MATT PEARL | DOING IT ALL, DOING IT WELL
I was there to teach. For a week in early April, I flew to San Marcos, Texas, to serve on the faculty at the NPPA Advanced Storytelling Workshop. I crafted five presentations for the students at the event and, in one case, in a journalism class at Texas State University.
But on Day One of the workshop, I quickly realized how much I would learn.
In the second hour of sessions, one of my fellow faculty members presented a philosophy I quickly embraced – and which, a month later, paid huge dividends.
Kristin Dickerson is a National Edward R. Murrow and Gracie Award winner who shone as an anchor and reporter for NBC5 in Dallas. We teamed up – along with the tremendous NBC News correspondent Joe Fryer – for a session on how to enterprise story ideas. I led off, but Kristin seized the hour with a 10-minute video illustrating the importance of cultivating your contacts … and not turning your back after you use them for a story.
I immediately realized my own flaw. I seek sources with enthusiasm, but I rarely keep in touch well enough after I work with them. Fueled by Kristin’s inspiration, I pledged to be better. I didn’t realize how quickly it would pay off.
That night, the students and faculty went around the room and introduced ourselves, including one “fun fact” that others might not expect. Toward the end, a middle-aged man in the back gave his story. His name was Robert; he lived in Germany, and he worked for the American Forces Network in various video capacities. And his fun fact? He was the first baby born at Northside Hospital, the Atlanta facility known as the “baby factory” because it’s that prolific.
My eyes widened. “Atlanta?” I said. “Yup,” Robert responded. I nodded, impressed (as if Robert had any control where he was born). My wife was born at Northside. So was my 1-year-old daughter. I chatted with Robert later that night and emerged with a thought:
I should do a story on him for my station.
That Friday Robert’s mom, who lives in Texas, came to our hotel. I snapped a photo. Robert then sent me a JPG of the newspaper article from 1970 announcing his birth. A few weeks later, on a slow news day in Atlanta, I pitched Robert’s story to my producers, and I got the green light.
That night I got an email.
“I just happened to walk in the den tonight to catch your story,” it read. “I was an RN in the nursery at Northside when Robert was born. I used to have a picture of them. I got to know [his mom] since I was the charge nurse in the nursery. We waited two weeks for the first baby.”
What? His nurse? She still lives in Atlanta? And she happened to catch my one-minute story?
I was floored. And I followed up.
I emailed the nurse, Deanna, and the next day I was in her living room, interviewing her about the historic birth. Twenty-four hours after I presented Robert’s story, I followed with Deanna’s.
But in my conversation, I learned more. I learned Deanna was the first nurse at Northside to wear a pantsuit as a uniform. I learned she had been in the Girl Scouts, first as a Scout and then as a leader, for more than 50 years. And I learned she currently spent time as a mentor in the StandUp for Kids program, which helps homeless teens stay in their original school and persevere through graduation. Her mentee, she said, was set to graduate in a few weeks.
I sensed a new story, likely the most powerful yet.
Over the next few weeks, I got to know Deanna and her mentee Kaustov, a senior at Parkview High School in Gwinnett County. When he was 14, Kaustov lived with his parents and sister in a nearby apartment complex. Then his father was diagnosed with brain cancer and died within days. A year later his mother learned she had stage 4 breast cancer. A year after that, she was gone too. Unable to stay in the apartment, Kaustov couch-surfed until finding a permanent place with his aunt and uncle. He stayed in school and poured his energy into his classes. Through StandUp for Kids, he reached out for a mentor. He found Deanna.
I shot Kaustov’s graduation. It was glorious. The following day I wrote and edited the story. Within 30 minutes on our station’s Facebook page, it received 2,000 likes. When we showed it on the air, it made one of our anchors choke up.
And it made me appreciate the power of cultivating connections.
This story was the result of a chain of events. I accepted the chance to serve on the workshop faculty. I listened to Kristin’s presentation and absorbed her advice. I learned about Robert and turned his fun fact into a story. I heard from Deanna and turned her email into a follow-up. And I kept chatting with Deanna and found a deeper, poignant story that showcased a tremendous effort taking place across metro Atlanta.
Even then, the chain continued to grow.
The weekend after Kaustov’s story ran, I received an email from a viewer and Parkview mother. She told me of a senior named Lauren Kobe who had been scheduled to speak at graduation but, that afternoon, suffered a seizure. She spent graduation night in the hospital. The next day, a group from Parkview showed up in her backyard wearing their caps and gowns. They conducted a second ceremony in which Lauren got to speak, receive her diploma and throw her cap skyward.
In less than two months, I experienced my own six degrees of cultivation. I decided to spread that wonderful kernel of advice here, hoping a fellow storyteller might take it and run with it.
If you do, let me know. ■
Matt Pearl is a solo video journalist and the chief of storytelling and development at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. His blog can be found at tellingthestoryblog.com.