A good shot at the facts

Ten years ago today I first reported for work at The Washington Post. Deep Throat had come out a couple days earlier. I might have been wearing a tie. My pants sure as shit didn't fit. At the first intern lunch, I sat to Ben Bradlee's right and had nothing to say to him except "Hello." I knew who he was, and I knew what The Washington Post was, but my brain and heart hadn't caught up with my feet. I was a 21-year-old who didn't expect to stay past the summer internship. I was an interloper. I was on a field trip. I was collecting a merit badge. I was staving off adulthood while reaching my hand toward it. I didn't know what to do with my life.

The fifth-floor newsroom, still looking like a movie set, was heaped with sensorial cliché: bad lighting, leaning towers of papers and reporter notebooks, an inky aridity sprung from piles of newsprint that had sucked all moisture out of the air, ratty carpeting that surrendered whiffs of nicotine if you scuffed your shoes (how could this be? But this is how I remember it; I also remember it looking and smelling more yellowish than it probably was). The Style section, to which I was assigned, was still off in its own annex, down a corridor and some steps. It was like the sunken living room of a ranch-style house that still smelled a bit like the 1970s. This was 2005 and the Internet had not really come for us yet. There were no flat screens, no smartphones. Just that previous summer, interning for The Buffalo News, I had called in a story. From a pay phone.

This is not 2005, but this is how I remember 2005.

This is not 2005, but this is how I remember 2005.

This is not a rhapsody about the good ol' days of journalism if they even existed, I missed them by at least 25 years — nor is this a revelry in nostalgia. This is just a happy-anniversary card to myself. It's too long, mostly because I'm not good enough to make it short.

I knew what the Style section was because in my last semester of college I had read an "appreciation" of Janet Leigh. An "appreciation," I gathered, was an obituary with a bit of tang and zing and melancholy. One sentence in particular jumped from the paper: "She took the knife so we didn't have to." Bang. Sold. I applied to be a Style intern three weeks later.

Former longtime Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert informs me that this photo-illustration is from the July 1989 Washingtonian. Headline on the piece: "Style Unzipped." The deck: "Twenty Years of Romance, Profanity, Anarchy, and Bitter Profiles: The Inside Story of the Post's Style Section and How It Grew Up." One of the pull quotes: "Nicholas von Hoffman was the first Style columnist to build a following and generate lots of hate mail. 'On a good day,' Ben Bradlee once said, 'Nick could cancel 200 to 300 subscriptions."

Former longtime Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert informs me that this photo-illustration is from the July 1989 Washingtonian. Headline on the piece: "Style Unzipped." The deck: "Twenty Years of Romance, Profanity, Anarchy, and Bitter Profiles: The Inside Story of the Post's Style Section and How It Grew Up." One of the pull quotes: "Nicholas von Hoffman was the first Style columnist to build a following and generate lots of hate mail. 'On a good day,' Ben Bradlee once said, 'Nick could cancel 200 to 300 subscriptions."

The writer of the piece was Hank Stuever. He would edit my first and last pieces during the summer internship. The first was a day hit from a museum opening that I wrote, on deadline, torturously. The last was an 80-incher that I'd spent weeks on. A what-it-felt-like piece. I remember sitting with him during a line edit. He pulled the story out from under itself. He saw moves I wanted to make but didn't feel I could. Bang. Sold.

In between these two stories, during weekly intern lunches with newsroom heavies, I learned two very important things about journalism that guide me to this day. The first was from Tom Wilkinson, former editor, manager and father confessor: You can't be objective, he said. You can only be fair. "The thing we owe readers," he said, "is a good shot at the facts." Tom had rendered the imposing nature of the enterprise into a kind of blue-collar maxim, a trade-bound duty to a constituency, and it stuck with me. The second was from Bob Woodward, who placed a premium on walking outside the building. Information resides with people, he said. The Internet is fine, documents are better, but people lead you places, tell you things, make connections. "You don't know there 'til you go there," he said, paraphrasing Zora Neale Hurston. Desk-bound journalism wasn't journalism at all.

