Storyteller Steve Hartman gets real about writing

November 14, 2018 01:30

The concept of “On the Road with Steve Hartman,” that everyone has a story to tell – a story worth hearing – began with a toss of a dart at a map and a random flip through the local phone book.

Since the series began under Hartman, a redux of the late correspondent Charles Kuralt's much-heralded franchise decades ago, CBS News viewers have been treated each week to heartwarming stories from the everyday to the extraordinary. 

Hartman travels around the country with roughly three days to find a story, interview, write and edit each segment to air.

This fall, the quiet, unassuming and exceptionally humble storyteller took a brief detour to Excellence in Journalism 2018 to share his storytelling insights.

“There are no great writers, only great rewriters.”

One of Hartman’s first lessons was that good writing is hard. It must be honest, organic and naturally complement a piece’s visuals without getting in the way of the story. And while it’s easy to get stuck on a powerful opening line, that’s not always the most important, he said.

Taking as much time as possible with the people in a story and with the writing can reveal more natural, emotional moments.

Writing is a process of constant learning and revision, said Hartman, who also said he could not share any secrets to storytelling because he often feels like an imposter. In fact, he pointed to his own storytelling role models including Scott Pelley and Boyd Huppert as inspirations in his own ongoing learning process.

And, while rewriting is key, it’s more important to focus on the story, not the words, Hartman said as he pointed out that he once won a Murrow Award for a package that included a piece with no rewriting.
Know your video

It was a surprise for many in the packed ballroom in Baltimore to learn that Hartman logs and edits his own video. Logging allows him to find visually surprising moments that work for a piece, and enables the storyteller to write using clips on the timeline.

You wouldn’t back into a lead story, he said, but the element of surprise and reveal keeps viewers engaged in features.

Asked about the challenge of cutting great material, he said it can be very difficult, but to remember that a piece with two amazing moments often have more impact than those with four. In fact, "sometimes the best stories have very little," he said, showing a piece in which he used all the very limited material he had.
  Keep shooting simple

“There’s a difference between a great photographer and a great storyteller,” Hartman said. He got real about his TV news pet peeves: quick edits, poetic writing, walking standups and gimmicky visual tricks, reminding the audience not to show off:

"The best stories are told with the simplest visuals without a lot of tricks,” he said, "More often than not, the artsy, beautiful shot is not the best way to tell the story.”

Hartman keeps it simple by primarily using one camera, with a second camera during interviews to show engagement. He limits standups to transitions between different elements or visually limited information.

If I leave you with nothing else, Hartman said, it would be to keep it simple: “Sometimes I wish I’d been less creative earlier in my career.”
  Why features matter
Hartman gave accolades to colleagues on the investigative side, saying that investigative journalists are those he admires most. It’s important, though, to offset the first 22 minutes of a newscast.

Features stories with good news, or triumph emerging from tragedy, keep communities bonded.

Hartman said he’s drawn to features because he believes that not only does everyone have a story, but everyone, at their core, is good.

And that, particularly in today’s vitriolic political and social environment, may be Hartman’s secret after all.
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