By Jeff Butera, Author, “Write Like You Talk”
Chris Vanderveen, an investigative reporter at KUSA-TV in Denver, has the luxury of time. He works on mostly long-form stories that don't require day-of turns. But the time he gets to produce his stories – deliberately and precisely choosing each word and sound bite – is time well-spent.
His writing entry for the 2019 Edward R. Murrow Awards, a winner in Region 2, is storytelling magic. Watch it here.
I recently asked him about the entry, as well as his approach to long-form projects.
You're an investigative reporter, most often turning longer stories without narrow day-of deadlines. How does that change the writing process for you?
I believe the most difficult stories to tell are investigative stories. Some stories I have told have taken months to get to air. They revolve around subjects I know well, sometimes too well. Try telling a story about flaws in an AS-350 helicopter fuel system or a story about liens going on the homes of patients who visited in-network hospitals but were seen by out-of-network surgeons. That’s tough. The viewer is starting from square one, yet I have immersed myself in the subject for months. I can’t tell the story as I know it now. I have to tell the story to a person who is hearing it for the first time. That’s the challenge.
Beyond that, however, the same rules of good TV apply. Characters tell better stories than reporters. A few story twists – at appropriate times – keep the viewer interested. Emotion is memorable. Facts are good, but too many facts told merely to remind the viewer that I – as a reporter – did my job can be confusing. (I call it fact vomiting).
So yes, it’s the same and totally different. But, as I also like to say, a good story is a good story is a good story. Each can be told in a myriad of ways, but the good writers know when to get involved and, most importantly, know when to get out of the way.
What do you do in the field to help you in the writing process later?
The single most important thing to do in the field is field producing. This is always a challenge in investigative in particular, because a shoot I do today might not air for weeks or months. I always try to shoot an interview or b-roll with an idea of where it will fit in the overall puzzle that is the story. Do I think I will begin here? Then make sure I get an opening shot. Do I think this is how I’ll close? Is this my main character? Did I get the right amount of emotion out of that interview? Did I ask the tough question at the right time? Those are questions I try to ask in the field.
Field producing always makes the write easier. Always. I see way too many people just gather, gather, gather in investigative. That’s good (and I fall victim to this a lot), but we all need to do a better job in the field. A good story can – and will – be ruined by a missed opportunity in the field. We’ve all seen those missed opportunities during the log. Those hurt.
How would you describe your writing style?
Chaotic. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. This many years into this, I am still trying to experiment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I overwrite. I fall in love with words and phrases that I should be more willing to purge from scripts.
I do feel like I’m getting better at this, but I would never say I’ve perfected it. There are maybe 2-3 writers in this business who have come close. I ain’t one of ‘em, but I’m trying every day to get better at this darn thing.
I would say my goal in every story is to try to reach a singular moment when a light can go off over the head of a viewer. In that moment, the viewer feels something personally. The story has connected with them in a way that makes them say things like: “Well, that’s bullsh-t, that needs to change” or “How can I help?” or “Wow” or “I never knew that.” Every successful story, IMHO, has a moment like this. A moment that resonates within the soul of the viewer. My goal is to resonate more, confuse less, and turn what is -- to me -- an interesting subject into an interesting subject for the viewer.
You succeed in having a conversational style. I feel like you're talking directly to me instead of at me. How did you learn that?
If you’re telling a story how reporters used to tell stories, you’re doing it wrong. It took me a long time to learn this. Authenticity is now valued by viewers. Don’t get me wrong, TV reporters of yesteryear were damn good at being trailblazers, but today viewers want reporters who don’t scream at or talk down to them. Write like you talk (to borrow a phrase).
I think I learned it from watching way too much TV news (always been a news nerd). I emulated what I liked, and ignored what I didn’t…
Let's talk about your Murrow-winning entry.
The story about Dave Repsher starts with a couple lines that immediately hooked me:
"Dave Repsher should be dead. Yet here he is. A living reminder of the consequences of indifference."
How did you come up with that? Was that always the way you were planning to start the story?
I struggled with that start for a long time. By the time I wrote that, I had already written at least two dozen other stories on that helicopter crash. I knew I didn’t want to start with the fire again, so I decided the best way to do it was to start on the subject itself.
