Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from newspaper friends who wonder whether the skills they’ve spent years honing in a business so rapidly changing are worth anything in what we like to call the “real world.”
Yes, the business has changed in the past few years. Less space in the paper and fewer bodies in the newsroom. We spend time learning why search engine words matter so much. There are moments when the idea of having the time to write a narrative seems farfetched.
I don’t know of any newspaper reporter — myself included — who has the luxury of focusing solely on long-form narrative journalism. During a typical week, I post items — some just a paragraph or two — and turn around a quick daily story, or run out to take a photo of a fire on my cellphone and send it back to an editor who posts it for me.
Aside from being overwhelmed by the mysteries of how to make a Droid phone work, I’ve been having fun. I’m reminded of what drew me to the news business more than 33 years ago. And I can see ways that storytelling and a writer’s voice are useful in this new world, maybe in even more powerful ways than the old three-part newspaper series that was once the gold standard when we thought about narrative.
In my heart, I’m a storyteller. I find stories. Or they find me. Storytelling is the compass that guides me during these times. And it’s a compass that I want you to put in your toolbox.
Thinking more often about stories — what they are, how you report them and why they matter to readers — accomplishes a few things. First, it gives you a sense of purpose; you start to look for stories and see what others miss. You will also practice the type of skills that are increasingly valuable.
If you dream about writing freelance magazine pieces or books, it’s a given that you understand story. But on a smaller, more local level, I’m convinced that what matters most is the ability to see a story and then tell it.
When I speak with young reporters, either in person or via email, I gently try to remind them that the technology is, and always will be, simply a tool to get the story to the reader. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video, a blog item or an old-fashioned print piece. What matters, in the long run, is story. And I’m not the only person who believes that.
A few weeks ago, a fellow reporter motioned me over to his desk because he found an unusual job listing.
A Portland-based architectural firm was looking for a writer/storyteller.
“We are in search of an excellent writer to work with our creative professionals in crafting compelling content to advance sustainable planning and design for the built environment.
Responsibilities include interview staff and conduct independent research to context and storylines, write compelling stories tailored to SERA’s clients and prospects yet understandable to a wider audience, distill information into stories, sound bites, presentation and proposal content, and other educational and marketing formats, interconnect stories across the firm’s disciplines and market sectors.”
A month later, a similar job listing was posted by a Portland non-profit that was looking for a grant writer/storyteller.
“Bring your high level of technical and creative writing skill to proposals to foundations, family foundations, and corporations to one of the most admired organizations in Oregon.”
What’s going on?
“Something is changing in the industry,” said Mac Prichard, the owner of Prichard Communications and the publisher of Mac’s List, a site that lists jobs throughout Portland and Oregon, many of them dealing with communications, marketing and public relations.
“Agencies are starting to realize they need to put a human face on what they do,” he said. “In my business I see public agencies, businesses and non-profits realize the effect of good storytelling.”
Prichard said that 18 months ago he was in Washington, D.C., where an agency head was meeting with legislative aides.
“He did a good job with the facts about the program,” Prichard said. “The audience knew who the agency served and how it worked. But the aides were not engaged at all.”
For the second meeting of the day, the director, with the help of some coaching, changed tactics.
“The director told the story of one person the agency helped,” Prichard said. “He told a story about drugs and struggles and overcoming them. The aides got the story. It put a human face on policy and program. It worked.”
As Prichard put it: No one ever marched on Washington, D.C., because of data.
“It is the personal story that moves us,” he said. “It will always move us.”
Make it your goal this week to find a story.
A final thought: I want to work with a reporter one-on-one on a single story and write about the experience in a column. If you are interested, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Tom Hallman Jr. is Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian. On Twitter: @ThallmanJr