The following comments are taken from a talk given by Oregonian reporter Tom Hallman on September 25, 2009, at the American Association of Sunday and Feature editors. Hallman won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for “The Boy Behind the Mask,” which he refers to in his comments as “Sam’s story.”
Sam’s story took two trips to Boston. Each day it ran on Page 1 and had two full pages in the A section, across four days. In addition to the logistical things about cost, you couldn’t get that kind of space now. But good narrative doesn’t have to take months to do.
I’m all for other media when it works, but the online component would have ruined that story. The power of the story doesn’t come from talking to the doctors or having a graphic to show where the surgeons went in and how many procedures they did. Nobody cares about that—they care about the boy having a journey.
If we want to compete with other people in other media, if we just try to do it faster, it’s a losing battle. The way we can define ourselves is by telling stories.
I’m working on a story about a 1951 DeSoto. No TV station will have it, no radio station will have it. And I guarantee you I’ll hear from readers. They’re not saying they want puff pieces, but they’re saying, “Show me a story that reflects some humanity.” Most pieces are just an assembly of facts and graphs and photographs. What we need are stories.
As editors, we have to look around our newsrooms and say who is best equipped to find, write and edit these stories. I’m a lousy investigative reporter. I’m a terrible columnist. As editors, you have to ask yourself, “Who in my newsroom could do this?”
For reporters, there has to be a change of attitude. Narrative was seen as being all about writing and having plenty of time to do stuff. Narrative reporters were seen as prima donnas. So for younger writers, they’re going to have to tell stories, to find stories that are going to be shorter. I did a series of stories last year that would have been written differently five years ago, and that was a struggle.
The truth is that we turned out stories that were not worth 40, 60 or 90 inches, where the openings were about impressing other writers more than reaching the readers. But you cannot tell a scenic story in 15 inches. It’s going to require a different kind of narrative: The presence of a writer’s voice but without the heavy first person references. My feeling is unless you’ve witnessed a murder, you don’t need to be in the story. It will take a more disciplined approach to the story, the realization that some things are going to have to go by the wayside. You’re going to have to use quotes, whether you want to or not, to condense the story.
At every newspaper, storytelling can be the tonic to help us get through these times. For the writers, it means they connect with the readers. For the newspapers, it helps brand a paper in the community. People say, “I started to read it, and I knew it was your story.” It helps if newspapers can say, “Once a week or once a month, we’re going to have a real story.”
You still hear, “Let’s do the tick-tock,” but those are almost clichés. Fifteen years ago, they were groundbreaking. Now what I think readers are looking for is more meaning. Those are the stories that we have to discover by getting out of the newsroom. Editors need to encourage the reporters to be out. If you’re in the newsroom, it should only be because you’re writing. They need to also set the bar higher on stories. Anybody that’s ever freelanced for magazines knows you have to be clear and make an argument for why they should run it. If we could answer the questions up front that freelancers have to answer for magazines, we’d cut a lot of the stories that are being written now that have no point.
It’s hard, because if you fail at narrative, you fall further than you do with any other kind of story in the paper. People will read it and say, “What a waste of space.” That sets off this schism between writers and reporters. If we continue to have “these are the writers, and they get time” and then “these are the reporters, and they work the night shift,” we’re going to have problems. We can’t have that divisiveness. It’s going to require a lot more from the editor at the front end.
Ninety percent of what’s in the newspaper is not story. It’s factual. Storytelling can be one of the saviors of our business. I did a thing a couple weeks ago about some World War II vets who were having a meeting. I was really taken by the power of the video that ran with it. It might have been two minutes. I clicked on it and watched it, and I was so impressed. It did things my story couldn’t do.
So I’m a big believer that stories are a way to find a way out of the woods. But I do worry about the next generation because they are not schooled in the craft of reporting. They’re more interested in writing than they are in reporting. And many of them feel entitled, saying, “I want to be a writer. I don’t want to spend two years covering cops.” So I think we have that as an issue, too.
The upper-level editors say we want more narrative, but they don’t give mid-level editors resources or backup. They need to step back and say, “What’s our mission?” If storytelling is part of that mission, then we can make it happen. If it’s done right, then there’s nothing more powerful.
With all due respect to Jon Franklin, every story doesn’t have to have conflict, a complication, three steps and a resolution. Earlier I tried to write stories like that, and sometimes they don’t work.
