This Q&A is a great one to start 2019. It speaks to the universal importance of the stories reporters write and how they write them.
We talked with Ralph Berrier, Jr., features writer and columnist for the Roanoke Times. Berrier, who is also the author of two nonfiction books, talks to us about the importance of storytelling in newsrooms, YouTube stars, playing fiddle and more.
Please introduce yourself.
I am Ralph Berrier, Jr., and I am a features reporter at the Roanoke Times. My job title is general assignment features reporter, so I end up doing a little bit of everything, from writing a parenting column called “The Dadline” to doing stories for our quarterly Discover History & Heritage magazines and a lot in between. I have been with the Roanoke Times since 1993 and have performed the newsroom trifecta of working in news, features and sports.
What’s it been like to work on the trifecta of beats across the newsroom? Are you more “at home” as a features writer than anything else?
I like telling the stories of people from Southwest Virginia. The Extra section, which is the lifestyles and entertainment section of The Roanoke Times, has always been a place for those kinds of stories. The Extra section has been the place where I could tell the stories of folks who usually don’t see their names in the newspaper – the mother of a soldier with PTSD, an old guy building his last fishing boat, a dude who is a YouTube star because he videotapes elevators … banjo players … herbal medicine makers … Pearl Harbor survivors … the ordinary people with extraordinary stories.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary stories,” is a great way to sum up a beat/mission. What about this type of story and person moves you as a writer and makes you want to uncover as many as you can?
I guess I like finding out about incredible things people do and have done, and then telling those stories to readers. Newspapers have survived for as long as they have by telling readers about stuff they did not know. Whether it’s about the government, or an investigation, or corruption or something else that reporters find out about that they then tell the broader community. Stories about real people can be like that, too.
As a features writer and author of two nonfiction books, what about a more narrative-focused style in writing do you think appeals to people and helps tell certain stories?
Newspapers are in the business of telling stories. Nothing irks me like hearing somebody talking about “content” … like we’re putting soup in cans or making packages of Cool Ranch Doritoes. “We’re content providers! Click on our website for more content! Our content contains 10 ounces of blech!” We’re not making content. We’re making stories, dammit. And we do it with words, photos, videos and other means. It doesn’t matter if you’re producing words and pictures on newsprint, on the web, for smartphones or some future technology that will beam articles right into a person’s hippocampus. If you don’t tell compelling, meaningful stories, your newspaper/website/blog/microchip-implant-in-the-skull is going to die.
People like stories. They like books and movies and Netflix series. Newspapers should tell more narrative stories, where reporters and photographers create the scenes they observe and record the dialogue between people. And there are real payoffs for investing in that kind of reporting. Years ago, online folks were all about “hits,” as in the number of people who clicked on a story. Now, it’s “engagement.” Keeping readers on the story and on your site.
A few weeks ago, we published Casey Fabris’s long story about a Franklin County tobacco-farming couple’s last crop. She worked on this story for most of 2018 and it was a massive piece with lots of photos that ran for like 3,4,5, I don’t know pages of print. The kind of thing newspapers don’t do that much of anymore. Know what happened? Casey’s story set records for the longest “engagement” among readers on roanoke.com; that is, people read that sucker to the end. And the bosses went nuts about the numbers. Newspapers can still connect with people in emotional and visceral ways.
“I like finding out about incredible things people do and have done, and then telling those stories to readers. Newspapers have survived for as long as they have by telling readers about stuff they did not know. Whether it’s about the government, or an investigation, or corruption or something else that reporters find out about that they then tell the broader community. Stories about real people can be like that, too.”
Over your years writing at the RT, what has been one of your most memorable pieces and why?
I guess some memorable stories included the previously mentioned saga of “DieselDucy,” aka Andrew Reams, a guy who shot to YouTube fame by posting videos of himself on elevators. I know it sounds bizarre, and it kind of is, but it turned out there was a lot more to Andrew’s life and story. This is one of the few features that survived a web server change at our newspaper. You can read it here.
Personally, one of my more memorable stories was about Jack Carden, who was 96-years old and building what turned out to be his last wooden fishing boat. Gene Dalton, the photographer, and I spent an entire spring and summer watching Jack labor to get his craft water-ready, as his wife of 75 years withered away with dementia. It was my first real crack at narrative storytelling. Gene and I thought we were working on a quick turnaround story about an old guy who liked to fish! Turned out to be so much more.
I spent 10 days with the Virginia Tech football team when the Hokies played for the national championship at the Sugar Bowl in 2000.
There are a lot of others. We published a six-day series about the Crooked Road, the heritage musical trail of SWVA, back in 2005 that was an early multimedia piece with videos, photos, bluegrass and old-time mountain music and a lot of other doodads and web goodies.
A story that’s not really a narrative, but contains a lot of the offbeat, country-boy nonsense that I work in, was a story I wrote about the rural cultural practice of drivers waving to one another when they meet on the roads.
“We’re not making content. We’re making stories, dammit. And we do it with words, photos, videos and other means. It doesn’t matter if you’re producing words and pictures on newsprint, on the web, for smartphones or some future technology that will beam articles right into a person’s hippocampus. If you don’t tell compelling, meaningful stories, your newspaper/website/blog/microchip-implant-in-the-skull is going to die.”
We understand that outside of newspapering you’re a musician. What do you play and how did you get started with it?
I play guitar and fiddle. I’ve always loved music, going back to my elementary school days when I often bought 45s at Marty’s Record Shop in Mount Airy, N.C. My grandfather was a musician who played bluegrass music, and he had mastered several stringed instruments, but I didn’t take up the fiddle until I was in my 30s.
You’ve spent your entire career in newspapers. What keeps you wanting to be a part of the industry?
When I put fingertips to keyboard, the feeling is still the same. Everything else has changed. The whole world has changed. I could go on about how this is worse or this is better, but it doesn’t matter. When I focus on the only thing that’s in my control, and push all the other crap aside, when I sit down, look at my notes and try to craft a sentence that will lead people to read the next sentence, and a paragraph that makes you want to read the next paragraph … all the way to the end … that feeling hasn’t changed. You have a person’s life story in your hands. Or the story of an entire community. To be trusted with that job is a blessing.