America’s Best Newspaper Writing

Reporting on crime and court & balancing a watchful eye with authentic reporting to deliver the truth

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | March 6, 2017

Crime Top 10Before jumping into more substantive journalism, young reporters often begin their careers with a police beat, covering everything from fires to suicides. Though unfavorable at times, the beat can provide the opportunity for highly valuable reporting to reporters who can fully embrace the responsibility. When executed correctly — according to chapter four of America’s Best News Writing, “Crime and Courts,” — reporters “play a key role in creating a safe and just society.”

Below are some distinguished examples of civic journalism done by reporters who learned to successfully cover the dramatics of crime and courtrooms without falling into the trap of exaggeration of sensationalism.


Cathy Frye – “Caught in the Web: Evil at the Door” (2003)

85_8101238bWhen Frye chose to delve into uncovering the story of Kacie Woody’s abduction, she could have easily aligned with the “every parent’s nightmare” cliché that has become a staple for journalists. Rather, she scoped out an angle that stayed true to the horror of the events that unfolded while finding an in through a fresh angle. Her writing was selected by her editors as the year’s best non-deadline writing.

She let the events unfold in her writing from a variety of perspectives including Kacie’s, Kacie’s father, one of her online boyfriends, and even the stalker that would go on to kidnap her. Through chronology and a blend of narratives and a series of instant messages, Frye builds the suspense to what is ultimately an unanswerable question:

modelbehavio63: i am going to get off of here but i will leave it connected just in case . . . thanks so much for the help

Tazz2999: anytime but can answer sumthing 4 me

modelbehavior63: whats that?

Tazz2999: what happen to Kacie . . .

Linnet Myers – “Humanity on Trial” (1989)

linnet_5In order to soon win the ASNE award for government reporting, Myers had to adopt the eyes of the citizens and consider what they would most care about. While working for the Chicago Tribune, Myers wrote stories about Chicago’s Violence Court. Throughout the piece, she includes dialogue from the many parties involved, adding life into her writing. She even includes seemingly small commentary such as the judge saying, “You’re off aquarium duty. Do you understand?

Anne Hull – “Metal to Bone, Day 1: Click” (1993)

9_719152741bThe piece that would win Hull the 1994 ASNE award for non-deadline writing wasn’t short by any means. Rather, it was long, in-depth and full of details. Her reconstruction of the events that led up to a teenage boy’s decision to hold a gun to a police woman’s head and pull the trigger took the time to gain an understanding of both sides. She reported informatively and impartially.

“I wanted to bring a mugshot to life and let them learn about the life behind this photograph, and the path that swept this person to crime,” Hull said.

“Metal to Bone,” her three-part series includes exhaustive reporting conducted through shoe-leather and extensive interviewing. What results is reporting that reads similar to that of a novel, but includes authentic happenings and dialogue.

More Examples of Crime and Court Reporting

Sari Horwitz – “Justice in Indian Country” (2014)

Albert Samaha – “This is What They Did For Fun” (2015)

Daniel Engber – “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield” (2015)


Profile & feature story writing: the importance of good listening and scoping out the human interest

by Mariah Posey | Feb. 15, 2017
Once a ploy to increase circulation, stories that focused on the “human interest” were deemed as yellow journalism. But in modern times, good journalists have learned that even hard news benefits from elements of a feature—scenes, anecdotes, and voices of the people involved. More importantly, they’ve learned that journalistic integrity does not have to be compromised to evoke a good story. In fact, the best stories are those that are honest, fair, and thorough. They can even “reflect powerfully upon the issues of the day,” according to chapter seven of America’s Best News Writing: “The Profile and Feature Story.”


Graphic by Mariah Posey

Below are distinguished examples of journalists who remembered how to be good listeners and found the human interest in their stories.

