From a presentation I gave at Harvard’s Walter Lippman House about journalism on Oct. 26, 2009.
Thanks, everyone, for coming. Thanks, especially, to Curator Bob Giles for selecting me to be a Nieman fellow. Every now and then I have a bad day and get a little whiny, and my husband has to remind me: “Yeah, but. . . You’re a Nieman fellow.
Thanks, too, to my sons, Max and Will Landon, for suffering through a move that we know is a big pain but, hey, at least maybe you’ll get a good college-application essay out of it (or take revenge on us in your memoirs).
And an uber-special thanks to my husband, Tom Landon, who likes to call himself the updraft under my armpits, the wind beneath my wings. There’s no story in here that doesn’t somehow have his signature – including brainstorming, first-draft editing, nerve calming and doing every-damn-thing with the kids when I’m on deadline (which is probably why, when they’re sick, they want him, not me).
I think those of you have already taken advantage of his skills — from Final Cut Pro training and video taping, to shelf-putting-up and air conditioner-installing and i-pod doctoring (all of which he does cheerfully, patiently and with great aplomb) — will agree that I am one seriously lucky gal.
I spotted a Longfellow quote on the Harvard music building the other day. And it reminded me of this photo taken by my great friend Josh Meltzer, whose pictures you’ll see a lot of tonight. He was covering the first day of school for a group of newly arrived Somali Bantu refugees; the shot was taken right after a teacher had taught the kids how to use a water fountain, and they were clutching her hand for dear life.
The quote — “To charm, to strengthen, to teach” — also struck me as a good motto for journalists struggling to maneuver our way through these rocky shoals of reinvention.
So tonight I’m going to talk a little about my upbringing and how it has influenced my work. I’ll talk about my place – Roanoke, Va. Sometimes I feel like that old Muppets song — one of these things is not like the other ones — because most of you are newshounds and your work is so far-flung and action-filled in comparison. Whereas I’ll describe what it’s like to report largely feature stories and enterprise series from the same place for 20 years — the good, the bad, the stalker. And I’m going to talk about the people I like to call my journalism “superhero action figures” — the people who’ve taught me and inspired me and helped me along the way.
I’ll end with a show and tell — showing you some specific stories and multimedia projects I’ve done as journalism’s gone through the most turbulent time in its history, and how I’ve tried to keep pace with the changes by learning the hardest, but most important, lesson of them all: collaboration.
But first, in the beginning. . . . my back story, which I think will explain why it is I’ve been called to tell the kinds of stories I write.
OK, so I was not exactly Miss Ohio – I’m the pouty one in the knee socks here, being forced to wear a dress for my sister’s wedding. You can tell by looking that I was a tomboy. When I had to wear a dress to school, I would sneak away and, a block down the street, slip on jeans underneath. I was the first female paperboy in my town (The Urbana Daily Citizen, circulation 8,000 or so).
I got good grades, but the teachers always checked “Talks too much” on my report cards. I have no recollection of this, but my Mom still tells the story of the time I was four and went missing, along with my dog and my tricycle, and she couldn’t find me anywhere. An hour passed. Finally, the neighbor Joanne Kellenberger called: She’d found me, about eight blocks away from our house, at Kroger, the grocery store. . . where I was spotted looking longingly at the popsicles — and chatting up the butcher.
Memories are funny things and, honestly, at 45, I can’t be too sure I’m telling any of this quite right. But I think of myself as the lone extrovert in a house full of introverts — a gregarious version of Harriet the Spy.
I didn’t grow up in a bad home by any stretch. I was fed, clothed, bathed, loved. But it was a place where childish things took a backseat to daily survival: My parents were already middle-aged when they had me, the youngest by far of four, and they were tired.
No one in my family had ever gone to college. My mom finished high school, but my dad dropped out in the eighth grade.
Thirteen steps next door resided a plump old lady who grew irises and doled out quarters for candy – that’s her on the right with her mother and sister, so you can see that I come from some serious Midwestern/Irish stock. My Grandma Macy taught me to read when I was four. She listened to me.
A small miracle happened in 1982, when I stuffed all my belongings into my Mom’s rusted-out Mustang and, with thanks to a few scholarships and a whole lot of financial aid, became the first in my family to go to college.