Photographer Chris Hansen decided early on to take some portraits of the Repshers. And I love black-and-whites. So it just made sense.
I also needed a line that would sum up his story in a few, short sentences. That line seemed to do the trick. I’m proud of it now, but it seemed a bit too unorthodox at the time. Guess that’s a moment where improvising ends up doing some good every now and then.
For the first 1:41 of Dave's story, you say all of 17 words. Yet it's incredibly compelling. Jaw-dropping video, powerful characters, intense 911 calls. How did you decide the best thing to do would be to basically get out of the way?
The more I learn how to write, the more I learn I need to write less. The best writers understand that well. I’d like to pat myself on the back for this one, but I’d hope any writer would stay out of the way of Dave’s story. It’s one of the most compelling stories I have ever heard. Ain’t nothing I can write gonna make it better.
Your second and third stories focus on a project I know you've spent years working on (out-of-control hospital bills). It's extremely important, but could easily be difficult-to-understand and video-poor. Yet, both of your pieces are easy-to-follow and never feel like wallpaper video. How did you overcome issues with complexity and visuals?
I immersed myself in the subject. Read books on medical billing. Surrounded myself with smart people. Learned as much as I could about how it works. Called doctors. Insurance execs. Pharma reps. Had off-the-record discussions with a lot of people to get to know the subject better. That being said, I’ve also been working on medical bill stories for more than three years, and I feel like it took me the better part of those three years at getting good at it. It was a struggle. But, last year, when we learned about liens going on homes of patients who did nothing wrong, we were in a position to fully understand precisely what was going on. We knew the subject so well, that we could call out a doctor, for example, for giving us a BS answer. That’s what I love about what I do now. When I was a general assignment reporter, I’d often have no more than an hour or two to get versed in a subject. Now I might have weeks or months, and so, when a PR rep tries to spin me, I can tell them how they’re wrong. I love that. The best compliment I can get now comes from someone who – at first – assumes I don’t know what I’m talking about. When they say, “Wow, you’ve done your homework on this,” I smile every time. It’s not a luxury most reporters have, and I will never take that for granted.
As for the animation, I have really tried to experiment there as of late. On one hand, they are almost completely reliant on the words of the writer. That’s intimidating. Years ago, I struggled to write 2-3 lines without breaking it up with some sort of nat pop or quick sot. I felt like long tracks killed pacing. What I didn’t realize is that I just wasn’t confident in my own writing abilities and thus tried to polish it with loads of edits and short tracks.
Today, thankfully, I’m generally OK with my writing abilities. At least I feel confident enough to write a few lines without the need to break it up.
The visuals come from our great Tegna Design Tank. Those artists there are freaking geniuses!
What's your best writing advice for young people in our business?
Find your own voice! Don’t be the next Boyd (Huppert) or (John) Sharify. Don’t get me wrong, those guys are damn good. Crazy good. But there ain’t no way I’m gonna write like them. So I had to find my own voice.
Be OK with being different if you are different.
Active will always trump passive.
Simplify your story. Don’t try to prove your worth every day with every single line of your story. Just because you found something out, doesn’t mean it has to go in the story. If it doesn’t advance the story, it doesn’t belong in the story. Far too many young reporters feel the need to put way too much info in their stories. Consequently, their stories are a confusing mess.
Innovate. Every day.
Find small victories with every story. Maybe it’s one strong line. Or maybe it’s a powerful interview. This business can crush the souls of the most earnest of reporters. Find the small victories and cherish the big ones.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Find someone you trust and make sure they don’t just tell you how great you are. The most lasting tips I ever received were the ones that reminded me I could always do better.
Understand that writing is an art no one has perfected. Every writer is learning. It’s OK to fail. It’s not OK to fail to try (that would make a lame bumper sticker).
Don’t be afraid of seemingly complex stories, just know how you’re going to simplify them in a way that makes sense to people who are hearing them for the first time.
Know when to stop writing (which seems like a good place to end this monstrosity).
Chris Vanderveen is an investigative reporter with KUSA-TV in Denver, Colorado. He was recently honored with 2019 Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for "Feature Reporting," "News Series," "News Documentary" and "Excellence in Writing."
Jeff Butera is the evening anchor at WZVN-TV in Fort Myers, Florida. He is also the author of "Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing." You can purchase the book at www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com.