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.

Global education (Candy Store, part II)

I crashed my South African pal Janet’s favorite course on the study of Africa and its problems, taught by the Pulitzer-winning scholar Caroline Elkins. We were walking toward the classroom building with another Nieman, Zimbabwean Hopewell Chin’ono, when photographer Gary Knight swept up to join us in his wonderfully British way (is bescarfed a word)?

BTW: This is the first time I have ever seen Gary Knight holding a camera.

“You two together in a course on Africa?” he said to Janet and Hopewell, eyebrows raised, his usual grin its usual huge. “You two examining how her European ancestors decimated your African ancestors? …  Fantastic!

My favorite thing about being tossed into the intellectual/multicultural stew that is the Nieman Fellowship is making friends with journalists who have covered extraordinary events all over the world — the end of Apartheid, drug wars in Mexico, conflict in Kosovo, gunfire in a Fallujah mosque and just about every other modern-day big event you can think of. (When one Nieman said she was itching to go cover the Haiti earthquake, our curator was said to chortle something about “golden handcuffs” — the pledge we signed not to work during the Nieman year. To which I respond: Cuff away.)

My second favorite thing is the range of brain candy available to us as class auditors at Harvard. Courses this week have ranged from Pentecostalism in Liberia and Robert Oppenheimer’s guilt (a sampling of Harvey Cox’s Religion in America) to the new “paleo” movement of New York hipsters who restrict their diets to meat and other foods of the caveman era (Food and Culture, taught by Ted Bestor).

Henry Louis Gates led his second Af-Am studies lecture with a rap song by G-Mike that went, “Read a book. Read a book. Read a Book, Mu-tha-fuck-a, Read a book,” then segued to a talk on Enlightenment-period philosophers’ belief  that blacks were closer to apes than humans. (Gates had a great piece on root.com earlier in the week about the “real curse on Haiti,” which he traced back to Thomas Jefferson.)

Just for kicks — and because I heard you don’t want to spend a year at Harvard and not see this guy in action — I sat in on Rory Stewart’s human rights class. This is the British chap who spent two years walking across Afghanistan, ran a province in Iraq and will leave Harvard in March to run for British Parliament, where he’s favored to win the Conservative seat (“When I told the dean I was leaving early, I explained that it’s like running as a Democrat in Massachusetts”). He talked about Nietzsche, Bentham and Mill and their criticisms of human rights legislation. The introductory material didn’t quite move me, but it was interesting to get a glimpse of the charming, eloquent Big Brain at work.

Sri Lanka Tsunami, Joachim Ladefoged, 2005

Last night a bunch of us braved snow and a wind so bitter that our car doors froze shut to get to Tufts University for the opening of a photo show called Questions Without Answers, a truly stunning (though sometimes hard-to-stomach) exhibition from VII, the photo agency started in 1999 by our favorite bescarfed Brit and his mates.  This massive show depicts the defining events of the post-Cold War period — the fall of the Berlin Wall,  Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Congo. … These are some of the most heartrending, intimate photographs I’ve ever seen — or not seen (because editors deemed them too graphic or politically unpalatable), as was sometimes the case.

This morning I get to return to Drawing with Anne McGhee, who is post-retirement but still teaching, making art and — get this — learning how to figure-skate. Last month she came to class with a purple hand, after a bad fall on the ice. Many her age might worry about breaking a hip, but Anne shrugged the bum hand off and, sure enough, the following week she was good to go, fearless and full of sass. Her favorite move is the sit-spin, “which I like to do really fast,” she explained. She’s a fabulous teacher, especially for beginners, because she wanders around the studio looking at your work, cracking jokes and making suggestions. Just when you’re feeling too clumsy to advance beyond Charcoal for Dummies, she asks: “Are you sure you’ve never drawn before? I don’t believe it.”

I guess that’s what I hope to take away from our year in Cambridge — the desire to keep exploring new possibilities, no matter how remote or improbable they seem. I may never walk across a continent or report from a war zone, but I know now with certainty: If you believe there are many journeys still ahead, well then, damn straight there are.

Sans model for this January drawing class, Anne arranged a still life of Niemans instead: Marcela Valdes, Alysia Abbott and Beatriz Oropeza.