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American Journalism Review
A Moving Serial Narrative about AIDS  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1996

A Moving Serial Narrative about AIDS   

By Art Kramer
Art Kramer is a former editorial assistant.     


In February, the busiest corner on Florida's Gulf Coast was the upper right quarter of page 3A in the St. Petersburg Times. That's where Times readers found "Three Little Words," Roy Peter Clark's 29-part serial narrative about one family's struggle to cope with the consequences of AIDS.

For Clark, 48, it was an experiment at mediating what he describes as the "cultural war over story length" that has raged in the journalism world since the debut of USA Today.

For Times readers it was a daily chance to live--in "morning-cup-of-coffee- length chapters"--the terrifying ordeal of Jane Morse, whose idyllic life was shattered by the discovery that Mick Morse, her husband of 21 years, was dying of AIDS.

Clark summed up Mick's death in his first sentence. From then on the issues and questions raised in the 30,000-word saga were presented as chapter-ending cliffhangers. At the end of one chapter Jane is about to get back test results to find out if she too is infected. At the end of another, Jane discovers their son David about to shave with Mick's razor, introducing the subject of transmission through casual contact.

"I thought the cliffhangers were needed to pull readers into a month-long series," says Clark. "But I also wanted them to experience her plight as she waited for those test results to come back." He says he made a point of resolving each chapter's cliffhanger in the lede of the next day's chapter. "That was a thank you to the reader," he says, "for sticking with the story."

The title of the series, "Three Little Words," alludes to the words Mick spoke in 1989 that turned Jane's world upside down: "I have AIDS." Clark was hand-picked by Jane to write her story and spent two years researching it, traveling to Union City, Michigan, where Mick and Jane had met, and to Brazil, where Mick had been the headmaster of a private American school. The series traces the couple's history through the difficulties Mick and Jane have telling their children about Mick's disease and Jane's painful efforts to rebuild her life after he dies.

"Three Little Words" is the latest in a long line of serial narratives from the Times, including Sheryl James' 1991 Pulitzer-winning "A Child Abandoned." The serial form has been described as experimental at least since February 1836, when a 24-year-old reporter for London's Morning Chronicle, Charles Dickens, likened publishing his first serial to throwing up a "pilot balloon, trusting it may catch favourable current."

But observers like Philip Meyer, who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are calling Clark's new wrinkle on an old idea--chapters published daily over a month-long run--"a masterpiece that should instigate the birth of a new genre in news writing."

Not that the series was without controversy. Clark says the most common complaint was that the 1,000-word chapters were too brief, and many readers objected to his description of gay lifestyles in Rio de Janeiro, where Mick, Jane and their three children lived for 14 years. But even though his frank discussion of sexual mores upset some readers, Clark says part of his passion for the story "came from my own movement and learning. I had to overcome some of my own homophobia to write this."

Reaction to "Three Little Words" has been intense. Even though not everyone approved of the series, everyone, it seems, was talking about it. TimesLine, the Times' voice-mail system, logged more than 7,400 calls about it.

The Times showcased the series on its Web site (www.sptimes.com), where mostly positive feedback was received. David Morse, the son about to use Mick's razor in chapter 3, posted a message thanking Clark for putting his family's story into perspective. "Not only was I learning the truth (as painful as it may have been), but I was also learning more about my father, a man who meant the world to me, but at the same time always kept me at a distance," Morse wrote.

Given the series' success, why don't newspapers do more serials? According to Jon Franklin, who practically retired the trophy for serial narratives in 16 years at Baltimore's Evening Sun, "Writing, editing and advertising such stories require skills that run counter to the average newsroom mentality."

But the psychic rewards are hard to beat, says Frank-lin, a two-time Pulitzer winner who teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. He recalls riding in an elevator with a man reading one of his serials, unaware of the presence of its author. "Have you read this? It's great!" the man exclaimed. "That was probably the high point in my journalistic career," Franklin says.

Clark describes a similar experience. His daughter, Emily, who waits tables in St. Petersburg part time while attending college, told two customers who were discussing the story that she was the writer's daughter. They asked her to autograph their copies of the Times.

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