Old-school lessons for the new-media generation

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

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

Here’s the speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Josh Meltzer | The Roanoke Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of the fact-checkers

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

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

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

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least with guns, death might be mercifully quick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live the fact-checkers.

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

Star-topped Mill Mountain in the distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lynn Forbish: “I have dementia, not [expletive] herpes!”

When journalist Lynn Forbish was diagnosed with a fast-moving dementia in 2006, doctors said the end wouldn’t be pretty. She could expect to live about five more years, and chances were she’d die of an infection, curled up in a fetal position.

But Forbish, 67, died Wednesday in a Janesville, Wis., memory care facility in much the same way she lived — on her own terms.

She’d started refusing food last week, clamping her teeth tight and turning her head; pretending to fall asleep. Her final hours were pain-free, with hospice workers and her favorite cousin by her side.

“She was done,” recalled her daughter-in-law, Katie Forbish, of Botetourt County. “As headstrong as she was, by God she was gonna go on her own terms.”

Profiled in a 2007 newspaper story, Forbish was known for holding reporters to her exacting, sometimes copy-skewering standards. From 1993 until her 2005 retirement, she served as the The Roanoke Times’ chief copy desk editor, the final arbiter on stories before they went to press.

When news broke at night or on weekends, her command presence enabled her to pull off coordinating phones, photographers and reporters.

Former reporter Lois Caliri described working with her on a sensitive story about opponents of a proposed AEP power line. Forbish questioned Caliri repeatedly before the story ran, weighing its merits and double-checking every name and detail.

Caliri recalled once telling her: “I love the way that. . . when you speak or need something, people come running.”

Forbish raised her eyebrows, as if to say: “They better.”

To live nearer her son, Forbish moved to Roanoke after copy editing for The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, where she also reviewed entertainers and minced characteristically few words, telling Milton Berle in print, for instance, that he needed a new shtick.

Divorced in the mid-‘60s, she began newspapering in her Janesville hometown, where she advanced from clerk-typist to reporter, covering cops and schools and writing features — while raising two small children on her own. To pay for braces for her son, she once worked three jobs.

“She loved newspapers because she loved to learn new things, and she thrived on that deadline rush,” her son, Larry Forbish, said.

She believed, too, in newspapers’ responsibility to educate and help readers, which was why she approached a reporter in 2006 with a request to write her story — before she could no longer tell it.

As the disease progressed, her personality mellowed. Forbish joined a church, took a boyfriend and stopped snapping at people who “patronized” her by trying to guess a word she couldn’t recall.

To tease her old coworkers about not visiting her more, she threatened to send them a Christmas card that read: “I have dementia, not [expletive] herpes!”

In July 2007, she moved to a facility in Janesville, where her daughter and many other relatives live. Before she became immobile, she liked to wander into other patients’ rooms to socialize and watch television. She loved laughing with people, even after she could no longer talk.

Not long ago, she re-asserted her legendary will by refusing to roll balls of yarn — she never was the crafty type. Relatives suggested music therapy instead.

“It was down with the yarn, up with the Beatles!” Katie Forbish recalled, laughing. “I’m just so proud that she kept her spunk until the very end.”

— Roanoke Times, April 16, 2010

Rough drafts (Or, why it’s good for your stories to get peed on every now and then)

When I saw this photo, posted on Washington Post ace feature writer Hank Steuver’s blog, I had this feeling of nervous excitement, not unlike falling in love — or, maybe better, hate. It was there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I mixed with existential dread mixed with, “Damn straight; somebody really cares!”

The hands in this photo are President Obama’s. Those scratched-out and arrow-riddled words of type belong to his speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Obama’s been criticized in the press for being overly reliant on his Teleprompter — something you’d never know, judging from the smooth way he uses it — but I think this photographic window into his thinking, writing and editing says a lot more about his passion for, and his reliance on, just the right word.

I’ve been a teacher and a reporter for many years, though never a paid editor. I don’t have the temperament for the politics of it, I go crazy if I sit for 10 consecutive hours in stale office air, and I’m often more comfortable talking to strangers than to people I know.

I’m a firm believer in writing and rewriting and then rewriting some more. Very often I take print-outs of my stories to my backyard chaise lounge, with something like my sixth cup of coffee, and try to pretend like I’m scribbling on someone else’s work.

I have to admit, though, I’m not as eager to get those scribbles from someone else. One friend describes the editing process as having your work urinated on. The first time I had a major project returned to me from Carole Tarrant, our newspaper’s top editor, it was all I could do to shake my head, promise to go over the edits one at a time, and run from her office — before I burst into tears. I think it was the long row of ZZZZZZZZZs that did me in. In red ink. Snaking down a section I had spent literally two days crafting.

