The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture's rub room in the late '20s or early '30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture’s rub room in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

The more I learn for my book-in-progress, the more I am humbled by how stupid I was when I wrote my proposal for “Factory Man.” I actually told my editor at Little, Brown & Company that I was halfway through my reporting, when in fact that figure was probably closer to 5 percent.

I wasn’t lying when I said it. I had just forgotten the central tenet of good writing: It’s all about great reporting. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn’t know anything before.

What do I wish I’d known before I started writing my book five months ago, after 20-some years of pining to land a book contract?

The connection-making mind needs frequent breaks. It needs mid-afternoon walks up Mill Mountain and breaks to make chili verde, and it craves any help and inspiration it can unearth along the way.

So I tape things to my computer, and atop the notebooks I carry with me on interviews. I write down nice things my book writer pals say to me, such as these aptly incongruent affirmations from Roland Lazenby: “You’re fucking fearless” and “Don’t be scared.”

I read and reread things like this partial paragraph from a profile of hip-hop pioneer Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, written by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger:

 . . . He had an unending appetite for pop culture, a prodigious memory for dates, and a compulsion for cross-referencing them. He can tell you, for instance, that Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985; that Tony Orlando guest-starred on “Cosby” that month, and that “Soul Train” was a rerun that week.

Stand back and look at the contextual heavy-lifting accomplished in just two sentences. Marvel at the astonished, easy tone. Count the status-defining details — where the subject lived, what he watched, who he listened to and what it meant to live inside his brain in the spring of 1985.

John Updike once said we like characters like Becky Sharp and Mr. Quilp because “what we like is life — and if the character is alive, we don’t apply any other criteria.” That’s another inspiration I’ve clipped, with thanks to Martin Amis, who recalled it in an interview with Vanity Fair writer John Heilpern.

The deeper you dig into a subject’s history, the tougher the material-culling will be. I’ve never spent this much reporting time focusing on one industry through one person and, the truth is, we might both be suffering from interview fatigue.

In a one- or two-shot interview, you save the tough questions for the end. But what do you do when the interviews are spread over more than a year? You spread the tough stuff out and hope for the best.

I’m not writing a hagiography, I remind my main character. I’m not writing a biography. So let’s put an end to the embedding jokes about Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus right now!

I’m writing a book about globalization in which he is a heroic main subject but he’s not a saint because, let’s face it, he’s colorful, he’s clever, and he seems to genuinely care about the plight of his factory workers. But he ain’t a saint.

When I worry that maybe I’m stirring up stuff that should remain hidden in history’s dusty archives, I turn to the new U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who said this in a recent interview:

It is better if we grapple with [history]. Openly and honestly. And include parts that are difficult. … When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying, why open old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!

I try to keep central in my mind: I may be writing about wealthy CEOs, but I’m also writing about their impact on tens of thousands of displaced factory workers whose stories are too rarely told.

“Factory Man” contains both history and current events, encompassing a decade of double-digit unemployment in Martinsville, Va., the recent sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and what life was like for a bunch of hardscrabble sawmillers in 1902. The subject is as deep as it is wide and meandering, and that’s what keeps me awake so many nights because I know that finding exactly the right narrative, and the right tone to tell it in, are crucial.

So I write and, like the old sawmillers-turned-furniture men, I try to cull the good wood from the bad. I talk to people on the phone and I visit people, and then I talk to them again on the phone. I’ve driven from nursing homes to trailers to communities so exclusive that they purposely don’t show up on GPS.

I read through court transcripts, annual reports and simplistic old newspaper clippings.

I love, love, love the librarians and the curators, especially Pat Ross at the Bassett Historical Center, and Bill Bishop, the genius at the International Trade Commission who returns my late-night emails — by 6:45 a.m. And people like Bassett barber Coy Young, who just happened to have a stack of archival photos from Stanley Furniture during the Depression.

I really love, love, love my across-the-street neighbors Scott and Jean, who just yesterday brought me a mixed CD and homemade chicken soup to cure my strep.

My husband, Tom, is so patient with all my non-cooking and non-hygiene, he’s the real saint of my book. My son Will comes into my office at the end of his school day and still, at age 14, beams, “Hey mom, how was your day?”

Same as it ever was. I practice Ass In Chair and, for several hours a day, I try as I type to weave story from facts. I rarely take showers or leave the house, except to walk the dog up the mountain. I haven’t seen my hairdresser in six months and it shows.

I worry because I know what Robert Caro says is true:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is.

 I was lucky to stumble into coffee not long ago with Internet journalism guru Clay Shirky, whose parents live in Roanoke and who very kindly offered to read my draft and give feedback. Just as I’m lucky to call on writers like Roland, Annie Jacobsen, Bret Witter and Andrea Pitzer, who advised me to “start recruiting readers now!” — among many other useful things.

Such has been the ongoing lesson I’ve learned from this project, this career, this life: The more exceptional the individual, the more generous they tend to be in sharing what they know.

It had been awhile since Shirky’s heralded book, “Here Comes Everybody,” was published by Penguin, and initially Clay said he had no advice to offer. Then he remembered a tip, a nuts-and-bolts editing suggestion that is applicable to both writing and life.

When the publisher’s copy editor sends his or her edits, simply click “ACCEPT ALL.” It saves time in the long run, and if you stumble on a change you don’t like as you’re reading, you still have time to make that sentence sing.

I’m not sure my ego will let me ACCEPT ALL blindly without previewing the changes first, but if it gets my butt out of this chair a moment sooner, it could be just the thing.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They're all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They’re all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

Nicco Mele on why papers like The Roanoke Times should thrive

On a good day, technology increases people’s engagement with each other.

On a bad day, it’s all about the digital me. “It’s narrow-minded and parochial, and people only read what they already agree with,” said Nicco Mele, the man Esquire magazine dubbed “one of America’s best and brightest.”

The technology guru and Harvard media professor spoke to a smallish group of Nieman fellows this week, thanks to Chilean Nieman Fellow Alejandra Matus (who was just named a 2011 Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; we’re so proud!)

Among Mele’s advice for journalists:

• Remember, it’s not about technology; it’s about people. “The Internet allows people to transact directly with each other and to bypass institutions.” Social media is king.

• How will newspapers fare? “I don’t see the large institutions existing in their current form in five, 10 years.” Accountability journalism — 80 percent of which has historically been done by newspapers, according Web guru Clay Shirkey — will instead be undertaken piecemeal, with no dominant model leading the charge. Damn the digital me.

Mele foresees enterprise journalism being funded by a cadre of foundations, old media, new media start-ups, and, gulp, corporations. “I think we’ll struggle with accountability journalism for 10, 25 years — but eventually it’ll get sorted out because hard news is important.”

• It’s 24-hour pajama time: Journalists should prepare to become freelancers mainly working on their own. “It’s the 1,000 true fans theory: the idea that if you have 1,000 fans who subscribe to you for $100 a year, you can live off that.” (See Paige Williams’ astonishing profile on Dolly Freed and her efforts to crowd-fund the story after it was killed by The New York Times Magazine.)

Mele told an interesting story about how he self-published the lesson plans of his grandmother, a retired middle school teacher — and sells 400-500 copies of it a year via amazon.com.

• Forget institutions; it’s all about people and social networks. “I don’t trust The New York Times. At the end of the day, the people I trust are my social network. They’re my old college roommates — the people whose faults and biases I already know!

“Large institutions to whom power is important will struggle and struggle and struggle with the Internet.

• • •

Just as I was beginning to get totally depressed (again) about the state of the print media, someone asked Mele to forecast the fortunes of medium- and smaller-market newspapers — and the picture brightened. Mele is a big fan of putting local news on the front page, even when there’s big news happening elsewhere.

Papers the size of The Roanoke Times should strive to become the “google groups” of their communities, offering hyperlocal news and connecting readers with one another in new and innovative ways. (Kevin Myatt’s fantastically popular weather blog came to mind here, as did the diehard followers of Doug Doughty and Randy King on all things sports. And I’d put Tad Dicken’s local music reporting up against anybody in the country’s; Tee-man has definitely helped turn our town into a happening music scene.)

In other words, forget trying to be sophisticated, big-city wannabe papers and embrace the local. “I don’t get the Boston Globe putting the Taliban on the front page instead of the major local story of the day,” he said. “They’re not going to be the international news source, and they shouldn’t even try.”

The Internet is about relationships — whether it be professional relationships via Linked In, or Facebook for socializing, or specialized networks that connect local chefs to local organic farms.

“The problem in the U.S. is that we’ve gone mass. And the Internet in my mind is lethal to anything mass.”

