The idea was simple but subversive. Neville Green, my editor at the St. Petersburg Times, called one day and pitched it. There was a murder case in Tampa. Valessa Robinson, a 15-year-old girl from an upper middle class suburb, was accused — along with her boyfriend and another friend — of killing her mother and then fleeing across the country with the mom’s ATM card and minivan. After a dramatic chase and shootout on a lonely stretch of Texas highway, the three of them had finally been arrested.
The case struck a nerve with our readers, many of whom recognized their own families in the details surrounding the crime. The victim, 49-year-old Vicki Robinson, was a divorced real estate agent, trying to raise two teenage daughters and make a new life for herself. For years she and Valessa had waged the usual parent-teen battles; then Valessa had become obsessed with the new boyfriend and the conflict had escalated. A few months later, Vicki was dead, her body found stuffed in a garbage can, and Valessa and the boyfriend were in jail.
Neville’s proposal: When the case went to trial, why not cover it like a serial narrative? Write it live, but treat each day’s story like the latest chapter in an unfolding saga. No news ledes. No nut grafs. No concessions to the conventions of traditional newswriting. Just pure storytelling, delivered within the constraints of a daily deadline. Neville wanted three writers for the project. Aside from me, he was asking Sue Carlton, our veteran courts reporter in Tampa, and Anne Hull [Hull, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, now works at The Washington Post], one of our national reporters.
"What do you think?" Neville said.
"Sure," I said, gulping.
The truth was, I was terrified. For the past 15 years, I had been assigned to serial narratives here at the Times. I had written about police investigations, high school students, preschool children, Southeast Asian immigrants, the love life of an exorcist. But in each of these projects, I had been given months, sometimes even years, to immerse myself inside the lives of my subjects and then try to capture some of what I found on paper.
Anne and Sue had also written serial narratives; one of Anne’s projects, chronicling the struggles of Mexican migrant workers, was a Pulitzer finalist this year. Both of them knew what it was like to assemble something so massive — some of the serials we’ve published are book length — and find a way to make it read.
Now Neville was daring us to try it without a net.
For years, he had heard me telling other reporters that the techniques used in serials — dialogue, scenes, rising and falling action — could be applied just as powerfully to daily journalism. Was that true? Valessa’s case would allow us the chance to find out. It would also give us an opportunity to test some hallowed assumptions about newsgathering.
In the months before the trial, in between other assignments, we educated ourselves on the case. We read the court file, interviewed anyone who would talk to us; Sue and Anne even rented a minivan and retraced the route that Valessa and her two friends had taken on their flight from Florida to Texas. When Valessa’s boyfriend went to trial first, we used it as a dry run, imagining how we would render each day’s action and how it would differ from a typical trial story. When the third teenager who’d been arrested changed his plea and agreed to testify for the prosecution, we interviewed him at length, looking for details that could be woven into our daily coverage.
Slowly our strategy took shape. Early on, we decided that our primary focus would not be Valessa and the boyfriend, not even Valessa and her mother, but Valessa herself. When in doubt, our eyes would be turned toward her. The other people in the story, especially Vicki Robinson, were all undeniably important. In the end, though, Valessa was the one whose behavior was the most inexplicable, the one whom everyone craned to see whenever she stepped into court. She was the mystery at the heart of it all, the unanswered question that drove the story.
We also decided that we weren’t going to hold anything back in the writing. If the judge or one of the lawyers let something controversial slip out in an offhand moment — the kind of casual comment that reporters sometimes keep out of their stories, for fear of alienating sources — we were going to put it in. Those kinds of moments were exactly what we were after. We weren’t just going to show the action in court; we would also let readers overhear what was being said in the hallways, in the defense attorneys’ offices, even in the bathrooms outside the courtroom.
We wanted it all.
One other decision was critical. With the permission of Paul Tash, the newspaper’s Editor and President, we agreed to let the events unfold in the stories the way they unfolded in court. If Valessa stood up late one afternoon and announced she was ready to testify, we would not describe that moment until late in that day’s story. Whatever the "news" of the day was, it would be revealed gradually.
In the final weeks before the trial, we went into overdrive, finishing two lengthy chapters that gave the background of the case and established some of the themes we thought were most likely to be played out in court. These two chapters were published just as jury selection began. Then we plunged into the live reporting and writing.
The trial lasted for two weeks. At first, Sue and Anne and I tended to clump together, with the three of us sitting in court at the same time. As the days wore on, though, we learned to spread out. One of us was always in the courtroom, taking notes on the case as it was presented to the jury. Often, though, the other two were off somewhere else, pursuing the rest of the story. We hung out with the lawyers during lunch breaks and after hours; we sat in the halls and listened to the tears of Vicki Robinson’s mother (who also is Valessa’s grandmother). One morning, I met with Charles Robinson, Valessa’s father, at dawn and rode with him as he drove to court, talking about his daughter.
We thought of each day as a chapter unto itself, with its own emotions and rhythms, crescendos and revelations. We looked for flashes of insight, moments that went against the grain, glimpses beneath the surface. We thought, always, in terms of scenes — scenes that could open and close the different sections, scenes that defined, scenes that could anchor the entire day. We also kept an eye out for the daily title. With narrative, good titles are extremely important; they can set a tone, frame the action, invite the reader into the story.
