From time to time I receive emails from young journalists who want to eventually move into feature reporting, but they find themselves on a beat where they tell me they have no chance to work on storytelling skills.
My first gig was at a weekly newspaper where I covered four small towns. At my next stop, I covered one city, whether it was police, planning or city hall. I rarely wrote a feature. I fell into a rut because I looked at my assignment as a news beat, not as a chance to write news and features. I focused on the information, not the people.
Step back and look at your beat through the eyes of the people within that beat. When you do that, you’ll see stories that offer a chance to practice narrative skills. When I covered the city council at a mid-size daily, every story lacked any humanity, drama or humor. The possibilities were there, but I missed them because I failed to think like a storyteller.
The mayor and council members, while elected, held full-time jobs. The council meeting was a place for them to star. I see now there was a story about the auto parts salesman who every Tuesday night put on a sport jacket and tie and spoke for the citizens. I could have written about transformation, from the close of the work day to the gavel coming down to open the council meeting. Every council meeting featured the same cranks who showed up and sat in a chair for hours for the chance to make a public comment. I never wrote about them. Who were they? Why did they show up each week?
Who are the people — not the big-shots — on your beat worthy of a profile? Is there something on your beat that allows for a snapshot in time? Or a vignette? Who are the people who come to apply for a business license? What do they hope for? Who is the low-level planner who must decide what happens to a piece of land? What’s a stake? Who feels the impact?
Thinking this way allows you to break down a beat or subject matter into smaller pieces — stories — that are built around a person or place that then becomes a character in your story. To do this, you must slow down.
An example of how I put this theory into practice will help you see how you can apply it to your beat. My editor suggested I take a look at the sprawling issue surrounding Portland’s gang problems.
I wanted to write something quickly. I started with creative thinking. What people could I profile that would allow me to tell stories and impart the humanity that readers crave? I came up with a list and began reporting, looking for the right person to tell me a story about their role in the gang world.
Could you do that with the planning department? The school system? The public works department? Make that your challenge.
Each of the pieces I wrote — and I have more coming — are reported in just a couple of hours. The writing doesn’t take much longer. But each piece is a story, not a news story, because I incorporate voice and story thinking from the outset.
Here’s the opening to my first piece:
Unless someone dies, the stories tend to be forgotten by the end of the daily news cycle. In the news business, they’re called briefs. If you’re a careful reader of them, you’ll see the same phrases: “rival criminal gang associates,” and “the Gang Enforcement Team responded.”
In late June, people in two cars were shooting at each other as they drove along Interstate 5 near the Broadway exit. One man, shot in the face, turned out to have been shot once before, in 2013. Think about that: Gunfire on a Portland freeway just before 8 p.m. on a summer night.
No suspects, no arrests. But, as usual, the gang team was investigating.
What officers have found is that in addition to face-to-face encounters, rivals, friends and associates use social media to talk smack to each other. That fuels tensions that end up with guns being pulled.
Over the next few months, I want to take a look at Portland’s gang violence. Don’t look for official statements from leaders. There will be no crime stats or sweeping examinations of policy.
My goal is to move beyond the brief by telling the stories about people who intimately know the world that exists in our city.
The end seems to be the best place to start.
The receptionist at the Gresham funeral home led me down a long hallway, this way and that way, before stopping at a small room where families meet to plan services.
Vincent Jones-Dixon is a funeral director at Bateman Carroll Funeral Home in Gresham. Sometimes he helps a family plan the funeral for a son, brother or husband lost to gang violence. He carries with him a painful knowledge of what the family across from him in such a room as this is experiencing. Three years ago, his 21-year-old younger brother, Andreas Jones-Dixon, a Portland gang member, was gunned down in a shooting.
I then introduce readers to Jones-Dixon. Same family, same choices, and yet he stayed straight. Why? What did he have to share?
You could use that same template to write about a teacher, a planner or a worker on the city road crew. What about the school administrator in charge of discipline? Or the high school counselor trying to help a kid get ready for college? How about small vignettes on the small town council figuring out how to spend money that will influence the lives of all the residents in that town?
Remember, the goal is taking readers into a different world. And if you use people to explain that world, it will never be boring. Finally, these stories require a real narrative ending, not a news ending. This will force you to practice the techniques you will need when you tackle long narratives and magazine pieces. Look how I end my piece:
“The people I deal with help me as much as I help them,” he said. “Even if they don’t know my story, I get to hear their stories. I’ve learned about families who lost a child to drugs. Others said they had no clue their son was involved in gangs until their house was raided.”
Gangs, he said, are a complicated issue.
“You can’t force someone you love to get out,” Jones-Dixon said. “I don’t have the answer. What I know is that someone’s life impacts all our lives, for good or bad. I know that it’s not normal to die in violence.”
He opened the door. He had to get back to work. A family needed to plan a funeral that afternoon.
Now, go out and find the person inside your beat who is more than news. Find the story.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize -winning journalist and author. He’s been on staff at The Oregonian for more than 35 years and has published several books. His journalism and non-fiction narrative stories explore the significance of big moments and small and their impact on a life. On Twitter: @thallmanjr