Not the End of True!

Time for an update on my The End of True? post from about a month ago — which is no longer online because it was confusing people.

First, in that earlier post I said very clearly that 1) “I have NOT made any decisions yet” and 2) “True won’t stop.” That’s still the case. But, I said, I “might be on the last year of True.” — which “has always been the case. We never know how long we’ll be on this planet.”

I suggested that, if nothing else, True could continue with re-runs. I had assumed that few would want me to consider hiring other writers for the stories. While some said that would be fine, the vast majority was very clear — in both the comments on the earlier post and, especially, in email to me, that no: you’d actually prefer that I bring in other writers, especially if I had a hand in the editing.

That was definitely a surprise.

At the same time, several people, all Premium subscribers, and many with significant experience as professional news writers, offered to try their hand at it.

That gave me an idea.

It’s hard to write 7-9 of these stories every week, week after week, for years and years on end. But what if …I could find 3-5 writers who had the ability to find, and write, great stories like I do? And …Each of them could write just, say, 2-3 such stories a week? Surely that wouldn’t be a huge burden that would lead them to burnout? (Again, I’m not burned out, but it’s my baby, after all.) And …If I paid them a reasonable fee to do it, which would also help them avoid burnout?

The result: True could not only keep going, but even if I did step away, I could also contribute stories as I felt like it, and the weekly issues could actually feature more stories than it does now.



In all, six writers expressed interest. Last week, they all got the same story — a truly excellent source story from Pennsylvania — to try their hand at the This is True style. Four of the six went for it. Here are their stories, with my comments.

I’m presenting them unchanged so you can see them the way I would see them. (If they were hired, I would normally put them through an editing process, which could include “tuning up” the tagline should I see a better way to say it. The only changes I’ve made are format, and I fixed any typos …of which there were a few….)

So here are the resulting four versions of the same story, with each writer’s slug (story title) and tag, as submitted, and in the order received. Ready?

Writer: JW in Maine

The Cat’s Out of the Baggie

“On one side, you got prostitution, on the other side, you got cats in the freezer. It’s tragic. Obviously, this lady has some mental health issues and needs to get them addressed.” That’s what Upper Darby, Pa., police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said after police and health officials found 20 frozen cats wrapped in plastic bags in the home of cat hoarder Denise Merget, 39. Merget allegedly pulled a .38-caliber revolver on ASPCA officials earlier this month when they tried to confiscate her 55 cats. The cats were taken to the Delaware County SPCA for further investigation. “I don’t know what the cat autopsies are going to show,” Chitwood said. The house happens to be right across the street from an alleged brothel that was shut down early last week. Chitwood said it was unclear whether Merget would face charges of animal cruelty in addition to her other charges. (Philadelphia Inquirer) …She probably will, when the thawed cats awake to find the world is still without a hairball cure.

My comments: I like the slug. I’d probably not say “cat hoarder” myself but, if I did, I’d say “alleged” or “apparent.” It’s not a crime, so saying that isn’t necessarily defamation, but I’d probably not go there since I can’t quote someone else (like the cops or animal control officers) saying it. I like the tag.

Writer: MS in Nebraska

Cat Houses and Catsicles

Denise Merget, 58, of Upper Darby, Pa., seems to have a problem letting go of her feline friends. First, when police tried to confiscate the 55 cats that lived in her house, she confronted ASPCA officials with a .38 revolver. After arresting her on aggravated assault and weapons chargers, police and health officials searched her mother’s house last week and found a surprise in the freezer: 20 dead, frozen cats. There is no suspicion of fowl play in the cat deaths, though. “My expectation was that these cats just died, but I think being so mentally ill, she’s trying to preserve them even in death by putting them in a freezer,” said police Superintendent Michael Chitwood. “Cryonics. That’s exactly what’s going on.” The police were familiar with the neighborhood, though. The kitty cryogenics lab was across the street from a house of ill repute they had just shut down a week earlier. (Philadelphia Inquirer) …Leaving you to wonder what kind of cats were in the cat house — and where they went when it closed.

