Steve Hartman: American Storyteller

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By Dale Hemmila

Steve Hartman tells stories for a living and, as storytellers go, he has one of the largest audiences to tell stories to.

His audience is the more than five million people who watch the CBS Evening News. Hartman is the CBS News correspondent for the “On the Road” segment featuring stories about people and places that wouldn’t ordinarily make it to the headlines of a newscast.

Recently, Hartman took his storytelling to a smaller, yet enthusiastic, audience as he was the November presenter at Port Huron’s Town Hall lecture series at McMorran Place.

Hartman At Lectern

In between playing several of his favorite video stories, he charmed his Monday morning listeners with the folksy back stories of some of his segments and how he goes about his work.

But before he took to the stage, Blue Water Living and Travel asked him about his career and how he might very well have the best journalism job in America.

“Somewhere there might be someone tasting ice cream for a living,” he laughed, “but I am told that all the time and this is pretty good.  But it is a job; I have to come up with what works and do the interviews, write stories and edit.  It is a job, but events like Town Hall are a good reminder of how good I have it.  I sometimes feel the stories more at events like these.”

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Working with a producer, Hartman finds story ideas online, in newspapers and from viewer’s suggestions.  He travels two or three days a week and, unlike his predecessor, Charles Kuralt ,who roamed the roads for CBS News decades ago traveling in an RV looking for interesting tales to tell, Hartman is more of a frequent flier.  In a world that seems to be constantly moving and in a medium that puts a premium on tight news segments, his two and half minute reports give him the time to spin a narrative that people can relate to.

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“When politics got hot, I thought maybe I wouldn’t have a job,” he said.  “Network newscasts are 22 minutes long or less and I thought maybe there wouldn’t be room for my stories.  As it turned out, there is more of a desire to see these.  My stories represent the 99.9 percent of America not told in the other newscast minutes.”

After his many years on the road, Hartman’s stories are almost always touching and heartwarming with a delicate mix of humor and tears.

“I’ve been accused of being in cahoots with the Kleenex company,” he said.  “People give me a hard time about making them cry.  It’s never my intent to make people cry. I want people to laugh, but then maybe happy tears. But I want people to feel something.  At the core, I want to make people happy.”

Hartman watching video clip 1

He has been making people “feel something” for the past 10 years with his Friday end-of-the-week Evening News segments that sometimes also run on the CBS Morning News.  A Toledo native, he grew up listening to J.P. McCarthy on WJR radio in Detroit.  While his job takes him all over the country, he said he feels good anytime he can be near Detroit and many of his stories have found him in Michigan.

Unlike other correspondents who are based in major cities, Hartman is able to work from his home in Catskills, New York.  Also unlike other correspondents, he also edits his own pieces on his home computer system.

“I like to be in control,” he admitted, acknowledging that he is the only network correspondent who doesn’t have to hand over his work to another technician.

“That may be more the key to my success,” he added.  “My stories wouldn’t have the impact they do if they were handed off.”

While the technical aspect is no doubt a part of his award winning style, words are also a key element.

“So much of it is writing,” he said.  “People don’t think of that.”

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It’s those words and his notion of “everyone has a story to tell” combined with the compelling and extraordinary, ordinary people he finds that make his reports so watchable.

It can be a story about the found $20 bill that a youngster hands off as a thank you to a soldier he sees in a restaurant, or the story of the nurse who takes a homeless, autistic man into her home so he can qualify for a heart transplant, or the two preschool girls, one black, one white, who say they are as close as twins. Whatever it is, they all have a way of touching viewer’s emotions.

So, does Hartman have a favorite story from the last 10 years?

“I don’t like doing that,” he answered.  “There’s so much blood, sweat and tears in all the stories. It’s hard to pick a favorite.”

But, if pressed, he will single out the story of a chance encounter between a four-year-old girl and an 82-year-old widower in the canned food aisle of a grocery store.

When watching Hartman’s Evening News segments,  it’s easy to tell he has a lot of faith in people and his belief that his stories represent a country “not nearly as bad as the rest of the newscast would have you believe.”

This is a belief he shared with his Port Huron audience.

“People are good.  Goodness isn’t always obvious, but it’s there if you try to find it,” he told the crowd.  “Most Americans are good.  Most Americans are heroes; they are just waiting for their moment.”

Thanks to Steve Hartman, many of those moments are shared with all of us.

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