It was an eight-graph summary of immigration history in Roanoke — you try pulling that off! — culled from scads of yellowed clippings and a thorough reading of a 500-plus page city history.

I thought it sang, frankly. I thought it gave the piece heft and context.

But it put Carole to sleep, as many of our so-called babies do.

It’s taken me 20-plus years to figure this out, but I’ve learned to train myself to respond to red pen edits by taking a deep breath and, deadline permitting, saying nothing at all. The truth is, I’m not equipped to digest that much negative feedback on a project until I’ve had time to let it sink in and simmer — ideally, in private and overnight. Then I pick the edits off methodically, one at a time, working from the easiest fixes to the teeth-gnashers.

If it’s something I’m dead-set on stetting — stet is ancient copy editor-speak for “let it stand” — I try to get my arguments in line before we meet again. I write better than I talk, so I draft my stet arguments out ahead of time, carefully and with the utmost respect. If I really, really care about a line, I’m not above groveling. But I definitely pick my battles. No one likes a reporter who fights over every little nit.

I’m proud to say I have never shouted in anger, “Well, then, take my name off that story!” or threatened to quit (as others have, back when newspapers could afford to tolerate such behavior). I haven’t ever kicked an office trash can a la Bucky Martin, though I once threw a couple of pens at a page designer (sorry, Tim), and I have certainly cursed and groaned, which I consider my constitutional right. As Jeff DeBell is my witness, I have sometimes acted quite immature.

But many a time my butt has been saved by a quick-thinking editor. Brian’s a whiz at helping me ground my stories in data — a weakness of mine — and Carole drills down so deeply with questions that when she lands on the one I can’t answer, I know that’s where my next round of reporting has to begin. Edit sessions with my first editor, Wendy Zomparelli — whose “Zomp-Stompings” were legend — were so loud, long and full of fencing jabs that we sometimes had to close the door so as not to disturb the rest of the newsroom. She drove me crazy with her relentless drive for precision, but we laughed a lot, too, and I have to concede that she’s usually the editor in my head, and I’m better for it.

All of which is to say: Being edited can be angst-ridden and enlightening, challenging and sometimes even fun. The best editors put their criticism in a bun, as my teacher-husband calls it — that is, they find something good to say before and after the moment they throttle you with their red pens.

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.

My Oct. 26 “sounding” talk to my fellow Nieman fellows

Every Monday night, each of the 25 Nieman fellows takes a turn telling his/her story. It’s called a sounding, and when it’s your turn you’re required to feed the group (about 60 people, including affiliates and guests) and then tell about your life and work. It was my turn last Monday. I served good ole Southern food, including Brunswick stew and pimiento cheese and sweet-potato biscuits with Virginia ham. I played music by our very own Black Twig Pickers too. A few friends back home wanted to see how I did, so I’m posting my remarks below — along with some of the photos from my PowerPoint presentation (most of them by Josh Meltzer, though Sam Dean and Kyle Green provided a few as well).

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 Tom has to remind me: “Yeah, but. . . You’re a Nieman fellow.”

Thanks, too, to Nieman staffer Hope Reese, for holding my hand through all of the preparations and to my dinner helpers tonight: Beatriz Oropeza, Sonali Samarasinghe, Audra Ang and Shankar Vedantam. To my boys, Max and Will – a special thanks for suffering through a move that we know is a big pain but, hey, at least maybe you can 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.JM somalia hands

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.

not miss ohioOK, 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 seventh grade.

grandmasapronsThirteen 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.

young pellI 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.

mom at cemeteryShe’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.

rich+frostyFrosty Landon (shown here with another superhero-editor, Rich Martin) 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.

old iroquoisAt the time, our paper had a circulation of 125,000 on Sundays — we’re down to about 95,000 now. I went there thinking I would only stay a few years and move on to bigger and better things. 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.

pregnant and proud hedI 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: You WILL 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:

 

chronicle pell clipClaiborne 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:

joggersThe 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.

 

125 Lucy AddisonI 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:

 

childhoodAs 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. [I introduced Salena here, and she got huge applause for her obvious awesomeness.]

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.

zeor taileyTom 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.

bantu rehema with babe'shandSo 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.

bantu sabtow girlWe 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.

 

Land of OpportunityMeanwhile, 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?

Land of OpportunityHere 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?

immig postcard shot mexEven 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.  [Here I played the soundslide on Sauta, Dashed Dreams.]

• • •

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.

00026306-UPS-thingsheleftbehind-001Sam 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!”

forbish-rotatedI 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.

aging tommyshowerI 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.

sg carole tarrantI 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.