Cynthia Gorney – “Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids” (1979)20434

When Gorney profiled the acclaimed children’s book writer, Theodor Seuss Geisel, she captured the storybook essence of his character. The precise details she was able to pick up are due to nothing less than pristine attention paid on-the-scene, and it won her the ASNE award for feature writing in 1980. Even more impressive is her ability to jump in and out of the story, finding a neat balance between telling us what we should know and then letting her writing show us for itself. For example, telling us that Geisel had struggled over his Lorax character for a full year, and then showing us through Geisel’s own reflections:

“’I hadn’t thought of the Lorax for three weeks,’ Geisel said. ‘And a herd of elephants came across the hill … And I picked up a laundry pad and wrote the whole book that afternoon on a laundry pad.’” (p. 172)

Saul Pett – “Koch Grabs Big Apple and Shakes It” (1980)

saul_pettPett takes pride in taking the unconventional route and doing more than what’s called for, and it shows in his 1980 piece on popular New York City mayor, Edward Koch. His 65-word lead takes the times describe the many quirks of Koch’s being: “irrepressible,” “impolitic,” “unsexy.” His summary of it all? “Clearly, an original.”

Instead of focusing on mundane facts, he brings Koch’s character to life weaving history and current-day happenings into stream of narrative. It was this skill that led him to win both the 1981 ASNE award for non-deadline writing and a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Mirta Ojito – “A Sentimental Journey to la Casa of Childhood” (1998)

mirta_ojito-e1407185554203In Ojito’s account of life in Cuba, she reminds reporters of the importance of living in the moment. She even said that she could not take much credit for what manifested in “A Sentimental Journey” because she “just sat there and it happened.”

Though untraditional, Ojito chose to write the story in first-person, illustrating the discontinuity between the memory and reality of her childhood home. And though specific to Cuba, she wrote in a way that could relate to readers across the board in reveling the call of an old childhood nickname and the comfort of family household items. Through her point of view, she establishes that Cuba remains undivided despite propaganda campaigns.

Ojito’s ability to let the scope of her experience guide her writing not only earned her the front page of The New York Times, but also the 1999 ASNE award for covering the world. 

David Finkel – “For Lerro, Skyway Nightmare Never Ends” (1985) 


In his 1985 piece, Finkel places his focus on John Lerro, the man who drove a huge tanker into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge the day a big storm hit. He chronicles the day it happened, Lerro’s history and the after.

While interviewing for the story, Finkel mentioned how important it was for him that Lerro not tell him how everything happened, but show him through his movements and actions. The success of his approach is reflected in his writing and won him the 1986 ASNE award for non-deadline writing.

Tommy Tomlinson- “A Beautiful Find” (2003)

tommy_tomlinson1Tomlinson turns math into a thing of beauty in reconstructing the four-year quest of mathematician John Swallow to solve a problem that no one else had yet been able to. He uses an interesting question format to guide his narrative, and uses quotes sparingly in order to highlight the ones that offer “deep insight” into his subject.

With his piece, Tomlinson demonstrates his grasp on the story when he bring it full circle by writing that Swallow’s left eye brow rose up after finally solving the problem, a small detail he planted in the lead of his article. It won him multiple honors, including ASNE award for profile writing.

Blaine Harden – “Life, Death and Corruption on an African Mainstream” (1987)

0lgw1l4rUsing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as inspiration, Harden covered the African river trip as a way to educate readers on the country of Zaire and the effect of its leadership. But above all, he made sure his voice shone through countless revisions.

“I spent a tremendous amount of time writing the first 25 to 30 paragraphs of the story I rewrote it maybe 35 or 40 times … I wanted to have elegant language there … I wanted to have some echoes of Conrad there, but I also wanted to have my own writing.”

Throughout his article, Harden references Conrad and the imagery displayed in his novel while weaving in his own observations and discussing the changes. He relies heavily on two archetypes according to ABNW: “the river as a symbol of the flow of life, and the ship as a microcosm for the world.” Though literary in nature, Harden’s writing won him the 1988 ASNE award for non-deadline writing.

Ken Fuson – “Ah, What A Day!” (1995)

kenfuson_lr1Weather has proven to be one of the most symbolic tools in storytelling and Fuson uses it as a tool in his 1995 piece to reflect deeply on the human experience. Challenging himself to write a truly short story (as a reporter used to long, in-depth pieces), he succeeded in writing efficiently, yet impactful. As a reporter, he reminds us that all forms of short writing including headline, photo captions and news briefs when mastered can act as small gifts to readers. Even his lead is simple and to-the-point: “Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March.” However, how Fuson propels his challenge to the next level is by continuing to write the rest of the article in one seamless flow of narrative, compacting it all into a single sentence. His is the type of writing that reminds others of the daily surprises a day can bring, and gets them to enjoy it.

