Bad boyfriends, bill-paying and ‘Harriet the Spy’: my advice to the Class of 2014

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Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for the honor of speaking to you on such an auspicious occasion. Thank you President Fox, esteemed faculty and guests, graduates, parents and friends.

Almost 30 years ago, I was in your seat. Probably I was daydreaming, deconstructing the commencement speaker’s tie or maybe the wave of his hair.

Probably I was thinking about how the hell I was going to fit everything I owned into my 20-year-old VW Beetle — and whether it would actually make the two-and-a-half hour drive from my college apartment in Bowling Green, Ohio, to the capital city of Columbus, without breaking down. I had roughly 24 hours to prepare for my first “real job,” an internship at a city magazine that paid $200 a week ‑ before taxes. A bore of a position for someone with big-city journalist aspirations, its main task was to update the magazine’s annual dining guide, which meant sitting at a desk and calling 600 restaurants to ask whether they served mahi mahi and took American Express. Every day, for three months.

I was excited. I was terrified. As the first person in my family to have gone to college, I had zero financial cushion to fall back on — no wealthy uncle, no wealthy friends, no more than a hundred bucks in my checking account. I was the daughter of a widow who made $8,000 a year test-driving cars for a Honda subcontractor. My student loans bills were about to come due, and the only thing holding my car battery in place under the backseat of my rusty VW was a broken cutting board my boyfriend helped jam between the rusty metal frame and the seat.

I speak to you now, almost-graduates, from the other side of that dark financial precipice. I tell you this as someone who’s turning 50 in 12 days and who wishes she could go back in time to counsel that scared 22 year old with the burgeoning anxiety disorder, and blanket her with giant beams of confidence. I wish I could whisper to her as she sleeps the deep, post-adolescent slumber of the twentysomething young. I would push back the not-yet-gray hair from her face and tuck it behind her not-yet-faltering ear. And I would tell her this:

 

Remember the lilacs. That’s my way of telling you to spend your time doing what taps into the essence of you, whatever that essence may be.

I was the last child of four — the middle-aged surprise — born to parents who struggled financially and in other ways. I was, practically speaking, raised as an only child — a loner who liked hiding inside the giant grove of lilac trees at the end of my street and eavesdropping on people who walked past. It was my humble sanctuary, a fortress of intoxicating scent and cozy, hidden paths. Safe and unseen, I spent hours there bearing witness to the beautiful and the strange, the just and unjust.

In the fourth grade, my teacher introduced me to the book, “Harriet the Spy,” which I inhaled. I was stunned to find a version of myself on novelist Louise Fitzhugh’s pages. Harriet was a young girl and aspiring author who put stories and facts together in new ways. She was nosy, sure. But she developed the confidence to forge her own way of looking at the world and, by putting forth her own fierce ideas, she discovered a voice that was distinctly her own.

In the decades that followed that awful restaurant guide job — we all have to start somewhere — I went in search of my own inner Harriet. I didn’t set out to focus my journalism on outsiders and underdogs, but lo and behold, after a decade of writing about them, it finally dawned on me that those articles were always the ones I wrote best: The African refugee who squealed the first time she heard a Diet Coke clunking down a soda machine chute and shouted, “There is a person inside that machine!”

The gritty Galax, Va., furniture maker who took on China in the court of international trade to keep his factory going — because those [expletive!] Communists were not gonna tell him how to make furniture!

The teenager who grew up in the projects but had the backing of a powerful African-American community that frequented the neighborhood library where she worked as a page. When Salena Sullivan learned she was getting a full ride — to Harvard, no less — the elderly library patrons put down the newspapers they were reading and wept. The librarian, who was her mentor and best friend, screamed.

I have to tell you, I did some weeping and screaming myself. What a privilege it was, being paid to travel outside my own ZIP code, to bear witness,  to hone my thoughts on these raw and complicated truths that I, and I alone, had noticed. As the writer Annie Dillard once put it: “You were made and set here to give voice to this: your own astonishment.” It’s a lesson worth applying to everything from journalism to nursing to theology.

Develop your own slant. Figure out what moves you and make that your life’s calling. Every time you feel the hair sticking up on the back of your neck, pay fierce attention.

The second thing I want to say to the little girl in the lilacs is this: Ditch the awful partner, the sooner the better. I kissed some seriously nasty frogs before I met a guy comfortable enough with his manhood to marvel at a sunset, and goofy enough to dance the robot backwards across the kitchen floor when I’m least expecting it — just to make me laugh.