My comments: I like the slug, but would have used the singular “Cat House” (or, really, according to my favorite dictionary (American Heritage), one word: Cathouse). She allegedly confronted ASPCA officials with a revolver. That is alleged to be a crime (but isn’t necessarily, if she can prove self defense against what she perceived as an illegal entry into the house), and she has not been convicted of it. She’ll have her day in court, but hasn’t had it yet — so, maybe “animal control officials say” or “police allege” or “she was charged with” makes it clear they’re saying it, not us. Pretty good tagline.

Writer: DH of Colorado

Hello, Kitties

Denise Mergret of Upper Darby, Pa., was arrested on aggravated assault and weapons charges after allegedly pulling a .38-caliber revolver on SPCA investigators who were trying to confiscate her 55 cats. Police also found 20 dead cats in Mergret’s freezer, and theorize she was trying to preserve her beloved pets even in death. “Cryonics. That’s exactly what’s going on,” said police Superintendent Michael Chitwood. Coincidentally, a suspected bawdy house across the street from Mergret’s home was shut down the previous week. (Philadelphia Inquirer) …The heat is on all cold, hard critters in Upper Darby.

My comments: A reasonably good slug — the only play on the “Hello Kitty” phenomenon. The story: certainly short and sweet! And he even got the “cryonics” quote in. The tagline is subtle — maybe too subtle, but I think most will get it.

Writer: JS in Washington

“Cry’s” and Whiskers

“Cryonics. That’s exactly what’s going on,” declared police Superintendent Michael Chitwood of Upper Darby, Pa., after police and health officials searched the house of Denise Merget and found 20 frozen cats in a freezer. The woman allegedly pulled a .38-caliber revolver on ASPCA officials when they tried to confiscate her 55 cats. Police say that Merget, 58, was apparently running some kind of kitty morgue out of her mother’s house. Adding to the character of the neighborhood is a house just across the street that is alleged to have been the recent home of a brothel. “It’s tragic,” said Chitwood. “On one side, you got prostitution, on the other side, you got cats in the freezer.” The cats were found wrapped in plastic bags. Reportedly, most were kittens. “Obviously, this lady has some mental health issues,” Chitwood said. “I don’t know what the cat autopsies are going to show. I think… she’s trying to preserve them even in death.” Merget was charged with aggravated assault and allegedly threatening to shoot an ASPCA officer. Chitwood said it was unclear whether Merget would also face charges of animal cruelty. (Philadelphia Inquirer) …Give the woman some credit: She vowed it would be a cold day in hell before anyone took her cats, and then she made sure of it.

My comments: A so-so slug — if you have to call attention to a word in such a short phrase (with quotation marks), it’s probably not good enough. And sure enough, I’m unclear what he’s trying to say with that…. “Charged with” and “allegedly” are essentially the some thing, so to include both is redundant. Yeah, that’s a nitpick: all in all, I don’t have heavy criticism of any of these samples. The tagline is pretty good.

Writer: Me

OK, OK! I know this begs the question! How would I have written this up? Of course, I did my own take, and here it is:


Animal control officials called in police after they tried to confiscate 55 cats from a woman in Upper Darby, Pa. Denise Merget, 58, who lives with her mother, allegedly pulled a gun on animal control officers to protect her pets. A subsequent search of the home found not only the 55 live cats, but 20 more dead ones in the freezer. “Cryonics,” said police Superintendent Michael Chitwood. “That’s exactly what’s going on.” Police happened to shut down a different sort of cathouse right across the street the week before — a brothel. “On one side, you got prostitution, on the other side, you got cats in the freezer,” Chitwood said. “It’s tragic.” (Philadelphia Inquirer) …And the madam across the street was just as cold.

Of course, I’m not going to say my slug and tag (or story treatment in general) are “better” — that’s up to you! Feel free to comment below. Feel free to name names (well, initials, anyway!) and say what you like — and what you don’t.

The next step? I’ll supply 5-6 stories and let the candidates each choose two to write up, and then I’ll get more picky about style, wit, and ability. Stay tuned!

And really: I do want your feedback. What do you think?

49 Comments on “Not the End of True!

  1. No surprise that I like yours the best; you’ve had a lot of practice! Beyond that, DH would be my first choice — got the essence across humorously and concisely. JS would be my least favorite, mainly due to excess length. (Did you leave “fowl” play in MS on purpose?)

