Digital Guru Clay Shirky on a Newspaper Plan B

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First, the bad news: Print newspapers are in “mechanical hospice,” with 2011 revenues on a par with earnings from the last quarter of 2006.

Then, the, um,  good news (sort of):

It’s Plan B time.

Time for some come-to-Jesus innovation. Those of us who still believe in the power of newspapers to bring people together, enlighten and entertain need to face the fact that right now we have nowhere to go but up. Read the full post »

View from poet Donald Hall’s window: on ageism, writer’s block and the wonder of Andro-Gel

Poet Donald Hall next to the window of his Wilmot, N.H., home. Photo by Gary Knight

Poet Don Hall’s essay about the irrelevance of old people is the best argument against that wrongheaded notion. Published in the Jan. 23 New Yorker, “Out the Window” catalogs the indignities of old age as Hall views it, from being ignored by a grandchild’s teenaged friend, to a run-in with a condescending security guard at the National Gallery of Art — his girlfriend, Linda, pushing him in a wheelchair and stopping before a Henry Moore carving, whereupon the guard approaches to explain just who the sculptor is.

Hall, 83, is probably the world’s authority on the artist, having not only known him well but also written a heralded biography of the man.

But he and Linda say nothing and nod politely, only to be stopped again as they’re exiting the cafeteria by the same dunderheaded guard who bends down to ask Hall: “Did we have a nice din-din?”

Back in his creaky New England farmhouse, Hall takes his quiet rage out on a yellow legal pad, as he is wont to do. He writes with a cheap Bic pen. Then he has an assistant — aka “my friend down the road” — type the essay up, after which he edits it by hand and the ritual continues, noting each new draft with a number at the top. He writes only essays now and takes pleasure in the task, as he writes in the magazine:

New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor, and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at fifty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

• • •

In the spring of 2010, Cambridge, Mass.-based photographer and fellow Nieman Gary Knight and I drove up to see Hall in his New Hampshire farmhouse. We talked mostly about ageism as he sees it,  from the blue armchair where he spends winters watching juncos and chickadees, and worrying about the weight of the snow on the roof of the barn.

Our introduction to the legendary poet had taken place earlier that year when he lumbered onto Harvard’s Walter Lippman House stage looking like Walt Whitman fresh off a bender, his khakis wrinkled and his hair and beard unkempt.
“Poetry is like oral sex!” he bellowed at the start of his talk, which veered from dead metaphors, to a prolonged and recent writer’s block, to the sweet-sad memories of his poet-wife, Jane Kenyon.

An example of a dead metaphor Hall finds hideous: Never write that someone or thing “darted across a room” — better to say “moved quickly” and move on. Hall shared his all-time favorite line of poetry, written by Thomas Hardy, which he recited with bravado, his tongue drilling the consonants like a baseball on wood: “Down their carved names the raindrop plows. . . ”

After an hour and 15 minutes, he stood up abruptly and announced that he was sorry; he needed urgently to get up and go pee.

We loved it. Of all the eccentric geniuses we heard from at Harvard, Hall was the the one who seemed most genuinely himself. He spoke lustily of language —  a tonic for a room of middle-aged journalists who were being encouraged to write in 140-character exchanges and HTML.

Gary and I arranged a follow-up interview through a series of old-fashioned letters; Hall detests the phone. He dictated his notes and directions through his assistant, while I wrote back  on my laptop but mailed my notes  in envelopes made from recycled maps that I imagined he’d enjoy. On his personal stationary, the assistant typed that any Tuesday in May would be fine but mornings were best. “Mid-day I get comatose,” he explained.

• • •

“I used to have solid thighs,” Hall tells us by way of greeting, the morning we arrive at Eagle Pond Farm. His hands are bony, too, with veins like a topographical map. He smiles wryly and points to the Band-Aid on his arm. “It tears for no reason at all; they call it ‘thin skin.’ I kinda like that,” he says. “But getting old is just a series of losses.”

Photo by Gary Knight

When his poet-wife Jane Kenyon died of leukemia in 1995 at the age of 47, Hall said he had so many words gushing from him that some days he couldn’t write fast enough. He wrote memoirs (“The Best Day, The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon”). He wrote poetry collections (“Without,” “The Painted Bed.”)
He talked about her to anybody who’d listen. “If I was at the counter of a diner and someone said, ‘Can you pass the salt?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, my wife used to like a lot of salt.’ ”

For a solid year, he wrote her a letter every day. He couldn’t fill his tank up with gas without driving to her grave. “She would have turned 64 this year, and that’s unbelievable to me,” he says. “I still think about her every day.”

But he also tells us about his girlfriend, Linda Kunhardt, a teacher nearly 30 years his junior. And she’s definitely not the first.

Just two weeks after Kenyon died, Hall bought himself a box of condoms, desperately searching out affairs. They were, he wrote in one poem:

As distracting as Red Sox baseball

And even more subject to failure.

He holds up a recent copy of Poetry magazine to show off Linda’s first published work, called “The Slaying.” It’s a five-stanza poem with a refrain that goes: I find executives in my pants.

Hall giggles and says: “I have no idea what it means.” But he loves that she’s as off-beat as he is and, he adds, “She’s messy, too. She loves my hair.”

• • •

Photo by Gary Knight

In 2007, Hall thought he had written his last. “What came first, the depression or the writer’s block, I don’t know,” he explains. Having just finished his yearlong stint as Poet Laureate of the United States, he found himself pacing from one end of his Civil War-era farmhouse to the other. For the first time in his life, he could not commit words to paper.

He lost 60 pounds.

His son was so worried that he removed his pistol from the house.

He took him to a doctor, who found a pharmaceutical fix. And before long, he picked up his legal pad.

The New Yorker published “Meatloaf” in July 2010, an ode to baseball, grief and poetry, written in nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables.

I live alone with baseball each night
but without poems. One of my friends
called “Baseball” almost poetry. No
more vowels carrying images
leap suddenly from my excited
unwitting mind and purple Bic pen.

With any luck, Hall told us he figured he had one last book left in him, his 39th. And true to word, “The Back Chamber” was released a year later in September 2011. As an L.A. Times reviewer noted rapturously: “Eros and the particulars of skin-on-skin are found on nearly every page.”

A poem generally takes him a year to write, so he had been happy to unearth some abandoned ones from “back from when I was writing a good deal every day and writing a lot of crap.” He saved a dozen of 83 pages and threw the rest away.
During our meeting, one of the recent poems, titled “The Last Stage,” was in its 130th draft and counting. It contained references to Kenyon, dead Red Sox players and anxiety about his house burning down. He read it aloud to us, and it was electrifying.

He said his kids would never want to live at Eagle Pond Farm, and it pains him to consider what will come of his family collections — not the deKoonings and the Warhols as much as the seashells and stones, the tiny lead baseball players he played with as a kid, the statue of an Egyptian ruler he can longer name.
How does he want to be remembered? I asked.

“I’ve lived to see people with three Pulitzers die and be totally forgotten; that might happen to me. But I’d like to think I’ll survive in my work. ”

• • •

In a letter he mailed after our interview, Hall divulged how exactly he’d conquered writer’s block. A pharmaceutical testosterone called Andro-Gel renewed his appetite for … everything.

