There was a bit of chatter among #newsfoo participants last weekend about long-form reading services, which prompted me to pull out a couple of useful links and quotes.
It can be time consuming sifting through the daily wall of news stories and blogposts to find the handful of gems that genuinely interest or move you. These services, which recommend only a handful of excellent journalism pieces each day, can help:
(This tweet was embedded using the WordPress Blackbird Pie plugin)
The motto was short and sweet (“if you only read one thing today, make it this”) and the premise was straightforward: to highlight and link to a single piece of gripping, powerful and memorable writing each weekday.
…Most of the material lives on magazine sites (such as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Esquire), newspaper sites (New York Times, Los Angeles Times) or web-only outfits (KeepGoing).
The project is in its infancy but one thing I’ve already found out is that there is a growing community of people dedicated to spreading good writing using the very technologies that people say is killing long-form journalism.
“Our site has gotten far more attention than we possibly imagined it would,” says Aaron Lammer, co-creator of longform.org, which promises to give its users links to articles that are “too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser”.
Each day the New York-based book editor and his partner, Max Linsky, select a handful of pieces and pass them through a service called Instapaper that makes them easy to print or read on devices such as a phone, Kindle or iPad.
…Other services are also springing up to help people find routes to great stories. Among them is givemesomethingtoread.com (also linked to Instapaper) and a Twitter account, @longreads, that boasts more than 5,000 followers. It turns out that like me, avid readers are trying to scratch their own itch.
Instapaper, which a number of these services work with, is a personal favourite. It lets you bookmark stories you want to read later using a simple applet that doesn’t require you to enter tags or anything else; just hit Read Later and the piece is saved. You can then read it at your leisure on your phone, iPad or in a browser next time you log in to Instapaper
(which, joyfully, doesn’t require you to use a password if you don’t want to It now does, for “accuracy and security” 13 March 2011). The genius of it is that it stores the whole piece so you can read it offline or on.
Happily for those of us in New Zealand, the founder of Instapaper, Marco Arment, is coming here next year to speak at the Webstock conference along with some other very smart people with interesting projects and experience. (Disclosure: I am a Webstock fan and am going to be doing a bit of work with them next year.)
The Nieman Journalism Lab wrote a piece about long-form journalism a while back which looked at Slate magazine’s approach to long-form pieces and this remarkable policy:
Essentially, the fellowship program requires that every editorial staff member at Slate … take four to six weeks off from their normal jobs, paid — and use that time to produce one in-depth piece (or, often, a series of in-depth pieces) on a subject that compels them.
So far, the project has netted such praiseworthy specimens of long-form as, among others, Tim Noah’s analysis of why the U.S. hasn’t endured another successfully executed terror attack since 9/11 and Julia Turner’s look at the fascinating complexities of signage and June Thomas’ examination of American dentistry and Dahlia Lithwick’s crowd-sourced foray into chick-lit authorship and John Dickerson’s reclamation of risk-taking after the financial crash gave that quintessential American practice a bad name.
The other thing the initiative has netted? Pageviews. They’ve been in the millions, a Slate rep told me: over 4 million for Noah’s piece, over 3.5 million for Thomas’, nearly 3 million for Turner’s. That’s especially significant considering the length of the pieces, which often run in the tens of thousands of words. Combine that with New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati’s claim, last year, that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic”.
A terrifically useful and generous post from Dan Nguyen introducing journalists to programming concepts and enough script writing to scrape some data from a web page.
Couldn’t come at a better time since data – and the ability to find it, analyse it and share it in edible chunks – is becoming an increasingly important component of journalism.
As Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, said recently:
“Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.
“But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”
The Guardian story those Berners-Lee quotes come from also talks about City University ‘s new ” MA in interactive journalism, led by Jonathan Hewett and Paul Bradshaw, which will teach “data journalism” as part of its curriculum – “sourcing, reporting and presenting stories through data-driven journalism, and visualising and presenting data (including databases, mapping and other interactive graphics).”
What a great initiative. Here’s hoping we can follow up on this idea in New Zealand.
