Great Stories Can Come from Surprising Places

By Jack Limpert

Editors are always looking for the big story, the investigative piece that wins awards. Those big ones don’t come easy—they take a lot of research, reporting, writing, and editing. But there’s another kind of high-impact story, the lighter ones that create lots of talk, and they usually fall into your lap.

The most recent example was The Washingtonian’s web story on inauguration night that said singing star Beyonce most likely lip-synched the Star-Spangled Banner at the noon ceremony. The magazine’s editor, Garrett Graff, was at the inaugural ceremony, sitting with other members of the periodical press near the main stage, and he noticed that the Marine Band didn’t appear to be playing as Beyonce appeared to sing. He e-mailed Sophie Gilbert, one of the magazine’s writers, who found a picture on Instagram that showed Beyonce in a recording studio with members of the Marine Band. So she posted a story about it, showing the picture and making the case that Beyonce most likely lip-synched the national anthem.

The next morning there was an apparent confirmation from the Marine Band of the Beyonce lip synching but that quickly was pulled back. The band confirmed that its part of the performance was recorded but no one was willing to say whether Beyonce sang or lip synched to the earlier recording in the studio. The guess among the media was that Beyonce did lip-synch it but her people quickly let the White House know that they wanted no talk about it and the Marine Band went silent.

The result for The Washingtonian was 300,000 page views on its website and 1,700 comments from readers—by far the biggest splash any story has made on the website.
In my years at The Washingtonian, we published a lot of what I thought were really good, solid, important stories, but the one that got us the most world-wide attention was, like the Beyonce story, not all that important. One morning in June 1989, before going to work, I was walking Lindy, our golden retriever.  I stopped to talk with a neighbor who was walking her springer spaniel. When I said something nice about her dog, she began to talk about the virtues of springers and she mentioned that hers was a lot better looking than Millie, the president’s dog. I’m not sure she called Millie ugly but she didn’t think she was a good representative of the breed.

When I got to the office, our art director showed me her idea for that July’s Best & Worst cover—it was mostly type with the cover art a picture of a gold crown. The editor’s brain began bouncing around: Best and worst, a generic gold crown, dull, boring. How about this: How about Millie as Washington’s worst dog? No, the art director said, the gold crown would be much classier. No, the editor said, we’re putting Millie on the cover and we’re calling her Washington’s ugliest dog.

About ten days later, the July issue hit the newsstands: Here’s one story about
what happened:

President Doggedly Defends Millie
June 29, 1989 DAVID LAUTER | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — You can criticize his arms control plans, oppose his flag burning amendment or even argue in favor of higher taxes, but don’t mess with the President’s dog.

“I know you guys don’t write the editorials, but our dog was named ugliest dog in Washington by the Washingtonian magazine,” President Bush told three reporters from The Times at the end of an Oval Office interview Wednesday, referring to Millie, the family’s springer spaniel. “I’d like some defense on the West Coast. Imagine picking on a guy’s dog.”

A few minutes later, the telephone rang at the offices of Washingtonian, the capital’s slick city magazine.

“I’d like to know who did the ‘Best and Worst’ ” article, the caller asked, referring to the piece in which Millie was labeled as ugly. “I’d like to know how you picked the ugliest dog,” the caller continued. Receptionist Felicia Stovall said that the editor who had prepared the piece was tied up and asked the caller’s name. “President George Bush,” the caller responded.
So in my 40 years at the magazine, our most talked-about story came from listening to a neighbor talk about springer spaniels. The President was asked about the Washingtonian cover  at a televised news conference, and Millie and the magazine got big play all over the world. How many words inside the magazine? About 100.

The lesson is that you just never know where a really good story will come from. Keep your eyes open and listen to what people are talking about and you never know.

Speak Your Mind