More Examples of Feature Writing

Sam Anderson – “The James Franco Project” (2010)

In Anderson’s06-samandersonphoto-articleinline piece, he draws from one of the first tips of feature and profile writing: find the human being behind the celebrity. In his in-depth following on James Franco, he does exactly that, using a series of quotes as the format to break his coverage up and move the story along. He also uses quotes sparingly choosing rather to depend on narrative, but makes use of meaningful dialogue when relevant.

Julia Keller – “Part 1: A Wicked Wind Takes Aim” (2004)

unknown7Keller also knows the value of a good weather piece as shown in her article covering the 2004 tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois for 10 seconds. Her telling is the opposite of Fuson’s in many ways: it’s long, it isn’t a bright retelling, and it makes use of several quotes and perspectives. But it works. She pays particular attention the logistics of the event, using it depict the horror that can happen in a simple 10 seconds: “It’s a long, deep breath. It’s no time at all.” Her reporting won the 2005 Pulitzers Prize for feature writing and serves as yet another reminder than nothing beats shoe-leather journalism.

Gene Weingarten – “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” (2007)

As weingarteng0-van experiment to test just how busy the people a part of D.C.’s rush hour are, The Washington Post got professional violinist Joshua Bell to play the violin posted up on a wall of the Metro. Though Bell is considered one of America’s great musicians, many passerby ignored the stellar performance or offered chump change before moving on with their day. Weingarten was able to capture the nerves of Bell as well as the general atmosphere felt in the Metro as many D.C. residents felt too preoccupied to stop and enjoy the classical tunes. His chronicling of the event won him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2008.


Deadlines: the ultimate “ally and enemy” of a writer’s success in reporting and storytelling for the public



Graphic by Mariah Posey

by Mariah Posey | Feb. 03, 2017

Fast, not formulaic is the key journalistic writing. Reporters come across several story ideas in a day, but the only way to cover them efficiently in a way that is meaningful to the public is to write on deadline. A deadline is a writer’s best friend as well as the annoying voice in the back of their mind pestering them to get a move on. It’s what inspires them to get things done, but also the one factor that can hold them back.

Because of this, Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan in chapter one of their “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” (ABNW) assert that all journalists must learn to write quickly. In order to best do this they must stay well prepared, turning the entire process of reporting into one continuous flow.

Below are some distinguished examples of reporting by journalists who tackled deadline writing while remaining superb narrative ability.

Richard Ben Cramer – “Shiva for a Child Slain in a Palestinian Raid” (1978)

cramer1“I can’t tell too much about how the story was structured,” Cramer said, “because it was written in a kind of white heat of frustration.”

Still, what he accomplished was a synthesis of stories from the Hadani family of the bus attack that had taken the life of their 9-year-old daughter, Na’ami. His in-depth coverage of the family’s shiva led him to hear about how a mother desperately tried to save her daughter while holding her family together, and how the family was reminded of their strength.

Because Cramer let the story lead him, he was able to let the story tell itself through the people who felt and witnessed it first-hand.

Leonora LaPeter – “Jury Sends Santa Claus Killer to Electric Chair” (1999)

leonora_10593977_8col1Her ability to cover an intense murder trial as a relatively new reporter relied on her attention to detail and drive to start early. LaPeter began conducting interviews even before the actual trial and arrived to the courthouse every morning ready to find her lead. By making use of exhaustive reporting, she avoided the deadline trap of waiting until the last minute to write.

“When court was out, I would go to the hotel, and it wasn’t, ‘How am I going to write this?’” LaPeter said. “It was, ‘What am I going to write? What details am I going to use?’”

Her variation in pacing allowed her to capture the courtroom drama while presenting the contrasting viewpoints without bias. According to ABNW, LaPeter used the “hallmarks of good narrative” to distinguish her trial coverage—“characters instead of sources, scenes instead of summaries, dialogue instead of disembodied quotes.”

