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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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 to continue the conversation. Thanks so much.

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  • Tom Hanks on “Factory Man”:

    Factory Man is “Great summer reading. I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.”
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  • The New York Times on “Factory Man”:

    This is Ms. Macy’s first book, but it’s in a class with other runaway debuts like Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” and Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”: These nonfiction narratives are more stirring and dramatic than most novels. And Ms. Macy writes so vigorously that she hooks you instantly. You won’t be putting this book down. — Janet Maslin
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