Let me tell you why I believe that choosing who to partner with is the single-most important decision you’ll make: For a variety of complicated reasons dating back centuries if not millennia, women now comprise more than half the college student population but still only 20 percent of the country’s leadership positions. This, despite the fact that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.

Staring down the barrel of 50, I am certain that I would not be as confident or competent a writer — or person — had I not married someone who has treated me his equal on everything from grocery shopping to laundry to kid-schlepping.

I’m a first-generation feminist, having grown up in a house where my mom did everything: She worked. She cooked and she cleaned. She hounded my dad on Friday evenings at the VFW bar so he would not drink away his paycheck before the groceries were bought. I’m not judging; my mom can stretch a dime farther than anyone I know, and she was a product of a very different time. Now 87, she still can’t figure out how I get away with NOT ironing my husband’s shirts.

Mom was widowed and in her 60s before she married the man of her dreams, a retiree who sculpted wooden birds and squirreled away his federal government pension so she’d be well provided for after his death. He bought her jewelry and during their weekly outings to the mall, he’d sneak away to pay phones to leave messages she could listen to later on their home phone. He sang: “I just called. . . To say. … I love you.”

Let me say it again: Life is fleeting. Only people who want the best for you should be on your team. Especially your home team.

 

My final takeaway for future me and for all you dear Mary Baldwin squirrels crouched among the lilacs: As much as you can, try not to obsess over  money. As much as you can, spend your energy engaged in meaningful work that makes you happy and enriches your larger community — and the rewards, I promise, will eventually follow.

How much money and fame does one actually need to be content? In 2012, Princeton researchers calculated that, once a basic level of comfort is attained, true happiness is achieved not through the accumulation of stuff but by having the capacity to share meaningful experiences with people. Scientists have actually proven that you’re better served in most cases by underindulging rather than overindulging — by buying less for yourself and doing more for others.

Earlier in my career, while many of my ladder-climbing colleagues moved on to bigger salaries and more expensive cities, I dug my journalistic heels into getting to know the readers of southwest Virginia. The salary wasn’t great, and during the height of the recession and the Internet revolution, my colleagues and I went seven years without a raise. But my midsized city was a great place to raise kids, with beautiful mountain vistas and friendly people, many of them surprising and quirky. I did a story once on Roanoke’s ELL school bus driver, a refugee from a war-torn country who, along with his grown sons, had launched two successful startup businesses in town. Why did the Rwandan refugee still bother driving a school bus for such meager wages? I wanted to know.

I interviewed parents and teachers alike, but it wasn’t until I actually rode the bus for a couple of days that I understood why he considered the ELL kids his calling in life. A five-year-old wearing a bright pink coat and braids sidled up next to me on the bus, grabbed my arm, and took a deep breath — smelling me.

“Mmmmm,” she said. “You smell like Beyonce. You a little bit old. But I like you.”

I’m privileged to know my community through my work. When a big story breaks in my region, there’s a strong chance I’ll know some of the people involved, or at least know someone who knows someone. Degrees of separation can be bad when you want to dash into 7-Eleven to buy coffee cream in your pajama bottoms and see five people you know. But by and large, connectivity is what everyone craves — even the loners among us.

A writer friend told me recently, upon the sale of the proposal for my second book — which is set in a rural Virginia crossroads in the Jim Crow south — that I’d succeeded because I’d managed to make my “small” stories universal and therefore luminous and large. He marveled, “Every corner of the world is as big as the world itself.”

What he meant was, every place is as vibrant as the next — if you’re engaged in it. You’re here today with a much larger and more sophisticated sense of the world than I had almost three decades ago. You’ve spent four years or so honing your own distinctive voices. Now, it’s time to be heard.

Just don’t forget to season your own corner of the world — wherever it ends up being — with your own slant, that tilted way of looking at life that you and only you can provide. Find your own stand of lilac trees, be still amid them, and exhale.

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Photos courtesy Mary Baldwin College, May 18, 2014

Saying goodbye to my 2013 story beacons: RIP Mary Thomas, Eddie Wall and Charlie Pullen

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She sewed at Bassett-Walker Knitting mill. She cleaned in the Bassett Furniture corporate offices. She took care of middle managers’ kids and cleaned people’s homes and, judging from her recent funeral, Mary Thomas took care of the rest of the factory town of Bassett, Va., too.

We should all be blessed to experience the kind of  jam-packed sendoff that Mary Thomas had on November 24, where funeral attendants wearing white nursing uniforms handed out cardboard fans, and the choir blew the rafters off. Friends spoke hilariously about Mary’s “Let’s Make a Deal” purses (“She had whatever you needed in that thing”) and her home remedies — including her secret cure for taking the sting out of a burn. She could do it in person and over the telephone. “You could just feel the fire comin’ outta you,” one speaker recalled.

Mary Thomas, 81, and her husband, Junior (aka, Joon), are two characters in my forthcoming book, “Factory Man,” which recounts the rise and fall of factory work in a small Southern town. They were some of my favorite story beacons — connectors who helped me understand the place I was trying to describe, beginning with the curvy, snake-filled holler where Mary and Junior were born and where they lived the entirety of their lives (previously named Snot Holler, Carver Lane and Chigger Ridge). They also went out of their way to introduce me to other people I needed to talk to and know.

They were astute interpreters who didn’t shy away from controversy or raw truths about race, class and sex. They understood the gray nuances of life in a company town. After everything that had happened to Bassett, and to their friends and families, they wanted the story, finally, to be told.

And they were kind, never once letting me leave their home without handing over an icy bottle of water and a pack of Nabs for the road, thinking my hour-long ride home to Roanoke from Bassett was fraught with danger at every turn. Junior insisted on driving my Subaru down his winding driveway, both of them admonishing me to “be careful” and “have a blessed day!” as I drove away.

They helped me research family stories, volunteered for fact-finding errands to save me the drive, and once, during a visit with our mutual friend Naomi Hodge-Muse, they literally had me in tears and collapsed on the floor. The stories featured William “Porkchop” Estes — a neighbor who was Naomi’s stepfather and Ruby Bassett’s longtime driver — and another relative of Naomi’s who once blew out his television set with a shotgun after watching a wrestler take a slam in the privates. (“Just because he didn’t like what he saw on TV!”)

The stories had nothing to do with furniture-making or the global economy. But listening to them made for the single-most entertaining afternoon of reporting my book.

I think of the Thomases every time I look in the obituaries and learn that another member of the Greatest Furniture-Making Generation has passed. These were men and women who helped construct a rich industry (as well as a rich family dynasty) while making a modest but upwardly mobile life of their own.

Eddie Wall, a Bassett native and longtime factory manager, died in August at 73. Like his grandfather and his father before him, Eddie worked for Bassett Furniture for more than three decades and was happy to describe the cutthroat and pain- and prank-filled world of American furniture-making in its heyday.

eddie wallHe gave me names and phone numbers of other people to call, and described what it was like to watch a worker die right in front of him one day at the J.D. Bassett plant. A saw had worked itself loose from a machine and flew into the main artery near the man’s groin. “You could follow the trail of blood where he was trying to get to the nurse’s office,” Eddie recalled. “I’ve often wondered if I’d thought to grab a rag and put my knee on there and hold it, maybe he could’ve made it.”

Early in my research, Eddie schooled me in both furniture lingo and southside Virginia accents. Back when I couldn’t tell whether my interviewees were calling the area where the dried lumber enters a plant the “rough end” or the “rough in,” Eddie set me straight on the rough-and-tumble rough end.

Finally, my heart goes out to 97-year-old Mabel Pullen, who lost her husband, Charles, earlier this week — at the age of 95. Their stories aren’t included in “Factory Man,” because I only met them recently while reporting another story related to food insecurity, prompted by cuts to the federal food stamp program.

But we spoke about what it was like to be born into a sharecropping family in the Jim Crow South, and they reinforced many of the stories I’d heard from others. About not learning to read because you were too busy working the fields when the tobacco came in and couldn’t go to school. About the pros of factory work (buying property, a family first) and the cons (discrimination and tough working conditions).

It was a privilege to meet Charlie Pullen, though he was no longer lucid enough to talk. Still trim at 95, he displayed a hearty appetite as his daughter, Janet Johnson, whipped up four eggs and a skillet full of gravy on a late-October morning, and he lapped up every bite.

The couple would have qualified for food stamps but they were too proud to apply, Janet explained. One reader was so moved by the newspaper story that he sent me a very generous check for them. So back to Truevine I drove  the week before Thanksgiving to deliver the gift. When Janet saw it, she showed me the Thanksgiving dinner wish list she’d just jotted down. She said she’d had no idea how she was going to buy the food.

“God bless you a double potion,” she said, hugging me and saying she’d put the donor’s name on her church prayer list.

