As journalists, we are trained to answer six questions: Who, what, when, where, why and how. Determining how the answers to those questions are placed into a story is decided, sometimes, by the inverted pyramid method of writing: most important at the top, least important at the bottom.
I’m sure some old journalism professor somewhere is going to be unhappy with me after this but I don’t really care about the inverted pyramid, especially when I’m writing about people. I find people, and the stories that make them who they are, truly fascinating, which I’m sure led me down this career path.
On Friday, Sparks Tribune readers were met on Christmas morning with a story about Jim Shine…er, well…Santa. Writing this story made me nervous.
When I interviewed Shine more than a week before Christmas I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Shine family’s home in Sparks.
Leading up to the interview, I had not been very excited about the holiday season. Everyone I spoke with put too much emphasis on affording gifts and how the “wow” factor of the holidays wasn’t there without the impressed looks on people’s faces when they opened the latest expensive trinket. Blah.
The holidays have never been about gifts to me, but rather they are about the people you choose to spend that time with and the traditions you enjoy with family and friends. Yet, my mood was soured by the overwhelming emphasis on money that even an interview with Santa barely registered more than a smile initially on my holiday happiness radar.
I parked out front of the Shine house and ran through a list of questions in my head: How long have you been (playing) Santa? Why Santa as opposed to the Easter Bunny? And most importantly, are you sure you’re not lying to me when you say you’re Jim Shine and not the jolly holiday man himself?
Never in a million years would I have expected my eyes to sparkle with such excitement, as I’m sure they did when Shine answered his front door. To me, I was an excited little kid about to talk to Santa all over again.
In the process of the more than hour long interview, Shine and his wife, Judi, detailed the charity work they have done in the community, which includes numerous holiday engagements for underprivileged and sick children. Shine showed me the letters to Santa he receives every holiday season and introduced me to his dog that resembles a small reindeer – Kali. Short for Kalikimaka, which means Christmas in Hawaiian.
Shine even rolled up his sleeve to show me an expertly and artistically drawn Santa tattoo his son-in-law did for him as a retirement gift. He showed me photos of his Harley Davidson motorcycle. His eyes sparkled when he spoke of his wife and when his hand lovingly embraced Kali when she carefully crawled into Shine’s lap to give him a hug.
When it came time to write what would become the Christmas morning feature story, I froze up, writing and rewriting my first few paragraphs over and over again. What details are important to the story of Shine, the man who plays Santa? This was not something for the inverted pyramid to decide.
In a news meeting at the Tribune, we had discussed writing a story about Shine, since stories of Santa populate the paper every year. The question was: Who is the man who wears the red suit and brings happiness to children around our community?
The answer to that question, I discovered, was a very complex one. The problem I faced was translating that into one article.
Every detail suddenly seemed important to me. I wanted people to understand how exceptionally warm-hearted Shine and his wife are. I wanted people to feel excited about the holidays for the right reasons. I wanted people to care.
As my deadline approached and I stressed over what my editor assured and reassured me was a good feature story, I still worried about doing justice to the story. I hope the warm feelings of holiday cheer that Shine projects and the smiles he delivers in addition to gifts to children in our community could be felt in the slightly more than 1,000 words used to describe him.
While it might be a little late for Christmas, I hope you and yours have a magical holiday season and a wonderful New Year.
Cortney Maddock is a reporter for the Sparks Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org