What You’ll Learn

Camilla Mortensen, a University of Oregon journalism instructor and editor of Eugene Weekly, defines “solution journalism” and shares storytelling tips for utility communicators from the world of journalism and folklore.

Register for the Workshop

Camilla Mortensen

Editor, Eugene Weekly

Speaker, StoryConnect Communications Workshop

Guest Speaker

Camilla Mortensen

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What are some storytelling secrets you can use to make yourself a better writer? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with Pioneer and WordSouth, your host. And I’m joined on this episode by Camilla Mortensen, who is a writing instructor at the upcoming StoryConnect Communications Workshop, as well as the editor of Eugene Weekly and an instructor for journalism at the University of Oregon and at Lane Community College. So, Camilla, you are busy. Thanks for joining me.

Camilla Mortensen: I’m happy to.

Andy Johns: So the reason why we’re bringing Camilla on for this episode is, is a little bit of a preview. Like I said earlier, the StoryConnect Communications Workshop will be in Newport, Oregon, September 25th – 28th. You may have listened to the podcast we did with the photo instructor, Billy Weeks, a week or two back. And in this episode we wanted to talk about the text and the storytelling side of things when it comes to writing instead of photography. So Camilla, if you can kind of briefly sum up what do you have planned to talk about when we get out, when we all get out to Newport for the conference and workshop next month?

Camilla Mortensen: Well, specifically, one of the things that I want to get into is a type of journalism called solutions journalism. Some folks are really familiar with it. Some folks, it’s really new. When people hear the idea of solutions journalism, they immediately start to wonder, is this biased? Is this PR? And it’s not. It’s straight up journalism. But especially these days, when the news has been pretty depressing, readers will complain about the news being sort of nonstop dark. And solutions journalism is a type of journalism that looks at the problem a community is facing, and then poses a solution that is based on somewhere else that has or is in the process of solving that problem. So you’re not solving the problem as a writer, but you’re going out and you’re finding areas that have, for example, addressed the problem. So homelessness has been a big one, where you can look at a particular city, for example, Houston has been making the news lately that has addressed aspects of homelessness successfully, and then write about it for your own community and show how possibly these same steps can be taken. And you don’t just write about the solution like, Oh my God, Superman, someone has swept in and solved the problem. It’s never that easy.

Andy Johns: Sure, if only.

Camilla Mortensen: Right. You write about sort of the steps that people had to go through, how they did it, who did it, and then also the limitations of it. There’s really no solution that is like a magic wand that goes in. So there’s always some sort of limitation whether something works better in an urban center than it does in a rural community or access to funding, that type of thing. But it’s really just a great way to bring the audiences a little bit of hope in a world that sometimes seems a little bleak.

Andy Johns: Definitely. And there’s certainly been a lot of bleak things the last couple of years for sure. So what this podcast obviously being called StoryConnect, we talk a lot about storytelling, and I’m assuming just like any other kinds of journalism, storytelling plays a direct role into solutions journalism as well.

Camilla Mortensen: Definitely. You want to have the scenes, you want to have the characters, and you don’t just want to be like, here’s a solution. It’s here is someone who could benefit from the solution. So very often you will start off scene setting with either someone who needs the solution, someone, for example, who is troubled by homelessness or someone who has the solution has worked for and sort of get a personal view on these human beings as characters.

Andy Johns: So this, I’ll admit, when we started talking for this episode, I have a journalism degree, but this was a new term for me. Not one that I was familiar with. Is this a new thing, an emerging trend, of something that’s been around for a long time? Where does this come from?

Camilla Mortensen: Yeah, I would say an emerging trend of something that’s been around for a long time. You can sort of go back to the nineties. You can also find a lot of journalists who were doing solutions journalism, just never gave it a name. When I first started hearing about it, I was like, I’ve done that. I went to Salt Lake City and looked at how they were solving, attempting to solve homelessness and brought it back. Which tells you sort of how natural it is for a lot of journalists to do that type of thing. There is a group called Solutions Journalism Network, and they’ve done a lot of work to sort of do outreach to journalists and sort of help train them in doing it. Because, again, you don’t want a story that is an unrealistic sort of superhero type story. You really want actual boots on the ground journalism that is getting the story, getting the quotes, looking at all aspects of it, looking at what can be done and what can’t be done.

Andy Johns: Got it. So a chunk of the workshop will focus on that and another portion as well will be on some writing tips, writing lessons, tips to help someone be a better writer. Do you think there are ways that solutions journalism or other things you found along the way that have made you a better writer and any of those you’d like to share?

Camilla Mortensen: Definitely. One of the big things I tell my students, because I do teach at a community college and I get a lot of students who don’t have any writing background. And even the journalism school, you get a lot of students who sort of fell into journalism and they’re like, here I am; now how do I write?

