Green light story

I’ve been neglecting you. I apologize. First, I was trying to get everything done before I left town for five days. And then I was out of town for five days. And then I was Tweeting from the Journalism Interactive conference at the University of Maryland, and it turns out I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time (I guess the walking would be blogging, and the chewing gum would be the Tweeting, but you may have your own opinion).

Many of the discussions at Journalism Interactive seemed to boil down to a chicken-or-egg argument for many of the journalism professors there.  Should we, first and foremost, teach you, the journalism student, all the tools of new media and how to use them? Or should we be teaching you how identify stories, source them and then tell them using the best tools? I was struck by the persistence of this theme.

And then I got in a cab at 5:30 a.m. today for the ride to BWI and the flights home to Columbia. We had just enough time, but my cab driver assured me we would be fine. He is accustomed to passengers wondering if they’ll make it.

One time, the passenger had to reassure him.

He picked up a couple from a hotel somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle of D.C.-Baltimore-Northern Virginia. They needed to be at Dulles. And apparently there is really just one, acceptable way to get there from where they were. But there are many stoplights.

The cabbie was worried. He looked at the time. He thought about the drive. He said to the woman, who was now seated in the back of the cab, “Madame, I am not at all certain that you will make your flight.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she replied.

He was sure she didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. “But, madame, I am telling you that this road has many lights and it is impossible to be at the airport in the time we have.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said again. Her husband was silent in the front seat.

So the cabbie began the drive to Dulles. And for the first time in the decade or so that he’s been driving cabs, every single light on that drive turned green before he got there. He could not believe his eyes. He estimates that he has done that drive a thousand times, and never  ever  has he breezed to the airport through all of those lights without hitting the brakes.

When they got to the airport, he started to ask the woman, “How –?”

But the woman would only say, “Don’t worry about it.”

He has pondered it ever since. How did she do it? Did she have some kind of device that turned the lights to green? Did she have psychic powers? Who was she?

When I got out of the cab at the airport, I could think of nothing but this story. I pondered it all the way to the gate. I thought about it on the drive to my house: lights, just turning to green as if by magic.

I’m not troubled too much by this question of which comes first, the story or the tools with which to tell them. Every indication is that the story is the thing. I wish I had an audio recording of my Bangladeshi driver telling that story. I loved the way he told it. (I have four apps on my Iphone that would have done the job, but give me a break — it was 5:30 a.m.!)  And I loved the story because — like most human beings — I love a good story. Especially when it contains a mystery.

Here’s what I think: Once you’ve learned how to tell a story — and to get people to tell you their stories — you can focus on building the skill set to tell the story whatever way it demands to be told. You don’t want to be in a situation in which you’re using words when you need images. Or stills. Or video. Or when the whole thing should be an interactive graphic.

The compelling thing about the story was its sourcing: The reason the cab driver’s story was so interesting to me is partly because of the authority with which he told it. Here’s a guy who has driven a cab for years. And he still cannot solve the mystery of the Woman Who Turned Lights to Green.

It’s a good story. I heard it in the wee hours of a dark, cold morning, and it tickled my imagination. I would have paid to hear it.

(Oh, yeah, I did: $78 including gratuity.)


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23 Responses to Green light story

  1. Alexandria Baca says:

    I think most young people are digital natives so figuring out how to use social and digital media for journalism isn’t quite as big a jump as it might seem for digital immigrants. But, the story- that’s where we have the most learning to do.

  2. Katherine,
    I love this story. And first, I want to thank you for sharing it.

    Secondly, I want to let you know that this sparked my memory about the idea that the medium is the message. We have discussed this in our community outreach team and I find it very intriguing. And, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I understood it until I read this post.

    When you said the story is the thing, that is exactly what I take the medium is the message to mean. I think the way a story is told affects the way the user interprets, uses, and interacts the story, but the story affects the form the story takes.