I did it thanks to a man I didn’t even know about at the time, a Rhode Island blueblood named Claiborne Pell.He’s the senator who shepherded the “GI Bill for Everybody,” also known as the Pell Grant, into being.
I did it thanks to my Grandma Macy and also thanks to my tough-as-nails Mom, who soldered airplane lights at the local factory when the economy was good and watched other people’s kids when it wasn’t. The night before Tom and I got married, she hugged me in her gruff sort of way and told me she was proud. “You have practically raised yourself,” she said.
She’s rarely sentimental, and only on her own terms. She’s also very funny. Now 82, every Memorial Day she still goes to the graveyard where our people are buried to decorate the graves and pose for a picture in front of her own future gravestone.
We’ve named the voice on our GPS after her because, as Tom puts it, when she tells you to do something, you do it.
• • •
At Bowling Green State University, I majored in journalism because I liked to write almost as much as I liked to talk. My sophomore year, for my very first feature writing class, we were assigned the obligatory first-person essay.
Now when I first got to college, I felt like a food-stamp recipient in the checkout line at a Whole Foods. But I had long been a master at the fine art of fitting in. The one thing I’d rarely talked about with my friends, though, was my Dad, who had died of lung cancer (and alcoholism), the year before.
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.
I realized then what writers had the power to do: to make people understand themselves, and each other.
The other big attraction of journalism for me was that, unlike a lot of other professions, not only do you get paid to talk to people. You get to leave the office, usually, to go do it. I was like the four-year-old girl on her tricycle all over again — wandering around, being curious — only now they were paying me to talk to strangers.
I remember my first news professor at college telling us: You’ll know you’ve arrived as a reporter when you can walk into the neighborhood coffee shop and not just know people there already, but actually be able to extract a decent story idea from them.
My first newspaper job, in Columbus Ohio, I covered schools and town government for a chain of suburban weeklies. It was there that I wrote my first newspaper feature story — nothing great, a profile of a man who’d renovated a historic theatre in downtown Columbus. It was awfully written, but it was a lightbulb moment for a 22-year-old who’d had the inverted pyramid stuffed down her throat: The story centered on this portly director who was just brimming with excitement as he showed me his new fountain in the lobby. I led the story with a scene of him doing this and talking nonstop.
Without really realizing it, I was brimming with passion and excitement about revealing to readers his passion and excitement. Something clicked. It was probably the first newspaper story I actually enjoyed, and fretted over, where I really wanted my words to convey what it had felt like to be there.That to me is still the best kind of profile: when you’re writing about someone who’s obsessed with something, and you’re equally obsessed with your subject.
Several years ago I got to meet my journalism superhero Walt Harrington, then a writer for the Washington Post magazine, who spends months with his subjects. I asked him how he knew when it was time to write. How did he know his reporting was complete?
He was ready to write when he started dreaming about his subjects. In other words, when he was obsessed. My friend Mary Bishop — I’ll get to her later — knows she’s ready when her eye starts to twitch (she once had it so bad that she had to stash a bottle of Scotch in her desk drawer). I was such a mess once – swimming in months of reporting, not knowing how the hell I was going to start a series — that she said to me: “You’re so full with this one, Mace, you’re like a tick.”
I worked a year in Columbus, then moved as a feature writer to the Savannah, Ga. News-Press. I had my first brush with narrative writing in Savannah, when I recounted the marriage of a prominent school board member who, in the throes of a messy divorce, called his wife down to a riverfront hotel, shot her and then turned the gun on himself.
I came to Roanoke, Va., in 1989. Now I want to tell you about the local superheroes I’ve found — they’re the people who, when I’m stuck on a story, I think: What would they would do? Sometimes I picture them as the little action figures my son turns to when he’s bored: I pull them out and have them talk to each other: What would Mary say? What would Frosty do? Or better yet, I call them and ask directly. If it’s Frosty I want to talk to, I go sit by his pool.
Frosty Landon was the executive editor who hired me to work for The Roanoke Times in Virginia. He came of age at a time when you could spend your entire journalism career in one place and, if you worked hard, do very very well.