“Shortly after taking it, my beard grew larger, I felt horny, and I started some new poems. The new book should be dedicated to Andro-Gel! I think this book will be my last. I don’t think I will write any more poems. I am not depressed. I can write prose.”

He may feel peripheral at times, but the New Yorker piece is vintage Hall: elegant and full of gratitude, gumption and candor. I’d love to know how how many drafts he took to compose this thrilling, sweeping sentence:

Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I traveled to another universe.

One dash, five commas, and the anguish of adulthood nailed in just 44 words.

Donald Hall sees the world quite well from his worn chair and, hell yes, he can still write prose.

When he extracted a Kent from its box — he still smokes a pack a day — his hands shook and so did his bushy beard. Photo by Gary Knight

Alzheimer’s deserves to be on the front page

Skip and Meg Curtis, New Hampshire innkeepers, one year after he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.

Meg Curtis read my recent story about Alzheimer’s in PARADE magazine, and she wasn’t happy. Why was her story, painstakingly told to me in an hourlong interview and several followup e-mails, reduced to a simple, two-graph blurb? Why didn’t we include the photograph of her husband, Skip, robbed of his personality by early-onset dementia at the age of 59, so readers could see how shockingly young he was?

“First of all..this is NATIONAL ALZHEIMER’S MONTH!!!!” she wrote in an e-mail last Sunday when the story disappeared. “What appears on the cover is a pie and most of the magazine is devoted to pies! This disease is reaching epidemic proportions, and every one of us will be affected in some way with this disease. Even Medicare could be bankrupted by the Baby Boomer generation.”

Meg was right. Alzheimer’s deserves much more attention than it gets. The struggles she and Skip faced deserve to be told in all their complexities and glories: Her gut-hollowing realization that she had a whale of a bigger problem than a foreclosure notice when her husband finally admitted he hadn’t paid their mortgage in six months — because he could no longer figure out how.

Dealing with an ill-equipped medical establishment (one doctor had difficulty even uttering the name of the disease). Her efforts to keep her beloved husband at home until the end. How little hope she was given beyond Skip’s participation in clinical trials.

An activist now trying to keep the message alive, Meg made a promise to her husband before his death last year  that she would dedicate the rest of her life to fighting “the monster,” as she calls it.

The federal government spends $3 billion annually on research to combat HIV/AIDS, a disease that kills about 10,000 a year, Meg explains. Which is well and good, but it only spends $450 million towards research for Alzheimer’s, a disease that kills 80,000 Americans a year. That’s the message Meg wants to push: To slay the monster, we’ve all got to step up because there’s not an American alive who won’t personally be affected somehow by this disease.

I knew the facts and figures already before undertaking this freelance assignment, having spent a year reporting on caregiving issues and studying long-term care at the Harvard School of Public Health. I also knew, after meeting with several book agents in the throes of my research, that as one put it: “People don’t want to read about dementia — it’s too depressing, and there’s nothing they can do about it to make it better.”

Writing this brief, 600-word PARADE story taught me a powerful lesson about dealing with grieving families. It’s a notion I heard repeatedly during my recent Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Ochberg fellowship: As journalists who regularly interview traumatized or marginalized people, we owe it to our subjects to explain exactly what we’re trying to do before we interview them.

I could have been clearer about my intentions and limitations with Meg and more honest with myself about the heavy-handed summarizing that a short piece in a general-audience magazine requires. But as someone who routinely writes 3,000-word narratives, I can’t help but want to know the whole story.

This story was just a sliver of a piece of the long slog that families grappling with Alzheimer’s face. It focused on the warning signs of Alzheimer’s: The moment a woman progresses beyond simply forgetting where she put her keys to becoming lost and confused driving around her own neighborhood; the moment a man tells his wife in all seriousness and apropos of nothing, “An airplane has just landed on the roof.”

Perhaps that’s as much as I should have talked to Meg about in our interview. But as I explained to her last weekend, my future stories on caregiving will very much be informed by the whole of her story. In a talk I’m giving to the American Medical Directors Association in March, I plan to drive many of her suggestions home.

“Don’t sit back in your rocking chair and just wait to die,” Meg advises other families. Join clinic trials through the Alzheimer’s Association. Get a second opinion from a memory-care expert, especially if your family doctor is uncomfortable talking about the disease. Know your limits, and don’t forget to take care of you.

Skip Curtis died last year at 63, four years after he was diagnosed — but not before helping researchers identify the disease in a clinical trial involving spinal fluid. “It gave us a purpose,” Meg told me. “And he felt that he was helping mankind, which was his main purpose all along in life.”

His story has contributed in other ways, too. The PARADE piece alone generated so much response that the national Alzheimer’s office in Washington told me their helplines were jammed the day after the story ran. More than 32 million sets of eyeballs read PARADE, and that’s another statistic that can’t be ignored in these days of dwindling print-media consumption.

People still read, and they still crave stories that reflect their fears and concerns, even short how-to articles that are buried alongside cover stories on Thanksgiving pie.

Journalism Ethics: Mystery desserts, midnight karma and the best story I never wrote

Historical clippings, pictures and interview notes for the juiciest story I never wrote.

I’m not an ethics expert, I confessed to the room full of students and faculty members attending Engaging Ethics, a Hollins University conference held earlier this week. I  tend to do my best reporting when I go with my gut. What else do you fall back on when you’re alone with a subject and have to make split-second decisions about how to handle sticky material, or ask a painful question or negotiate whether you’ll write the story at all?

It was obvious from the questions lobbed at me and veteran television anchor reporter Keith Humphry that people in our audience believed that ethical standards have dimmed in this age of 24/7 media.

This may sound corny, but  most professional journalists I know believe we’re trying to serve the greater good, whether that means helping a community heal from a tragedy like the Virginia Tech shootings or helping readers understand the signs of PTSD in returning veterans. I touched briefly on three scenarios I regularly face in the field and on the fly before presenting a case study from 2002.

• First lesson: How you treat people matters.

I seriously considered quitting my job the day after the Virginia Tech shootings. That’s how much I didn’t want to call grieving families on the phone. When more than 500 reporters from across the globe converged on Blacksburg, I wanted to flee screaming from the scene. Grieving people were sick of us, and some of my reporting brethren made me sick, too. One guy faked a broken arm so he could interview the wounded at the hospital.

But I was proud of how The Roanoke Times handled the coverage, realizing that the big media would leave and we’d still be here. We may not have gotten every story first, but we didn’t camp out in grieving family’s yards or photograph them sneaking into funeral home offices. In the long run, we ended up with deeper stories built on the most important element in journalism: trust.

Lesson two: Objectivity is a worthy goal. But there are times when you can’t NOT get involved.

Picture a hospital in northern Haiti decimated with cholera. Pre-election riots are about to break out, trapping the medical team you’re covering inside a hospital compound. The doctors are hemmed in by the very people they’ve been sent to help.

Messages are lost in translation with no interpreters available. You’re surrounded by dying people, tired hospital staffers and grieving family members — including a mother who’d left her dead husband by the roadside so she could save her mother and child.

What do you do when a man asks you for money to help bury his son? How about  when a doctor you’re writing about who hasn’t slept in two days asks you to fetch supplies from the office, or mix up baby formula, or how to say “please return in eight days” in Creole?

You do the right thing. Be a person first.

