Tom Hallman Jr. was walking the streets of Seaside talking to people about fallen Sgt. Jason Goodding while other reporters were inside the convention center listening to the governor. His story made the front page of The Oregonian.
“We can get factual information on these stinkin’ cellphones but we can’t get meaning. The only way you get meaning is through stories that unlock what is in you already … we do not give readers enough stories,” he said. “We give them news reports.”
Hallman, a senior reporter at The Oregonian, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative journalist and author of four books. He spoke about why stories matter at the Columbia Forum on Tuesday night at Baked Alaska’s Nekst Event space in Astoria.
Hallman has written stories about a goose named “Pat” in southwest Portland who keeps returning to the same spot it lost its partner, a Hells Angels funeral in California, a 6-foot-2-inch high school art student who tried out for a basketball team and girls getting prom dresses at the Oregon Convention Center.
“I write about the things that have nothing to do with news, but they work,” he said.
Hallman, a Portland native, moved back after getting fired from his job in New York. He started his career at the Hermiston Herald. While there, he applied for a job at The Daily Astorian, but was rejected.
He said working at those newspapers helped him learn how to focus his interviews because people like to talk.
Finally, he got a job as a cops reporter at The Oregonian, which he did for 10 years.
He said at the time that beat was where the “alcoholics and screw ups” went.
“I loved it because it gave me a thick skin and it taught me how to be a reporter,” he said.
By 1993, Hallman had won a national award.
“I say what I bring through story is not intellect. What I bring is heart,” he said.
Practicing his craft
Hallman doesn’t like writing. “Writing is awful,” he said, but he enjoys interviewing people.
“The greatest stories reveal something” Hallman said. “I learn about somebody’s life and I learn more about them than their spouse might, (more) than even their therapist might.”
Hallman is a listener and strives to write with voice, feeling and heart. He tries to get out of the way in his stories and let dialogue from his reporting do the work.
Hallman gave an example of a story about the Sanford & Sun Triathlon that started out with a standard newspaper lead. It could have shined, however, if the writer used a detail included at the end of the story about a father who pulls his 13-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy with him in his races, he said.
When he wrote the story about prom dresses, he realized it would be a challenge since there were over 3,000 girls there.
So, he chose to focus on the universal human emotions a prom dress brings.
“It’s just a dress. Only a few yards of fabric on a hanger. Take the finest, most expensive silk ever spun and there’s still no life and certainly no magic. What a dress always needs is a girl. A girl and a dress take a father’s breath away. … A girl and her dress stand before her mother and you realize despite all the arguments over messy rooms and dirty dishes, they share a bond that doesn’t need to be expressed with words … A girl and a dress stands before a mirror and sees her past and her future.”
“My stories are simple in the words, complex in the thought and complex in the structure,” Hallman said.
Because he gains the trust of his subjects, he lets them look over stories that aren’t news before they run.
“When you write a book you are asking someone to give you their heart that you can sell,” he said.
He recognizes the commercial nature of reporting on people’s lives. He spoke about a time when he observed a family who let a baby die that had a birth defect.
The mother told Hallman, “In my child’s 27-day life, he will live on forever because of the story you wrote.”