Why Storytelling Matters

T. Anthony Pollner Lecture, October 19, 2015.

Thank you, everyone, for that warm reception.

It’s an honor to be here in more ways that most of you will ever understand.

I’m hopeful, though, that Alice will understand. And I’m hopeful, across the ocean, that Ben will understand. If I can do one thing right tonight, it’s helping the Pollners and Thorpes and all people who loved Anthony deeply understand how much it means to me to be here tonight, on this stage, 15 years after I left this university a outwardly cocky, internally scared kid.

My presence on this stage is proof that Anthony’s story, the story of his curiosity, his energy, his passion and his heart, didn’t end when he lost his life 2001. Every Pollner professor who came before me is a testament to that, and every Pollner professor who comes after me will be a testament to it as well. But I carry a unique burden. It’s also a gift.

I knew Anthony when he was young and brilliant and ready to conquer the world. I drank with him and laughed with him and made way too many double bogeys with him. Some of his stories became my stories, and just by telling them again and again, he gets to stay alive forever. That’s the magic of storytelling. It’s a time machine that can heal the world.

Give me a chance to put you in someone’s shoes, to share their pain, to hear their laughter, to watch them fall in love or have them scare the daylights out of you, and you will remember that story forever.

You will miss your stop on the train because you can’t bear to get out of your seat until you find out how the story ends. You’ll stay up way too late on a weeknight, a bedside lamp your only companion, your heart pounding and your eyes racing across the page. You won’t care if you’re late for work or if you have to skip breakfast or bypass a shower because you’re too sleepy to pull yourself together before your third cup of coffee. It will be worth it. Maybe it only happens once or twice a year, or once or twice in your entire lifetime. But when it does, you’ll chase that feeling forever.

And what you learn, if you do this for a living, that it doesn’t matter the format you tell in, as long as it’s true and you tell it well.

Here is a story that makes me laugh every time I tell it. But it’s important.

Once upon a time, at the genesis of my journalism career, the Montana Kaimin, our student newspaper, had an important budget and enrollment story we’d been working on. We had a scoop we were closely guarding from the Missoulian, and — even though the Missoulian looked at us like a sassy mosquito nibbling on the ankle of real journalism — we wanted to nail it. Time was running out. George Dennison, the University of Montana President was, we were told by various PR people, traveling and not available for comment.

Lesser journalists would have shrugged, run the story, and been satisfied that we’d done our best. After all, we were just kids. No one was expecting much from us. But Anthony Pollner thought that was ridiculous. He strutted into the office of the President, unleashed a stream of charm that was equal parts playful flirtation and New York assertiveness, and he talked Dennison’s secretary into giving up not only the name of the hotel where Dennison was staying in Japan, but also his room number. He walked back into the Kaimin that day with the info in hand, grinning like a conquering hero. Then he snatched up a phone, dialed the various international codes that no one else had a clue how to use, and woke Dennison from his slumber. He got the information he needed, and probably a lot more considering President Dennison was half asleep and probably a bit in awe of Anthony’s ambition.

The lesson here was two-fold:

Number one: Even on the other side of the world, UM presidents, you cannot escape the dogged determination of the Montana Kaimin.

Number two: In pursuit of an important story, you cannot let fear — or the shackles of social graces — be an anchor to your ambitions. There are no good stories to be told in life’s safe harbors.

I don’t think I understood truly this until I packed everything I owned in a green Mazda 626 and set sail for the city of Baltimore, shortly after graduation. The Baltimore Sun, clearly sensing I needed additional seasoning as a reporter, threw me on the crime beat, eager to see if I would sink or swim. For months, I barely kept my head above water, nervously knocking on doors, asking to speak to the relatives of murder victims and car crash victims.

It was difficult work, but I convinced myself I was doing something noble, something more valuable than voyeurism. If I didn’t explain who these people were, who would? They would be reduced to a line, maybe a paragraph, in the paper. They would be forgotten.