My internship was defined by after-hours fretfulness. I often stayed in the newsroom past quitting time, not because I was an ambitious go-getter but because I had frittered away precious daytime hours second-guessing my reporting and writing. I felt like a stowaway that was about to be found out. I think I also stayed late because a subconscious part of me felt like it was home, which Washington was still not, even after four years of college there. The newsroom, even after most people had left, felt alive. It felt right. It felt like fringe living, but in the center of it all. I can't really describe what I mean.

The internship was over at the end of August. I could stop pretending to be someone who deserved to be there. I loaded up my car and left Washington as Hurricane Katrina made landfall and a fleet of Post reporters headed for the gulf. I was both relieved and sad that I wouldn't be joining them. I spent the autumn at home in Buffalo, preparing for and then recovering from some minor surgery on my brain stem. I was finally living how I felt inside: like a post-college burnout, at home with my parents, rudderless, static.

And then word from the newsroom late that fall: They wanted me back. There was an opening in the southern Maryland bureau of the Metro section, to cover St. Mary's County, the tailbone of the state. It was mine if I wanted to come back for a delayed extension of my internship. At that time I was trying to slip into an editorial aide spot at Entertainment Weekly, where I'd interned the previous spring, because a New York magazine sounded glamorous even if the experience there had left me cold. I knew that the position would be professional purgatory, that it would be desk-bound, but I still went to New York for an interview. I remember nothing about it, except that it didn't feel right, particularly because I wore a wool sweater that made me perspire like some kind of farm animal. I can't remember if anyone from EW ever followed up with me, but it didn't matter. Another place wanted me, inexplicably, and how could I say no? What else did I know how to do, except clean the salad bar at the Buffalo Zoo, or warm up cups of coffee at the Greek restaurant on Hertel Avenue?

I channeled my anxiety into foolishly leasing a Mini Cooper for three years. I'm not sure what I was thinking, because this Post extension might've lasted just six months. I might've had a feeling, but I think it was mostly just carelessness. I headed south shortly after New Year's 2006 and reported for duty at the Metro bureau in La Plata, Md., an outpost of gas stations on Route 301 about 45 minutes south of Washington. The bureau was a two-story brick office building with a small newsroom on the ground floor and a living quarters upstairs for reporters who needed to spend the night and use a shower. I knew that this experience was good for me, that everyone always talked about earning your stripes in thankless provincial reporting gigs, but I felt marooned. On the first day, at the urging of the kind Metro editor R.B. Brenner, I drove the length of St. Mary's County to Point Lookout, where the Potomac River emptied into the lower Chesapeake Bay. It was a foggy day. I remember walking to the water, straining to see anything beyond 100 yards, looking for evidence of a boat or a horizon. The seat of St. Mary's County was 40 minutes beyond La Plata. I was living in downtown D.C., so the commute  while against traffic  was pretty heinous. I was 22 and basically living in my car, with a collection of maps (because, again, no smartphones). It was lonely. Most of my college friends had left D.C. During county commissioner meetings in Leonardtown, Md., I scribbled sad things in a Moleskine. I listened to Toni Morrison and Michael Cunningham books on tape. I was adrift in the space between young adulthood and real adulthood, between the asphalt prairie of urban sprawl and the rolling backroads of buggy country. 

The Southern Maryland bureau was cute. It had a snack box, which is like a vending machine except that it wasn't a machine. It was a box of candy, and you put coins and dollars in a little cardboard slot. And every week this woman came and collected the money and restocked the box. Provincial!

The Southern Maryland bureau was cute. It had a snack box, which is like a vending machine except that it wasn't a machine. It was a box of candy, and you put coins and dollars in a little cardboard slot. And every week this woman came and collected the money and restocked the box. Provincial!

