Words on waffles

If you haven’t yet read Jessica Contrera’s story about “The end of the Waffle House,” which recently ran in the Indiana Daily Student, do yourself a favor, sit down, grab a cup of coffee and—why not?—a delicious syrupy waffle. Then prepare to indulge in an article that’s drawn some well-deserved national media attention for its wonderfully rich storytelling.

As a proud Indiana University School of Journalism alumnus, it gives me great pleasure to report that a current student is earning raves for her exceptional reporting, writing and use of multimedia, which she directed toward telling a powerful tale about the final days of a Bloomington, Ind., institution.

IU journalism student Jessica Contrera is earning praise across the mediasphere for her feature story on the closing of a landmark Bloomington restaurant.

IU journalism student Jessica Contrera is earning praise across the mediasphere for her feature story on the closing of a landmark Bloomington restaurant.

A senior from Akron, Ohio, Contrera worked with fellow students Anna Teeter (photography) and Emma Grdina (multimedia reporting) to produce a piece for IU Bloomington’s student newspaper and as part of her J460 Words and Pictures class that has been touted by, among other major media outlets, Poynter, Editor and Publisher and Longreads, as an example of why, to use Contrera’s own words, “good storytelling still matters.” Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch wrote in his “Media Circus” online column that Contrera’s story “is as good a feature as I’ve ever read from a college student.”

“The reaction to our story on the end of Bloomington’s Waffle House has been incredible,” Contrera told me over email. “It’s pretty ironic that a place so technology-averse could be so loved by the Internet. But when you work incredibly hard on something, it’s definitely rewarding to know that even total strangers connected with it.”

Contrera’s story, which required 15 drafts and many hours sitting at the Waffle House, pulls you in from the start and, like a dependable diner waitress, keeps serving up warmth and goodness until you’re finally finished.

A sample:

Tap, tap, tap. Bud Powell’s aluminum cane led the way as he circled the floor of Bloomington’s Waffle House. His Waffle House.

That Wednesday in September, the owner didn’t know what to do with himself. The smell of frying oil, the same greasy perfume that had greeted customers for 46 years, wafted into his nose as he wandered past the vinyl booths. He sat down, then stood up again.

Bud – everyone called him Bud – checked the dwindling supply of breakfast sausage, peered into the empty freezers, tried to explain to his regulars why it had to be this way.

“It’s time,” he said over and over.

From the first time she visited with the Waffle House staff and patrons, Contrera knew she had a powerful story on her hands. “We talked to probably 15 or 20 customers and staff members that day, and every single one had a story about what the piece meant to them,” she emailed.

As if her description of those individuals weren’t enough, photography and multimedia only served to enhance the project, which was further supported by journalism professors Tom French (a former Pulitzer Prize winner), Jim Kelly and Bonnie Layton.

“It’s what made the story come to life,” Contrera said. “Through Anna Teeter’s photos, you could see for yourself the pain in Bud’s eyes, the door not locking and the building crashing down. In Emma Grdina’s multimedia, you could hear the last eggs sizzling and the customers crying.”

Those who haven’t yet read Contrera’s story should be prepared to shed a few tears when they do, but to also smile at the thought that the future of journalism is in good hands.

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