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Monday, October 11, 2010
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Will you help save this reporter's career?

By Tom Hallman Jr.

A few weeks ago I checked my e-mail, and among the responses to a recent column I found a letter that stopped me cold. It's worth reprinting here because it raises issues and questions that get to the heart of what's happening in an industry that is changing dramatically.

To preserve the reporter's anonymity — he said I could reprint it and also portions of our conversation — I've deleted some details.

That doesn't diminish the power of the letter. He articulates what I've been hearing from other people around the country when we talk about writing. I'm not sure if I have a good answer for him. But I'd like to use this column as a way to spark a conversation here. It can be, of course, anonymous. I want to hear what other writers and editors feel about this letter.

What do we do? Where do we go? What do we tell ourselves?

Send your responses to me at tbhbook@aol.com. I'll run excerpts in a future column.

Here is the letter:

Mr. Hallman:

We've never met. I do, though, know your work.

Over the years, I've tried to find the types of stories that never appear in our paper. Stories that I believe have universal themes and make readers think about themselves and their lives.

I won many best newswriter, feature writer state awards etc.

The editorial heads consider these kinds of stories "soft." They don't like them; don't want them. In fact, we've become, in my opinion, basically a government report trade journal.

Anyway, my enthusiasm has waned.

I find myself, sadly, just doing the routine, the conventional and collecting a paycheck.

If and when you get a chance, could you read some of the sample of PDFs I've attached. I just want to know, are these stories soft? Should I bother to push for them? Your overall impression.

I read the stories, then called the reporter — let's call him Phil — to talk.

He's been in the business since he got out of college decades earlier, a journeyman who has a good track record and knows what he's doing. He started at a weekly and worked his way up to a daily.

What haunts him is that he's at the age where he feels he has to make a decision. Does he stay in the business? Or does he get out while he's young enough to start a new career, but one that will take him away from newspapers?

Like all of us who write for a living, he wanted to know if his stories were "any good."

They are. I'd be proud to have my byline on any of them.

Not one of them had anything to do with "the news." There was no "nut graf." The stories were long because he used scenes and created real characters instead of using quotes from a public office. It was also clear these stories took time to report and write. They weren't something he turned around in a day after making a couple of telephone calls from his desk.

But in many ways, my critique of his work was of little comfort to him.

"I'm frustrated now," he said. "There is an almost McDonald's atmosphere here at the paper. The goal is to just get stuff out. We have stories about the robbery of the day and the crime of the day. Most days our paper is full of more and more crime news.

"It seems to me that our mission is not about quality," he said. "It's about quantity. The mission seems to have each reporter post one to three items a day."

Phil doesn't mind posting, and he embraces the possibilities that the Internet offers. What he worries about is what readers take away when they pick up the paper or check out the paper's website.

"It seems like we've lost context and meaning," he said. "It all runs together. We should be a reflection on our community. The response to readers has always been good. But the goal in the paper seems to be how many hits a story gets on the Internet. They want to know what the most-read snippet was."

Just a month or so ago, Phil worked on a story that readers liked. He could tell by their calls and e-mails.

"The editor said there was no news in the story," Phil said. "I was told the story should have been a brief."

And then he said something that saddened me and makes me wonder what the future holds.

"If I was younger, I'd get out of the business."

He comes to work each day excited about story and the people who live in his community. But:

"I struggle each and every day," he said. "It's easy to do what they want. I work half as hard as I used to. The editors never realized all the time off the clock that went into reporting a real story. But it is so unfulfilling now."

This is a good reporter and excellent writer. He understands story. The stories I read linger with me. And yet there might not be any more.

"If my editors don't care, why should I?" he asked. "Why fight it? I have a paycheck. I get benefits. Why shouldn't I just come in, do the job and go home?"

What do we tell him?

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. His stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at tbhbook@aol.com

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