    Yes, 16+ years of practice does pay off. (Sort of; I was a little unclear whether that was supposed to be a pun, or was a typo, so I just left it. Had I been truly editing, I would have said “Doesn’t work” and changed it.) -rc

  2. I like DH’s slug and writeup the best, as it’s nice and concise, but my favorite tagline is MS’s, with JW’s a close second (mostly because I have cats myself — only three, thank you — and can relate to the hairball thing!)

    I had all the same nitpicks as you did; guess I’ve been reading True long enough!

    Sadly, I did not get DH’s tagline…anyone care to explain?

    I suppose I’ll take a stab at DH’s for you: “heat” vs “cold” — cops (“the heat”) vs frozen kitties — and cold-hearted madams or, as he puts it referring to both, “critters”. -rc

  3. Interesting – I really liked the title and tagline MS wrote, with the story DH wrote. I viewed them all through an English Major filter (literature), realizing I couldn’t write anything even close to what was presented. I do not envy your job! Good luck!

  4. Hey Randy, how about opening up an “article challenge” for those of us who don’t want to (or don’t have the time to) do articles for you on a regular basis? I personally would love to get the source materials you use and try my hand at it – at least even if I just do it myself, and maybe if I make my wife giggle I might share. What say you? Maybe some of the source material for one of the articles these guys are writing for you?

    Sorry, but the whole idea is to reduce the time I’m spending on TRUE so I can do other things. Each writer will take some administrative time. Handling dozens (or more) “casual” writers will end up taking more time than I’m spending now — and significantly more if I’m having to pay them all (collecting tax info, writing checks or doing electronic payments, etc.), which I would want to do, since I don’t want to take advantage of the writers. I need to keep the project within limits with a manageable number of people. -rc

  5. I think I like MS the best, though it’s a bit redundant…”dead, frozen cats” as opposed to “live, frozen cats?” The quotes and the coincidence of the cathouse across the street are my favorite aspects to the story. “Cathouse,” by the way, comes up as misspelled in this spell check program.

    As noted, I did check the spelling, and my dictionary of choice spells it as one word, even if some spellcheckers don’t have that in their word lists. -rc

  6. I don’t like DH for related reasons others like him/her. I like a bit more heft to my stories. Part way between that and the longer ones. JW, I think the lead sentence should appear later in the story. MS, why did they search her mother’s house. It wasn’t explained they lived together. JS a bit long, some of the factoids should have been combined in the same sentence.

  7. I like DH’s story and tagline the best, though I slightly prefer MS’s slug. Presumably all of the stories would benefit from editing, but DH’s has little to quibble about and not much fat to trim. Brevity is the soul of wit.

  8. I think Randy’s is the best, but then he has had some practice. Randy’s version tied up all the loose ends — what her ‘other charges’ were, why they were searching the house, the fact that she lived with her mother, and all without making the story too long.

    DH’s tagline was too subtle for me and the story a little brief.

  9. Caliber of the weapon was unnecessary, but it would have been better to refer to it as a pistol or revolver rather than as a gun. JW’s article had the suspect’s age wrong (39 rather than 58). Overall, I liked DH’s writeup, though I would have tightened it by deleting the unnecessary words “who were” in the third line. Didn’t care much for any of the slugs but probably lean toward MS’s and liked JW’s tagline. My 2 cents worth from 30 years in journalism and PR.

  10. Of the four, the story by MS is the best. She led up to the humor/horror instead of putting it in the opening sentence, and it flows nicely. She was the most deft about slipping in the brothel angle, and had the best tag line. “Kitty cryogenics lab” struck me as very funny, but it lost some of its punch because of the quote right before it. My only other minor criticism is that “Fowl play” didn’t really work.

    JW is in second place by a whisker with the next best tagline and flow, but the brothel bit is awkwardly stuck in between two quotes from the superintendent. (I see why, but it should have been reworked.)

    JS is a little more wordy than necessary. It seemed a little scattered to me, but the brothel was slipped in pretty well. I saw where the tag was going immediately. (Not a good thing.)

    DH has the bare minimum to get most of the facts in, but I can’t detect the voice of the writer in the piece, which detracts from it in my opinion.

    Randy’s experience shows up in his entry! It flows nicely except that the opening sentence should have been split at the last comma. It has my favorite slug, and almost the best tagline.

