I think, at this point, everyone is familiar with Humans of New York. Started in 2010, it’s a series of photos and (more importantly) stories about the individuals featured in those photos. It’s actually done some pretty great things both as a fundraiser and for simply reminding us that every single person has a life filled with struggles and triumphs, and that we’re all in this together.
However, the phenomenon has taken an unfortunate turn. Now a bunch of cities are trying to imitate the format of HONY, though from the look of things, people running these new sites do not seem to know what they’re doing.
One of the first rules of storytelling that I teach my students is “Select, don’t compress.” In other words, whether you’re covering a football game or aggregating a social media phenomenon, you don’t want a blow-by-blow account of what happened. You don’t compress the entire event into a story, you pick out the highlights so we get an accurate but entertaining account of how something happened. It’s no different than telling about that time you cleared out the bar with “The Boys Are Back In Town” on the jukebox–just hit the highlights.
Unfortunately, these “Humans of New York” impersonators do not take that approach.
News Flash! Genna Freed is the voice behind the news on WFIN, WKXA and 106.3 the FOX. She can be heard from 10-6 Monday through Friday reporting on all the local news. She is rapidly gaining a reputation of being a savvy, “hit the streets” to get the story, reporter.
She has been in this position since June. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of Findlay with a degree in Journalism. She spent the last two years of her university years as Editor of the university newspaper. She enjoys her job because, “everyday, is always different and keeps me on my toes.” There is no monotony in her job.
She “looks forward to a long career in her life niche of communication Genna has been in Findlay since she was three and graduated from Liberty Benton. She has been married to Cameron for just over a year and they are kept company by two dogs named Trigger and Bo.
When not reporting, Genna like to play with the dogs, read and she and her husband both keep busy renovating the home they just purchased. She likes to “See the good in every person or event, in everything.” Her role model is her husband who has the hardest working work ethic she has ever seen. Summing up Findlay she describes Findlay “As a good mix of up and coming and historic, a good balance of old and new.”
Honestly, that almost reads like an obituary (“survived by Cameron, Trigger, and Bo”). There are literally half a dozen interesting stories embedded in that painfully boring entry. Don’t believe me?
• Her most memorable news story she covered (for the “hit the streets” reputation)
• How she and Cameron met or got engaged or some other milestone
• Almost any story about her dogs
• Best/worst renovation stories
• Hardest she ever worked to see the good in someone
• Most memorable moment growing up in Findlay
And those are just the obvious ones. Delve into any one of those and find plenty more. I would much rather hear about how she tried a Nicole Curtis trick that totally worked (or didn’t), or about how she rescued her dogs from the shelter, or explaining why the annual fireworks display (or whatever) is so important to her (Findlay would eat that up!). Instead, we get a summary of her life in the broadest of strokes.
Another tenet of good storytelling is the use of characters. If there aren’t any characters, there isn’t going to be a plot (despite what Michael Bay would have you believe). This is where the genius of “Humans of New York” becomes clear: The entire site is based around characters. Here is a photo of the main character–now we’re going to tell you a story about this person that illuminates an interesting side of that person.
Again, unfortunately, the folks trying to re-create the phenomenon in their hometowns have overlooked this essential component.
Take Humans of Lubbock (please!). Here’s the latest entry from that site:
I got him last week. I had another corgi, and he passed away. So my parents found me a new puppy.
Whoops! I forgot to include the full entry! Embarrassing.
No, no I didn’t. That’s it. That’s pretty much the average length of an entry. Here’s another:
I am afraid of the debt I will have after school. I graduate in May, then I am going to Texas A&M for Veterinary School.
That’s not a story. It’s barely a thought. If you’re looking to tell compelling stories, you’ve failed. If you’re looking for folks at Texas Tech to check the website to see if someone they know is “featured,” you might succeed for a little bit, though it’s a pretty lame model. This isn’t the days of “gonna get my name in the paper!” Hell, if someone wanted to be featured on social media, it’s hard not to be.
Humans of New York, remind us how it’s done:
I want to be in musical theater, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to go to auditions. I want to make my parents proud and validate their faith in me, but every time I talk to them, they ask me if I’ve gotten a show yet, and every time I have to tell them ‘no.’ And it’s hard to not feel foolish when you keep trying something and it doesn’t work out. I have a day job to support me while I go to auditions. But now I’m working there more than I’m auditioning, and I’m scared that I’m falling into a routine. I see a lot of people settle into a routine where nothing really upsets them, but nothing really excites them either. And I’m afraid that’s happening to me.
And there you go: simple, compelling storytelling. When you genuinely engage with someone, you can learn about their hopes, fears, and dreams, and in the process of hearing their stories, we can all relate to what those individuals are going through.
I guess what bothers me about this is that, despite what reality television tells us, there are interesting people everywhere. Humans of __________________ should be the easiest knock-off of all-time. But, as Humans of New York reminds us with its storytelling, there’s a lot more to it than simply snapping a photo of someone who lives nearby.