Here’s a taste of Nguyen’s DIY coding post:
This is my attempt to walk someone through the most basic computer science theory so that he/she can begin collecting data in an automated way off of web pages, which I think is one of the most useful (and time-saving) tools available to today’s journalist. And thanks to the countless hours of work by generous coders, the tools are already there to make this within the grasp of a beginning programmer.
You just have to know where the tools are and how to pick them up.
Click here for this page’s table of contents. Or jump to the the theory lesson. Or to the programming exercise. Or, if you already know what a function and variable is, and have Ruby installed, go straight to two of my walkthroughs of building a real-world journalistic-minded web scraper: Scraping a jail site, and scrapingPfizer’s doctor payment list.
He goes on to explain and provide useful links about the basics of HTML, attributes, links, using Firebug, installing Ruby, strings, variables, comparison operators, arrays, hashes, conditional branches and more. Then you get to write a script.
I got sidetracked (by paid work) so didn’t finish the tutorial but will definitely be returning and spending more time on this over the Christmas break.
In the meantime I am enjoying playing with Ruby in my browser to learn a bit about how Ruby works (a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the allaboutthestory.com developers, I’m sure).
This quote leapt out at me from a GigaOm post by Mathew Ingram last week:
Stop listening to newspaper people. We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all. Want to get good at it? Then stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world. And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the Digital people in charge – of everything.
It’s from John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register group of newspapers in the US, who is re-engineering his news company to focus not on paywalls but “on expanding the relationship his newspapers have with both readers and advertisers in their local communities, and taking that online.”
It’s an interesting post and worth a read.
I think Paton has a point. I think it’s incredibly difficult for established newspaper companies to re-think their business from the ground up and to innovate for a digital future. For a whole host of reasons, not least:
- It’s hard to innovate when you can’t take risks, and it’s hard to take risks when you have a legacy business that’s still bringing in bucks – you can’t afford radical reshuffles that might alienate readers and/or advertisers wholesale. Your shareholders would chew you up and spit you out.
- The future might look like it’s made up of smaller, nimbler newsrooms and larger distributed reporting networks, but we’re not in the future yet and in the meantime your legacy operation needs big newsrooms stuffed with paid staff.
- Newspapers are what newspaper people know. Many have had an entire career in newspapers over several decades during which there have been very few changes in processes and output. Change is hard, and it can be genuinely difficult for people to get their heads around how profound a change the internet is making to the world.
- People on the editorial floor are wholly occupied with meeting their daily deadlines and seldom have enough spark left after that to spend any time idly browsing, experimenting and daydreaming online – which is often where the inspiration for innovation comes from.
- Senior managers are required to spend large amounts of time in meetings, answering emails and writing and reading impenetrable reports and strategy documents destined for the dark recesses of filing cabinets. Things like tinkering about with code, sharing links and reading dozens of blogposts uninterrupted are beyond their reach.
- It’s hard to direct innovation. Adding ‘Be innovative!’ to my task list and assigning an hour and an half for it on Tuesdays is unlikely to get the creative juices flowing. Even if I did get into a groove on an idea, I’d have to pack up before I was finished to get to my next meeting or hit a deadline. Creative flow over. (A theme elaborated on in the 37 Signals book Rework and in Jason Fried’s BigThink talk).
The challenges of driving innovation were the focus of a recent NZCS Innovation Day in Auckland. In discussion sessions all sorts of barriers to innovation were raised. They included the assertion that New Zealanders aren’t very good at collaborating across companies, there’s a lack of talented managers who can take companies from a garage to the globe, and smaller companies are too squeezed to free up time for staff to muck around and innovate.
Dominic Stow of Designertech made some interesting points about barriers to innovation within large companies, including a few practicalities such as the importance of asking for suggestions from staff – and then making time to actually respond to them (rather than letting them pile up in a dusty corner of the intranet).
Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that as much as I learned about online news when I was working with Will Lewis et al to integrate web and print in The Daily Telegraph newsroom, I learned at least as much again in the six months afterwards when I was travelling and settling back into New Zealand.
First came three months on the road winding down: seeing friends get married in France, drinking green wine in Prague, and visiting glorious Kashmir during an uncharacteristic period of calm.