I often tell people that working as a reporter is like getting paid to get a graduate degree in whatever you’re interested in.

But the even bigger gift is getting to know people like Charlie Pullen, Mary Thomas and Eddie Wall.

May their souls rest in peace, and may my words do them the justice they deserve.

Janet Johnson, 70, feeds her parents breakfast most mornings at their Franklin County home in Truevine. Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis

Janet Johnson, 70, feeds her parents breakfast most mornings at their Franklin County home in Truevine. Charlie Pullen (right) passed away earlier this week at the age of 95. Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis

What Would Robert Caro Do? (I finally got to ask.)

From the back cover of a reporter's notebook, where I tape reminders on story structure, Caro-style digging and other inspirations.

From the back cover of a reporter’s notebook, where I tape reminders on story structure, Caro-style digging and other inspirations.

Twenty-six people were featured in the iconic Air Force One photo of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as President of the United States. Standing next to him was Jacqueline Kennedy, just 43 minutes after her husband was pronounced dead.

The prize-winning journalist Robert Caro, who’s spent four decades chronicling the 36th president in a series of acclaimed biographies, had examined the records and talked to most all of the 26 people on board the plane that day, many of them multiple times. Then it hit him: After thousands of interviews about Lyndon Johnson, after decades of archives-combing, he’d never thought to interview the photographer who’d taken the picture.

So Caro found himself calling the Florida home of 89-year-old retired White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, praying he wasn’t actually calling Stoughton’s widow.

“My name is Robert Caro, and I’m writing books on Lyndon Johnson,” he told Stoughton’s wife, nearly 50 years after the photograph was made.

“Oh, Mr. Caro, Cecil has been waiting for your call.”LBJ photo

Caro, the two-time Pulitzer winner, brought down the house with that bit of meta-journalism during a recent panel on book-writing organized by the Lukas Prize Project, a joint project of the Columbia School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. I was in the catbird’s seat, sitting on the dais between Caro, who’d just won the Mark Lynton History prize for “The Passage of Power,” the fourth of his five planned LBJ books; and Andrew Solomon, who’d won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” Still a month from turning in my own work of narrative nonfiction, I was there for “Factory Man,” which had won the J. Anthony Lukas Book-in-Progress Award.

What would Robert Caro do? I had asked myself that question numerous times during the writing of my book about globalization and a struggling Virginia furniture-maker named John Bassett III, who’d taken on China and a tidal wave of corporate greed to save hundreds of jobs.

Now I had a chance to ask Caro that in person. The question had already sent me on a quest to interview an 86-year-old ambulance driver about an EMT call he’d made 30 years before. (Caro’s editor, who was seated in the audience, told me she roared at hearing that story.) It had sent me kayaking — white-water rafting, actually — down Virginia’s Smith River, which is 42 degrees year-round if you want to know. (Oh, I know that intimately, after plunging in head over tree branch.) It had sent me back to some of the same subjects over and over again, resulting in new material every time and my own new insights on prompting memories and, maybe more importantly, a subject’s genuine trust.

At the start of my project, I had taped a quote from Caro on the outside of my notebook: “There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is,” he told a Time magazine interviewer last year.

I had 11 months to complete my manuscript, not a decade, which is what it took Caro to turn in his fourth, 700-page installment. His pace is so methodical and slow, The New York Times’ Charles McGrath has pointed out, that it’s taken Caro longer to write about LBJ’s years in power than LBJ spent actually living them. Among the things I learned during the hourlong panel:

Caro makes detailed outlines, which he types on an old Smith Corona Electra 210 then pins to the walls of his Columbus Circle office, near New York’s Upper West Side. The very first thing he does is write a two-sentence to two-paragraph summary of each book — all the better to authoritatively digress from your theme if you know intimately what your theme is.

He does better when he has a last line in mind, something he can aim toward. The moment Caro heard the subject of his first biography, Robert Moses, tell an audience that people weren’t sufficiently grateful for his work, it occurred to Caro exactly how he would end his seven years of research into the life of the urban planner who built and bulldozed much of New York — with the line: “Why weren’t they grateful?”

Similar to Caro’s tracking down the 27th set of eyes aboard Air Force One, Andrew Solomon spoke about the process of trying to court the parents of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold for his book about children who are markedly different from their parents, including kids who are cognitively, physically and psychologically impaired. Solomon’s book is full of bitter truths and surprises but always from the perspective of a journalist who is proud to bear witness to the “shimmering humanity” of parenting.

