New York City photographer Julie Jacobson and Michelle Smith, Providence, Rhode Island, correspondent, spent weeks negotiating with the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus about what sort of access they could get to the performers and crew as the 146-year history of “The Greatest Show on Earth” drew to a close this spring.
What they really wanted was to get on the train where the workers lived, the last of its kind in the world. Getting inside the cabins, and the heart and soul of a unique way of life that was coming to an end, was the key to telling a compelling story, they felt.
Finally the word came down, from CEO Kenneth Feld: We could get on the “pie car” for the clowns’ last breakfast, but they would not be in costume, and we could absolutely not see the rest of the train, out of respect for the privacy of the performers.
Good thing Jacobson and Smith don’t take no for an answer.
As they talked with the clowns at that breakfast, Smith asked one: “What are you going to do when you’re done performing for the last time?” He replied that there was a cupboard in his cabin where all the clowns that came before him had signed their names before moving on. After the last show, he’d add his name to it.
Smith asked if she and Jacobson could see it. Of course they could, he said. Other cast and crew members followed suit, eager to share with the AP their stories of life in the circus and on the train, and of their plans for the future.
Jacobson raced to process hours’ worth of stills, video and 360 in time to get them out before the “last last” performance.
The access they got, the stories they heard and the images they saw formed the basis for an exclusive and heart-tugging package of photos, traditional and 360 video, and text. Once the circus unit they visited had wrapped up its performances, Jacobson raced to process hours’ worth of stills, video and 360 in time to get them out before the “last last” performance by the other unit of the circus just a couple of weeks later.
Smith, juggling it with her work on another major piece of enterprise about school sexual abuse, set about writing heart-tugging vignettes, coordinating her subject choices so they could be paired with Jacobson’s strongest images in a stack on the AP News app. Social promotions were coordinated by East UGC reporter Michael Sisak and East enterprise editor Jeff McMillan, and McMillan built the stack overnight after the story moved around 1 a.m.
Jacobson’s online video and Smith’s lead vignette focused on the narrative spun by Sandor Eke, the colorful “boss clown” who was living on the train with his toddler son.
Smith’s vignette package concluded: “In a few days, the two will fly back to Hungary to visit family before their permanent move to Las Vegas. Eke is planning to visit a circus he has heard about there. ‘Any time I have a chance to see a circus,’ he says, ‘I will be there.’ But tonight, he stands on the arena floor one last time, holds his son in his arms, and cries.”
The Nieman Storyboard said Smith’s collected vignettes "offer sweet and sorrowful snapshots of the carnies as they say goodbye to the only life that most of them have known ... sigh."
The Nieman Storyboard called Smith’s collection of vignettes “lovely. It offers sweet and sorrowful snapshots of the carnies as they say goodbye to the only life that most of them have known. One of them is sixth-generation circus, and he likes to say his parents fell in love in the air. Sigh.”
The package made Mike Allen’s Top 10 on Axios AM. Jacobson’s images were used inventively by outlets including CBS News and WBUR in Boston.
The spokesman for Feld Entertainment called Smith the morning the package ran to thank her and Julie, saying that in 100 years, people will look back at their work to understand what life was like on the Ringling Bros. circus.
The journalists’ work continued a string of AP scoops on the circus, including by Tampa newswoman Tamara Lush, who previously reported on Ringling’s decision to drop elephants from its act and later the demise of the circus itself, and Smith’s first interview with circus officials after an accident in 2014.
For trust-building that gave the AP access that no other media outlet had to the end of a singular way of life, and for building on a record of exclusivity that will now stand for all time, Jacobson and Smith win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.