Once I was back in New Zealand with time on my hands and an internet connection, I spent several months quite literally mucking around online. I read thousands of blogs, signed up with all manner of web services to try them out, and got into Twitter and other then-newish social networks.
I started this blog, learned some basic HTML and got Delicious, an RSS reader and a bunch of other tools working. I discovered and started following interesting people online and going to conferences like NDF and Webstock. I kicked a whole lot of ideas around about the future of news, distributed reporting and the role of journalists in society. And I conceived the idea for allaboutthestory.com, which eventually came into being three years later.
To this day I find I do my best thinking ‘after hours’ – on weekends, holidays, while driving, at conferences, when I follow my nose online for a couple of idle hours in the evening. Then days and weeks or months slip by in a blur of tasklists and meetings and deadlines before I get to breathe – and dream – again.
Here’s my advice to news companies wanting to innovate in New Zealand.
- Get out more. Kick staff out of the office as often as you can to go to conferences and work on their own digital projects. They’ll come back a bit rested and fired up with ideas.
- Bring outsiders into your business to talk to you and your staff and work on projects. It’ll minimise stagnation and groupthink and let you cross-fertilise ideas and pick up tips on useful tools, reading, concepts.
- Look at what news companies are doing overseas by all means, but also look at designers and web developers and engineers and architects and aviation and food and biotech companies to see what they’re doing and whether any of their ideas are transferable.
- Remember that you have to go online to know online. So stay home for a day every now and then and play with the internet.
- Open up the daily news conference and news diary. Think about more than the front page. Think about how readers are going to experience your stories and what else they’re going to want to know. Bring a programmer and photographer and web editor and videographer and designer to your news conferences and see what they have to add.
- While you’re working at getting reporters to take photos and shoot video for the web, find out who among them wants to learn code and help them do so. Find someone with a maths degree or who understands statistics and get them into data analysis and have them teach their less numerate colleagues about number-crunching.
- Don’t think you can fix everything with a top-down management strategy. (I’m speaking from experience here, having got this wrong before). Very often people on the newsroom floor have great ideas, all they really want is for you to share their enthusiasm and get out of their way.
UPDATE. The link is broken now 🙁
Got to love this. Slate Labs has demoed a plain English widget which takes wordy jargon from any industry and turns it quickly into very plain English.
The widget turns this:
Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit.
People are spending a little bit more, but they’re stretched thin: One in 10 workers can’t find a job, wages are basically flat, home prices are way down and nobody can get a loan.
Every office should have one.
Slate is looking for suggestions on how to use the tool, and adds this disclaimer: Plain English does not automatically generate translations. Rather, it’s a tool that lets readers toggle between the original text and a human-written “translation”.
Some interesting thoughts from a Nieman interview with Henry Jenkins about his next book Spreadable Media (due out in 2011).
After the great line “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” comes this:
In the book’s opening chapter, I reflect on the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian elections. I argue that its central role was not in helping to organize the protests but rather in getting information about what was happening to the outside world and to increase people’s emotional engagement with it. Twitter stepped in to bring what was happening in the streets of Tehran closer to people in the west — with key roles played by the Iranian diaspora in the United States and Europe who helped to facilitate the circulation of this information. The general American public felt greater closeness to the people in Iran because they were learning about these events through the same tools as they used to share cute cat pictures with their friends. And they felt a greater investment in what was happening because they were actively helping to alert others about the events.
As this unfiltered information was flowing through Twitter, those on the social networks started putting pressure on news agencies to provide more cover. You could imagine Twitter as a self-contained news system, but the opposite happened: they used #cnnfail because they wanted the skills and resources that professional journalists could bring to the process. They were signaling how much they still relied on legacy media to sort through the pieces and help provide a context for the information being circulated. While it was framed as a critique of journalism, it was actually a call for help. News organizations need to be more alert in registering these signs of public interests and more nimble in responding to them.
…NU: If you had to project, what might this mean for user-generated content? And what happens when we start putting paywalls up on sites?
