'Complicating the narrative' (or attempting to) in Five Points

This post is part of a v. occasional series in which I try to open up about the journalistic process. If you have questions about local news/a specific story/the great city of Buffalo (I take all comers), send it in and I’ll address it later. 

I didn’t set out to write a story about gentrification. Sort of the opposite, in fact. Not long after moving to Buffalo, someone — one of the many people I took for coffee as part of my reorientation tour — told me a neighborhood called Five Points perfectly embodied Buffalo’s “comeback.”

Months later, I pitched that story to my editor. I got more coffees, this time with residents and business-owners in the suddenly trendy West Side neighborhood. And I observed, almost immediately, a very peculiar tick: People apologized for their role as “gentrifiers” without my raising the issue.

The community bulletin board at Five Points Bakery.

The community bulletin board at Five Points Bakery.

This complicated an otherwise straightforward, feel-good story — in a way that I find vastly more interesting, but that also makes my job more difficult. I realized early on that I needed to tell a story that simultaneously (a) celebrated a neighborhood’s revitalization in a city with few stories like it, and (b) captured the precariousness and alienation that exist on the underside of that. Those two phenomena don’t exist in stark opposition to each other, as you might expect, but they do coexist; and I was repeatedly confronted by well-intentioned people, on every side of the issue, muddling through these nuanced, ambiguous, and oft-contradictory tensions in both the community and their own consciences.

How to get those stories on the page, then? I tackled it first by speaking with lots of people — 32, in the end. This is far more people than I typically interview for a newspaper story, and I knew the majority of them wouldn’t make it in. But I wanted to get a diverse range of perspectives from business owners, residents, activists, realtors and community leaders, and I didn’t want to get any details wrong. I also tried to experience the neighborhood first-hand, just walking big loops around it to start — then taking yoga classes, going to wine tastings, and hanging out around the bodega off work hours. (I have consumed more cups of Remedy House coffee than I ever, ever wanted.)

I spent a lot of time with two very different pieces of writing, too: Karla Suárez’s essay “Havana,” which she read on Radio Ambulante earlier this year, and Amanda Ripley’s “Complicating the Narrative,” which ran last year on Medium. The Suárez piece is just a gorgeous bit of writing, in Spanish or English, and it so perfectly captures the feel of its place. I could never replicate it, but on the many, many afternoons I spent in Five Points, I pushed myself to notice the sorts of sounds, smells, and characters that cause Suárez’s Havana to leap off the page.

A mural of the Five Points neighborhood at Brayton and Vermont.

A mural of the Five Points neighborhood at Brayton and Vermont.

As for the Medium essay, it is long — looooong — but revelatory. The simplest reading of Ripley's thesis, as I understand it, is that mainstream media over-utilize conflict and division as story devices -- to the detriment of both their audiences and their craft, ultimately. Ripley suggests a number of strategies for “complicating” or “destabilizing” those easy narratives. I identified with one, in particular: her exhortation to include inconvenient information — details we might otherwise cut because they don't fit the sort of tidy narrative we’re taught to write in j-school. Here’s Ripley:

"There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. This does not mean calling advocates for both sides and quoting both; that is simplicity, and it usually backfires in the midst of conflict. “Just providing the other side will only move people further away,” Coleman says. Nor does it mean creating a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents. That is just simplicity in a cheap suit. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose.

The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her mesmerizing TED Talk “A Single Story.” “[I]t’s impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”

Usually, reporters do the opposite. We cut the quotes that don’t fit our narrative. Or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy — and natural. The problem is that, in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice."

In fairness: this particular retelling of the editorial process risks simplifying things as well, I think (!). But I nevertheless kept it in mind as I worked through the many sides of Five Points’ story. I sought to maintain inconvenient details I might otherwise have cut, like the neighbor who is angry about rising property taxes but is also delighted his home value went up. Or the community activist who fought to raise real estate prices, but now feels guilty his work may have contributed to displacement.