The real faces of journalism

Charles “Hap” Fisher is pushing 103. He doesn’t hear well, he’s got a bum hip, and he needs a pacemaker to keep his ticker beating right. And yet every day he still pulls out his calculator, trying to bring new chemistry formulas into being, trying to do good in the world. “People who don’t work 10 hours a day are sissies,” he says.

One of a growing number of centenarians, he also happens to be the oldest living resident of Brandon Oaks retirement community, the oldest alumnae of Roanoke College and more than likely the oldest scholar still actively publishing research.

My profile of him, which ran in Tuesday’s paper, was essentially a trend piece. I used one very extraordinary individual to reveal one slice of an aging America, a place where the term “senior citizen” can’t begin to capture the diversity of this demographic.

As a Nieman fellow this fall, I’ll get to learn more about the age boom — how it fits into health-care reform, its impact on programs like Medicare and Social Security, and all the other personal and political challenges that present themselves when 76 million baby boomers prepare to turn 65. I’m unspeakably grateful that I’ll get to sit in on classes taught by some of the world’s greatest brains — cutting-edge Alzheimer’s researchers, health-care economists, architects and urban planners who are trying to design the retirement communities of the future.

But I doubt I’ll meet many like Hap, who reads voraciously — The Economist being his favorite publication. When he indulges in a novel, he prefers to read it in Spanish, to keep his mind sharp.

I won’t be spending time with people like Lucille “Big Mama” Blackwell, who died a week ago Friday at the age of 85 and whose obit I had the privilege of writing Sunday. The great-granddaughter of slaves, Big Mama dropped out of school in the third grade to help her parents work a white man’s tobacco farm. She never learned to read, but there was a wisdom about her that I doubt I’ll bump up against at Harvard — or anywhere else. “I have no spirit of fear, and I thank God for that,” she told me last year. “See, when it’s my turn to go, I’m ready to stand before the King and hear him say, ‘Well done, Lucille.’ ” 

I won’t be a five-minute drive from the home of Linda Rhodes, whose struggle to take care of her dementia-diseased husband, Tommy, has been the subject of some of the most heartbreaking and most rewarding reporting of my life.

These are moments you don’t get to witness every day, which is what keeps so many journalists plodding away still — despite all the industry red flags, despite the so-so pay, despite all the times we bolt upright at 3 in the morning worried about a possible layoff, or a possible mistake in the next day’s story, or how we’re going to get our kids to school and practice and music lessons — and still get that story turned in on time. 

I won’t miss the anxiety and the second-guessing you create for yourself when you’re in the middle of a complicated project — and, even though you’ve been there hundreds of times before, you’re still not sure you can pull it off again. (“You’re full as a tick with this one,” my friend Mary told me once, mid-project.)

But I will miss people like Hap, Big Mama and Linda Rhodes. No matter how complex the conversation or how heady the academic vibe, they are the teachers I want to keep foremost in my mind.

In praise of our friends the photogs

At last weekend’s Pictures of the Year International program, the winner of the Best Photography Book Award said it took him 10 years to publish his book, which documents the fall of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, Brooklyn-based photographer Jason Eskenazi made his living working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — as a security guard.

And then there was Balazs Gardi, the winner of the Global Vision Award. He gave a gut-wrenching presentation of his work, which chronicles marginalized communities in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. But he makes his living shooting commercial work for the likes of Red Bull.

The most haunting session I attended was a slideshow presentation by Danish photographer Jakob Carlsen, who won POYi’s World Understanding Award for the decade he spent photographing dalits — the so-called Untouchables of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He pays his bills by cobbling together grants and freelance assignments, and self-publishing books.

It was an assembly of the world’s best photographers. As winners of POYi’s Documentary Project of the Year for our Age of Uncertainty series, photographer Josh Meltzer, online producer Seth Gitner and I were invited to talk about our collaboration on the series. I was the only non-photog in the bunch; the sole person for whom “multimedia” still means a Steno book and a very fine Pilot Precise pen. For now anyway. 

Astonishingly, our trio from the Roanoke Times — by far the smallest-circulation publication spotlighted — was the only newspaper represented amid the presenters, not counting Emilio Morenatti, Newspaper Photographer of the Year (though technically he works for a wire service).

Was this a glimpse into the future of newspapers, with their shuttering bureaus and increasingly thinning staffs? What’s it say when most of the top winners of photojournalism’s top competition just happen to labor piecemeal on their own, for little if any pay, and often for years at a stretch? Who but the viewers of their self-published books, Web sites and gallery shows will see these important images?

Sitting in the cushy, surround-sound conference space at the Annenberg Space for Photography, I wondered about the fate of our industry, the fate of empathy — who knew it was such a bad word? — and, yes, the fate of my own career.

