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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing: Treat all assignments as your own


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Narrative Writing: Treat all assignments as your own

Commentary by Tom Hallman Jr.

Reporters tend to look at stories in one of two ways: Their story, or one suggested or assigned by the editor. The dance is played out in every newsroom: the editor walking from the city desk, carrying a slip of paper while reporters don’t dare look up for fear the assignment will come their way.

A reporter considers his idea a chance to write, to craft a perfect story. An assignment, however, is about pounding something out as quickly as possible and getting it out of the way.

The best editors consider an assignment, or story idea, as simply a starting point. But too many reporters look at an idea originating from an editor as either something somehow beneath them, or a story that comes with all sorts of rules attached to it. Assignments, and story ideas that originate somewhere else in the newsroom, are a fact of life. How you, as the reporter, approach them will determine the success of the story.

Remember, it is the reporter who determines and finds the story. The idea or assignment is simply a starting point. If a reporter goes into the story with that attitude, he may find a great story. I’ve had story ideas that came from senior editors eventually end up being Pulitzer finalists and parts of packages that won ASNE, National Headliners and Scripps-Howard writing awards.

Working off an idea gives a reporter the chance to think about the story from different angles. I’ve preached this before, but storytelling is about the thinking and not only the writing. An assignment, if approached the right way, gives the reporter the chance to practice that type of thinking.

I’m going to walk readers through an assignment that recently came my way. I want to highlight how I approached it.

It came one afternoon when I was sitting at my desk. One of the managing editors came by and said she had seen a press release sent out from the police bureau. She thought I could make it a bright. I read the release, and the story was that there had been a burglary at a restaurant earlier in the week. Cops responded. While there, a homeless man directed them to a bag full of burglary tools and money. End of release.

My first thought was to contact the cops on the scene. But they all worked graveyard. None were on duty. The restaurant employees would be of no use. The place had been closed when the burglary went down. The homeless guy could be the angle, but the public information officer said cops had no idea where he lived.

So I was stuck. I could write a bright brief — a three or four paragraph story — based just on the release. Or I could do something different. What was the story about? What did the story reveal? What was the meaning of the story?

I sat at my desk and begin writing. Ten minutes later, the story was finished. It was all of about 10 inches, but it ran on the front of the metro page, and the paper’s executive editor took the time to walk by my desk and tell me he loved the story.

Was it because of the great writing? Unlikely. The story worked because I thought about it. And when I discovered what I considered the meaning, I came up with a structure and writer’s voice that fit the story.

As crimes go, what happened in Northeast Portland a couple of days ago was minor. What took place later, though, surprised even hard-bitten cops.

I opened it this way because the crime was old news. And it allowed me to use the word “surprise,” which tells readers to keep reading.

The next three grafs told what happened: The cops showed up and arrested a 17-year-old boy for burglary. The story turned on the next two grafs, where I found the meaning and foreshadowed the ending.

That’s the news. But not the story.

While the cops were at the scene, a transient shows up. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that’s a dressed-up word for bum. We all have an image in mind: “Got any spare change?,” the street patter that makes us turn away, avoiding any eye contact.

Those two grafs remind readers of how we typically see bums. And it allowed me to flip that image at the end of a story that made readers think, and most importantly, feel.

I set up the ending by writing that the bum showed the cops where the bag of money was hidden in bushes, and how the cops later talked about it — something I got from the PIO. They were shocked the guy did the right thing.

Now, for the ending, all the elements come into play.

“How much money was in the bag? (Sgt. Brian) Schmautz doesn’t want to specify. But he relents a bit and says it’s over several hundred dollars.

Several hundred dollars. A king’s ransom to a guy living on the street. A lot of spare change.

Now, maybe the cops would have eventually found the bag. Maybe not.

Doesn’t really matter.

What I ended up with was a story, not a brief. A brief would have been adequate, all that was expected. But the thinking — what every reporter must do — is what allowed it to happen.


Editor's note: Full disclosure:

Tom Hallman Jr. faced disciplinary action in March for what Oregonian editor Sandra Mims Rowe called in a staff memo an “ethical breach.”

The background:

* Over a period of months, Hallman parked for free in a lot owned by Goose Hollow offices.

* Nobody else who parks in the lot pays for parking.

* Hallman had accepted an offer to park in the lot from Andrew Wiederhorn, a controversial figure who is the CEO of the company that owns the lot.

* Hallman profiled Wiederhorn in 1999, but has not written about him since.

Hallman has resumed working at The Oregonian and will continue writing his narrative writing columns for Quill magazine.

“Tom Hallman has worked with his employer to address this matter, and he has been forthcoming about it with SPJ leaders,” SPJ president Christine Tatum said. “I am pleased that he’ll continue to be an active supporter of SPJ — and that his support will help the Society promote the importance of journalism ethics.”

In Hallman’s words:

“Ethics are the foundation of our business. And it should never be taken lightly. I made a mistake by failing to realize that someone I wrote about eight years ago was still a newsmaker even though I wasn’t writing about him.

“Even though parking in the lot was free to everyone, it gave the appearance I was getting special treatment.”


Tom Hallman Jr., is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter with The Oregonian.

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