But one day, a police source informed me that a 16-year-old high school girl, a bookworm named Robyn, had committed suicide by walking off the top floor of a 10-story parking garage in downtown Baltimore. She left no suicide note, but the police heard from friends she’d been getting teased and bullied at school.

I wanted to write a brief and forget about it, but my editor told me I needed to call her family. “Maybe they’ll want to talk,” she said. “Take some time to think about it and make the call.”

I took all day. I felt like throwing up. For whatever reason, this was different than anything I’d done before. This felt wrong, like an invasion of privacy, like an affront to decency. I thought about lying to my editor. “Hey I tried,” I’d tell her, “but the family didn’t want talk, so I guess that’s that.”

But I also thought about Anthony, how fearless he was in his brief time as a reporter. He was off in London, working as a derivatives trader, and we hadn’t talked in awhile. But I remembered the way he wasn’t afraid of anything, how he infected the entire Kaimin with that spirit, and I picked up the phone, took a deep breath, and dialed Robyn’s mother, Jackie.

It’s the most terrified I’ve ever been on the phone.

“I’m really glad you called,” she said. “I would love to talk. I’m heartbroken right now, but I’m not ashamed. My daughter was depressed, and we did everything we could to help her. I want people to know that she died of depression the way people die of cancer. Sometimes, you do all that you can, and people still can’t be saved.”

I went to her house. Jackie asked me to read some of Robyn’s poetry. We watched home movies of her, looked through photo albums of her childhood. I listened more than I asked questions. We talked about bullies, about the cruelty of high school, and how complicated it is to be a teenager. We both cried. I drove back to my apartment, stared at the ceiling fan, and thought about the burden of writing a story that could even began to capture what it felt like to be a 16-year-old girl and feel tormented by rich kids who found you uncool. I started with her poetry. I poured my heart into the story. I owed that to Robyn.

When it ran, I went back to see Jackie. I didn’t know how she’d feel. I’d never written about something so intimate, and I felt, again, like I might vomit. But when I knocked on the door, Jackie hugged me and said something I’ve never forgotten:

I feel like I don’t have to explain myself to people anymore. I can just show them your story and say “See? This is who Robyn was, this is what happened to her. She was sick, and we tried to save her, but we couldn’t. She was a beautiful person.”

****

Why do we tell stories?

I’m sure you’ve heard plenty in recent years about the steady decline of traditional media in this country. No one reads the newspaper anymore! No one reads magazines! Look at how many places are laying off writers and editors! The only people who read print media anymore are at least 50 years old. We’re all doomed!

It’s a cynical narrative, and I hope you’ll reject it when you leave this theatre tonight.

We’re not doomed, we’re in transition. And that’s different.

The model for how to pay for great reporting and great storytelling has changed, sure, but not the appetite for it. Cynics have tried to attribute old media’s snowballing decline to our shortened attention spans, but that overlooks some fascinating realities: More people, around 66 million per month, read the New York Times than at any point in history. The same is true of the Washington Post. Heck, more people read the Missoulian than have ever read it before. They’re just doing it on iPads, iPhones and laptops. ESPN just ordered another round of 30-for-30 documentaries, investing millions into reporting, writing and editing, and their popularity continues to soar. There are more than 60 in existence, and they’ve become the go-to programing every time a game ends early and we need to fill 30 minutes, or there is a rain delay and we need to fill two hours, because people love the storytelling in them.

Sure, we are busier than ever before, we’re on the move constantly in our daily lives, distracted by tweets and texts and cat videos. But we’re hungrier than ever for stories that grab onto our heart and refuse to let go.

****

The story that I wrote about Robyn — a story that was as much a story about the complexities of depression and the complications of teenage social circles as it was about her suicide — ran on the front page of the metro section of the Baltimore Sun in the fall of 2000.

I worked on it for several weeks, pecking away at the keyboard on my desk late into the night, and frequently I did it while sitting across from another young reporter at the Sun. Her name? Sarah Koenig.