Even College Photographer of the Year Tim Hussin won not for assignments he’d completed at newspaper internships but for the picture stories and sound slides he’d undertaken completely of his own initiative — after the pictures he was getting paid to take were turned in: a family trying to recover from a devastating house fire; a photo essay on the microcosm that is Coney Island.

His work had depth and detail, purpose and passion. And it gave me a glimmer of hope. For it was exactly the kind of work that I believe can save newspapers — the ones that still believe in offering readers in-depth content that they can’t get anywhere else.

Should the last printing press turn silent, I hope I’m still standing next to these driven picture-makers, no matter who, if anybody, is footing the bill. 

To do good journalism, I need their curiosity and their insights and their competitive spirit. I need their unwavering belief that the world needs to see what it is they have captured — the intimate and the ugly and all those other honest moments that, there but for the photogs, would not be seen.

IMG_0417

The Age of Uncertainty team at POYi: Josh Meltzer, me, Seth Gitner.

(Not pictured: Terri Macklin, Alec Rooney, Matt Chittum, Tracy Boyer, Meg Martin, Grant Jedlinsky)

Statistics are well and good, but I think the best journalism begins not with a number but with a story.

 

I love it when I’m leaving a profile subject after the last of many interviews and ask the profilee: “Is there anything you’re worried about with the story?” And the subject answers, “No, we’re good.”

Trust, people. It’s No. 1 in the toolbox,  tied closely to picking the right person to begin with — someone who puts the truth ahead of their image, someone with whom you can develop a near-immediate rapport.

Yesterday, I learned that our 2008 series, Age of Uncertainty, won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. Many people worked on this newspaper and multimedia project, a 10-part series documenting the struggles of caregivers for the frail elderly — both paid and unpaid, medical and not. Their names will be all be listed on the award, and deservedly so.

But two of the many people featured in the series deserve to be singled out for honors, too. One is Linda Rhodes, the 60-year-old full-time worker and full-time caregiver of her husband, Tommy, who’s had dementia for going on seven years. The other is Cheryl Jones, a single mom and community college student who works as a home-care aide for Family Service of Roanoke Valley.

Linda let us into her life like no other subject I’ve encountered before or since. Between photographer Josh Meltzer and I, we probably took 80 hours of her time over the course of several months. She fed us. She invited us to holiday meals. She shared what keeps her awake at night, opened up old photo albums, invited us to her workplace and described in perfect detail who Tommy Rhodes was before the disease stole him away. As a journalist, you’re really not supposed to fall in love with your subjects, but in my 25 years of storytelling I have never been as blessed to garner such trust from a subject. And love her deeply, I do.

Cheryl was angel-sent; there’s no other way to put it. She took time to explain everything from the Medicaid spend-down to the real-life troubles her frail elderly clients have in accessing services. More importantly, she showed us by inviting us into the homes of her patients, friends and even some of the neighbors she keeps tabs on in her Rugby neighborhood. Her name wasn’t in every story in the series, but her presence surely was. If an agency official or medical expert taught me something in an interview, I appreciated it. But when Cheryl said it, too,  I knew for a fact it was true.

Statistics and computer-assisted reporting are well and good, but I think the best journalism begins not with a number but with a story: A wife who has to stop herself from dialing 911 when she thinks her husband might be dying — and remembers the Do Not Resuscitate order. A home-care aide who makes $13,000 a year changing Depends and checking blood sugars and, when a client is too poor to afford cleaning products, balls up little bits of tinfoil to scrub the toilet with instead.

Those are the images that move me and, I hope, allow me to move others. At the heart of it is the thing we talk about least in this business and yet, when you really peel back the layers of any complicated, intimate story, it’s what we lean on the most: trust.

Thanks to editors Carole Tarrant, Dan Beatty and Brian Kelley for giving Josh and me the time to establish real trust. And thanks to Linda and Cheryl for pushing the media stereotypes aside and letting us into their lives.

 

Cheryl Jones visits Margaret "Mother Bass" three times a week, taking care of cleaning, personal errands and light medical duties.

Cheryl Jones visits Margaret "Mother Bass" three times a week, taking care of cleaning, personal errands and light medical duties.

 

Linda Rhodes helps her husband Tommy get ready for bed in a scene from late 2007. Recently, she had to place him in a nursing home while she underwent knee-replacement surgery, but she looks forward to feeling better so she can resume her twice-daily visits.

Linda Rhodes helps her husband Tommy get ready for bed in a scene from late 2007. Recently, she had to place him in a nursing home while she underwent knee-replacement surgery, but she looks forward to feeling better so she can resume her twice-daily visits.