On the night of May 28, I got an email from the publisher of The Tennessee Tribune, Rosetta Miller-Perry. She told me to interview the owner of the Old Timer Fish & Pits BBQ restaurant in Nashville, TN. She said that she forgot his name, but the owner is a Reverend, and his business has been open for 15 years. The restaurant's phone number was included in the email. I know the kinds of articles that Mrs. Perry likes. I've been working for her so long that she doesn't even have to tell me what angle to pursue. In this case, she wants a bio of the Reverend and a detailed profile of the restaurant. No problem. (Note: Sometimes assignments are given to me, but there are also times when I pick my own. It varies)
It was a little after 9 pm when I got her email. Since it was a Saturday night, I figured the restaurant was still open. I organized a few questions and got my digital voice recorder ready. I called and got the manager, who told me that the owner wouldn't be in until Tuesday at 10 am. Not a bad blow. This gives me a few days to construct a nice assortment of questions. My deadline isn't until Sunday night anyway. So I'd have several days to write this thing and get it perfect.
While I had her on the phone, I asked the manager a few things about the restaurant for the article. I discovered that the owner's name is Howard Owens. She also told me that they have the best fish sandwiches and ribs in town. Mmmmm. There's a good quote. She gave me her name,(Lisa)and I waited for Tuesday to roll around. God is good: I already have a few good quotes for my story, long before the big interview with the owner, who is the biggest source I need for this article.
After hanging up from my brief interview with the Lisa, my wife-to-be laughed at me. She witnessed the entire call and can't take me seriously when I'm doing my job. Maybe it's my high voice, or the fact that I act silly so much that she can't fathom it when I'm actually serious. We laughed about it, and held out until Tuesday morning.
I did some research during the weekend about both the owner and his restaurant. I didn't find much--the only thing that struck me was the discovery that he and one of his employees were robbed at gunpoint in the restaurant last year. The surveillance footage of the incident was also available online. I wasn't happy to hear about the robbery, but I couldn't ignore it. It would be an exciting anecdote for my story. What happened during the robbery? When did it happen? Are the employees still traumatized a year later? These are questions I have to ask, and things that the readers want to know.
Well, Memorial Day came and went, and now it's Tuesday. I called at 10 am, and Mr. Owens picked up the phone. He sounded busy, but also happy to speak with me. Maybe he wasn't busy, but a lot of black men have deep, stern baritone speaking voices. They often sound intimidating when they're just talking naturally. Unfortunately, I don't have this gift.
I broke the ice by asking about The Tennessee Tribune's publisher, Mrs. Perry. (The woman knows everybody in Nashville somehow)Naturally, he knew her and said they were great friends.
I knew he was a pastor, so I asked about that. From there, the questions continued.
*Give me a short bio of yourself
*Give me the history of your restaurant
*How many locations does your restaurant have?
*Does your BBQ restaurant have any special deals or prices?
*How did you (and your staff) recover from the robbery?
*Tell me about your trademark fish sandwiches and other specialties?
These are just some of the questions I asked him. I gathered that he's from Nashville, his restaurant has been open for 15 years, he received counseling regarding the robbery, and other facts. He wasn't very loquacious--his answers were generally limited to no more than two sentences--but he did give me enough to write a great piece on him. He loosened up a lot by the end of the interview. Before hanging up, he told me that he would bring a picture by the Tribune's office for us to run with the article. (Sometimes we'll have photographers take pics, and other times we'll let the source contribute their own picture.)
Well, I've interviewed the manager and the owner. I've got enough info for my upcoming article. Now it's time to write!!
Writing The Article:
Now for the creative part--writing the article. I approach each article differently, but my outline never changes.
Step 1) Preparation
The first thing I do is playback the interview at least twice. I jot down things that are beneficial to the story. For example, Mr. Owen gave me the address of his restaurant. That's going in. He also said that his shop has the best fish sandwiches in the country. Good quote. He discussed the safety precautions following the robbery, explaining that these days, no one wearing a hood is allowed through the doors. He told be the awards that his shop won, etc. You get the picture. I basically highlight all of the important things from the interview and type them into a blank microsoft document. This list looks random and probably makes no sense, but I piece everything together a bit later and develop a narrative. In doing this, I quote him directly in some sentences. In others, I paraphrase and reword what he says. That's basically what an article is; a combination of direct quotes from your sources, and the writer's own creative story-telling techniques.
Step 2) Writing
Today is June 1, 2011. The article is finished and ready to go. Here is an excerpt.
Last year, a disturbing event took place that shook up Owen and his employees. A little after 8:30 a.m. on March 6, 2010, a masked robber emerged from the trees in the parking lot. Once inside the restaurant, he took an employee hostage with a gun and ordered him to shout for the owner. Thinking fast, Owen grabbed a gun and left his office to investigate. Startled at the sight of the criminal, Owen toppled over backward, crashing through a nearby table. He hit his head during the fall, but did not drop his weapon. With Owen down, the robber remained in control. “He said 'count to 60. If you don't count to 60, I'll kill both of you,'” Owen explained. The masked thief took money and fled the scene. Owen needed five staples to patch up his wound from the fall, and received counseling.
