Stripping out expectations of news writing
By Tom Hallman Jr.
In past columns I’ve written about the use of voice and why it matters in your stories. Scenic structure, theme and character are critical elements in a powerful narrative. So, too, is the use of voice. Sometimes subtle, sometimes strong, voice should always be there to help bring a story to life.
And there may be no better time in our industry to bring your voice out of the closet. As the industry dives deeper into the digital age, writers have an opportunity to experiment with voice in ways not possible years ago. Gone are the days where an editor says you have just 15 inches to tell a story. There’s no such limit online. If it’s good, readers will read.
I’ve found that readers approach stories differently on the Web. They want voice and seek it out, which allows a writer to engage with readers.
This became clear to me recently when I arrived for my 6:30 a.m. shift at The Oregonian and checked in with the early reporter who doubles as an assignment editor at that hour. Just two of us were there, and I asked her what was going on. She told me a Portland stripper had been exchanging tweets with Cory Booker, the Newark, N.J., mayor who has since won a U.S. Senate seat.
I thought she was joking. She told me she was serious and asked me to pick up the story. So I tracked the stripper’s Twitter account and sent her a message to see whether she would give me an interview. In the meantime, the early reporter sent me information she’d pulled from the wires after posting something online.
The stripper finally called. I had a brief interview with her, and then it was time to write.
Ten years ago this might be the lede: A Portland stripper and a New Jersey politician are the latest pair to be caught up in another potential political scandal.
A feature approach might be: A Portland woman who bares all as a stripper was exposed in a different way Thursday when her tweets to a New Jersey politician came to light.
I decided to start with heavy voice, have a bit of fun and write something much different than would appear in a newspaper. It didn’t take long to write. After my short interview, I wrote the story, and it was posted online within the hour.
The story ended up being the most read story on the paper’s site for two straight days.
And it ran the next day — exactly the way I had written it — on the front page.
Written as a traditional story, it would have been short, a brief at best. Even a traditional feature would not have had the same impact with readers.
Here’s my opening:
She kept us waiting.
But what did we expect from a professional stripper?
Some low-level bureaucrat holding a news conference on the steps of city hall, promptly at 10 a.m., to eagerly announce a 10-point plan about some obscure program that was going to do something important someday for all the citizens of this fair city?
This was a red-meat story — a bit of a pun there that will make sense in a moment — because it had everything going for it.
No one died.
No family is about to break up.
In a weird way, everyone’s career and reputation gets a bit of a boost.
And even though it can’t be breathlessly described as a sex scandal, take a look at this lineup: A stripper, a politician and racy photos out there for anyone with a computer to study — for research, of course.
A perfect storm.
And Lynsie Lee — a smart entrepreneur — saw an opportunity Thursday and played the media for all it was worth.
Come on in, boys. Just give me a moment to get comfortable.
The use of voice tipped off readers to a different and fun story. I then moved to the “news.”
Late last night hundreds of reporters from across the United States tried to find her after she became a celebrity — literally overnight — when a series of direct Twitter messages between her and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J. and a U.S. Senate candidate were released.
BuzzFeed first reported Wednesday a series of tweets between Booker and Lee, who works for vegan strip club Casa Diablo, that show the two have struck up a bit of a friendship on the social media network. They apparently began corresponding after both were featured in a documentary called “Follow Friday: The Film.”
Among the tweets highlighted include Booker declaring that he will be the president of the New Jersey Star Trek Club and Lee chiming in that if he were to ever be President of the United States that she calls dibs on being first lady.
In a direct message exchange released Wednesday by Lee, Booker says, “And the East Coast loves you and by the East Coast, I mean me.”
“Well now I’m blushing :)” Lee replied.
“It’s only fair,” Booker wrote back.
But no one could get an interview with Lee.
That last sentence took me out of the news section and got to the heart of the real story: Who is this stripper?
And now I could get back to my voice. Here is my section:
And, please, don’t tell me that there are more important stories out there that the media should be covering.
When a New York Times reporter is trying to reach a stripper, you know the story is a big deal.
Lee fanned the flames, by tweeting her reaction to the story.
One, particularly, gets to the heart of the matter: “I so don’t care about Cory Booker. I so do care about @LynsieLee”
On Thursday morning she sent out a tweet that she promised to eventually call reporters.
Minutes. An hour. Two hours. Finally, my telephone rang.
“This is Lynsie.”
I almost felt like I had to tip her.
Remember, voice is part of your writing toolbox. And, no, I don’t have a photo to share.
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.