There are no dull assignments, only dull stories

QUESTION: What advice do you have for making tired assignments like weather stories and pet shows interesting for readers and reporters?

Answer by Tom Hawthorn

Tom HawthornThe secret is to be curious even if you don’t care much about the subject.

Every field of human endeavor has obsessives and compulsives and folks who just care too much. It’s your job as a reporter to find those people and to share their passion with your audience.

Let’s say you’re assigned a pet show. It’s a busy day and you’ve got a press conference to cover later in the afternoon, not to mention a stack of briefs that need checks by telephone.You’ve got three hours – tops – to report and write a 700-word piece on the Tri-Cities Amalgamated 3rd Annual Cat Show and Flapjack Fundraiser for The Cure.

(I know the feeling when you get handed the press release. Lord, kill me now.)

Here’s what I like to do. When I arrive, I do a quick tour of the displays, taking note of sights, sounds and smells. (A description of an aroma- pungent or sweet – will do a good job in placing your reader on the scene.) Take copious notes. Do a cat census. List the kinds of kitties on display. Is there any poetry to be found in longhairs, shorthairs, wire-hairs? (Maybe not, but take notes.) Is there a United Nations of felinedom – Abyssinians, Havanas, Russian Blues, Himalayan Persians?

Something else catch your notice? Stick it in your notebook. You might need it later.

After a quick tour, interview the organizer. Get the facts on the exhibitors, number of cats, money raised, etc. etc. You’ll slip this stuff somewhere in the copy. Then, get the officials to do some work for you. Tell them you want to meet an interesting exhibitor. Someone who is good at talking about the hobby. Remind them it doesn’t have to be a winner, or the best.

Here’s what you’re seeking: Who here cares the most? (Sometimes, you might find a good story about who cares the least, such as an unwilling spouse forced to attend, say, a Trekkers convention.) Who has the most invested in the judging, or the turnout? (If you find the Susan Lucci of cat shows, so much the better. Losers are almost always more interesting than winners.) Who does this effect the most? Get their story. How did they get into cats? What are their competitors like? You know the drill.

Finally, when it comes to the writing, keep in mind your goal, which is to share the experience you’ve just had with your audience. Take them there, make them care.

Write crisp sentences. Vary their length. Use active verbs. Be sparing in the use of quotations. (If a paraphrase can impart the same information as a direct quote, go with the paraphrase.) Have fun with the writing.

Enjoy the assignment. After all, you spent the afternoon at a cat show and got paid for it. Beats working for a living.

John Mackie is a terrific feature writer for the Vancouver Sun. He makes reading the newspaper a joy. Mackie had a recent assignment for which he was to do a interview with the marquee speaker for something called the Great Outdoor Show to be held at Tradex in suburban Abbotsford, outside of Vancouver. An advancer. By telephone. Doesn’t get much worse than that.

Mackie didn’t brush it off. A bit of background research suggested Rick Steves, the host of a popular PBS travel show, was an interesting character. Here’s how Mackie presented it to Sun readers in his story published on March 19:

“(T)here’s more to Steves than just turning tourists on to a cozy pensione run by a charming couple and their lazy dog.

The lifelong resident of Edmonds, Wash., has become a vocal advocate of legalizing marijuana. He’s also passionate about doing something about homelessness – he recently bought an apartment block near Seattle for $1.5 million and turned it into a shelter for 25 homeless mothers and their children.”

And on it went. Mackie even found a local connection, as Steves’ mother had grown up in the Vancouver area. The trade show got its due later in the piece, but Mackie had found a much more interesting story.

A staple of Steves’ television show is a visit to the local market.

Now I know why. Our tour guide gets the munchies.

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria freelance reporter whose own passion is baseball. His Globe and Mail columns can be read at his blog. He ran a workshop called Storyville at the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) annual conference in Vancouver May 22-24.