Remembering Clem Ferguson, the 96-year-old honorary flight attendant

Most television news reporters try to avoid clichés, but we tend to stumble upon one when people ask what we love most about our jobs.

The recurring answer? “Meeting people and telling their stories.”

I can’t deny it. I love that part of my job. Nearly every day involves meeting someone new; nearly every meeting involves learning something new. I continuously meet people who make me think, laugh, smile, and even cry.

And on the rare occasion, I get to meet someone like Clem Ferguson.

This past April Fool’s Day, I was assigned to tell Clem’s story, and it was a great one. Clem, I was told, was a lifetime Georgian who had finally received the chance, after 96 years, to live her childhood dream.

That dream? She had always wanted to become a flight attendant.

Clem’s nursing facility, Christian City in Union City, Ga., arranged for her to receive honorary wings from Delta Airlines. The previous week, I learned, Delta employees had taken Clem through a sped-up “training day” and bestowed upon her the title she had long desired. I reached out to the airline and received video of the experience; to shoot my story, I simply needed to interview its star.

The interview turned out wonderful, but weeks later I remember everything else. Clem smiled the entire time and sparkled with gratitude for so many things in her life. She seemed genuinely touched by the opportunity to be interviewed for the local news. She also made sure I didn’t leave without looking at photographs of her five sisters and now-deceased husband.

This did not feel like a typical interview. It felt entirely disarming, so much so that when Clem poked fun at me during this little off-air exchange, she caught me completely off guard:

I cannot say it any more simply: Clem made my day.

Through my story that night, she made the days of many others.

I posted the piece on Facebook shortly after it aired. In three weeks, that post has reached more than 300,000 people, and the accompanying video has been viewed more than 100,000 times. I would like to take the credit, but in this case I think I must give it to Clem.

I’m sure, at some point in your life, someone has made your day like Clem made mine. At 9:00 that morning, I did not know she existed. By 1:00 that afternoon, I felt privileged to cross her path. By 9:00 that night, I was still beaming from the experience.

Three weeks later, I received unfortunate news that left me feeling the opposite.

This past Wednesday, Clem Ferguson passed away. I found out two days later while on vacation in New York, and it stunned me. Clem may have been 96 years old, but she had shown no signs during our interview to suggest the worst. She had displayed the charm, vibrancy, and sincerity of someone who possessed no plans to slow down.

When I heard the news, I felt genuinely sad.

To be sure, Clem by all accounts lived a full, rich, and happy life. She lived for nearly a century and did not seem to express any regrets.

Yet I still felt pained by her passing … largely for the rest of us. Three weeks earlier Clem had brought a beautiful joy to my world, and I imagine she had affected numerous people similarly through the years. Sadly she will no longer be able to do so for anyone else.

But I hope you watch Clem’s story below. I hope she makes you smile. And I hope, no matter what your profession or situation, you acknowledge and appreciate the Clems in your world who brighten your days when you least expect it.

I feel thankful she was able to brighten mine.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Passover, paint & Shakespeare

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.

Meet a Southern Baptist matzoh expert (4/18/16, The Sporkful): This week marks the continuation of Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus from Egypt.

Like many Jewish holidays, it is notable for its history as well as its food.

On a holiday where Jews are instructed to give up bread and other leavened products, the most fascinating food is matzoh, or unleavened bread. Very few podcasts would devote a whole episode to the cracker-like cuisine, but The Sporkful is one … and it does a great job.

Host Dan Pashman delves deep into matzoh with several enjoyable interviews, one of which features a Southern Baptist who once played a major role with the Manischewitz company. Like most episodes of The Sporkful, this one is inventive and enjoyable thanks to Pashman’s passion.

(more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #38: Chris Vanderveen, reporter, KUSA-TV

Play

Sometimes we forget the cold hard potential of what we can accomplish in journalism.

Chris Vanderveen is a good reminder.

(As evidenced from his photo above with the Most Interesting Man in the World, he also knows how to keep good company.)

After more than a decade as an award-winning general assignment reporter for KUSA-TV in Denver, Vanderveen applied for a job within his station to join the investigative team. He got it, and he has been throwing journalistic haymakers ever since.

Specifically, Vanderveen has produced stories and led movements that have changed laws.

He brings a storyteller’s sensibility to the often tough-to-digest world of investigative journalism. I-Team stories tend to come across as an overload of numbers and data, except when in the hands of a reporter who can give viewers a reason to care.

Vanderveen is my guest on this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

He is also one of the many tremendous speakers at this year’s NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, being held June 10th and 11th in Atlanta. I am organizing and co-hosting the conference with photojournalist (and one-time podcast guest) John Kirtley of WLOS-TV in Asheville. We welcome anyone looking to improve as a storyteller and receive inspiration from some of the best in the country. Vanderveen has the hardware to back up his credentials, including recently being named a finalist for NPPA Reporter of the Year.

Click here to learn more and register for the conference, Feel free to e-mail me with questions at the address below. In the meantime, enjoy this look into the power of investigative journalism, with great tips on how to do it right.

