Monday, February 2, 2009

How Your NYT Gets Made: Dan Barry Reads The Winston-Salem Journal, Adds Flower.

In this morning's NYT, Dan Barry offers yet another of his faux tone poems from the heart of America, with the kind of flowery prose that's supposed to remind you of his astonishing literary gifts.

But hey, give the guy credit. In a matter of days, Barry can take a boring article from a small local paper and turn it into a NYT "This Land" column, with all brand-new words and reporting.

Take this morning's column. He did.

Just last Monday, in the Winston-Salem Journal, a reporter named Kim Underwood wrote a piece called "Poor Ellen Smith: Greensboro man rewords and records a song about a relative who was hanged." In it, Underwood told the story of a young singer named Randy Furches who was the latest to perform the famous old song about a local woman killed in 1892 by her young lover, Peter DeGraff. DeGraff was later hanged for the crime, adding to the legend of the case.

Here's Underwood's lede:

On Feb. 8, 1894, 6,000 people showed up at the gallows on Liberty Street across from where Smith Reynolds Airport is today to watch Peter DeGraff hang for the murder of his 19-year-old girlfriend, Ellen Smith.

As it turned out, that was the last public hanging in Forsyth County.

Randy Furches, a descendant of DeGraff, has updated "Poor Ellen Smith," a traditional bluegrass song about the murder, and recorded it in time for the 115th anniversary of the hanging.

Underwood's piece goes on to interview Edith DeGraff Thornett, the granddaughter of DeGraff's brother, Peter, who had researched the case and shared her knowledge with Fuches. Thornett describes how her family had never mentioned the case. Uaing Thornett's research, Underwood recounts the story of the murder, the hanging and the song.

This morning, one week later, Barry weighs in with his version. While the words and reporting are substantially different, he tells essentially the same story as Underwood. Here's his lede:

One hundred fifteen years ago this month, on open land now occupied by warehouses and office buildings, a bantam of a man mounted the gallows built in his dishonor. He raised his hat and bowed before the 6,000 people gathered to see the floor beneath him drop. He carried a small Bible.

A trial six months earlier had laid out how this ne’er-do-well of 22, Peter DeGraff, had charmed a poor, simple woman named Ellen Smith. How she followed him around town like a puppy after their child was lost at birth. How he avoided her, accused her of being with other men, muttered that he’d like to kill her. How he sent her a note fraught with misspellings one day, sweetly requesting she meet him by a spring close to where people now play tennis, down the hill from the Zinzendorf Hotel, long gone.

How he shot her through the heart, his gun so close that its powder singed the outfit she had chosen for what she thought would be a romantic reconciliation. How she was not yet 20.

Of course, how can Underwood compete with a man who can use words like ne'er-do-well in a sentence? Her His straight-ahead prose pales in contrast with Barry's cockeyed cadences, the sort of writing that calls attention to itself with its use of imagery. Listen to him describe DeGraff's public hanging:

Moments later, he was dancing on air. Then he was hanging limp, a human exclamation point to the last public hanging in Forsyth County.

A human exclamation point! Sweet stuff. [UPDATE: An anonymous reader has informed the Nytpicker that the phrase "human exclamation point" was used in the NYT less than a year ago by David Carr, to describe the actress Tilda Swinton at the Oscars: With a shock of red, short hair and a very thin draped in black velvet, [Swinton] looked like a human exclamation point.

To be fair: The re-packaging of local news for national consumption is as old as the Ellen Smith murder case, and it's a legitimate practice. There's no copying involved, or even any ethical violation; Barry did his own interviews, used his own language, told the story his way. One could even argue that there's a benefit to it -- that NYT reporters bring good local stories to light by translating them for a national audience who might otherwise go without.

But with today's story, really, what's the gain? There's no news in this little yarn out of Greensboro, no developments worth noting, just a tiny little scoop dug out of nowhere by Kim Underwood for her his local paper. It doesn't exist in today's NYT to showcase a good yarn -- this is a 115-year-old murder case, now closed, and with no significant new facts to illuminate the story.

No, it's only there for the chance to give Barry yet another launch pad for his overheated prose. It seems a shame that with a mandate to find stories anywhere he wants, Barry still needs newspapers elsewhere to guide him around the country. Maybe if he spent less time crafting his ledes, and more time talking to people, his stories would be as unique as his voice.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, New York Times, January 7, 2009


Anonymous said...

The NYTpicker might want to do its own research here. The local reporter, Kim Underwood, is a "he," not the "she" you repeatedly use to refer to him.

Anonymous said...

What does Mr. Barry add? Well, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. But this is a big question for the media today. The corporations are asking, quite rightly, whether we need to have dozens of reporters from around the country cover the same story. Why have a dozen fashion reporters write about UGG boots? Why have a dozen food reporters write about the new cholesterol study? Why have a dozen reporters cover Iraq?

Given your logic, the extra voices don't add enough beyond flowery language to the conversation to make it worth deploying them. But I think we lose something. Perhaps society won't be able to afford to send more than one reporter to any story, but I will miss the days when there were dozens of reporters writing slightly different versions of the same events. And heck, I'll even miss the days when some are as flowery as Mr. Barry.


Gender mistake corrected, above. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

As we hear stories about budget cuts affecting news coverage, keep in mind that for the most part, Barry's column is all that he does for the Times. Ditto Angel Franco, the NYT staff photographer assigned to the series.

That's all they do, week in, week out. Franco is locked into a format of one very wide picture (super-wide pictures being a current trend) and one small square picture. That's it folks.

Add travel costs to a couple of full-blown salaries and it's real money time. This is all offset, of course, by the Times' growing use of freelancers, no benefits, no vacations, hell, hardly any pay.

It's hard to match such cynicism, even in the American business world, 2009.

bbbiede said...

In response to Anonymous who claims that all Mr. Barry does is his This Land column, all he/she has to do is look through the Book Review section or even the rest of the Times sections to see that he contributes much more to the paper. He and Mr. Franco have many photographs and video material available on the Web. Also, to travel the country, week after week, to uncover stories that relate to an audience as large and varied as the Times requires dedication and enormous amounts of time. Sounds like sour grapes to me. I love his "flowery" prose - he knows how to use the language to evoke images and great emotion. The reader can actually feel the human aspect of the given situation. Many writers can only hope to write as he does and with as much dedication.