I’m big on new.
In the last few years, I’ve worked with drones, gimbals and a mirrorless camera. I’ve created Instagram-first food segments and half-hour documentaries. I’ve done all of this from a newsroom – WXIA-TV in Atlanta – and under a company – TEGNA – that preaches innovation.
But when I wanted to attempt a new approach and story structure for a segment involving person-on-the-street interviews – a format that seems to funnel toward boring and uninformative – I reached back to a far earlier creation.
First, my producer and I bought a wooden fold-out table and two fold-out chairs at IKEA. Then we asked our promotions team whether we could commandeer an easel. Finally, we begged our in-house graphics guru to create a poster we could place on an easel, with a recurring question: “What’s your untold story about __________?” For each story we would do, we thought, we would fill in the blank with a relevant subject.
On Thanksgiving week we requested stories about gratitude. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we found stories about parents. And this past Valentine’s Day, we learned stories about kind gestures. Each time, we shot in multiple locations that represented different communities in our region. We set up multiple cameras, from a traditional TV news kit to a GoPro and iPhone. We didn’t leave until we had interviewed at least three people.
Most important, when we did those interviews, we took our time. I didn’t ask for the quick sound bite and leave. I sat for around 10 minutes, conversing and learning more about the person across the table. Often I discovered a more compelling story hidden beneath the initial back-and-forth.
By the end of our shooting day, we had accumulated eight to 10 in-depth, revealing interviews with citizens of metro Atlanta. And we had learned stories that we wouldn’t have otherwise uncovered. For my Valentine’s Day piece, I met Endia Higgins and her boyfriend, Cory, a couple who had been homeless for months when they welcomed their first child, Cory Jr., several weeks ahead of schedule. At an extremely turbulent time, the child’s grandmother tracked the family down and insisted they move into her one-bedroom apartment. They hadn’t planned to tell me about this … until they saw my sign. The phrase “Untold Story” stood out. They decided to sit down and share.
Even on crowded sidewalks or in town squares, the table and chairs seem somehow intimate. I’ve seen (and attempted) the interview-securing technique of striding up to someone and asking, “Hey, I’m with this station. Can we ask you a few questions about this subject?” The success rate is often painfully low. As it should be. I think about how much trust a reporter needs to engender in a few seconds to persuade someone to do such an interview. But this is different, mainly because it requires taking a seat. Sit-down interviews naturally run longer and feel less frenetic than those done on foot. In my case, it turns out they produce better responses.
I’ve heard the following statement, or a variation thereof, from many journalists I admire: A great story can be told in many ways, with few limitations. Yes, the latest gear can offer exquisite production value. Yes, an attention-grabbing ploy can turn a few heads. But the best stories are far more straightforward … and far less about the gear used in telling them. ■
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.