(more…)

5 lessons from the NPPA’s best video stories of 2015

It’s getting harder than ever to keep our viewers’ attention.

That’s what we keep hearing, and that’s why, we are told, we must adapt.

If attention spans are shrinking and devotion to broadcast news is dwindling, local news journalists must expand how we connect with others. I, for example, have talked a lot about the potential of social media to enable our work to reach unforeseen audiences. Maybe we all need to educate ourselves on new platforms and media in addition to our product on-air.

But we cannot forget about that product.

If anything, we need to step it up.

The best stories I saw last year demanded my attention, and I watched zero of them on television. I watched all of them online, via links and recommendations from colleagues and friends. I arrived upon them organically and, when I clicked on the videos, found myself instantly engrossed.

Last week the NPPA announced its Best of Photojournalism winners for last year, and I became engrossed again. I have, in several years past, authored blog posts about lessons learned from the competition’s champs, and I feel compelled to do so once more, thanks to some tremendous storytelling from some of the nation’s most talented journalists:

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring violins, cheat codes, & Cuba

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.

Only in Indiana: The Awakening (4/6/16, WTHR-TV): One of the best storytelling tandems in local news just produced a gem.

Reporter Kevin Rader and photographer Steve Rhodes always craft powerful, joyous stories for WTHR-TV’s “Only in Indiana” segment. In this case, they turn their gaze to a young boy named Elias, blind and deaf since birth, and his “awakening” with a musical instrument.

To say much more would mean spoiling a truly beautiful piece. Rader offers tender narration while Rhodes provides his usual exquisite editing; I have profiled these two before, and I have no doubt I will mention them again in this space before too long.

(more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #37: Jed Gamber, WBFF-TV & Catherine Steward, WTVF-TV

Play

Awards season is underway in local TV news.

Over the next few months, some of the most prestigious associations in journalism will present lists of winners and honor some of the best reporters and photojournalists in the field.

Photojournalists Jed Gamber and Catherine Steward are off to a great start.

This past week, Gamber and Steward each received one of the highest honors in the craft: being named NPPA Regional Photographer of the Year. Gamber captured the crown for the East region for his work at WBFF-TV in Baltimore, while Steward topped the Central region after a stellar year with WTVF-TV in Nashville. The award they won prizes consistency and versatility and honors an entire year’s worth of powerful storytelling.

Watch their work, and you will quickly see why: these two photojournalists care about awards far less than they care about their audience.

Gamber and Steward are my guests of this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

They discuss questions of technique, teamwork, and communication, but they speak with such obvious and heartfelt passion. They so clearly believe in the power of storytelling to reach an audience, and they bring that purpose into their work. Any storyteller can learn from what these two have to say.

They are also among the star-studded line-up of speakers at this year’s NPPA Southeast Storytelling Workshop, being held June 10th and 11th in Atlanta. I am organizing and co-hosting the conference with photojournalist (and one-time podcast guest) John Kirtley of WLOS-TV in Asheville. We welcome anyone looking to improve as a storyteller and receive inspiration from some of the best in the country — including the two guests on this episode.

Click here to learn more and register for the conference, Feel free to e-mail me with questions at the address below. In the meantime, enjoy the discussion of craft with two extremely talented — and newly honored — TV news photojournalists.

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring LeBron, Carmelo, & ice hockey

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.

Brotherhood (3/23/16, Bleacher Report): Early on in “Brotherhood”, Howard Beck’s infinitely engrossing long-form story about the friendship between two basketball superstars, one of those stars makes a poignant statement.

“In our sport, or sports in general, everyone wants instant oatmeal,” says LeBron James. “Put it in the microwave, hit 30 seconds, you got a meal. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, it doesn’t happen like that.”

Now replace “sports” with “journalism”. In this era, many audiences — and news bosses — demand “instant oatmeal” from journalists, seeking and investing in clickbait and easy answers over more layered, complicated work.

Stories like this prove what one can get by waiting for a splendid meal.

Beck presents a fascinating portrait of two players — James and Carmelo Anthony — whose friendship and rivalry have provided a powerful undercurrent to the NBA’s past dozen years. This piece made headlines for a different “instant oatmeal” quote, where James muses how he would love to, one day, join forces with Anthony. But that quote comes at the end. The rest is a beautiful blend of smile-worthy memories, did-you-know-that stories, and revealing quotes from two of the league’s best.

(more…)

A soldier’s return: why the story outranks the tool

I pride myself on using powerful cameras, wireless microphones, and slick digital editors to capture the finest images and sounds – and then using my station’s on-air signal to present them on television.

But I am constantly reminded how none of it matters without compelling content.

The other day I was on a plane to Greensboro, N.C. to do some behind-the-scenes work at one of our affiliates. I spent the entire flight with headphones in my ears, which meant I completely missed when the captain described what was happening under my seat – and would soon occur right outside my window:

Our plane was carrying the remains of a U.S. Army sergeant who served during the Korean War … and who was finally coming home, 65 years later.