• Lesson three: Give a guy a break but (gently) persevere.  Not long ago an editor and I debated the merits of sharing a prepublication story with a veteran suffering from serious PTSD. Ken, a 52-year-old former Guardsman now on full disability, had backed out of a profile I was working on about him early in the spring. His hands trembled during our first two-hour interview, and his wife told me later that recounting his story to me had left him an emotional wreck. Anticipating this, I’d researched how to interview with people with PTSD ahead of time, but none of my strategizing seemed to help. War was hell, and so was coming home and spilling it out to a newspaper reporter, no matter how empathetic she seemed.

But I kept in touch with Ken over the next several months. By May he was training dogs as part of his therapy. By September I detected the first whisper of optimism in his voice as he recounted a fishing trip to Florida. Seven months after our initial meeting, I asked if he’d reconsider letting use a part of his story, as well as some wonderful photos our photographer had taken before he backed out, and he agreed. He’d be a small piece of a larger story on treatment that a colleague was putting together. I read him the section I prepared, explaining that she would pull from it. Then he asked: Can I read the whole thing? I could tell he wasn’t trying to play me to manipulate the story. But he desperately needed to understand how we were presenting him, in context with the rest of the series.

In general, that answer is: Sorry, no. For myriad reasons. If we allowed subjects to preview every story, we’d never get anything done. People would try to take paint themselves in the best possible light, retract juicy bits, pitch holy hell about every piddling detail. That’s the fear.

There are strong policies against this practice at many news organizations. But Walt Harrington, one of my journalism gurus, gave a group of disciples his blessing to ignore those rules. At a conference a few years back, he shared that he usually reads lengthy narratives to his subjects as a kind of last interview. Ideally, you’ve spent so much time with them by this point that there are rarely any surprises, and there are times when a subject does correct errors of fact and/or interpretation.

I don’t fall back on Walt’s Rule often — maybe twice a year, and usually only on long narratives in which I’ve summarized mightily, putting my own spin on what I’ve observed and felt and gathered over the course of many interviews. Never has a subject surprised me by freaking out over my draft, for we’ve discussed the material at length many times before. Usually, the story gets better because the person finally figures out exactly what I’m trying to do.

Sometimes during the read-through I learn that I have a date, or color, or the fact of some random matter wrong. I remember the lawyer/marathon runner with stage-four cancer correcting me, gently pointing me toward a deeper understanding: No, it wasn’t the sleepless nights that got to her; it was the dreaming. “I was swimming across the ocean and had to reach the other side because there were children who needed me or they would die,” she said as I read her my draft.

Still, most old-school newspapers editors recoil at the idea of sharing stories before publication. But if bending our policy to help someone with a serious anxiety disorder feel calmer about seeing his name and face in print, I don’t see the harm.

It’s not like I’m breaking an actual law. That is, I’m not smoking hash with my subject, as was the case in a rapport-building reporting scenario described by Pulitzer-winning writer Gene Weingarten in a recent ethics session at the Mayborn literary nonfiction conference that was as hilarious as it was thought-provoking. Sure, I’ve had a beer or two with a subject when the occasion merits. On my beat, which tends to focus on immigrants and other underdogs, I’m more likely to be offered things like vegetables that have been washed in a fish pond (in rural Mexico), orange Fanta (by myriad Roanoke refugees who don’t know I’m borderline diabetic) or mystery desserts (one gooey concoction was made of gelatin, sugar and peanuts) or celebratory lamb that I’ve just watched a toddler walk through on the floor. (True stories, and the lamb was quite tasty!)

I’d rather get sick than offend a subject by refusing their homemade, hard-earned food. But relationship-building decisions are always are case by case, and it’s hard to understand — especially far away, from a news editor’s desk — how far a reporter should go to earn an important subject’s trust.

The best editors trust their people in the field. I’ll never forget going to managing editor Rich Martin in tears about a story I’d spent weeks researching. It was a juicy historical piece about the most sensational murder to hit Roanoke: In 1949 a 16-year-old Eagle Scout killed a beautiful Jefferson High School cheerleader in the basement of a prominent church. It made the covers of pulp magazines and commandeered our paper’s front page for months on end. People from their graduating class and others in the community still wonder what happened to the murderer after he got out of prison.

With the help of our savvy news researcher, Belinda Harris, I learned that he’d led a productive second life several states away, becoming a civic leader, church elder and businessman. He died without his children ever realizing his crime. I presume they’re still unaware.

“This story won’t help anybody; it’ll just injure us,” his sobbing widow told me in one of two brief conversations we had at the end of my reporting. “If you print this, you’ll have another obituary on your hands. Maybe more.”

It felt exactly like I’d made my 84-year-old mother cry.

I still have the lede and outline, myriad interviews with relatives from both families, recollections from people who worked the case and  schoolmates who recall what they wore to her funeral. Every now and then someone calls out of the blue wanting to write a book or a screenplay about the tale, asking me to reveal the story’s end, or tell them how I found it. I don’t.

It was the best story I never wrote — an epic tale of violence and redemption. The end of innocence.

Someone else may very well finish the tale one day. But it won’t be me.

But don’t the man’s children have a right to know what he did? the students at the ethics conference wanted to know. What if an unsolved murder in his faraway state turns out to have involved him? How’d  the victim’s family react to the prisoner’s early release?

Another student answered for me. “Was it a matter of ‘First, do no harm?’ ” she offered.

Yep, and knowing my own particular brand of midnight karma. If the story isn’t serving some sort of greater good, I won’t sleep well having told it.

Will it nag at you in the middle of the night? Will you make your mama cry? Those are the real ethical questions to ask.

Eating, roll-overing and laughing our way to the Karoo and back

Intrepid braaier, biker and surfer dude Steve Pike, aka "Spike." With the lamb potjie on the fire, he left for a mountain-bike ride at dusk — and didn't come back till well past dark.

CAPE TOWN — Like the African honey badger — and you really must watch this video to understand the full context of this phrase — Steve Pike don’t give a sh*t.

Except when it comes to feeding people and showing them a great time.

Which explains why the South African surfer dude quickly emerged as one of everyone’s favorite pals during our stay in Cambridge during our fellowship year. Better known for surf-forecasting than sauteing, the 47-year-old Capetonian ended up becoming the go-to foodie for our entire Nieman class.

Catering a party for 60? Spike’s the guy to call.

Lamb chops for Janet's birthday on our last night (sniff sniff).

“Braai” was one of the first things he introduced us to when he demonstrated that a fire isn’t really hot enough to grill over unless you can hold your hand just above it and count to just 10 — any more than that, and you’ll get burnt. Braai is an Afrikaans word that refers to the practice of grilling meat over a wood fire while about 10 of your mates stand clutching beers and telling you what to do.

I watched a whole lot of braai-ing during our recent two-week vacation to visit Steve and his wife, Janet Heard, and my foodie pals are clamoring for some food porn — i.e., what I ate and what I learned about along the way:

 • Mix sweet and savory a la Malay cooking — just don’t forget the mustard seed. We had the best beef of our lives during our four-day stay in the Karoo. Sorry I don’t have a photo to show you here — this is actually a lamb stew on the left here. Apparently we were too busy devouring it to photograph it.