Andy Johns: Sure.

Camilla Mortensen: I actually fell into journalism. My master’s degree is in folklore and mythology, and my PhD is in comparative literature, but I focused mainly on folklore and mythology. So I really came into it through storytelling, which is something that I really like. And so for me especially, feature writing really gives the chance to sort of embrace the idea of storytelling. And I will say that never start a story with a generalization like, “humans are storytelling creatures.” However, humans are storytelling creatures. That is that’s actually a fact. It’s just a very bad way to start things with since the beginning of time. But we are storytelling creatures, and we recognize a good story when we hear one. We all have that one friend who starts to tell a story and you’re like, Oh no, not this person, because they will drone on, and there won’t be a point. Or you don’t get the ending. That’s bad storytelling. Good storytelling, you have kind of an innate idea or sort of or a learned idea over time of what makes a good story, which is you have your introduction, you start understanding what the story is about. You sort of have a rise in tension. It’s Freytag’s Pyramid is the official name for this structure. You have a climax, things start to wrap up, and then the threads get pulled all together.

Camilla Mortensen: The difference in journalism is we give away the ending at the beginning. Good journalism doesn’t expect the reader to read all the way to the end. There’s a million reasons that a reader can’t do that, or sometimes won’t do that, but that’s actually not unheard of. If you’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare actually gives away the ending, the very opening of Romeo and Juliet. Basically, he’s like, “this is the star crossed lovers. Everybody dies.” And it’s still an amazing play, even though, you know, they’ve told you what’s going to happen. So in journalism, you start off, you tell, you say where things are going to go, but you still give your reader a sense of a story arc. That the story is going somewhere, that you’re taking them with you. So I’ll tell my writers, give the ending away. Yes. You need to tell in your nut graph or in your lead what’s going to happen. But save some presents to drop along the way, so as the reader goes, they’re sort of rewarded for continuing. Know that not all readers have the time or the patience to sit down with something long. You kind of have to reward them. Be like, Come with me, come along for this ride. It’s going to be interesting, I promise. And that’s kind of what the nut graph does. It’s like, Hey, here’s why we’re here. This is going to be interesting. So that’s kind of the first of the things that I like to think about when writing sort of a feature type story.

Andy Johns: I think there’s so much to unpack there, a lot of really interesting things. And I’m glad you brought up your background and your studies, because at first, folks may not draw a direct connection between folklore and mythology and journalism. You know, the folks listening to this are primarily utility communicators. So folks writing for their electric co-op magazine or their telephone co-op magazine, marketing their broadband services, something like that. But what are some things that you have seen? And I think you touched on some of them there, but let’s unpack it a little further, what are some things just when it comes down to good storytelling, that’s the same whether you’re talking about ancient mythology, or whether you’re talking about an article that lands in somebody’s mailbox today?

Camilla Mortensen: That’s a great a great question. Clarity. There’s a lot of us who want to be the next Hunter S. Thompson or write sort of this masterpiece. And that is definitely an aspiration and not one folks should give up on. But you don’t learn to be the next Hunter S. Thompson or the next Mark Twain by starting off writing overly complicated, confusing things. A lot of the great writers got their start writing basic journalism and being super clear. As an editor, I can help a writer who is writing clear and simply make things more complex if I need to. But if someone starts off overly complex, you lose meaning. You lose clarity. As an editor, it’s hard for me to then go through and make it more clear, because if I’m unclear, my readers clear. A lot of times I’ll tell the writer like, Hey, I don’t understand this, and then they’ll start explaining it to me, and I’m like, No, no, don’t explain it to me. It has to be very clear in the article itself. So starting off with just knowing, you can start clear and make it more complex later. But start with that basic, basic sentences. Basic words don’t get crazy with a thesaurus. Again, complexity is great, but that can be added. No problem.

Andy Johns: Sure. My favorite. You brought up Mark Twain. My favorite Mark Twain quote is always, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” And that’s exactly what, to boil it down to make it more concise, it takes work. It takes work to get to that kind of clarity, but certainly valuable to the readers. Along those lines, so we’re living in a world with Tik-Tok, with Twitter, 140 characters that there’s so much so quick and everybody talks about the short attention span that folks have. Why does solutions journalism, why does longer form journalism, why does that still matter today when folks attention is so, so divided? How do folks stay relevant when they are working on something more long form?

