Following the normal business at the Pensters September meeting, John Woods introduced AL.com feature writer Michelle Matthews, whose topic was “1 year, 100 stories: How This Feature Writer Gets It Done.”
Although she is a native Mobilian and would love to do more stories about people, places, and food in Mobile, she balances this with stories from other parts of Alabama. AL.com covers the entire state, and her features appear not only in the Press‐Register but also in the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times.
One current passion is small towns, and she has enjoyed seeking out stories in such small towns as Brewton and Camden. While at the Mobile Press-Register in 2013 and she shared with Carol McPhail the task of writing “life stories,” the extended obituaries. The exercise of interviewing friends and relatives to write the story of someone she would never meet helped prepare her for the job she is doing now.
She gets a lot of her ideas from social media, and especially likes to do inspirational stories, such as lost dogs that have been found and older people aging gracefully, such as a couple celebrating their 70th anniversary, the oldest living Auburn cheerleader, oldest living Alabama football player, etc. One fun story grew out of an article she wrote for Mobile Bay Monthly shortly before she left in 2000.
While pregnant with her first child, she was assigned to write a feature on the first birthday of the Zimlich quintuplets. Seventeen years later, she began to wonder what had become of the quints. When she finally tracked them down, she learned that they were all about to head to the University of South Alabama.
These are the types of stories she covers. Some are based on subjects she proposes; others are assigned by her “editor” in north Alabama. Together they put together a calendar of the approved/assigned stories. She writes two a week, due on Friday and published online on Tuesday and Wednesday.
During the week she focuses in on these two stories, and then the next week she is off to do something else. She has made a lot of Facebook friends through her interviews, and has found her stories sometimes show up as links on sites such as SouthernLiving.com, giving her further visibility.
As for process, she shows up with a notebook and pen, asks a lot of questions (she’s learning not to fear asking “dumb” ones), takes a lot of notes, and then goes home to do research as necessary and write her article. Although she says she is “not a photographer, ” she does take her own photos as needed, but she is often able to get photos from her interview subjects.
When asked what she does if she starts work on a piece and finds “there’s no ‘there’ there,” she said it is her responsibility to find a “there”—to find something to write about. She gave an example of one incident when she almost ran out of time because she was unable to contact the person she was supposed to interview. In the end, the person referred her to someone else who made a better story.