I didn't know how to be a Metro reporter. Luckily, the bureau was stocked with role models: Josh Partlow (now the Post's Mexico City correspondent), William Wan (finishing up several years in Beijing), eventually Phil Rucker (now a national political reporter). You can learn things about reporting just by listening to these guys talk on the phone. There was the steady editorial hands of Tom Lansworth (since bought out) and bureau manager Bonnie Smith (who provided the right dose of mothering). I feel like I could do the job now, but that's only because I tried and failed to do the job then. This was knock-on-doors journalism  "Hi, your son just died in Iraq, can I talk to you?" "Hi, you had a racial slur spray-painted on your garage, can I talk to you?" "Hi, you worked with a guy who chopped up his girlfriend and buried her in a plastic bin in the woods, can I talk to you?" except when it wasn't. There were times when I stayed in my car instead of getting out to face the uncomfortable, or when I left a community meeting without talking to a person that I really should've talked to. That's a special kind of journalist shame. I was young. And in that way I am still young sometimes. This is a hard part of the job, especially for an introvert. 

I wrote about tornadoes, traffic fatalities, stadium openings, hate crimes, teachers of the month. I got chased off someone's property by two pit bulls. I covered a local trial about an accidental death stemming from an altercation between neighbors, and I fucked it up really bad by mischaracterizing the altercation and over-incriminating the defendant, and then had to take a call from his son the next day, which was excruciating because the son wasn't angry. He was so nice and so very disappointed in the newspaper. Not in me, really. In the newspaper.

"Can we please have a correction?"

Oof. A stake through the heart. It was the first time I realized that my carelessness could ruin someone's day, or reputation, including the Post's. That's another special kind of journalist shame. I learned. I kept going. It felt haphazard at the time, but all the while I was absorbing things that would be useful down the road. The Post was proving to be the best kind of graduate school.

We don't have people going to the county commissioner meetings in St. Mary's County anymore.

My God. I can only assume Bonnie Smith took this photo. A great thing about bureau life is that there really was no standard of attire.

My God. I can only assume Bonnie Smith took this photo. A great thing about bureau life is that there really was no standard of attire.

The way I got officially hired on staff, and the way I got out of southern Maryland, was by applying to be the sole writer for a weekly Sunday section that was devoted to service journalism, a concept I did not actually grasp when I applied. But I made the most of it, and the small staff was smart and fun. It was two years of sneaking weird stuff into the paper, trying things, co-writing a humor column, starting the Peeps diorama contest (which will be my legacy), asking Len Downie if I could put "shit" in the paper if it was in a quotation ("No"). I think we put out a really sharp, surprising, dynamic section every week, and no one gave us credit because it's easier to fall back on time-tested criticisms than recognize well-meaning failures. At the very least, the job allowed me to work in the city and have a personal life and take two months off to live on a boat that went from Tokyo to Muscat and back. So, can't complain.

They killed the section in late autumn 2008. They could've easily killed me with it, but didn't. They kept me, as they did a few years before. They sent me back to Style, where I've been since January 2009.

By then the legion of writers and squad of assignment editors from my internship days were reduced to a skeleton crew. Over the following couple years, the holdover pros left one by one, and I type their names because they left impressions, large and small. Joel Garreau, Henry Allen, Jackie Trescott, Peter Kaufman, Paul Richard, John Pancake, Deb Heard, Steve Reiss, Libby Copeland, Leslie Yazel, Wil Haygood, Lynn Medford (though happily she's still at the paper, running the Sunday Magazine), Rich Leiby (though happily he would return from the Foreign desk). We were asked to do more with less.

Sometimes less is less.

Actually: always. Less is less, always. On the plus side, I got to do things that might've been improbable if Style still had a stable of 30 big-name writers who could claim seniority. 

I am the inverse of Mama Rose. I was born too late and started too soon.

The past six and a half years have been — well, as Bradlee wrote of the general-assignment life: it's "the best reporting job on any newspaper." A state dinner, two inaugurations, the BP oil leak, Trayvon, three Vanity Fair Oscar parties, three Kennedy Center profiles, five Lists. Datelines from Seattle, Newtown, Knoxville, Baghdad, Telluride, New York, Vancouver, Moss Point, Miss., "On Route 202, N.H.," "Aboard the Thomas Jefferson," the United Nations and (hopefully by the end of this month) the Marshall Islands.

