At around 5:00 EST on Thursday, my news feed on Facebook filled up about the same topic.
Nelson Mandela had passed away.
For the next hour or so, friends shared the news of the civil rights leader’s passing; several of them posted a favorite quote or moment from Mandela’s life.
And then, a few hours later, my news feed was virtually Mandela-free.
Everybody seemed to have moved on — mostly to Carrie Underwood and NBC’s live production of The Sound of Music. Nelson Mandela may not have been the last thing on people’s minds, but, it seemed, he was no longer the first.
The next morning, Mandela was no longer the top story when I checked various news updates and home pages.
At that moment, I wondered: Does the news world — heck, the world itself — move too quickly? I was not sure, but I found it hard to believe that the death of an international legend could so swiftly lose its power and impact.
In the days following the passing of Nelson Mandela, I have been extremely impressed with its coverage.
Perspective pieces have come from every direction, with many writers and media outlets stepping up to the challenge of memorializing a man as complex as Mandela.
I could change the name of this column to “12 Great Stories” this week, but instead I will focus on the three that provided unique takes and perhaps were overlooked:
Nelson Mandela: Tribute to an icon (12/5/13, Mail and Guardian Online): The most definitive and thorough coverage of Mandela’s passing has naturally come from his homeland.
The Mail and Guardian Online created an entire site as a tribute to Mandela, an eternal hero in his native land of South Africa. Obviously, with Mandela at 95 years old and recently in failing health, many publications prepared ahead of time for this occasion. In this case, the “Tribute to an icon” site has virtually everything one could want.
This applies to history both past and present.
The site unearths video and photos from decades ago, but it also includes plenty of social media options and guestbooks for South Africans (and others) to leave their memories of Madiba. Combine those elements with powerful articles and essays, and you have unquestionably comprehensive coverage of a national icon.
Eleven years ago, a book about journalism, writing, and storytelling blew my mind.
I was, at the time, a senior in the journalism school at Northwestern University. I loved to read, and I loved to write, so naturally I found my interest piqued when I noticed a certain anthology at the bookstore: the 2002 edition of Best American Sports Writing.
Upon reading the first two articles, I had received enough inspiration to fuel me for the rest of college.
The Best American Sports Writing anthology is a collection of the top written sports stories of a given year, selected by a guest editor noted as a prominent sports journalist. In 2002, that editor was Rick Reilly, and he wrote in his introduction a 10-step advice column for how to become a better writer. I still look at it today when I am in a rut, and I even referenced it this past week in my “3 Great Stories” column.
Following Reilly’s intro was the book’s first selection, an article by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke entitled “Her Blue Haven”. You can still find it online today.
The article details Plaschke’s correspondence with an LA Dodgers blogger who has cerebral palsy; she writes her blog entries with a head pointer because she cannot harness her hands well enough to type with her fingers.
It is, to this day, one of my all-time favorite stories.
Plaschke writes the piece with such heartfelt emotion and craft, and he greatly benefits from telling the story from a first-person perspective. I was so moved by “Her Blue Haven” that I actually e-mailed Plaschke to thank him for it.
“The story touches me as a human being,” I wrote, “but it also gratifies the part of me that believes sports can be more than just scores, highlights, and recaps.”
While I no longer exclusively cover sports, I still order the Best American Sports Writing anthology every year. And when I complete it, every year, I feel inspired as a journalist.
Here are five of my favorite pieces from this year’s edition, along with the lessons I learned from them:
THE STORY: “Introduction”, by J.R. Moehringer (guest editor) THE LESSON: Remember the seriousness of your stories.
Guest editor J.R. Moehringer makes an interesting point in his well-written introduction to the anthology. He finds himself trying to explain why he takes sports — and sports writing — so seriously, and eventually he crystallizes his viewpoint:
“It’s more fashionable these days to take nothing seriously … If some fans are too serious, some sportswriters are too cynical; they treat their subject with a strange amalgam of avidity and mockery. Cover the games, analyze every atom and particle of the games, but never miss an opportunity to assert their unimportance, to rip all the money and the narcissism. … I can’t give in to irony and cynicism, not all the way, and when asked to serve as editor of this marvelous anthology, I can’t approach the task with anything but great seriousness.”
In one sterling paragraph, Moehringer puts forth a clarion call for journalists of all stripes. So often, journalists are expected to be above the fray and remark on the news from a position of distance. Yet we cannot forget the importance of the stories we cover, and in an era when reporters are bombarded with similar ideas and pitches for stories, we must try that much harder to find what makes each one special.
In an advice column for journalists published more than a decade ago, Rick Reilly wrote about the importance of the lead. If you don’t grab your audience in your first paragraph, Reilly said, they will not stick around to appreciate all the content that follows.
