What it’s like when your story goes viral

On Friday, a man named Bryant Collins saved the life of a 15-month-old baby girl, whom he spotted on the side of a highway.

On Monday, I interviewed Collins about his unexpected opportunity to become a hero.

Neither of us expected what happened next.

In a span of 25 hours, the story of Bryant Collins — and the baby he rescued — grew from my NBC affiliate in Atlanta to NBC Nightly News, going extraordinarily viral along the way. I have never seen anything like it, at least with one of my own stories.

And if I had to pick a story of mine to go viral, I might just choose this one.

We learned of it at around 10:30 Monday morning. Collins, we were told, had been driving his van down a small-town Georgia highway when he spotted a baby a few feet from the road. He slammed the brakes, got out, and confirmed it.

Then Collins called 911, and he stayed with the baby, Emily Pickens, until emergency crews arrived and took care of the situation.

An exciting pitch, for sure.

The only problem? Collins lived in Madison County, which is a nearly two-hour drive from Atlanta.

And my producers wanted the story for the 6 PM news.

That meant I would have roughly 90 minutes to shoot the piece … and 90 more minutes later that day to log, write, and edit it.

But I hit the road, using my drive time to think of creative ways to tell the story. I brainstormed potential visuals, questions for Collins, and lines of script. I developed a pretty good idea of how to approach the matter, all while one of our assignment editors at 11Alive obtained Collins’ 911 call and the mug shot of the child’s father, who was arrested that day.

My approach quickly changed when I started talking to Collins.

A soft-spoken and humble individual, Collins opened up to me about his own struggles in life. He had served ten years in prison for manufacturing cocaine, but he had used that time to clean himself up and develop a new outlook. Now, five years free and working as an auto repairman, he took pride in how he had saved his own life … not just the child’s.

I knew I needed to include that in the story. Heck, that was the story.

I got the necessary footage, interviewed both Collins and the Madison County Sheriff, and completed the piece at the station with mere minutes to spare. I went home happy with a job well done.

A few hours later, I got an e-mail with a surprising bit of news: my story had taken off online.

Our web team had posted a link to the piece on the 11Alive Facebook page. In less than an hour, the e-mail said, that post had already been shared thousands of times. By the end of the night, that number would reach the tens of thousands.

As I type this now, the post has been shared more than 90,000 times — far more than any story I can remember (typically our posts get a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, shares).

Beyond that, more than 40,000 people commented on the post. Nearly 700,000 people liked it. And, per Facebook, roughly 30 million people saw it.

And on Tuesday, I received a different bit of news: producers at NBC wanted the story for the Nightly News with Brian Williams.

I re-tracked the piece for a Nightly News editor to cut, and then my producers at 11Alive sent me back to Madison County to be with Collins as he watched his story on national television.

I was amazed.

Even now, I cannot quite grasp it.

I might just be too exhausted to fully appreciate everything that has happened in the last few days, but I am still shocked that the story took off as it did. At 11Alive we do hundreds of stories every week; we post just as many links on Facebook. What made this one so special? Was it Collins? Was it the baby? Was it my story? Was it some combination of everything?

I do not know, but a day later, I am simply thankful — for two reasons.

First, the experience enabled my work to reach a truly massive audience. We have received e-mails from people across the country who want to thank and reward Collins. I personally have been contacted by numerous friends, colleagues, and family members who saw the story on NBC Nightly News. Even in the Internet age, with embedded videos and live streams of local newscasts, it means something extra when people anywhere in America can turn on a television and watch my work.

My favorite phone call came from my grandfather, Poppy, who knew my childhood journalistic dreams and always longed to see his grandson on television. That dream was realized Tuesday night, and he could not have been happier.

Secondly, I am so gratified by the success of this particular story.

Stories can go viral for any number of reasons, and they are not always positive. But this one had a unique heart, emanating from its main character. Even 25 hours later, after he had received calls from news outlets across the country, Bryant Collins could not have seemed more humble when I spoke with him Tuesday night. He appreciated the validation but did not require it to continue on his path of personal recovery and triumph.

He performed a heroic act, and he is now receiving much-deserved recognition.

I ultimately remain astounded by how this story took off. But I am glad that it did.

And, at some point during my current exhaustion, I will recognize just how rare such a moment can be.

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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