    “Once you’ve learned how to tell a story — and to get people to tell you their stories — you can focus on building the skill set to tell the story whatever way it demands to be told. You don’t want to be in a situation in which you’re using words when you need images. Or stills. Or video. Or when the whole thing should be an interactive graphic.” This is perfect. It’s exactly what I’m talking about when I say that the story and the medium affect each other and the user.

  3. Su, Haoyun says:

    I was intrigued by the story. There’re many ways and tools to tell a story, and I guess a good journalist knows how he’ll do it the moment he feels it. I think educators could teach journalism students new tools and reporting skills at the same time. I don’t see a contradiction here because journalists keep “updating” themselves all the time.

  4. I’d like to echo several other posts:
    1) Nice story, Katherine!
    2) I agree, seeing the story essential.
    I get really excited when I find a good story, whether I stumble across it or figure it out after careful thought and several failed attempts to write. For me, the story is what inspires the whole process. I want to learn technical skills because I see what they can do to communicate the story more effectively.

  5. ace9000 says:

    I liked that story. It flowed like fiction, with a clear writer’s voice. Whose voice was it—yours or his? It would be interesting to compare his version to yours, to see how craft entered into the retelling.

  6. Robert Johnson says:

    Ha, makes me glad I still read these posts.

    • schacht99 says:


  7. I loved this story and you told it really well but I did find myself wishing I could have heard it from the horse’s mouth. It was such an entertaining story I can only imagine seeing and hearing the astonishment in his face and voice.

  8. xjiangsummer says:

    Great story! Even though a voice inside me was saying “yeah, that’s because the odds”, forget about the stupid voice! I really enjoyed the enchantment the word “magic” brought me.
    As Liz put it, a great story is a great story 🙂

  9. Pingback: Loved Katherine’s cab story | Summer Breeze

  10. kaitlinsteinberg says:

    Some of the best stories I’ve ever encountered are from people on the streets or next to me on a train in Florence or Budapest or some crazy city in Morocco. I often find myself wishing I had a recorder with me, or even a pen and paper, but I’ve learned to accept that some things I’m meant to just hear and appreciate. I’ve had to teach this lesson to my mother, who is a photographer. I swear, every time we go for walks on the bayfront where we live and she doesn’t bring her camera, there is an amazing sunset, and every time she spends 10 minutes wishing that she had her camera rather than enjoying the rapidly fading light. I think we’re lucky, as print journalists, that we learn to tell stories in written words, rather than relying on media to do it for us. Yeah, media is great, but being able to tell a really good story with just words is pretty cool too.

  11. karenemiller says:

    I think when it comes to finding stories we need to do what you did here: listen. More importantly, we need to be in the cab. People are more willing to share their stories when we come into their world (i.e. their cab, their home, their office, whatever).

    I’m wondering is if this is the only story he told you. I think the thing I struggle with is WHAT story, out of all the ones I heard, I should tell. A lot of the tools we’ve already learned, such as framing, have helped me with that. Still, sometimes people have so many interesting stories to share I can’t narrow down my narrative and tell one simply and clearly.

  12. Kip Hill says:

    There’s been a lot of discussion about what a journalism education should be in readings for other classes. Should it seek to impart expert-level wisdom in a particular area, or beat? Should it simply teach one how to write and communicate effectively? Should it teach story-telling techniques (including innovative ones, like social media)? Should it teach the “all-purpose flour” investigative techniques that will be useful on a variety of stories and topics? Should it contain some element of entrepreneurial instruction that encourages innovation in the way the news product is created and marketed?

    The appropriate answer, as it usually turns out, is probably all of the above. I think, more than any other discipline, a journalism curriculum needs to be dynamic and is probably outdated if it doesn’t go through a complete overhaul every few years or so. As a general rule, academia resists change. It’s refreshing to see a commitment to complete intellectual overhaul at times in the journalism literature. Of course, in the case of using a number of tools available to tell a story, that willingness may be motivated by a desire to survive financially.

    Cool story, by the way. Can I find this passenger the next time I use the H.O.V. lane? Do they even have those in Columbia?

