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The Anatomy of a Bad Story
In this crazy business we call journalism, stories can come about in various ways. Some are hatched out months ahead of time in intense news meetings aimed at tracking a societal trend. Some are products of tireless reporting and exceptional interviewing.
And some - like mine - come together, by chance, in the cereal aisle of a 24-hour Super Wal-Mart. Last week, we ran a story about recently departed Kansas University running back Donte Bean. It was a short story. Nothing special. I'm sure a lot of you posted really funny, original comments on it, describing how poorly written it was because it was done by me.
Anyway, here's the story behind that story: Late on Sunday night (or early Monday morning), I got a call from a blocked number from a voice I didn't recognize telling me that Bean, a reserve running back for the KU football team, was transferring. I relayed the message to sports editor Tom Keegan (who, he would like you to know, happened to be in the office at 1:30 in the morning during his vacation). It was too late to make any calls confirming the tip, so I was instructed to pursue the story hard the following day.
The next morning, I arrived at the office ready to play hardball. I made my mind up: Much like Robert Redford, the great Washington Post reporter who helped break the notorious Watergate scandal (you guys probably didn't even know that was his name), I was not going to take no for an answer.
Unfortunately, things did not get off to a great start. I tracked down a half dozen phone numbers and started making calls. I called his parents, Charles and Cheryl Bean, but there was no answer. I called the number to his dorm room/apartment. No answer. I called his North Garland High School in Texas, Bean's alma mater. No answer. I called his high school coach, David Farris. No answer.
With the help of a friend, I came up with a number for someone who may or may not have been his aunt. I felt good about this one, though - even better when I heard a voice on the other end. "Hello?" said a middle-aged woman.
"Hi, could I speak to Ms. Bean, please?" I asked.
"Are you from the doctor's office?"
"No, I'm a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World."
"Oh, then you have the wrong number."
I went to lunch. Came back. Made more calls. Still no luck. I said some cuss words.
As the hours passed, things got more desperate. I looked up his Facebook account (one of the most bush-league moves in the history of journalism) and sent him a message begging him to call me. No response.
I tracked down his KU e-mail address and sent him an e-mail asking the same thing. No response.
More time passed. Eventually, the sun began to fall. I made more calls. Nothing good came of them. I said some more cuss words. By 11:30 p.m., I realized that this story just wasn't meant to be. Reluctantly, I threw together a worthless brief about how multiple sources had confirmed that Bean planned to leave KU, grabbed my backpack and headed home, disappointed and annoyed.
For those not familiar with the world of journalism, few things are more frustrating than having a story but being unable to run it. Throughout my reporting, three different people had confirmed that Bean was leaving the team, including Carmon Boyd-Anderson, who himself had announced his intentions to leave the program a day earlier. But without hearing it from Bean or a family member, the story was severely lacking.
Sulking, I drove to Wal-Mart at midnight to buy Season 5 of The Wire, the only season I've yet to see. (By the way, if ANYONE tries to ruin the season for me, I will end you. Like, for real. You're Wallace and I'm Bodie. Boom. You're done. You're in a vacant somewhere.)
Anyway, because my life sucks and nothing ever works out the way I want, I had to wait in line for 30 minutes because this particular night happened to be the night that Madden '09 was released. Every high school nerd in town had descended upon the Wal-Mart electronics counter to get his personal copy as soon as possible. After overhearing a lot of conversations about "My dynasty is going to kick buns this year!!" and "Do you think the Madden curse will get Favre this season?!?", I made it to the front, made my purchase, and headed out.
As I was leaving, I passed someone who looked familiar in an I-might-have-seen-that-guy-before-but-I-have-no-idea-where kind of way. I looked at him for a moment, tried to place him, couldn't, and kept walking.
I got into my car and took off down Iowa Street.
I was about a mile down the road when it hit me: The guy I had walked past was Donte Bean, the man I'd just spent 15 hours trying to track down.
Stop the car. U-turn. Return to Wal-Mart. Hurry through the store until I find Bean, in the cereal aisle (I don't remember what brand he was buying, but if he knows anything about breakfast cereal consumption, it was Cinnamon Toast Crunch).
"Are you Donte Bean?" I asked, interrupting a cell phone call he was currently engaged in.
"Yeah," he said.
"Are you really transferring?"
"Yeah, I am."I explained who I was, and how, since first thing that morning, I'd been trying to track him down.
He looked at his cell phone and muttered something about how he thought he had called me back but maybe there was a phone problem (a move I can respect because it's funny and the default tactic for when you run into someone you were supposed to call back but didn't; "Oh, hey bro. Yeah, I got your message about going to your great aunt's birthday party last weekend. I totally tried to call you back, like, 10 times, but my phone's been all kinds of whack lately. Freakin' Verizon, you know? Service sucks. I'm thinking about switching carriers, actually. Have you seen the new iPhone, by the way? Totally awesome. I'll probably get one of those. Anyway, I'm really glad I ran into you. How have you been, bro?").
So anyway, after that little introduction, I rambled through a few questions: What are your plans now? (Transfer to Washburn University to play with his brother, Brandon Walker, a senior running back on the team). Why are you leaving KU? (To get more playing time elsewhere). What's the next step? (He's currently awaiting an official release from his scholarship). When we were through, I hurried out of the store, dialed the office and begged associate sports editor Drew Hartsock to rework the article with the new information so that, when newspapers began to smack against driveways a few hours later, I would appear half-way competent as a reporter. He agreed, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and headed home, basking in my immense talent (read: luck) as a reporter and the wonderful ending to my day.
In hindsight, I guess it's pretty pathetic that a good night for me is getting a short quote from a departed KU running back. Not meeting a really attractive girl that wants to go to first base with me. Not writing some awesome, breaking story about some awesome scandal. But talking to Donte Bean in the cereal aisle of a Kansas Super Wal-Mart in the middle of the night.
But as I sat on my couch in my boxer shorts an hour later, scooping Ben & Jerry's ice cream into my mouth and watching the final scenes of "Serendipity" play out, I didn't feel pathetic.
I felt awesome.