“A topic is not a story.” A post mortem of a postmortem on Columbia.


by Lesley Evans Ogden

One of the most difficult but also most valuable lessons I’ve learned in making the transition from scientist to science journalist is that a topic is not a story. Scientists are often driven by passion for topics – bat behavior, particle acceleration, human genome sequencing… Journalists, in contrast, need a narrative. It’s their vehicle to tempt readers to embark on a story and stay aboard for the ride.

During my recent sojourn at the Santa Fe Science Writer’s Workshop, Robert Lee Hotz took us on a behind-the-scenes journey to explain how he approached what was to become a Pulitzer Prize–nominated 6-part series, “Butterfly on a Bullet,” about the Columbia space shuttle disaster. What I share with you in this post is Hotz’s fascinating journey from daunting assignment to finished piece, unraveling how he uncovered a unique story amongst the intense and widespread coverage of the topic. The advice he shared is relevant to all journalists, not just science writers.

Hotz exhumed for us the process of producing this six-part series, which was published in December 2003 in the Los Angeles Times. The assignment took Hotz six months to report, and six weeks to write and edit. The back-story, explains Hotz, highlights the challenge for all of us in reporting any story, large or small.

Hotz opened his writer’s toolbox and invited us in.

On February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia, scheduled to conclude its 28th mission, disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana during its reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven crewmembers aboard. It was a story that quickly swept the globe with massive media coverage. Hotz, then at the LA Times, was contacted by his editor and asked to take readers behind the scenes of the largest and most public accident investigation in US history. The assignment represented the pursuit of a veritable holy grail – a unique angle on an already over-reported story. It was a daunting task. Hotz says he had some hope, “but considerable panic.”

In retrospect, Hotz thinks the key in that transition from topic to story – for this story in particular and stories in general – can be broken down into a series of steps:

1. Start digging. You can’t write what you haven’t reported. “Pay meticulous attention to sensory detail,” says Hotz. Pay attention to colors, sounds, smells, and textures that you can later use as the literary nuggets that will hold the reader’s attention and make your story come alive. You won’t know in advance what details you are going to use, explains Hotz.

2. Shed your preconceptions. We often have a narrative template already in mind, says Hotz, that pulls us towards what we think the nature of the story is. We need to put that aside, says Hotz, and try not to be deaf to what sources are trying to tell us. A major challenge for Hotz was too much information. Explaining that there were 21,000 news stories published about the accident investigation in the year Hotz covered the story, “this was a reporter’s nightmare,” he says. But sometimes ideas for unique angles, explains Hotz, arise in unexpected places. “Some of the best stories are hidden out in plain view in the footnotes and appendices of government documents that no one [except Hotz, apparently] ever actually reads.”

3. Character matters. Look people in the eye, and get to the grassroots, says Hotz. Give yourself an opportunity to wander up the blind alleys, he says, since “one of them may lead to the heart of your story.” One of the things the Columbia investigation hinged on, explains Hotz, was the flight recorder. Hotz discovered that no other journalist had bothered to track down and interview the character who’d found it. Hotz discovered Chauncy Birdtail, an Assiniboine firefighter from Milk River, Montana. His wife was pregnant, and Birdtail needed $900 to pay off an overdue drunk driving charge, so he left home for 6 month’s of work for the U.S. Forest Service, slogging around the swamps of Louisiana to recover the thousands of pieces of Columbia. This man was just one small character in the story, explains Hotz, “But what a remarkable guy. You could not make him up!” he says. Get out of your office and talk to people directly at every opportunity, advises Hotz. One of his most revealing conversations was while drinking white wine with an 82-year-old retired space scientist in the man’s Houston kitchen with his poodle [I forgot to ask if the poodle was drinking wine too]. “This guy saved my ass,” says Hotz, and suggests that if you open yourself up, your sources will open up too.

4. History matters. Context lends meaning to a story. Some of the sources Hotz discovered during his research, for example, were from digging through the cast of characters involved in the history of the space shuttle program. Looking up retired NASA scientists, such as those involved in designing the architecture of the space shuttle, led Hotz to that critical kitchen wine and poodle conversation. It was this key character, involved in the design of the Mercury and Apollo capsules flown by NASA from the 50s through 70s, that explained to Hotz why the shuttle’s shape made it an accident waiting to happen.

