LESSONS LEARNED: From role models and inspirations

I am on vacation — and out of commission — for the next two weeks, so I wanted to use this space as a vehicle for reflection.

Since I started the Telling The Story blog last winter, I have written extensively about lessons about storytelling. Many of those have come from fellow journalists and storytellers, who have been great sources of inspiration throughout my career. Here are three of the moments that stand out to me, along with brief snippets from the posts themselves and minor edits for clarity:

Saying goodbye to Gary Smith, this era’s greatest sportswriter: Many journalists crave the thrill of the deadline, the immediacy of breaking news, or the access of being at the center of a giant story. Others, such as myself, feed off of something else.

We feed off of depth.

We feed off of the desire to tell as full a story as possible and to examine a person or issue from as many viewpoints as we can find. We want to tell the whole truth, educating and informing while bringing our world a little closer.

Any journalist who fits that description, and who knew about Gary Smith, had no choice but to envy him.

Smith wrote just four stories a year for Sports Illustrated. But those stories were always powerhouses because Smith, by the time he wrote them, had become such an expert on their subjects. Rick Reilly once wrote that Smith “has a rule. He’s not done researching a subject until he’s interviewed at least fifty people. That’s why [his stories] are often the most unforgettable of the year. They are meticulous in their depth of reporting, nearly preposterous.”

For most journalists, “preposterous” seems accurate. They would love to interview 50 people for a story, but they don’t get the time. They also don’t get the space to unpack the knowledge such expertise would bring. Smith wrote stories that filled 20 pages; most TV reporters get 90 seconds.

Thankfully, given that kind of real estate, Smith never wasted an opportunity.

A video journalism how-to guide, from KUSA-TV’s Michael Driver: Consider this a cheat sheet.

My podcast with KUSA-TV photojournalist Michael Driver was one of the most-downloaded Telling The Story podcasts to date.

But, as I noted then, Driver was almost too good a guest.

He offered so much advice in such a short period of time, and while we were recording the interview, I kept thinking I could better serve photojournalists — heck, better serve myself — by transcribing all of Driver’s terrific tidbits.

I always enjoy the discussion of journalism, and I have used this blog several times to focus specifically on photojournalism. Check out my spotlight on the best NPPA video stories from 2012 or my podcast with KDVR-TV photographer Anne Herbst. Great photojournalism is an art that often must be sustained and passed down by, not station managers or other journalists, but the artists themselves.

Here is a thorough collection of important advice from Driver, one of the top photojournalists in the country.

The value of “thank you” (with help from Bill Plaschke): One night early in my career, facing self-doubt and seeking inspiration, I cracked open the 2002 edition of the Best American Sports Writing anthology, which chronicled the year’s finest sports journalism. Its lead-off article was a piece by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke called “Her Blue Haven”.

It was beautiful. Plaschke detailed his correspondence with an LA Dodgers blogger who has cerebral palsy; the blogger, Sarah Morris, wrote with a head pointer because she could not control her fingers.

(I wrote about my affection for this article, and the Best American Sports Writing series, this past fall.)

I had read the article in 2002 but found it even more powerful, and personally empowering, in 2004.

I decided to let Plaschke know.

Late that night, I wrote him a 500-word e-mail, describing my situation in Iowa and appreciation for his work. Towards the end, I said the following:

Work like “Her Blue Haven” — work that emphasizes, as you put it, “the fight to believe” — is a vital but often overlooked category of sports journalism. The story touches me as a human being, but it also gratifies the part of me that believes sports can be more than just scores, highlights, and recaps. In my own way in Sioux City, I try to carry on that sentiment and tradition, and I find it arguably the most rewarding part of my job.

I pushed “Send” and went to bed.

The next day, Plaschke responded.

“What a nice, nice note, Matt,” he wrote. Plaschke thanked me for my kind words, updated me on Sarah Morris, and capped it off with 12 words that made an unquantifiable impact:

“And good luck in your quest … You are doing the right thing.”

It was just what I needed.

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

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