Friday, December 30, 2011

From the editing trenches: Dissecting a fire story

There was a terribly tragic fire in Stamford, Conn., on Christmas. The day later, the following story appeared in my paper.

I can't tell whether it was an original AP dispatch or was reworked on the local desk. I've found similar, but not identical, versions online that take care of some of the problems noted below.

But the story provides a good case study of editing problems, especially with structure. So I present the original below annotated with my notes (I use these for my classes), and then a re-edited version. Feel free to comment:


    STAMFORD, Conn. — Fire tore through a house in a tony neighborhood along the Connecticut shoreline on Christmas morning, killing five people, including three children, but sparing two whom firefighters managed to rescue.
The typical wire-service lede that puts the actor before the result. And why is it that fires always "tore" or "ripped" or "swept"? Will people be talking about how "a fire tore through a house" or that five people, including three children, died in a fire on Christmas? And why use the general "tony neighborhood" description (is it even needed and is "tony" a common word) when Connecticut shoreline, combined with the home of an ad exec, probably signals all you need? And why make readers wait to find out who was rescued or whose house it was?

    Neighbors awakened to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help, but they could only watch in horror as flames devoured the grand home in the pre-dawn darkness and the shocked, injured survivors were led away from the house.
Cut this at "pre-dawn darkness."

    The large Victorian home was purchased last year by 47-year-old Madonna Badger, an advertising executive in the fashion industry.
Really? This is the next most interesting thing in the story? How about what Badger was screaming? (If need be, we can add the purchase information after that and include the neighborhood.) And when we finally do use this, we can write it directly, not in passive form.

    Stamford Police Sgt. Paul Guzda said Badger's three daughters – a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins – were killed. He said her parents, who were visiting for the holiday, also died. Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford on Sunday morning.
The first two sentences are OK, though they can be tightened – and why back in with the attribution? The last sentence, however, raises lots of questions and distracts so early in the story. It would be better to explain who the other person was who was led from the house, then mention the husband.

    The fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. Firefighters were able to rescue the two adults from the house in Shippan Point, a neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
The best information here was that the fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. The neighborhood information can be consolidated with the purchase information. And notice that the story still does not actually say Badger was one of those rescued. I'm not sure why the neighborhood information has to be attributed, since assessor's records are referenced later, but to be conservative, let's leave it.

    Neighbors describe Badger screaming repeatedly, “My whole life is in there.”
Move this up, and get the quote to the front. Also, the last "Badger" mentioned in this story is Matthew. That can cause a momentary hiccup in the reader's understanding. It's solved if we move this sentence before the appearance of the husband.

    Firefighters knew there were other people in the home but could not get to them because the heat was too intense, Conte said. “It’s never easy. That’s for sure,” he said. “I’ve been on this job 38 years … not an easy day.”
The first part of that quote does little work given the second part.

    Conte said fire officials don’t yet know the cause of the blaze and likely won’t get clues for a few days until fire marshals can enter the structure.
    By Sunday evening, the roof of the blackened house had largely collapsed.
Those two grafs are keepers but can be combined into one graf.

    A neighbor, Sam Cingari Jr., said he was awakened by the sound of screaming and saw that the house was engulfed by flames.
    “We heard this screaming at 5 in the morning,” he said. “The whole house was ablaze and I mean ablaze.”
Good material that can be moved up. But the quote essentially restates the graf before it. Fix this.

    Cingari said he did not know his neighbors, who he said bought the house last year and were renovating it.
Can be kept.

    The 3,349-square foot, five-bedroom home sold for $1.7 million in December 2010, according to the Stamford assessment office’s website.
Worth keeping, but relocate the information.

    Charles Mangano, who lives nearby, said his wife woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He ran outside to see if he could help.
    “I heard someone yell ‘Help, help, help me!’ and I started sprinting up my driveway,” Mangano told The Advocate of Stamford. There were already numerous firetrucks on the scene.
    “I just came out as a neighbor,” Mangano said. “There’s really nothing I could do.”
    He told the newspaper he saw a barefoot man wearing boxers and a woman being taken out of the house. “The woman said, ‘My whole life is in there,’” Mangano said.
Earlier, she was "screaming." Now she's just saying it? Eliminate the dissonance by eliminating this for now, but query the AP. The quote about not being able to do anything makes a much better ending to the story and, since it just reinforces what came before, it can be cut, if necessary.

    Badger, an ad executive in the fashion industry, is the founder of Badger & Winters Group. Badger was responsible for high-profile ad campaigns when she worked at Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
Keep, but reposition and tighten.

    Guzda said the male acquaintance was a contractor who was doing work on the home. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said Badger was treated and discharged.
This info should be up much higher. And what was the man's condition? Also, use "released" instead of the terribly officious "discharged." And once we move up that the second person was a contractor, we can more seamlessly work in the idea that Badger bought the home last year

    “It is a terrible, terrible day,” Mayor Michael Pavia told reporters. “There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford.”
Stamford is about 25 miles northeast of New York City.
Move this up higher (one might argue that the mayor's quote is somewhat obvious – there unlikely has been a worse Christmas – but it still resonates and adds to the fire chief's). And the location, which inelegantly hangs at the end, can be worked more seamlessly into the sentence about driving Matthew Badger from New York City to Stamford.

Here is my redone vrersion:
    STAMFORD, Conn. – Three children of a fashion-industry advertising executive and her parents died on Christmas morning when fire burned through the family's house on the Connecticut shoreline. The executive, Madonna Badger, and another person were rescued by firefighters.
    Neighbors awakened to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help, but they could only watch in horror as flames devoured the grand home in the pre-dawn darkness.
    “My whole life is in there,” neighbors said Badger screamed repeatedly.
    Badger's three daughters – a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins – were killed as were her parents, who were visiting for the holiday, Stamford Police Sgt. Paul Guzda said.
    The other person rescued was a contractor doing work on the home, Guzda said. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said Badger, 47, was treated and released. [Need man's condition or sentence that it was not immediately available. Also should say his name was not available.]
    The fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. A neighbor, Sam Cingari Jr., said he was awakened by screaming. “The whole house was ablaze and I mean ablaze,” he said.
    Cingari said he did not know his neighbors, who he said bought the house last year and were renovating it.
    Firefighters knew there were other people inside but could not get to them because the heat was too intense, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
    “I’ve been on this job 38 years … not an easy day,” he said.
    Fire officials don’t yet know the fire's cause and are not likely to get clues for a few days until fire marshals can enter the structure, Conte said. By Sunday evening, the roof of the blackened house had largely collapsed.
    Mayor Michael Pavia called it “a terrible, terrible day.”
    “There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford,” he said.
    Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford, about 25 miles northeast, on Sunday morning.
    Madonna Badger founded Badger & Winters Group and was responsible for high-profile ad campaigns when she worked at Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
    She bought the 3,349-square foot, five-bedroom Victorian home for $1.7 million in December 2010, according to the Stamford assessment office’s website. It is in Shippan Point, a neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound, Conte said.
    Charles Mangano, who lives nearby, said his wife woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He ran outside to see if he could help.
   “I heard someone yell ‘Help, help, help me!’ and I started sprinting up my driveway,” Mangano told The Advocate of Stamford. There were already numerous fire trucks on the scene.
    “I just came out as a neighbor,” Mangano said. “There’s really nothing I could do.”

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