Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The new front pages, going viral and the myth of the nut graph

The story of the 102-year-old judge was almost an after-thought. The goal was to get U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown on video. But what happened from that exploded on our web site.

I’d first interviewed Brown when he was a spry 93. No one at my news organization had ever profiled the judge appointed for a life term by President John F. Kennedy. Judge Brown still worked full-time, took the stairs to the top floor of the federal courthouse every day and earned high respect and praise from his colleagues and the lawyers who faced him.

I said I’d do another story on him, when he turned 100. But that was before I began getting serious about multimedia. I had not gotten the judge on video.

It’s one thing to write about a man who has lived from the crank telephone to the Internet. People who’d heard about Brown, but didn’t know him, would ask: Is he really still sharp and qualified to be a judge. By hearing him talk and watching him, people would see what others did, and why most still had confidence in Judge Brown. They would also see why I no longer worry about birthdays.

Brown was reluctant. “I don’t have to do interviews,” the judge told me. “That’s not a part of my job. But I’m doing this, because it’s you.” Working hard on your beat has its reward.

I’d worked it out with our online crew to put do a series of videos on the “Common Law” video series on my courts blog. Although there’s nothing common about Judge Brown, I thought it fitting. Brown had always told me he wanted to be remembered as a good judge, not just one who lived a long time.

But after the videos started appearing, editors on the print side asked if I could do a text story for the newspaper. I wrote a short story, taking bits from the interview that didn’t make the videos. I had recently read a story in the doctor’s office pointing to studies that showed people who lived to 100 often worked.

The story didn’t have a news peg. Brown didn’t have any particularly notable cases that week. He wasn’t celebrating a birthday. And it didn’t have what anyone might recognize as a nut graph.

But it was a story about an interesting person. Human interest.

The story was the No. 1 one story on Kansas.com the first day it appeared.

Then Yahoo! picked it up for its front page. Online editors watched the page views ring up like a slot machine that had just hit the jackpot. The videos of Judge Brown that week surpassed anything we’d done before.

The American Bar Association Journal linked to it. So did the Wall Street Journal.

The story didn’t make the front page of our newspaper. But more people read it than any other story, and it probably set a standard for the year, according to our online editors.

Yahoo!, Google, MSN and Facebook are the new front pages and circulation that make our work go viral.

And the reaction is proof that an interesting story, whether it has a news hook, a nut graph, or not, will gain attention.

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