Joe Belanger is an award-winning journalist currently working as the Entertainment Reporter for the London Free Press.
What’s in a Story? — #9Joe Belanger
June 25th, 2020
There is no feeling like the thrill of discovering a new story and telling it in an interesting, compelling way that affects the people who read it. Usually, it’s a story that makes their heart beat faster, that makes them angry, sad, or laugh-out-loud happy.
Of course, when you’re a journalist at a daily newspaper, your ability to find, develop, and tell a story is why you’re employed. Stories are your raison d’être, your reason for existence. The newspaper then packages that story for readers to enjoy. The more readers enjoy those stories, the more readers your newspaper will draw and, the more readers you have, the more advertisers you’ll have to spend money to promote their goods and services alongside those stories. That’s the business end of journalism, which most journalists don’t think about all that much.
For most of the journalists I’ve known over the last 40 years, the motivation is usually much more altruistic, heady stuff like knowing you’re the cornerstone of the foundation upon which democracy is built and that it’s your job to be the watchdog of government, politicians, bureaucracy, business and industry to protect the public interest, expose corruption, injustice and incompetence, explore social issues (drug addiction, homelessness, sex abuse), to promote or provoke change, celebrate achievement, or simply inform people of what’s going on (crime, courts, education, business, entertainment) that day in their town, city, province, country, or world.
Chicago Evening Post journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne once wrote that “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” While that’s true, journalism is much broader in purpose, sometimes telling simple stories that impact no one, but are interesting.
Telling a story in a newspaper is not the same as writing fiction, although they share similarities. For instance, the use of description and quotes and the need to grab and hold the reader’s interest using information, structure, or style are not all that different.
The key difference is a story written for a newspaper is based on facts revealed through reporting. It’s your job to find the information which is often as satisfying as the end result. The gathering of information for the story can be a difficult, interesting, and challenging task, but very rewarding. You’ve got to find the right people to interview then gather more thorough observation and description, connecting the dots of information that lead to a conclusion or revelation that was previously unknown or untold. It’s the journalist’s job to utilize and arrange those facts in an interesting, compelling way, fairly and accurately. Sometimes it’s serious stuff, like writing about a pandemic, or it may be happy stuff, like writing about a cure for the coronavirus.
Usually, the most interesting and important stories are those that focus on people. You can write all day about the pandemic, but your words will be for naught without the compelling human elements people can relate to and understand: The Chinese doctor who was the whistleblower about the coronavirus pandemic who was then infected and died; the couple married for 60-odd years who died of coronavirus hours apart; or, the life of a healthcare worker afraid of going home and infecting their family.
It is these types of stories that not only attract the reader’s attention but inspire change in people’s understanding, attitudes, and behaviours, from politicians to business owners to the average person.
What it all adds up to is that newspaper journalism is the first draft of history, which comes with enormous responsibility to be fair and accurate, because every historian depends on that information to explore larger issues.
Similarly, many great writers of fiction depend on news stories to fuel their creativity. For instance, novelist Emma Donoghue’s award-winning novel and screenplay, Room, was based on newspaper accounts of an abduction in Germany, and the idea for her novel Frog Music was inspired by a tiny newspaper article she came across that told the story of French burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon and the murder of her cross-dressing female friend Jenny Bonnet in late 1800s San Francisco.
Also, many fine investigative pieces have been written based on previous stories which may expose patterns (a psychiatric hospital’s lack of security allowing patients to escape), or even a crime spree or new trend, so you can feed off the work of others to find and build a story that’s accurate.
It may be a cliché but it is also a truth that in newspaper journalism that you can open a telephone book with 500, 5,000, 50,000 or even 5,000,000 million names, close your eyes, open the book, put your finger on a name and find a story. Everybody has a story to tell, some more compelling than others, but stories nevertheless. If you just ask a few questions, their story will usually surface. More often than not, you don’t follow a formula when you interview a person to get their story. You have a conversation, trusting your instinct to ask the right questions, taking careful notes and always keeping an open mind knowing everyone has a point of view even if it does not conform to popular opinion. So you also need courage and strength to be able to set aside your own preconceived notions of truth to find it.
The journalist’s story informs, explores, and explains the news of the day. It can be exciting to write because it’s timely and real, which can also take an emotional toll on the storyteller. Imagine interviewing the father of two young teens hours after they were killed when they crashed their dirt bike. Or, digging into a snowmobile tragedy and exposing how human error (including bad directions) led to a 14-year-old girl freezing to death awaiting rescue after going through the ice on a northern lake. Covering the news of the day brings you into regular contact with death, destruction, tragedy, horror — the reality of the human condition.
Pursuing a story can also be dangerous. Dozens of journalists around the world are murdered every year by people who don’t want them asking questions, or didn’t like a story. Dozens others are killed on the job, usually while covering conflict, natural disaster, or even a pandemic.
It’s a journalist’s job to find the story and tell it in a way that people want to read it. There are very few rules, the truth being foremost, followed closely by the daily deadline to get it done and move on to the next one.
Joe Belanger is an award-winning journalist who has worked at daily newspapers across the province covering police, politics, news, and entertainment for close to 40 years. He also taught journalism for three years at Canadore College in North Bay. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking and is an amateur singer-songwriter, singer, and community theatre stage actor.
He currently works as the Entertainment Reporter for the London Free Press.