But that wasn’t enough for him. When he retired in 1995, he became a national force for strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. He founded the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit that helps citizens and reporters get access to documents that officials refuse to give up. His single-minded efforts led to a rewrite of Virginia’s open records laws and the creation of a state-funded council that educates public officials and arbitrates disputes. Other states look to his work as a model. And while he likes to pretend he’s a toughie — his grandkids call him Grumps — he’s actually the most generous person I’ve ever known. And the most energetic.
But that day I went for a job at his newspaper in 1989, I didn’t know any of that. He had a reputation as a formidable interviewer. I was scared to death. Picture a cocky editor sitting in a cushy chair with his feet up on his desk. Old Grumpy had a suit on, and he was inexplicably wearing one of the same trademark goofy hats he wears by his pool.When he asked me about college, I mentioned that I’d worked three jobs trying to put myself through.
Finally, his feet came down. I got the job. Years later, I learned that Frosty had a similar story.
But a funny thing happened just a few months after I landed there — at a concert. … OK, really it was at a bar, called The Iroquois. I met Frosty’s nephew Tom — and I stayed. And stayed. And stayed. I stayed so long that they paved our Iroquois Club paradise and put up yuppie downtown condos in its place.
So here’s some background on the place I call home.
The Roanoke Valley (population about 300,000) is surrounded by mountains — hiking and biking distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. There’s a mountaintop park right in the middle of the city that Tom and I make a point of climbing at least two or three times a week. (Or, as Max likes to put it, “What’s up with you and dad and all the walking?”) And atop that very mountain sits — I’m not kidding — the world’s largest neon star.
The city has long been considered a great place to raise a family, with relatively cheap housing, and outdoor amenities that attract both young hipsters and retirees. And when people like Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mary Bishop came to work there to be closer to her parents — and stayed until she retired— The Roanoke Times got a reputation as a writer’s paper.
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 on the city school’s outrageous truancy problem — Tom’s school principal had a huge problem with that one.
Another series 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 is locked up. The other is doing well, working as a secretary for an anti-poverty program. Whether or not there’s a direct correlation between the story and their outcomes, 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 town. Make no mistake: YouWILL run into the people you write about at the grocery. Some have kindly asked me to write their obituaries when they die; others have thought to call me when they’ve just invited their well-heeled friends over for ladies’ bridge club luncheon — and a rat turns up uninvited. I like that.
In the ‘90s, when I wrote a column, I had a stalker who used to leave cryptic, anonymous mixed tapes for me at the front desk, featuring songs like “Afternoon Delight.” Later, he started his own publication, a harsh critique of my work that he called, ironically, The Beth Macy Fan Club. He turned out to be a temp employee working in our own production department. And I still sometimes bump into him at the CVS.
In the late ‘90s, when my kids were little, I took a three-year leave of absence. To help with bills, I lined up some nighttime teaching gigs: one at the community college, where I taught remedial English 01 students, a few of whom had never read a book. I also taught literary journalism at Hollins University, where I’d gotten my master’s in English/creative writing a few years before.
But it was the community college students who stole my heart — people like Randy, a mechanic who showed up to the first class with grease under his nails and wrote about the best job he’d ever had, in construction. His description was good, but he had no punctuation — not a single period — on the page. I’ll never forget him telling me: “If I get me a computer, won’t that put all the periods in for me?”
A few weeks later I found myself at a teaching conference, at a panel on job preparedness for community college students, when one of my fellow teachers started slamming students like Randy. “And what about these Pell Grant students?” he said. “They show up for the first class, get you to sign their forms and then you never see them again.”
That had not been my experience, or my students’. By the time I got home, I was ranting and raving. Until Tom finally said, “Go. Write.”
I ended up producing a series of articles and essays that ran over the next couple of years, including in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon.com and The Christian Science Monitor, which called me the Pell Grant Poster Child. I was invited to give the keynote address at a Congressional ceremony honoring Claiborne Pell. I spoke at financial-aid conferences. I wrote policy papers for the College Board about the enduring importance of need-based aid and how the government was falling down on its promise to democratize higher ed. When Claiborne Pell died earlier this year, I learned about it in an e-mail from one of my former students, who urged me to write something. Here’s the lede of an essay that ran in the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
Claiborne Pell lived in a waterfront house in Newport, R.I. The Princeton-educated senator came from such old money that his people once owned much of New York’s Westchester County and the Bronx.
