By Caitlin Kelly
Many of Broadside’s readers are journalists or student journalists, so occasionally I explain the backstory of how one of my major features comes to be. (With tips!)
Here’s the story, which ran April 27 in The New York Times.
Here’s the lede:
When Tchae Measroch leaves work, his hands usually bear a fresh cut or bruise. He works, often on his knees, in a small room crowded with an odd mix of items: a dried-grass hula skirt, a car door, baseball bats, swords and knives of varying length, a camouflage net typically used to disguise military equipment from enemy eyes.
Mr. Measroch, a lively 36-year-old sound-effects artist, spends his days figuring out how to make noises he’s never heard — like that of an 18th-century musket being loaded or the thump of someone’s skull hitting the deck of a warship. A selection of wooden flooring samples also helps him create the sounds of each character’s footfalls, no matter in what location, or century, they appear. “A big part of the job is footsteps,” he explains.
I came up with this idea many months ago and pitched it to my editor at the Sunday business section, who had already bought four previous stories from me, so I felt confident he’d be ready for more. (Tip: Repeat business from someone who knows and likes your work is the best!)
I know the Times doesn’t do much on Canada, where I grew up, and not much on business there (Tip: Look for something unusual, less covered by your outlet.)
I knew this story had a number of really interesting elements: it’s based in Montreal, uses a huge, multinational workforce and is based in France. I wanted to focus on a sort of story, and industry that gets relatively very little coverage in the mainstream press.
I had never played a video game in my life! (Tip: Don’t be scared to venture into a subject you know nothing about. You will be sure to ask a lot of questions that an expert overlooks, but which your readers might wonder as well.)
I reached out to the PR contact to set up a day of face to face interviews in early February. During our very first (of many) conversations, he warned me not to even ask about video games and violence. (Tip: I did anyway, with him in the room after I’d interviewed the writer of Far Cry Three. They may tell you to behave a certain way, but that’s not your job.)
He chose a few people to speak with me and I started reading as much about the industry and this company and their games as I could. I speak fluent French so could also read articles in French, (and do some of my interviews there) if need be. (Tip: You have to have some context for every story, no matter how short. Why does it matter and why now and to whom?)
I planned to do a basic company profile, but the challenge with focusing on only one company is not producing a puff piece — uncritical blather. A major company literally choosing to open its doors to a Times reporter is nervous as hell and tightly controls what we can see or hear. (Tip: Be sure to find people who are not pre-selected by the PR staff and talk to as many sources as possible, including former employees, to get the best-rounded picture you can.)
So it’s something of a battle of (polite) wills from start to finish, as they hope to put everything in the best light possible — naturally — and I look for a compelling narrative or drama or conflict.
By the time I found it, the loss of one of their most talented writers, no one would discuss it! I spoke to a few people who knew all the details but they wouldn’t tell me anything much and certainly not on the record. (Tip: Do it anyway):
There was much industry speculation when Patrice Désilets, who created Assassin’s Creed, left Ubisoft in 2010 to work for THQ, a rival in Montreal. Had his bonus been insufficient? His pay too low? Neither Mr. Désilets nor his Los Angeles agent would discuss the matter; after Ubisoft acquired THQ Montreal in an auction of THQ assets in January, he returned to work for his former employer.
One of the books I was reading at the time, for pleasure, was book of reporting tips, one of which was “Go early, stay late.” So I got to the Ubisoft studio 15 minutes early — in seriously frigid weather — and stood on the street corner to watch staff arrive…almost all of whom were young men, a fact I could easily have overlooked in my rushed and controlled tour of the place.
While freezing my butt off, I noticed that the next door neighbors were a gas station and an upholstery shop; the latter detail made it into the story, contextualizing the neighborhood and Ubi’s choice of low-cost real estate. (Tip: Notice everything — and select later. Use your cellphone for reference photos and all the interesting visual details you will forget or get wrong or not notice in the moment. Your writing should be visual and auditory, taking readers into that place with you.)
Interestingly, and not unusually, the two most compelling elements of the story came about unplanned and by accident. The man in the lede was someone I met for perhaps 10 minutes of an entire day, but knew immediately his piece of it would be cool and unusual.
The second was discovering that the game’s writer Jeffrey Yohalem, is American and a graduate of Yale. Perfect for the Times audience, so I added another spontaneous meeting with him to my agenda in Montreal; I did more than 13 interviews, most 30 to 60 minutes, for this story, many of which are not in this version (Tip: Over-reporting means you’re likely to much better understand and explain the nuances of your story, even if you cannot use the quotes or details as you or your source might have hoped. Better to know more than less!)
Writing this story became much more challenging than I’d hoped; as a freelancer, I know my fee in advance and have to budget my research, reporting, writing, revising and editing (with editors) time into all of that before I begin. This story became too big and too unmanageable. I had a ton of information but no clear story line.
I was also between editors, a perilous spot for everyone as my new editor and I had never before worked together and she had not commissioned the story and it was changing shape under her direction. It worked out, but needed yet another 10 hours’ reporting (much of which ended up on the cutting room floor.)
I’m happy with the final product, and received a nice note from one of the players in the piece, which was pleasant. It also became the third most emailed and fifth most read of the entire day’s paper — something I do with almost every business story I’ve written for the Times.
I’ll be starting work on my sixth piece for this section in June and hoping to do many more. Who knows business writing could be so enjoyable? (Tip: You never know what sort of writing will most engage you.)