A long journey to a story

Sometimes stories are conceived, reported, written and published in mere minutes. More often, the process takes a day or two, or maybe a week.

For my recent package of stories and photos profiling one of the few remaining Chesapeake Bay skipjack captains, I had been turning the idea around in my head for more than a year.

Seriously. A year.

As an environment and Chesapeake Bay reporter, I’d think about the skipjacks from time to time. Skipjacks are sailboats that are used to dredge oysters. But I knew their numbers were dwindling.

I was reminded of the skipjacks and their captains when I read Christopher White’s excellent book, “Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen.”

The book, which came out at the end of 2009, tells the tale of the skipjacks through a handful of captains who White got to know while working aboard the boats in the 1990s.

Then in early 2010, I covered a group of more than 100 watermen who were rallying at the State House complex in Annapolis to draw attention to some issues involving oysters.

While interviewing the men, I met a seafood buyer. He asked me if I had ever met a skipjack captain. I said I hadn’t but I’d love to, that I’d always been curious about skipjacks.

In short order, he introduced me to Capt. Lawrence Murphy of the Thomas Clyde. One thing led to another, and the next morning I found myself driving to Deal Island in the dark early morning for a day on the skipjack.

Multimedia journalist and environment reporter Pamela Wood shovels oysters aboard the Thomas Clyde, a Chesapeake Bay skipjack.
Capt. Lawrence Murphy put me to work shoveling oysters on the Thomas Clyde skipjack.

The day was great, I got cool pictures and loads of great material. Best of all, I learned that one skipjack captain — Capt. Barry Sweitzer — kept his boat in the Annapolis area. Bingo! That was my local hook for a story.

But I couldn’t get my editors on board with a story. Maybe I wasn’t selling it well. Maybe we were just too busy and too understaffed to care about a big feature story.

Chesapeake Bay skipjack Hilda M. Willing, photo by multimedia journalist and environment reporter Pamela Wood.
Aha! I found it! The Hilda M. Willing docked at Deep Creek Restaurant & Marina, winter 2010.

I never forgot the skipjacks, though. A few weeks later, I heard one of the state’s icebreakers was going up the Magothy River to break free the skipjack.

They let me tag along. Capt. Barry wasn’t there as I had hoped, but at least now I knew exactly where the skipjack, the Hilda M. Willing, was kept.

Later, I went to the marina (Deep Creek Restaurant & Marina) and left my card, asking the staff to pass it along to Capt. Barry.

Luckily for me, they did! But unluckily, Capt. Barry and I played phone tag and finally got in touch while I was at BWI Airport waiting for a flight to Orioles spring training in the waning days of the oystering season.

I wanted to try the story again this winter — oyster season is November through March — but I always seemed too busy.

But then my new editor issued me a challenge. He asked me: “Pam, what’s the one story you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t done yet?”

No question on that one. “My skipjack story,” I replied. “I want to profile the local skipjack captain.” I think I probably rambled on a bit about how cool the story would be.

“Well, go do it,” he said.

That was it. The boss said to do the story. So I did it.

I got back in touch with Capt. Barry and he was kind enough to let me tag along for the day and pester him and his crew

Chesapeake Bay skipjack captain Barry Sweitzer, photo by multimedia journalist and environment reporter Pamela Wood.
Capt. Barry Sweitzer

with questions. He endured my follow-up questions by phone and by e-mail.

Capt. Barry was generous with his time and free with his thoughts. Watermen are usually wary of the press — especially Western Shore/city folk like me — but Capt. Barry seemed to trust me to tell his story.

His crew, Perry and Kelly, were equally kind and generous with me. They are two good kids. (I can definitely say that, as I’m about 10 years older than them!)

I struggled a lot with the story on Capt. Barry and Kelly and Perry and the Hilda M. Willing. I put pressure on myself to document this way of life as best as I could, knowing full well that these boats may no longer be working on the bay in a few years.

The old saying goes that newspapers are the first rough draft of history. In this case, that’s exactly the truth. History is happening right before our eyes as these captains give up their careers. I can only  hope that I did a good job recording this captain’s story — even if it did take more than a year to get around to it.

Muchas gracias

Of course, any big endeaver involves way more people than just the reporter whose name is on the story. I’d like to give a shout-out to the folks who helped me on this one:

  • Rob Hiaasen: The editor who gave me the kick in the pants to go out and get the story done.
  • David Lauricella: My supervising editor who gave me suggestions while I reported the story, and helped me tweak the final stories.
  • Greg Nucifora: Copy editor/designer who made killer graphics to go with the story.
  • Dave Marsters: Copy editor/designer who made my words and images look great on the page.
  • J. Henson: Photo editor who didn’t laugh when I turned in 19 photos, and who also made a slideshow.

My co-workers rock. Big-time.

Dredging for oysters on a Chesapeake Bay skipjack, photo by multimedia journalist and environment reporter Pamela Wood.
Dredging on the Hilda M. Willing, a 106-year-old wooden skipjack. My job rocks on days I get to do this.
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7 thoughts on “A long journey to a story

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I like sharing the backstory of my stories; I’m glad you find it interesting. I clicked over to your blog and I’ll definitely be poking around there to see how the other side works. I love the video of the student journalist grilling the state senator. That kid has a future!

  1. Seems like your story itself parallels the effort required to open an oyster. The harder it is to get an opening the better the result. The pictures are the sauce. Not necessary but boy does it contribute to the taste! Awshucks

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