Steve prepared the fillet first by rubbing the entire thing in olive oil, whole mustard seeds and cracked black pepper, then searing it to create a crunchy coating. Then he braaied it to medium-rare in a pan set atop another blazing wood fire. At the same time in a separate pan, he carmellized a pan of onions in olive oil, red wine and about a third of a jar of apricot jam, which seemed to be featured in every meal he made. More jam was then slathered over the meat just before its final cooking atop the onion mixture.

And then: Lekker! (South African for “awesome.”)

• Embrace the potjie, which is essentially any kind of stew cooked for a minimum of two hours inside in a Dutch oven or potjie pot (pronounced “poiky”). Midway through our stay in the remote Karoo, about five hours northeast of Cape Town, Steve slow-cooked a lamb potjie this way, stewing the meat with butternut squash, onions, carrots and tomatoes and copious amounts of crushed coriander seed and — of course — apricot jam.

• Road food, African photojournalist style, is not the same as fast food. On our way to the Karoo,  Janet taught us how to make what she calls a “rollover.” She’d developed the lunch years earlier during a working road-trip with Richard Shorey, now a news photographer in KwaZulu-Natel. Leave it to the photogs to figure out a new way to consume chips, bread and meat.

The tension was palpable as our 13-year-old, Will, couldn’t wait for Janet to reveal the mystery of the rollover, which my husband, Tom, documented here on video:

What you end up with is a panini-like concoction, minus the butter and grill marks. (Back in Roanoke last night, Will asked me to make him one in our driveway, which was fun but not quite the same, although the Subaru’s tire print did make a lasting impression.)

A marketing gimmick, Ronnies Sex Shop is really just a pub out in the middle of nowhere.

• Sex sells, even if all you’re really serving is beer. During our journey to the Karoo, we also happened upon an attraction begun 13 years ago by a gray-braided hippie named Ronnie Price, who had the notion that he could actually lure tourists to his bar in the middle of nowhere if he named it “Ronnies Sex Shop.” (No apostrophe necessary.)

No sex toys, either, thankfully. Just beer. But as Ronnie put it: “Sex sells, you know.”

• Food tastes better outdoors. We four three glorious electricity- and cellphone-free days hiking and biking and eating many kinds of braai-cooked meat in the

Cottage caretaker Anne Reid embraces solace in the mountains — but loves company too.

Karoo, where I interviewed Anne Reid, the 63-year-old hearty soul who runs the lodge at Gamkapoort Dam and who joined us for supper most nights. The Karoo is a rugged, almost lunar landscape full of succulent plants, craggy rocks and thorn trees. It’s as ecologically diverse and as beautiful as anywhere I’ve ever been. When she’s not ferrying tourists and their bikes to the top of windy dirt passes, she uses her Land Cruiser battery to charge her computer, and when she needs to check e-mail, she drives an hour away to the top of another ridge. “You learn to do without,” she says. She gave me a start of the plentiful spekboom succulent, a lime-colored cactuslike plant that she swears will be the saving grace of the world. It’s known for reducing blood pressure, and for its amazing capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions.

The honey badger eats whatever he wants — and never gains weight. If he wants to, he can even eat an eight-pound ostrich egg after stumbling onto it during a bike ride and subsequently toting it home to Cape Town, where he fixed an omelette with a portion of it the next morning for breakfast.

That’s right: The homemade meals just kept coming, even as our trip sadly came to a close. On our last night, we were treated to a potluck to celebrate Janet’s birthday — with Janet’s mom’s boyfriend, Mike, bringing his to-die-for mussels that he’d collected himself and baked in a homemade cream sauce. (Mike did not, however, care much for the honey badger video, which became the joke of our trip. “Why’d they pick an American to do the narration?” he asked, of the campy voiceover that made the standard nature video so funny — at least to the 11.9 million folks who’ve watched the video so far.)

Vicki, Janet’s sister, chipped in delicious meat pies — which are as ubiquitous in South African as hot dogs are here. And Janet made one of her trademark salads that’s become my new very favorite thing: cooked-but-still-crunchy green beans with veggies (whatever you fancy), chunks of feta and a scattering of nuts, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. With all the dieting I need to do now, I should eat this and only this at every meal and, luckily, it’s good enough that I can.

"To Hell 'N Gone" -- before our bike ride down the dirt road to Gamkapoort Dam.

I don’t know how many pounds we gained, but it was fewer than we would have had Steve not also been pushing us to take nine-hour hikes on Table Mountain and mountain bike rides in the Karoo and Tokai Forest Reserve.

Long live the real African honey badger, whose outdoor bonafides are as badass as any creature of the night. Steve challenges his houseguests, but I’m happy to report: He feeds them faaaaabulously well.

Best hosts ever, Janet Heard and master braaier Steve Pike. We missing you!

Notes from a South African newsroom

CAPE TOWN — They giggled when I mentioned relying on our news researcher Belinda Harris, who helps Roanoke Times reporters research background and hard-to-find cellphone numbers. Come again? — the South African reporters wanted to know.

When I talked about working on projects for six, sometimes eight or more months at a time (usually amid other quicker-hit stories), there was a similar rumble of indignation.

The nine reporters who fill the 50,000-circulation, five-times-a-week Cape Times newspaper were hungry to learn more about sniffing out stories that lend themselves to narrative writing, I learned during my July 5 talk at the Irish-owned South African paper. About 20 employees of the Times, along with their sister publications (the Cape Argus, Weekend Argus, The Voice and Cape Community Newspapers) sat in on my presentation, which I gave halfway through my 12-day family vacation to visit our Nieman pals Janet Heard and Steve Pike with their kids, Tyler and Ella.

The Cape Times reporters had just covered Michelle Obama’s visit and are more accustomed to reporting on crime, trauma and marginalized communities than I am. About 15 million South Africans live on less than 15 rand a day — the equivalent of $2 U.S. dollars — and two of three children go to bed without a meal.

As we learned on our earlier tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned most of his 27 years, the unofficial unemployment rate in the nation is 43 percent. Which explains why one former prisoner still spends day in and day out there: Not because he wants to relive the horror and drudgery but because he needs the tour-guide job. (Janet wrote an excellent piece about our visit to the World Heritage Site, explaining why Robben Island is due more praise than it has gotten in the recent past.)

At a rugby party on one of our first nights in South Africa, freelance journalist Tanya Farber recounted heartbreaking stories that she’s written in recent years, including a lid-popper about “corrective rape” — the township practice of raping lesbian women to “correct” them of their ways. Farber even managed to interview one of the perpetrators of the crime.

Most South African journalists seem to be so busy covering the plethora of breaking news stories, many of them routinely working 12 hours a day and reporting in three different languages, that they don’t have the luxury to write very many narratives — though their communities are teeming with juicy, heart-rending and heart-pounding stories to tell.

They’d also reported recently on the four Table Mountain muggings over the past two weeks — something Steve and Janet neglected to tell us about until we were well on our way up the eight-hour, 3,000-feet ascent up and around Platteklip Gorge — in the midst of a raging southeaster.

Janet, who is head of news at the Cape Times, said she found this point the most pertinent among those in my presentation:  If you’re bored at work, maybe you’re boring. Because face it, there are great stories around us EVERYWHERE if only we bother to look — and to listen, with pure intention and genuine curiosity.

It’s even OK to fall in love with your subjects, sort of, I told them — as long as you heed New Yorker writer Katherine Boo’s advice: “I’m not writing you a love letter. I’m trying to create a portrait of you that your sister would recognize.”

