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“Why’s this so good?” No. 42: Tom Hallman and timeless forgiveness

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Years ago, the wonderful Walt Harrington came to our newsroom and fired us up.

We were at the start of a storytelling revival, trying to find our way back to craft, and Walt’s book “Intimate Journalism” had just been published.

In the book, Walt quotes Will Durant, a famous historian and philosopher: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.”

Now ask yourself: How often do journalists write about what happened on the banks?

There’s a lot of life that never finds its way onto our pages – virtual or otherwise. Which leads me to Tom Hallman’s Oregonian story about an apology.

It has resonated with readers (nearly 26,000 people have recommended it via Facebook alone), and it’s not hard to see why. Who hasn’t done or said something they regret? And how powerful are the words, “I’m sorry?”

Tom’s story – about a man who agonized over his actions as a boy and wanted to make amends – has a level of intimacy that we should strive for as journalists.

What stops us?

Perhaps we question whether this kind of story is newsworthy. Maybe we’re scared to get too personal.

But as Tom explains:

As the days passed, I thought about this strange tale. There was no news. If no one ever heard a word about James Atteberry and Larry Israelson, it wouldn’t matter. 

Or would it?

A good feature story is about something universal. When it comes to apologies, no one gets a pass in this life. Everyone deserves one, and everyone needs to give one. When I mentioned this letter to people, I found a story more universal than any that I’d written in years. Everyone told me they had someone they wished they could apologize to. And they told me that by the time they realized that truth, it was too late.

In my case, it was something that has haunted me for decades.

Three things struck me about this story, from a writer’s perspective:

First, Tom recognized there was a story. That is such the battle sometimes, seeing what is right in front of us. There was no news as we traditionally define it but definitely something compelling. I suspect Tom mentioned the letter to others because it resonated so deeply with him, and my guess is that it was almost tugging at him to not be ignored.

Second, Tom’s use of the first person. Sometimes reporters become characters in a story and have no business being there. In this case, Tom was clearly an important figure, as he became the way one man found another.

But also, his own story brought home the universal truth:

Months later, the girl left school. I never saw her again. The school I attended has been torn down. I have forgotten the names of many of my old classmates. But not hers. For years I wanted to apologize.

Third, this story reminds us that is it never too late to revisit the past, and in fact, sometimes years must go by before people can work up the courage to expose – and confront – their weakest moments. Again, Tom explains:

The beauty of an apology is that everyone wins because it reveals not only who we are, but who we hope we are. 

I’d argue that part of the reason newspapers are in trouble is that people rarely get emotional when they read our work.

I cried at the end of this story.

Maria Carrillo (@havana58) is the managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot and a two-time Pulitzer juror.

For more from our collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.





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