  11. I happen to like JW’s slug and tagline best — apparently his sense of humor is sick along the same lines as mine!

    I would have preferred that he used the “Cryogenics” line from Chitwood in his write up, though — it would have fit well with his tag line, as well as adding to the surreal aspects of the story overall, though I can see it as maybe belaboring a point, too. Judgement call there.

    Also, I noticed that the ages used for the perp and her mother don’t look consistent across all the entries. I think some are confusing the daughter with the mother, and those details should always be maintained where possible. Since I can’t see the source material, I don’t know which writer was the most accurate on the details.

  12. I liked JW’s “voice” the best. I also have to give props to MS for making the cathouse connection. DH left out too many details, and JS felt disorganized to me.

    I won’t bother adding my opinions about the taglines and slug lines because, invariably, the tag line that wins the Challenge each month is the one I like least, so my taste must be a little different.

  13. Randy, I have a better understanding of the choices you have to make in putting True together, given the variety in writing styles and “slugs”. It’s given me a richer appreciation of the effort you go through to produce True, and am glad that I am a paid subscriber.

  14. These are all good. I like to read stories that are distilled down, so I would give the edge to DH. It takes a lot of talent (at least more than I have) to get all the essentials into a short paragraph. I didn’t get the tagline and had to Google “Hello Kitty.” I must be out of the loop on that one.

    I thought maybe someone would use the slug “The Cat House Across From the Cathouse” or some variation.

  15. I’m lying on my elbow in bed @ 3am, balancing laptop on forearm, so can’t make notes, working from memory. So here’s what you get: I didn’t like the short one – whoosh – what was THAT? I liked the long one, great tone & texture, but did not like slug or tag – huh? The other 2 were also good, not as much fun or juicy as the long one, but maybe better suited to TRUE – maybe BECAUSE of that – and both had good slugs & tags.

  16. I personally like DH’s writeup the best. It’s short and to the point. However, I like the “fowl” play pun in MS’ writeup.

    I’ve tried my hands at doing this twice, and I realize that I couldn’t do this full time. (I also used The Sun as a source.) Anyway, the best “article challenge”, as Danny suggested, is to look for some to write on your own. It’s not easy.

    Good luck, everyone!

  17. As far as I’m concerned any of these versions (and their authors) would be fine. They all tell the story, there is — as best I can tell — nothing material missing from any of them, and all the articles read easily.

    Somebody will always find something to nit-pick in any piece of prose, but all of these are plenty good enough for me. I’m happy that TRUE will be in good hands.

  18. Of the grouping I like DH of Colorado’s ability to sum up the story, the rest need to turn off verbose mode, or as Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts ma’am”. DH’s tag isn’t as good, but really hard to say with just one sample.

  19. I think that with some more experience writing the style and some editing and guidance from the master of it, all of these people have some potential. The True style is an easy one to read, but thinking about it as a person who has done some radio and online writing, it’s not the easiest one to duplicate and do well.

  20. JW has the best tag; DH is too short; JS has too many “alleged’s”; but you have the best story title. Put them all together and you might have something there!

  21. Comments in order: 1. You say you sent out the story to six people, but only four are published? Just curious what happened to the other two, but if they couldn’t meet a deadline, then that would eliminate them straight off.

    2. I think I like JW’s slug the best. Yours would be 2nd. Since hoarding is a recognized mental disease, the officer was quoted as saying she “obviously . . . has some mental health issues”, and pet (or cat) hoarding has been the subtitle of the TLC show, I think JW can get away without saying alleged. And I’m speaking as a hoarder myself.

    3. I only like MS’s tag and “kitty cryogenics lab”. Prefer JW and JS’s stories.

    4. I don’t care for DH’s short and sweet version, and now that I’ve seen longer versions I only like yours slightly better. 🙂 The tag was too subtle for me.

    5. JS’s tag was the only one that I actually snickered at. I think I like the story layout the 2nd best, after JW’s. And having the quote as the lead is a good attention grabber; standard journalistic practice as I recall.

    Looking forward to more!