Respectfully but persistently, Solomon kept asking for interviews, even when the original response had been no. He corresponded with Sue Klebold for two years before she agreed to meet him for coffee — only to cancel at the last minute, saying she and her husband had changed their minds.  Solomon told her he’d already purchased the nonrefundable ticket from New York to Colorado for their meeting — whether that was true or not, he didn’t say (I got the sense it wasn’t). But the Klebolds finally relented out of guilt, and ended up talking to him for seven hours during their first meeting alone.

They were thrilled that, finally, someone was more interested in understanding them — including the things they loved about their son — rather than judging them.

Solomon allowed himself to be moved, letting the emotions of his characters drive the theme of his book and the contextual reporting, not the other way around. His structure developed around the idea of what it’s like to parent profoundly different children, but he let his characters shape the final form as he winnowed 25 potential stories/interviewees down to ten over the course of 11 years.

“I tried to be awake to the possibility that the stories I was hearing were going to maybe change from what I thought I was writing,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to find the stick figures to back up points I’d already thought up. But I hoped that by talking to large numbers of people and [using] a more inductive process, I could get to the point of having my idea take shape around the people.”

In fact, he didn’t fully delve into the intellectual armature of the book until he was five years into story gathering mode. “I always thought if you ended up writing the book your proposed, it probably wasn’t worth investigating,” he said.

Friends asked me later what it was like meeting Caro, one of my heroes. He’s friendly and at the same time distant, putting his hand on your arm when he talks to you but volunteering — in a way that beats you to the punch — that, alas no, he does not blurb other writers’ books. (Fair enough, I thought, given that he’s in his late 70s and still has that fifth LBJ book to write.)

From left: Moderator Nicholas Lemann, Robert Caro, Beth Macy and Andrew Solomon

From left: Moderator Nicholas Lemann, Robert Caro, Beth Macy and Andrew Solomon

When I had a minute alone with him at the end of the evening, I asked how he might handle a sticky ethical issue I’ve been wrestling with for several months. “I don’t know, but I sure am looking forward to seeing what you do with that!” he said, beaming his bright-white smile and shaking my hand one final time.

Then he was off to hail a taxi with his faithful research assistant and wife, Ina. He had made a point to share the glory, asking her to stand up as he accepted his award, noting that she did not complain when they had to sell their house to help finance an earlier book. Throughout his  career, Ina Caro was the only one he trusted enough to help him with research.

My friends and I headed to a bar while they waited for their cab. And I thought of another bit of advice I’d taped to my notebook at the start of the project, sent by my storytelling mentor Mary Bishop, in the form of a poem by David Whyte. While it’s good to take inspiration from the masters, the real magic happens when you find your own way into a project and develop your own Caro-like work ethic, starting with the genuine sound of your own voice and “the ground you know, the pale ground beneath your feet.”

The last stanza of David Whyte's "Start Close In"

The last stanza of David Whyte’s “Start Close In”

The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Guru Clay Shirky on a Newspaper Plan B

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First, the bad news: Print newspapers are in “mechanical hospice,” with 2011 revenues on a par with earnings from the last quarter of 2006.

Then, the, um,  good news (sort of):

It’s Plan B time.

Time for some come-to-Jesus innovation. Those of us who still believe in the power of newspapers to bring people together, enlighten and entertain need to face the fact that right now we have nowhere to go but up. (more…)

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.

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.

Beyond journalism: ISO stories of collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life as the new kid

“I guess when I get back to Roanoke, I’ll be able to cross Grandin Road by myself,” the 11-year-old said as we were riding our bikes to his school.

We were dodging college students walking to class, dodging other bicyclists on the sidewalks and roads, dodging Mass Ave. traffic that makes Roanoke’s Grandin Road seem like a back street in Mayberry.

A month into our tour in Cambridge, it’s been a big Back to School adventure for all of us, with the teenager adjusting to taking public transportation to his high school, which is slightly smaller than his school in Roanoke but with a wider array of diversity and, apparently, fashion. (“Guys in tight purple jeans!”) Now in his second week of school, he seems to hate us less now than he did at the start. A little.

It’s tough being the new kid, and not just for the teenager. There are 23 Nieman fellows in my class, the vast majority of whom are hard-news hounds, including many who have reported, filmed and photographed from such far-flung and weapons-slung places as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip.

