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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Demand for narrative skills is alive, but changing

By Tom Hallman Jr.

I returned hom from the SPJ/RTDNA Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville with a sense that the future is in good hands despite the turmoil in our industry. At the same time, I’m convinced that journalists are going to have to work harder to create and sustain long-term careers that are both rewarding and meaningful.

How we do that, and the tools we have at our disposal, will be the topic in future columns. But if you’ve heard me speak, or if you follow this column, you know that I believe the best weapon we have as institutions and as individuals is the power of a story.

And story is what brought me to the Excellence in Journalism conference. I was asked to lead a two-hour session on narrative storytelling. A decade ago, the room would have been filled with print journalists interested in writing multi-part series. That’s clearly changed. The old newsroom structure no longer exists. Instead of thinking strictly of print, we look for a variety of ways to engage and inform our audience, no matter the medium.

For example, before I left for Nashville I wrote stories with heavy voice and theme. Some ran online and in the print paper, others only online. With all of them, I’ve taken my own photos and videos that allowed readers/viewers to meet the people I was writing about.

In Nashville, radio and television reporters said they’re trying to do more than run a sound bite, or a standup at the live shot. Newspaper reporters are trying to learn how to meld sound and photos with the traditional story approach.

In future columns I want to explore two important areas that will help us carry out that mission: voice and theme. And I will be contacting those reporters who previously wrote me to work with them on individual stories.

When my session ended, I talked with a group of young reporters who work at small outlets. I have a particular interest in helping people at that stage of a career. I asked a few to email me their thoughts, believing it will help others in their situation, as well as students who will be soon entering the news business.

Here’s a sampling:

In college I expected a newsroom would be a place with rows of desks and cubicles with lots of editors. I’m out of the newsroom much of the time. I’ve written in coffee shops and in libraries. That’s my newsroom, and when you work remotely like that, you feel you are not just alone, but on your own.

And:

The real world in my newsroom is chaotic, busy and experimental. It keeps me on my toes, changing sometimes daily. In school, I was studying and thinking digital and multimedia, so I expected digital to come first. But in many ways, print still rules. In terms of adapting to change, things are much more off the cuff and seem less intentional than I anticipated. Advice: Be flexible but have a voice, a direction and a purpose, and hold on for dear life.

And:

Time. I want to spend time with sources and develop a relationship with them that cannot be done in a 30-minute interview. But I am currently one of two reporters in my newsroom. There is very little time to spend on any story, which forces me to think, interview and write quickly.

And:

When it comes to trying storytelling, I have two issues: space and dealing with editors who have different styles of writing. I try to conform to what they want. That is a challenge.

And:

In the last three years I have covered four different beats. I have had to cover three different towns at once. That makes it hard to build sources and find stories. I want to find those stories that people want to hear. I want them to be amazed.

And:

Working quickly is really important, but it is just as important to spend time developing sources. Talk to people in the bars and Starbucks in your coverage area and ask them about the issues. Go talk to everyone at Town Hall, including the clerks, and try to identify the issues facing the community. Then go find everyone impacted by the issues. If it's a development or construction project, go talk to abutters; if it's budget cuts, find the departments who lost the most; if it's a lawsuit, talk to all the players in that. Then go talk to outside experts about those issues. The more you talk and the more you listen, the easier it will be to find all of the underlying storylines and the more effective you will be at covering your beat.

And, finally, this:

I found a renewed strength in my power as a journalist from your session at EIJ. I am passionate about features and human-interest stories, and in newsrooms where hard news is often prioritized, it meant a lot for me to connect with someone who was just as passionate about features and storytelling.

Hearing you talk about how you use typical, daily stories to practice your narrative voice gave me hope that I could do that too. I left feeling like I could turn those mundane press releases that we deal with daily into beautiful stories by adding my voice, and that was empowering.

As always, feel free to email me questions and thoughts: tbhbook@aol.com.

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The 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, on Twitter @thallmanjr or on his website, tomhallman.com.

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