• Good read: ‘Telling True Stories’


    Brian Chasnoff, one of the best writers at the San Antonio Express-News, started a new blog about the craft of reporting and writing, and it reminded me of a fantastic book for anyone who cares about long-form journalism.

    Telling True Stories” is a collection of essays by the most thoughtful and talented people in the business. It’s essentially a how-to book written by giants like Tom Wolfe, who wrote the “The Right Stuff;” David Halberstam, who wrote “The Best and the Brightest;” and Gay Talese, who wrote legendary celebrity profiles such as “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.

    There are chapters by Katherine Boo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her stories “Invisible Lives,” which combined investigative and narrative journalism to reveal shocking abuses of people with mental retardation who were trapped in Washington D.C.’s privately run group-home system. Here’s how her first story started in the Washington Post:

    Elroy lives here. Tiny, half-blind, mentally retarded, 39-year-old Elroy. To find him, go past the counselor flirting on the phone. Past the broken chairs, the roach-dappled kitchen and the housemates whose neglect in this group home has been chronicled for a decade in the files of city agencies. Head upstairs to Elroy’s single bed.

    “You’re in good hands,” reads the Allstate Insurance poster tacked above his mattress — the mattress where the sexual predator would catch him sleeping. Catch him easily: The door between their rooms had fallen from its hinges. Catch him relentlessly — so relentlessly that Elroy tried to commit suicide by running blindly into a busy Southeast Washington street.

    How do reporters find stories like this? Well, in the book, Boo tells you:

    A friend once told me that I find my stories because I never learned to drive. It’s true. I take the bus. I walk around. By being out there — not the driver of my story but the literal and figurative rider — I have the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise see.

    I found the group home story because I missed a bus in a housing project. Someone gave me a ride home. He had to stop at a group home because he was having some disagreement with the staff there. I entered the group at eight in the evening. What I saw there led to my story.

    “Telling True Stories” is full of gems like that one.

  • Top five books every student journalist should own

    The best way to learn journalism is by doing it. But some journalism books so deftly explain the nuts and bolts of the craft, they should be read by every student, and re-read every few years when those students become working journalists. Here are my top picks:

    The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” by William E. Blundell.

    Organizing and writing long, in-depth stories in a way that keeps readers engaged is a challenge. And it’s a challenge writers of the Wall Street Journal consistently overcome.

    Blundell, who worked at the journal, shows you how they do it. He breaks down compelling stories to their raw elements like a scientist, analyzing what approaches work and don’t work. It’s a great how-to manual.

    The Word,” by Rene J. Cappon.

    Find telling details … weed clutter from your prose … grab readers and never let go … these are the simple messages preached by Cappon, a retired editor for the Associated Press. Students should read this wonderful book to learn how to get a story right. Journalists should read this book as a refresher course to break any bad habits they’ve picked up.

    On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser.

    Similar to Cappon, Zinsser preaches the value of the concise sentence and the precise word. Zinsser is a nonfiction author but his message still rings true for all writers: Make the reader’s job easy, or lose the reader.

    Super Searchers in the News,” by Paula J. Hane.

    A great book for journalists in the Internet age. Hane interviews journalists who adeptly navigate the Web to find sources, information and documents to strengthen their stories. It’s a Q&A format with tons of references to useful sites.

    The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook

    When I was cutting my teeth at the school newspaper in college, I got to know the education writer at the daily newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, and he suggested this book. He said it helped him learn about digging up records and finding sources.

    Man, was he right.

    I can’t think of any other book that affected the way I approach news stories. “The Reporter’s Handbook” is a lesson in the power of documents — where to find them, how to get them, and what to do with them. Public documents help you circumvent the many spin doctors you’ll encounter throughout your career. They help you find out what’s really going on.

    Right after I devoured this book, we got a tip that laboratories in the Science Building on campus were in such disarray, the San Antonio bomb squad had been called in a few times to clean up some dangerous chemicals — the kind of stuff that goes boom if bumped.

    Instead of calling up a dean and asking whether this was true, I sought out former employees, police reports and other records to write an in-depth story about a hidden problem almost no one on campus knew about — all thanks to “The Reporter’s Handbook.” By the time I called the dean, I already knew the tip was true. I just needed his comment for a fully documented story.

    “The Reporter’s Handbook” has gone through many revisions to keep it up-to-date. The most recent edition is called “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” by Len Bruzzese, Brant Houston, and Steve Weinberg.

    Those are my picks for the best journalism books. What are yours?