Among my favorite tales told about the quirky politician was the time he dispatched an aide to buy him some emergency rainwear. When the aide rushed back with galoshes from Thom McAn, Senator Pell remarked, “Well, do tell Mr. McAn that I am much obliged to him.”
I grew up in a roach-ridden house. When it rained a lot, a sticky mildew seeped through my bedroom walls. I could have used a pair of Thom McAn’s myself.
Pell and I didn’t seem to inhabit the same universe. But when I learned of his death on January 1 at the age of 90, I gave thanks — again — for our unlikely link.
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. Here she is, getting ready for the meanest marathon of them all, Big Sur.
Ellen Moore bought a farm and planted trees that weren’t due to bear fruit for seven years. She married the love of her life. She lived three more years, fueled solely by her theory that, yeah, maybe she was dying — but she wasn’t dead yet.
I wrote about an important antebellum-era black educatorwhose story had never been told. Lucy Addison had been a huge influence on black Roanokers, including Oliver Hill, the architect of the landmark school desegregation lawsuit Brown vs. Board of Education.
Research for that piece led me to the Gainsboro Library, a small Tudor-style branch library located in a predominantly black neighborhood. There I met a 16-year-old wunderkindwho reshelved books after school.
Salena Sulliva had grown up in the projects – but she had the backing of a powerfully strong African-American community at this library and a very devoted single mom. Here’s a snippet from the lede of that story:
As a toddler, Salena took naps on the library’s bay window seats. As a teenage library page, she went to France with her high school class, compliments of regular patrons who pitched in to help her mom pay for the trip.
So it was fitting that Salena, now 17 and William Fleming High School’s No. 1-ranked student, was sitting at the library’s front counter as she checked her college notification e-mails.
The University of Chicago, Agnes Scott College, Davidson College, Mary Baldwin College — they’d already accepted her, some offering full rides.
But librarian Carla Lewis and every regular at the Gainsboro library knew Salena was holding out for the big one. They’d been talking about it since her freshman year:
Our girl at Harvard. Wouldn’t that be something?
At 5:10 p.m. March 31, Cambridge gave their girl the electronic nod.
Old men put down the newspapers they were reading and wept. Carla Lewis screamed.
If the money would just come through, the library’s child was going to Harvard.
And, indeed, it did.
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 Harvard, 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.
Tom and I had been mentoring a family of Liberian refugees – helping them fill out forms, driving them to job interviews and to Wal-mart, the only place they could buy “fish with heads.” Tom even taught Tailey to drive, which should qualify him for sainthood.
I’ll never forget watching his wife 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 baby niece in a Ghanian refugee camp right now whom she insisted be named Beth Macy Glay.
But knowing Zeor made me realize that I wanted to help readers see themselves anew, somehow, through these new immigrants’ eyes.
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 Josh, the photographer, had noticed that many of the Somali Bantu were living in a single apartment complex — along with Cubans and Bosnians and working class whites and blacks. There were 12 different languages spoken at the bus stop alone.
I’m ashamed to admit that Terrace Apartments was located not more than five blocks away from my own house, but 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.
That was my first kick in the pants about collaboration. 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 major multimedia projects we worked on together.
The print project focused on the new Somali arrivals, but the Web allowed us to expand it to the stories of the other immigrants there, to tell the history of immigration in Roanoke in new and different ways. We recorded audio diaries of their stories and included maps of their countries and the history of the conflicts that led them to the U.S.
The series hinged on three narratives – the first an overview of their arrival and how unsettling it was when they first arrived. The second was a profile of a battered refugee who wouldn’t look me in the eye – unless I planted myself on the floor where she couldn’t avoid me. That piece focused on Rehema’s rocky relationship with Linda Malone, the stiff, white do-gooder mentor who ended up having more in common with her than either had supposed. The story climaxed with Rehema giving birth and very unexpectedly naming the child after her mentor. “Better start the college fund now,” Linda’s husband said.
We closed with a story about assimilation struggles, featuring a 13-year-old named Sabtow who happened to be beaten up at school during the time we were following him. The perpetrators? Some African-American kids who chided him for “being too black.”