I talked about the need to follow up with subjects and develop relationships on your beat: the reluctant father of the soldier with PTSD who finally decides he’s up for being interviewed three years after his son’s death; the retired copy editor (“sub editor,” in South Africa parlance) who asks me to tell her story before dementia destroys her ability to remember it; the routine Mother’s Day feature on a missionary who ends up inviting me to report on a team of doctors treating cholera in Haiti — during the November 2010 riots.

You never know where a subject will lead you.  Jonathan Ancer, the narrative writing guru and group trainer for Independent Newspapers who hosted my talk, is about to publish a riveting five-part serial tracing the journey of his checkbook after it was stolen from him in a burglary earlier this year.

Reporters in South Africa face different challenges than we do. But they stand up at noon to cluster around the TV, checking out the competition, just like we do. They struggle mightily with limited resources, just like we do (maybe even more so, actually). But their biggest challenge isn’t just the Internet; only 10.8 percent of the country has Internet access. It’s also illiteracy, combined with new and very serious government threats to press freedom.

Yet in Cape Town alone, there are about five daily newspapers, more including the tabloids. Two of the broadsheets are written in Afrikaans.

And every day reporters at the Cape Times work doggedly to ferret out stories of corruption, filing multiple stories and speaking multiple languages and knowing in their hearts that if they don’t write it, nobody will. Their tenacity was downright inspiring.

Hours after my talk, a young Capetonian e-mailed me asking me to read and offer feedback on several of her stories. “I am open to criticism,” she wrote. “It is important for growth.”

Trainer Jonathan Ancer, Editor Alide Dasnois, Head of News Janet Heard and me.

Old-school lessons for the new-media generation

I spoke to a wonderful gathering of journalism students recently at the Ferrum College Women’s Leadership Conference, which gave me a chance to think about the things I’ve learned about journalism in 25 years — mostly by trial-and-error. By screwing up first, I mean.

I was also able to work a very important fact into my talk: Sources say that, apparently, I smell quite like Beyonce. (Sorry, the Internet does not provide scratch-and-sniff services at this time.)

Here’s the speech:

Journalism professor Lana Whited has asked me to talk to you today about being an intrepid paper girl in a multiplatform world. In the past year, I’ve blogged, shot video and posted it online, posted pictures to Facebook, used Facebook to find sources and keep in touch with them, written stories that have appeared in both newspapers and magazines and a trade journal — both in print and online.

But here’s the thing I’m discovering about having one foot in old media and the other in the new: The story is still the thing. Social media is well and good, but without the ability to go out and really engage with people who live outside our social and virtual worlds; to talk to them about their desires and fears and memories and dreams and to REALLY LISTEN to what they have to say— we aren’t helping connect people to one another in a way that helps them understand the larger world.

Take, for example, this photo, by my former colleague Josh Meltzer, taken on the first day of school for a group of Somali Bantu refugee kids. Assuming you’re not yourself a Somali Bantu, is this an image you would have seen on your Facebook page or twitter accounts? Doubt it. But underneath that beautiful picture – of kids clutching their teacher’s hand on the way to their very first sip of water from a drinking fountain – lies one heckuva story.

It’s not going to present itself to you on a social media platter, though. To get a story like this, you have to go out and engage with the real world.

As Ursula LeGuin wrote: “The story is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Eons of genetic and cultural programming compel us to narratives with moral lessons, to stories with beginnings and endings.

Today I’m going to meld my own story in with five lessons I’d like to impart to you — themes that I wish I’d known when I was your age and just starting my career, back when I had no idea what it meant to be a “working mom” or wife or journalist/writer/teacher.

The first point comes courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that real courage is having the guts to do the thing you haven’t before done.  In other words, take risks.

So picture me in the fall 1982, in the flat cornfields of northwest Ohio. I’m 18, and my Mom is driving me to college for the first time. We’re in her rusted-out Mustang with my life’s belongings — my Neil Young album collection, my stuffed Ziggy, my clothes jammed into milk crates I’d filched from behind the Dairy Queen.

My family is so poor that I qualify for full financial aid, which covers my tuition, room and board. Heck, if I put in a few hours each week mixing chemicals for the photojournalism department and writing briefs for the public relations office, Bowling Green State University is basically paying me to attend.

When I first got to college, I felt like a food-stamp recipient in the checkout line at a Whole Foods. But I quickly became a master at the fine art of fitting in. The one thing I’d NEVER talked about with my friends, though, was my Dad, who had died, of lung cancer and alcoholism, the year before. Then a feature-writing professor gave us a class assignment to write a personal essay and send it off to a real publication. I was nervous as a wet cat about sharing the complicated story of my relationship with my Dad, but I wrote, I gulped several times (and cried a lot), and I sent it off.

When the piece was published in Seventeen magazine, I got letters from people all over the country, saying they had been there, too, and thanking me for inspiring them to forgive.

I realized then what writers had the power to do: to make people understand themselves, and each other. I also realized, probably for the first time, that poverty wasn’t something to be ashamed of. It made me a more empathetic journalist, drawn to telling stories of the voiceless, and it gave me good material to draw from — if only I was willing to take risks and tell the real, unvarnished truth.

I moved to Roanoke in 1989 to write features for the Roanoke Times, and I’ve worked there on and off ever since. Last year, I was lucky enough to win a Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, where I had the privilege of getting to know some of the finest journalists from across the globe: a British war photographer who covered conflicts from Cambodia to Iraq and who was kidnapped in Gaza; an editor who covered the end of Apartheid in South Africa; a BBC reporter in Zimbabwe keeps her work secret from the government; a science writer from the Washington Post who recently wrote a book called “The Hidden Brain.”

Some of them wanted to know why I stay in Roanoke when there’s such tragedy and intrigue going on in bigger cities and far-flung locales?

The answer is: There’s tragedy and intrigue going on here, too. But you have to work harder to find it.

This brings me to my second major piece of career advice: Find mentors — no matter what level you’re at; no matter where on earth you are — and never stop growing.

I was lucky to latch on pretty quickly to one of my first journalism mentors, a reporter named Mary Bishop who covered minority affairs, neighborhoods and the environment for our paper. Mary had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer reporter before she moved to Roanoke to be closer to her parents, and I consider it my great good fortune to have been able to talk out my problems with her in person, on the phone and over e-mail for two decades. She’s coached me on problems with stories, problems with relationships, problems in life.

Mary taught me a lot of nitty-gritty things about reporting — that the kitchen is the best place to do an interview at someone’s house, for instance. But she modeled for me two far more important things. The first I discovered in the early ‘90s when I dropped by her house on Christmas Eve to give her a gift, and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I later learned that she’d been out all day driving around — delivering Christmas gifts to some of the needy people she’d written about that year.

Mary showed me that it was OK to care about the people we write about. She also taught me that, while Roanoke might not be a place for big breaking news, there was definitely news there. You just had to dig a little harder for it.

For one thing, race scholars have deemed it one of the most segregated cities in the South, a fact I’ve seen play out again and again — in terms of housing, schools and a disproportionately small black middle class. In the mid-90s I wrote a series that examined why we had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.  In a story about how teen pregnancy had become destigmatized, I focused on a pair of teenage best friends who were both 16 and both pregnant. “If she was pregnant and I wasn’t, I knew I’d have to be,” one of them said.

