Everyone has a story.
Whether you’re talkative or taciturn, introverted or extroverted, you have a story that deserves to be honored and shared. Whether you choose to take on 50 profiles or 300, you can still serve your community by covering the story of the people — their experiences, their life advice, their reminiscences about the past and their hopes for the future.
Humans-of projects can be powerful tools to teach everything from interviewing to environmental photography. If you choose to pursue such a project, think of it as something more. Stories are the way to bring people together. By stripping features down to the essential quotes, you are telling stories in their purest form.
Every spring, the journalism program undergoes a leadership transition. The underclassmen applying for positions curate their best work, interview with Ms. Austin and wait for the fateful decision email to appear in their inboxes. It’s comparable to the casting of a play, both in drama and in anticipation.
Sophomore year, I opened this email fully expecting to receive one of my top choice positions. After scanning the list for a few seconds, I found my name under senior editor.
Ms. Austin pulled me aside and told me her master plan for the senior section. She wanted to feature every single senior in the yearbook instead of covering only a fraction as we had done in the past. She wasn’t sure if it would work, but she felt that this year’s staff was strong enough to try.
We replaced the traditional 40 short blurbs with 174 full-length features. We expanded into the online platform. We upped our environmental portraits.
Leading Humans of Harker altered the way I tell stories. Instead of asking, “How was Homecoming?” I ask, “What keeps you up at night?” Instead of asking, “What’s for lunch today?” I ask, “When have you defied expectations?” Over the past two years, I’ve had the chance to interview seniors about empathy, nonconformity, activism, friendship – all ideas that transcend the bubble of our Silicon Valley school. In the dwindling hours before graduation, I now have a convenient excuse to start deeper conversations with my classmates.
As a junior, I would wander around after school searching for seniors — any seniors — and by sheer force of will convince them to let me take their photo. Because environmental portraits walk the line between candid and posed, they rely heavily on the relationship between photographer and subject.
Here are ways to make the project a hit:
- Let the concept inspire you. Humans of Harker is more than a journalistic venture. It’s an affirmation that, despite the rules of AP Style, sometimes “Joe Schmo” can be as newsworthy as “Taylor Swift.” In newsrooms geared toward weighty issues, it’s a reminder that moments of all magnitudes hold a place in the human canon of experience, and by extension, in our high school publications.
- Have great examples. Show your leadership staff’s best work, curated before the school year starts. Inspire your staff, and your staff will start to inspire others. Inspire your staff and your staff will start to inspire others.
- Decide on your output. Our school took a multiplatform approach — quotes and photos in the yearbook, full-length feature articles online, previews on social media. Whether you want to upload a profile a day or release all the profiles at once, create a schedule and stick to it.
- Go beyond the resume. If the subject starts rattling off a list of accomplishments, the interview might feel like a lost cause, but you can redirect it toward something more meaningful. Keep in mind you’re trying to answer one fundamental question: “Why is what you do worth it?” Sure, the “What do you do?” question is necessary, but the “Why do you do it?” question is more important. Ask follow-up questions during the interviews.
- By senior year, most people have a fairly established set of beliefs. They might subscribe to “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Fake it until you make it.” That’s a great starting point, but there’s always more. Teach your staff to ask follow-up questions instead of mechanically marching through a preset list.
- Find the quote that tells the story. We interviewed one girl who loved science research, and we were deciding which of her quotes to publish. The first quote is noble, but generic. The second quote demonstrated her love of research in a more authentic way, so we went with the first.
- Don’t be afraid of re-reporting. Don’t be afraid to interview your subject again — it usually takes multiple tries to scrub off those layers of cliché. With perseverance and some nagging, the end version will be more genuine.
- Go beyond the one-source interview. Interview friends, siblings, teachers and coaches. They add dimensions to profiles.
- Get people invested. Praise reporters who wrote particularly strong features. Then they’ll chase quality for their own enjoyment instead of simply checking off requirements for an editor’s demand.
- Establish standards. How many words per article? What level of environmental photography do you want to achieve? How many alternate sources? Keep your expectations consistent.
If you want to do a Humans-of at your school, but don’t have the resources to commit to the full project, introduce a small-scale version during staff boot camp at the beginning of the year.
To prepare for the project, we had upperclassman profile underclassman, which allowed more experienced staff members to model interview protocol and photo composition for the clubs before the roles switched. Going through a mini “Humans of New York” project with your staff teaches reporting skills and serves as a get-to-know-your-staff activity.