Why heart, in storytelling, is stronger than horror

Every day in local news, we fill our broadcasts with stories of horror.

We discuss fires, crimes, murders, and more. We present images that, under any normal circumstance, would be described as unsettling … and yet rarely do they provoke a reaction. Rarely do we receive e-mails decrying those stories; rarely do viewers seem fazed by them. Perhaps many have become numb to them.

Last week I produced a story that broke through. I received comments after it aired, from both viewers and my WXIA-TV colleagues, that the piece was unsettling, difficult, and heart-rending — and far more powerful because of those qualities. The piece, I was told, drew its power from not shock and awe but something seemingly more elusive in present-day local TV news:


No, this was not a story about a local crime or a disturbing piece of video.

This was a story about a 100-year-old woman … in the final stage of her life.

Days earlier we had received an e-mail. A woman named Grace Beck, the viewer wrote, was set to celebrate her centennial birthday that Sunday. Her family and aides had prepared an old-fashioned birthday party at her nursing home. Knowing of Grace’s love for music and her church, they had arranged for a special performance — by her old church’s two-year-old bluegrass band.

It sounded, I thought, both precious and powerful. I flagged the e-mail and reached out to its sender.

Then I learned the upsetting back story.

Grace, I discovered, had become stricken with both macular degeneration — a condition that causes blindness — and dementia. She received hospice care and barely stayed awake for more than a few hours.

Her 100th birthday, I was told, would likely be her last. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring three favorite storytellers

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

A sweet surprise awaits you (9/22/15, 99% Invisible): The pieces in this week’s edition of “3 Great Stories” have a common strength: they all lead the audience on a journey.

Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible have practically perfected this structure, at least in podcast form. I have written about 99% Invisible so many times I have little left to say, but as long as Mars keeps producing exquisite episodes like this, I will continue to shout him out.

I don’t want to spoil this journey, but as you listen, appreciate the narrative build: from an innocuous story about Powerball to the rise of the fortune cookie to its surprising, serious, and historic background. Every few minutes brings a new twist, constantly rewarding and informing the attentive listener.


3 podcasts I love in 2015

I am usually late to the game on cultural phenomena.

I started binge-watching 24 on Netflix when the show was already in its fifth season.

I first became enthralled with Mad Men seven years after it first hit the airwaves.

I didn’t start listening to the Beatles until 30 years after they broke up.

(Granted, I was not alive for the first eleven of those years, but still …)

Every now and then, though, I find myself ahead of the curve. Such is the case with podcasts.

I have been sampling and subscribing to podcasts since slightly after their inception, which Wikipedia pegs as somewhere in the 2004-05 range. Ten years later, the field seems to be catching up; podcasts continue to inch closer to mainstream use, and several of them have become legitimate moneymakers for their producers.

(Mine, by the way, is not one of them. I don’t make any money from the Telling The Story podcast; I simply do it, much like I write this blog, for the joy and value it brings.)

Last Saturday, facing a five-hour road trip by myself and feeling overloaded on recent music, I decided to scour the landscape for new podcasts. I was not disappointed. Ten days of binge-listening later, I find myself again excited for the future of a medium that finally seems to be getting its legs.

Here are three podcasts I’d recommend to anyone interested in a mind-expanding good time: (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Bush v. Trump, life, & the sax

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

A once-sunny Jeb Bush, bristling in the long shadow of Donald Trump (9/2/15, New York Times): I rarely use this space to post stories about politics, but in this case I made an exception.

How many think pieces and “hot takes” have been written about Donald Trump? None, I will argue, is as fascinating as Jonathan Martin’s study of the Presidential hopeful arguably most affected by Trump’s current dominance: Jeb Bush.

For everyone dismissing Trump’s candidacy, the fact remains that he has legitimately affected the Republican race for the past few months. He has obviously altered Jeb Bush’s approach, as Martin illustrates beautifully in this story for the New York Times.

People often wonder if campaign reporting fails to live up to its purpose. In this case, Martin’s article succeeds strictly because of time spent with the candidate, as he details numerous instances where Bush seems to deviate from his script and make an off-the-cuff remark about Trump.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Marvin Gaye, stocks, & Roanoke

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

How Marvin Gaye’s NFL tryout changed his career (8/21/15, ESPN.com): I cannot believe I had never heard this story.

Marvin Gaye, Motown legend and one of the great soul singers of all time, once tried out for the NFL? For the Detroit Lions?


Really. Apparently Gaye’s dalliance with pro football is a well known story of that era, but credit ESPN.com writer Justin Tinsley for re-telling it in a thorough, powerful way. It follows the artist through the torturous moments of his singing career that led him to a different avenue … albeit for a brief, one-tryout-long amount of time.

Like any great piece of this nature, Tinsley not only lands the necessary interviews but writes with both interest and compassion. He serves as a great conduit for this remarkable tale.


Notes from New Orleans: A personal look at Hurricane Katrina

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast and became one of the most startling, devastating stories of the decade.

When it happened, I was unemployed … and ready to book a flight to New Orleans.

I wanted to do whatever I could to help, but two factors kept me away. The Red Cross had requested only volunteers with medical training, which would have left me useless. Also, shortly around the time when I would have bought my ticket, I received and accepted a job offer to work in Buffalo, NY and needed to turn most of my attention to that.

But I kept New Orleans on my mind. Three years later, I booked a flight to go down for a week and help rebuild a home … but then cancelled the flight when a different hurricane, Gustav, placed the region on alert.