I was away on vacation the week the story ran, and so I wasn’t around when the headline writer labeled the story “Pregnant and Proud,” and chose an almost clowning picture of them for the lead photo.

The story generated so much response that the editor actually had to call in extra editorial assistants to answer the phones. It made the national talk radio circuit. A lot of folks were calling me racist, saying I was intent on destroying the girls I’d profiled. A social worker wrote: “The girls could not have known the impact this would have on their young lives; this newspaper could not have not known.” Other critics said I glamorized them.

Finally, after more than a month of daily letters to the editor — nearly all of them critical — someone wrote in and said:

“You would have thought that Beth Macy had personally impregnated several minors from the responses you’re getting. To fix a problem, you first must see it.” That series won statewide public-service journalism honors and a Southern Journalism Award for investigative reporting, and it sparked the creation of a citywide task force that led to a city office dedicated to prevention.

But it also taught me to think harder about how I presented people — and what impact my words could have on their lives. The girls dropped out of school soon after the story ran. I learned recently that, 16 years later, one of them just got out of jail, and the daughter she was pregnant with when I met her 17 years ago has already become a mother herself. The other woman is doing well, working as a fast-food manager-in-training. (And I’m in the process of trying to do an update story on her now.)

Whether or not there’s a direct correlation between the story and some of the bad things that transpired for these two, I have no way of knowing. But it has weighed on me over the years.

Which is another thing about being a reporter in a mid-sized city. Make no mistake: You WILL run into the people you write about at the grocery — one way or another you WILL be accountable. Some people will ask you to write their obituaries when they die; others might even think to call you when they’ve just invited their well-heeled friends over for ladies’ bridge club luncheon — and a rat turns up uninvited. I like that.

My mentor Mary was an unintentional model for the third point I’d like to get across to you today: There’s a big world awaiting you outside of work. No matter what field you go into, make time for friends and family.

This is something I still struggle with when I find myself in total stress mode about a story. Mary herself got so worked up over big projects that she used to develop an eye tic — and once stashed a bottle of whiskey in her desk drawer to calm her down enough to write. I can get so ratcheted up when I think I’m sitting on top of a great story that I can’t sleep until I nail down the first draft.

Both of us have struggled to find balance in our lives. It’s a trial-and-error thing for me that continues to evolve. I happen to know that I get a little nutty if I don’t sweat every day. In the winter that means going to the Y every morning before work. When it’s warm, my husband and I climb Mill Mountain in the predawn, while the kids are still asleep. I spend more time outside weeding and planting and replanting than is probably healthy for me or my plants.

I try to spend time cooking for and talking to and laughing with my kids, now 12 and 17. I try to always have something we’re looking forward to doing together, whether it’s looking at colleges with the teenager or going into debt for our upcoming, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa.

When a story drives me crazy, it helps to talk it out with people I trust — friends like Mary, or my husband, or an editor. I’ve learned that I work best when I stay organized. Here’s a picture my husband took when I was trying to make sense of some 50 interviews I did for a 2010 series on Lyme Disease. Note the dog, Lucky, who has a knack for being exactly where you don’t want him to be no matter what you’re doing. It looks messy but, trust me, this is Martha Stewart neat compared to what our newsroom looks like — and I actually know where everything is.

What I’m describing here is a life of trying to balance family with work; balancing taking care of others with taking care of yourself. It sounds simple and reductive, like one of those how-to guides you read in women’s magazines.

But it can be tiring and guilt-inducing (especially the parenting part), and often you feel like you’re not doing a great job at home OR at work. Bad things will sometimes happen, depressing things — teenagers, for instance. As Anne Lamott writes: “Life with teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out.”

When my kids were little, I left the paper for three years, during which time I taught writing part-time at Hollins University and Virginia Western and did a little freelancing during the day — while hopefully the kids napped. I ate a lot of really bad Whopper Juniors with cheese in the play zone of the Burger King on Franklin Road. On a good day, I could get an entire class of English comp papers graded while my little ones ate greasy chicken nuggets and disappeared in those primary-colored plastic tubes.

When I returned to my newspaper in 2000, I didn’t set out to focus on outsiders and underdogs, but those were always the stories I wrote best: The lawyer with stage-four melanoma who bucked her doctor’s two-month prognosis and, instead of getting her affairs in order, ran a marathon.I wrote about an important antebellum-era black educator  whose story had never been told, even though she’d been a huge influence on black Roanokers, including Oliver Hill, the architect of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation lawsuit.

Research for that piece led me to the Gainsboro Library, which gave me a wonderful glimpse into the history of black Roanoke. . . and introduced me to a 16-year-old wunderkind, who reshelved books. Salena Sulliva had grown up in the projects – but, with the backing of a powerfully strong African-American community at this library and a devoted single mom, she got a full ride to Harvard.

Which is another huge perk of staying in one place. Not only will your pal the librarian call you to say that Salena’s about to hear from colleges, and you really need to be there if you still want to follow up.

But when a plane full of barefoot Somali Bantu refugees lands on the airport tarmac, the head of the local refugee office will tell you that a helluva story awaits.

My husband and I had been mentoring a family of Liberian refugees, Zeor and Tailey Dolue – helping them fill out forms, teaching them to drive, taking them to job interviews and to Wal-mart, the only place they could buy “fish with heads.” I’ll never forget watching Zeor squeal with delight at the sound of a Diet Coke can clunking from the machine.

“There is a person inside that machine!” she said.

I was too close to Zeor to write about her — she has a niece in a Ghanian refugee camp right now whose name is Beth Macy Glay. But knowing Zeor made me realize that I wanted to help readers see themselves anew, somehow, through these new immigrants’ eyes.

Photo by Josh Meltzer | The Roanoke Times

So back to the Tarmac, and the shoeless mother. That was the starting point for a 2005 series on how these new African refugees were assimilating — or not, as was sometimes the case — into our midsized city.

I wasn’t sure how to frame the story at first. But my longtime collaborator, photog Josh Meltzer, had noticed that many of the Somalis were living in a single apartment complex — along with Cubans and Bosnians and working class whites and blacks.

Now even though Terrace Apartments was located not more than five blocks away from my own house, I’d never really seen it the way Josh did: as the most diverse nine acres in one of the most segregated cities in the South. Which brings me to my fourth lesson of the today: Embrace collaboration and change.

Josh’s curiosity drove me to see the place as the vehicle for telling this complicated but classic immigrant story. It was the first of three big multimedia projects we worked on together — each of which won national awards and brought us accolades and led to good things in our career. Josh won a Fulbright and then landed a full-time professorship; I went to Harvard, which has helped usher in new opportunities including freelance writing and a little bit of international reporting. In November, I won a travel grant to cover a medical mission in Haiti, a trip sponsored by the Dart Society for Trauma and Journalism in conjunction with the Nieman Foundation.

So no matter what field you go into these days, especially if it involves online communication, you are going to have to collaborate. Which is a business-y way of saying: Share your toys. Build meaningful friendships with colleagues that hinge on trust, honesty and mutual respect. Drink hoppy beer with them and make them meals when their wives have babies and, above all, wish them well. Your work will be better if you do.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some groundbreaking projects as journalism has had to sail through some pretty rocky shoals in order to reinvent itself. The story is still the thing, yes, but I’ve had to learn that I’m not the only one charged with telling it. Whereas it used to be just me and a single photographer on assignment, now I’m also working with videographers, multimedia producers, computer animators and data editors who use numbers to map out demographic trends.