Sarah is smart, funny, witty and dogged in the way she approaches both journalism and life. I learned a lot just by watching her, listening to her tell stories about the way she approached her own brand of narrative storytelling. She was the court reporter. I had the cops beat. We were kids, learning how to do this one story at a time.

After a few successful years at the Sun, she left the paper to join This American Life, and after sharpening her storytelling skills there, she started a little podcast you might have heard of called Serial.

What made Serial a phenomenon, and what made it the most popular podcast in history with nearly 100 million downloads, is no different than what makes a great newspaper narrative or magazine story work.

Right away in Serial, we understand what’s at stake. There is tension in the storytelling. We understand we’re on a journey. We can see, early on, who the important characters are. We can close our eyes and imagine what they look like, picture them moving throughout the world, and we are on the edge of our seat wondering what they’re going to do or say next.

Serial didn’t become a massive success merely because it was a suspenseful and artfully produced “Who Done it?

It succeeded because it was also a deep dive in the complexities of the justice system, an important discussion about the consistency and accuracy of memory. It took an otherwise forgotten murder investigation and used it as a vessel to ask important questions about power, about justice, and about belief. And even though it took hours and hours to consume, nothing in media was more popular.

Why do we tell stories? To satisfy our curiosity? To entertain? To make money? Each of those statements is probably correct.

But here is a truth that I hold self-evident: It’s human nature to want to explain the universe, and to do that right, you need to see the world through other people’s eyes.

There is a photographer in New York City named Brandon Stanton. When he was 26 years old, he had an idea: What if I walked around New York every day, the most diverse city on earth, and took people’s picture? I’ll interview them, ask a few open-ended questions about their lives, and post the pictures and answers on my blog, and on Instagram.

Their portraits, and the photo captions that go with each, are proof that each of has a story, and that story — while unique to us — helps reveal our shared connections, our common humanity.

Stanton called it Humans of New York, and five years later, his blog has almost 16 million followers. The President of the United States has admitted he’s a fan, and even sat with Stanton in the Oval Office this year and gave the photographer an interview. Stanton, who has no formal journalism training, asked President Obama a simple but illuminating question: When is the time in your life when you felt most broken?

Now, at first, you might not think of Humans of New York as storytelling, certainly not on par with what Serial did, or what Pulitzer prize-winning reporters like Eli Saslow of the Washington Post — a Pollner Professor in 2011 — do regularly. Humans of New York doesn’t uncover injustice, it doesn’t explain policy. But it can put a face on immigration, on welfare, or gay marriage.

Great stories don’t have to be long, but they do have to make you feel something in your gut. Something you cannot let go of right away.

****

After I graduated from the police beat at the Sun, I started covering high school sports. It didn’t seem like the fertile ground for magical storytelling. You had to keep your own stats, track down scores from blowouts no one wanted to call into the desk, deal with furious parents, and interview kids who were often too nervous and awkward to talk to their peers, much less give insights to a reporter.

But one year, a star basketball player named Rayna DuBose — a person I’d covered some during her high school career, but barely knew before she got a scholarship to Virginia Tech to play hoops for the Hokies — contracted bacterial meningitis and nearly died.

She was a beautiful basketball player, quick to the hole with either hand and she possessed a mid-range game like Carmelo Anthony. She had been a ballerina as a kid, and some of that graceful elegance lingered in her game.

Her entire life, she’d seen herself as an athlete, and when doctors decided, because of the meningitis, they had to amputate both her hands and both her feet, all of that changed.

Imagine being 19, and you get sick one day, and a doctor tells you they’re going to take away what’s made you, in almost everyone’s eyes, you. How do you even begin to put the pieces back together?

I wrote her a letter. I didn’t want to be pushy, and I didn’t want her to think I was one of the reporters so desperate to get the scoop on her story, when she first got sick, they tried to sneak into the hospital, past security. Instead I told her, and her family, if they ever felt like the time was right, I would tell their story with dignity and respect. I would listen and observe, and we’d tell it together.

I was no one special. I was a high school sports writer who had never written anything longer than 1500 words. I didn’t think I’d ever hear back from them.