One could easily extrapolate that concept to include the headline.
These days, headlines are huge. We are bombarded with them and make snap judgments about whether to click on articles based on them. Content providers across the globe are trying to figure out the ways to get their headlines noticed and search-able, let alone just plain interesting.
This week, I present “3 Great Stories” that captured me with their headlines — and then kept me with their content:
It sets the stakes for the story — and what high stakes they are! It also sets the standard for the article’s content; a reader can expect right away to be treated to a look behind the tightly closed doors of the White House.
The article does not disappoint. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael D. Shear begin the piece by delving into a critical October meeting in which President Barack Obama was fully alerted to the problems of the Affordable Care Act’s web site. Stolberg and Shear begin their article from a place of major tension, gripping the audience early and holding it for seven web pages worth of paragraphs.
I started this blog nine months ago not knowing what to expect.
I was not sure whether anyone would read it; I was not sure I would be able to commit to it; and I was not sure if doing it would ultimately feel as rewarding as I hoped it would be.
Nine months later, I am happy to answer “Yes” to all three questions.
Developing the “Telling The Story” blog has been a great experience so far. And while it has mostly been a solitary experience — I run a relatively autonomous ship over here — it has allowed me to engage with people in a variety of ways across the media landscape.
At this time of taking stock and giving thanks, I would like to give my thanks — both verbally and through links — to the many people who have helped enrich both the blog itself and my personal experience in writing it:
Thanks to my bosses. This blog exists in part because of the blessings of the higher-ups at my full-time job. I am proud to say that I have done some of my best work yet for 11Alive/WXIA-TV this year, and I think I have improved as a storyteller because I constantly examine storytelling in this space.
Thanks to my podcast guests. I am greatly appreciative of the 13 individuals who have taken their time to be interviewed for my Telling The Story podcast. Of those 13, eight of them had never met or spoken with me before, and in many cases I was pleasantly surprised with how quickly they responded and set up an interview.
Case in point: my most recent guests, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the filmmakers behind the powerful documentary American Promise. I watched the film on a Saturday night, contacted them Sunday morning, heard back less than an hour, and interviewed them that Tuesday.
Special thanks to two podcast guests in particular. The first is the podcast’s inaugural guest, my co-worker Jon Shirek. I have always known Jon as a terrific storyteller and kind soul, but I learned so much more about them through our interview. It remains a favorite of mine, and I appreciate his encouragement while continuing to be inspired by his work.
The second goes to Roman Mars. The immensely talented and successful producer of 99% Invisible, Mars was my guest on the Telling The Story podcast’s most popular episode to date. He also continues to inspire me, as is evident from thenumeroustimes I have citedhiswork in my “3 Great Stories” column.
Success as a storyteller comes in many different forms, but to me, it partially occurs when one exposes new or underrepresented viewpoints to a wider audience.
This, at times, is a truly difficult task. Sometimes, I feel, as media consumers, we rely so much on our own eyes and experiences that we naturally give shorter shrift to the filtered, seen-through-the-news experiences of others.
This week’s 3 Great Stories are all pieces that provide powerful insights that do not usually break through to the mainstream.
This is why poor people’s bad decisions make perfect sense (11/18/13, Huffington Post): A quick piece of background: this past week, through a leadership development program, I participated in a “simulated society” exercise, where dozens of us split up into regions and participated for a full day in an alternate world where people were randomly assigned to varying levels of money, power, and location. I was grouped in the poorest, we-have-nothing region.
And it was shocking.
It was shocking to see how people responded when placed outside of their comfort zones. Even in a game format, I felt emotions that I never imagined I would feel if I faced that situation in real life. And in the poorest region, our priorities were so much different than those of the other regions. We were essentially playing a different game — a much more urgent, desperate game.
With that experience under my belt, I possess even greater appreciation for an article like this one from Linda Tirado. She details her experiences as someone who self-describes as poor, and she discusses a similar mindset in real life to what my group saw during our game. I won’t spoil much, but this is a strong piece that gives exposure to a viewpoint rarely found in traditional news.
One of the biggest challenges of storytelling — particularly when dealing with stories of emotion — is determining what to leave out.
As a reporter for a local news station, I will regularly shoot several hours of video for a story that lasts several minutes. I realized early in my career I would never be able to tell someone’s full story — only as much of that story as I could fit into the allotted space. A news director of mine once crystallized the appropriate mentality: it’s all about eliminating the “good” in one’s story and keeping the “great”.
Of course, sometimes you don’t even get to keep all of the “great”.
And sometimes, as in the case of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, you shoot 800 hours of video for a two-hour documentary — a documentary in which you are two of the main characters.
