Stories that whisper, instead of screaming
By Julie McCann, Field Notes Editor
A dad lets go of his daughter’s bicycle seat and she pedals off down the sidewalk. It’s not a moment that often makes the papers. But this past August, project editors Thane Burnett and Dave Glenen asked their reporters to slow down, look a bit closer and do just that. “We know in a newspaper that when the sirens go off, when the smoke rises, that’s how we usually define news,” said Burnett, a content specialist and story coach working with TC Media. The goal here was for writers to reach behind the scenes and explore stories that aren’t often noticed.
The hyperlocal project, “A week that changed our world,” involved all 29 of the chain’s Atlantic papers, including their seven dailies and 35 writers. The series ran in print and online and focused on the week of August 11 to 17. For a seven-day stretch writers filed stories from their communities that all sought to capture small yet poignant moments. It was published two weeks later.
Glenen, the TC Media regional editor of Nova Scotia and the digital editorial operations manager for the region, was one half of the project’s team. Burnett, who joined TC in May as a contract story coach, was the other. In his 26-year career as a journalist and with the Toronto Sun, he covered plenty of hard, sirens-and-smoke stories. His career has featured reporting stints on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 9/11 tragedy and he’s reported across Canada and internationally in such places as China, Cambodia, Thailand and Bolivia. Yet he sees stories such as the ones featured in this series as just as cool and worthwhile.
“Coming from larger urban papers you hear the loud, you hear the clamour and you hear the roar,” he said. “But in these papers there’s an opportunity to pause and look at the nuanced, more subtle things.”
The back story
The spark: Throughout June and July Burnett did training sessions with almost all of the chain’s editorial teams in Atlantic Canada and Saskatchewan. Topics included interview techniques and alternative storytelling methods, but they also did blue sky sessions. “You grab pizza and you go into a room and the flakier or more obscure the idea, the better,” he said. “I came away with the impression that these papers have a great opportunity to celebrate whispers and not just screams.”
So although he and Glenen had edgier, harder-news concepts for a large-scale, regional series—the first of its kind for the chain—they wanted writers to go with something that would be close to their hearts. Thus, “A Week that Changed our World.”
Notably, pleasing readers was only part of the project’s goal. “I wanted a learning experience for our storytellers,” he said. “As journalists we have what we can think of as muscle memory. We look for a certain story and we write it in a certain way.” Burnett and Glenen wanted to set their team free.
The process: Glenen and Burnett reached out to the regional editors and asked them to help select a writer or two at each daily or weekly. They then spoke with each writer to explain the project. “The most important part then became mentoring each of these writers,” Burnett said. The writer could then pitch a particular person to observe or schedule a timeframe when they’d like to head out and leave it to serendipity.
Organizationally, each newsroom was responsible for covering three days over the course of the week. If they had too many papers sign up for one day, they’d move them around to make sure the whole week was covered off. As for ensuring the moments occurred at during different times of the day, they relied on reporters’ established shift schedules and assumed it would just work out. It did.
Writing: Each writer had just 200 to 300 words. Glenen and Burnett wanted them to zoom in and focus. “Much of it was totally different from the way they normally approach their writing,” he said. They also advised them to write it and file as quickly as possible. This helped the editors, who were dealing with a lot of copy, to know what they were dealing with. But more importantly, if reporters left the writing for even a day, the magic could be gone. “The fairy dust would have flown away,” Burnett said.
Editing: In advance, they’d warned writers that they were going to work their copy. So reporters would file draft one and have it sent right back with instructions like, “we love the first graph,” move it up and more this here or there. For many, this was a new experience. Normally, with so many balls in the air, their regular editors have to say, “yeah, looks good,” and the copy is sent off. The goal here was for all of the copy in the series to be uniformly strong—and for the writers to push themselves.
Photography: They wanted the art to be strong and innovative. Burnett said he could see the journalists playing. For example, when Marystown, N.L., reporter Colin Farrell filed his pictures for his story in The Southern Gazette about a long-time newspaper deliveryman, his first two photos were pretty typical. The man was on the porch with his paper. But the third photo Farrell filed was a shot of the man reflected in the mirror of his car. “Normally, I don’t think he would have approached it that way,” Burnett said. But because all of the reporters were on board with playing, they sought out new perspectives. “I’m asking them to stretch,” he said. “I want your muscles to feel it.”
Writers were also encouraged to file 20 to 30 seconds of video of their subject in the moment. They weren’t asked to edit it down, only to capture something new.
In the end, the feedback the editors heard from their team was positive. “They felt this was a new way to share their stories,” Burnett said. Glenen’s design was much praised by both readers and reporters too. In the print editions, the local writer’s story was on the cover and the rest followed, supporting the hyperlocal goal. The online edition had a shared main page and the series was supported by an overview letter from The Telegram’s editor, Russell Wangersky.
And in early October, the success of the Atlantic series saw them transport the project west on a smaller scale to their Saskatchewan papers called “A day that changed our world.”
As for their next shared project, it’s going to have a photographic focus. But celebrating small stories this time around was a hit. “People appreciated that we were dwelling on those subtle moments,” Burnett said.