Wick Communications

A well-told narrative

In Writing techniques on March 25, 2010 at 11:39 am

I’ve used this space in the past to talk about nut graphs – those necessary evils that interrupt your award-winning prose in order to put the tale in context and explain why readers should hang on your every word.

Today I wanted to point to a Wick newspaper story that beautifully integrated the nut with the rest of a very full meal. Jonathan Clark’s story about the delays walking across the Nogales border is time well spent and the way he handled the top assures that readers are likely to make their way to the bottom:

The line, more than 200 people deep, stretched back from the Dennis DeConcini pedestrian border crossing, winding through an open-air corridor and out into the narrow lanes of pharmacies, dental offices and curio shops of downtown Nogales, Sonora.

As the sun set on the barely moving queue, a pre-teen girl waiting with her family shifted back and forth on flip-flop-clad feet in an effort to keep warm. A few steps away, a well-groomed, 30-something man took out a cell phone and dialed his girlfriend on the Arizona side of the border, assuring her that he’d be across soon for their Saturday night date…

“What’s the holdup?” someone asked a security guard monitoring the line.

“There’s only one agent working up there,” the guard answered, eliciting groans and utterances from those within earshot. But there were few options other than to wait; the pedestrian-only crossing at Morley Avenue, two blocks east, had already closed for the day, and Nogales’ third crossing point, Mariposa, was a mile-and-a-half walk away.

In all, it would take more than an hour for this section of the line to pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) turnstiles into the United States.

Lines like this one on March 6 have become a familiar annoyance for residents of Ambos Nogales who regularly walk back and forth between Arizona and Sonora for legitimate purposes like shopping, dining, and visiting family and friends. Business leaders on both sides of the border say the pedestrian queues are interfering with shopping flows and discouraging tourists, who are already frightened by news reports of violence along the border.

The long lines are not a result of greater demand: CBP statistics show that pedestrian crossings at Nogales’ three ports of entry held relatively steady throughout 2009 before spiking predictably during the Christmas season and falling in January and February. Instead, customs and immigration officials say that increased security concerns and responsibilities at the ports are stretching resources thin. Over the past year, for example, agents have had to step up inspections of Mexico-bound foot and vehicle traffic while also maintaining their vigilance over U.S.-bound travel.

That, my friends, is how it’s done. The story speaks for itself and I hope you will take the time to read it in full. But I want to point to a couple reasons why it works so well.

  • Detail. That’s not a girl in line, it’s a pre-teen girl shifting in her flip flops. That isn’t a man next to her, it’s a well-groomed 30-something on his way to a date on the other side of the border.
  • And those are real people. Jonathan could have told the story through official comments… and I would have never bothered to read it.
  • He gets to the point relatively quickly. The nut is essentially the sixth and seventh graphs. I think that’s OK in this case. I usually tell folks to get it as high as possible – between the fifth and seventh graphs, usually.

There are many other reasons why this story works so well. There is decent art, that Jonathan shot himself. He included a box showing the change in pedestrian border crossings over the months, and that box acts as a point of entry for readers who might otherwise be scared away by the length of the story. And it’s an important story for the community. Businesses are already hurt by the fear of violence to the south; a longer wait to cross exacerbates that problem. Did you know two-thirds of Nogales’ sales tax comes from Mexican shoppers? I surely didn’t. Now I do. And that is what writing and reading newspapers is all about.

Clay

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