Melts in your heart, not in your mind

October 19, 2012 

A sweet little story helped brighten my Monday this week as Chocolate popped into Eastgate Elementary in Kennewick to drop off donated pumpkins with his owners. The continued community outpouring after the unfortunate theft of the kindergartners' pumpkin patch moved in step with the dog's own story of this community's generosity when bad things happen.

A quick recap of Chocolate:

Sonia Ayala found the Chesapeake Bay retriever with two broken legs back in 2008. I photographed the pair for what I thought would be a forgettable story:

Sure, he was a cute pup with an aww-inspiring limp,

but I don't think anybody expected the story to take off like it did. A resounding show of support, eventually totaling about $30,000, helped him on the road to recovery, which he got to ride on in a stretch limo when he returned from WSU in Pullman:

And when his adoption committee found him a permanent home, I got to see his water-based physical therapy in the backyard:

All told, we chronicled his tale through more than a dozen stories in my first year as a staffer, not to mention the dozens of letters to the editor. That and the amount of money spent on Chocolate may seem like overkill, and the cynical part of me still feels like $30,000 could have been better spent addressing human needs in the community. Still, when I saw a work email on my phone at 7:30 a.m. Monday, the initial annoyance of getting such an email 1 1/2 hours before my shift was instantly replaced with a surprising giddiness for a chance to see and photograph Chocolate yet again.

Here's my cute kid-with-dog-and-pumpkins shot from Monday, featuring fifth-grader Elizabeth Broome:

Coincidentally, current fifth-graders at Eastgate were in kindergarten when the school raised money to help pay for Chocolate's surgery in 2008. What was fascinating was how excited the kids were to see the dog. Even students who would have been way too young to remember the Chocolate phenomenon were going crazy for him. I heard one kid yell out, "I'll never forget you!" as his class left.

True, part of the excitement was probably due to getting out of class for a few minutes to play outside with a dog, just like my giddiness was probably enhanced by a fun assignment on a usually boring Monday shift, but there always seemed to be something more about Chocolate. Is it his dopey, happy-go-lucky charm?

The love you see in his eyes as strong as his love for nubbed yellow balls?

He just looks like a dog, huh? I don't think pictures can explain it, so I turned to word guy Joe Chapman, who wrote the original story and most of the series. I asked Joe, who left the thrill-a-minute life of a newspaper reporter in 2009 and is now a software developer, to reflect a bit on what it means to have Chocolate's saga to be his legacy as a reporter and just what made the story so appealing. Here an excerpt from his email response:

I still ponder what it was about him that was so appealing. I guess it’s the epitome of what makes us like dogs. They’re just so easy-going and friendly toward people. He was in such agony when we first encountered him, but it didn’t make him a mean dog at all. So many times, I rationalize in my head how people can act so awful, and I attribute it to, "Well, they must’ve gone through worse stuff than me." But not Chocolate – he endured more pain than I ever have, and he still seems to be filled with nothing but warmth and affection for people – everyone he’s ever met. He’s such a sweetie. And of course, there also were those very memorable details – those excruciating breaks in his legs, the yellow ball he never forsakes.

It's both good and bad that he was my legacy as a reporter—at least, my legacy at the Herald. My last day on the job, they gave me a copy of the plate that printed the first front page Chocolate ever appeared on. Not the plate of one of my harder news stories about redistricting controversies, property rights, challenges facing veterans, or even the Russian family that fought to stay in the United States. Nope, it was the story of a dog. It's a little embarrassing considering journalists are supposed to be known for hard-nosed investigations. I’d rather have left with a reputation like (John) Trumbo’s—one for freedom of information requests and following the money.

On the other hand, I shouldn’t complain about simply having any legacy at all. It’s better than not being known for anything. In my post-journalism life, when I’ve told people I used to be a reporter and worked at the Herald, they usually respond with, "Oh? What did you write about?" I tell them about Pasco and Franklin County local government, (the Korotkov) family, and they nod politely. But then when I say, "And Chocolate the dog," their faces light up, and they say, “Oh, yeah, I read about Chocolate!” Well, there’s also those who give me a little bit of a smirk and say sarcastically, "That was some hard-hitting journalism." Still, at least they remember the stories.

He also noted that a story like this about a person would be rife with bureaucratic hurdles due to privacy laws and the free-flowing information ended up giving the story (and Chocolate) stronger legs.

Well, there's my punny contribution to Joe's thoughtful and gimmick-free analysis. Back on the visual side of things, I knew I wanted to shoot some video. I had screwed up with the camera on the first story, failing to record usable clips of his hobbled gait. Once I had my shot of him with pumpkins and a kid, I focused on footage and ended up producing this:

I thought it turned out OK, but maybe a little too long. I figured this community's undying love for Chocolate would translate to a lot of interest, but as of Thursday, it only had a middling 137 views. Tuesday's quick, no-effort video from a car that rolled into a backyard tree was approaching 1,200 views:

I guess there's no profound new lesson to be learned from a revisit to Chocolate's story. His story and Eastgate's pumpkin problem showed the good this community can produce for some of its downtrodden, and while readers always complain about the media's fixation on negative news, nothing prompts reader interest as much as mayhem. Once again, the video I cared about and spent some time on was usurped by one I shot quickly and had no hand in editing.

My role was not as significant as Joe's in this story and despite photographing most of the Chocolate stories, I'm never associated with it. When people ask me about my favorite assignments, fanciful flights in hot air balloons are first to pop into mind. People who recognize my name compliment my sports photography or mention this blog, but Chocolate has never come up. I definitely have never forgotten the story, though, and the gentle reminder this week made me realize that maybe even this cold, dead heart was touched a little by it.

Speaking of cold and dead...

Newsweek announced that it will cease its print edition at the end of the year, though it's unclear how massive the layoffs will be. The Onion's A.V. club has an appropriately sassy assessment of this move, which would be a more of a milestone for the 80-year-old magazine if Tina Brown and company hadn't driven its reputation into the ground. I'm looking forward to animated dead celebrities in future tablet-edition covers.

In less snarky printing news, The Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. outsourced its printing to Portland much like we did to Yakima a couple months ago. Capi Lynn wrote a column commemorating the change and Thomas Patterson photographed the final run, capturing some timeless moments. I asked him about his choice to shoot it on medium format and with film. Here's some of his response:

I used Kodak Portra 160 and 800 ISO in a Hasselblad 500C, which I changed in Photoshop to (black and white) because the pressroom and its environs are a very monotone area. I wanted the high-contrast grainy results of yore, but I had a quick deadline turnaround so I had to use color film.

One challenge was carting my tripod around the tights nooks and crannies of the machinery. Some exposures were up to a full second, and all the moving parts created quite a clatter. And, especially since none of the images were staged or posed, the longer exposures, manual focusing and limit of twelve exposures per roll made shooting much more difficult than with a modern SLR.

I'm old-school and love the print product and respect its creators, so it was a very sad project to make, but I'm happy with the results and the outpouring of emotion from the community. Shared history is a strong connection.

Finally, L.A. residents got to see the space shuttle Endeavor's final mission last weekend and the LA Times' Bryan Chan produced an awesome time lapse of its four-day trek through the streets. Another production team made one of its own and you can compare the two over at Petapixel. It's interesting that they're almost the same length. Let me know whose you think is better in the comments below.

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