long-form stories

More time to tell a story? Better make it count

I woke up and didn’t know where I was.

The room was pitch-black. My alarm had just disrupted five hours of uninterrupted sleep. I spent five seconds scanning for context clues until I remembered:

“I’m at a hotel. I’m on St. Simons Island. And I need to leave immediately for the beach to shoot a sunrise.”

TV news journalists often must execute their assignments within an immovable window of time. At my station, we hold a morning meeting at 9:30, match reporters with stories by 10, and then expect those stories to air sometime between 5 and 6:30 PM. Deadlines loom over every decision: “Should I get these extra shots? Do this extra interview? Actually sit down for lunch? Only if I have enough time.”

Long-form storytelling pushes back those boundaries. In my new role, I produce a story a week while handling a variety of other responsibilities for my station and company. I largely set my own schedule, and I know my assignment long before the day it is due. When I ask myself if I should take an extra step in service of the story, I often do not need to consider time as a factor.

So I often answer, “Yes,” arriving earlier, staying later, and working weekends far more than I did before. I pace myself and make sure to balance my hours when I can, but when I see the potential to tell a powerful story, I relish the chance to do so.

That’s what led me to this hotel on the Georgia coast. I had learned about a man from metro Atlanta named Douglas Stephens, who in 1981 threw a beer bottle into the ocean with a message inside. Thirty-six years later, the bottle had been found, and the man who discovered it was planning to return it to its original owner.

I had to be there.

So despite having just returned to Atlanta from a work trip Thursday evening, I prepared to leave again nearly 24 hours later. I packed a bag, gathered my gear, and set off on a five-hour drive — half of it in darkness — for the coast. I arrived on the island at 11:30 PM and went to sleep just after midnight, bracing myself for a busy Saturday.

I could have planned a much longer rest; the two men weren’t planning to exchange the bottle until 12:30 the following day. But I knew, to tell the story right, I needed to do more. I woke up at 6 AM so I could shoot sunrise on the beach just before 7. I drove to the nearest UPS Store to print photos and then headed back to the beach to capture them on video. I arranged a 10:30 interview with the man who found the bottle, Ryan Burchett, at his home in nearby Brunswick. Then I asked him to keep wearing his wireless microphone while I drove ahead to the meeting spot to put a similar mic on Douglas.

When the meeting happened, it brought smiles to all involved. I stood back and captured the moments, knowing I had done everything possible to produce a story worthy of them.

The piece would run the following week (you can watch it above), and I knew I would need to spend several days beforehand putting it together. But in this moment, I didn’t think about that. I said goodbye to Douglas and Ryan, packed my gear, ate a triumphant lunch, and began the five-hour drive back home.

And when I went to sleep that night in my own bed, I refused to set an alarm.

svj-cover-2

The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

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. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

5 reasons for hope for journalism’s future

I realized it the other day: I started the year by highlighting a sobering story for any storyteller.

I linked to a brilliant piece by Andrew Marantz called “The Virologist”, which profiled a web site/content creator who aims for clicks and money without any nod to ethics or storytelling. Sites like this — think Buzzfeed, but even more calculated — drive on the highway of journalism without getting into the lane of journalistic responsibility. Marantz gave an absolutely brutal assessment of the landscape of the Web.

The piece, to be sure, started the year on a low note.

So let’s take it back to a higher one.

Let’s use this space to talk about what excites us for the new year — and the future of journalism and storytelling.

Here are five things that give me hope: (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #21: Glenn Stout, Series Editor, Best American Sports Writing

Play

I have spent a lot of time on this site talking about my annual tradition.

Every year, around this time, I purchase the Best American Sports Writing anthology and go to town. I crack it open and find 25 of the year’s finest pieces of sports writing. I read them, learn from them, and get inspired by them.

While I work in television, I can honestly say I have been affected professionally by these annual collections of print journalism. I always walk away with various insights on how to connect as a storyteller, from structure to character development to perspective.

Beyond that, quite simply, I leave with a better understanding of the world. That is the inevitable result of reading 25 stories that make you ponder, wonder, and feel.

