Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories

I have a theory: The time is right for a sustained run of extraordinary stories about ordinary people, those stories that journalists love to discuss but so rarely produce.

This theory is prompted by what appears, at least to me, as the most interesting journalistic initiative to emerge since Sept. 11: the Portraits of Grief produced every day by The New York Times.

Provoked by the most complex and deadly story in memory, these profiles usually run only a couple of hundred words long and focus on the little twists and turns of everyday life.

Is it just me, or do these stories resonate with journalists and readers alike as a form of story-telling with special relevance in the post-9/11 world?

"(They) bring us not only human access to the grim but numbing statistics of death but also to the lived life in America, citizen by citizen," reader John Romano wrote in a Nov. 17 letter to The Times. "Here is all our diversity, our energy, our cheerfulness, our hope -- our noisy and chaotic soul as a nation."


Times Metro Editor Jonathan Landman describes reader reaction to the profiles as "the most extraordinary response to anything I've ever seen in a newspaper."


Published daily in the paper's special section, "A Nation Challenged," the profiles typically focus on a single aspect of the subject's character or an especially endearing talent or trait. They often include a little life lesson -- the extrovert who learned to seek out unhappy people at parties, the creator of family surprises, the friend who never lost touch -- that Times reporters have managed to reveal and celebrate in a couple of dozen words.


In an audio interview with Bernard Gwertzman, editor of The New York Times on the Web, Landman says the profiles were "born of journalistic instinct in the middle of chaos" in the first few days after the attack.


Says Gwertzman: "My wife reads them every morning at the breakfast table and inevitably cries."


Landman said he's not sure what's driving the strong reader reaction.


"That's the $64,000 question," he said in an e-mail exchange with Poynter. "There are lots of theories. Whatever the reason, they've struck a chord. People write to us saying they approach this page almost as a ritual; they start the day with them as a sort of homage to the dead, or they read them before going to bed. One woman wrote that she couldn't sleep one night; then she realized it was because she hadn't read the page."


The ordinary people story is hardly a new genre. Some papers have been doing lead obits for years that focus on the arc of a life instead of the time of the services. Dave Johnson (Lewiston, Idaho Morning Tribune) and Steve Hartman (CBS News) launched their "Everybody Has a Story" features some time ago.


We're not talking about articles, or reports. We're talking about stories that engage readers and viewers in some of the same ways accomplished by long or short fiction, in a book or on a screen.


Now is the time for newsrooms to figure out a strategy to make such stories part of their regular fare -- as opposed to just an occasionally pleasant surprise from an enterprising staffer. See if you think the following suggests the timing could be right:


· Since Sept. 11, surveys show that Americans have grown more conscious of the undercurrents and direction of their lives, creating an intriguing market for stories about such details in the lives of others.


· Journalists are re-discovering that one of the best ways to report the impact of big sweeping stories is to explore their specific, personal impact on everyday lives. Take a look at Stephen Buckley's piece in the St. Petersburg Times (which is owned by Poynter) tracking the impact of the terrorist attacks on the family of Keith Broomfield. Before dying in the World Trade Center, Mr. Broomfield was a Jamaican immigrant supporting an extended family of nearly two dozen people back home.


· Could it be that journalists are paying more attention to what really matters in their own lives and those of their friends? Take a look at the more than 100 comments posted in response to the recent death of San Jose Mercury News photographer Luci Houston.


· Could it be that everyday stories might provide some common ground between journalists and readers/viewers split by conflicting views of news and information in a time of war? (Gallup found that the public's approval of the media's performance on war-related topics has dropped from 86 percent right after the attacks to just 43 percent in early November. Stories about ordinary people won't address that gap, but this might not be a bad time to give readers/viewers something to like.)


· Interviews by the Readership Institute with 37,000 newspaper readers around the country --completed well before Sept. 11 -- show that, of all the things newspapers might do to retain and win readers, stories about ordinary people hold the greatest potential.


· Some of the nation's most talented journalists have been offering some great advice -- at Poynter and elsewhere -- on how to avoid the genre's greatest pitfall: writing ordinary stories about ordinary people.


A number of surveys since Sept. 11 have documented the kind of attitude shifts that might open some minds to everyday stories.


