A Saturday About SaturdaySeptember 14, 2013
Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Rachel Mummey
Saturdays do not relent.
For everyone in the newsroom from which this newspaper is produced, Saturdays linger as the punctuation mark. You can’t finish a sentence without one of those.
Since 1978, the Saturday feature — the longer story each week with several photographs occupying the first few pages of the newspaper — has been our punctuation mark, an exclamation point of sorts. The ordinary written word has its value. For The Record, obituaries and high school sports take their places among the most-read subjects, and we have covered our share of contention — biomass, libraries, elections. Photographs, no matter the subject matter, lure eyes in awe.
But the Saturday feature is our signature.
It is unique. It is appreciated. It is feared. It is both a challenge and a reward. It is constant.
This is how we do it.
“I am amazed that the Saturday feature has had this long of a run,” said John Rumbach, The Herald’s co-publisher and founder of the Saturday feature. “When I was developing the idea of a longer word-picture story that could run as a cover piece every Saturday, I thought the concept would have a five-year shelf life and then we’d run out of good story ideas. But the stories kept coming. That’s because we tell stories about people and their lives. Even if the surface topic is about some political issue, we tell it through people’s lives.”
Ideas are mandatory. Likewise with planning. Monthly group meetings ensure both.
The gatherings include most everyone on the journalism side of the building — writers of both news and sports, photographers and editors. Progress is relayed. Ideas are dispensed. It’s a free-for-all with stories up for grabs and helpful information there for the taking. Often, what’s said directly involves only those assigned to write and photograph a given story, but the discussion keeps the staff connected.
When you’re working months in advance it helps to know what the guy across the room is doing.
We have our annual features, such as the recap of the 4-H fair, and quick-hit stories, like a gathering of Santa Clauses in Spencer County, that are covered, shot and published within a few days.
Usually, more time is required. We are accustomed to operating on daily deadlines, so thinking in advance requires us to veer from our customary path. Some of the stories discussed in this month’s meeting won’t be published until March.
Included among the Saturday feature files is a catalog of ongoing stories ideas. Martha Rasche, the city editor and guardian of the Saturday feature in terms of editing and planning, keeps categorized lists of events that take place at certain times each year, processes, topics and profiles of individuals and businesses.
Among those in the file now: a fire chief, a family with eight sons, an entrepreneur, a body builder, a football coach and a clown. Others are earmarked to be checked down the road. Among that file: Jay Cutler’s diabetes camp in Princeton, life in a Little League dugout, a person who participates in demolition derbies.
We aren’t sure if any of these stories will materialize. Some don’t. But we always accept suggestions.
“It often happens that someone I know will share what they’ve learned about someone — and the person giving the tip will say, ”˜You should do a Saturday feature on that’ — because they know the story is that good,” said Bill Powell, a staff writer who has written 138 Saturday features, more than anyone else.
“The rest of the time, something someone says during a conversation will make a light bulb turn on. Like (recently), someone was talking about putting something on their bucket list. I thought, ”˜Wouldn’t it be great to follow someone who was actively addressing items on their bucket list and checking them off one by one?’ It would take a little time, but that would be a great story to follow.”
The Saturday feature oftenbrings a dual sense of ownership. Many times, writers and photographers work on stories they thought of themselves.
Dancers might blame a bad routine on the choreographer. An architect can suggest a dilapidated house is the fault of poor construction. For writers and photographers, there is no parallel shelter when the story is their baby. So we immerse ourselves in the subject’s life in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable.
The story might be about the life of a professional triathlete, but we want to tag along when he drives his school bus route. We might watch you eat dinner. Fix your hair. Call your grandmother. The deeper the foundation, the better the story. It’s something we explain to potential subjects before they agree to let us be a fly on their living room wall for weeks at a time.
“I tell people up front that we want to be able to follow them around for everything, even for what seems to be the most insignificant things to them,” said Candy Neal, a reporter and author of 90 Saturday features. “Most people get that. But there is some resistance at times, in the form of people asking, ”˜Why do you need that?’ I’ve found that if you assure them that your being there will help the story, they cooperate.