5. Find a guide. “Find a seeing eye dog,” says Hotz, “someone that can blaze a path into the thicket of the story.” Hotz interviewed 140 people for this story, but one crucial person, Hotz explains, “brought him into the tent.” That Houston kitchen conversation, with a man who didn’t want to be named in the story, revealed to Hotz a fatal design flaw in the shuttle, a nugget that was to become a crucial part of the story.

6. Organize as you go. There is no magic moment when your reporting can stop, and when you can sit down, and cleanly organize the heap of papers and electronic resources you’ve gathered, explains Hotz. File details immediately so you can find them later. Write down impressions and thoughts as you go. Hotz uses table of contents and footnotes features in MSWord, and information management programs like askSam PC or DEVONthink for Mac, to organize the flotsam and jetsam on big reporting projects. Being organized allowed Hotz access to information on the fly, providing the ability to ask really specific and detailed impromptu interview questions when the opportunity arose.

7. Begin in the middle. By the end of his reporting, Hotz had an outline 27,000 words long. Where on earth would he start? Many of us get paralyzed because we think that first sentence has to be perfect, explains Hotz. So, “don’t begin,” says Hotz, “just start.” [It’s a process another favorite writing book of mine (Bird by Bird) calls getting out “The Shitty First Draft.”] When you’re stuck, “it’s not a writing problem. It’s a thinking and reporting problem,” suggests Hotz, adding “I personally don’t believe in writer’s block.”

8. Structure matters. (And get help.) Finding the narrative in this story was an incredible challenge. Hotz recounts that he was “crippled with doubt.” When in doubt, start in chronological order, says Hotz. “That will probably bear no resemblance to how your story will end up, but you have to start somewhere,” says Hotz who wrote the story chunks, and figured out the order later. Hotz wrote six drafts before showing it to his editor, and 32 drafts overall, killing many literary darlings along the way. Even as a seasoned veteran, Hotz turned to a coach [before his editor] for advice. In the course of their dialogue, the piece was whittled down to its essence – hacking off weaker chunks to expose a narrative of revelation. Hotz’s writing confidant helped him find a buried lede, for example, the remarkable revelation that somehow, part of the video footage from Columbia’s flight recorder was blown clear, didn’t melt, survived the heat of re-entry, and drifted to a halt in a thornbush somewhere in Louisiana. Getting a second opinion, says Hotz, launched the arc of a new narrative that he hadn’t previously considered.

9. Verbs are life. “Make every word of a sentence carry the weight of the story,” says Hotz. “Every sentence teeter totters on a verb,” he explains. Scowled, brooded, gasped, puzzled, obsessed, twirled, dismissed, twinkled, and belched were some of Hotz’s choice verbs from the final cut of his story.

10. Facts matter. No fuzzy generalizations allowed, says Hotz. Make nothing up. Attribution is very, very important. “We are asking our readers every day to believe impossible things,” says Hotz. In science in particular, our writing strains their credulity, so “the reader has a right to know what you know,” he urges.

11. Stories have a destination. “Every story is a journey, and a journey has a destination,” says Hotz. Write the beginning with the end in mind, he advises. In this case, everything Hotz talked about in the Columbia story reinforced the beginning. His kicker tied beginning to end in a neat, poetic bow.


“Just a few weeks ago near Chireno, Texas, a farmer feeding his cattle discovered a jagged piece of alloy about the size of a fountain pen jammed in a bale of hay.
He took it to the county sheriff, who duly sent it by overnight express to NASA.
It was another piece of Columbia.
They turn up about once a week.”

– Robert Lee Hotz


Hotz’s final tip: “Read everything, never give up, and don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” Hotz’s parting quip suggests a final addition to the list: keep your sense of humour.


Robert Lee Hotz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Science Writer with the Wall Street Journal and Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Covering science and technology for over 30 years, he is amongst America’s most respected science writers. More on his Columbia series in this radio interview.


Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance journalist and science writer based in Vancouver, BC, who also enjoys writing about writing, dissecting all of its gory details. Find her on the web at lesleyevansogden.com, about.me/lesleyevansogden, and follow her on Twitter at @ljevanso.

Posted on July 12, 2013 at 9:15 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

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