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Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Breaking news is no time to break from being a storyteller

By Tom Hallman Jr.

When my colleague stopped in the managing editor’s office to discuss a story, it was just the police scanner and me nearby, the start of what looked to be a quiet Monday morning. Then everything changed.

You likely heard the rest on the news, or reported it yourself: a shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore., outside Portland.

During the next five days, I thought about how I report and why I make the choices I do. I’d like to pass on these lessons, particularly to young reporters, to show how the real world often has little in common with the classroom.

Years as a police reporter made it possible for me to ignore much of the police radio’s white noise while quickly focusing when I hear something interesting. On that morning, I knew something was happening in a small community about 15 miles from the newsroom: staging area, ambulances, high school, shooter and victims. I hustled to the editor’s office to let her and my teammate know there was a shooting at a high school where more than 2,500 students were starting their day.

I took off in a car, passed on the freeway by a string of cops going really fast. Near the school I encountered a police roadblock. I pulled into a grocery story parking lot and called my co-worker. She told me a student had been shot and killed in the school. Parents were being directed to that parking lot where I was now standing. The plan was for me to deal with the parents while other reporters being dispatched from the newsroom would handle other aspects of a sprawling story.

So there I stood, and this is what I learned.

Have a plan

What are you looking for? Seems obvious, but it’s too easy to wander. Knowing what you need guides your reporting. I had two goals: Find out what was going on at the school, gathering information for my teammate starting to write posts for The Oregonian’s website, and look for a story.

Be bold

That means aggressive reporting, not waiting for a public information officer to arrive. Don’t be shy. I walked up to parents, introduced myself and asked what they knew. The goal was to get information — any scrap — not conduct in-depth interviews or build a relationship.

Keep moving

Now’s not the time to write a story. You must function as an editor and a reporter, making your own choices and decisions. Get information, phone it in and hustle to the next person. If I saw several parents gathered, I’d jog over, listen in and then ask questions.

Coordinate

Cast a wide net. I decided to stay with the parents — even moving with them when they were told to relocate — while other reporters stayed with the police and school officials. That allowed me to focus on my slice of the story, not worry about the big picture and all the details.

Transition

At some point, start thinking about story, not random scraps of information. For me, it was in the second parking lot where parents gathered to wait for students to arrive. Police set up crime-scene tape — allowing reporters inside — and devised rules on how parents and children would be reunited. I saw that as my story, setting the scene of what was going to take place in that parking lot.

Search

Find ways to witness meaningful moments. And that often means not being part of the reporting pack.

Once the crime-scene tape was up, the sheriff walked over to reporters to brief them on what would take place: Buses would arrive, and students would exit single file. When parents spotted their child, they were told to raise their hands. A deputy would lead them to a table where identification would be checked. Then they were free to go.

I didn’t want to be stuck inside the crime-scene tape with other reporters; I wanted to be with the parents waiting for their children. Not only could I get a better feel for the situation from a distance, I could also tap into the emotional mood. That allowed me to send out tweets like this: “Second series of buses arriving in parking lot to reunite parents and children. More stories, tears and signs of love.”

See who you want to interview

Use your gut to help you. At best in a situation like this you have a matter of seconds to make a connection. I’d watch parents and kids unite, and then watch as they walked by reporters asking for comment. I’d follow them into the parking lot, waiting until they were near their car before I’d approach them.

This accomplished two things: I didn’t have to share what I got with other reporters, and it allowed parent and child to not feel they were immediately being ambushed by reporters and photographers. I wasn’t turned down.

Get people talking

This is perhaps the most important skill a reporter will use in a career. How do you learn it? Practice. Talk to people at the grocery store, at the gas station and everywhere you travel. You don’t learn how to do this sitting in a newsroom interviewing people over the telephone, or relying on the press release.

In the five days following the shooting I talked my way into two homes not by being pushy, but by asking questions and then listening. Remember, these are not interrogations, but conversations with people who have likely never talked with a reporter.

Why should they? And why should they talk to you? When you can answer that question, you are well on your way to becoming a storyteller.

Finally, I’ve been building a list of the people who wrote asking to be part of my on-going project to work with reporters on specific stories by sharing the stories and the writing process with you in this space.

I will return to that in the next issue.

In the meantime, start talking — and listening.

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