Wick Communications

Do your best

In journalism on January 7, 2016 at 3:56 pm

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Let me tell you about what may be the best story the Half Moon Bay Review has ever produced. The one we just printed … in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, no less.

The first thing you need to know is that we didn’t do it. I only get to take credit for it. That’s right. Now I have your attention. A very talented freelancer did it. And she gave it to us. Like, for free. I just sort of facilitated it. I was like the OB-GYN who “delivers” the baby. Trust me when I say, I didn’t do the hard work.

The second thing you need to know is that stories like this often begin when a forgotten piece of local lore bubbles up because of something in the news. It may be a historical society meeting or something someone says offhand at a city council meeting. Someone mentions something from the past that most of the people in the present don’t remember, or, alternatively, have known for so long they forget how extraordinary it is.

In this case, that thing was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I’ve been in Half Moon Bay for 12 years and I knew that some local farmers were dragged away from the coast in the 1940s in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but that was about it. The couple people I knew who were directly affected were reticent to talk. I always had more pressing concerns.

Enter Marie Baca. She is the very talented local freelancer who took the idea and ran with it. And when I say “ran,” here’s what she did. She sent dozens of FOIA requests to the FBI and other tight-lipped agencies. She began to interview old people who were young children in the early 1940s. And she started to weave together a compelling story that would ultimately play over three pages and is guaranteed to win awards. She focused on the Kuwahara family. The patriarch wasn’t merely interned 74 years ago, he was designated a “dangerous enemy alien.” He was treated as a Japanese POW, for all intents and purposes. Why? It’s an amazing story. You should read it here.

How did I get so lucky?

  1. Connections. Marie and I originally connected through a mutual friend who graduated from the Stanford Journalism Program. When I meet someone who has written for ProPublica and the Wall Street Journal and lives right down the road, I take notice. I exchange business cards. I ingratiate myself. (To be perfectly clear: Marie became a really good friend and not just someone I plied for free work. I’m just saying that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been alive to her background and interests.)
  2. Ideas. I bet you have six ideas as good as this one, all focused on some untold aspect of your community. The time you spend thinking about your community is perhaps your greatest asset. Very few people are paid to think about the way their community is structured. You are one of those people.
  3. Humanity. Marie’s story ultimately works because it is the story of one family and not all the families interned. We care about one man in an earthquake; we can’t wrap our heads around all the victims. Trust me on this. Focus on individual people.
  4. Vision. As I say, the work was purely Marie’s. My contribution was offering space in a newspaper that doesn’t employ her and the encouragement necessary to move the project forward. It’s easy to lose things like this in the trees that block the path every day. Don’t let the mundane crowd out the spectacular. If you don’t give yourself time for the best you can do you will live to regret it.
  5. Execution. I credit Publisher Bill Murray and photographer Cat Cutillo for making Marie’s project spectacular in the newspaper. I just helped connect the dots. When you have something like this in your hands, read it 10 times. Find art. Make it wonderful.

Clay

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