People like this are essential to the community and the reality on the ground in Five Points, but they risk getting flattened in simple us-versus-them narratives. Those sorts of dynamics make for good stories, but poor representations of reality as communities experience it.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of a local progressive community group called PUSH, may have said it best among the folks I interviewed: “We try to hold all these complexities in our heads,” she said, because knee-jerk labels and conflict rarely address the real issues.

Anyway — this story represents my attempt to hold onto that complexity in just one Buffalo neighborhood. I’m super lucky to work at a paper that let me do that. And to be clear, I undoubtedly could have done some things more or less or better, but the cool thing about newspaper writing is that every story is another chance!

As always, thanks for reading and supporting your local paper, and feel free to reach out with comments/questions/rants/story ideas/reading recommendations.

‘Til next time,

Caitlin

P.S. One last note: I’ve tossed around the word “gentrification” in this post, but it doesn’t really appear in the story itself. That was very intentional: It became clear to me as I reported this out that there’s no agreement about what the term means, to the point that it’s both polarizing and … totally meaningless. In the interests of “destabilizing” the usual narrative around gentrification, I (a) used the word “displacement” when referring to physical movement in the neighborhood, and (b) described, rather than labeled, processes of cultural/social alienation.

How to 'hack' the writing process with spreadsheets

This post is part of a v. occasional series in which I try to open up about the journalistic process. If you have questions about local news/a specific story/the great city of Buffalo (I take all comers), send it in and I’ll address it later. 

I don’t advertise this clichéd facet of my neurosis, but I am a person who likes — nay, loves — personal “productivity hacks.” Batch-cooking, morning routines, 52-minute block schedules … hell, I’m developing a work uniform so I no longer have to spend time getting dressed.

But I’ve never had a ton of tricks for speeding up the writing process. For me, a long story is just a dumb, brute slog. I spend days or weeks reporting and then attempt to outline and organize and “write through” reams of notes until they resemble a coherent article.

Lately, however, I’m trying a new approach — and it involves Google Sheets, of all things. For my last story, a profile of a big tech start-up here, I organized my notes in a 290-row spreadsheet.

ACV spreadsheet   Google Sheets.png

Each column is pretty intuitive: You’ve got your quote or factoid or other discrete piece of information, plus the person or organization it came from; a few thematic filters to help group similar information; and special columns to denote must-use scenes or quotes and flag items for follow-up.

As I reported out this story — conducting interviews, reading studies, watching pitch videos and generally hanging out around ACV — I dumped my research in this spreadsheet and tagged each quote, scene, statistic and observation with a corresponding theme. LaunchNY’s Marnie Lavigne laying out local investment stats fell under “WNY startup scene” / sub-topic “current state.”  The findings of a study on tech earnings in Pittsburgh became “economic impact” / “startups as development theory.” 

Once I’d finished reporting, I used Sheets’ filter function to identify the most important threads and surface the info I needed as I needed it. When writing the section about ACV’s history, for instance, I could pull up just those notes and work off them; when a long narrative section needed a scene to break it up, I could filter for “scene” and see what fit. (Plz disregard the bad writing and excessive details in these spreadsheet scenes, which were not intended for public consumption.)

ACV spreadsheet   Google Sheets2.png

Added bonus: My research never got separated from its sources — a hazard, when you’re working off a long outline — so I never had to go back to individual transcripts to find who said what or when. And creating a column for high-priority scenes and quotes meant I couldn’t lose them in successive rounds of edits.

I don’t know if this method saved me a mountain of time, per se. But it did make the writing process run more smoothly, with far fewer frustrating fits and starts. So for that reason, at least, I’m adding this hack to my list of regulars. In fact, I’m already 315 rows (eek) into the next one.

