News next: a journalism teacher's diary

February 16, 2010

A neighborhood institution

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 3:25 pm
Tags: ,

If Manny Fernandez was in my class, he’d get an A+ on his first assignment, a profile of an institution that plays an important role in the neighborhood.

Here’s the nut graf:

Everybody knows the public pay phone is dying, but nobody inclined to watch this one would believe it. It sits across the street from Queens Criminal Court, on a patch of sidewalk facing Fast & Fresh Supermarket Deli & Grocery. In the age of the iPhone and the BlackBerry, in a city where cellphones are cheaper and more plentiful than toasters, the pay phone outside Fast & Fresh is outdated, outnumbered, outperformed.

The story made page 1 of The Times on Feb. 13, not because it conveys news of earth-shaking importance but because it’s inventive and well-written. It’s a surprise–a “Hey, Maude” story.

Once he got the idea, the rest was simple, but not easy. Fernandez just stood outside the phone, observed its use and interviewed callers; but he stayed at the phone for hours at a time over a period of several days.

That same issue offered two other, more conventional, stories about neighborhood institutions–about a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy and two florists in Queens. Both keep the reader engaged by writing about conflict. The coffee shop was on the verge of closing; the florists were suing over unfair competition.

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