The day-to-day grind makes it easy to forget what our real mission should be in this business. We work in bubbles, too often writing for our peers or the city editor. We forget that our customers are not the people inside the newsroom. The people who read our work judge us far differently than we do ourselves.
I thought about this the other day as I was cleaning up my desk, sorting through drawers. I came across my collected file of letters that readers have sent me over the years. I pulled them out and began reading. Each letter reminded me of the power of a story. Not what we so casually label a story in this business. Not a news or feature story, but a real story, what we like to call a narrative. Here are three excerpts:
“I am an 18-year-old freshman at OSU. I live in a fraternity (house), and my normal routine is to eat a bowl of cereal each morning and read the sports. Today was different. Someone had the sports. I began to read the front page. I read your story about Diana and Christopher. I had to leave the room. I was crying, but I took the paper with me. I finished the article and realized I was still reading through tears.”
“I had to let you know that was quite a piece on the boy behind the mask. It made me feel not only the pain of Sam and his family, but also their strength, the courageousness of the surgeons and the humanity of all involved.”
“As a retired schoolteacher, my finances are not exactly flush. I can only afford the Sunday Oregonian. However, after reading your article about Mike Luckenbaugh, I found myself driving into town today to purchase the Monday paper so I could read Part 2. ”
Letter after letter touched on themes such as “dedication,” “a powerful message of perseverance,” and “hope and determination.”
Notice that people weren’t commenting on my wonderful writing. They certainly weren’t telling me that they were in awe of my brilliant sentence structure, or my excellent vocabulary. Not one letter mentioned the story length or how they found the nut graph helpful. They were responding — on an emotional level — to the story. That’s where it always begins and ends for readers — with story. If the story is working, they keep reading. If it isn’t, they quit, no matter how well the page is laid out and how many graphic boxes and photos are on the page to lure them in.
The future of our business depends on the quality of our stories.
Consumers can get facts from so many outlets these days — television, radio and the Internet — that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by them.
What helps make sense of the world, or more specifically your community, is the story. That’s a newspaper’s greatest strength, and it’s something we don’t want to abdicate as we struggle to find our niche in an ever-changing media world.
Each day, readers flip through the pages of our newspapers waiting to be surprised by a story that reveals the great truths about the world and the people in it. Readers hunger for stories.
I’ve talked with reporters who recently decided to try a narrative. Reader response was unlike anything they’d previously received, and it encouraged them to try another narrative. And it reminded them of why they got in this business in the first place.
Why? The power of the story. Do your stories generate letters like the ones I referred to? If not, why not? It doesn’t come down to the quality of your writing, but the strength of the story — the character, the complication, the journey, the insights gained along the way and the resolution.
All the narrative techniques we learn and put into practice — scene setting, transitions, dialogue, point of view — are critical. But they must work to serve the story. Too often we get caught up in techniques just for the sake of techniques. We’ve all read stories like that, and I admit that I’ve even written some. But techniques applied for show, or without a strong story, simply don’t work.
It reminds me of what it’s like to wander into a guitar store on any given Saturday. I stumble over young guitar players showing off with fancy riffs and sound effects. But many of them can’t play a simple song because they’re too caught up in the flash and not the substance.
When a story fails, and every narrative writer has some that don’t always work, it’s rarely because the writing is weak. More often than not, the reporter hasn’t found the emotional center of the story.
Without that center, narrative techniques don’t work. At best, they mask a story’s overall structural flaw — typically that there is no story. Those types of stories — and I’ve written more than my share of them over the years — technically work, but they have no heart and soul.
What’s at work is a writer practicing riffs.
Those are the stories that readers quit reading after 10 inches. Those are the stories that newsroom critics point to when they complain about long narratives.
But when a story has an emotional center, it works like nothing else that appears in the paper. When it works, readers devour 100-inch-long stories. Editors say those long pieces read like a breeze.
Next month, I’ll get back to techniques. But remember, it all starts with finding the story.
Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.