TIME IS ONE of the most precious resources we all have, and in journalism it’s no different.
Doing the sort of big, investigative pieces of reporting that we love can be a long process: you begin with a seed: an inkling or a tip, that you feed a little. You do a little probing, you let it sit and germinate. But it can often take years for ideas to turn into something fruitful — and thenyou have to go and do weeks (or maybe even months) of reporting and writing and editing to produce the end result.
There’s a perfect example of this over at Nieman Storyboard. That site is a great resource about writing, by the way, and they recently interviewed New Yorker staff writer David Grann about his story “The Yankee Comandante”, which ran a couple of weeks ago.
It’s a riveting, spectacular, detailed piece about the mysterious William Alexander Morgan, a restless American whose personal quest ended up with him joining Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in Cuba in the late 1950s. Go and read it if you haven’t already.
Grann is a writer I really admire, and his interview gives you a real sense of the Herculean effort that can go into producing a story of this depth. Not only was the tale itself more than 50 years in the making, but the process of thinking, reporting and writing started two years ago.
I think I heard about the story maybe in 2010. I looked into it some and then had other projects I was working on. I just kind of filed this away. I also then began to send out FOIA’s to all the government institutions.
I have thousands of pages and I spent a year researching the story, and often when you paint the scene you have multiple (perspectives). For example, in the battle scenes I would have multiple sources from the people who were there and I would crosscheck people’s memories. You have to really drill down on these and make sure you’re getting conformation on people’s memories since it took place a while ago.
I would work on things in sections. Sometimes once I knew what the section was – so if I was focusing on his biography section or a battle scene I’d create an outline and at that point I’d try to draw all the information from all the documents and start to fill in the outline. The outlines are often 200 or 300 pages for a story like this
Not everyone can spend the time Grann does on a story. And, of course, the end result isn’t better just because you spend a long time on it — that’s a mistake that too many people make. But you can’t simply ignore how much effort it takes to produce work of high quality. And it’s the sort of approach we aspire to.
Bobbie, MATTER co-founder