The series won our paper the first of four consecutive APME Online convergence awards. Josh was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year, and I won a Columbia University race reporting award. A decade after Pregnant and Proud, to be honored for diversity writing — that was huge.
Meanwhile, during the six months we were reporting that series, we kept hearing about a group of immigrants who, unlike the government sponsored refugees, were not being welcomed at the airport by caseworkers and volunteers.
When Josh and I started casting about for stories on Hispanic growth, we latched onto three stories as our guides — images we couldn’t get out of our heads:
• Two 10-year-old girls from central Mexico who’d shown up to register for school with their heads still shaved, having dressed as boys during their journey north — so they wouldn’t be raped.
• We learned about a fiery woman named Rocio Ortiz, who’dmanaged to work her way up from meat cutter to plant manager — but at great personal expense.
• And we were introduced to Nohemi Cedillo, an undocumented immigrant who worked three jobs at once so she could hire coyote smugglers to bring her children — one at a time — from Honduras to Roanoke over the course of five years. Everything was going as planned until a coyote called her from somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border to say that her 16-year-old son Melvin was dying, and he had to leave him behind.
Was he dead or alive?Should she turn to immigration authorities for help, or was the fear of deportation too great?
Here she is, getting her children up in the predawn before dropping them off with a relative who’ll take them to school. Josh had established such trust with the family that Nohemi left her trailer unlocked so he could enter quietly and be there when she woke up. Josh also went with her when she risked it all by visiting an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office. ICE officers ended up saying they’d help, but nothing has come of it yet.
Writer Annie Dillard says we should follow what astonishes us. I say the best ideas come when we also follow what moves us.
Early on in my reporting, I got a call from a Franklin County tobacco farmer named Johnny Angell. He wanted me to meet one of his Mexican guest workers, Adrian Castellon, a man who’d been working for him for 17 years — for 10 months a year, only seeing his family for the end-of-year holidays.
After spending an hour with Adrian and the other H2A guest workers at the farm, I knew we had to travel back to Mexico with them to really see what compels them to do this, as opposed to entering illegally and staying, like so many of the others we’d met. I was also smitten by the relationship the Angells had with these workers. When I asked Adrian what he missed most about Mexico when he was in Virginia, he shook his head that he didn’t quite understand me — until Sharon Angell translated in Spanglish: Mucho remembero about Mexico when you’re aqui?
Even though our budget for the year was already shot, we talked our editor into letting us go by arguing that we’d be able to show what compels illegal immigration and what life was like in this village for those who don’t send people North — as a bookend to the series.
That series was a mixture of analytic and narrative, detailing the impact Hispanics were having on the schools and in the workplace. But the heart of the series hinged on the narratives I just described. We did a lot of extra soundslides and added a reader comment section, which had loads of entries.
• • •
Our next project was supposed to be on the region’s above-average elderly population. But then the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shootings happened. Having spent most of my life as a feature writer, I had – believe it or not – never had to call a grieving family on the phone. The morning after the massacre, an editor handed me two pieces of paper. Each had a victim’s name and contact information. One was Jarrett Lane’s.
Now I know most of you are used to hyper-competitive situations and pool reporting, but I’d never had to compete against 500 media reporters from all over the world. Against Oprah’s staff, Katie Couric and the like.
So when Tracey Lane’s minister in her small town of Narrows, Va., told me not to bother the grieving family, I was not among the throng of reporters huddled outside her house the day after the shootings. I wasn’t there when a neighbor intercepted a reporter from the Chicago Tribune and told him, “I know you think you’re from a tough town and all, but you don’t want to see how tough Narrows can be if you go messing with Tracey Lane.”
I’d written the obligatory obit by talking to people who knew him from his Tech classes and from high school. By April 19, photographer Sam Dean was tired of the Tech feeding frenzy — and came to my desk: We’re going to Narrows, he said.
We didn’t know what we were looking for, other than something deeper than sticking a camera in someone’s face.
I called my friend Rick, who called his principal buddy at Narrows High School and vouched for me. Again, when you’ve worked in a region for as long as I have, degrees of separation are scant. If you don’t know somebody you can call, you know somebody who knows somebody you can call.
