feature

Why heart, in storytelling, is stronger than horror

Every day in local news, we fill our broadcasts with stories of horror.

We discuss fires, crimes, murders, and more. We present images that, under any normal circumstance, would be described as unsettling … and yet rarely do they provoke a reaction. Rarely do we receive e-mails decrying those stories; rarely do viewers seem fazed by them. Perhaps many have become numb to them.

Last week I produced a story that broke through. I received comments after it aired, from both viewers and my WXIA-TV colleagues, that the piece was unsettling, difficult, and heart-rending — and far more powerful because of those qualities. The piece, I was told, drew its power from not shock and awe but something seemingly more elusive in present-day local TV news:

Heart.

No, this was not a story about a local crime or a disturbing piece of video.

This was a story about a 100-year-old woman … in the final stage of her life.

Days earlier we had received an e-mail. A woman named Grace Beck, the viewer wrote, was set to celebrate her centennial birthday that Sunday. Her family and aides had prepared an old-fashioned birthday party at her nursing home. Knowing of Grace’s love for music and her church, they had arranged for a special performance — by her old church’s two-year-old bluegrass band.

It sounded, I thought, both precious and powerful. I flagged the e-mail and reached out to its sender.

Then I learned the upsetting back story.

Grace, I discovered, had become stricken with both macular degeneration — a condition that causes blindness — and dementia. She received hospice care and barely stayed awake for more than a few hours.

Her 100th birthday, I was told, would likely be her last. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #27: Mike Castellucci, reporter/anchor, WFAA-TV

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A few weeks ago, I raved about a half-hour special ran by WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, at the end of last year.

It featured a compilation of stories shot, written, and edited by widely acclaimed feature reporter Mike Castellucci.

And his camera? It was the one on his iPhone.

Castellucci has become well known in Dallas — and, now, among TV news reporters and photographers nationwide — for his compelling piece of boundary-pushing storytelling. His features actually appear quite straightforward until you realize the equipment he used to shoot them.

But give him credit: he saw a need and attacked it, fearlessly flying into both multimedia journalism and iPhone videography. He wound up with an impressive result — and a powerful niche in his market.

Castellucci joins me for Episode #27 of the Telling The Story podcast.

“People ask me why,” he said, “and I think it was [because of] two reasons. One: I wanted to be first. And, the challenge of it … I had been doing stories on my iPhone 4, and I just said, ‘Let’s take it 19 steps further.'”

Here is a reporter who has had plenty of success in various markets, but he chose to take on a challenge many journalists would reject. He deserves some major kudos.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Putin, Times Square, & rollercoasters

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.

Putin’s friend profits in purge of schoolbooks (11/1/14, New York Times): The day after this article was published, it ranked among the most viewed stories on NYTimes.com.

And it should have. This is the type of hard-hitting, well-researched journalism that is claimed by so many to be missing.

New York Times writers Jo Becker and Steven Lee Myers present a sobering situation taking place in Russia: the country’s Ministry of Education and Science has cut more than half of the 14 million books allowed to be used in school, with one lone exception: a publishing house, Enlightenment, whose newly appointed chairman once worked very closely with President Vladimir Putin.

The whole article is fascinating, but the most powerful paragraph comes early on:

“The country is now run by a few families, or clans, close to Putin,” said one publisher, who like many others spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “They used to focus on the very biggest businesses: oil, gas, big infrastructure projects, the banks. But now that they have eaten all the food in that cupboard, they are eating the mice, and the mice’s food, going after smaller and smaller markets.”

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Squirrels, Steve Hartman, & storytelling through details

Every Saturday morning, when the weather is nice, I take a walk around the block.

Of course, living in the heart of Atlanta, my block is a city street that features high-rises, an office complex, and a hotel. But it leads to a massive park, and it is a great gateway to a number of enjoyable routes.

I have walked down that street numerous times … and then, on a recent Saturday morning, I saw it differently.

Before that day, I barely acknowledged the yards and grass in front of the buildings; I noticed the green swaths in front of me, naturally, but I never gave them a second thought. I simply kept listening to whatever was playing in my earbuds, enjoying the wide view of the street, and moving along.

But on this day, I decided I would pay attention. I would look around for details, wherever I could find them, that I would not otherwise notice.

And when I looked at the yards, I saw squirrels.

Lots of them.

Chowing down on grass blades and acorns.

The following Saturday, I looked again — and, once more, I saw the squirrels.

Now I see them whenever I walk by. And I always think to myself, “How did I never notice them before?” These are living creatures, existing en masse right in front of me, yet they never registered in my mind or my eyes.

These are the kinds of details that pass by journalists and storytellers every day. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the value of buried treasures

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.

New York’s shadow transit (7/2/14, New Yorker): I am a big fan of buried treasures.

Not the Scrooge McDuck kind, mind you, though those are great too …

No, I’m referring to the storytelling kind.

Find me something I have never seen before, and present it to me in a compelling fashion, and I will offer my full attention.

In this case, Aaron Reiss of the New Yorker delivers this fascinating look at the “shadow transit” systems that operate throughout New York City, enabling the poor and underserved to navigate the Big Apple. Reiss spotlights each system, one-by-one, borough by borough, even into New Jersey. The whole thing is a great history lesson, both well written and craftily presented for a Web audience. (more…)

A storytelling lesson, from the heart of the country

I had nothing.

I was driving this past Thursday up to Jasper, Ga. — population 3,684 — with a potentially great story on my hands. We had learned of a woman who was born with congenital heart disease but had beaten the odds — and open-heart surgery — to play tennis in high school. She never received her letter jacket, though, but would get it in an honorary ceremony … 38 years after the fact.

If everything went well, I would leave Jasper that day with a touching moment — a woman earning a small victory after a lifetime of hardship. It would undoubtedly make for a great ending.

But everything until the ending? I had nothing.

Let me explain. I spoke with the woman in question — a lovely lady named Fredia Watkins — the day before. I wanted to interview her before the big ceremony, get some B-roll that would give viewers a window into her personality, and capture the necessary footage to compellingly tell her story to set up the climactic moment.

But Fredia did not want to do the interview at her home. Her husband recommended we do it in the conference room of his workplace, and we agreed to meet there the following morning.

A quick but important note: conference rooms are the most sterile, uninteresting places in any office. From a videojournalism standpoint, they are the opposite of what you want.

And I did not want this. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Long live the local news feature

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.

Confession: I love watching a good local TV news feature.

Whereas many stories on television are so serious, these stories bring the levity. Also, because they deal with lighter topics, they often bring out more creative storytelling, since  reporters and photojournalists can have a bit more fun with them.

Enjoy the following three features — partly for their storytelling, but also because they will likely make you smile.

Frankfort senior’s dream of flying takes flight (7/4/13, WKYT-TV):  I did not love everything about this story. Specifically, I did not love the first 90 seconds. Reporter Sean Moody and photojournalist John Wilson tell a perfectly fine story about a senior citizen who reminisces beautifully about her departed husband.

It is an OK start but not totally unfamiliar ground and not particularly memorable.

And then the hot-air balloon comes in.

You quickly learn that the senior in question, Jean Broome, has been offered the opportunity — by her nursing home — to ride in a hot-air balloon; it is her “next trip” after taking so many adventures with her husband. Then the photography gets gorgeous, the writing gets truly poignant, and the personality of the story’s subject comes out in droves.

Again, the first minute-and-a-half of this story is fine on its own. But the last two minutes are outstanding, and the feature as a whole will absolutely warm your heart.

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