They are not used to sitting idly or quietly on the sidelines, and sometimes I have a shy/hard/awkward time getting a word in at our meetings. I like, admire and get a chuckle out of every one of them, for they are truly hale and hearty fellows. But being a Southern newbie at Harvard reminds me of a four-way stop sign: In sweet ol’ Roanoke, everyone politely waves everyone else on, often to the point of standstill. Here, you go when you get the opening — even if it’s all at the same time. Sometimes I wish I had thought to take a course in group dynamics, along with my four other classes.

But hopefully I will learn how to strengthen my voice in a course called Public Narrative taught by Marshall Ganz, who as the architect of Camp Obama, also teaches community organization and campaign mobilization. I’m one of about 200 students taking his Kennedy School class, along with grad-student Ashley Judd, who reportedly wants to keep a low profile but is often the first to raise her hand in class.

I’m taking a music appreciation course called First Nights in the Gothic 1870s-era Memorial Hall, which looks like something out of Harry Potter. While I enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of what went into the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, what really moves me is the comfort of sitting in that dark theatre for an hour twice a week and listening to a genuinely gifted teacher and musician. (Note to my classical-musical hound buddy, Angela: You have to come experience this class with me. Please.)

I hope to pick up a broader, deeper context for my  immigration reporting from a class that examines the history and current political climate around the question of legalizing the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. (Bonus: It’s taught by a professor who shared the Pulitzer with a group of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters that included our very own Mary Bishop!)

For a law school class called the Art of Social Change, we listen to world- class speakers expound upon human-rights and children’s issues. Last week, Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur genius grantee and Harvard Law grad, talked about his exhaustive efforts to litigate his way to the Supreme Court so that (mostly black) 13- and 14-year-olds serving life sentences in prison may one day get out. Later, I was thrilled to find a Washington Post Magazine profile of him written by Walt Harrington, who is my favorite narrative journalist of all time. (Another fabulous Harrington piece I stumbled upon recently was an essay about why we write — to feel alive — from American Journalism Review.)

The Nieman events and classes are no less inspiring (OK, maybe not the part about learning HTML. . . ). We’ve heard from theater dynamo Diane Paulus one week after seeing her Shakespeare-meets-Studio 54 production of “The Donkey Show.” Tomorrow, we meet with David Gergen in a two-hour, off-the-record seminar.

At a welcoming reception last weekend, hundreds of people from the Harvard community came out to meet and greet us, including prominent journalists, authors and CEOs, former Niemans and current fellows of other Harvard programs (including Firle Davies, a heralded BBC reporter from Zimbabwe who talked about how relieved she was to have a year away from the threatening, middle-of-the-night phone calls).

I nearly stepped into it when I joined a conversation of Boston Globe journos who were bemoaning the Globe’s editorial on Teddy Kennedy, which began with the line: “Ted Kennedy was not a great man.”  I defended the piece, explaining that I was in tears by the end of it, but Globe columnist Kevin Cullen said he was so pissed that he stormed into his publisher’s office the day it ran. (It’s a Massachusetts thing; I wouldn’t understand.)

Not long ago, former Nieman (and one-time Roanoke Times editor) Mike Riley told me to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the Nieman fellowship. While I’m still trying to find my sea legs (not to mention, at times, my voice), I have to say I’m loving every minute of being here, even the neighborhood yoga class that leaves me half-crippled; even the requisite three hours it takes to go grocery shopping because there are so many good places that I can’t go to just one. (Forget Trader Joe’s; I’ve since stumbled onto Russo’s, the world’s best bakery/produce market/deli, featuring rock-bottom prices on everything from beautiful berry pies to lemongrass and yard-long beans — just don’t get in the way of the Italian ladies when they’re sifting through the clearance rack.)

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square.

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square. I miss my zinnias at home (OK, so I've pinched a few starts of neighbors' coleus plants; what's a girl without a garden to do?).

I hope I don’t jinx it by writing this, but I’m starting to think that even the teenager is coming around, a development that makes me happier than all the $9.99 homemade pies in the world. That might have something to do with the tattoo (don’t freak, Mom; it’ll be small!) we promised he could get on his 16th birthday — if he makes the honor roll.

Or it might be the Thanksgiving trip to Jamaica we just booked on account of Tom’s theory that all money spent during the Nieman year should be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime expenditure. “Monopoly money,” he calls it.

Which is a fitting outlook, as we begin to try to make the most of this year — passing Go as often as we can and splurging, every now and then, on a Boardwalk hotel.

A recent trip to Narragansett, R.I. Some people plunge easily into new things and places and ideas while others wait on the periphery until their sea legs are found..

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