Journalists get into this business for all kinds of reasons.
Some are in it to slay dragons – to shine a light on bad things happening in our community so civic-minded people can figure out how to fix them. Some want to share their passion with readers – for sports or food, for the environment or history. Others simply want to tell stories about interesting people.
Oftentimes, a good human interest story accomplishes a number of these goals. They are among the most important work of a good local newspaper, and the TNT had a number of them last week. The people in them weren’t featured by local broadcast news – except for the cupcake maker whose story appeared on NBC after we ran it. You wouldn’t have met these people if we hadn’t introduced them.
Reporter Rob Carson’s sweet story Monday about 17-year-old Allenmykael Harlin-Gonzalez was a welcome relief after a week of emotionally draining coverage of the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell.
Harlin-Gonzalez spent much of his childhood in local hospitals because of his rare blood disease, but he also made friends over the years with Tacoma General staffers who helped him suit up in scrubs and learn how to operate a surgical robot. The only hard news in the story might have been that the hospital is one of three teaching centers for robotic-assisted surgery on the West Coast. Mostly it was an inspirational story about nice people doing a good deed for a courageous kid who wants to be a doctor.
Thursday’s front page featured a portrait of Sara Vogel and her fiancé, Paul Seaman. The couple were forced out of Lakewood’s Rainier Inn after the city shut down the motel. Certainly not a good-news story, this was more a told-through-the-eyes-of-people-most-affected story.
Reporter Christian Hill could have stuck to just the facts about how Lakewood is clamping down on motels that violate laws limiting occupants to 30-day stays. Instead, he also introduced us to Vogel, Seaman and others for whom the Rainier Inn was a last resort, an alternative to homelessness. Doing so put a face on the news and helped us to understand its impact.
Stories on our SoundLife cover this week have been about local people, too – people doing things that are extraordinary or just plain interesting. On Wednesday, reporter Craig Sailor took us behind the scenes of the reality TV show “Cupcake Wars” with the Parkland shop owner who recently participated in the show. And today reporter Craig Hill helps us understand the motivation of people who hike and climb on Mount Rainier in the wintertime.
There was no news in either story, but they provided entertainment, along with some insight into human nature.
On Friday’s front page, we ran still another type of human interest story – the people-like-me story. The story was prompted by a new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum about the Great Depression, but we also allowed eight local people who lived through the Depression to tell their stories in their own words. Their stories sound hauntingly like those many of us recall hearing from older family members and were poignant for a current generation experiencing similarly hard times.
The ultimate people story may be the obituary. Obits are among the best-read stories in the paper. Readers search them for the names of people they know, but the photographs and stories of those we’ve lost are compelling on their own.
Twice last week, we wrote full-story obituaries about people in our community.
On Saturday, reporter Sara Schilling wrote about George Ota, a Japanese American forced into an internment camp during World War II, who returned to east Pierce County to become a prominent vegetable farmer. And on Wednesday, reporter Eric Williams wrote about the death of Bill Milus, beloved former football coach at Lincoln High who coached the likes of Lawyer Milloy and Jon Kitna.
On Wednesday morning, TNT publisher Dave Zeeck stopped for coffee at a shop managed by Milus’ stepdaughter. She had clipped our story and showed it to Zeeck, holding it up with tears in her eyes.
Zeeck sent a note to Williams telling him of the encounter and reinforcing the importance of stories about local people.
“They are already important to their family and friends,” Zeeck wrote, “but somehow, when it appears in the paper, it is sort of a validation that the entire community thinks they are important. And recognizes their contributions.”
If you have an interesting people story we should know about, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave it on the news tips phone line: 253-597-8688.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434