HJ: In the case of news, we might think about many different types of user-generated content. Often, we are talking about the citizen as reporter (especially in the case of hyperlocal news), producing content which can be uploaded to news sites. We might also think about the citizen as editor, determining which news matters to their community and passing it along in a more targeted way to their friends. We might think about the citizen as commentator, who responds to the news through what they write on their blogs or updates. We might think of these media as amplifying their role as consumers, allowing them to more fully express demands for what should get more coverage, as occurred in the #cnnfail debates after the Iranian elections.
Right now, we dump all of this into a box called “citizen journalism,” which is in its own way as misleading as categories like “viral media.” We might start from the fact that journalists are themselves citizens, or that these groups are doing many things through their sharing of news, only some of which should be understood as producing journalism. Focusing on citizen journalism results in an oppositional framing of blogging as competing with professional news production. Spreadable media would push us to think about journalists and bloggers as each making a range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology.
Of course, we all know why news organizations focused on the app store instead of the browser version: Print publishers got excited about apps because they finally opened a door to charge for content. Experimenting with new technology and finding way to monetize content is without any doubt crucial for any news organization. Many news organizations have been successful selling their product in the app store. iA has designed two iPad news apps (currently in production) and we have even created our own writing app—and it sells like pancakes which is awesome.
But, however exciting the app store might be—there is no rational reason to neglect the most obvious iPad news platform: The website. The chance that you sell your app will only rise if your have a strong presence in the browser—given, that it’s worth the money. Developing an HTML based news app is not just cheaper and faster, it also gives you more editorial and technical control over your contents. More importantly, HTML-apps are in many ways more convenient for the user: They’re easy to use, they’re more medium appropriate and in that sense: more appealing and—they’re free. No long downloads, no “how do I get to…”, no weird crashes, no trouble to share, copy, paste, comment, tweet, link to. They just work.
In a July 2010 TED talk, Ethan Zuckerman encouraged us to use our new web tools and social networks to broaden our worlds, rather than following the same people and hashtags everywhere we go.
WIMBE, Malawi–This close to the equator, night descends quickly in November. By 6 p.m., the sky bursts with stars. All is dark outside the village of Wimbe, save for a compound of houses where outdoor fluorescent lights twinkle.
Far off the electric grid, three windmills rattle in the breeze, producing enough electricity to provide indoor and outdoor lighting, and to pump water. The windmills are the legacy of a rickety prototype conceived by William Kamkwamba, a desperate teenager with big dreams.
His ingenuity has changed the lives of his family and his village. The windmill has elevated William from starvation and obscurity to plenty and fame, and it is the reason why a global village is poised to assist and follow him.
Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism has honored an Associated Press reporter in Somalia with its award that recognizes those who display conscience and integrity in communications. Mohamed Olad Hassan has endured repeated death threats, intimidation and a shrapnel wound from a mortar explosion near his home in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2007. In December 2009, he narrowly escaped with his life when a bomb exploded at a graduation ceremony he was covering, killing two dozen people.
The Sunday Times, SA ’s biggest weekend paper, will be introducing a Zulu edition, spurred by a need to move into new markets and the impressive growth in readership of indigenous language newspapers.
Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley said… the 32- page Zulu edition… would carry the best of the Sunday Times national news section, sport, opinion, business and lifestyle copy, as well as KwaZulu-Natal provincial politics, municipal news, celebrity news and sport. It will sell for R8.
Guardian | PDA
In developing markets, like Africa, desktop web access is often limited but mobiles are becoming widespread, which means there’s a very large territory to be claimed if tech companies can get the service just right.
Christian Science Monitor
Senegal is now the second country in Africa, following Ghana, where cellphone users can text an SMS to a Gchat account and receive a response for free.
How do you say “I’m feeling lucky” in Senegal’s main local language, Wolof?
Amna weurseuk. They’re words that technocrats at Google Inc. may be memorizing now that, as of last week, the search engine has made its entry into the West African nation’s mobile phone network.
The former French colony is now the second country in Africa, following Ghana, where cellphone users can text an SMS to a Gchat account and receive a response for free.
SudanTribune.com | November 3, 2010 (JUBA)
Southern Sudan Union of Journalists (SSUJ) has condemned Khartoum government’s decision to ban an English daily newspaper from circulation for one day.
Media reports say Sudanese National Security Council (SNSC) issued a one-day ban on The Citizen newspaper, for its’s November 1 issue, after the paper published an advert, which authorities alleged contravened Islamic Sharia law.
all.africa.com | 4 November 2010
Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns yesterday’s arbitrary arrest of journalist Gafar Alsabki Ibrahim during a raid by intelligence officials on the independent newspaper Alsahafa. They took him away to an unknown location after making him surrender his mobile phone and preventing him from alerting his family. No reason was given for his arrest.
The project, one of the latest Ushahidi implementations in Africa was led by the US based Sudan Institute for Research and Policy (SIRP) and Sudan based Asmaa Society for Development, in collaboration with other Sudanese civil society organizations (CSO’s) who deployed certified election observers throughout the country to report using standard paper forms. These reports were then collated and uploaded to SudanVoteMonitor by designated staff members. Additionally, observers equipped with mobile phones were able to send reports directly using the SMS short codes setup by the project.
The bulk of the reporting, however, was done by average citizens throughout the country using SMS, and online via the project website. This was one of the project’s biggest successes since this was a first time experience where technology was applied in reporting by citizens and civil societies in Sudan.
The Ushahidi platform was deployed during the first round of the presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire which happened on 31 October 2010. Implemented under the name of Wonzomai (Sentry in Bété, Ivory Coast Local language), the project gathers teams from Ivorian NGO Akendewa and from the French NGO Internet Without Borders.
Guardian | Roy Greenslade
Police in Zimbabwe have detained a journalist who works for the country’s leading Sunday newspaper, The Standard
It is thought that Dumisani Sibanda, the paper’s Bulawayo bureau chief, is being questioned over a story involving the police force.
BBC | Dave Lee
Travelling through a remote part of north-eastern Zambia in 1988, Simon Berry was struck that no matter where he stopped, people would ask him: “Would you like a Coca-Cola?”
With just two people for every square kilometre, it was of the most sparsely populated places in the world.
In this area today, one in five children dies before their fifth birthday, most from dehydration caused by diarrhoea.
In a region where the challenging logistics of getting medical supplies to mothers was killing children, Coke was readily available.
Mr Berry’s idea was simple: Put medicine in crates of Coca-Cola. Wherever you could buy Coke, you could also get life-saving treatment.
“I thought if we can get Coca-Cola to all these places, why can’t we do a similar thing for very simple medicines?” he told BBC World Service’s Health Check programme. [You can listen to the podcast of the Health Check programme by following this link. It’s chapter 2 of the programme.]
Sunday Nation | Rasna Warah
Usually, the only news about Kenya that the editors of The Economist deem fit to print is the dark and depressing type: stories of grand corruption, poverty and poor governance.
Described as “Kenya’s Debit Card”, this uniquely Kenyan innovation is now being replicated in other countries, including Afghanistan. This Kenyan success story, says Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, represents both “a revolution and a revelation.” Figures released by Safaricom in March this year show that an astounding 550 million Kenya shillings, or roughly US$7 million, is transferred daily using M-Pesa.
So it was refreshing, if not startling, to see a recent editorial in The Economist describing Kenya as “a success story” in the use and application of mobile phone banking. The editorial states: “By far the most successful example of mobile money is M-Pesa, launched in 2007 by Safaricom of Kenya. It now has nearly 7 million users — not bad for a country of 38 million people, 18.3 million of who have mobile phones.”
The biggest concentration of overlooked markets is in Africa (which is in many ways an overlooked continent). Africa’s star performers are South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Botswana, Libya, Mauritius, Morocco and Tunisia. Collectively these countries match the average GDP per head of the BRICs.
FROM the headlines, it sounded like a sensational climbdown: Pope Benedict XVI had said the use of condoms in some circumstances was permissible. In fact, the pontiff had not announced a U-turn, but shifted a nuance. In an interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, for a book published by the Vatican (and checked before publication), he gave an example of a situation in which condom use might be acceptable. If a male prostitute was trying, responsibly, to do his bit to halt the spread of AIDS, that would be “a first step towards moralisation”.
…Charities and campaigners dealing with AIDS, which afflicts 22.5m people in Africa alone, welcomed the news but hoped for more.
*Cartoonist Dave Wolland has posted a cartoon relating to this story for sale on allaboutthestory.com.
THE timing of the pope’s much-discussed change of position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV (he will now allow prostitutes to use them without fear of hellfire) was surely no coincidence. He made it on November 21st—ten days before World AIDS Day and two before UNAIDS, the United Nations body charged with combating the epidemic, released its latest report on the state of the battle.
That report carries good news. Though some 33m people are infected, the rate of new infections is falling—down from 3.1m a year a decade ago to 2.6m in 2009. Moreover, as the map shows, the figure is falling fastest in many of the most heavily infected countries, especially those of sub-Saharan Africa and South and South-East Asia.
Just came across this TED Talk by Jacek Utko from last year (2009) along with a few takeouts from a phone interview he did with TED.
What is the “egotistical” approach you mentioned in your talk?
It’s politically correct to talk about teamwork and convergence between editors and designers. It’s an old issue, the idea that we would merge the two departments and make journalism more visual. Now, I do agree with this philosophy that says visual journalism requires more teamwork.
But, in my personal experience, the best things I’ve ever done are not the fruit of teamwork. They were the fruit of closing myself in a room, not speaking to any editor. I would think of a good headline myself. This would produce the award-winning covers.
Communication with the readers in a personal way is important. When you use teamwork, the message becomes not so clear anymore. There’s a compromise between 20 opinions, and you can see that compromise in the outcome.
Yet I don’t do the work just because readers love it. I do it because I like it. I have to find some personal satisfaction in this work. Making front pages like this brings me a lot of satisfaction.
Talk about that conflict between the design end and the editorial end.
The conflict is diminishing, but it has been very strong in the last years. Writers don’t like you. They treat you as an enemy, because they believe in words, and they believe you’re cutting the words. They don’t believe that people don’t want to read more text.
People need entry points to text. People look at headlines. People avoid long stories. There are many proofs for this, such as eye-tracking research. Editors often don’t understand this. They don’t treat a designer as someone who is a marketer of their text, who is trying to sell their text better.
This is also the designers’ fault. Some designers are not journalists; they only think about their pictures looking good. But readers do look at papers for more than just beautiful art. They look for the content.
The future of media is where people realize that how content is sold to the reader is equally important. During consultations, much of my time is spent not just working on visuals or illustration or infographics. It’s spent on displaying the content better, working on elements of text like ledes, intros, sub-headlines, middle intros, quotes, pullouts, boxes. Making it more digestible, more friendly.
Debates on the fate of newspapers seem to get quite emotional.
Yes. You can see discussions on this in a lot of blogs and forums. Many people think that newspapers have to survive because they have a mission for society, for democracy. Most of them say that newspapers should stay because, if newspapers die, nothing will replace them.
But that’s not actually true. It’s already slowly being replaced by the Internet. Blogs, for example, are an opinion-making medium. They’ll probably become more powerful than the newspapers themselves were.
I think we should all accept the thought that, one day, there won’t be any printed newspapers. There will be niche products for smaller groups — exclusive things that are reminders of the old times. But I don’t believe the general newspapers, in the state that we know them now, will survive.
My brother was shot in the head on a Monday night.
He was shot pretty much between the eyes. And that was that. Small hole at the front, big hole at the back.
But here’s a thing. Me and dad remember it differently. We were the ones who went into the Coroner’s Office to identify him.
Dad went in because he was, well, Dad. Me, because I was spirited and young and desperate to see my brother whom I loved very much. I mean, you can’t knock on my door and tell me he’s dead and not let me see him. I need to see him so I know. You know?
The policeman who met us said I shouldn’t go in. It was ‘not a pretty sight’. And I guess he meant unsuitable for the young woman I was. I was 23. At that stage we knew he’d been shot but not what with. I didn’t know if I would recognize him, if half his face would be missing. It wasn’t. He looked just like him, but dead.
I remember a band-aid across the small hole in his forehead. Dad doesn’t. He remembers a wound. I’m inclined to believe his memory over mine, but I’m not sure why. We probably sank equal amounts of booze in subsequent years to numb the pain (or unleash it) while we sifted through the what-ifs and memories.
My brother was lying on something; can’t remember if it was a table or gurney or what. He was in small room and we were in another with a glass wall between so we could see him to identify him; but we weren’t allowed to touch. He had not been autopsied yet. There was a police investigation into the cause of death: small hole in the front, big hole in the back was evidently not evidence enough.
I started to kick up because I really wanted to go in. It was a very strong and I think primal instinct I felt. To reach out, to sit with him, to touch his forehead and check his chest for signs of breathing. To talk to him and ask what happened. To start understanding the fact of it.
But Dad silenced me with a look. I demurred and forced down a flash of anger: fuel for the pool of grief and rage taking shape inside.
We went home then and drank tea and talked to the police when they came and talked to friends when they came and tried to make sense of it among ourselves with the few details we had. We stared at the walls, and at each other, and wandered round the house with no particular intent. We slept, and didn’t sleep, and drank more tea.
Reporters called us at home to ask for details and see if we wanted to talk about it. We didn’t.
We were in shock and disoriented and in no mood for strangers. We wouldn’t have had the words anyway.
I suppose we could have said: It’s such a shock. We just can’t believe it. It’s like the rug’s been pulled out from under us. He was such a lovely guy. He didn’t deserve this. We’re devastated. He was so young. We don’t know what we’re going to do without him.
But really there aren’t words to describe all that we felt in those bewildering days.
So why did the reporters call?
Because my brother died in a murder-suicide. He was the murdered party. The guy who shot him killed himself soon after. They were buried in the same cemetery three days later, a few hours and a few hundred yards apart.
Why did it happen? No idea. Men, booze, guns and inner demons is probably explanation enough. As far as we know there was no underlying quarrel, no bad debt or bad blood or infidelity. But who knows?
Would changing the gun laws have prevented his death? No. The guy had a licence for his guns.
Would a public awareness campaign about firearm safety have helped? I doubt it. The guy knew about firearm safety. But he was, I think, drunk.
Would a ban on alcohol have saved them? No. They’d have been high on bootlegged something or other instead.
Could a law change or a campaign or a charitable trust set up in his memory have spread the lessons of this tragic event and prevented someone else’s death?
I don’t think so.
It was a personal tragedy. One of 2,229 deaths in New Zealand that month.
Everyone dies, you know. Sooner or later, one way or another. Some deaths are more spectacular, sure. But is my brother’s death any more tragic or painful than the guy down the road who died of cancer that day?
I don’t think so.
Death sucks. It hurts. It takes ages to get over. It’s unbeatable and frightening. But it just is, so we may as well get used to it.
I started writing this a while ago because it started to form itself in my head. I started finishing it after I read Emma Woods’ eloquent piece in the Sunday Star Times describing how she feels about her son Nayan’s death and the sentence passed on the driver who killed him. And I’m posting this as the families of 29 trapped miners wait to find out what’s happened to them.
I don’t know how those families are feeling right now, nor how they feel about the media circus that’s temporarily set up in town.
But it seems to me that what Emma Woods was saying – to Michael Laws, who’d written a column about the court case, and the media in general – was that they weren’t representing her right. She didn’t feel what they implied she should.
And nor do I.
I tire of the terminology of death. People with cancer are brave battlers, every loss is terrible, every death a tragedy, a life snatched away in its prime; every family is reportedly on a mission to prevent anyone else dying in this sad and terrible way, no matter how uncommon the cause of death, or how ordinary.
You know what I’d like?
I’d like reporters to stop hounding people if their father or son or sister has died a spectacular death and ignoring them if not.
I’d like a moratorium on asking people then and there if they plan to lobby for a law change, or set up a fund to raise awareness and try to save others. Leave it for a year, eh. Give them time to think.
And I’d like news writers to make an effort not to be patronizing. To treat death more as the inevitable part of life that it is and less as the senseless work of a dark reaper. To treat grieving families as people doing their best in a tough situation, and not as emotional simpletons.
If no death is a good death, then we are failures all.