Framing a Great Story

A PTA mom that everyone loved, a power couple and ruin. The Framed mysteries series by Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard intrigued millions as it delved into who would want to harm Kelli Peters.

The story arc follows Jill and Kent Easter, two high power lawyers that plant drugs in lovable PTA mom Kelli Peters’ car, as petty revenge.

The story had been in the news since the Easters’ arrest in 2012. But it caught Goffard’s attention when the civil case unfolded earlier this year in an empty courtroom. Most reporters had moved on. Not Goffard.

“It seemed to speak to larger issues— about the nature of the criminal justice system, class, suburbia, and the universal fear of false accusation, among other things,” he says.

The project in total took seven months to complete. Goffard started the process by collecting all the documents and sources he could find. “If they don’t want to talk to me at first, I keep trying,” he said.

He never reached Jill Easter, but managed to reach Ken Easter.

The story came in at 15,000 words, too long for the paper to publish in one, two or even three installments. So he broke it down into a series, each ending on a cliffhanger. A designer supplemented the content with visuals, video and gifs, and audio bits.

The Los Angeles Times launched it as a six-part narrative, with a CTA asking readers to sign up for the “Essential California” newsletter.

Poynter reported readers were spending up to 16 minutes on the story. “I think the argument [that people don’t read long form online] is over, or should be over. If you build your story right, people will read it to the end.”

For reporters to begin this type of story, elevating it from courtroom reporting to a full feature, Goffard advises thinking of it in narrative spines. “[Tell] your story using scenes, characters, real-time dialogue (as opposed to free-floating quotes) and what Tom Wolfe likes to call ‘status detail,’ which refers to all the ways people advertise their place in the world, from their clothes to their lawns to their license plates.”

Since the story ran, it has received 7.7 million page views, with 3.4 million unique readers, and it generated 50,000 newsletter signups.

“The response from readers has been enormous. I’m getting emails from all over the world. Some of my favorites are from people who say, “This is a fascinating window into America, because it couldn’t have happened where I am.” For instance, a man from Sweden wrote to say there is really no such thing as a PTA mom in Sweden, so this couldn’t have happened there.”

In a letter to the editor, Linda Hernadez wrote, “I find myself following each installment of Christopher Goffard’s ‘Framed’ series breathlessly. Truth is truly stranger than fiction. As a mystery reader, I hope the series will morph into a book. It definitely has movie or documentary drama potential. A very impressed reader.”


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