The power of a story told well

Furman journalism instructor Lyn Riddle has “no idea” how many awards she has won over her nearly four-decade journalism career, and she also has no idea how many people she’s helped. What she does know, however, is which matters more.

“The awards are nice, and you have to admit that it makes you feel good that somebody recognized your work, but my sole purpose is to do good journalism, to tell peoples’ stories fairly and in a way that’s going to move people,” Riddle says with conviction. “That’s what it’s been all about since I’ve been in the newspaper business since 1975 when I graduated from college.”

Good thing it’s not an either-or proposition.

Riddle’s untallied collection of certificates and plaques got a bit larger recently compliments of the South Carolina Press Association and Gannett, the company that owns the Greenville News, where Riddle is a reporter. A story highlighting the difficulties adopted children have finding their birth parents earned a quarterly innovation award from Gannett, and both Gannett and the SCPA honored her work on a five-part series on homelessness in the Greenville area.

The SCPA handed out a first place for online news project and a third for public service to Riddle, editor Bill Fox and photographer Mykal McEldowney, while Gannett initially gave them a quarterly innovation award and then a prestigious national innovation award for the feature that ran in November—a first for the Greenville News. Judges said “powerful reporting, video and narrative storytelling combine with a responsively designed Web interface that pulls you in and helps you empathize with the homeless of Greenville.”

“When they came together we were with the brother at the airport in Greenville waiting for (his sister) to get there. It was just delightful. And that’s the beauty of my job, frankly,” Riddle said of the reunion her April 13, 2014, story on adoption helped make possible. “What matters to me most is the fact that this series about homelessness in Greenville has gotten the attention that it has, and some of that is because of the awards that have been won. To me what’s important is that as a community now Greenville is really looking for ways to solve this problem.”

Far from the jaded, disillusioned reporter often portrayed, Riddle oozes optimism and love for what she does. Born in Georgia, she was raised in New York City and Chicago before graduating from Northern Colorado with a degree in journalism and taking her first job just this side of nowhere in the high desert of Wyoming with the Rock Springs Daily Rocket-Miner.

It was a “really weird place,” Riddle remembers, but it sparked a passion that carried her to Los Angeles and back to her Southern roots at the Greenville Piedmont before a long stint as a freelancer for major newspapers from around the country. In 2004, she became an editor at the Greenville Journal and rejoined the Greenville News in 2012 to write again.

“I think this is a good time to be in the newspaper business,” she says. “There are a lot of people who disagree with me, but that’s been my experience so far. “

After decades as the primary means of spreading information, this generation is almost completely unfamiliar with the medium. Riddle takes that as a challenge.

“Every single semester, I start out and ask how many have read newspapers, and I’m lucky if one person has. Usually it’s because they were in another class that required them to read The New York Times,” she said. “And they all believe that journalism is dying. No, journalism is not dying. There has probably not been a more exciting time to be in journalism, largely because we have this opportunity to reinvent ourselves. “

Part of that reinvention has been a shift to de-emphasizing the limits of print space in favor of embracing the limitlessness of the digital world.

“There was an actual turnabout at the Greenville News and at Gannett to tell the richer, deeper stories in a meaningful way,” Riddle said. “We are given the opportunity, the time and the space, to tell the story properly. . . We have to give readers the special stories that they can’t get any place else.”

That’s how Riddle was able to spend “a good three months” on the series after an editor asked for volunteers to visit a homeless camp nobody seemed to know anything about. One trip convinced her that this was more than a single story.

“The idea that these people were living under the bridge was not news to people who worked with the homeless, certainly, but it was news to people living in Greenville generally. They had no idea,” she said. “There was a community meeting at Furman that was a result of the series, where people came together to put their ideas out. One of the things that I found eye-opening was the stereotype that you have of homeless person doesn’t hold true with everybody. You have the idea that if you’re homeless you’re mentally ill or you’re a drug addict or an alcoholic, and while there are many (in that situation) there are a lot of people who lost their home because they lost their job or who had medical bills they couldn’t afford to pay. Many of us are a lost job or a serious illness away from the streets ourselves.”

Riddle teaches journalism in both the fall and spring semesters and has taught a May Experience class in investigative journalism. Her classes are generally full, and the students aren’t the only beneficiaries.

“Just being around young people and getting them interested in newspapers and newspaper writing is a wonderful experience for me. It has helped me remember why I do this work,” she said. “They have never written a newspaper story. They have written term papers, and that is a big shift to make. . .And there have been a number of students who have gone into journalism after being in the class, which I can’t even believe.”

Stories bemoaning the death of the industry arrive in a steady stream on the internet, next to the torrent blaming the “media” for seemingly all of society’s ills. Riddle disagrees with both assertions, and her passion for something she considers vital to the country undoubtedly rubs off more than she knows.

“You can’t have an effective democracy without journalism,” she said. “One day the print newspaper may well go away . . . but that doesn’t mean journalism is gone.”

Learn more about Lyn Riddle on her Web site.