Jim Burress could've been satisfied with working his daily assignments in the newsroom at WABE in Atlanta. But his growing itch to go beyond business-as-usual coverage of local politics and state government pushed him out of his comfortable cocoon. An under-reported story about an inner city no man's land was the catalyst.
Who knew there was a thriving open air heroin market a few blocks from downtown, Georgia Tech and the city's sports and convention center? Who cared that cops appeared to turn their backs on the rampant crime, or at best, tried to confine it to several square blocks? And was a needle exchange program helping or hurting any chance of turning around the neighborhood?
With questions like that abuzz, Burress strapped on a recorder and -- not unlike Kelly McEvers touching down in a war zone -- began strolling those mean streets in what's called The Bluff. He spoke to the stereotype hollow-eyed addicts, as well as the do-gooders handing out clean needles. But he wasn't prepared for people like the grandmotherly user with a twenty-year habit whose visits to The Bluff were as routine as a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.
Four months from first interview to first air date, Jim had more than a few hurdles to clear along the way. We believe the results are award-worthy—not bad for his first-ever doc. Here's a link to Stuck In The Bluff, and Jim's account of the story behind the story. It could serve as a case study for reporters and producers willing to expose a dirty little secret in their own backyards.
How did you discover this story that was apparently off the radar but in full view in downtown Atlanta?
JIM: I learned of “The Bluff” a few years ago when I was doing a story for Marketplace. The English Ave. area had blocks of homes for sale for less than $10,000. I first tried to get a real estate agent to show me around one of his listings. He agreed, but only if I would arrange a police escort. I did. He still backed out.
When I drove down to the area myself, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. A half-dozen men chased my car. I didn't know at the time it was because they thought I was there to buy heroin.
But for the documentary and its focus on the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, credit goes to Thomas Wheatley of Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s alt-weekly newspaper). Last fall we teamed up to do a series on Atlanta-area non-profits, and the idea was completely his. Having done the $10,000 home story, I knew what I might be getting into.
What was it like to walk the meanest streets of Atlanta with a mic in hand? How much of a fear factor was there?
JIM: I wasn’t scared. At all, really. Now had I been on my own, sure. I wouldn’t have done it. But walking with the Atlanta Harm Reduction folks—people who have proven to the neighborhood they’re there to help in a non-judgmental, non-threatening way—afforded me a high level of comfort. I got some strange looks. A few people made mention of my skin color (I’m caucasian. The Bluff is strongly African-American). But I had no trouble.
Did you try to go "stealth" with your mic and recorder so you wouldn't draw attention?
JIM: Not at all. I never wanted to be perceived as hiding anything—being covert or a threat. I was transparent. I used a large “shotgun” microphone that is impossible to hide. That afforded me the ability to get good sound without having to be in the middle of folks’ daily grind, but I could never claim I was trying to go incognito. I never pressed anyone who didn’t want to talk. I didn’t try to play up any bravado. I asked simple questions. More than any story I can remember, I just talked to folks. I wanted to be as “real” as possible because that’s how I hoped they’d be. And I was surprised at the general warm response I got.
Was there pressure from governments or organizations to not broadcast the story because of whom it might embarrass?
JIM: Never. Initially, the Atlanta Police Dept. didn’t want to participate. They issued a statement and declined interview requests. But eventually they came around. Rep. Sharon Cooper, the chair of the Ga House Health and Human Services Committee, refused to return a half-dozen+ calls.
Did the piece air the way you intended or did you have to edit out material that made it weaker?
JIM: For time, there was a lot of context I had to remove—stuff like historical background of the neighborhood. There were other compelling interviews I picked up while in The Bluff, but I wanted listeners to identify with the people I had in the piece. For that reason, I felt it important not to introduce too many voices.
What's been the reaction from listeners, community leaders and people in The Bluff, if any?
JIM: Initially I heard a lot of positive response. People posted on social media how glad they were to hear the story, to understand what’s happening in their own city, and to see the uphill battle faced by the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. I heard nothing from state or local leaders. Just like they have for decades, the people most able to make a change in The Bluff remain silent.
After this experience, are you in favor of future joint projects with a print publication?
JIM: Yes. Absolutely I’d love to partner again with a print outlet. There were growing pains. Neither of us had done a partnership like this before. We learned through the process. I’m already forming my next idea for a such a partnership, although it’s too preliminary at this point to say much more.
What's your advice to producers looking to do expose-type docs or series in their own communities?
JIM: Try it. Just do it. Find an issue centered on people whose voices aren’t heard. Remember they’re people, and let them tell their own story. Never force it.
Take time to produce it. Let the piece breathe. And if it doesn’t move you personally—if you don’t stay awake at night pondering it, if you don’t talk about it with everyone you meet—then think about finding a story that will illicit that response in you.
I spent two months working on the last 15-minutes. But I didn’t script one word until the very end. A few days before the documentary aired, I sat down and just wrote. In about five hours, I’d put down fifteen minutes worth of content. I didn’t rely on the tape; in fact, I didn’t listen to it for months. I produced the script mostly from memory. My editor made very few changes/suggestions. The final draft is 95% a mirror image of the first draft.
If you’ve got enough great stuff to produce an hour, do it in 30-minutes. That keeps it strong, and your audience will appreciate it. The near-universal response I got was, “Wait. That’s it? It’s over?” And that was great—I was concerned I’d have a hard time holding peoples’ attention for 30 minutes. But when you listen, it feels more like 10 or 15 minutes.
And in the end, listeners remembered everything. Every character. Every scene. And that’s exactly what I hoped to achieve.
This was my first attempt at a documentary. I had no guidance on “how” to do it. So take my advice with a grain of salt. I quite possibly broke all the rules! But I’m pleased with the end product, and I’m fortunate beyond words to work for an outlet that let me take on a project like this.