H/T to my project-manager husband, who uses a similar method to organize his projects and suggested it might work for stories, too. And if you have zany process ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

‘Til next time,

Caitlin

How I wrote it: “In Buffalo’s ‘digital deserts,’ more than half of households lack Internet”

A story I wrote for last Sunday’s paper relied on a pretty shocking statistics: In a neighborhood only minutes from the Buffalo News, fewer than two in five households have home Internet service.

Poynter was kind enough to include the story in its morning media newsletter Tuesday, where Tom Jones called it “the type of important story that news organizations in every major U.S. market could and should do” (yay!). Since then, I’ve gotten several emails from local reporters looking to unearth this data for their city.

Fortunately, it’s not at all hard to do. You just have to know where to look. So below, find my abbreviated, three-step guide to reporting on the digital divide near you.

Step 1: Find neighborhood-level Internet data

This story pulled from the Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey, the first to report Internet access rates down to the tract level. A Census tract is the bureau’s second-smallest geographical unit, consisting of 1,200 to 8,000 people.

There are 297 Census tracts in Erie and Niagara counties. I downloaded data for all of them using factfinder2.census.gov. You can do the same by advance-searching your local city/county, selecting “Census tracts” as the geography filter, and choosing “B28011 — Internet Subscriptions in Household — 2017 ACS 5-year estimates” as your document title.

Step 2: Match Internet data and demographics

Access rates are half the story, though. I also wanted to know why some neighborhoods were better-connected than others. Studies have pointed to a range of reasons some people don’t have Internet, from age and disability to poverty and issues with rural access.

So to help narrow that field, I also added to my growing Excel sheet tract-level ACS data on demographic factors including age, poverty levels, English fluency and disability status. I also coded each tract as “urban” or “rural” based on Census categorizations.

When Excel’s CORREL function revealed a strong correlation between access, poverty and educational attainment, I knew I had enough data to start pursuing an angle. I contacted public schools and community groups in the worst-connected urban neighborhoods to find out if access among low-income folks was on their radar.

Step 3: … But wait, there’s another spreadsheet!

As I began interviewing, I heard two complaints over and over again: that a single Internet provider held a “monopoly” in Buffalo, and that the best and fastest Internet speeds weren’t available to city residents.

To verify this, I turned to the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband deployment records, also called Form 477. Internet companies are required to file twice-yearly reports with the FCC declaring where they offer service and at what speeds.

By sampling this data for representative Census tracts in Buffalo and its suburbs, I was able to confirm that (a) city residents essentially have only one terrestrial broadband option and (b) that option runs more slowly in Buffalo than it does in many suburbs. (Fwiw, I think this is a prime area for follow-up once I figure out a way to stop the full file from crashing my computer.) You can find a guide to Form 477 here.

That’s all the heavy lifting, though! After that, it was all phone calls and interviews and frantic consultations with a News developer who helpfully explained to me how the actual mechanics of the Internet work. And two weeks later, I had a story that — as one source told me post-publication — may “really move the conversation forward.”

If you have further questions about this data, I’m happy to answer them. And if you end up doing a story in your market on the digital divide, please holler! I’d love to read it.

(As an aside, I plan to do regular blog posts of this sort. I have NO IDEA if anyone will read them, but I’m on a mission to show more of my work.)

New year, new blog

I’m forever telling myself I’ll start a blog and forever not getting around to it. OR forever writing tortured, self-conscious first posts and later consigning them to oblivion.

But this is the year, I think. I started a job in local news. And as I work deeper into the particulars and nuances of that job, I find myself wanting a platform to share more with readers.

This is partly inspired by things I’ve read about Hearken’s “Open Notebook,” a nascent (?) project designed to build reader trust. It’s also borne out of my frustration with Twitter and Facebook both as companies and platforms for substantive discussion.

But it mostly draws from my earnest belief that moving to a local paper affords me a unique chance to engage readers in my community. And maybe to demystify — for just a few people!! — a profession that many dislike and distrust lately.

More tk, as they say. This is all an experiment! But man, it feels good to write a first post and actually publish it…