Then one day, Rayna’s father called me, out of the blue. Come to her birthday party, he said. She just got out of the hospital, and we’re having a birthday party for her. I think you’re the right person to meet our family, and understand what we’ve been though. I showed up at the party and her parents introduced me. She was in a wheelchair still, and could barely speak from the scar tissue in her throat from being intubated for so long. In a whisper, she thanked me for coming.

A week later, her dad, Willie, told me about the night the doctors broke the news they’d have to amputate both her hands and feet. Her right arm was particularly damaged by the lack of blood flow, and the best way for it to heal so she could one day be fitted for a prosthetic limb was to make an incision in the skin on her stomach and tuck the stump of her arm inside her body and sew it shut. For a month.

She’d have to be very still, but it the healing process, doctors said, would improve tremendously. The body could do things medicine could not. That night Willie went back to his hotel room and wrapped arm in a towel and tried to lie still for an hour, imagining what it would be like for his little girl. After 10 minutes, he felt like he was losing his mind.

I followed Rayna, off and on, for more than a year. I went to rehab with her, to therapy, to church, and to the gym. I was there when she got her first set of prosthetic limbs, and there when picked up a basketball for the first time after surgery. She was determined to go back to school, to show the world that she was more than just an athlete, and I asked her if I could shadow her on the journey. For some reason, she agreed. She wasn’t bitter, she told me one night. She just wanted her life back.

The story I wrote ended with Rayna walking into her public speaking class on the first day of school. She let me tag along. We were running a few minutes late, mostly because it’s hard to walk across campus on prosthetic limbs when you’re still adjusting to them.

Every student in that class turned to look at her when we came through the door. They didn’t know her story in that moment, but it wasn’t long before she shared it with them.

It wasn’t long before I shared her story with the world, and when it ran, she cried and said thank you. Willie hugged me in the front hallway of his house. Rayna gave copies of the story to her friends and said: “There is so much in here I didn’t know. Thank you for writing what happened to me.”

Rayna is a motivational speaker now. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007 with a degree in consumer studies, but that public speaking class she walked into on the first day of school turned into a calling. She’s telling her own story to people now, and needs no assistance doing it, but when she tells it, I imagine some of the details she shares about what happened to her while she was in a coma, fighting for her life, came from interviews I did with her family, her coach, with her teammates and people who loved her.

It was exhausting to report and write that piece over the course of a year, but in the end, it helped Rayna understand pieces of her journey.

To quote the great Roger Angell, that’s small price to pay for such a gift.

*****

I’ve been lucky enough to tell a lot of stories over the course of my career, and they shaped me in ways didn’t understand at the time, but cherish looking back on.

Once, I spent three months in West Baltimore for a story about a high school football team, my own enthusiastic attempt to write a serial, one I envisioned as a cross between Season 4 of The Wire and Season 5 of Friday Night Lights.

It was a cute premise, but when I started reporting, I came home every night trying to process what I’d seen each day, and the reality was way better (or worse) than any television show: Defensive lineman living in houses without electricity; running backs crying on the back of the bus because one of their cousins had been killed in a shooting that morning; teachers standing up to drug dealers who wanted to recruit the team’s best linebacker to be an enforcer in their gang.

Every night after practice, the coach and I would have long conversations about race and poverty and the futility of trying to save every last kid from the unfair fate of his unlucky geography, but trying anyway.

I wrote that story not just as a journalist trying to explain how sports can still make a difference in the inner city, but as a citizen of Baltimore. I gave up a little bit of the Montana in me to write that piece. I replaced it with a little bit of Baltimore, a trade I’ll be forever proud of, because at some point I realized: This is my city and these are my people, even though I’m white and they’re black and I’m middle class and they’re not.

If people wanted to talk about how terrible schools were in Baltimore — and believe me, the mayor and the governor argued about it almost every day — I wanted people to understand there were coaches and teachers and administrators on the front lines of my city fighting like hell to save the kids in those schools. Those kids were not statistics in someone’s budget, or abstract talking points on the campaign trail. They were teenagers who deserved a chance, just like the governor’s kids, to dream on something bigger.

