As happens at any journalism conference, some of the most powerful conversations occur in coffee shops, bars and hotel lobbies long after the formal seminar is over. Away from the crowd, people feel free to ask the kinds of questions that touch on their concerns as they move forward in an industry that’s changing — and will continue to change dramatically in the coming months and years.
In August I had the privilege of leading a six-hour seminar on narrative writing at the joint SPJ Excellence in Journalism conference in California. It was a reminder that despite the turmoil in our industry, there’s no doubt there’s still hunger for storytelling. The workshop sold out, and organizers had to bring in extra tables and chairs to make room for people on the waiting list. The group was diverse — college seniors, radio and TV journalists, magazine editors and writers, and, of course, those working at small weeklies and metro dailies.
By the end of the day, after taking questions in the seminar and later, privately, the overriding question was simple: Can we still tell stories? Yes.
The stories may be different than they were 10 years ago. The demands have changed. We feed the Web, post and link, and the space we have to tell our stories in print has shrunk. A long story these days would be considered midlength as recently as five years ago. Those are the realities and the rules.
But our audience hungers for story. I, like anyone who sends stories into the world, know because of the reaction I get to my pieces. And I’m not talking about long stories that take months to report and write. A well-written narrative, or a feature that incorporates some narrative, connects with readers. Our mission must be to find ways to give the audience what it wants.
When it comes to print, weeklies and small community newspapers offer a wonderful opportunity for ambitious writers. The publication’s mission — local, local, local — allows editors and reporters to clearly define not just what they are going after, but what they can’t ignore — local reaction, for example, to some national event. Through various SPJ seminars over the years, I’ve met editors and writers at those papers. I now follow many by occasionally checking in on their work on their websites.
I constantly find missed opportunities.
What appears in the paper is a serviceable feature. Nothing “wrong,” but readers get a story they’ll forget by week’s end. I realize that the reporter missed the real story — often contained in the story I’m reading — because he was unable to make the switch from thinking like a newsperson. He was seduced by the event or meeting. He latched onto the “news” even if the news wasn’t story worthy. The reporter has an anecdotal opening, or maybe a scene, but hasn’t thought about what the story is really about before he reports, and certainly before he writes.
Good stories, remember, are the byproduct of good thinking.
Yes, certain stories are so clearly story worthy that it would be impossible not to understand the power and potential. But the majority of great stories remain hidden in the community, and in the lives of the people who live in those communities. Without this kind of thinking, a writer falls back on the words — the “great” writing to build the story.
This thinking, by the way, is the hardest part of storytelling. But it’s absolutely necessary. And once you get in the habit of thinking that way, you will start to see stories all around you. At the conference, for example, I was finishing lunch when a reporter stopped by my table to ask if she could talk about a story she planned to work on the next week. I invited her to sit down.
The morning session, she said, had forced her to rethink the story. She knew there could be something more powerful there now but wasn’t sure if her instincts were right. She wanted my input. I asked her to tell me the story, explaining that this is exactly what I do when I’m given an assignment or have the hint of a story idea.
She told me the story, which was based on an event in her community. It sounded like an interesting feature, but nothing memorable. This is the stage where too many reporters quit thinking. So I interviewed her and asked her to tell me more about the event, which involved six or so characters.
I wasn’t listening for the facts, but for something that struck me, made me sit up and get interested. I wanted something or someone that could reveal a theme, something specific and yet universal, something that readers would feel spoke to their lives.
Five minutes in, I raised my hand.
“There,” I said. “Go back. Tell me about that character again. Why do I think she’s the one to build a story around?” We started talking — not about scenes and sentence structure, but about the great themes in life: fear, overcoming doubt and taking a risk.
She began to nod. She got it.
“Now,” I asked, “how are you going to report this story? What do you need? What don’t you need?”
She began thinking, jotting notes as we talked. She said nothing about dates, places and times, and nothing about the story’s “news value.”
In the end, the news was secondary to something more powerful.
“Now,” I told her, “go write that story.”
Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @thallmanjr or on his website, tomhallman.com.