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“Why’s this so good?” No. 17: Meyer Berger delivers on deadline

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The Pulitzer Prize for breaking news tends to go to a massive team effort, often one in which a dozen or more reporters feed material to one, two or even three writers, who pull together the main story. Papers like The New York Times and L.A. Times used to call this the “swarm” approach to breaking news. Send a ton of reporters into the field. Make sure nothing is missed. Put your best writers on the story.

That’s what makes “Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street,” Meyer Berger’s 1949 story of a mass shooting, so remarkable. The swarm was one guy: Berger.

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has kept Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story posted on its web site, along with a short – perhaps too short – explanation. Berger, according to the Columbia note, was assigned to the shooting story just before 11 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1949. He caught the first train to Camden and covered the story himself, and appears to have interviewed at least 20 people that day. He filed about 4,000 words. The last of his copy reached The Times by 9:20 p.m., an hour before deadline – an editor’s dream.

The story is painstakingly thorough. It is also riveting. Just about every paragraph shines with some surprising detail: the two hours the gunman held up under questioning without revealing that he’d been shot; the blood stain on his seat that gave him away; the crossed pistols and bayonets decorating the peeling walls of his home; the mother’s murmured remark about how strange her son’s eyes looked.

Editors today might quibble that the lead is a little long – in the 35-word range. But the structure is straightforward and easy to read. Into that first paragraph, Berger packs a ton of specifics: the character, age and background of the shooter; the contrast between his battles overseas and his shooting rampage “in his home block in East Camden”; the make of the gun; the number of dead. The second graph is even better, contrasting Howard Unruh’s devotion to reading scripture with his well-honed firearm skills; his lack of a history of mental illness with the likelihood that he’d “secretly nursed a persecution complex for two years or more.”

Another fault editors might question today is the lack of attribution in the lead, and especially the psychiatric conclusion in the second graph. Both could be addressed with the addition of more attribution, though you’d probably diminish the story’s flow.

At times, Berger’s account is almost cinematic:

A few minutes later River Road echoed and re-echoed to pistol fire. Howard Unruh was on the rampage. His mother, who had left the Pinners’ little white house only a few seconds before, turned back. She hurried through the door.

She cried, “Oh, Howard, oh, Howard, they’re to blame for this.” She rushed past Mrs. Pinner, a kindly gray-haired woman of 70. She said, “I’ve got to use the phone; may I use the phone?”

But before she had crossed the living room to reach for it she fell on the faded carpet in a dead faint. The Pinners lifted her onto a couch in the next room. Mrs. Pinner applied aromatic spirits to revive her.

The shooting itself unfolds as if a camera were trailing Howard Unruh:

All this was only a matter of seconds and still only a few persons had begun to understand what was afoot. Down the street at 3210 River Road is Clark Hoover’s little country barber shop. In the center was a white-painted carousel-type horse for children customers. Orris Smith, a blonde boy only 6 years old, was in it, with a bib around his neck, submitting to a shearing. His mother, Mrs. Catherine Smith, 42, sat on a chair against the wall and watched.

She looked up. Clark Hoover turned from his work, to see the six-footer, gaunt and tense, but silent, standing in the driveway with of the Luger. Unruh’s brown tropical worsted suit was barred with morning shadow. The sun lay bright in his crew-cut brown hair. He wore no hat. Mrs. Smith could not understand what was about to happen.

Unruh walked to “Brux”– that is Mrs. Smith’s nickname for her little boy – and put the Luger to the child’s chest. The shot echoed and reverberated in the little 12 by 12 shop. The little boy’s head pitched toward the wound, his hair, half-cut, stained with red. Unruh said never a word. He put the Luger close to the shaking barber’s hand. Before the horrified mother, Unruh leaned over and fired another shot into Hoover.

Any editor would be proud to print a story like this weeks or months after the event. I keep wondering what it was like to read this copy on the desk that night, knowing that the news had occurred only hours earlier, and that the newspaper had sent just one reporter to cover it all.

Mark Johnson is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting as part of a five-person team telling the story of Nicholas Volker, a boy with a rare genetic defect.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

Photo of Mark Johnson by Mike De Sisti.




5 comments

  1. Pete Skiba
    posted October 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    Asleep at the time not far away was one infant named Pete Skiba. I have read and reread this story in the Times book
    “Written into History” many times. I wish I had gotten the book before my parents and everyone in my family alive at that time had died so that I could have interviewed them.

  2. Andrea Pitzer
    posted October 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    Wow. How far away is “not far away,” Pete?

  3. Pete Skiba
    posted October 26, 2011 at 1:27 pm | permalink

    @Andrea: Well, you have a mass murder so I think a mile or two is not far away. Or maybe it is.

  4. Andrea Pitzer
    posted October 26, 2011 at 4:16 pm | permalink

    @Pete: A mile or so away is definitely closer than I’d want to be in those circumstances… You grew up to be a journalist, yes?

  5. Pete Skiba
    posted October 27, 2011 at 11:46 am | permalink

    @Andrea: Second career. I used to own a sports bar/rock club in Jersey. I became a newspaper reporter in 1999. Long and proverbially winding road. I am writing a memoir in answer to the best seller “The Tender Bar.” As a pal of mine said, “We didn’t do tender in Jersey.”

2 trackbacks

  1. [...] Meyer Berger Delivers on Deadline. From Nieman Journalism Lab’s Storyboard site, Mark Johnson details the combination of journalistic skills and storytelling that won New York Times reporter Meyer Berger a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Over several hours, Berger caught a train to Camden, N.J., interviewed 20 people, and filed a 4,000-word story about a mass shooting that reads like an excerpt from a novel. “Any editor would be proud to print a story like this weeks or months after the event,” Johnson writes. “I keep wondering what it was like to read this copy on the desk that night, knowing that the news had occurred only hours earlier, and that the newspaper had sent just one reporter to cover it all.” [...]

  2. by Why’s This So Good? | Gangrey.com on October 31, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    [...] Johnson breaks down Meyer Berger’s 1949 story of a mass shooting. Read it. This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink. ← Is Everyone A [...]

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