If we all agree that a good story is built on good reporting, then it follows that good reporting requires good questions.
But what does that mean?
A storyteller reports on three levels:
1) The most basic of facts: Gathering names, correct spelling and the news, or what makes the event special.
2) Scenic reporting: Watching the character, or characters, in the world in which they live. Details to put readers in that world. For example, the sounds in an operating room.
3) Reporting for meaning: What is this story about? Why do we care? What is the theme? Where is the feeling?
The first two categories are obvious. Read the most basic news story and you see it’s built on reporting category No. 1. Features and narratives have elements built on category No. 2.
The greatest stories, though, require reporting from category No. 3.
You learn this reporting by being in the world, talking with people, listening, being curious, contemplating, going with your gut and instinct, and asking open-ended questions.
One my favorite stories, one that was little more than a news story when written by another reporter, won a national writing award after I discovered the real story when I asked one of the characters a series of simple questions: Is that true? If so, great. But if it’s not the truth, tell me the real story. She thought about it and began to cry. In that moment, the young woman revealed to me both her heart and her story. In another case, I learned the real story when I asked the woman, who wasn’t sure why I had come to her house to interview her, why she kept a Bible on a table in her living room.
Remember, the people you are interviewing are not newsmakers. They don’t hand you a press release. Through your questions, both you and the person you are writing about discover the story. What they might not think to be important — an afterthought, a minor detail, a bit of history — is the key to unlocking the story. But if you don’t report with purpose, the person you are writing about never tells you what you need.
A reader sent me an email about a woman who worked in a Portland warehouse. The oldest employee, she rode her bike to and from work each day, about a 20-mile commute. At 73, she’d been working at the warehouse for 25 years, never called in sick and has no plans to retire. Portland being Portland — our love of bikes is well documented (and parodied) — I approached it as a nice feature, built around the No. 1 and No. 2 categories of reporting. Here is a passage in the story:
She took a break and told me that working keeps her active and young. Ben St. Clair, a 32-year-old who works at a station just behind Bayless, laughed and said he hustles just to keep up with the pace she sets.
What also makes Bayless unique is that she rides her bike to work and home, about 20 miles, roundtrip, from her home in outer Southeast Portland. She began riding more than 20 years ago when gas prices were high and she needed to save money. At the time, she said, she was spending about $40 a week on gas, and getting a bike was a wise investment. But she also discovered a certain peace by commuting on two wheels.
“In the morning, I get to see the sun come up,” she said. “I ride the Springwater Corridor, and I’ve seen deer and coyotes.”
She’s now on her third bike, a 24-speed that Donovan lets her park inside the warehouse so it won’t get stolen. Over the years, she’s had five accidents. She’s been clipped by distracted motorists, and by other bicyclists.
“But even though I’ve been banged up,” she said, “I’ve always made sure I got to work.”
A bit of a scene, good details with a serviceable quote.
The real story, the better story, the one that was shared online more than 1,200 times, was revealed only when I turned to reporting category No. 3.
I even showed readers what I was doing, letting them in on the discovery:
I closed my notebook.
I had my story, a very Portland story about an older woman who commutes to work on her bike.
But late that night, I got to thinking about Bayless riding on the Springwater Corridor, a place in the news because of complaints about homeless people camping along the route. The next day, I called Bayless to see what she felt about riding the corridor at her age.
That’s when I discovered a better story, one that reminds us that the best stories come from the heart.
When I asked Bayless better questions, I found a better story, one she’d never shared with anyone at the warehouse.
Bayless had a tough life; divorced when she was in her 20s, she had to raise four kids by herself. With only a high school degree, she worked a series of odd jobs, at times having to scrounge for food in garbage cans.
My questions led Bayless to reveal not what was in her head — reporting categories No. 1 and No. 2 are for that purpose — but what was in her heart and soul.
When you get to a character’s heart and soul, you have the story. Bayless told me that she related to the homeless on the route she rides to work. She stops and talks with them, brings them food and coffee.
And that’s how I found the story not of an older woman on a bike, but of a woman the homeless people call the angel on a bike.
Yes, a better story. The real 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