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Feb 19 / King Kaufman

Lars Anderson on telling the story of a person who has died

Lars Anderson of Bleacher Report talked about two stories he’s written recently for the “How I Got the Story” video series. In both, the central figure in the piece had died.

In the Shadow of the Super Bowl is about the grieving family of Don White, a construction worker and lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan who was killed in an accident during the building of Levi’s Stadium. The Final, Fateful Days of Lawrence Phillips is about the death of the former Nebraska football star, who authorities say committed suicide in his prison cell.

Anderson had covered Phillips at Nebraska for Sports Illustrated in the 1990s, and he wrote For Lawrence Phillips, a Dead Cellmate and Another Day of Reckoning last year when Phillips, serving 32 years for felony assault with a deadly weapon and domestic assault, was accused of killing his cellmate.

I asked Anderson how he approaches a story differently when the subject of it isn’t alive and can’t speak.

You approach it with great sensitivity. And it’s been my experience that once you get people starting to talk, you really don’t have to ask too many followup questions because the stories just come out. Maybe it starts in dribs and drabs but then it just becomes a steady flow of this sort of unleashing of emotion.

Anderson, who teaches journalism at the University of Alabama, says that rewriting is a key to what he does, and he estimates he rewrote each of these pieces 15 times:

So many reporters and writers, especially young writers, just say “Oh, I’ve finished. I got to 500 words so I’m done.” Or, you know, “I’ve got my requisite three sources in the story so I’m not going to make that extra phone call.” Well, you’re just going to be average. You always need to make that extra phone call, always go that extra mile.