    It’s correct that I haven’t heard back from the other two, and yes, that might say something right there. -rc

  22. I thought MS sounded most like Randy, and I also liked DH’s. JS’s was wordy. The sentence “Adding to the character of the neighborhood is a house just across the street that is alleged to have been the recent home of a brothel,” in particular felt lengthy and out of character for TRUE. JW’s would work fine too. But this exercise makes it obvious how Randy’s style shows through, even in a short paragraph. Writing to that style is not easy.

  23. My first choice is DH with MS a close second. Both came close to matching the “flavor” of the publication, especially the slugs and taglines. I believe brevity is important which is probably why I favor DH over MS.

    I wonder, are any of the candidates former Tagline Challenge winners?

    Finally, a comment to Superintendent Chitwood: autopsies are performed on humans; necropsies are performed on animals.

  24. I did like MS’s tagline the best. And all these people who complain about you going after Florida, it seems to me that you’ve had a lot of stories in PA lately 🙂

  25. JS’s tag was my favorite. I would have preferred JW’s if he’d gotten the cryonics quote into the story. As it was, he was referencing a quote I hadn’t read which means the tag wasn’t nearly as spot on as it could have been for me. DH and JW both had slugs I enjoyed. DH’s tag was a little too subtle for me, but occasionally one of yours is too, so I can’t tell if it would be a consistent problem or this is an outlier. I was really trying not to rate your story here, but your write-up was IMHO notably better than any of the others (tho I would have dropped “– a brothel”, if you didn’t get it at first the next sentence makes it clear. On the other hand, I may only think that because it was the seventh version of the story I read. 🙂 If I needed to pick among the others, I think I’d go with JS for best writeup.

  26. Isn’t the word ‘got’ being misused? Shouldn’t it be replaced with the word ‘have’?

    I realize I may be wrong, it’s just an honest question.

    I assume you mean the cop’s “On one side, you got prostitution, on the other side, you got cats in the freezer.” Yes, “have” would be better, but it’s not proper to change quotes. It does give readers a taste of the mentality or education of the speaker, doesn’t it? Something for people to think about before blowing off grammar lessons…. -rc

  27. JS was close, but your own telling of the story was the most natural link to the other “cathouse” across the street.

    My own first response was completely unprintable, but could be refined down to something along the lines of “frozen meats in aisle six, fresh meat in aisle seven.”

    (Hmm, still far from printable….)

    Oops! I hit “Publish” on this comment! Oh well. -rc

  28. I like JS in Washington’s comment after the story about a cold day in hell. Sounds like she could use some of your Get out of Hell Free Cards.

    I also, like your “Randy’s” Tag Line of Catatonic and your short and to the point story.

  29. I liked JW’s contribution the best. Even though JW chose not to use the “cryonics” quotation, the tagline addresses it — unless JW was alluding to the cats’ other 8 collective lives. Either way, it was witty, concise and worth rereading just for fun.

    DH’s entry is sly and clever, and comes in a close second.

    Both DH and JW have a witty slug, a tagline with a twist, and a writeup that is more than just a chronological recounting of the facts. Their styles are close imitations of Randy’s style, which I think is what readers want. We’re gonna miss Randy’s turn of the phrase.

    (The juxtaposition of the cat house and the cathouse begged for several shady wordplays which all the writers managed to avoid.)

  30. DH of Colorado gets my vote for a decent slug, a very good tagline, and a good, brief, synopsis.

    JW in Maine — good tagline, fairly wordy. Got her age wrong.

    Agree with Randy on MS in Nebraska. Missed a typo: “…weapons chargers”.

    Randy’s right on with JS in Washington: I didn’t care for the slug, and the tagline was pretty good. Writeup was long.

    Randy in Colorado — good slug, fair tagline. Nice writeup.

  31. I liked the submission of DH in Colorado best – actually better than yours, Randy. The slug is very cute, and it packs a lot of information very succinctly. Randy, yours was brief as well but not *quite* as well edited. The others were all too wordy, IMHO.

    I have to admit I don’t get DH’s tag, though. I am hoping that it is simply a pop culture reference to something I haven’t seen. (I don’t watch a lot of TV, so maybe that’s it.) Or I could just be obtuse. 😉

  32. JW in Maine gets my vote of the non-Randy options up there. I like the slug a lot, and the summary flows very well.

  33. I related DH’s “cold, hard” tag to Heston’s “cold, dead” NRA message. Maybe a cold, hard cash reference? DH had the weakest tag, but the best overall.