The reflective owner says that although the traumatic experience took place over a year ago, the memory is still haunting. “It hasn't been forgotten,” Owen said. As a result of the robbery, there are now signs on the door that instruct customers to remove their hoods before entering the restaurant. “If you don't remove the hood, we won't serve you,” Owen said. “We still have complete video surveillance and alarm systems.”
Two months after the robbery, Nashville was flooded. Although O.T.P.F.B was not affected by the natural disaster, they regularly served the families of flood victims and contractors. “We did serve a lot of the flood victims during that time,” said Owen.
There you go. Sounds interesting, huh? Of course, this is a sample of the article from the mid-way point. Before getting to the robbery, I had to set up a lead, which introduces the readers to the owner, Howard Owens, the manager, Lisa Coure, and the restaurant itself. I have to briefly tell you some things about Owen's history, and what kind of specialties his establishment has to offer. Here is the opening paragraph, which immediately informs you what this particular story will be about.
Old Timers Fish and Pit Barbeque is a popular Nashville restaurant renowned for their trademark fish sandwiches and tasty ribs. Reverend Howard Owen is the proud owner of the establishment, which has been in business for 15 years.
“We stay constantly busy,” said Lisa Coure, the manager. “We have the best fish sandwiches and ribs in town.” Smiling, Owen was quick to correct her: “We have the best fish sandwiches in the country!” he said.
That is my lead, which explains how this particular restaurant differs from others. In this case, it's the fish sandwiches. From this point, I go into more detail on Howard Owen's upbringing. He's from Nashville. He graduated from Pearl High, etc. After that, I dwell further into the restaurant. Prices, food choices, etc.
Then I dip into the robbery situation, which, in my opinion, gives the story a spice that it wouldn't have otherwise. Profiling a restaurant is cool, but people like to hear about robberies. It's an anecdote that the reader doesn't expect. Besides, not every restaurant you read about in a newspaper has been robbed at gunpoint. You don't hear about a pastor drawing a gun on a robber often, either. It's terrible, and I hate that it happened to them, but the robbery gives this article a little more flavor. In fact, probably as much flavor as the BBQ sauce offered by Old Timers Fish and Pit BBQ.
After the robbery portion, I move on another traumatic experience that affected nearly everyone in Nashville last year...the flood. Fortunately, Owen's shop was not affected, but this doesn't give me much to work with. However, the owner was quick to note that they fed many of the flood victims during that time.
At this point, there really isn't anything else to go on. So far in the piece, I wrote about key elements of Owen's personal life, the distinguishing characteristics of the restaurant, the robbery, and the flood. Owens didn't talk much during the interview--He's a man of few words. The story looks great, but you can always add more. I always tell my sources to talk as long as they like during the interview. The more they talk, the bigger and more detailed of an article I can write. Either Owen was busy or just not a big talker. (Although it's hard to picture a Reverend who doesn't talk much.)
I called the restaurant earlier today, hoping to talk to another manager or employee to get a little more information or thoughts on the restaurant or Owen. I wanted to extend the article by at least a paragraph. The jerk who answered the phone was rude and said he was busy. Hey, sometimes people are rude to journalists and you have to take it on the chin. Regardless of whether I talk to another source at the BBQ joint or not, I've got a solid story here. It might be front page. I had no choice but to wrap up the piece, which ends with the restaurant's address, phone number, and a quote from Owen. I normally don't start or end my articles with a quote, but I do it occasionally for dramatic effect.
On that note, now you can probably see what I mean when I said earlier that I approach every story differently, but my outline never changes. Every article is different. Different people, subjects, circumstances, locations, everything. No two stories are alike, not even follow-ups. (I always take a different angle when I write a follow-up. I never re-write.)
And, you saw how graceful I move from subject to subject within my stories. I begin with a lead that introduces the main subject(s). Then, I may go into some bio information. Then I'll talk about something else. From there, it'll lead to a new paragraph that opens up a new situation. See what I mean? In this story, we went from the introductory lead, to Owen's bio, to the restaurant's accomplishments and food choices, then the robbery, then the flood, and then we're about done. Every paragraph leads to a new revelation.
The story is done, but I'll keep looking it over and I might tweak it a bit before submitting it on Sunday. Hopefully Owen will drop off a picture to the Tribune in time for my deadline, but I doubt it. The story won't run until a picture is submitted. If Owen waits an entire month to bring a pic, then the article will most likely be put off for an entire month!!! (GASPS and SHUDDERS)
June 9, 2011
Well, it's publication time!! The story went to press today. As I predicted earlier, it was front page, along with another story I wrote. Here is the finished product (which is exactly the way I wrote it, as you can see. My stories rarely get edited.)
Have a DuggerDay =)