  13. New media and technology will come and sometimes go, but great stories are timeless.

    That being said, without the knowledge to use the new tools of our trade, we would flounder in the constantly changing practice of journalism. So, I think that answer is both.

    Also, can this green light lady come to Columbia and help me out? I have a problem with always getting stuck at red lights.

  14. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    I have to say I agree with most of you guys in that the sotry is what makes everything else possible. It’s the raw material. We use (or at least should use) several different tools to model and shape that raw material until we have something we can share with our audience.

    Please excuse the bad metaphor, but I cannot stop thinking of this process as what a sculptor does. Everything she/he does will depend on the material she/he is working with. What good would a chisel be if the sculptor were working with, say, cardboard?

    Similarly, whatever story we have at hand will define which tool we are to use in order to tell it the best possible way. And here’s where the second part of our responsibility lies: We need to be prepared to use multiple tools.

    Not so long ago, I used to visualize the work of a newspaper journalist as limited to writing stuff. Being at the Missourian and at the Missouri School of Journalism has taught me that words are only one of the many ways we can actually convey a good story.

    We, the next generation of journalists, should definitely train ourselves in the use of new resources and tools. Finding the stories, recognizing them and putting them together is what we need to emphasize in journalism curricula.

  15. jessedbishop says:

    Do you have a preferred app to record audio? I’ve used the default voice memo app. The sound quality is decent, but the app is of course nothing special.

    If I were ever to be a cab driver, I would probably make up stories like this. Especially if I knew a journalist was in the car.

  16. MirandaZhang says:

    You brought back a good story and intriguing ideas about journalism from your trip to Maryland, Katherine.

    The cabbie story is something that a audio tape would not tell as well. Sometimes journalists are relying on digital stuff too much rather than themselves, their senses. Good stories should be found and told by us, using our eyes and ears, mouth and hands; even in the digital world we are living in today, amazing tools cannot replace our intuition.

  17. This has to be my favorite blog post from this semester. I loved the story and the story within a story – you, early in the morning with the cab driver, and the story of the green-light lady.

    And I would say, have specific classes for specialization in the new media and the new technology. Mention it whenever it’s appropriate. Perhaps offer booster-lectures and help sessions for those who are behind.

    But while I’ve found the lectures and lessons we’ve had about technology and ‘new journalism’ interesting and educational, I’ve found the ones about finding and developing stories more useful and important.

  18. Crystal Herber says:

    I loved this story! It was great. I totally understand the idea of getting so interested in someone telling a story that you forget about being a journalist and just sit wide-eyed and listen.

  19. allisonseibel says:

    I really loved this story. I sat and thought about it for a few minutes after I read it. Is there a device that exists that a normal person could just carry around that can change the lights? Or was it just dumb, really awesome, luck? That’s definitely a possibility.

    I think ever since being in reporting and in the journalism school – I have this sort of story-radar. I hear random things or stories around Columbia and this thing in the back of my head goes off, like, “Story! Story!” Most of the time, I’m not able to translate these really cool, random things into stories because they’re not timely or I probably shouldn’t write about some great story someone told me at a bar (I am 21, by the way!)

    But I think this just raises great points about storytelling. It’s so important in writing. I think we all have that friend that we just know is horrible at storytelling. My best friend is like that, and when she says “I have to tell you this story really quick!” we all know we’re going to be sitting there for at least 20 minutes and when she goes on a tangent we keep having to tell her “Ok – keep going. Focus!” And in life that’s totally acceptable, but not so much in journalism. Telling a story well is such an art that I think is important to try and refine.

  20. Julia Boudreau says:

    This sounds like a story that would make a good article especially if we could find out the name of the women who took the cab. It also sounds like a good lifetime movie so we would need to be sure of all facts before writing it to avoid confusing or misleading our readers. If such information could not be found it could also be presented with a disclaimer. I really enjoyed hearing the story!

  21. Pingback: Trapped (in a good story) | It's the soup…

  22. Pingback: What are we doing here? | Kip Hill, Grad Reporter/Editor

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