Facts, folly and my newspaper swan song

It was a fitting end, my newspaper swan song. A challenging story, my Sunday article was an update of the toughest story I ever wrote — featuring two “Pregnant and Proud” teenagers in 1993, back when Roanoke had the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state.

The public reaction had been harsh. Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

The outcry went national. It was very definitely personal, with more letters to the editor pouring in to decry the story — and the reporter who wrote it — than just about any other piece in our newspaper’s history.

The emotional toll it took on me was mighty — sleepless nights, fears that I’d sunk the reputations of two minors in a way that would forever set their lives on a downward spiral. I was 29 and pregnant with my first child, in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy. I was learning to give myself insulin shots at the same time readers were publicly calling me everything from racist to naïve.

That story — badly packaged and shallowly reported, true though it was — was not my finest moment in journalism, though it not only won awards; it also taught me many of my finest journalistic lessons:

That words matter.

That you can’t predict or influence the reaction people will have to a set of facts in a story.

That you can only do your best to present those facts humanely and fairly, digging as deeply as you can.

That, when in doubt, the medical code of ethics is always a good fallback: Do no harm.

I began trying to revisit “Pregnant and Proud” in 2011. The update seemed every bit as fraught as the first, filled with reluctant family members, depressing statistics, and rap sheets full of raw truths and damning decisions.

The main  subject, Shannon Huff, wasn’t sure at first she wanted another story written. By the time she was on board and the complex set of facts of her life came into focus, I wasn’t sure there was a story to tell myself — at least not one that did no harm.

But not many journalists get to revisit a story some 21 years after the fact. Fewer still get to report from the same place for the same news outlet for 25 years.

When people ask what my favorite part of being a reporter is, I try to describe the way it feels driving to an interview. Sometimes I’m nervous. Usually I’m hopeful. Always I’m running through the possibilities, prepping for the wrinkles that might emerge.

Sometimes moments of grace occur, such as when I told Shannon I’d never set out to harm her and apologized near the end of our first sit-down interview earlier this year. She stood to hug me, tears streaming down her face. She’d “been through hell in gasoline drawers,” as she put it, and her experience as a proud, pregnant teen — including the newspaper feature — had become her unlikely lodestar. She wanted badly now to prove her critics wrong.

The U.S. poet laureaute Natasha Trethewey once told an interviewer that writers have a responsibility to grapple openly and honestly with difficult subjects.  “When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying why open these old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. … The best we can hope for is acknowledgment.”

Acknowledgment. That word was on the spelling test I took as an applicant for a feature writing job at The Roanoke Times in 1989. So was the word accommodate (some things you just never forget!).

The best journalists worry less about accommodating official viewpoints and more about acknowledging the little people caught in the web of tough circumstances, whether they’re showing up for court or for medical treatment, or standing in line at the VEC.

As the great reporter Susan Spencer-Wendel, who died last week of ALS at age 47, put it: “It was a privilege to go to work each day and grow democracy, to ferret out stories no one wanted told, to be trusted to inform and, yes, entertain our readers. When someone would ask me: ‘Who sent you?’ I loved to reply, ‘Well, ma’am, that would be Thomas Jefferson.’ ”

Nothing but the truth: It’s worth remembering the journalistic oath we made when we signed on for all the bad hours, low pay and sleepless nights, infused with the privilege of witnessing heartache and joy and, yes, judgment.

On the eve of the publication of my first book, “Factory Man,” I recently quit newspapering in favor of the deeper dive of researching and writing books. I’ll seek out my usual underdog subjects, working through the issues I now know I was born to tackle.

I’ll mine for the facts, which will do what they always do: morph into falsehoods the more I learn and the deeper I go.

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Shannon Huff, 16 years old in 1993, from the original newspaper article. Public radio reporter Beverly Amsler interviewed me about this story for a featured that aired here.

