By Matt Hanson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Some reporters would balk at the idea of covering a high school poetry slam. Some reporters would dismiss an event like that as insignificant, commonplace, not worth the time or effort they’d need to write about it.
Matthew Hansen has never been that kind of reporter. For most of his career, the 35-year-old Omaha World-Herald columnist has been the other kind of reporter: the kind who hears about a high school poetry contest, decides to check it out, then comes back and writes a 1,000-word story about poetry, love, loss, the optimism of youth and the wonders of the human spirit. That’s exactly what Hansen did for a 2013 column.
“If you are one of those people who are sure our best is behind us and our worst ahead of us, one of those people bracing for the future, one of those people whose ability to laugh, to think, to feel is blowing away like Nebraska topsoil in a psychic drought, then let me kindly suggest a new cure for what ails you,” he wrote in the opening paragraph of the piece.
Hansen might as well have used the same words to introduce his body of work as a journalist and a columnist. Throughout his career, he has aspired to bring a certain degree of positivity to his journalism, especially to his columns.
“I think a common theme of my column is attempting to show people that everything is in fact not going to hell, that there are reasons to be optimistic about the future, millennials, etc,” Hansen said in a phone interview.
Hansen’s column has provided him with an ideal platform to showcase his distinctive brand of optimistic, observational narrative journalism. With just two columns required each week, and almost no expectations regarding the contents of those columns, Hansen enjoys an usually high level of creative leeway for any journalist, let alone one as young as he is. Hansen said this means he can write about pretty much whatever he wants to write about.
“One of the cool things about this job is that there’s not a lot of structure to it,” he said. “Most of the time, I tell my boss what I’m working on, then I write it and it goes in the paper. It’s a great job. It’s really self-directed.”
For the past three years, Hansen has used the freedom of his column to find and tell the kinds of stories that reflect and fuel his optimism and curiosity. When scouting for his next piece, he says that he looks for stories that amaze or intrigue him.
“I look for things that interest me in the hope that if they interest me they’ll interest other people too,” he said. “I look for stories about people, stories that have some sort of built-in drama to them. And I look for stuff that’s weird, too. Some of the stuff that I really like that I’ve written was the weird stuff.”
Hansen said that he usually doesn't have to look very far for his stories. Most of the time, he said that he stumbles across his stories in the course of living his daily life. This serendipitous approach to finding stories for his column reflects one of the fundamental themes of Hansen’s work: that many of the best stories are all around us.
“A lot of my ideas will just be from paying attention as I go around the city,” Hansen said. “I just live my life and run into stories.”
As a result of this approach, Hansen’s column has spanned a diverse range of topics. His eye for slice-of-life stories has led him to write columns about just about every corner of life in Omaha, Nebraska. He has written stories on baseball and barbecue, politicians and poets, video games and veterans.
Although Hansen’s topics vary greatly from column to column, his writing style does not. No matter what he’s writing about, Hansen writes about it in a distinctive narrative prose. At once poetic and conversational, his writing is as consistent as it is coherent; however, Hansen said it wasn’t always that way. He said it took him nearly 20 years to get to where he is now, professionally as well as stylistically.
Hansen’s journey to the World-Herald, and indeed his whole career in journalism, began when he was in high school. Born and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small town near the Kansas border with a population of little more than 1,000, Hansen said he couldn’t recall having written anything meaningful to him before he joined the Red Cloud High School newspaper during his sophomore year. It didn’t take long for him to get hooked on journalism.
“It was kind of the first thing I thought I was good at, so I just stuck with it," he said.
After high school, Hansen left Red Cloud to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where he planned to major in journalism. After a year, however, he left KU and transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was there -- at UNL, in the basement of the Nebraska Union, at the offices of the student newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan -- that Hansen found the perfect outlet to showcase and develop his journalistic skills. Just as importantly, the Daily Nebraskan provided him with a home away from home.
“It was just the beginning of me connecting to (UNL) and realizing that it was a much more comfortable place for me,” Hansen said. “I immediately became obsessed with the place."
Hansen’s hard work at the Daily Nebraskan began paying dividends. For one, he used his stories there to get a series of internships during college at local and regional newspapers such as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Arkansas. Hansen’s work with the Daily Nebraskan also attracted a number of professors in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNL.
One of these professors, Joseph Starita, became one of Hansen’s chief mentors. Hansen credits working with Starita, who specializes in narrative journalism, for much of his development as a writer and journalist. Under the tutelage of Starita, Hansen honed his writing style and expanded his repertoire beyond sports and basic news to include longer, more serious enterprise stories. Starita also opened doors for Hansen, taking him and other students to Cuba for a depth reporting class and guiding him to enter and win several prestigious collegiate journalism awards, including a couple of Hearst Journalism Awards.
After graduating from UNL in 2003 and spending his summer post graduation at the Democrat-Gazette, Hansen moved back to Lincoln to work at the Lincoln Journal Star as a higher education reporter. In four years at the Journal Star, he didn’t just cover higher education. He took any chance he could get to branch out, jumping on feature stories whenever he came across them and building a sizeable portfolio of human interest pieces in a short amount of time. His penchant for feature storytelling even got him an assignment in Iraq, where he covered the human costs of the war there.
By 2007, Hansen had built a winning resume at the Journal Star -- and the Omaha World-Herald had noticed. That year, the World-Herald offered him a job as a higher education reporter. Sensing that he had accomplished as much as he could in his current place of employment, Hansen took the job and moved to Omaha.
In Omaha, Hansen was the higher education reporter for three years. After that, he wrote stories about the military using his penchant for narrative journalism to tell stories about the lives of Nebraskans in the armed forces. By allowing Hansen to flex his narrative chops for the World-Herald, the military beat served as a kind of precursor to his present column.
After four years as the military reporter, Hansen was promoted to columnist. In his first three years as a columnist, he has written more than 200 columns and continues to write two every week.
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