Great stories are worth the effort

Today, I’m thrilled to finally make it into an elite club at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: staff members who’ve written a “Personal Journey,” which share tales of extraordinary people.

It’s no easy trick to produce one of these stories, which combine narrative storytelling, deep reporting and one of life’s universal themes — and are the purview of our most talented journalists.

We launched this addition to the Sunday Living & Arts section in August as part of the larger efforts to improve your newspaper.

You’ve let us know that you enjoy reading, and that you especially look forward to spending some time with your Sunday newspaper. And we know your expectations are high. So we spent a lot of time considering the best thing we could do.

In the end, we discovered that readers still enjoy that most human of things: a great story. And especially stories that inspire and highlight universal themes like serious illness, racial understanding, job loss, dreams fulfilled and triumph over adversity.

The first “Personal Journey,” written by Helena Oliviero, told the story of two siblings with a rare kidney disorder who found kidney donors by posting flyers in their community. The second, by Steve Hummer, profiled an Atlanta man who rescued his former high school basketball coach from a homeless shelter after he learned that the coach was sick with bone cancer and living alone; the coach was white, his former player was African-American.

Our reporters have written about the Candler family and their financial problems and about former Georgia Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson and his battle with depression.

Jill Vejnoska shared a deeply personal story about caring for her mom during Hurricane Sandy, and Shannon McCaffrey chronicled the struggles of balancing motherhood with covering a presidential campaign. Rosalind Bentley profiled Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate who lives in Atlanta. The stories often are visual feasts as well, an opportunity for us to showcase some of our photographers’ best work.

Oliviero also wrote “The Survivor” which chronicled the harrowing experiences of a teenage survivor of Auschwitz and her later life in an Atlanta suburb. That story told of how during World War II 15,000 children passed through a Czech concentration camp; 132 are known to have survived. And Oliviero found one of the survivors in Atlanta.

Telling such stories demands a commitment of resources, and it also takes great writers and editors, like Features Enterprise Editor Suzanne Van Atten and her boss, Assistant Managing Editor Ken Foskett.

“Reader response has been overwhelming,” said Foskett, who leads our effort on Personal Journeys. “Some have renewed their subscriptions because of it.”

As you might imagine, our staff has many great ideas and competition is stiff to write a Personal Journey. Foskett has the stories planned months in advance.

But he assures me that I got no special consideration when I pitched my story, even if I am the boss.

I hope you’ll enjoy “The replacement soldier,” in Living & Arts today. It’s the tale of Eddie Sessions, a World War II veteran who fought in Gen. George Patton’s famous Third Army. Sessions’ time in the war represents a unique and not-well-known experience that many infantrymen shared. You’ll also want to visit, our new website for subscribers, to see a video of Sessions, hear him talk about his experience and follow him across France and into Germany in 1944.

Having pursued one of these stories helped me appreciate the commitment that Personal Journeys requires of our reporters and photographers — not to mention their subjects. Eddie Sessions and his wife spent the past nine months inviting me into their lives and memories. I’ve visited their home several times to talk with them and look over family photographs and letters. And they’ve endured many phone calls for clarification of this detail or that, as I’ve asked Eddie to revisit a long-ago and difficult period of his life.

Here at the paper, several reporters and editors talked to me about the story and made suggestions. They didn’t care that I was the boss; in fact, working on this piece and hearing their counsel reminded me of why they do this work — and that’s something the boss needs from time to time.

We’ll continue to bring you compelling Personal Journeys each week. Readers are demanding, but they also know good work.

As one said: “Thank you for the creativity and insight to develop this incredible means of communicating real life stories. The ‘Personal Journey’ is a great idea which will certainly give us something to look forward to every Sunday.”

We look forward to it every Sunday, too.

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Stories in the AJC Personal Journeys series can be found Sunday in the Living section an online on the <a href="">MyAJC Personal Journeys page</a>.