SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



Relating to people, humanistic approach important for good stories

By Billy O'Keefe

TRACY CHAN / The Working Press
Many years before winning a Pulitzer, Tom Hallman graduated near the bottom of his high school class.
Now his list of accomplishments, including winning several major features writing awards in journalism and being nominated twice for a Pulitzer, makes it hard for some to believe that he is, as he says, “just an average guy.”
In his Friday talk, “Writing in a Challenging World,” Hallman, now a features reporter for The Oregonian, emphasized to a crowded room the importance of writing stories with a deeper humanistic meaning.
“If you are human, you’re a storyteller,” Hallman said.
A good story looks beyond the facts to the meaning behind them, Hallman said. In his experience, stories come from the ground up, and it’s important for journalists to recognize human interest stories when they see them.
One such story for Hallman was a narrative he wrote about a woman who had been cleaning houses for 50 years. When he asked her why she stuck with the job so long, she told him she had raised five children as a single mom, and rather than move back to her hometown where she could get by more comfortably, she chose to clean houses to give her children a chance to go to better schools. It paid off; her children became professional business people because of her sacrifice.
Hallman won a national award for the story, and later the woman told him she never realized her life was a story. It gave her meaning and fulfillment, she told him.
As people read stories, they discover things about their own lives, Hallman said.
“You’ve got to look for ways to humanize whatever field you’re covering,” he said.
Hallman advertised his talk Friday as a “freestyle conversation” and took several questions from the crowd. He encouraged journalists to always try to relate to the people.
Journalists have the unique gift of glimpsing inside other peoples’ lives, he said.
“You take your own heart into these various worlds. … And then you ask your subject questions that reveal the universal truth that binds all of us, and then you put it in a way that makes someone else remember and feel,” Hallman said.




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