5 lessons learned from 5 years reporting in Atlanta

Last week I celebrated a very special anniversary:

My Atlanta-versary.

I have officially lived and worked in Atlanta, Ga. for five years. I have not lived anywhere this long since high school, and I have enjoyed the chance to truly settle down and plant roots in a major U.S. metropolis.

(That chance, by the way, is by no means a guarantee when one dives into the field of broadcast journalism. I have appreciated that fact from the moment I arrived in ATL.)

In both journalism and life, my time in Atlanta has been pivotal.

My first few TV jobs came with a seemingly endless variety of responsibilities and opportunities. I worked in both news and sports, filled numerous roles in each department, learned my strengths and weaknesses, and developed my identity as a journalist and storyteller.

When I was offered a job at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, I noticed a few obvious differences. I would only work in news, not sports, and I would be surrounded by a staff of veteran journalists, most of whom largely served specific roles had logged far more miles than their newest colleague.

My life outside the newsroom also changed dramatically. Always one to explore the regions where I lived, I found myself bombarded by the excitement of a bustling big-market city. Even five years later, Atlanta never fails to keep me busy and engaged, with opportunities to blossom socially and civically.

Combine those changes with the natural maturity of an adult in his late 20’s and 30’s, and it adds up to an invaluable half-decade in the Peach State.

So what exactly have I learned? I could never fit it all into one article, but here are five major lessons from the last five years that have strengthened my work as a journalist:

1) Some of the most critical storytelling work occurs before you leave the building. The news in Atlanta occurs at a faster speed.

At least, that’s how it seems at first.

But the metro Atlanta region presents some major logistical challenges. It extends dozens of miles in each direction, meaning one might have to travel 90 minutes to reach a story’s location. Surely I need not also remind you about the area’s reputation for traffic.

This often creates a temptation to rush out the door on a story, and sometimes a journalist has no choice.

But sometimes, leaving without thinking is a mistake.

Whether in the newsroom or my news vehicle, I always aim to give as much advance thought as possible to any story I get assigned. I learn as much about the topic as I can, and I think about how I might be able to tell my current story in a unique way.

But I also like to think as much in advance about how to succeed at Lesson #2 …

2) Storytelling always comes first. This applies to any story, from breaking news to investigative journalism to emotional features.

I recently chatted with a young reporter about the differences between getting a story done and doing that story well. The former is relatively easy, if you have spent enough years in the business. The latter is difficult, in terms of originality and depth, as the pace of storytelling quickens.

I have been forced, in this market, to constantly remind myself to take the path of greater resistance. As a backpack journalist, I constantly face a dwindling amount of time and resources in my day.

In short, I have a lot to think about.

But I try to keep one thought at the forefront: “Why does this story matter?” After gathering all the elements and interviews, brainstorming in my head and on paper, and compiling every fact and figure I can find, I still need to remember what makes my story important in the first place. Why would a viewer be interested, and how does an individual story affect people on a universal level?

3) Natural moments always trump artificial ones. If you have five minutes, take look at one of my first human-interest stories from my time in Atlanta:

I still love this piece, but in watching it now, I notice some major bad habits.

For starters, back then, I relied way too much on artificial moments.

The story is filled with musical backing, fuzzy dissolves, and posed shots. I believe each of these techniques has an occasional role in storytelling (except for the posed shots, which I now try to avoid at all costs), but five years ago I used them as crutches.

Now I spend my time, in the field, seeking out natural moments — as many as I can to advance my story.

It worked in the video above. The most moving moments happened on their own; I just stood back with the camera, got in position, and pressed “Record”.

4) Take care of what the viewer may not notice. Something else about this story makes me cringe.

I cannot believe how much less I understood about attention to detail.

Watch the story closely, and you will notice hard cuts in the audio, different color balances in the video, and some abrupt transitions.

None of this stuff may jump off the screen. But all of it makes a difference.

Good versus great storytelling often comes down to mastery of one’s craft. I make more of an effort now to meticulously watch my pieces after I edit them, before I send them to air. (This all assumes, of course, I have time to do so.) I aim for perfectionism in a business that does not always prize it.

5) Improvement takes time … and constant effort. Each of the above lessons makes little difference without the ability to execute.

NPR’s Ira Glass once famously made a great point about creative work:

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Same goes for storytelling and journalism. Whatever the job — reporting, writing, photography, editing — it involves the deceptively difficult task of turning nothing into something.

That requires a great deal of learning — and making mistakes.

I came to Atlanta with a lot of potential, early success, and rough edges. I have spent the last five years building on my strengths but also sanding out those rough edges and weaknesses. As the business evolves, new challenges will arise, and I will need to adapt.

In those times, more than ever, I will require constant self-evaluation and critiquing. It is the most reliable way to improve.

Working in a city like Atlanta has enabled me to learn from tremendously talented co-workers; it has pushed me to become a better journalist.

I look forward to continuing to push.

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.

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