LaPeter’s timely reporting of the murder trial paid off when it won her the 2000 Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline News Reporting by an Individual.

David Von Drehle – “Men of Steel Are Melting with Age” (1994)

f12von-drehlew-2jdntkd1Despite the shivers Von Drehle received when the minutes to deadline were ticking, he was able to write a powerful piece recounting the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral that encompassed all elements of a story: setting, weather, and a cast of characters all brilliantly illustrated through description.

And while the imagery present in Von Drehle’s piece was strong enough to stand on its own, it was his ability to make meaning of it all that set his writing apart. The article he wrote was one that focused on transition—the change from titans to weathered old men; the difference between what was once a frontier and now a run-of-the-mill suburb.

His colorful reporting of the dreary event led him to be runner-up for the first Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline News Reporting by an Individual in 1994.

Francis X. Clines – “In Belfast, Death, Too, Is Diminished by Death” (1988)

Portrait of the creatorsAfter four decades at The New York Times, Clines earned himself the reputation of being the most versatile and gifted writers known to the paper. As a reporter in an age before reporting from the desk was possible, Clines’ legacy is one that reminds reporters that reporting is best done on the scene.

“In Belfast, Death, To, Is Diminished by Death,” Clines wrote like an artist while staying true to his job as a reporter. And he decided skillfully which quotes and details were important to his story, a step that can challenge many new reporters.

“Don’t let a crowd in a story,” Clines advises. “You’re interviewing them for your telling of the story, and not for their telling of the story.”

According to Clines, the mastery of journalism and writing is tied to reading. It’s a self-taught learning process that is self-adjusting. As you learn what you like to read, it begins to rub off on your own writing. The mastery demonstrated in his 1988 Belfast piece was rewarded in 1989 with an ASNE award for deadline writing.

Other Examples of Deadline Writing

John Simerman “Watching Williams Die” (2006)

47_731192744b1From beginning to end, Simerman lets the narrative of his reporting take lead. Through his observations, he is able to retell the events leading up to Stanley Williams’ execution with precise detail such as how Williams’ body reacted to the drugs injected into his veins.

“Williams lifted his head,” Simerman wrote. “He held it there, tilted slightly left. It fell back and he raised it again, refusing to lay still. His breathing hitched. His stomach convulsed, lurching upward. Light shone across his damp temples.”

Though on-scene quotes are only used twice throughout the entire piece, the reader can wholly take on the weight of the minutes before this man’s death. This is only further enticed with Simerman’s addition of exact time marks.  He paints all the necessary characters and paces his writing so that it reads quick and suspenseful much like the reality it’s describing.

Kevin Simpson & Michael Booth ­­“What first seemed part of show turns to horrific, chaotic scene” (2016)

Denver Post Blogger portraits

Michael Booth


Kevin Simpson

Simpson and Booth in their covering of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado show the power of interviewing. Through their speaking to many different people at the scene of the shooting in all age groups, they were able to synthesize how the shooting unfolded. They let their writing relive the horror their own eyes had not seen.

Clearly skilled, the duo didn’t allow themselves to get lost in the sea of interviews and recounts of the event. They even started and ended with the same interviewees, bringing their news story full circle. They employed a skill all great journalists should have: they made sense of the chaos.

Jennifer Brown “12 shot dead, 58 wounded in Aurora movie theater during Batman premier” (2016)

0dda188d0f5c058d553e9fa9bc5c0dc6_400x4001Brown in her piece on the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado decided to go the more traditional route using the inverted pyramid style to lay out the immediate facts first and then getting to the details that helped bring the report depth. She made use of the facts to help her make sense of a situation many could not fathom reasonable. Through subheadings, Brown works her way from the immediate shooting, to immediate reaction, to interviewee analyses of the shooter.

Wisely, she ended on a quote that summed up the horrific shooting with a quote from a previous Batman movie that people had been throwing around in relation to the incident:

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

More importantly, she provided resources for those affected—all while working on a same-day deadline.