December 29, 2021

This is one of 10 essays I offer as we close 2021 that I hope will help broadcast journalists tell stronger stories in the year ahead. 

Chad Nelson, KARE-11’s director of photography, is the only person to have won both the NPPA Photographer of the Year and Editor of the Year in the same year. And he has done it twice. He also won a third Photographer of the Year award.

He keeps those awards in Tupperware containers “stored in boxes somewhere.” It’s not that he is not proud of his work or the honors, he says, it is just not what motivates him. Moments move him.

As telling as what he has boxed away is what you can find ready to go with fresh batteries in the back of his news vehicle. He took a long breath to make a mental count of the cameras back there.

“There is a big Sony news camera and three SLR mirrorless cameras, and seven GoPros,” he said. “At our station, it is pretty common for us to do a four-camera interview.”

And there’s more.

“I guess seven or eight lights, sometimes there might be more in there if I am doing a live shot. I guess I am meticulous.” Always ready for a moment.

Nelson pinpoints the moment he realized the difference between reporting and storytelling. He had just spent an emotionally exhausting day attending the funeral of a dear friend’s brother. News cameras were there at the funeral. When he flipped on the TV to watch the coverage, what he saw was not what he experienced in person. Lessons that he had learned from a teacher came flooding back. Everything he thought he knew about how to tell a story that honors a person’s life was missing.

“While I was there at the funeral, I heard people crying. I listened to them tell stories about how Chase Korte did everything right to become an actor in California and he was killed by a careless driver. It was 13 years ago, and I remember even now what people said when they stood up there at the funeral,” Nelson said. “And when I watched the news that night, the stories told me how many people were at the service and how big the service was. The reporting was like mathematics on the screen. It was not what happened there that day. From that moment I was determined that I didn’t want people to not be remembered. The stories didn’t have the moments that connected with everybody there that day.”

Nelson’s stories celebrate the nobility in common people. Two stories in his winning entries were about janitors. One man suffered a traumatic brain injury but found employment cleaning an elementary school. There is no way to explain how, after his injury, he developed a remarkable artistic talent that enables him to leave cartoon messages for the children on classroom whiteboards. (Watch the story here.)

Let’s look at another story that Nelson photographed and edited. It is the story of a man who lost his wife and, in his grief, found solace in a grouse named Lulu. The man has come to adore the wild bird so much that he searches her out three times a day just to say hello.

“I try to tell stories that will connect with people,” Nelson said. “That story of a man and a bird is a story that will connect with anybody who has lost someone, who is lonely, and even connected with Minnesota hunters who normally would have shot that bird.” (Watch the story here.)

The story is loaded with moments, including sprinkles of sound from the clucking bird throughout the piece. It makes the bird a real character. I love the sections where talks with the bird. “There’s my bird.” And, “We can talk about anything, she don’t care what we talk about.” Those are moments. I also love the detail that he does not just visit Lulu, he visits her three times a day. Another moment.

I noticed how Nelson’s technique of finding moments became an essential tool for journalists who covered the tornado outbreak in Kentucky this month. One of the first journalists I came across in the debris was WDRB photojournalist Emily Evans, who told me that when she covers catastrophes like this, she might capture some wide shots first but then focuses in on small, telling details, like a child’s toy, a storybook or baby clothes hanging in trees.

I snapped some pictures that I thought — if I was developing a quick-turn piece on the damage — might give me some moments to write to, something other than the generic wide shots of trees and roofless homes.

(Al Tompkins/Poynter)

There was something about this moment that burned into my mind. A Fortnite Rainbow Horse lays in the grass along with a string of dress-up pearls, a roof shingle, a butterfly toy and a bear dressed up as Uncle Sam. And while the storm shattered most things in its path, it left a Christmas ornament undamaged.

(Al Tompkins/Poynter)

I was immediately struck by how the Dawson Springs Housing Authority Maintenance Office will need maintenance. I would have found a way to work that moment into a quick-turn story.

(Al Tompkins/Poynter)

I was helping a guy lift some heavy stuff from his destroyed home when we looked up to see a signature indication of how violent this storm was. The wind ripped a two-inch limb from a tree then sent it like a spear through three walls.

(Al Tompkins/Poynter)

Less than a mile from where the storm destroyed most of Dawson Springs, Kentucky, I spotted a bald eagle landing in the frost-covered grass looking for breakfast. I like to find moments of normalcy during chaos. The contrast of nature’s beauty and awesome power makes the chaos stand out more starkly.

You will notice that Nelson’s beautiful stories rarely include the almost stereotypical beauty shots that many storytellers use to open or close a piece, and that is by choice.

“I don’t put much emphasis on beauty shots like sunsets and sunrises. I try to capture beautiful images, of course, but when I am putting the story together, I find that opening stories with a sequence of beauty shots just keeps me from getting right to a real moment where we connect with a real person. I want to get to the people,” Nelson said. “Beauty shots are really just in there for me, not the story. I remember a long time ago, a photographer friend of mine said, ‘My 16-year-old niece can take a beautiful picture but what she cannot do is capture a moment,’ and I never forgot that. It’s about moments.”

(Portions of this column appeared in NPPA Magazine.)

Al Tompkins will expand on his storytelling and writing teaching in two Poynter seminars: The Poynter Producer Project and TV Power Reporting.  Chad Nelson is one of our visiting faculty for the TV Power Reporting seminar. Click the links to see the schedules, meet the rest of our all-star visiting faculty and apply. Thanks to a grant from CNN, we offer 50% tuition scholarships to NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, NAJA and NLGJA members. Both seminars take place over three days at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida, or you can attend virtually.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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