If you haven’t been following Slate’s series of long-form journalism stories, dubbed “Frescas” by our editor, David Plotz, I hate you.
The Fresca series was birthed by Plotz two years ago when he decided to turn Slate writers and editors loose for a month or longer to report big, complicated stories that exploited the Web’s horsepower. The pieces were called Frescas not because the Coca-Cola Co. agreed to underwrite them or because they reeked of no-cal grapefruit-soda awfulness but because Plotz had become habituated to the beverage and had taken to issuing chiding, all-office e-mails whenever someone drank the last cold Fresca and didn’t replenish the stock in the refrigerator.
Hoping to bring the imperious Plotz down a peg, Slate Senior Editor Josh Levin referred to the monthlong rotations as “Fresca Fellowships” in a reply-all e-mail. Plotz adopted the phrase, and in no time even writers outsideSlate were calling the projects Frescas without breaking into a grin. Since Plotz announced the idea, we’ve published nearly a dozen excellent Frescas, earning tens of millions of page views and a much-deserved plaudit from the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Like puppies in a litter, every Fresca is wonderful, and I have no favorites (none that I’ll confess to, at least). William Saletan did a series on memory, John Dickerson wrote about risk, Julia Turner explored the language of signage, Chris Wilson essayed on how social networking helped capture Saddam Hussein, Dahlia Lithwick wrote a chick-lit novel in real time with the help of Slate readers, and Josh Levin speculated on how the United States might end. Other topics treated to a Fresca bath: dentistry, laboratory animals, the absence of a 9/11 follow-up attack, a husband-and-wife swap of roles. This evening, the final installment of Emily Bazelon’s bullying Fresca should be up on Slate.
But where is Jack Shafer’s Fresca?
I must admit that I’m a half-dozen cans short of six-pack.
When Plotz came up with the Fresca concept, the first idea I threw at him was an anthology of the best and worst of yellow journalism. Thanks to W. Joseph Campbell’s books Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legaciesand The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, I became enamored of the journalism published by William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and others in the 1890s. Plotz gave the OK, but after a couple of weeks of spinning through microfilm at the Library of Congress, I realized that my enthusiasm for yellow journalism would not successfully translate into a Fresca. I feared that except for a couple of pieces, such as Winifred Black’s coverage of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and a couple of other pieces, the concept contained insufficient fizz.
The second Fresca idea Plotz approved was something about software development. I’ve already forgotten why I dumped it. The third was an examination of the pariah-making machine that the sex-offender registry has become. Alas, as I plowed through the literature, I found the story had already been told and told well, and I had no interest in transcribing the correct verdicts issued by many other juries. Then I geared up to debunk the pseudoscience of the polygraph, but I bailed on that idea before presenting it to Plotz. The big, definitive book has already been written.
Again and again, I pitched great ideas—a feature on the naval air station at Diego Garcia, for example—that I abandoned after a library visit convinced me that they had already been executed (another example: Wired’s ship-salvage story). I’m content to wait for inspiration to strike, but Plotz isn’t, which means that in coming to wit’s end in my search for an original, potent topic, I’ve decided to turn to you, my cantankerous readers, to help me find a Fresca-worthy subject.
What kind of idea am I looking for? I’m not desperate to write about the press, but neither would I reject a good press idea. As I review my back pages as both a writer and an editor, I find that I enjoy starting fights, debunking myths, vilifying media moguls, and, of course, thinking about drugs. There’s almost no story I wouldn’t do—as long as it’s meaty and hasn’t been pecked to death already. Sports. Business. Crime. Politics. Policy. Nature. The arts. Biography. History. Physics. Ballistics. The Islets of Langerhans. Anthropology. Quality control. Edgar G. Ulmer. The Heaphy Track. Dressmaking. Nematodes. Real estate. Egos. Ids. Derivatives. Fashion. Baseball. Philately. I am an ocean that will refuse no river. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org and please put the word Fresca in the subject head so I can sort the e-mails.
This isn’t a contest. No prize will be given to the reader who proposes a Fresca I end up writing. All ideas will become my property upon submission. On the upside, no salesman will visit your home. But remember, the bar is high, as the previous Frescas prove. If worse comes to worst, I’ll write a Fresca about how bad your ideas are.