I spent the flight entirely unaware of this. But then we landed, and I lifted up my window shade to see, standing outside, nine young men in military uniforms.

I did not know what they were doing, but I immediately pulled out my phone.

(more…)

A farewell for the year … and a little longer

283.

That’s the number of entries I have posted on this blog since I began in February 2013.

Writing a blog, producing a podcast, and interviewing fellow storytellers has been an extraordinary experience. I held off on starting a blog for a long time because I did not believe I could commit to it on a regular basis. But for three years — with the exception of a few holiday and vacation weeks — I did just that.

The good news? This 283rd entry will not be my last.

The bad news? It will be my last — or, at least, my last regularly scheduled entry — for a little while.

I am taking a break from the blog through the first quarter of 2016. I will be working on some big projects, both inside and outside of work, and need to be able to commit fully to them. I plan to resume at some point in April, continuing with the same interviews, story compilations, and reflections that have filled this space for the past three years.

I might also dip in every so often, if I feel the need, with an unscheduled entry. I have learned quite a bit since launching this blog, but more than anything I have seen the positive impact of discussing the oft-untold side of my field. I do not want to lose that, even as I scale back temporarily.

In the meantime, thank you for reading Post #283 as well as the rest of my Telling The Story offerings. I truly appreciate it, and I look forward to returning to the blog next spring!

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2015, audio/video edition

Every week, I will 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.

This is one of my favorite moments of the year.

Every December, I look back at my “3 Great Stories” posts from the past year and decide on which stories, I feel, rose above the rest.

It always reminds me of how much magnificent work gets done every year. Here, for example, is my best-of list from 2014.

I posted my three favorite written stories of the year last week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite audio/video pieces of 2015 — and an honorable mention — along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

HM) Elsa’s story (7/17/15, Denver Post): “Wow.”

That was all I could say after watching the “Elsa’s Story” documentary presented this week by the Denver Post.

The video accompanies a powerful article of the same name about 9-year-old Elsa, who “insisted as soon as she could speak that she was a girl, even though she was assigned male at birth.” The story truly revolves around the evolving acceptance of Elsa’s parents, specifically her mother, who essentially narrates the 16-minute documentary.

Sixteen minutes may seem like a long time to stare at a computer screen or focus on one’s cell phone, but the time pays off. The documentary’s length allows the viewer to process its images and words, in some ways journeying along with Elsa’s mother as she describes her struggle to understand Elsa’s maturation.

The video is full of poignant moments, most of which come from home movies of Elsa through childhood. Credit the Post’s Mahala Gaylord for the video and Jen Brown for the article — and the Post itself for investing such time and resources into a standout story.

#3) One-legged kicking coach inspires high school team (10/28/15, KARE-TV): If this story doesn’t win all kinds of awards next year, I will be stunned.

KARE-TV storyteller extraordinaire Boyd Huppert has done it again, this time thanks largely to the photography and editing of Kevin Sullivan. The visuals here are just stunning, from the blink-and-you-miss-them angles of football practice to the picturesque landscapes of Friday night football. They provide, for this story, a gorgeous aesthetic.

Huppert, as always, brings the piece’s soul.

He unfolds the story of a man named Larry, with one arm and one leg, who coaches kicking for a local high school football team. Huppert delivers the story with touching turns of phrase and that sing-song, lullaby-like cadence that immediately hooks a viewer.

This is beautiful work by all involved.

#2) Mondawmin Monday (4/27/15, WBFF-TV): There have been numerous stories and reports from Baltimore, some instructive and some less so, about the protests and riots surrounding the death of Freddie Gray.

So much of the images and video have arrived as a stream — stations providing non-stop coverage and constant immediacy, which absolutely has its place in situations like this. But this story, from FOX 45 Baltimore’s Kathleen Cairns and Jed Gamber, shows the power of editing and context.

Given time — and a four-block radius — to document Monday’s action, reporter Cairns and photographer Gamber find themselves in the midst of smoking tear gas, a burning car, and numerous protesters and police. They capture it all with a sense of poignancy and objectivity; Gamber shoots and edits some powerful moments, and Cairns shows wise restraint with her script, stepping back and simply connecting the dots of those aforementioned moments.

This is one of the most haunting, powerful stories I have seen this year.

#1) South Carolina officer is charged with murder of Walter Scott (4/7/15, New York Times): There is no doubt about it.

The most powerful piece of storytelling this year came from a citizen’s cell phone camera*.

A South Carolina man captured video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting a man named Walter Scott five times in the back, killing him. The clip launched an arrest, an avalanche of coverage, and a new chapter in the conversation on law enforcement.

As for the accompanying article, New York Times writers Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo wisely let the video do most of the talking, playing it straight and telling a thorough story. The Times received the video from the Scott family’s lawyer, and it sure made its mark.

*I debated whether to categorize this as written or audio/video, but I went with the latter because the video is truly the story here. This piece had such resonance because of the cell phone camera video, not the accompanying article.