So while the TV reporters stood watch outside of Tracey Lane’s house, Sam and I went to Jarrett’s old high school, where literally the entire town was preparing for Jarrett’s visitation and funeral. We were the only media there. A former teacher displayed his old sports jerseys. Grandmothers planted pansies. His former Little League coach laid mulch.
When I heard they read from our story the next day at Jarrett’s funeral, I knew our approach had been right.
Sam and I went back a year later, with Tracey Lane’s blessing, for an Easter story of not-quite-forgiveness but something like it, something closer to grace.
We went to church with her. We walked the new bridge that had just been named for her son.Before the shootings, Jarrett had just gotten a full ride to grad school to study civil engineering. He’d wanted to build bridges since he was a kid.
As we stood there with her, Tracey remembered the way Jarrett used to float little Cool Whip containers down the same river as a child, figuring out how the currents ran.
• • •
The last project I want to show you tonight is a series called Age of Uncertainty, which ran last year over a period of six months. I was the lone reporter, but it involved a team of more than a dozen multimedia producers, editors and photojournalists.
The germ of the idea came at a party I’d gone to few years back when a recently retired copy editor came up to me and cheerily volunteered: “I have dementia — in case you didn’t know!”
I hadn’t known. At 63, with a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, Lynn Forbish was still with it enough to describe what it felt like to lose her mind. “Sometimes I can’t remember whether to hook my bra in the front or the back,” she said.
I wrote her story in 2007, a narrative about a prickly, old-school journalist who, in losing her memory, had regained part of herself. (Although sometimes hints of the “old” Lynn still resurfaced — like the time she threatened to send her former co-workers a Christmas card chastising them for not visiting her more. She wanted the card to read: “I have dementia, not fucking herpes!”)
It got me thinking: If being a caregiver for someone with money was as difficult as Lynn’s family described, what was it like for those without? How would the country handle caring for the 76 million baby boomers about to retire? How would we handle it in Roanoke, a retirement destination that already has an elderly population similar to that of many Florida locales?
In late 2007, Josh and I began hunting for stories that could teach us what it means to take care of our community’s frail elderly.
We talked to the region’s gurus on aging, sussing out the gaps in our stretched-thin network of care. We found experts to talk to elsewhere and poured over census data. Josh hung out in area churches looking for caregiver families.
I found Linda Rhodes, subject of the kickoff narrative in the series, at an adult care center PR event, of all places. She was a storyteller’s dream — honest about the good and the bad.
At 60, Linda was too young to retire, and yet there were very few resources to help her keep her dementia-stricken husband at home. Her inability to access home care became a compelling part of our narrative arc. During the months that we followed the couple, Tommy was kicked out of day care. She ended up taking out a second mortgage on their home to help pay for a home-care aide.
That story led to an analysis piece that became the heart of the series: an examination of Medicaid funding of home care and why it falls especially short in Virginia.
To bring that story alive, we featured a home-care aide who knew more about what impoverished elderly people face than all the experts we’d talked to combined. We explained the national geriatrician shortage by profiling a local doctor who saw himself as a warrior for the cause. We wrote about a palliative care doctor whose practice was devoted solely to doing end-of-life house calls for the indigent — and she hadn’t been paid a dime of reimbursement by Medicaid.
We examined rural health-care access issuesthrough the perspective of a woman so desperate to take care of her husband that she took a job at the nursing home where he lived.
We ran 10 stories in all, over the course of six months, with videos accompanying nine of them. Because of the occasional approach, our readers sent in story ideas and leads. With an increasingly shrinking newsroom staff, we had to piece at the series between other assignments — so the staggered publication was borne of necessity. But that ended up playing in our favor when, for instance, the rural wife called me in tears the day Linda Rhodes’ story ran.
Readers still use the searchable database Matt Chittum put together, to see which facilities have the best ratings, where they’re located and whether they accept Medicaid. So if you’re a middle-aged daughter in Kansas, say, struggling to place your mother in a Roanoke facility, that online information can save you hours of research. Seth Gitner, our site designer, worked with a geriatric psychiatrist to develop a Web-based memory assessment tool that families can use online to test for dementia. Producer Tracy Boyer created an interactive graphic that shows county-by-county demographic trends across the state.
