The TV anchors love to set up the next story — the one coming after the impending round of commercials — with teasers like, ”You won’t believe this next story…Don’t go anywhere!” or “Shocking discover in Kansas City…You’ll have to hear it to believe it.”
That’s usually the signal to flip channels because the station promoting the pyrotechnics is guilty, invariably, of hyperbole. After all, if it was such a big story, wouldn’t it have been the lead story at the top of the broadcast?
And yet, every once in a while stories come along that merit some hyperventilation and deserve to be written and reported in a you-gotta-be-kidding tone. Such was the story that led The Star on Thursday about the rediscovery of the shotgun that was used to kill political leader Leon Jordan 40 years ago.
The Star gave it an attention-grabbing headline — “The missing gun turns up — in use by police,” which captured the irony of the situation: The weapon had disappeared from the evidence room at police headquarters. But from that tantalizing headline, the story, while inherently interesting, went downhill because the reporter wrote it like he was reporting the discovery of a turd in a sand box.
It just goes to show you that even Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporters like Mike McGraw have their off days and need the guidance of watchful editors. Along with Mark Morris, federal courts reporter, McGraw is the best investigative reporter at The Star.
He wrote Thursday’s story because it was a follow-up to a “take-out” that he and reporter Glenn Rice did a couple of weeks ago on the 40th anniversary of Jordan’s slaying — one of Kansas City’s greatest murder mysteries.
Being The Star’s primary investigative reporter, however, McGraw writes relatively few stories — devoting his time to the big throws. As a result, his style is not well suited to the big, breaking developments that are the bread and butter of most “daily” reporters, who write several times a week and are experienced in calibrating their stories to the appropriate level of excitement.
And, make no mistake, this was exciting news: Police lost the gun that was used to kill Jordan, perhaps selling it at auction in 1976, only to repurchase it the following year from a gun shop and put it to use in one of its patrol cars. Presumably, the Jordan murder weapon has been in one or another patrol car, moving about the streets of Kansas City, the last 30 years or so.
But consider how McGraw opened his story:
“In a reversal of an earlier decision, Kansas City police are reopening a 40-year-old investigation into the 1970 shotgun slaying of black political leader Leon Jordan.
“The about-face came after local civil rights leader Alvin Sykes met with Police Chief Jim Corwin, and comes on the heels of another major development in the cast. Police have rediscovered physical evidence in the case that they had earlier said was missing.”
I hate to say it but “blah, blah, blah.” Pro forma. No imagination, little thought.
It’s not until the third paragraph that McGraw mentions the discovery of the Remington 12-gauge shotgun that was used to kill Jordan outside his Green Duck tavern early on the steamy morning of July 15, 1970.
Unfortunately, the pace of the story does not pick up; it plods through its entire 34 column inches.
Now, let’s analyze the key elements of the story.
Is it important that police have decided to reopen the investigation (which they had earlier indicated they were not interested in doing)? Of course. Is Sykes’ agitation important? Yes. But ask yourselves….What’s the most astonishing part of this story? Right…the shotgun being found in a police car!
Without question, the lead of the story — the first sentence or two — should have turned on the gun.
It could have gone something like this:
“The weapon used to kill political leader Leon Jordan has been found…not buried in the police evidence room but in a patrol car, where it circuitously ended up decades ago after police disposed of it.
“The astonishing development, along with the discovery of other missing evidence in the case, has prompted police to reopen the Jordan case, one of Kansas City’s most enduring murder mysteries.”
To me, that strikes at the inherent drama of the case and immediately gets the reader focused on the seminal question: “How in the world did the gun end up being used as standard equipment in a police patrol car?”
The lead usually is the key to grabbing the readers’ attention. In this case, the subject matter is so interesting — and the layout (including a 16-1/2 inch photo of the gun) was so good — that most readers probably stuck with McGraw, even through his lackluster account.
But with a better lead and a more dramatic pitch throughout the story, he could have maximized readership and had a story that merited a spot in his portfolio of “all-time-best stories.”
Some people might say, “Who are you, Mr. JimmyC,” to cast aspersions at Mike McGraw?” My answer is this: I was not nearly as good a reporter as McGraw. He’s one of the best in the country, and The Star is fortunate to have him. But on this day, with this story, he blew it. And, by now, he probably realizes it.
His line editor (his immediate supervisor) could have — should have — saved him. So could other editors who looked at the story before publication. But they didn’t.