There Are No Great Stories in the Newsroom (or on Twitter)

jmu cover1HARRISONBURG, Va. — They had just returned from mostly unpaid internships, two or three months of working for free. The managing editor told me she posted to her student newspaper’s website between assignments at the entertainment weekly where she worked. A diner in town had closed, a James Madison University institution, and she’d read about it on Twitter, then posted a brief story to the site.

My talk was supposed to be a back-to-school pep talk for the editors and page designers at the student newspaper, The Breeze, to remind them why journalism matters. I was about to turn in the revisions on my 110,000-word book, “Factory Man,” and I was incredibly tired of sitting at my computer for 12 hours at a stretch. When it came time to prepare my PowerPoint for the talk, it hit me that I could avoid technology (sort of, if you count scissors, tape and a phlegmy sounding scanner on its last leg) and get my main point across at the same time.

I love technology and use it all the time. Especially Command-F on my Mac desktop when sifting through my 530-page manuscript for some hard-to-find detail.

But my main message to the neophytes is that you can’t truly provide the  civic connective tissue that your readership deserves if you only talk/Facebook/tweet with the same people you already know. Too many reporters, young and old, rely on technology as a crutch.glue

Technology bridges geography and time zones, but it is no substitute for wandering around a community you don’t already know. Talking to a grieving mother about her son, who overdosed on heroin, then talking to the mom whose son is about to go to prison for selling him the drugs.

“You have to be there,” says the master, Gay Talese. “You have to see the people. Even if you don’t think you’re getting that much. … One of the problems of journalism today is how we are narrowing our focus and becoming indoors in terms of internalizing our reporting. The detail is what I think we’re missing.”harry

I’d all but finished my book reporting on the hollowed-out factory community of Martinsville and Henry County when a friendly source took me on one final tour. I’d already written about the demolished factories, but it wasn’t until I actually saw Harry Ferguson on his backhoe, burying the last literal chunks of the last factory in Bassett, that I understood it viscerally: “If you’d told people in Bassett 10 years ago that I’d be up here today burying this factory, they’d have said you were a complete fool,” he said.

So I attended my own makeshift factory funerals. I journeyed by kayak down the Smith River, the reason the factories were built where they were. I trounced through an overgrown, chigger-filled cemetery searching out the overturned graves of slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-furniture factory finishers. I talked to dozens of the 20,000 people who’d lost their jobs to globalization and offshoring over the past 15 years, and still had a palpable, almost desperate desire to tell me what it was like trying to live on $8.50-an-hour part-time jobs with no benefits, and the indignities suffered in line at the VEC.

Get away from your damn Smartphones and computers, I told the budding journalists — some of whom were live-Tweeting my talk! — and go back to the basics: paper, scissors, real people. Be the glue, as the great reporter Mary Bishop once taught me, connecting stranger to stranger, if only for an instant.mentors

Find mentors at every stage in your career. Feed the friendly photog, who is your extra set of eyes and the best on-the-scene collaborator you’ll ever have. (My book would not exist without the keen eye of freelance photographer Jared Soares.) Seek out the kind of tough editing we all require and deserve and that secretly drives us crazy; that red pen-wielding hardass who sends you back to your subjects again and again — until, finally, you understand what it is you’re trying to say.

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When a student wanted to know how to show diversity among the largely white, upper-middle class population at JMU, I told her about my first tough editor, Wendy Zomparelli (we called her editing sessions Zomp Stomps), who used to send my features back to me if they didn’t accurately reflect the diversity of our city’s population, down to one-quarter of  our sources being African-American to reflect Roanoke’s 25 percent black population. Every single time. It was the greatest training a young reporter could have.

Stories are everywhere around you, and things aren’t as simple — or as lily white — as they look on the surface, I reminded her. What about the men and women serving your lunch in the gourmet cafeteria? What about the student down the hall whose parents are renting out their newly spare room to pay for your $20,000 state tuition and room and board? What about the uptick in college drinking, opiate abuse in the suburbs, campus rape? Subjects that are all grist for digging beyond the obvious, life-is-good Twitter/Facebook feeds. Ask around. Be genuinely curious. Be friendly. Be skeptical. Above all, keep digging.the book process1

It’s the trust-building and context-layering that require the most attention, I added, showing them the holy mess that turned into my 28-chapter book  — complete with a brick from the demolished Bassett furniture factory that Harry Ferguson handed to me. Between all those arrows and statistics; between the numbers,  timelines and literally hundreds of interview notes — that’s where the magic lies.

