Wednesday, July 1, 2009

why narrative matters

Jack forwards this piece by Eli Saslow from Sunday's Washington Post on the horrific train crash in D.C. last week. He cites it as an example of why newspapers still matter. And, I might add, the folks trained to work at them.

What you'll see as you read is the incredible power of narrative journalism, when reporters take the time and effort to reconstruct a scene, to develop characters and to viscerally engage the readers by putting faces to the news. The abstract becomes concrete. We can't step away.

There's news: The minute-by-minute updates you find online. We need that. Have become dependent on it, in fact. But then there's this, which takes incredible amounts of time, talent and space -- and, if we don't watch out, may soon die out.

From the piece:

Train 112: a nondescript Metro train, six cars in all. Car 1079: at least 16 people scattered across 68 seats, lost in their own worlds late on a Monday afternoon. Baker stood up again. If he walked to the rear of the car, he would be closer to his exit at Fort Totten. He would shave nine seconds off his commute home. That seemed important.

Baker tossed his blue backpack over his shoulder and walked the full 75 feet to the back of the car, passing all the other passengers on his way. There was a dentist reading a book about golf; a college student closing his eyes after the fourth day of an internship; a young architect fiddling with his cellphone; a 17-year-old checking her makeup in a small mirror before applying extra lip gloss.

Near the front of the train, a 23-year-old named LaVonda King was on her daily trip to pick up two young sons from day care. She had just finished a cellphone conversation with her mother, who suggested that King print advertising fliers for her new hair salon. A good idea, King agreed. She already had the keys to the shop and a name she had daydreamed about since high school: "LaVonda's House of Beauty."

In the far rear of the car, Dave Bottoms listened to an iPod. A chaplain who had just finished his first day on the pastoral staff at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bottoms, 39, felt scattered from the stress of a new job. Wasn't today his dog's seventh birthday? Did his new BlackBerry work? Were there any leftovers in the fridge for a quick dinner? Bottoms reached into his backpack and grabbed a photocopy of a homily by St. Irenaeus. Maybe, Bottoms thought, a little reading would quiet his mind.

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