Brewster and Stephenson are the husband-and-wife duo behind American Promise, currently playing in select cities and premiering on PBS in February 2014. The documentary follows two young boys from Brooklyn, both black, whose parents enroll them in a prestigious, mostly white collegiate prep school in Manhattan. Brewster and Stephenson began filming in 1999, when both boys — Idris and Seun — were starting kindergarten.
They stopped filming after the boys’ graduation from high school — 13 years later.
To make matters trickier, one of the boys, Idris, is Brewster and Stephenson’s son.
But the hard work paid off. American Promise is a truly powerful film, a nuanced discussion of race, parenting, child psychology, and the meaning of success. The filmmakers and editors selected strong moments to keep throughout the film, showing the growth of both the boys and their parents without requiring any narration or overt messaging. I saw American Promise this past Saturday and was so moved by its storytelling that I immediately reached out to Brewster and Stephenson for an interview.
They agreed, and five days later, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson are my guests on Episode #12 of the Telling The Story podcast.
Imagine you are a filmmaker and documentarian who aims to make pictures with powerful themes.
Imagine you are also a parent with strong views about education, and you are a person of color with even stronger views about how race plays a giant role in education.
Imagine you decide to make a documentary that explores this topic.
Imagine you do so by putting a microphone on your son, as well as his best friend, and following the two boys through their schooling … for 13 years.
Imagine you finish this task by receiving various grants throughout the year and launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to pay for an editor and original score composer.
After all that, imagine finally sitting down to edit the documentary — this collage of experiences that are both personal and powerful, and from which you have developed major conclusions about life, race, and parenting — and having to keep so much to yourself.
Such was the challenge for Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the parents and filmmakers behind American Promise. The documentary is currently in select theaters in 35 cities, and it will air as part of PBS’s POV series in February 2014.
In the film, Brewster and Stephenson follow their son Idris and his best friend Seun from kindergarten to graduation. The young boys start their educational experiences at prestigious (and mostly white) collegiate prep school Dalton on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Only one completes his education at Dalton; the parallels between Idris and Seun as they grow are simply fascinating.
In fact, the whole documentary is fascinating. Brewster and Stephenson present a complex and layered portrait of all the aforementioned topics — race, parenting, child psychology, the meaning of success — without generally making their own opinions too obvious.
I generally try to avoid using this space to promote the work of my colleagues at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. It would almost be too easy; the reporters at my station constantly impress me with their thought-provoking and emotional work.
This week I made an exception.
One of the “3 Great Stories” of the week is a long-form documentary that ran on our station on Friday. We tackled a harrowing topic in a big way, and our work made a tangible impact.
But first, I found myself divided on two terrific stories involving veterans — stories that would seem to contrast each other in terms of mentality.
Help veterans by taking them off the pedestal (11/10/13, The Atlantic): Veterans Day brings with it a cavalcade of celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations of those who served in the U.S. military. It also typically brings, from a storytelling standpoint, reflexive pieces that unquestionably honor those who risk their lives in our country’s name.
Rarely does one find a story that questions that mindset — and does so with thought-provoking effectiveness.
But that’s what Alex Horton, a one-time infantryman in Iraq, does here.
Horton makes a compelling argument that, by putting veterans on a pedestal, our society is unintentionally hindering them. We tend to view veterans, Horton says, in one-dimensional terms — either as sacrosanct heroes or risky choices to serve us in civilian life. I particularly appreciated an early paragraph where he recounts discussions with members of the Greatest Generation:
I once talked to a World War II veteran about the experience of attending college after coming home, and asked if it was jarring to sit next to those who never served. I wondered if veterans huddled together under the umbrella of mutual understanding and thought less of civilians who never shouldered a rifle. His answer was surprising. They were proud of their time in uniform, he said, but for many, the war interrupted their lives, and education was a return to normalcy. Instead of a victory lap, they were more interested in getting back on track.
Very deep stuff here … bringing complexity to what is often viewed in simpler terms.
I subscribe to several blogs that curate great photography — I wrote about them in a recent entry — and I find myself constantly coming back to them as I scroll through the various feeds and media that dominate my daily reading.
And I am absolutely not alone.
Alexa Keefe is a photography producer for National Geographic and curates the “Photo of the Day” series for the magazine’s web site. And with every picture she posts, thousands of viewers share it.
Keefe is my guest on this week’s Telling The Story podcast.
She has worked as a photo archivist and editor, but now Keefe is responsible for curating beautiful content in an era where photographs are more ubiquitous than ever. But in doing this, sites like National Geographic have thrived. On the podcast, we discuss why.
Matt Pearl is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning reporter for WXIA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, Ga. In his career he has served as a correspondent for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the 2010 Olympics, and the BP oil spill. He started the "Telling the Story" blog in February 2013.