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Home > Publications > Quill > Stories are stories


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Monday, November 26, 2007
Stories are stories

Regardless of medium, journalists must be excellent storytellers

by Tom Hallman Jr.

One of the benefits of this column is the chance to engage in a conversation of sorts with journalists. Last month, an e-mail showed up asking “do you have any advice for a recent journalism grad?”

Everything I was told when I graduated from college in 1977 is terribly outdated. My instructions, when hired by a weekly newspaper, and later when I moved to a small daily, sound quaint: Learn the AP stylebook, and make sure the local TV doesn’t get something before we do.

Never once did I hear the word story — in the way I eventually came to define it — uttered by any editor or fellow reporter. Narrative? No one had ever heard of it, at least as it applied to what we were churning out.

A friend who graduated the same year I did opened a record store. He was there before the compact disc, and when they hit it big, he rode the CD to great heights. One store grew to four, and at one point he was making more money per square foot than stores on Rodeo Drive.

And then, it seemed almost overnight, things changed. Today, all his stores are gone. Yet more music is available to the consumer than ever before, and musicians are taking control over what they create, cutting out the middlemen who once distributed the music.

So what does that mean to you, the new journalist starting work at your first paper? Simply this: You must become a storyteller.

No matter what happens to the method by which we deliver news, the ability to see, report and write a story will ultimately serve you well.

Don’t let yourself be seduced by technology. It’s here to stay, and it will forever be a part of our professional lives. But it’s simply a worthless tool if it doesn’t give consumers something they want.

And in my experience, readers crave stories, just the way they still want to hear music.

When I used to spar in the martial arts, a black-belt told me that while I had many moves to choose from, most would be of no use in a tough fight. He told me to practice and hone one move that I knew I could count on when everything was on the line with an opponent who was more than I could handle.

We’re in a fight. As more outlets provide news, the value of that news is diluted.

If our business remains one that delivers facts, the day’s report, then why would a consumer care where that report comes from? We need a different weapon.

Our weapon must be the story.

A story — whether it is 10 inches or a series — helps readers understand the complexities of life, by giving meaning to those facts. It helps readers understand about life in their city and neighborhood. Through other people’s stories, they come to contemplate their own life, and the lives of those they love. And a paper that tells those stories, and tells them well, is a news outlet that is unique in a crowded field.

Young reporters must learn how to see the heart of a story, and then how to report, structure and produce that story.

On a practical level, those skills will make you more valuable as you take control of your career.

A screenwriter friend told me that the ability to tell a story is gold. Pick up the Oct. 22 issue of The New Yorker. There’s a great profile of former reporter David Simon and how he made the transition to Hollywood.

His weapon? He knew how to see and tell a story.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a fascinating article in the Wilson Quarterly magazine by Tyler Cowen, an author who is also a professor of economics at George Mason University. In his piece, titled “The New Invisible Competitors,” Cowen discusses what competition in the age of the Internet means.

One passage, in particular, struck me and reminded me of the newspaper business I joined in 1977. Cowen writes that as humans evolved in small societies, rivalries served an important role. When a rival was promoted or praised, the adrenalin surged in those left behind, and that drove them to compete. But in the Internet world, Cowen writes, those who are “driven by adrenalin will not fare well. The greatest gains in this new world are likely to go to people who are methodical planners or who love the game for its own sake.”

Cowen said this new type of competition “favors people with imaginations.”

That new model favors the storyteller. Now, go be one.

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