Wick Communications

The view from Main Street

In Writing techniques on October 19, 2012 at 8:49 am

When it’s done right, journalism looks a lot like this:

ELYRIA, OHIO — Another day begins with a sound softer than a finger-snap, in an Ohio place called Elyria. In the central square of this small city, the gushing water fountain applauds the early-morning chorus of sparrows. A car clears its throat. A door slams. And then: click.

The faint sound comes as 7:00 flashes on the clock of the Lorain National Bank building, looming over the square. The pull of a string — click — has sent life pulsing through a neon sign, announcing to all of Elyria that, once more, against the odds, Donna’s Diner is open. …

The New York Times has devoted considerable space this week to a five-part series that examines in very close detail the economic realities of Donna’s Diner on a street corner in a corner of Ohio that you’ve probably never heard of.

Why? Well, Ohio is a swing state, for one thing. Like Peoria, Elyria is every town. We’ve all been in towns where the train whistle blows all day and all night and a greasy spoon is the closest thing you’ll find to a fine-dining option. If you don’t know Donna, you know someone an awful lot like her.

The key to these stories is not just that readers are able to generalize from the specific. It’s not just that they know an Elyria somewhere. It’s that the masterful Dan Barry knows which details to paint large. Take the episode that focuses on a damaged man named Ike Maxwell. Most writers I know wouldn’t think to focus on the town crazy guy for a story like this. But here’s the nut graph in that fourth part of the series: …

Some people in Elyria try to help out; Ike Maxwell is one of their own. Judge James M. Burge and a lawyer, Michael J. Duff, give him money on a regular schedule, and a couple of Donna’s patrons, from that front-table group called the Breakfast Club, occasionally hand him a few bucks. One day, he’ll use the money to buy a meal; another day, a can of malt liquor.

But at 59, what is Ike trying to say? The truth is, some people know. Donna knows. So does Forrest Bullocks, a former city councilman who comes to her diner on Fridays for the perch special. Others know, too, that he is speaking in Elyrian about glory, regret and maybe even the one subject that vexes through boom and bust: race.

This is powerful stuff. It’s universal stuff. And that’s why it works. If you haven’t read Barry’s amazing work, please do so. May it elevate our own journalism.

Clay

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