By: Graham Webster
Alicia Parlette, a 23-year-old intern at the San Francisco Chronicle, got a phone call at work in early March. She had been diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. This Sunday, the paper began publishing a weeklong series written by Parlette called “Alicia’s Story.”
The first installment appeared under lettering in Parlette’s own handwriting.The story of the newspaper series, however, is understandably sensitive.
As word spread that the well-liked intern was facing an exceptional challenge, managing editor Robert J. Rosenthal saw a copy of an e-mail Parlette had sent. “It just blew me away what she wrote,” Rosenthal told E&P Friday.
While talking to Parlette about her illness, Rosenthal said he saw its potential as a newspaper story immediately, but he was very careful about how to approach her.
“As I began to talk to her, I was thinking, ‘God, I don’t know if I should do this,'” he said. “But I started thinking about it as a story — her story.”
Opting not to act on that urge immediately, Rosenthal took a day or two to consider whether it would be appropriate to ask her about writing her story. “I didn’t want to do anything inappropriate or exploit her in any way, or exploit her situation,” he said.
When he finally brought it up with Parlette, he said, she was excited to write it. “Her face just brightened up and she had this big beaming smile on her face,” he said.
Over the next days, he asked Parlette to consider whether she wanted to go through with the writing, emphasizing that if the story were to be written, it would have to be “completely honest, it would be very painful.”
Ultimately, Parlette opted to write her story. She worked closely with Rosenthal, who wanted to keep her very involved in the project. In the end, a team of about a dozen Chronicle staff including editors and people from online, photography, and presentation teams worked on the story.
The product is a seven-day series that weighs in between 22,000 and 25,000 words that debuted Sunday in the Chronicle.
All along, Rosenthal emphasized that Parlette would keep control of her work, giving her the opportunity to back out if she wanted to, and keeping her involved in every stage of the planning process.
Rosenthal said he thinks the story will communicate well with readers, and that it will be exceptional. “This has been really good for her,” he said. “It’s going to be quite a different story for a newspaper.”