Get busy and get creative — not depressed, he added.

“I see lots of opportunity for hope, as long as you get back to the local and build it out from there.”

Respect, Mon

We are so not the kind of people who charge all-inclusive resort trips on their home equity lines in the middle of a recession. Really, we’re not.

And yet. . . here’s an audio slideshow, from our recent trip to  Jamaica, where the preteen drank dozens of “free” virgin pina coladas and led sessions of afternoon volleyball in the pool.

Sadly, by the time we arrived back in Cambridge, the bill was awaiting. But that’s OK. This one was for the kids — a guilt trip, to be honest, to make up for uprooting them from their friends and schools in Roanoke. They’re used to complaining about our more typical cheap-O vacations where we drive everywhere (“Who drives to Canada from Virginia?!”) and camp (“I can’t even get a text!”) and stay with friends and relatives along the way.

As we were leaving the resort on Sunday, the teenager wanted to know: “If we took all our money and sold our house and everything, how long do you think we could live here?”

Collaboration in the multimedia age

Here’s my recent essay for Nieman Story Board, which is the Nieman Narratives’ new online attempt to break down story in every medium, with an emphasis on multimedia projects.

It’s a how-to guide for multimedia/narrative collaboration, with thanks to Jacqui Banaszynski, who led me to collaboration expert Kittie Watson via Facebook; to my pal Kurt Navratil in Roanoke, for his constant good cheer and ideas and way-to-go’s; and to Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who listened to me spew out my thoughts for this essay at Darwin’s Ltd. — and treated me to lunch anyway. Special thanks to Story Board editor Andrea Pitzer, whose collaborative energy is off-the-charts and to my favorite collaborator of all time, Josh Meltzer, who, as ever, gave good feedback on the first draft.

Talk about a collaborative effort!

Searching out change lessons from the center of the storm

For a Kennedy School class I’m taking called Public Narrative, today I was tasked with presenting a paper about continuity and change as it affects the journalism industry — and what leadership lessons my peers and I can take from it. As I was writing this yesterday, I learned that one of my dearest reporter friends was laid off from the Associated Press. Talk about a reality check. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial fish who has no idea he’s in water — because that’s all he knows. It’s hard to sort out the lessons of this journalistic storm when you’re still stuck in the eye of it. But here’s one rambling attempt. . . .

Last year was the worst year ever for journalism in general and for my newsroom in particular. While we didn’t suffer layoffs at my paper (a rarity in the industry), we have had furloughs and buyouts. Our staff shrank mightily, with so many empty desks that the bosses finally had the maintenance guys rearrange the furniture — adding a red couch and a seating area to camouflage the loss. It didn’t work. The truth is, the few of us remaining are so busy that nobody has time to actually sit a spell on the couch.

Morale, as you might guess, is at an all-time low for journalists everywhere. As veteran journalists, we’ve all had several choices presented to us: Do we join the hundreds of other journalists who have jumped ship pre-emptively, getting out of the business before they’re forced? Or do we stay and fight? If we do stay, how as a reporter do we continue doing what we love as the industry shifts from old media to the new? How do we embrace change when we can’t even count on having a job from one week to the next?

Last week, I wrote about my attempt to turn the story of my industry’s loss into a story of redemption; how I’ve tried to reframe the dread-filled conversations that dominate newspapers across the country by inspiring other reporters to remember why it is we were originally called to tell the stories of the downtrodden and the corrupt; how to make the public’s business known. Some call me a Pollyanna, but I’m trying to convince the naysayers in my industry that we can reinvent ourselves but only if we invent new ways of working — and of working better together. That we have to change is evident; what’s less clear is whether we can hold onto our core journalistic values as we commence the metamorphosis. In this age of politically leaning blogs and shouting cable TV hosts, remembering our values of fairness and civic responsibility may be the only thing that saves us. Waving the white flag of surrender sure won’t.

I’ve come to Harvard this year to learn more about families, immigrants and the elderly, which are my specialty areas. I’ve also begun to study theories of collaboration, because I believe that journalists are going to have to learn to share their toys. Papers that used to compete vigorously are already starting to share resources; TV, radio and print are beginning to form unprecedented partnerships. I’ve also decided to use this year away as a time to learn new skills in radio, video and Web design — something few reporters have the luxury of doing because of all those empty desks I mentioned at the start.

