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Chris Jones on "Animals," his Zanesville Zoo massacre story

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by brandonsneed, Feb 7, 2012.

  1. DanielSimpsonDay

    DanielSimpsonDay Well-Known Member

    Both are arguments for and against the notion. Great professionals, lousy people.
  2. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Now hang on one second.

    When there are less people working a story, you shouldn't compete as hard? I'd like for the guy who covers, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates to float that one at his editor.

    "Dude, it's not like it's the Yankees beat!"

  3. That's not what I said. And not what I meant.

    There were posters here who stated something to effect that the competition at the level was unreal ... I was responing to that.
    Competition - more or less - ain't an excuse.
  4. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    I don't think that the intensity of competition, though, can be measured in sheer numbers. I would imagine that the pressure is immense. And that everyone involved understands the ballgame.
  5. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    The conversation on exclusivity is reductive and not worth the banter. The writer in question doesn't help the discussion by writer the words "Smurf Village" but whatever.

    Let me put it terms that initially seem to be unrelated: Say you're an editor of a SEC paper and you still staff SEC road games pretty well. Say, three writers and a columnist. So four. (Many do more, I'm sure) And the team has a big game on the road, it's a blowout loss, and the coach closes the whole locker room. It's just him for 3 terse minutes and have-a-nice-day.

    The reporters will plead with the SIDs and that editor will lose his/her shit and for good reason. You don't invest that manpower and travel money - and drag designers in for a whole Saturday - to go out there and get screwed out of access. You get 12-14 Sundays CFB issues, all good moneymakers, and that shit hurts your newstand sales. Kills it. The guy watching the TV thinks "Oh, nobody talked? Well, there won't be much to read tomorrow."

    The magazine deal is a much higher-wire act. You can't have duplicate stories. Maybe once, for the novelty of it (like here), but it just can't happen. Not just because you're worried someone else will do better, either. It dilutes your product - which only gets put out 12 times a year in the first place. You can't pay Chris Jones a lot of money, fact-checkers, expenses, all that, and have it be co-opted by the competition.
  6. brandonsneed

    brandonsneed Member

    Look, all this comes down to is how badly you want to tell a great story, and how badly you want that great story to be as good as it can possibly be. "Salting the earth" is just a small part of that process. The less concerned you are about someone else taking your story and publishing it first, the more concerned you can be with working your ass off on that story and writing it as well as you can.

    Sorry to try to be overly simplistic, and if you want to be contrarian just for the sake of it you'll find a way to argue with me, and that's fine. But that's my final take on all of this. Just enjoy the interview. It was amazing that Jones agreed to share so much. He didn't have to share anything. Why spend so much time and effort on trying to find something bad in something good?
  7. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    It comes down to more than that. I think there's pragmatism involved.
  8. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    I think the mentality driving this exclusivity debate is the divide between magazines and newspapers. If you and your competitor are both writing 1,200 words, maybe people will read both. But very few people are reading two 10,000-word stories published on the same day about the same thing.

    I understand the intended purpose of the sentence. My issue stems more from whether that purpose was real or imagined.

    When you have a story this good and you write it this well, you don't need to tell readers what to think. Admittedly, The sentence didn't tell readers what to think; it told them to think. We each view animal life differently. You don't always have to raise the obvious question. Merry's pain does that subtly, for one.

    I didn't want any more background on Terry Thompson, either, at least from the Esquire piece. That's a different and entirely less interesting story.

    My guess, in part, is that the sentence I questioned, quoted above, was a nod to Esquire itself. The magazine consistently pushes sociological depth and even flat-out opinions in its longform writing. Tom Junod and Charlie Pierce are the best examples I have at the moment. Esquire usually opts for the essay over the feature. Esquire usually isn't afraid to hit you over the head. And it usually works.

    But this story -- or at least the other 9,966 words of it -- was captivating from beginning to end just on the movements of the plot and the the images created by the writer. It really was fantastic. And there's this bloviating sentence, if a single sentence can be bloviating, sitting in the middle, daring to distract you.

    I understand why the "proximity" part was in there, as well. Selfishness drives the human condition, and self-preservation would certainly be a driving factor to leading animal-loving locals to being glad there aren't tigers prowling the neighborhood. But should one sentence be given the task of vetting the selfish and selfless, the moral and amoral, the (exotic) animal haters and (exotic) animal lovers?

