The assignment seemed simple enough: The Titanic Historical Society was in town holding a meeting to commemorate the sinking of the doomed ocean liner, and my editor at The Associated Press wanted a story.
"But don't give me a meeting story," he told me.
I was confused: I was to cover a meeting, but not write a meeting story.
Craft a story worth reading, he told me.
He didn't say much more, but as I worked on the article what I came to understand was this: Even a seemingly dull meeting can be turned into a compelling feature story, what editors call a spot-news feature. And it all starts with the lede.
Most meeting stories begin something like this:
"Members of the Titanic Historical Society gathered yesterday to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the great ocean liner."
The problem is, that's really boring. Why? Because it tells the reader very little, other than the fact that a meeting was held to discuss something. Problem is, ALL meetings are held to discuss something. And even if the subject discussed is interesting - which the Titanic certainly is - the lede's still dull.
So how to come up with something better? It starts with reporting. You have to do a lot of it in order to uncover the good stuff, the interesting stuff. With the Titanic story I was lucky enough to interview several historians who knew the ship's story well. One of them told me of Nellie Becker, a passenger on the ship who awoke late at night and realized the ship's engines had stopped. She asked a ship steward if anything was wrong, and he said no.
Nellie went back to bed, still worried, then rose again to find another steward, who told her to get her children and her lifebelts and get up on deck - fast.
Immediately I knew that would be a great way to get into the story, so I made it my lede.
Another historian told me the story of Nellie's daughter, Ruth. She described how dozens of women who were rescued from the Titanic before the men were taken to the ship Carpathia, where they waited for their husbands.
Then, the Carpathia's started its engines to leave. "That's when they knew they were widows," Ruth said.
I knew that had to be my ending.
So I had my lede and my ending. The body of the story had to accomplish several things: Recount the basics of the Titanic disaster; describe the ship in all its amazing detail (it had, among other things, Turkish baths and a gymnasium); outline the activities of the Titanic Historical Society; and convey how and why the sinking still fascinated so many people, so many decades after the event.
Again, the reporting was key. I interviewed Louise Pope, a survivor of the sinking (she was 4 at the time), the president of the historical society, and several historians who had studied the disaster. Through them I was able to recount the tragedy that began unfolding shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, when the great luxury liner struck an iceberg in the waters of the North Atlantic.
In the end, I was able to construct a story that had very little to do with the fact that the Titanic Historical Society had held a meeting, and that was the point. The story was about the Titanic disaster itself, as relived by survivors and historians and anyone else who just found the tragic event compelling.
So next time you're covering a meeting or a speech or some other event that could easily be done as a humdrum deadline news story, try thinking about it another way. See if there's a way to dig deeper and turn that story into a spot-news feature to remember. Your editor - and your readers - will thank you.
The AP story I wrote on the Titanic can be found here.