3 GREAT STORIES: Starring animals and David Letterman

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.

Being assigned a local TV news feature story about animals is like starting Monopoly with an extra $2,000 and three “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

Basically, you’re a mile ahead in a three-mile race.

Animals — particularly when placed in an eccentric context — almost always provide the kind of necessary flair, both visually and aurally, for a light-hearted feature. Attend a morning pitch meeting at my station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, and watch as the mere mention of an animal-related story elicits swoons from half the crowd.

(It also typically brings out groans from the other half.)

But if animals provide great feature material, the storyteller must still finish the job and produce a compelling piece.

Here are two strong examples of that from last week — as well as a thoughtful farewell piece to a late night titan:

A sign of spring at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (4/7/14, TWC Rochester): Unfortunately, only Time Warner Cable subscribers can actually watch this piece on its Rochester affiliate’s web site.

Thankfully, the story’s teller, multimedia journalist Seth Voorhees, liberated it onto YouTube, to which I have linked above.

Voorhees pens a piece about a local cemetery where, every spring, more than a dozen deer show up and, essentially, hang out. As most storytellers might do, he starts by discussing the cemetery and then, 30 seconds in, reveals the deer.

But pay attention to how Voorhees does this. Story-wise, he first introduces a character named Terri Wolfe; she is an older woman who regularly visits the cemetery. As a viewer, I have no idea how Terri fits into the story. Is it about her? A lost loved one of hers? Some feature of the cemetery? This misdirection makes the surprise of the deer more effective.

‘Candidates who really give a crap’ (4/6/14, KUSA-TV Denver): In this story, a couple of Telling The Story favorites take you on a four-minute visit to Animal Town.

Almost literally.

Reporter Kevin Torres and photojournalist Michael Driver, of Denver’s 9News, tell the story of Divide, Colo., which has no official mayor. So it elects an unofficial one … from a field of animals.

Torres’ excellent writing, combined with Driver’s moment-capturing photography and editing, enable a four-minute story to fly along. The duo introduce the various animal candidates and present their personalities efficiently and effectively. For several minutes, I kept screaming for them to tell me WHY this town elects an animal mayor. Thankfully, they reveal that in the story’s final minute, wrapping it up with a few beautiful sunset shots, to boot.

Letterman’s last great moment (4/8/14, Grantland): Let’s shift gears to a different kind of animal.

A showbiz-ruling, late night TV-dominating kind of animal.

A David Letterman kind of animal.

Count me among the millions who will miss Letterman’s unique brand of late night TV antics. Unfortunately, like many of those millions, I stopped watching Letterman a long time ago. When he, during his show, announced his retirement, I quickly scrambled online to find the video.

It was so … Letterman-esque.

Bill Simmons thought so as well, and he delivers a beautiful early farewell piece to one of the all-time television greats. Along with his opinions on the current late night landscape, Simmons captures what made Letterman’s goodbye so appropriate for its host:

Every Letterman junkie always knew he’d retire on a whim; that’s exactly what happened. No hype, no warning, no manufactured drama, nothing. Only Carson would have done it that way, and maybe that was the point. The old man told a story, then a second story, then a third story, and suddenly, he was gone.

Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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