For me, the Best American Sports Writing series has always been special.

And for that reason, so is this podcast.

My guest: Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing anthology. (more…)

Some short thoughts on long-form journalism

I am noticing a promising trend.

More and more, media outlets appear to have prioritized long-form journalism as an important asset moving forward.

It strikes me every time I look for pieces for my weekly “3 Great Stories” post. I see long-form articles that feature creative presentation, graphics, and multimedia incorporation. In many ways, such stories indicate how media can build unique, enriching content for a digital audience. With these stories, the written text itself could work in a newspaper or magazine, but the entirety of it — with all the other forms of media thrown in — could only work online.

Here now, a few short thoughts on long-form’s future:

The market and audience appears to be there. Look at how many web sites now cater to long-form enthusiasts, from BuzzReads to Longreads to the Browser. Even more amazing, the Browser actually charges for its curation — $20 a year, which won’t break the bank but is still, at least, something. Major media outlets are investing in ways to tell long-form stories to an online audience, with the New York Times and New Yorker regularly producing innovative work. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: The “riding the wave of long-form writing” edition

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.

Seems like the pendulum, in the written world, is heading back towards long-form journalism.

Major web sites — including ones that generally traffic in web clicks, like Slate and BuzzFeed — have devoted entire sections to long reads. One web site even calls itself “LongReads” and commits itself strictly to long-form work.

This excites me. I have made plain my love for this brand of storytelling.

But I especially appreciate its current, if brief, resurgence, because it comes at a time of quick hits, snippets, and an overall overload of online content.

Here now, three great long-form stories from this past week:

Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet (1/6/14, Pacific Standard): This article has been getting a lot of attention this week … and rightly so.

Amanda Hess dives into the topic of Internet abuse, specifically as it relates to women, who receive a disproportionately high amount of it. She mixes her own experience with those of countless other female journalists and bloggers; she exposes the potential logistical issues in reporting abuse and counteracting it; and she buttresses everything with sobering statistics.

Consider this paragraph, where Hess breaks down what one might experience should she bring her claims of abuse to the police:

The Internet is a global network, but when you pick up the phone to report an online threat, whether you are in London or Palm Springs, you end up face-to-face with a cop who patrols a comparatively puny jurisdiction. And your cop will probably be a man: According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, only 6.5 percent of state police officers and 19 percent of FBI agents were women. The numbers get smaller in smaller agencies. And in many locales, police work is still a largely analog affair: 911 calls are immediately routed to the local police force; the closest officer is dispatched to respond; he takes notes with pen and paper.

(more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #12: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, American Promise

Play

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.

(more…)

PODCAST PREVIEW: American Promise filmmakers: “You lose audiences” when you preach

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.

(more…)

15 seconds or less: Meditations and ruminations on online video

Here are, for your consideration, some anecdotes and observations from the past few weeks:

*****

While out on a story several weeks ago, I met a reporter for a local Patch.com site; Patch is a web-based news operation brought to you by the folks at AOL. This reporter had her cell phone out, prepared to use it as a video camera.

We talked briefly about online video, and she made the following statement:

“My editors tell me my video can’t be any longer than 15 seconds. Anything longer than that, and people won’t watch.”

*****

While out on a different story, I met a newspaper reporter who is investing his time in a video piece to put online. He has spent many days, often on weekends, investing in a mini-documentary that currently stands at ten minutes. He said he will likely finish the piece in the next few months.

The only problem? He cannot find anyone who wants to use it — or, more specifically, any media outlet that knows what to do with it.

*****

A non-industry friend and I were recently discussing my job, and she asked if I treated my stories differently depending on which show would use it. In other words, would I tell a story for the 11 pm news differently than I would tell that same story for our morning show?

I said, while I did make certain concessions and alterations for the show-specific audiences, I ultimately had to assume that the story would see its greatest interaction online. For the most part, web readers and viewers do not care about the show in which the story ran; they watch the story independently of that.

(more…)