Finally, in the winter of 2009 — a perfect time to vacate Buffalo for warmer temperatures — I succeeded. I re-booked flights and signed up to volunteer with the St. Bernard Project, which still does tremendous work with residents displaced from their homes. With nothing to stop me, I headed down South.

And I will never forget what followed.

My week in New Orleans filled me with emotions: anger and admiration, frustration and inspiration, horror and humility. I twice almost cried — once out of extreme sadness, once out of immense joy. But I knew I wanted to document these feelings, and not just with my camera.

So I wrote. I used the now-forgotten Facebook feature of Notes to write six daily posts from the Crescent City. They provided my friends with as much of a window as I could provide; they provided me with an outlet to share my experience with those closest to me at home.

It was one of the first times where I truly understood the power of social media to make an impact.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, here are my six notes from New Orleans, edited slightly for content, time, and grammar (I cringe sometimes when I see my old writing). I think you will see how my emotions deepened over the course of the week, all the way until its poignant end. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Dee Barnes, Dr. Dre, & Stephen Colbert

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Here’s what’s missing from Straight Outta Compton (8/18/15, Gawker): The past week brought a fascinating example of a shifting narrative.

The movie Straight Outta Compton had arrived with much fanfare and positive reviews, as well as a new album from hip-hop legend Dr. Dre. But many began pointing out what the movie had left out: Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women.

The most notorious victim? Dee Barnes, who hosted a hip-hop show called Pump It Up. Barnes has rarely been heard from since her run-in with Dr. Dre, but she amplified her voice in a serious way this week with an opinion piece for Gawker about her experience. She came forward with a honest look at what she went through and continues to face.

In doing so, Barnes provided some much-desired context to a movie based in history.


Instagram, Vine, Periscope: the trifecta of elusive social media for journalists

One of my favorite posts on this site — for not the quality of its writing but the entertainment of its content — is an entry from two years ago titled, “10 Turn of the Century Predictions, and 10 Lessons Learned“.

In it, I examine the crystal ball work done by the staff of Entertainment Weekly in 1999, as they spotlight ten “companies and visionaries leading the electronic charge”.  These range from innovations in music (POP.com) to gaming (godgames.com) to interactive television (mixedsignals.com).

Don’t worry if you don’t recognize the three web sites I just mentioned; they no longer exist.

Some of Entertainment Weekly‘s predictions turned out remarkably right, and others proved woefully wrong. My conclusion, upon re-reading the issue? “It should remind us what we thought the media landscape would look like — and how similar yet different it actually appears today.”

I think of the article — and my subsequent post — when I encounter the new forms of media expected to transform my job as a journalist.


Many individual journalists I know today still struggle with both how to incorporate social media and which ones to incorporate. Most have invested at least somewhat in Facebook and Twitter, with both providing some return in terms of followers, shares, and conversations. Beyond that, for most in my field, it’s a crap shoot.

None of these options, mind you, existed when I started in the businesses a dozen years ago. But a journalist, already working with a limited time frame and hard deadline, must constantly make choices as to which audience needs to be served. Do I spend a few minutes crafting a Facebook post? Do I take a minute here and there during the day to update Twitter? Do I shoot an iPhone video and send it back for the web site? Or do I eschew all of it and use that time to research and develop my daily story?

That does not even get into a trio of social media options that seem to be beyond most journalists’ reach: Instagram, Vine, and Periscope. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Ferguson, Dr. Dre, and the Perseid meteor shower

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Ferguson: the other young black lives laid to rest in Michael Brown’s cemetery (8/7/15, BBC): What an inventive, informative way to commemorate the one-year mark of the killing of Michael Brown.

Jessica Lussenhop, senior writer for BBC News Magazine, visits St. Peter’s Cemetery in north St. Louis County, where “there is still no headstone in the place where 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr is buried”. But, Lussenhop discovers, the cemetery is home to many with similar stories:

If one walks in any direction away from grave number four, there are many more pictures of black men and women who died in their teens or early 20s. Some are grinning in school portraits, or giving the camera their most serious expression. Some stones include a baby picture, or a composite photo of the deceased with their children. One marker is etched with a photo of the young man’s beloved truck.

Within a roughly 30-metre radius of Michael’s grave there are at least 15 homicide victims. The youngest was a 15-year-old. Most of them were shot. There are also deaths by suicide, cancer, car accidents, but for those under the age of 30, the predominant cause of death is homicide.

The difficulty of telling a story like Michael Brown’s comes from the temptation to immediately intertwine the individual incident with the massive context and history surrounding it. Lussenhop succeeds by seeking out the numerous incidents that provide such context; she turns in a appropriately rich story as a result.


PODCAST EPISODE #34: Ben Garvin, photographer, KARE-TV


When I first started this blog, many newspaper photographers were staring into a future of cutbacks, layoffs, and competition with everyone’s iPhones.

Ben Garvin surveyed the landscape from his perch at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 2007 he was named Minnesota Photographer of the Year. In 2011 he was named Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Despite the accolades, Garvin knew he was not immune from the large-scale changes occurring across the industry.

But this past year, he found refuge by switching lanes.

Garvin still works as a still photographer, but now he does it for a TV station: KARE-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

And he does it with an innovator’s spirit. Last week I shouted out Garvin in my 3 Great Stories segment for a sweetly touching piece about a grandfather and grandson spending the day together at Vikings training camp. Technically Garvin produced a video, but it consisted strictly of still photos with audio weaved in from Garvin’s interviews.

Garvin is my guest on Episode #34 of the Telling The Story podcast.

Speaking to me from a swing on his porch (!), Garvin discusses a variety of subjects: the ability to be a hybrid in today’s media world; the importance of photographs in social media; and the versatility required to succeed on a higher level.