Over the years, as I have hired people to work on client projects, one of the quickest ways I can weed out weak story-tellers from the strong is to see what they do with “a layup.”
In other words, when there’s an easy shot at exploring a creative way to tell a story, does the writer go for it? Or do they write a lead that could have been written by a green journalist trying his or her hand with the high school newspaper?
The “long passage of time since…” storyline is one example that lends itself to expending a little extra effort and devoting a few minutes of artistic contemplation. Some examples:
*Your subject has been working for decades in a given field.
*A relationship of some kind began a long, long time ago–and is either ending or hitting a milestone.
*A person or an organization is duplicating (or surpassing) a feat that hasn’t been done in quite some time.
A current story embodied by the last example is the resurgence of the Northwestern University men’s basketball team. After a frustrating 1-10 start, the squad just won its fourth consecutive Big Ten game, a 72-67 win over Indiana.
Now, getting off to difficult starts is nothing new for the program: in 1987-88, when I covered the Bill Foster-led program for The Daily Northwestern, the Wildcats went 2-16 in the conference, although one of those wins was a huge upset against defending NCAA champion Indiana.
(Side note: that triumph came a day after I wrote debatably one of my hokiest leads ever, in which I forecast it might be a long night for the Cats–“as in Bobby Knight,” the Hoosiers’ coach. Ouch.)
But back to our main point: this business of winning four consecutive games in the conference. That’s not setting the sports world on fire. Teams do it almost every year, right? Or, with some struggling programs, maybe it’s every five or 10 years.
So I was shocked to learn that it had been not a decade or even a few decades–but nearly a half century since NU had done it. To be precise, it had been 47 years, a point that I first came across in a mischievous Tweet about NU’s coach by the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein:
That’s pretty young. It’s actually pre-young.
For my first dozen years as a journalist, before the Internet really took hold, having a working knowledge of history was especially useful in coming up with anecdotes that underscored the passage of time. And now, with history beckoning at the touch of a few keystrokes, there is no excuse for any journalist, publicist or other professional story-teller to deliver a bland lead that fails to tap into historical context.
In less than 10 seconds, Google told me that The Beatles began recording A Day in the Life when Northwestern last reeled off a four-game conference winning streak. What can you do with a few minutes? Arts, culture, politics, sports, and any number of other topics are teeming with history that can be woven into that and other stories.
As story-tellers, when we have these opportunities to dramatize a protracted period of time that is central to our tale, we owe it to our audience to be at least as good as the Wildcats have been of late: let’s make our layups.