It was important to create an ongoing resource in the community that families could turn to in times of crisis — for area agencies, advice, a glossary of geriatric care terms.
Nearly a year after the series ended, I was still getting phone calls from stressed-out caregivers. One man confided that he was so distraught after caring for his wife on his own for four years that he was contemplating murder-suicide.
Those calls were a powerful reminder that, while newspapers struggle so hard to court young readers, we often overlook important, compelling stories about the people who need us and, ohbytheway, happen to still be reading our work.
I want to give a shoutout here to my current favorite superhero (sorry Frosty), Carole Tarrant, who was the brains behind all of these projects — and has never been afraid to send stories back to me — sometimes marked in red pen with ZZZZZZs to indicate boredom. She trusts me and knows what I’m capable of, and when I’m not quite there, she has an amazing ability to zero in surgically, figuring out how I’ve gone astray.
The aging series won the state press association’s top award for public service, a Casey Medal for coverage of children and families, national Online Convergence honors from both Scripps Howard and APME, and a national feature writing award from AASFE. The team also won Pictures of the Year International’s Documentary Project of the Year, beating out a list of finalists that included the LA Times, Washington Post, NY Times and National Geographic.
So what I’m saying is, with Carole as your editor, it’s OK to be the little paper.
• • •
In recent years, I’ve written articles and essays for American Journalism Review that relate to the coffee-shop notion first floated by my professor so long ago — and how the best ideas come from a combination of pavement-pounding, source scrounging and the ability to go out there with a camera and a notebook and really connect with people in our communities.
Back in my own newsroom, which is two-thirds the size it was when I first arrived, some people call me a Pollyanna. They ask how I stay so upbeat. I’ll admit, there are days when I daydream of chucking it all. I’d open a coffee shop, called the Underdog Café. On rainy days, the specials would be Brunswick stew and pimiento cheese sandwiches. People would feel so at home at the Underdog that sometimes — but not often — they’d forget to pay.
But the daydream always ends there, before the menu is even plotted out. After 23 years in the business, after seeing my older colleagues grudgingly accept buyouts, after the uncertainty of watching the corporate execs put our newspaper on the market – only to take it off when the economy tanked – not only am I still at the Roanoke Times, but I still get excited when I happen onto a great story. That’s why I stick with journalism, even as it threatens to bail on me.
I don’t know how we’re going to fix the business model; smarter people than me are going to have to figure that out. But I don’t think we’re gonna get anywhere by surrendering to the industry blues. For me, the very act of doing good journalism — whether it’s for print or online – is the only antidepressant.
• • •
So here I am, trying to suss out a hopeful ending, as is my wont. And I’m reminded of a speech that my editor Carole gave in January after the publisher announced five unpaid furlough days. She began by talking about a scolding she’d gotten from her mother in college — for not going to mass.
I don’t go to church because I work at a newspaper, Carole told her mom. The paper is my way of helping people, my way of serving my fellow man and woman.” She laid it on thick, she admitted.
But in the years since, Carol said she’d solidified her faith in journalism: It’s true that a crisis often propels you in one direction or another, and in my case it pushed me headlong 100 percent into believing that what we do matters to our readers. It matters to our country.
Because it’s one of the great ironies of our time that daily journalism is needed now more than ever — though now more than ever our economic underpinnings feel loose and uncertain.
She continued: I think if I had that chance to pick up that conversation today with my mom, I’d fill her in on what’s happened in my profession. But I’d also tell her that my faith in this place is built on the same thing that sustains a strong church — the people, the community, the newsroom.
Now at the beginning of this meeting, people weren’t real happy. We hadn’t had layoffs, and this furlough announcement was the first real personal hit to our pocketbooks. But the energy in the room shifted during the course of Carole’s come-to-Jesus speech. The shy but fierce redhead was leading her troops to battle, and she needed all of us to make it work. It’s a sentiment we don’t hear often enough these days.
Daniel Okrent may say without hesitation that newspapers will die, but Carole takes the same view that lawyer Ellen Moore adopted when she sat out to run 26.2 miles at Big Sur — with end-stage cancer.
Our institutions may change dramatically, but we will keep doing journalism. We’re not dead yet.