Focus on the people, especially those whose voices aren’t typically heard.

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I made this list of what I’ll miss the most for our going-away bash last week at Kirk Avenue Music Hall. What a great send-off it was!

The smell of newsprint when you walk into the doors of 201 West Campbell Avenue.

The way Ezera Wertz asked me, along about three Christmases ago, if I would write his obituary when he died. In exchange for a quart of lima beans, of course.

The trails on Mill Mountain, especially the car trail. Especially the Monument and Star trails. Hell, all the trails.

The always-open pantry of Karen Branch, best neighbor in the world.

Getting paid to know so many kinds of people, from short-order cooks to judges to Cookie, the hairdresser who makes housecalls.

Listening to Old Gabriel, the Norfolk-Southern work whistle — so hopeful and yet so dissonant, as if it’s trying to tell you something. . . like to get up and go to work.

Story ideas from Ed, from way back in his folk-art-selling days, and pep talks from Katherine, who – if you ever find yourself about to interview for a fellowship at Harvard — gives the world’s best advice.

Getting to tell my version of other people’s truths — and knowing that I couldn’t have done it without the trust of people like Linda Rhodes, and Ellen Moore and Martha  Anderson and Vivian Sanchez-Jones.

Knowing that if I get into a child-care jam, I can call Chris or Bill, or Angela, or Sarah or Ian and Kathy. Chris Henson’s inimitable 5-minute-long voicemail messages.

Uncle Frosty’s pool. Aunt Barbara’s generosity. Nana’s pies. Aunt Sue’s ability to jump in there and stay with our kids for an entire week.

Jane Vance’s gin-and-tonics and her 26 cats, especially Rare Rare the Cat With Gray Hair. Mountain-bike rides with Jenna, who slows down so I can keep up.

Sweet and sour soup from Mary when I get sick.

Journalism therapy from Mary when someone hurts my feelings or I get stuck on a story.

Also from Frosty.

Also from Carole, the best and toughest editor of them all – and without whose trust and guidance; without her really getting me and what I’m good at — we would not be going on this adventure at all.

I’ll miss everybody. Especially the planners of our going-away fiesta — Mary and Dan and Frances and Chris and Connie and Frosty, and Katherine and Ed — thanks for always being on our team.

And a huuuuge thanks to my family — Max and Will — for their willingness to rearrange their lives around mine without getting too mad. (Max, you can write a memoir in a few years and get your revenge.)

And the biggest thanks of all to Tom, who for 20 years now has held my hand through all manner of nervousness and seems to love me even when I yell because he didn’t put the packing tape back in the drawer where it belongs. Or the scissors.

He bought me a Valentine’s Day card once with a quote by Jackson Browne with a quote that seems fitting as I toast all my Roanoke pals and the myriad ways you all have had my back: “Life is slippery. Here, take my hand.”

Thank you for celebrating with us. We’ll miss you a ton. And we’ll be back before you know it.

Parents of sweet and easy preteens, beware!

Here’s a radio essay that ran on WVTF, our local public-radio station, this morning. It’s about a semi-recent trip we took to Watoga State Park in West Virginia — one of our favorite places — and about how the family vacation dynamic shifts when kids hit the teen years.

With thanks to my favorite radio editor/reporter, Connie Stevens, who encouraged me to record, then made me sound real good, then even offered her husband up as my babysitter this morning. The perfect trifecta!!! 🙂

Father’s Day

Random things about the father in my life:

1. When the kids are really sick, they want Tom, not me.

2. This used to make me feel bad, but then about this time last year I got full-bore pneumonia. As soon as I was well enough to ride my bike again, I broke my hand. All told, I was laid up for about six weeks, during which time it hit me: The kids are right. I prefer him, too.

