John Larson: Boiling it Down with Purpose

Posted: April 19, 2012 in journalism
What’s your story all about?
John Larson’s Top Three Things You Can Do to Find Purpose in Your Work

1. Find a way to care – everyday. I find meaning in detail, the last
words of a father, the note posted in an abandoned factory. If a story
doesn’t move you, it won’t move anyone.

2. Don’t confuse objectivity with distance, or a lack of passion. Open
yourself to those you cover. Listen closely, feel, imagine, empathize.

3. Don’t mistake “balance” with adding up lies and dividing by two.
Find truths. Get them right.

John Larson says when a journalist tells a story worth telling it builds community.  John Larson has been among the nation’s best at story telling for the better part of four decades.

Several years ago, when I was a young local TV news feature reporter and John Larson had just been hired by NBC News, I’d describe a story idea to him and he’d ask me one simple question: “What’s the story all about?” If I could boil the answer down to 10 seconds, then he knew I had a firm understanding of how I would approach the piece. I was on my way to telling a story “worth telling.”

For Larson, this approach takes “heavy lifting.”  He says, “You negotiate your way to find the richest deepest vein.” Larson says, “When you give blood, the lab technician comes in to ‘stick’ you. If they’re not good, they jab and it hurts. But if they’re good, they find the vein and you don’t even feel it.” He says, “The same is true with a storyteller.”

He’s passionate about his craft.

Larson has won dozens of national, regional and local awards for broadcast excellence including 4 Columbia DuPont Awards, 2 national Emmys, 2 Peabodys, 2 IRE Gold Medals. He’s lost count of the Regional Emmys.

His TV career began at KTUU in Anchorage. After 7 years, it was on to KOMO 4 News in Seattle. He worked there 8 years. In 1994, he and his family moved to Southern California where he joined NBC Dateline. In 2008, after 14 years he and NBC couldn’t agree on a contract so he left and started his own freelance company.  

Now Larson finds purpose at PBS contributing pieces for “Need to Know”. One airs Friday called “Crossing The Line”. Below is a link to a preview. The story focuses on the US Border Patrol and the killing of undocumented workers. But Larson says, “What it’s really all about is giving voice to the voiceless, those immigrants who are shot crossing the US-Mexico border, killed by US Border Patrol.” People Larson says, “with no legal or political standing.”

He lectures and conducts teaching seminars for TV journalists (thru E.W. Scripps Howard) all over the world. He also does freelance work for non-profits like World Vision . I accompanied Larson (working for NBC at the time) when he went to Africa in 2007, reporting on relief work done by World Vision, Hoops of Hope, and World Bicycle Relief for NBC News.

Larson says, “I began micro lending 5 years ago as an anti-depressant. I was a journalist in Los Angeles, mostly covering the latest self-inflicted wounds of Hollywood celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson. I began loaning money through Kiva in an effort to stay sane. In 2010, when Vision Fund (World Vision) asked for a proposal to tell its story, I jumped at the opportunity.

Whether he’s working for NBC or PBS or as a freelancer for World Vision, there’s always a purpose behind John Larson’s work. He’s trying to find that vein. To come back with a simple answer to that simple question:

What’s your story all about?
  1. Lee says:

    John is always inspiring and thoughtful. It also helps that he’s quietly determined, skilled and graceful about getting this work done. Thanks for writing about him.

    Lee Schneider

  2. Brendan Keefe says:

    John is one of the best to practice the craft. That he so readily and generously shares his gift with others is a testament to his inner humanity — something lacking in many of today’s journalists. Bravo John.

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