and snorkeler, she was the one who pushed everyone out the door for activities.

She was a to-the-max mom. A coach from an opposing soccer team asked her to tone down the cheering. Before school started, she would seek out teachers, demanding, “What can you do for my boys?”

Here is what the boys did for her: last Mother’s Day, they cooked pancakes with red and blue food coloring. She even ate them.

What took her so long to get to bed? Packing lunches, making grocery lists, arranging play dates. “I never understood,” her husband said. “Now I do.”

The Times published the best analysis of this series a couple weeks ago in an editorial:

…[A]s the portraits of the victims have appeared in print day by day, the resolution of what we have lost has grown finer and finer. Each profile is only a snapshot, a single still frame lifted from the unrecountable complexity of a lived life, and there is a world more to know about each of these victims, as their survivors understand only too well.

The rest of us read with a fascination that is always tinged with grief. We recognize the archetypes that define the way these stories are told. The tales of courtship and aspiration, the ways these people relaxed and how they related to their children — these are really our own stories, translated into a slightly different, next-door key. What emerges clearly now is how vibrant — and really how young — the victims of that Tuesday were, and how young the families they left behind are. Nearly everyone who died in the towers that day was either living in the midst of an achieved ambition or had set out on the way to achieving it.

In a sense, these portraits map an America most of us know only intuitively. It reads, at first, as a map of loss. We see the houses left unfinished, the pregnancies that will never be carried to term, the engagements abruptly ended, the inexorable toll of chance as well as routine. But these profiles also offer a map of fulfillment. The bonds of family — no matter how you define family — are palpable in every story. The patterns of community service jump out. The generosity, the selflessness that emanates from these stories, is remarkable, and it makes the heroism of that day seem less surprising.

Most of us tend to believe that we know something of the world we live in. But the effect of reading these profiles is to realize that most of us grasp only our own tiny corner. Portrait by portrait, we are learning the larger story of the world, the chance interconnections, as well as the necessary relations, that made a place like the World Trade Center function. We are learning, in a way we rarely ever have, where Americans come from, how they get ahead, and what they expect when they do get ahead. No one wanted to learn any of this the way we are learning it now, but the knowledge still comes as a gift.

To read more portraits, click the Times’ web site, www.nytimes.com, and then click the “Portraits of Grief” icon.