Choosing the right story, writing the best narrative
But Cooper was originally going to tell a different story.
If it weren’t for a well-timed question, a burning curiosity and his editor, Cooper wouldn’t have told the story that sparked investigations and discussion of Nebraska’s prison system.
Readers would’ve read a different story entirely.
Five months ago, Cooper wrote about Quentin Jackson, a man convicted of shooting a bouncer at an Omaha nightclub. Jackson was attending a hearing on whether his conviction should be overturned in street clothes instead of prison garb. He had been let out of prison on a “day pass” – a pass inmates qualify for when they have less than three years left in their sentences.
The news peg for the story: Jackson had been sentenced to 14 to 15 years in prison but was to be released after only six years, Cooper said. He wrote the first story on deadline and said it questioned whether Jackson was going to be released earlier than he deserved.
After doing some digging and finding out that there was data to prove that Jackson would be doing less time than he was supposed to, Cooper was prepared to follow up with another story to prove the accuracy of his first story and expose the miscalculation of Jackson’s release date. But an itch to find out more and a conversation with his editor caused Cooper to wait.
His editor allowed him to do more research about other inmates and their release dates.
Cooper said he took “one month to crunch parole and release dates,” which led to the conclusion that 873 prisoners were given miscalculated sentences. The result? Cooper had a better story.
And the followup stories just kept coming.
Cooper wrote about something with an impact. He used reporting to expose inconsistencies and injustice – provoking discussion and forcing change.
“Always look for the better story,” Cooper said. Also important, he said, is to write the story in the best way. And according to Cooper, the only way to do that is to paint a picture with the details.
Cooper tells sources, “Take me back.” He asks, “What do you see? What do you smell?”
A journalist’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, Cooper said. His goal is always to explain and to translate information for the public.
The process it took for Cooper to write a story of substance with tremendous impact provides the steps it takes to write the best story. It requires more than a bit of curiosity, the calculated skills of a good interviewer, and a willingness to follow the story wherever it leads.
And of course, the best story also requires a good editor.
– By Michaela Noble