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Finding the human interest story for the business-to-business title.

"News" is certainly the bread and butter of b-to-b titles--what the damn government is about to do to you (or, on occasion, for you), pricing trends, "Corporation A makes unfriendly takeover bid for Corporation B," etc.

But there can also be a real place for the human interest story, even in business newsletters.

Without question, the most fun I ever had with a single story involved a turf war over the remains of the notorious western gunfighter John Wesley Hardin that I covered for Funeral Service Insider.

The story had everything: death, sex, mystery, legal struggles, the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold and the "Romance of the Old West."

Background

John Wesley Hardin, reputed to have killed more men than any other western bad man, "reformed" after a prison term for multiple murders, became a lawyer and hung out his shingle in El Paso. He was murdered, however, in 1895 over a dispute that may have involved his attentions to another man's wife. The good-hearted prostitute came forward and paid $3.50 for his funeral on boot hill.

There he remained at peace for a century until the town of Nixon, Texas, far to the east, decided it would be a good idea to have him exhumed and returned to his birthplace to lie next to his first wife--and become a local tourist attraction, as he was in El Paso.

The story contained a number of features that I thought made it strong fodder for the newsletter:

* Human interest. Believing in Leslie Norins' bromide that people are always interested in reading about something unusual that happens in their business, I hopped aboard the story. I also agreed with Pat Williams, once editorial director at Ragan, who said, "No one will read anything they don't find interesting."

FSI was always interested in "celebrity funerals." We had a good interview piece with the funeral director who handled the Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) arrangements.

* Good Luck. I found a squib on this in The New York Times while I was filling in as a contributing editor to Funeral Service Insider. (There was a lot of turnover on this title. UCG is a progressive company and a good place to work, but how many want to dedicate too much of their professional lives to writing tip stories on building your cremation business?)

Luck is often the residue of design. Good reporters should be continually reading. The guy in his cubicle reading a paper, paging through trade mags or surfing the web may be about to stumble over a nugget.

* Talkative source. The funeral director in Nixon told me everything I wanted to know about the case and the descendants of Hardin's first wife who were requesting the exhumation.

"Average people" and mid-level bureaucrats are often great sources. As Izzy Stone once said about a government office that became a great source for him, "They hadn't seen a reporter since Noah hit Mt. Ararat."

* Controversy. El Paso was ready to fight back. They went to the state vital records office for a ruling on authority for exhumations. Texas law, it turned out, was vague on the point of whether, after a century, descendants of an ex-wife "qualified."

* Relevance. The uncertainty of Texas state law gave me a hook for readers in 49 other states. "What exactly are the rules in our state. Could we wind up being sued by someone?"

Analyze, Analyze, Analyze. Reader-beneficial analysis is a key to success in today's world where "anything in the industry is on the internet in 20 minutes."

* Drama. The delegation from Nixon (presumably bearing their shovels) arrived at the cemetery in El Paso to be confronted by a local group, armed this time with an injunction, not six-shooters.

* Legs. The drama continued for a piece as both sides raced to court. A district judge eventually ruled that Hardin's body could remain in El Paso and there the case (and the gunman) rests.

Update

As this is written, the story is playing out again, this time in New York State where abstract expressionist Mark Rothko has lain at rest since 1970. It involves his children, the cemetery association, executors, various locals and lawyers for all sides. I'm sure Funeral Service Insider will be all over this one.
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Title Annotation:Editing
Author:Goss, Fred
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 16, 2008
Words:711
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