Despite being surrounded by so much despair, there were still rays of optimism shining out in West Baltimore. Though the problems in the city are systemic and tragic, hope was a real thing to these football players. Hope was how they dealt with the daily anxiety of getting shot, or flunking out, or with the temptation of shooting back at someone.

Each afternoon, the team’s football coach, Dante Jones, a Baltimore kid who grew up in poverty but escaped to college on a football scholarship, would make his students grind through two hours of homework before football practice began. I sat in those study halls for a week, watching the kids write essays about Beowulf and struggle with algebra proofs. If they missed study hall, they could not play in that week’s game, and Coach Jones made no exceptions. He theorized it was the only way he could keep them on track to graduate.

At the end of the year, all 18 seniors on his team earned athletic scholarships to attend college. They also won a state championship.

If I hadn’t been there to tell that story, which ran over five days and was 25,000 words long, who would have? Maybe no one. Because those kids, in the eyes of many, were just statistics and pawns in another round of endless political bickering. “I realized, reading your story, those kids in West Baltimore are no different than my own,” my sports editor told me, during our final edits. “I guess I’m a little ashamed I didn’t get that prior to you writing this.”

When I tell you that storytelling can repair the world one small piece at a time, I’m not just speaking in lofty rhetoric. I’m speaking from experience.

****

Years later, as an ESPN employee, I walked those same streets a week after a 25-year-old Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died in the back of a police van under mysterious and dubious circumstances. My city was angry, parts of it were on fire, and that anger was like a pot of water about to boil over. Before an editor had even asked, I was grabbing a notebook, looking for a story, hoping I might be able to explain to the country, to put it in context, what was going on. This wasn’t Season 6 of The Wire, a snarky joke floating around Twitter. This was our city in pain.

I was prepared to write a sweeping opus, to stay up all night reporting and writing, and to describe what the riots of urban Baltimore looked and felt and smelled like in exhaustive detail. But on my way downtown, an editor at ESPN called my cell and asked to bounce something off me:

“I’m wondering,” he said, “if a big sweeping narrative isn’t the right way to tell this story. I know you could write a great piece if I gave you time to do it, but what if you just took your phone out, used your eyes and your brain, and gave readers little snapshots of what’s unfolding. What if, instead of trying to tell one big story, you told 10 tiny stories? We’ll have it up on ESPN.com within minutes.”

The 25-year-old version of me would have been insulted. I would have worked myself into a rage, called and texted my friends, moaning that it was one more nail in the coffin of real journalism. But the 37-year-old version of me understood what my editor was really saying.

Let’s try something different.

Let’s be smart, and artful, and empathetic, but also, let’s be in the moment.

We can be afraid of new platforms, or we use them in ways that still let us do what we do best: Tell stories.

I’m not much of a photographer, but I’ve learned a few pointers from my wife, a professional photographer who can wield an iPhone better than most people can wield an SLR. I found an NBA player, Will Barton of the Nuggets, who grew up in Baltimore, and we walked the streets where he grew up. He talked to people, tried to encourage nonviolent protests, and I wrote little captions for each picture, putting together a slide show in real time that described his day. Within minutes, ESPN.com had them up on their front page, and it gave people interested in what was unfolding in Baltimore something more than just the endlessly looped videos of burning cars that CNN and Fox News could not stop showing. It wasn’t the definitive coverage of the riots, but no one said it had to be. It was merely little short stories told by someone on the ground that helped illuminate, helped give us context.

My editor has a saying now: Let’s Baltimore that thing. Yes, we’ll put together the definitive piece on this in the weeks and months to come, but this is important NOW. Go forth and Baltimore it. Because that too is storytelling.

****

There is an episode of Late Night with David Letterman that I think about often, and the significance of it is personal, but in a round about way, so bear with me.

When I was a kid, growing up here in Missoula, my father would rig up the television in our backyard on warm summer nights so that we could watch baseball under the stars. When you’re a 13 year old boy and you love sports and you love your dad and you’re uncertain about almost everything else in life, this is nirvana.

