It’s all about telling stories

When I talk to non-journalists about what I do, I try to remember to use the word “articles.”

Everyone in the news business calls what we do “stories.” But I worry that some people hear a word like “stories” and they think about made-up stories, like campfire tales or bedtime stories.

Of course, newspaper stories are real. Sometimes they are dramatic, like a campfire tale. Other times, they can be (unfortunately) a little dull or dry.

If journalists succeed at our jobs, what we’re really doing is telling stories. I feel the best about my work when I’m sharing someone’s story with the world in an interesting way.

It it’s not always “someone’s” story, though. Sometimes it’s the story of a family, or a business, or a profession, or — often in my case — the story of a critter.

I got to thinking about this the other day, when one of my coworkers shared a clip of a TV news story that stuck with her. It’s by Steve Hartman of CBS News, who specializes in finding random people and learning something interesting enough about them to merit a package on the evening news.

Here’s the clip my coworker shared, about a little boy in Tennessee, who likes giving balloons to his grandmother. Follow this link on over to CBS News and check it out. But please come back, as I have more to say about this.

Steve Hartman: Everybody Has a Story.

(I didn’t embed the video for two reasons: 1. I couldn’t figure out how; and 2. CBS deserves the site traffic anyway.)

So, did you cry like I did? Did you laugh? If you have some sort of visceral reaction to a story like that, then the reporter and crew did a good job.

Sure, some people might say that there are more important things for CBS to show during its news airtime, like politics, health care reform, the economy. But CBS is spending lots of time on those topics. Why not use airtime to share stories about the human spirit, too?

Another brilliant example of storytelling reporting is one you might remember.

After the 9/11 attacks back in 2001, the New York Times carried a series called “Portraits of Grief.”

The series included brief stories about those who had been killed in the attacks. They shared a little glimpse into the lives that were lost that day. Be warned, these stories will make you tear up, too.

As a reporter for the paper wrote in an article about the project:

The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense. They were brief, informal and impressionistic, often centered on a single story or idiosyncratic detail. They were not intended to recount a person’s résumé, but rather to give a snapshot of each victim’s personality, of a life lived. And they were democratic; executive vice presidents and battalion chiefs appeared alongside food handlers and janitors. Each profile was roughly 200 words.

Checking out other journalists’ work — especially fantastic work such as these examples — can be both inspiring and a little defeating.

The “inspiring” part, I’m sure, is easy to understand. These stories make me want to improve as a storyteller.

But the “defeating” part is the part to fight against. Can I tell stories like that? Am I a good enough interviewer to pull good material out of people? Can I find the time to work hard on stories like these amid the daily news rush and deadlines?

I’m resolving to battle the defeatist in me and choose to be inspired instead. Will I be able to create stories as moving as these? Maybe, maybe not. But I can do better than what I’m doing now.

I’m closing out with one funny little example of storytelling I did a few years ago. I’m sure I probably rolled my eyes as my editor walked away after giving me this assignment. But I had a ton of fun and I think I managed to turn out a cute little story. I hope you like it, too.

First haircut a tradition with family, longtime barber

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer

Angelo Calabrese knows the secret to giving a toddler his first haircut: Wear him out.
For 20 minutes yesterday, he out-fussed 16-month-old Mark Perkins V with a combination of coaxing and quick snipping, making the little boy the fourth generation of Perkins men to sit in Mr. Calabrese’s chair.

“Patience, patience,” Mr. Calabrese advised while trimming the boy’s wispy blond locks. “You have to stick with them and wear them out.”

The goal of first haircuts is simple: Get the child through it without tears or tantrums.

Little Mark had a bit of a leg up on other kids. Last time his dad got a haircut, he tagged along to get comfortable with the sights and sounds of a barbershop. Mr. Calabrese gave his bangs a few snips.

Over the years, Mr. Calabrese has learned how to handle fidgety young customers. He has a pile of pictures of kids after their first haircuts – most smiling, only a few scowling.

With Mark sitting on the lap of his dad, Mark IV, Mr. Calabrese first snipped air over the boy’s head, just to get him used to the sound. Then he gently started trimming near Mark’s right ear.

“Markie, it’s okaaay,” cooed Maria Perkins, the tot’s mom.

By the time he moved to Mark’s bangs, the youngster looked worried. He tried to turn his head away, but Mr. Calabrese coaxed him to hang in there.

About 32 years ago, it was Mark IV getting his first haircut from Mr. Calabrese, one of the city’s best-known barbers.

“I think he was all right,” Mr. Calabrese said, and Mark III agreed.

It was Mark III – little Mark’s grandfather – who discovered Mr. Calabrese’s skill with the scissors and razor in the late 1960s. He worked at a car dealership next door to the barber’s old shop on West Street, and convinced his father, Mark II, to get his hair cut there too.

Over the years, the Perkins men have moved from Annapolis, but they always kept coming back to Mr. Calabrese every six to eight weeks – even as he kept moving to different shops. “I always had a good business, but no place to put it,” he said.

In an age where fancy salons and discount chains dominate the hair-cutting landscape, Mr. Calabrese’s station inside the three-chair Eastport Barber Shop is something of a throwback. It’s kind of like the TV show “Cheers” – everyone knows your name.

“Sometimes it dawns on me that everyone here is an Annapolitan,” Mr. Calabrese said. “But then you go to the mall and you don’t know anyone.”

Mark IV, 33, never tires of Mr. Calabrese’s barbershop chatter.

“He’s interesting to talk to. He always has good stories,” he said.

Over the years, Mr. Calabrese has shared his wisdom about ATVs, hunting and the way Annapolis used to be. And he should know – he’s been barbering for nearly 56 years after starting as a teenager in his dad’s shop.

Mark V isn’t old enough yet to appreciate the stories, but is just old enough to experience the barber’s swift but gentle snipping.

After a few minutes of trimming, Mr. Calabrese looked back at his work in progress and checked with mom: “Maria, does that look all right in the front?”

Mrs. Perkins gave her approval as Mark sucked in his bottom lip and furrowed his brow.

Sensing that Mark was close to breaking down, Mrs. Perkins handed him a short broom the boy played with while waiting. Mark nearly dropped it, resulting in a torrent of giggles. Crisis averted.

Later, as Mark fidgeted while Mr. Calabrese worked on the back, Mark IV improvised and played peek-a-boo using a handheld broom.

Finally, the drama was over. Little Mark lost a couple of inches of hair all around, most of it put in a white envelope for safekeeping.

The family posed for pictures with their favorite barber – one more to add to Mr. Calabrese’s collection at the barbershop.

Published 02/13/04, Copyright 2010 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

4 thoughts on “It’s all about telling stories

  1. Great, great story, Pam. I miss stories like these. I don’t get to write nearly enough features.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s