Brother, Can You Spare ...


This is a story within a story.

A journalist named Paige Williams had the story.

She just needed a publication to publish the story, a not-so-minor detail.

After multiple rejections and finally selling the piece to The New York Times, only to have the opportunity go south, she took matters into her own hands.

Specifically, Williams decided to self-publish the story called “Finding Dolly Freed” on her Web site and include a virtual tin cup with the following copy:

“Finding Dolly Freed” is a piece of independent journalism that cost more than $2,000 to produce. To help the writer recoup her expenses and perhaps bank a small paycheck, please click here and pay whatever amount you’d like. Think of it as Radiohead journalism. Thank you in advance!

The Nieman Storyboard does a nice job capturing this second story and the “glamorous” world of publishing (5,885 unique visitors and $878.75 in donations as of Jan. 14).

Talk about sharing from the heart:

“If we don’t follow what we love, what the hell are we doing? That’s our job. If I backtracked over the course of my 20-year career as a journalist and played every move safe, I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done… For me the outcome has nothing to do with the money. I wrapped the money into it because I was curious about what would happen.”

The Nieman post also includes pontification from Tanja Aitamurto, a Finnish journalism researcher, who shares:

“I’m very excited about this project. It shows that people are willing to pay for in-depth journalism, not just blog posts or news stories.”

I’m impressed with Williams’ chutzpah. And Ms. Aitamurto certainly knows more about journalism than myself, but does $878.75 really mean “people are willing to pay for in-depth journalism?”

Turning to the actual story on Dolly Freed, the first thing that comes to mind: Williams has a gift for long-form storytelling with the kickoff sentence setting the tone:

By noon, Dolly Freed has composted peppers, studied a tadpole under an old Russian field microscope, sniffed and tasted a new supply of homegrown garlic, discussed Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, demonstrated how to turn an ordinary pressure cooker into a moonshine still, looked up “rose-breasted grosbeak” in Peterson Field Guides, and harvested cherry tomatoes from her garden.

In short, it’s a story that revisits the life of a middle-aged woman who at the age of 18 penned a book about her experiences living with her dad off the grid. Acclaim for the book generated a spike of fame that included an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show (think Larry King with a dash of Conan O’Brien).

dolly freed storytelling

Then she disappeared, or at least disappeared from public view.

As Williams slowly unwinds the look at Dolly’s life today versus back in 1978 when she wrote the book, it’s the contrast and juxtaposition that makes for a compelling read:

It isn’t often that readers encounter a recipe for fishballs in the same book that mentions Diogenes, Napoleon, Darwin, Wagner, Demosthenes, sixth-century Constantinople, and Ecclesiastes, but Dolly wrote as economically as she dressed rabbits for braising, wasting nothing.

And it doesn’t hurt for the protagonist to have a sense of humor. When asked about her social life in college after rejoining society on her terms, she shares:

“By then I had learned not to say too much about my possum living days,” she says. “Starting a conversation with things like ‘Have you ever watched a flock of geese sleep at night?’ or ‘You know how when you go spearfishing for spawning suckers … ’ or ‘Even though I’ve had road-killed dog and it was very good, I wouldn’t kill a dog just to eat it’ just makes people stare at you,” she says. “Don’t try these openers yourself—trust me it’s a mistake.”

I don’t know. An opening line around eating road-killed dog might work with the Pabst beer crowd.

Regardless, the storytelling concepts that connect the reader to Dolly also have a place in business.

If you’re interested in more information on the Williams saga, the Neiman Storyboard also published a Q&A with the reporter.

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