    Referring to the “cat hoarder” isn’t an issue to me, yet it may not be necessary either. It’s sort of obvious; the same for the possible mental illness. That’s also an allegation, not a fact, so those statements could be problematic.

  34. Thanks Randy, for clarifying just whose freezer the cats were found in by telling us that Denise lived with her mother.

    Best Slug: Yours
    Best Tag: JS
    Best Story: MS

  35. I thought all the tags were pretty lame. There are so many opportunities with dead cats. Catsup; room enough to swing a dead cat; catapult; Cathouses on each side of the road, now iced; Pussy Galore was cold; Both cathouses closed: purrfect. Cold cats; Cold fee-lines; the sordid ending of a catastrophe.

  36. JW in Maine is by far my favorite: great slug & tag, though the summary is just a bit too wordy for my taste.

    MS in Nebraska ranks last, IMO: weak tag line, and the “Catsicles” reference is repulsive without any redeeming humor.

    Kudos to each of the writers for the attempt – yours are very big journalistic footsteps in which to follow!

  37. Best Story:MS (succinct and clearly written).

    I didn’t get the tag from “DH” so maybe I’m a cultural illiterate. If it truly relates to something I should understand then it is probably the best tag but…

    Best Tag:JS, it could have been shortened up a bit.

    Good luck to you all. We’ll be looking forward to your future contributions and the “contest”.

    I will, in fact, sometimes write tags that depend on some obscure cultural knowledge. That some don’t “get it” doesn’t mean they’re illiterate, since no one can know all aspects of culture. I’m just satisfied that the people who do get it really enjoy it. But I’m not sure if DH’s tag qualifies under that or not; it was, for sure, subtle, and maybe too much so. -rc

  38. For the slugs:

    JW in Maine’s The Cat’s Out of the Baggie
    and Randy’s Catatonic

    I liked the flow, length and style of MS in Nebraska’s story the best and Randy’s next.

    My favorite tagline is from JS in Washington: …Give the woman some credit: She vowed it would be a cold day in hell before anyone took her cats, and then she made sure of it.

    This could work, Randy!

    I know! It’s exciting! -rc

  39. I didn’t really analyze anyof them;just noted my immediate reaction to each. Verbosity is an issue. I found DH to be concise, expressing the pertinent items in few words. I got the tagline; it was mildly amusing, could have been better. I didn’t prioritize each one, but simply chose what I considered as best.

    Do I remember reading, one time, that you were limited on the number of words per story in order to comply with newspaper space?

    There’s no limit per story, but there is a limit for all stories together. Still, in these days of newspaper shakeout, that’s not as important as it used to be. -rc

  40. JW’s: started out great but then left me confused that there was a link between the dead cats and the brothel.

    MS’s: my favorite in spite of the “fowl” typo everyone else has already pointed out.

    DH’s: succinct but the humor/absurdity gets lost; why is a brothel across the street a coincidence? Only real purpose of this fact is for humor (either to make a “cathouse” pun or to highlight the state of the neighborhood) and that was missing.

    JS’s: disjointed with lots of unimportant facts (“Reportedly, most were kittens”) thrown in piecemeal.

  41. IMO JS wrote the best story, closely followed by JW. Both included worthwhile quotes from Chitwood that were missed by the other writers. DH’s story was OK, but that by MS simply didn’t grab me.

    DH came up with by far the best slug – I liked it better than Randy’s, in fact. JS’ slug made no sense to me. The others weren’t bad.

    I loved JS’ tagline. I wasn’t keen on any of the others. In particular, DH’s tagline meant nothing to me – perhaps it’s a reference that’s more likely to be picked up by Americans and less suitable for an international audience?

  42. Interesting comparisons! Of course I love the “… shut down a different sort of cathouse …” phrase in yours – that’s the essential part of the across-the-street part of the story.

    Definitely like the shorter DH version – but not keen with the tagline. Love JW’s tagline.

  43. I thought the one by JW in Maine was the best. I think he even beat yours, Randy. Aside from that, my thoughts on the others are pretty much in line with yours.


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