We had a local barber riding a motorcycle who lost a leg. I went down and talked to the guy. They did this medical technique on him. He had all these cards. When I was talking about his leg, he was matter-of-fact. He had a bunch of cards along his window. I asked him if I could read the cards, and then he got emotional. As a barber, you talk. But he didn’t know if people liked him.
And the story turned on that. It became a story that was less than 25 inches. The opening posed a complication. Not the lost leg—it was, “Do people like me?” I wrote it in a day, and it ran around Thanksgiving, and I got many, many responses from it.
My editor had the good sense to follow up on the story, but she had tried to get everyone to take it, and ran into resistance from people who didn’t want to do it. It was not a big, month-long project. There are quotes, and narrative elements. It’s not a pure narrative, but it had narrative elements. Editors have to raise the bar for narrative, and reporters have to lower the bar—or at least their expectations—for narrative.
You have to start by knowing the structure, then knowing the pieces that you can use, the pieces that are appropriate to the story. No newspaper, no editor can make this happen. It must come from the writer. The barber story is a perfect example. If a reporter tells me, “My editor won’t let me do it,” I really wonder if they’re trying. You can’t help but listen to the story calling you, and you do the damn story.
In these days, a reporter must be optimistic. You can find mentors who are not at your papers. I’ve had young people write me and say “What do you think?” Find people whose work you admire and ask them how they do it.
If you listen to music, it just sounds beautiful. But you learn about it, and you understand it doesn’t float out of nowhere. There’s a craft to it. So many readers get seduced by the art of writing, but everything that follows is craft.
Ten years ago, this DeSoto story would have been a different story, and in a lot of ways a better story. But we are filling a need in the marketplace. If readers want this, why not give it to them? So much of traditional journalism is filled with bad news, crime, the worst of humanity, we should be able to balance that out with the best of humanity, but that has to be a story.
There’s no formula. People that profess to talk about how to do narrative journalism are sometimes wrong. There are some rules, but sometimes the rules are meant to be broken. Everything must serve the story.
If I put on a Stevie Ray Vaughan tune, “The Sky Is Crying,” you don’t need to know what it is. It’s just part of the way we are as humans. We live by story. The people that want to make a lot of rules are too caught up in the intellectual aspect of it.
So what are the rules for writing stories?
Rule 1: Must be interesting.
Rule 2: See rule 1.
That’s it. I don’t mean to be unhelpful.
There are still places that have good narrative storytelling, but the golden age of narrative has shifted to magazines. Magazine writers are the best ones going. Take a look. You pick up Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ. You start reading one of their stories, and you don’t know where the story’s going. Those people the real storytellers, and they are not writing by rules. Read C.J. Chivers, who writes from Russia for Esquire.
One of the negative things coming out of the golden age of narrative journalism is the whole writing coach, seminar, Nieman conference thing. We still have a little bit of that hanging on now. I don’t like writing exercises. I’m stubborn. If someone says, “Okay, we’re going to practice writing a scene,” well, I don’t want to write unless I have a story. There are patterns that work, then it’s just a question of which tools you need. Does foreshadowing make it more interesting or bog it down?
I get how stories work, but I don’t want to ever make a story feel like it’s a paint-by-numbers thing. One of the best storytellers I’ve ever known is in jail right now.
As far as attribution, there are some things that are so intrinsically true, you can’t get hung up where they come from. “Life turns confusing when a boy turns 12.” Only a narrator can say that. It’s just true—don’t go ask a 12 year-old boy, because he won’t tell you. But ask any grown man, and he might. There are certain things in life that are just absolutely true. Having the authority in there can get in the way and clutter up the story.
Narrative journalism grows out of good reporting, not great writing. The best stories come from somebody out in the room when something happens. And that comes from reporting. If I were going to create the perfect career for a young person, I would not say, “You are going to be on the features team.” That’s terrible. Give me the person who has covered cops and had a cop to tell him to go to hell, and then goes and talks to the PIO and gets that cop to come back and to talk to him. Give me that person every day for a month, and I can show him how to write.
I’ve been on both extremes. I had one major project I was working on for a long time, and it was not healthy in a sense. Because the act of writing is something you keep practicing. Writing frequently makes you hone the skill of getting it done.
Sometimes stories that worked out really well, I’d come in that morning, and I’d have to get the damn thing done that day. If I’d had two weeks to do it, I’d have just putzed around and tried to make it beautiful instead of telling the story.