Reflecting on my internship at The Herald, I feel lucky to have learned not only about how to be a better storyteller, but also about the greater purpose of community journalism. The story that I felt instilled many of these lessons was one of my Saturday Features, The Art of Getting By. The story is about a widow, Marge Stenftenagel, and how she is grieving her husband’s death while continuing her life as an independent, hard-working woman.
First, I learned the value of “listening with your heart,” as Herald staff photographer Sarah Ann says. That is a phrase one of her subjects (Ed Young) used to describe her heartfelt, genuine presence. I learned that just listening to the people we photograph—often for hours, perhaps about nothing “related” to the story or the original question you asked—is essential to earn their respect, get to know them as a person, and also helps contextualize the parts of their life you are photographing.
Other lessons clicked too: the importance of truly caring about the place and people you work with, the beauty of slowing down and being mentally present, ways to visualize non-visual concepts, etc. But I think the real lightbulb moment has come in the past few days, after I’ve heard both Marge’s and the community’s reaction to the published story that ran last Saturday.
Marge told me that the day the story ran, she could barely get out of church because of all the people wanting to talk with her, compliment her, and thank her for sharing her story. She has received several letters, including one from another widow she has never met. The woman’s letter said Marge’s story inspired her to get more involved in the community and to continue to find meaning in life without her husband, and that she hopes more widows follow suit. Marge also talked about how much it has meant to her personally and how much she’s cried looking at the story. It’s allowed her to reconnect with friends, receive affirmation about her artwork, and most importantly (in my opinion), empower other women in her position.
I am thankful to have experienced a newspaper that strives to tell intimate stories in the community. As my editor Dave Weatherwax said, this type of story is not hard to do, it just takes intent.
Mulling over the reactions to the story, I’ve given a lot of thought to various elements of journalism like accountability, quality of coverage, readership, story access, etc., and how these pieces come together to affect the story’s impact. In a small community, it’s not as simple as “good story, big impact.” Instead of writing this out, I’ve tried to visualize the relationships here:
This is by no means perfect, but it’s helped me as I reflect on the “greater purpose” of journalism. Each element affects the others, and it’s never about a single photographer, editor, or story. Everything newspapers do builds on its history with the community, its reputation and reader trust. When everything comes together, there’s potential for greater story impact.
I’d love to hear from other photographers about the ways they think about the “impact” of a story, on whatever platform. How has this affected your career choices as a photographer (the types of stories you focus on, or where you sought a job)?
Here is the beautifully written story on Marge, by Herald reporter Allen Laman: