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Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002.  (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

This continues my series on updated lessons from old stories.

One of the most profound privileges of my career was to spend most of five weeks in late 2002 with 13 Afghan women teachers.

After 9/11, much of my reporting at the Omaha World-Herald focused on the work of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. It was the nation’s only academic center studying Afghanistan, so we suddenly found ourselves with some of the nation’s and the world’s leading experts on the distant country that suddenly mattered more to America than any other.

I proposed several times that my editors send me to Afghanistan to cover various UNO projects abroad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would have been expensive and it would have been difficult, but we absolutely should have done it. My editors’ failure/refusal to make that happen remains one of the deepest disappointments of my career. I connected by satellite phone and email with UNO officials when they were in Afghanistan on projects we should have been covering. I used similar means to reach Afghan officials, U.S. officials and leaders of other aid organizations in Afghanistan who were working with UNO. I did my best but it was all second-hand reporting, grossly inadequate.

My best shot at first-hand reporting came when UNO won a State Department grant to bring 13 Afghan women teachers to Nebraska for five weeks to teach them American culture and educational techniques. After years of Taliban bans on schooling for girls, these committed and courageous teachers were back on the job and UNO was going to help them be better teachers and teach their colleagues back home to be better teachers.

Finally, I would get to witness UNO working directly with Afghans. I sought and was granted full access to the visit, invited to virtually embed myself at times in the Afghan teaching project almost as if I were covering a U.S. combat unit over in Afghanistan. I traveled with them around the Midwest. I visited in the homes of host families where they lived. I followed them to classes in UNO and around Omaha schools.

Seldom have I been as touched and moved by the people I covered as I was by these Afghan women. Their courage, joy, perseverance and optimism amazed me day after day after day. I could see that these women had been changing the lives of Afghan girls and women for years (before and after the Taliban, Afghan schools were segregated by gender, so the women taught only girls and other women) and would do so again. (more…)

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Buddy Bunker's photo of the homecoming of Lt. Col. Robert Moore won a 1944 Pulitzer Prize. He's hugging his daughter Nancy as his wife, Dorothy, and nephew, Michael Croxdale, watch. My 1997 and 2008 stories about this photo are two of the most memorable of my career.

Buddy Bunker’s photo of the homecoming of Lt. Col. Robert Moore won a 1944 Pulitzer Prize. He’s hugging his daughter Nancy as his wife, Dorothy, and nephew, Michael Croxdale, watch. My 1997 and 2008 stories about this photo are two of the most memorable of my career.

One of the best stories (and the longest story) of my career actually had a huge hole in it. But I got to fill that hole 11 years later.

This post continues my series providing updated journalism lessons from memorable stories of my career. (I welcome other veteran journalists to share similar updated lessons from old stories in guest posts.)

Today I’ll discuss the two stories I did on the people in the photo above, first an incredibly long print story and then a multimedia story. First a warning: This was the longest story of my career, 200 inches long (I like to joke, though it’s accurate, that I wrote 250 inches, but the bastards made me cut it). And that’s back when newspaper columns were wider than they are today. It ran more than 9,000 words. And that doesn’t count the sidebar about Bunker and the photo, the timeline or the cast of characters.

One thing we’d certainly do with this project today would be to make an ebook. It was well on its way to book length anyway. Since I’ll be posting the full story here, plus some background, observations and ways that I’d do the story differently today, it’s certainly going to be my longest blog post ever. If you spend the time to actually read all the way through, I hope that the story itself and/or my observations about it are worth your time.

The story is about the photo above and the people in the photo. I used the story frequently in writing workshops, long before I started teaching digital journalism tools and techniques. I’ll share some of those lessons, too. (more…)

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Video helped tell the story of the 1971 Farragut state championship, but I couldn't use the video in this 1996 story.

Video helped tell the story of the 1971 Farragut state championship, but I couldn’t use the video in this 1996 story.

Sometimes I ponder how I might do the memorable stories of my career differently today, using digital tools.

Today I’m starting an occasional series of blog posts that will revisit some of those stories, sharing that musing as well as discussing some other journalism lessons and techniques that those stories illustrate.

I’ll start with an easy example. This story involved a video, but I wrote it in 1996, before news sites could post video. In those dial-up days, no one had the bandwidth to show or watch video online.

This is a story I’ve cited before in my blog (and I mentioned it in the chapter I wrote for the Verification Handbook that will be published soon by the European Journalism Centre). It was a story (a four-part series, actually, for the Omaha World-Herald), looking back 25 years at the Iowa state championship of the Farragut High School girls basketball team. (more…)

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I spent much of the year after 9/11 writing about the impact of that terrorist attack. I was a national correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald. The nation’s only academic center for Afghanistan studies was at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and I wrote dozens of stories about our city’s involvement with Afghanistan before and after the attack.

A story that stands out in my memory was part of our first anniversary package. I wrote about the day before the attack, 10 years ago today. Today, I’ll review that story, published Sept. 10, 2002, discussing the storytelling techniques involved.

A  cliché about reporting (and many aspects of life: I got 57,000 hits when I Googled to see where to attribute the phrase) is that you zig when others zag. On the first anniversary of 9/11, everyone was writing stories about that day a year earlier, just as journalists this week have been writing and broadcasting stories about that day 10 years ago. That was zagging. I wanted to zig, to write about something else. So I wrote about the day before:

The big change for many in the Omaha area that day was the closing of the westbound lanes on the Interstate 480 bridge across the Missouri River.

The next day everything changed. (more…)

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This will be a long post about storytelling in journalism. It starts with a story I wrote in 2000 that was never published. This was from a trip I made to Venezuela as a reporter for the Des Moines Register. In this version, I identify the Venezuelans I interviewed only by their first names. I used their full names in the version I submitted for publication then, but I don’t feel comfortable using their names a decade-plus later (though some are identified in the published story linked below). Other editing of my original draft is minor. I’ll discuss some current issues relating to storytelling in journalism after I finally publish this story.

Blanquita de Perez, Venezuela — Like the houses and buses and mountainsides, the language barrier stood no chance against La Tragedia.

Even a journalist who needed a Spanish-English dictionary to look up his own trade (periodista) could understand the stories I heard as Ramon took photographer Gary Fandel and me walking through this village on the edge of the devastated seaside resort of La Guaira on a Thursday morning in February.

No interpreter was available, but the wide swaths of mud and boulders we had seen on the bus ride along the coast beckoned. We needed a close look at this carnage, known here simply as La Tragedia, The Tragedy. (more…)

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One of my former newspapers, the Omaha World-Herald, has posted one of my best stories online. I wrote a 1997 narrative of the rescue of 3-year-old twins Jennifer and Kourtney Woracek. The story from the World-Herald archives was republished Sunday as a related link to an update on the twins (now 17), written by World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly, a friend for 18 years.

I don’t know what was my best story ever, but this one was close, if not the best. This was a story about heroic police and medical workers saving 3-year-old girls (both doing well now, as Mike reports).

In the years since I wrote that story, I have used it on occasion as an example in teaching narrative journalism. So I’ll repeat here some of the lessons that I learned or practiced in this story: (more…)

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