Camilla Mortensen: Well, you know, it’s funny because I think this sort of like piecemeal or short bursts of information that’s been going on for a long time, actually, they’ll sort of like I’ve seen people dated back to like MTV, like there is a quick blips. And there was definitely a period, say maybe ten years ago where everyone was sort of predicting the death of long form journalism. And a lot of places began switching over from long form to shorter. And then what they found was readers began migrating places where they could still access long form journalism. I have an experiment that I like to do with my students sometimes, which is both involves long form and actually print journalism, because you also hear print is dead, print is dead. There’s a couple of places that I can get magazines from my students High Country News, a couple other places. And I will bring in print magazines and give them out to my students and just be like, hey, this is for you. Read it whenever. We’ll talk about some articles later. But for now, just take a look at it. And then I will check in a couple of weeks later and what have you done with it? And I get a variety of responses. The most common response is I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but I’m holding on to it. And I read the one article, but I’m going to get to these other ones later. And I’m like, Why do you still have it? You can read it online, can’t you? No, no, no. I’m going to, I’m going to hold on to this one. We sort of, even though the world is sort of telling us through Twitter, everything, do this now, read this now. For some reason, most of us still want the chance to sit down with something and sort of dive into it and maybe take a step away from the non-stop ness and take a deep dive into something I think is something as journalists, that’s something to remember and also to reward readers for.

Andy Johns: I think that makes perfect sense. Wanted to switch over to the the editing side of things. So as an editor, what are some things some, this’ll be a little bit more news you can use some some practical things there. What are some things that you see with people’s writing that folks, you know, even experienced writers where you can still make improvements? What are some ways, as an editor, that you can see some clear ways that people can make the writing even better?

Camilla Mortensen: You know, you got to it earlier when you talked about the Mark Twain quote, which is it’s okay to start long, but then go through the effort to shorten. Every time I’ve had and since we are still Eugene Weekly is still print publication, I will get the word from my graphics folks like hey, you know, your story is 950 words, and we’ve got the space for 850. You need to cut 100 words. And I’m looking at it going, you know, 100 precious words.

Andy Johns: Right. I’ve been there. It’s not a good feeling.

Camilla Mortensen: Right? But I have found there’s a temptation to go in, and like wipe a chunk out. And then, of course, you’re like, oh, I’m losing all this meaning. But I have found that if you make yourself go through and cut 100 words within the sentences themselves, you find out that you use a lot of superfluous words that you didn’t really need. Like I was editing someone this morning who wrote something along the lines of the gallery will be displaying an exhibit. And I’m like, okay, or the gallery will be exhibiting this. There’s just these moments where you can sort of go through and making yourself do that even when you don’t have to is just a really good way of making your language more active, making it more direct, more conversational. One of the things I warn writers about is a lot of times people don’t want to do an interview either in person or over the phone. They’re like, You’re going to send you like your answers to the questions. One that’s just a journalistically never a great idea. But two, people tend to be very wordy and conscious of trying to sound good when they type things out, when they, in fact sound better, when you just talk to them, and they have sort of this more efficient, more interesting way of speaking. So that’s the other thing I tell people is like, yeah, I know, they want to send you the quote, but they’re going to sound better if you talk to them.

Andy Johns: Interesting. I think that’s very important. And people always sound more natural because, like you said, there is a temptation for people to bust out the thesaurus. Words they would never actually use. But if you’re you’re sending an email and trying to sound as smart as possible, certainly that comes out. Oh, great. Well, anything that we haven’t touched on that you plan on getting into at the – obviously it’ll be a much longer session with a lot more ideas at the communications workshop, StoryConnect Communications Workshop later on. But anything else that you want to touch on that I didn’t give you a chance to talk about?

Camilla Mortensen: Yeah, I think the only other thing is that I also like to tell writers is that anybody can be a writer. Some people have started off with the advantage education or just in terms of where they are in life. But writing, there are some people who are truly skilled writers, but writing really is a learned thing. There are certain rules that you follow. There are tools to help you follow those rules. If you’re like, I’m a bad speller, don’t worry, there’s spell check. There’s lots of steps along the way that can help someone who is a new writer or someone who conceives of themselves as not a very good writer, be a better writer. And then my final, I would say rule on that because I’m about to break that, is I tell people know the rules. Know the rules really well. An editor love someone who knows like correct grammar, correct spelling, correct style. But then once you know them really well, that’s where if you want to, go ahead and break them sometimes. Have a little fun with it because rules that are well-broken, make for really amazing stories. Accidentally broken rules are usually just look like a mistake, but good writers can know the rules, and then sometimes just mess with them a little bit.

Andy Johns: I like that. That’s excellent advice. And I’m glad that you, glad that you brought that up. So thanks for sharing that and thanks for taking the time.

Camilla Mortensen: Thanks for chatting.

Andy Johns: She is Camilla Mortensen. She is the writing instructor at the upcoming StoryConnect Communications Workshop in Newport, Oregon, coming up in September. We hope that you will join us there and hear more of what Camilla has to say and to share with folks. My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer and WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Intro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.