When baseball was over, we’d watch Letterman until it was finally time for me to go to sleep, and looking back on it, I realize now my sense of humor, and my understanding of the world beyond these wonderful mountains, was shaped by those nights as much as anything. Letterman was smart, hilarious, irreverent, and he was wise. There was a gravitas to him, as much as a guy wearing sneakers with a suit could have gravitas.

The magic of those evenings didn’t become truly apparent, however, until a few weeks after 9/11, when Letterman went on the air and, while choking back tears, told a story about Choteau, Montana.

Many of you in this room are probably familiar with this part of his monologue that night, but I want to quote it in full, because while it might not be journalism in the strictest sense, it adheres to some of the same principles: He sets a scene, we can picture the characters, he offers the right details, he sets the stakes, and he doesn’t give away the ending until he has to. That’s storytelling in a nutshell.

I’ll tell ya about a thing that happened last night.

There is a town in Montana by the name of Choteau. It’s about 100 miles south of the Canadian border, and I know a little something about this town. It’s 1600 people. 1600 people. And it’s an ag-business community which means farming and ranching. And Montana’s been in the middle of a draught for, oh, I don’t know, three years. And if you got no rain, you can’t grow anything. And if you can’t grow anything, you can’t farm. And if you can’t grow anything, you can’t ranch because the cattle don’t have anything to eat. And that’s the way life is in this small town, 1600 people.

Last night at the high school auditorium in Choteau, Montana, they had a rally — home of the Bulldogs by the way — they had a rally for New York City. And not just a rally for New York City, but a rally to raise money for New York City, and if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about spirit of the United States, then I can’t help you. I’m sorry.

Now, I can’t say this was true at the time, Alice, but watching this clip recently on the anniversary of 9/11, the person I thought about was Anthony.

I wish I could have talked to him about it, even though it took place six months after he died, because in a way, it’s the kind of story that bridges the divide between people like the two of us.

I know Letterman is a Midwesterner by birth, but in my narrow 13-year-old view of the world, he was a New Yorker. He embodied the ethos of the place, just like Anthony did.

The reality is, Letterman is also a Montana man. He wasn’t telling a story about some far away place he’d read about in a magazine, he was talking about his adopted hometown.

I know a little something about this place, he said. Home of the Bulldogs, by the way.

Anthony was a Montana man too, in that sense. This place nurtured his passion, so much so, it became a part of him. The kindness and love those people in Choteau displayed the week after 9/11, that’s the same kindness and love that brings us together each year in Anthony’s memory. We tell stories because we’re part of the same tribe. And that bond is as strong as anything on earth.

If Anthony was a Montana man, then I’m a New Yorker, in a way. We all are, as long as we care about one another enough. I didn’t understand that properly until Letterman told that story, but I get it now. Stories matter.

A few times on campus this fall, I’ve seen someone from halfway across the oval I think I recognize. It’s usually some version of a skinny kid on a designer bike with a haircut that’s feels familiar, and when it happens, my chest tightens up for a brief second:

Is that Anthony? My god, it sure looks like him.

I want to jog over and grab him, right at the spot where we used to play touch football, and laugh about the time he lateralled the ball to me behind his back to me while he was falling out of bounds so I could score a touchdown. He skinned up his knee and shredded his jeans that day, but he popped right up, grinning his ass off as he watched me prance toward the end zone.

I want to remind him about the time he told me in senior seminar that we ought to invest in Google and stop using Netscape and America Online, because Google, at the time just a tiny company, was by far the best search engine.

I want to reminisce about how we used to stand on the back steps of the old journalism building, and try to hit a tennis balls on top of the Chem/Pharm building, and how we’d scatter like confetti thrown into a fan when the campus cops pulled up after we’d rattled one too many windows.

I can’t do that, though. He’s gone, and few things in my life have ever seemed less fair.

But by telling you those stories, I keep a small piece of him alive forever.

Thank you.


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