Two-thirds of Americans say that, as a result of the attacks, they've told a family member they loved them, according to a survey conducted for Time and CNN Nov. 7 and 8. Nearly two-thirds say they've felt the need to spend more time with family members. Nearly six in ten say they've thought more about the spiritual part of their lives. And more than half say they're feeling a greater focus or purpose in life as a result of the attacks.


In its Thanksgiving cover story, Time found that some of our behavior appears to be shifting along with our attitudes.


The National Infertility Association experienced a 50 percent jump in its Web site traffic after Sept. 11. The magazine reported the story of a Boston woman, Stephanie Greco, whose attempt at in vitro fertilization on Sept. 13 had failed. She told Time: "Looking around at everyone touching and holding their kids made it all so much more raw for us not having them. We felt really lost."


Says Poynter's Jill Geisler: "We've heard about an increase in marriage licenses in some communities, of people putting greater value on family connections, of less cynicism, of the need to laugh--but not necessarily at anyone's expense."


Not all the shifts are necessarily positive: Beer sales are up seven percent.


Some are pretty clearly negative: Unemployment increased in October at the steepest rate in more than 20 years.


And who knows what to make of some of the other trends: sales of bottled water are up 20 percent.


But one thing is clear: There's enough changing in everyday American life to create great opportunity for journalists willing and able to report up close and personally on the people undergoing the changes.


The Readership Institute, a newspaper industry consortium struggling to regain decades of declining readers, examined recent research in light of what it termed "at least a temporary renaissance in newspaper readership in the United States (since Sept. 11)."


Mary Nesbitt, the Institute's managing director and a former newspaper editor, said the group found opportunity for newsrooms in several areas, including the kind of international coverage that most news organizations have cut back so dramatically in recent years. (See Max Frankel's eloquent plea for a re-commitment to such news in his introduction to Sept. 11, 2001, Poynter's just-published collection of front pages.)


But she concluded: "Stories about 'ordinary people' have the highest potential."


In a telephone interview, she said such stories can include everything from community calendar announcements to obits to much more challenging narrative efforts to tell extraordinary stories about ordinary people.


"I'm not sure every reporter can do this kind of reporting well," she said. "It's a writerly thing, but not all great writers can do it."


One who can is Susan Ager of the Detroit Free Press, who specializes in what she calls "The Big News in Ordinary Lives."


"That kind of journalism is driven not by duty so much as curiosity and serendipity," Ager told a Poynter seminar earlier this year. "It's about people who fall between the movers and shakers and the scum. It's about who they are, and how they live, and how they cope and change and grow.


"We miss a lot of these stories because we fail to believe that what happens to one person is a tale worth telling. We miss a lot of these stories because we 'need a peg.' We miss a lot of these stories because we don't believe the newspaper is anyplace to print stuff that is 'just interesting.'"


What does it take, once you've found a good story about an ordinary person, to report and write it in an extraordinary way?

Some resources you may find helpful:


Finding the Focus. These stories often do not present themselves in orderly fashion, and often break and ooze in so many directions that deciding your focus can be the most important first step. Poynter's Roy Peter Clark notes in his essay, "How to Write a Good Story in 800 Words or Less," that focus is the "the central act of the writing craft."


Getting Beneath the Surface. As Poynter's Ellen Sung points out in a package she assembled last summer, Small Stories, Universal Truths, you need to "look beyond the edges of stories to find the ideas lurking unnoticed…How did this begin? Who has something at stake?" Her package includes links to tips by several story-telling experts.

Doing it on Deadline. Chip Scanlan tells the story of a failed attempt at story-telling 28 years ago, and what he might do differently today.

At The New York Times, at least 75 reporters have been involved in producing the Portraits of Grief. Staff members have been assigned to the project for a couple of weeks at a time and have been asked to produce two or three profiles a day. By mid-November, more than 800 had been published.


Landman cautions against drawing too many lessons from the Portraits.


"I'd hate to overreach here," he said in his e-mail to Poynter. "We are not re-inventing journalism. Good journalists have always known how to tell stories about people. What's unusual here is the effort to tell so many. It's a unique response to a unique event."


He said he also doubted the Portraits hold many lessons for profile-writers: "In a 2,000 word profile you can do lots of things. You don't have to make the same kinds of choices you have to make in 150."


But he does not minimize the impact on readers: "It's some combination of moving, saddening and, in a funny way, a little comforting. It's a very complicated mixture of emotions. People read them in different ways."


What will they be reading -- what will you and I be reading -- when the Portraits are done?

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.

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