    It's a massive task for one sentence. And the story would have changed irreparably to give the thought more than one sentence. It would have changed for the worse, in my opinion. But the sentence as written stands out for all the wrong reasons. I suspect it was dumped into the middle of a long paragraph in part to hide it from people like me, who wanted no part of that sentence as they enjoyed the ride.
  9. typefitter

    typefitter Well-Known Member

    This is great. I love this thread.

    I don't even know what to say, there's so much going on here.

    With the sentence Versatile points out: Yes, I can see that sentence might lift you out of the narrative, which I never wanted to do. I wanted this story to feel relentless. But I guess I also wanted readers to pause for a moment—to lift themselves out of the suspense—and just remember what was going on here, that these were real people and real animals in a real situation. I worried a little bit (maybe a lot) that the story would be read as a celebration of what happened on that farm, or worse, like fiction, and I didn't want that to be the case. I wanted to scare people, but I also wanted them to remember that this all really happened. Those animals are under the ground in Ohio.

    Would I take that sentence out if I could write it again? I don't know. Another hard thing about stories like this one is that you could always keep working on them. I mean, we took 12,000 words down to 10,000 words. That's a lot of cutting, trimming, and I could obsess about that kind of stuff forever. I could work on a story like for a year and still not be sure that every decision we made was right.

    A story like this, if you really boil it down, is like a thousand little choices. You hope you make the right choice every time, but ultimately, that's a pretty tall order. You're just two people, the writer and the editor, trying to make something as perfect as you can. In the end, though, you're just two people.

    With the competition stuff... Would I rather Chris Heath not have been there? Yes, because, like Alma said, he represents a dilution. (I'm glad our stories are as different as they are, though.) Did I work harder because Chris was there? In some ways, maybe, but I always work hard on my reporting because writing is the tougher half of the equation for me. I'd call it a wash, his effect on the story, because if he did make me more driven by his being there, he also made me rush. We probably wouldn't have done this story in the March issue if GQ wasn't there. By magazine standards, things were pretty frigging tight.

    As for salting the earth... I didn't say anything bad about Chris to anybody. (I might have dropped that he was English and therefore not to be trusted. I'm kidding.) If I felt as though I made a connection with somebody, I just asked them to consider not talking to anybody else.

    We do that all the time, because our publication lag is so long. Like Ricky Williams... When I was in Australia, I was two months away from getting that story into print. 60 Minutes could have easily beaten us. Crushed us. When you have that long of a wait between production and publication, you can't really afford to play nice.

    And I'm almost certain Chris did it to me. He got to Sam Kopchak before me—that's the only person he beat me to—and Sam was very reluctant to talk to me. It took a lot of work for me to convince him. I was practically begging on his front step. I will always be grateful that there was no film of that moment.

    But I don't regret my groveling. What if I'd failed there? Can you imagine if I had missed out on that opening? The story's crippled. I wouldn't blame Chris at all if he'd cut my legs out from under me. Would I be mad about it? Absolutely. Would I have understood? Of course.

    Alma touched on this, but I think sometimes people can underestimate the stakes of this stuff. We put out 11 issues a year, for which I will write maybe four big features. An ad page in Esquire is something like $76,000. We have millions of readers. I've had stories that a million people have read online alone. That's not bragging. For me, it's terrifying. I try never to think about it, to be honest. I pretend I'm just writing for me.

    But the truth is, there is some serious pressure to perform. I'm judged on a very small sample size in front of a very large audience. I'm not going to get my ass handed to me because I'm worried I'll hurt the feelings of some guy who's trying to beat me as hard as I'm trying to beat him. For all I know, Chris Heath might be the guy who broke into my truck. Only my phone and camera missing? Suspicious.

    Again, I'm kidding. Mostly.
  10. Inky_Wretch

    Inky_Wretch Well-Known Member

    Hell, I get nervous when we hold a big feature for a Sunday edition because I just know one of our competitors will hit it first.

    I couldn't imagine lag of two months.
  11. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    Chris, I understand where you're coming from, but I have to question the placement of that weighty sentence if you stand by it's inclusion. It comes about 7,000 words in, stuffed into perhaps the longest paragraph of the story.

    I'm also curious as to whether there was any doubt you'd us the chronological story arc. I have never used it for a feature, mostly because I've never been fortunate enough to tell a story compelling enough for that approach. I probably would have started with a tiger attack -- there were several great scenes to choose from -- but it would have been a mistake.
  12. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    Two months lag in this day and age is insane, but I also see why it has to be that long for print. So yes, I would a basket case, sitting on a story like that for so long. But I could never nuke another person's story intentionally. That's just me.

    I guess you would have been more concerned if ESPN.com or yahoo.com was there since they are not working with a printed page.
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