“Personally, more often than not, I’m the one who feels like I’m invading people’s privacy too much and for too long. The subject doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s me. I have to psych myself up to go ahead and invade.”
Usually, both sides of the stories get comfortable.
That’s why when you’re working a piece about cornhole, a guy tells you about how a knee injury has kept him in the doctor’s office and out of work more than he’d like. Friendships don’t always develop, but there is a sense of trust and camaraderie that expands beyond the framework of the story. Folks say hello and tell us about their kids and their jobs and that you’ll never guess what happened to so-and-so.
We want to tell good stories anyway. The pressure intensifies when you connect with those whose stories you are telling.
The Saturday feature creates a sense of burden, like a major homework project you are confident you can finish but worried won’t earn an A. Usually, we take too many notes and stockpile too many details. We have to decipher what to leave in, what to leave out. For that, we rely on each other and Rasche, who has authored 108 Saturday features and edited hundreds more. She inspects with an eye for “stories that show, don’t tell — strong verbs, anecdotes, description, a capturing of the subject’s personality,” she said.
“I look for a story that ”˜matches’ what we’ve talked about at various meetings about the story. I look for a fun or compelling read all the way through; if that’s not there, the story likely needs to be shortened or otherwise revised.”
Writers, photographers and editors meet in small groups several weeks before a story’s publication to ensure the idea remains on track. Stories and captions, usually turned over for editing on the Wednesday of the week they are to be published, bounce from writer to Rasche and back. Her stamp of approval is a necessity. Praise from subjects is validating. Applause from readers is a bonus. And, in a twist unique to the Saturday feature because writers and photographers work so deeply in concert throughout the process, there is one group that hopes to impress another, and vice versa.
“Some of the most pressure I feel comes from having the photographer read the story,” said Brendan Perkins, The Herald’s sports editor. “They’re along for the same ride and seeing the same things. If they give the nod of approval, that’s always a huge relief, because I’m always worried a photographer will read a story and think, ”˜What the hell was he seeing the whole time? That’s not the same story that I saw.’”
Photos are essential to the Saturday feature. Gobs of stories are interesting enough to be told but lack the depth to support a variety of strong photographs. We need more than one or two pictures for a Saturday feature.
It’s within reason for photographers to take 1,000 photos for one story.
With prints of photos strewn over a conference table, Dave Weatherwax, the chief photographer, and Justin Rumbach, the managing editor and former chief photographer, make cuts. They, with the photographer of a given story, pare a string of pictures to a dozen or so.
“One of the important things to keep in mind is what is the theme of the story that the photographer is trying to tell and what photos accomplish that,” Weatherwax said. “When I edit, I try to select the photos that do one of two things: The photos either need to move me in some way emotionally or they have to advance the story in a way none of the other photos selected do.”
Outside of proofreading, printing and delivery, John Rumbach makes the final step. The Saturday Herald, with a design free of the constraints of usual newspaper front pages, looks far different than weekday editions. Usually, that’s a product of John’s experience and creativity. The goal of the design is to communicate the story the writer and photographer want to tell.
We are given an expandable leash to spend time and money to get what we need. We have traveled to Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan and plenty of places beyond. Sometimes, we come up empty and return time and again waiting on one key component. A story about St. Mary’s LifeFlight, for instance, required four trips to Evansville before the crew was finally dispatched to help save a life. We sometimes snap too many photos and often write too many words, but it’s a luxury we are afforded.
Our readers have stories. We are here to tell them.
“Through the Saturday feature, we can offer readers something few if any small newspapers do on a regular basis: In-depth stories about local people, topics and issues told in words and pictures. The Saturday feature is all about storytelling — stories that over time paint a picture of our community,” John Rumbach said. “I think everybody here at The Herald takes pride in it. I’m sure it will evolve because of the new tools and platforms available to journalists. But its soul, and the key to its success, will always be storytelling.”
Every week has a Saturday. We hope to keep pace.
Contact Jason Recker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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