One of our more effective efforts, I think, came early in the second week of the trial, on the day when the prosecution played an audiotape of Valessa’s alleged confession to her mother’s murder. As the jurors heard Valessa’s voice, describing matter-of-factly how she had stabbed her mother, they looked across the courtroom and saw Valessa listening along. On the tape, she was talking about all the blood that had poured from her mother’s throat; at the defense table, she was dressed, for the first time during the trial, in a soft white sweater.
We couldn’t prove that her lawyers had purposely saved this outfit for the day the jurors would hear the tape. We didn’t have to. Staged or not, the juxtaposition — the shocking red of the blood, against the virginal cast of Valessa’s clothing — encapsulated the tension of the entire case. Our title for that chapter was "The Girl in White;" the photo that ran underneath it showed Valessa crying, her lead attorney comforting her like a surrogate mother.
Luckily for us, we had lots of help: a researcher, a transcriber, a designer, a team of extremely patient copy editors, plus two of the paper’s most resourceful photographers. As for the writers, we tried to take advantage of our individual strengths. Sue, a terrific reporter who knew everything about everyone on her beat, down to the names of the lawyers’ pets, had astonishing access; many people would talk to her, and no one else. Also, her encyclopedic knowledge allowed all of us to write with authority. Anne, who has a gift for muscular, dead-on observations, energized every chapter with her descriptions. One passage, where she sketched a portrait of the unruly halls of the courthouse, was so electric it made me laugh out loud with pleasure.
As someone who loves story mechanics, part of my job was to come up with an outline for each day’s chapter. Early every afternoon, usually by the end of lunch, I took whatever we had and broke it down into sections, with a clear beginning, middle and end. (At that point, some of these sections were just guesses, based on our understanding of what would happen later that day.) I pushed for us to start each installment quietly, with some small moment or scene, then let the action take off, ranging inside and outside the courtroom and back and forth between those who were on hand to support Valessa and those who had come to mourn Vicki.
Usually these outlines had to be revised. Things changed; some parts of the plan simply didn’t work. But by early evening, we always had a fairly detailed blueprint for the writing. We divided the sections among the three of us, then hurried to our computers and wrote. Usually we turned in our sections just in time for our first deadline at 9:30 p.m.; then, we would huddle over printouts and polish feverishly until the final edition deadline at 12:30 a.m. (or whenever the copy desk told us enough).
In the months of preparing for the story, we had worried endlessly about how to weave our different writing styles into one unified voice. But on deadline, when we were throwing it all together, there was almost no time to think about it. Something interesting happened, though. Without knowing it, we began to take on traces of one another’s voices. Knowing that Anne would hector me into cutting any verb she considered substandard ("too cheesy," she’d say), I automatically worked harder on my word selection. Knowing that I would tell her to stop trying to cram too many points into each section, Anne automatically began to write her parts more simply. Somewhere late in the first week, we realized that somehow we had all begun writing in a hybrid voice.
Each day’s story was anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 words. Each started on the front page, then jumped inside, usually to a double-truck. Throughout the trial, we stuck to our original decision to never give away the day’s action at the top. We did publish a brief daily summary of the testimony, but it was presented as a sidebar, on the jump. In the text of the stories themselves, we simply let events roll forward.
The biggest test of this approach came with the verdict story. We opened not with the verdict, but with a scene from a department store the evening before, where the defense lawyers shopped for a new outfit for their client. (How they presented Valessa in court turned out to be one of the more fascinating elements of the case.) Then we took the readers through the final hours of deliberations, the two sides waiting in the corridors of the courthouse, the 12 jurors locked in their claustrophobic room, closing in on a decision. The verdict itself was revealed on the third jump page, in the 112th paragraph.
Some people in our newsroom, seeing the story, were aghast. Our readers, however, were enthralled. Although we had braced for an outcry from people who preferred a more traditional approach, in the end we received hundreds of calls, letters and e-mails, praising the coverage. A grand total of two readers complained that we’d buried the news.
What did we learn? First, I think it’s clear that we have more freedom to experiment than we realize, especially in a story like this, in which the case was covered exhaustively on TV and the Internet. By the time our readers picked up the paper, many of them already knew the crux of the previous day’s action. We wrote our chapters accordingly.
The second lesson — the lesson that sticks with me — was that narrative holds possibilities that we have only begun to explore. True, it’s great to have weeks or months to write; there are many advantages to that kind of time. But we wanted to see what we could pull off under a daily deadline. Would we be able to organize each installment with any coherence or resonance? Would all the chapters hang together and read like one flowing story? The answer, we found, was yes.
You’ll notice that I haven’t told you the verdict. I also haven’t revealed what happened to the boyfriend or to the other defendant, why Vicki Robinson was killed, whether Valessa was telling the truth on the audiotape. Those answers are best left to the series itself, which can be found on our paper’s Web site, at www.sptimes.com.
The story is far more compelling than my attempt here to explain it. As always, narrative is its own best argument.
Thomas French, a reporter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a seven-part serial narrative.