I’ve learned to write and record narrative voiceovers for online slideshows; to be interviewed myself for television, radio and Web sites. I’ve learned how to set up and run my own blog for both personal and career use. I’ve used (and admit I’m a little addicted to) Facebook as a way to communicate with readers, solicit ideas and help get my stories out to a wider audience. Oh, and to post videos of my 12-year-old son playing his first jam session with a group of real musicians. The song was The Beatles’ “Come Together,” and I recorded it (shakily) on my phone.

In Haiti — where you can’t count on anything — I was supposed to cover a Salem-based medical mission in Port-au-Prince. But when the cholera epidemic broke out, the medical team was flown via U.N. helicopter to Northern Haiti, where we spent four days in the midst of heartbreak, chaos and life or death decisions.

One woman showed up at the hospital with two sick children, having walked in from the countryside. Her husband and mother had died on the way there, and she’d had to leave them by the side of the road — or risk losing her kids, too.

I kept in touch with readers back home via a newsroom blog and Facebook, trying to describe scenes like this:

Sounds from the cholera shelter: The slap of a doctor’s hand on a child’s arm, trying to raise a vein. A baby whimpering. An old man in a cowboy hat humming his wife to sleep. A young man with Dengue fever and legs afire who wants me to know, in perfect English: “I am a teacher.”

The photographer was unable to accompany us at the last minute, so I was suddenly charged with shooting pictures and video while taking notes for the print narrative I would write after we returned home.  I even set up and gave an interview for a report on Public Radio International’s “The World” from the hospital where we were based. Talk about multiplatform!

As rioting broke out around us and we found ourselves trapped for a day by the very people we were trying to help, I kept on reporting: madly note-taking, audio- and video-recording, taking pictures and sanitizing hands. It was one of the toughest, scariest and most exhilarating days of my career.

Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Always, always follow your gut. In journalism, it’s that flicker in the back of your head that seems to be telling you: This is a story worth pursuing. This is a person I need to keep in touch with because I have a feeling the story’s not over yet. (It rarely is.)

This is one of the best perks of being a journalist: Not only do you get to spend much of your time away from the office, you get to know people in the midst of amazing perseverance, tragedy and triumph. You get to listen. You get to be curious. And if you do both of these things with the purest of intentions, not only will you get to produce a good story that can educate or entertain or maybe even enlighten readers. But you yourself can be moved. I still have days where I can’t believe they’re paying me to do the job!

That scared 18-year-old who got to go to college on a full Pell grant? I actually got to meet Senator Claiborne Pell in 1998, for a series of articles I wrote about the erosion of federal need-based aid.

The 10-part series on caregiving for the elderly that landed me the Harvard fellowship? It all began in 2006 when I ran into a recently retired copy editor who happened to live next door to my babysitter. We were at her college graduation party when Lynn Forbish came up to me, her auburn wig askew and a glass of chardonnay teetering in her hand: “I retired because I have dementia — in case you didn’t know!” she said.

She asked me to write her story before she forgot it as a way to help other families struggling with caregiving and dementia. I knew I was sitting on top of a good story when she said, “Some days I can’t remember whether my bra hooks in the front or the back.”

More than a dozen articles later, I have an essay about Lynn in the March issue of Oprah magazine.

The story in Haiti came about because I got in touch with the Salem missionary I’d written a 2009 Mother’s Day feature about when the earthquake descended on Port-au-Prince some eight months later. Nearly a year after that, I found myself running a series of roadblocks run by machete-wielding thugs. I found myself in a cholera-ward overflow tent, holding my headlamp in the dark so a doctor could see to insert an IV. 

Not long ago, I was riding a school bus for immigrant students in Roanoke when up climbed a little girl named Jamika, a kindergartener who spontaneously gave me a hug. Then another. Then another.

“You smell good, like Beyonce,” she told me. Then she said: “You a little bit old —but I like you.”

I got the bus driver to take a picture of us and posted it, immediately, on Facebook. Of course.

I’m not rich by any means, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for all the six-figure salary jobs in the world.

So remember these hard-earned lessons: take risks, find mentors at every stage of the game, make time for friends and family, embrace collaboration and always, always go with your gut.

You could end up in a Third World cholera ward. Or at a marathon in Big Sur. Or you could end up on a school bus in Southeast Roanoke, smelling like Beyonce and laughing so hard you think you’re going to cry.

In praise of the fact-checkers

A fact-checker at The New Yorker wanted to know how journalist John McPhee was so certain that a river he’d been floating down was the exact temperature he reported.

Why, he’d simply hung a thermometer off the bow of his canoe and looked at the results.

I used to tell that story to my journalism students as an example of fact-checking at its finest. I also used to spout legendary crime reporter Edna Buchanan’s three rules for reporting:

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

In other words, don’t count on someone else to catch your mistakes.

I’ve changed my tune on that one lately, having just survived a rigorous, occasionally sweat-inducing fact-checking experience. For the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, I wrote an essay about a crusty newspaper copy editor I used to work with named Lynn Forbish. As her mind slipped into dementia in 2006, she asked me to tell her story — before she forgot it.

A stickler for details, Lynn was the kind of copy editor who had no problem getting a reporter out of bed at midnight to check a fact. So it was fitting when an O fact-checker tracked me down on vacation recently to double- and triple-check several details in the story, which had already been through four editors at least.

Lynn’s relatives recalled some details differently than I had, including when exactly Lynn’s mind began to falter. Before her 61st birthday? After her 62nd? (It was sometime between the two.)

Which paper was it that she’d worked for in St. Pete – the Times or the Evening Independent? (Both.)

Another editor wanted to me to verify the anecdote about Lynn fighting a bull in Spain. Can a tourist really do that? Step into a ring with an angry bull?

I had relied on a family member’s recollection for that detail. But it was one of those stories that had been told and retold so many times that it turned out no one really knew if or how Lynn fought the bull.

She had, albeit a small one — only it wasn’t in Spain, it was Mexico, according to the newspaper article we finally tracked down, written by Lynn herself. As a wonderful byproduct, that fact-finding mission produced a keeper of a photo of Lynn brandishing a red cape — resolute, brave and absolutely beaming. (I considered it bonus proof that the old gal really had faced down a bull.)

A reporter now for 25 years, I’m sorry to say that most newspapers simply don’t have time to fact-check with the rigor of a monthly magazine — although a certain British copy editor named Suzanne likes very much to keep me on my toes.

I like to think the magazine pieces I’ve written in recent years have had a positive spillover into my daily work. Surviving the fact-checkers has made me try harder to prevent those humbling, late-night “How do we know this for a fact?” calls from Suzanne.

After my November nail-biter of a trip to Haiti, I had to describe what it was like to navigate through angry protests and roadblocks as the medical team I covered fled cholera-decimated Limbe. But were there six roadblocks or seven? And at what point did we arrive at the scariest stop, the one with the blocked-off bridge and the man who clutched both a machete and a stick as he ran straight for us?

In the front seat of our truck, I was so scared I only took notes between roadblocks, after the danger was passed. And you try making sense of notes written while riding on dirt roads with mattress-sized potholes at the same time you’re thinking, man, I really wish they had guns instead of machetes.