The reporter who outlasts the apocalypse, I predict, will be the one who trains herself, in effect, to be a multimedia producer but still knows how to tell the hell out of a good story. She’ll also learn to give younger, Web-savvy readers a reason to go to newspaper Web sites — by offering personal commentary and by interacting with readers/viewers.

It’s an awkward time for journalists: We’re trying to prepare for a Web-based future — but we’re scared because we don’t know exactly what that future is, or whether there’ll be a place for us in it. And oh-yeah-by-the-way: We still have a little thing called a newspaper to put out every day.

Honestly, I don’t know how this narrative will end, or what leadership lessons, if any, we will have learned. I attend at least one “future of news” panel discussion a week, and — reading between the lines spoken by the smartest people in this business — it seems like no one knows.

But if we retain our core values of fairness and public responsibility, I think it’s possible that we’ll look back on this tumultuous period as a time when our century-old institutions kicked it into high gear and birthed a new kind of storytelling — one that still helps people understand their world and each other. Instead of writing our narratives as obituaries, I hope we’ll look back and tell a story about how we changed so much on the surface — but how, down deep, we didn’t change at all.

The Fam in the Big Apple

My first all-by-myself foray into multimedia (and it shows!) is here.

Thanks again to our great NYC hosts, writer pals Francine Russo and Ashton Applewhite — and to Tom, for teaching me i-movie. Thanks, too, to Thorne Anderson, for last week’s photography refresher at the Nieman Foundation.

IMG_3189

Beyond journalism: ISO stories of collaboration

It’s ironic that I’ve been assigned to write a story about the subject of collaboration. I’m an impatient person by nature, given to restlessness (and, alas sometimes, bad manners) when placed amid a large working group. I’ve dreaded group projects as far back as Mr. Zook’s sixth-grade science class. One person inevitably ended up doing all the work, or two people jockeyed over the role of leader, while everyone else sat back and doodled on their papers. I didn’t have to be the boss, but I sure as heck wanted someone to be the boss; otherwise, chaos reigned.

Decades later, I still have to fight my unease about group work, especially in journalism — a field where we’re taught to be Lone Rangers out saving the community’s day with our stunning compilation of sources, scoops and insights on the world. Witness Russell Crowe in “State of Play”: He drives around in his notebook-strewn car, following leads. His boss has no idea what he’s doing, and the young Web-savvy cub reporter they’ve assigned to help him can’t report her way out of a press conference. Photographer? What photographer? Where’s the midnight phone call from the copy desk, asking him why the spelling on the print version of the story doesn’t match the one in the online soundslide? Where’s the designer hounding him for those infographic stats?

These days, if you want to survive in journalism’s changing landscape, it’s not simply nice to make nice hands and share your toys. You have to. You also have to share your sources, your interview notes and your ideas — especially your ideas. And you really have to trust and respect one another. And talk things out — a lot. Bye-bye cowboy culture. Control freaks, share your load and spread the love!

I’ve worked on three fairly exhaustive multimedia projects in recent years, each of them larger and more complicated than the last. I’ve worked with coworkers to create podcasts, I’ve learned to write and narrate soundslides, I’ve gathered data for interactive graphics and written text for video. Twenty years ago, it was mainly just me, a photographer and an editor working a story; for my last project, our team included more than a dozen people, many of them working on seven other, unrelated things. (Here’s a recent essay about this collaboration.)

I came to collaboration begrudgingly at first, that old sixth-grade, do-it-myself mentality seeping through. But I finally understood how much better the end product was when I relaxed a little and trusted the process — and my incredibly able colleagues — and let my ego go. I tried to, anyway. It’s like staying home with young children: It sounds ideal and idyllic, but in reality, it’s a whole lot harder to pull off.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking for experts to interview on the subject of workplace collaboration and group dynamics. But I’m hoping some of my smart pals out in cyberland, and not just the journos, can help me by sharing some stories of their own. (Thanks to Kurt Navratil, a Virginia software consultant, for agreeing to be my first guinea pig…)

Can you tell me about a time when collaboration enhanced a project you were doing and when it didn’t? And why? Can you describe a time when you worked through a conflict with a co-collaborator? (My husband’s co-producer on the documentary telling him, for instance, that he’d “urinated” on her script — an exchange they laugh about now, with “urinating” becoming their code for “editing.”)

Post here or e-mail me at bmacy@cox.net to continue the conversation. Thanks so much.