In New Orleans, A Riveting Murder Series (And Not Chandra Levy)

By: Mark Fitzgerald

They are both multi-part series published on the front page every day for more than week. They report on the murder of someone who, in life, only friends and family had ever heard of. One ended last Sunday, just as the other began.

Yet, The Times-Picayune account of the investigation into the murder of 17-year-old Lance Michael Zarders, written by police reporter Brendan McCarthy, is riveting readers in New Orleans — while The Washington Post’s 12-part investigation into the 2001 murder of Chandra Levy gets its share of praise and page views, but also well-publicized hoots from bloggers, a lot of readers, and journalists that include some inside the Post newsroom.

Over the phone, the 26-year-old McCarthy sounds a bit like Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski,” addressing you as “Dude,” and proclaiming himself “lucky” to be covering crime in the U.S. city with the highest per-capita murder rate.

“Who Killed Chandra Levy?” is an undeniably well-written account by investigative reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham, and Metro reporter Sylvia Moreno, of a still-unsolved murder that fascinated not just Washington but the nation when Chandra Levy’s body was found dead along a jogging path. The case had enough elements to launch a dozen ripped-from-the-headlines “Law & Order” episodes: young white woman in a racially charged big city that’s also the nation’s capital, and, hey, was she involved with a married congressman with a mysteriously gone-missing watch box?

But the massive package ended up offending a surprising number of people. Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote the other day that reader response so far had been 70 emails with favorable comments – and 410 with criticisms. The D.C. alternative weekly City Paper reported that one Post reporter, Robert Pierre, wrote in an internal memo that it was “unconscionable” that a year of enterprise reporting and 12 front pages were devoted to the murder of a white woman long ago in a city where most of the 200 people murdered every year are black males.

Contrast that with comments from readers that are appended to the Web version of each chapter of the Times-Picayune series “Homicide 37: Seeking justice for Lance.” They praise the storytelling. They rail against the crime that plagues New Orleans, and the municipal incompetence that, for instance, let Lance Zarders be shot down right below a crime surveillance camera the city never got around to actually turning on.

They read it like a novel. “Hope this story ends in nailing the butcher who took the life of that poor kid,” wrote “hereintx” after Tuesday’s installment.

The difference in reaction, I think, is in the differences between the stories.

The Post takes on an old and singular case with an atypical victim of D.C. street crime.

Homicide 37, on the other hand, is about a young black youth all too typical of those dying violently right now in New Orleans. And its story is emblematic of all that besets a city that’s rebounding in restaurants and restorations — but struggling to contain a crime wave with overworked cops, scared-to-death witnesses, and so few resources that the New Orleans Police Department doesn’t even have its own machine to make photo lineups.

But the most striking contrast is in the storytelling and packaging.

The Post follows the usual newspaper playbook for an Important Story — go long. The series kicks off with 1,700 words, and by the tenth chapter, with two to go, the article still crams in 1,600 words.

But the Times-Pic took a different strategy with the story by McCarthy.

Installments run to about 700 words, and McCarthy has the page-turning writing style of a latter-day Raymond Chandler. A sample from the end of Wednesday’s story:
*****************
“We have identified the person that shot your son. We have a warrant for his arrest, ” Pardo repeats.

They share a couple pleasantries and hang up.

“What did Dad say?” Wischan asks.

“He said, ‘Thank you, thank you so much, ‘ ” Pardo tells him.

They both nod. A wry smile, a small sign of satisfaction slips across their mugs. Both men know the case remains far from closed. Cases collapse all the time in this city. Witnesses flake. Evidence comes up short. Juries aren’t convinced.

But for now, the detectives can give a father a small measure of comfort: They believe they know who did it.

Now, they need to know why.
******************
Editor Jim Amoss said the paper didn’t want readers intimidated by the story’s sheer size.

“We wanted it to be widely read, and we wanted it to be accessible,” he said. “We wanted it to be concise. The hallmark of journalism too often are these walls of type.”

Mike Perlstein is a visiting assistant professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, who was part of the Times-Picayune team that stayed behind in the city when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. In an e-mail to City Editor David Meeks he said “this kind of bite-sized serialization and online packaging is the future of journalism.”

Many readers have mentioned the “digestible length” of the installments, Meeks said.

“Newspapers always talk about doing compelling work at a shorter length,” he added. “but what newspapers end up doing is being unable to resist the temptation to empty their notebooks.”

Certainly, reporter McCarthy must have had plenty of notes to empty. The story started as a way to very specifically illustrate the NOPD’s challenge in solving homicide cases. McCarthy says he told police officials the only real way to do it was to ride along with detectives.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the story is that the police department said, okay.

“Our relationship with the Police Department in New Orleans has not always been cordial,” Editor Amoss says with some understatement. “But Brendan McCarthy has always been a very good police reporter. He understands cops, is able to work with them.”

McCarthy was lucky, in the journalistic sense, with Homicide 37. He was riding with the two detectives readers would come to know intimately from the story — Anthony Pardo and Harold Wischan — when the call came in about the unknown black male who turned out to be Lance Zarders.

They arrived so quickly at the scene that Times-Picayune photographer Michael DeMocker was able to get the haunting shot of detective walking towards the body in a gutter on Frenchman Street.

From that point on McCarthy and DeMocker stuck by the side of the detectives for the next 48 hours. “I called my boss (Assistant City Editor) Brian Thevenot late at night, I was wild-eyed and I smelled, and I said I can’t come in to work, I’m really on something here,” McCarthy said.

Since Hurricane Katrina hit, the Times-Picayune has built — they’d say deepened — a relationship with readers undoubtedly deeper than in any other big city. Rhode Island native McCarthy said readers will “treat you like God and then cuss you out,” and call with detailed questions about the most seemingly routine story.

Yet even he’s a little surprised at the chord “Homicide 37” has struck. “I always use the test of the lunch ladies in the cafeteria,” he said. “I had one yesterday kind of wanting to bribe me to tell her how the story turns out.”

By complete coincidence, the Post’s Chandra Levy series ended last Sunday — the first day of the Times-Pic’s “Homicide 37.” Their story had always been planned to run just before the Olympics, City Editor Meeks said. Jim Amoss, the editor, said he was at a loss to comment on the Post story because as of Wednesday, anyway, he hadn’t read it.

McCarthy’s take on the differences between his piece and the Post’s: “Well, um, they’ve got a lot more words.”

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