At least with guns, death might be mercifully quick.

It took several follow-up interviews with team members before I felt comfortable describing the escape in detail. The bridge roadblock was the fourth, we all agreed. There were six roadblocks in all.

Part of the medical team, in all its post-rescue glory.

The whole ordeal lasted how long? Not one of us had a clue, a detail that spoke volumes about how the brain processes trauma. Could have been 20 minutes, could have been 90.

When is a fact really a certifiable fact? What do you do when people remember things differently, as they ultimately will?

When you’ve been reporting for as long as I have and in basically the same community, it can be tempting to not make that extra phone call, not challenge that source you’ve been calling on for years, not give that piece you could’ve just written in your sleep a 16th or 17th going-over before you turn it in.

For my recent series on the politically contentious issue of Lyme disease, I knew I couldn’t rely on old habits when I interviewed a doctor who greeted me with, “I’ve been looking forward to this as much as a root canal,” then proceeded to pick apart my every question. (When I casually asked what tick-precautions I should take when I hike up Mill Mountain, he shot back: “Well, are you in shape?”)

Which is why I decided to record every interview for the series — something I rarely do — even though the transcription time doubled my work.

Should anyone question the validity of my quotes, I wanted my own thermometer in the water, my McPhee-level proof. (See a fabulous interview with the literary journalism master in this Paris Review.)

McPhee has written that the worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. I’m happy to say I’ve never committed that sin, though I once used the wrong pronoun on a second-reference to a person, giving him — or her; I forget which — a print sex change. Once when was I was very young and rushed I made reference in a profile — of an English professor, no less! — to the writer William Thoreau. Ugh.

It’s the things you think you know that get you into trouble every time.

Long live the fact-checkers.

Bull castration, mountain bikers and other joys of returning to the Star City

Star-topped Mill Mountain in the distance

My  first solo mountain bike on one of my favorite paths: I’m less than a quarter-mile up the Monument Trail when I nearly slam into him. Actually, I hear his rattletrap bike long before I see him. His brakes are squealing from several bends away, like the sound of Norfolk-Southern rail cars screaming to a stop.

He’s not your typical mountain biker. He is helmet-less with baggy gym shorts, a T-shirt and Malcolm X glasses.On his feet are black dress socks and blue Reebok flip-flops, the kind soccer players wear when they’re off the field. I pull over so he can ride past me, but he stops and gives me a friendly stare.

We’re near the edge of this Mill Mountain trail, Frisbee-throwing distance from residential traffic, when the stranger asks: “If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke?”

I assure him he will. He thanks me and white-knuckles it down the trail.  I’m half weirded out, half wondering if my imagination has just conjured him up.  I turn to make sure he’s really gone.

Home again, home again, jiggity jog (and Tom, bless him, did DMV duty).

If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke? It’s a question a lot of people have asked me lately. It’s been exactly a year since we left this small Southern city for the bustling (and R-less) Beantown, the land of crazy drivers, fabulous grocery stores and genuinely big news. We’ve been back for nearly two months now, and some people want to know: How was your year at Harvard? Are you glad to be back?

I’m never sure what to say. The first question is a no-brainer: My year at Harvard was amazing. I was paid — for the first and only time in my life, I’m sure — NOT to work.

But no one really wants to hear that, and I get it. I really do. They’re more likely to want to hear how awful it is leaving it behind. I get that too.

Will I ever again know this many people willing to help me move?

I know of one former Nieman who cried at her desk her entire first week back on the job. Another told me his readers picked apart everything he wrote  — either he was trying too hard to sound high-and-mighty Harvard, they complained, or he was not sounding Harvard enough. Yet another told me she returned to her paper with renewed rigor— but, honestly, she seemed depressed. An international fellow from 2009,  she kept referring to our class as “the robbers” and said it was too painful to re-enter Lippman House.

No wonder they brought in counselors to talk to us about re-entry.

I’ll admit, there were days when I worried that returning to the same job I’ve had for 21 years would feel like a step backward. And then I actually stepped back into the old job, occupying the same old dusty desk , with the same old desk lamp (sorry, Rex; I had it first) and even the same telephone number.

I checked in with my editor and then I did what I always do when I want to find a story so good I can get lost in it: I promptly left.

I don’t care how many meetings you sit in, or how much computer-assisted research you say you’re doing, or how much office face time is politically wise. This is one of my story idea mantras: There are no good stories in the newsroom.

My first story back ran Saturday. Found it at a gas station when I ran into a trusted source and old friend who runs a Mexican store. He’d already pitched it to a younger colleague, who confessed he hadn’t known where to begin. I began it with this question: Are Hispanics really being rounded up and deported from our region and what happens to the families that are left behind?

My second story also ran Saturday. As someone with the so-called families beat, I got a tip about a story that explored the very definition of family. A relative of the source had recently passed away, and his same-sex partner opened up their rural Franklin County newspaper — only to find that the editors didn’t consider a gay partner family enough to list among the survivors.

I drove deep into the country to meet Chris Nichols — past two Bojangles, past the trailer parks, past the tanning/hair/movie-rental salons. He showed me the kidney-shaped swimming pool that he and his beloved had recently built, complete with a sign, “Welcome to Paradise,” and Key West colors inside the trim house. He showed me the cross necklace the nurse handed him moments after the doctor pronounced his partner of 23 years dead; and the note he later found tucked behind some bills he’d been about to mail — expressing that it wasn’t enough just to call yourself a Christian, you also had to express it in deeds.

I found my next story through my stomach, having become addicted to the  bread sold at a nearby farmer’s market before I knew anything about the hands that baked it. I still don’t understand what spelt is, but I’m grateful to have gotten to know Ginger Hillery, a recently widowed farmer and baker who raises five wonderfully quirky kids and runs a church under a willow tree next to her barn. I hope I’ll know her for a good, long time. She’s spiritually advanced, funny and — it might seem like I’m piling on praise here, but admit it, this is impressive: She castrates her own bulls.

“The definition of grace is unmerited favor,” she told me, explaining how she’s managed to keep the farm and the family going in the face of her huge, monolithic grief.

Will I end up in Roanoke? Perhaps the better question is: Will I be blessed to keep meeting unexpected people around the next delicious bend? Will I get to keep writing stories that otherwise would not find their way into anyone else’s definition of a traditional newspaper beat?

And why didn’t I ask that guy on the falling-apart mountain bike: What’s your name, and where on earth have you been?

I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.

  • Advance praise for “Factory Man”:

    "Beth Macy's extraordinary reporting and narrative skills, and her deep affection for the people of the rural Blue Ridge Mountain region, come together in a compelling story about a gritty Virginia furniture maker who refuses to allow his family's company and its workers to become victims of globalization." — J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress citation
  • Tweets

  • Lee Smith on “Factory Man”:

    "The epic struggle of Virginia furniture manufacturer John Bassett III (JBIII) to save his business has given crackerjack reporter Beth Macy the book she was born to write. Longtime champion of the downtrodden and the working American, Macy brings globalization down to a human scale, giving a real voice and a recognizable face to everyone involved, from factory worker to government official to Chinese importer. Thorough reporting and brilliant writing combine to make FACTORY MAN an exciting, fast-paced account of a quintessentially American story that affects us all." — Lee Smith, author of "Guests On Earth"
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