3. He is not at all a defensive driver and pretty much operates the car the way he operates his life: Life is good, nothing bad will happen to me. I envy his sunny disposition — except for in the early morning! — but I wish he checked his blind spot more.

4. He’s really cute when he dances. 

5. On our 15th anniversary, he recreated our very first date by renting the screening room at the Grandin Theatre and showing “The Reader” as a surprise.

6. He’ll eat anything you fix him, even if it’s been in the fridge for seven days.

7. He does most of the laundry and, while he can’t fold napkins for anything, he does a pretty good job.

8. Favorites: blue, Guinness, his mom’s chocolate sheet cake, Ireland, the Be Good Tanyas, John Sayles movies, Thomas Jefferson, Mill Mountain on a crisp spring morning, beef brisket (his mom’s recipe), strawberry rhubarb pie (my recipe), Nepal, playing catch with Will, listening to Max crack inappropriate jokes, lying on the chaise lounge in the garden, reading anything he can get his hands on, making people laugh.

9. He’s a really, really good son and nephew. (He’s fixing his dad’s toilet right now, in fact.) Yesterday he set up Uncle Frosty’s blog.

10. If I had to pick one word to describe him, it would be: helper.

Happy Father’s Day, Tom. You’re a fantastic dad, husband, son and friend.
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Throughout the moving-prep process, nary a newspaper reared its head — except when it came to packing the dishes.

Ok, so we’ve found an apartment in Cambridge and rented out our Roanoke Ugly — a giant four-square that’s twice the size of our Cambridge digs but only half the cost. We’ve even held the obligatory yard sale, ditching the ill-fitting pants, tattered Yu-Gi-Oh cards and some of Aunt Barbara’s geegaws (she let us keep the cash; oh, how I will miss the world’s best auntie!).

The big break came today, though. Due to the miracle of Facebook, it only took five hours to find a home for the 10-year-old’s hamster as well as the guinea pig the teenager’s been wanting to unload for some time — the last vestige of the little boy who used to play with her on the floor (which makes me sad, but that’s another story, one that feels even more sober than the one I’m relating now). 

No wonder the Web is killing our business. A few years ago, with a “Free to Good Home” ad in the newspaper classifieds, it would have taken days before the rodents were out of our house — and they would have gone to strangers, not a former student of mine and his wife (I’m considering this payback for writing his law school rec letter!), a young family that is thrilled to be giving their four-year-old daughter the pets for her birthday this weekend.

Using Craigslist, it took all of two hours to nab a renter for our house. We found a rental in Cambridge via a Web site called SabbaticalHomes.com; the landlord is a Columbia University professor who was residing in Berlin for the school year and, via email and just one international phone call, we hammered out a lease agreement and even talked her into letting us bring the mutt.

We used Kayak.com to score a super deal on two flights to Boston at the end of the month so Tom and the teenager can get the lay out of the land (and hopefully put some of the high schooler’s angst about the move to rest). Maybe then he’ll stop insisting that the only person this move to Cambridge is good for is ME!

Throughout the moving-prep process, nary a newspaper reared its head — except when it came to packing the dishes. While I try to remain optimistic, I really do wonder about the financial future of our business. I think there’ll still be a newspaper to return to next summer; I’m just not sure how well staffed it’ll be. 

And yet we can’t count on Craigslist, or even Twitter, to be out there making the public’s business known, as my colleague David Harrison has done so well in recent days with his school scandal coverage. Facebook can provide us with plenty opinions on the school scandal, but as for the kind of reporting Harrison does — pouring over documents, talking to investigators, sifting through both sides of the story and then relating it in a clear and understandable way — there’s no replacing a guy like Harrison, who’s as good a beat reporter as they come.

By the way, I was thrilled to note that editors advertised his position a few weeks back, shortly after he announced he was leaving us for grad school — and, sigh, another career. Another good one gone. In these attrition-heavy times, we can ill-afford one more empty newsroom desk.

The ad, in case you’re interested, is posted — online, of course — at Journalismjobs.com.

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