A 10-year-old with autism. A 94-year-old bureaucrat.

The ho-hum. The majestic. Things betwixt.

Me and partner in crime Monica Hesse after the Running of the Balls, January 2013. Photo by Jonathan Newton (The Washington Post)

Me and partner in crime Monica Hesse after the Running of the Balls, January 2013. Photo by Jonathan Newton (The Washington Post)

Am I bragging? I am. This is my goddamn blog. But I don't mean to brag about the pieces themselves I'm wholly happy with very few of them but about the opportunities that enabled them. The opportunities to peek, to lurk, to interlope, to walk the razor's edge, to honor the trust placed in me, to grapple with the complexities and the contradictions of living. I gave up trying to figure out what to do with my life because journalism is a way to live many lifetimes in the span of one. Every story takes you out of your own for an hour, a day, a week, or maybe more. Do I sound sanctimonious, idealistic? I do. As I said: This is my goddamn blog. And while I'm not proud of every piece, I am proud to have stayed committed for 10 years to this enterprise. I've never done anything else for 10 years straight. That's a third of my life. To be sure: Many people at the Post have worked there much longer (and far better) than me. Marty Weil's first Post byline was in 1965; his latest was today. I wish he was writing this remembrance.

I wish people today knew what the Style section is. And was. No, it's not about fashion, although sometimes it is. (If you don't get it, you don't get it.)

To summarize: I have learned things! I have fucked up! I have learned things by fucking up! Earlier this year #adviceforyoungjournalists was a thing on Twitter. I wouldn't presume to have advice, but here are some things I've learned while trying to practice journalism. I tell them to myself frequently.

Always put your name and contact information on the cover of your notebooks.
Stay a little longer. Even just a minute.
If you can go, go. Always go.
Life doesn't usually conform to narrative, or, at least, a single narrative. Rigorous reporting can reveal arcs and themes and twists and denouements and literary-like symbolism, but in the end life is mostly open-ended, unsatisfying and incomplete. Honor that incompleteness. Respect it.
"It's the reporting, stupid." (Someone said this, I don't know who, but Ann Gerhart had it on a Post-It note on her computer at one point.)
Don't lose your way. Start to cheat a little, and soon you'll be cheating a lot.
Every story, no matter how small, is somehow about the meaning of life (this is the Weingarten Corollary).
Say "I don't understand this; help me understand this" early and often.
Close interviews with "Who else should I talk to?" and/or "What else should I know?" and/or "Is there a question you wish I'd asked that you've been waiting to answer?"
Answer every reader e-mail; return their calls, especially.
"HAVE FUN." "BE FUNNY." (Also on Post-It notes, spoken I think by Henry Allen and written down by Garreau, who bequeathed the notes to me when he was bought out.)
There is no such thing as objectivity. There is only fairness.
"...you don't have to be an expert to write expertly about complicated issues." (Bradlee again)

The years 2005 to 2015 were weird years to be in newspapers. In some ways, everything changed. The Internet ate it all. Readers are their own publisher now. Everyone has a take. Twitter is the world's wire service. People get the news from their Facebook friends. Copy became content. Deadlines started to come every hour, then every minute. Newsrooms started to run two major full-time operations simultaneously: a print newspaper that involved the usual industrial effort and a Web site that needed constant updating, each with their own demands and functions and crises and personalities. Why did newspaper people go a little crazy over the past 10 years? Because they needed to run two such operations that were a bit at odds, philosophically and existentially, at the same level of endeavor. Just one was all-consuming; two was bonkers. Sometimes the agita and upheaval seemed to get in the way of the work.

In some ways, nothing changed. The work, for example. It's nothing mystical. It is as it has always been: Convey information, tell a story, fill in one more wedge of this big paint-by-number thing we call Life™.

Maybe it is a little mystical.

Maybe I'm full of shit.

Anyway. I say "newspapers" instead of "journalism" not because I'm nostalgic for something that's not quite gone yet, not because I have anything against the Internet, but because I love how a newspaper is put together and how it looks. I just love that a group of worldly, responsible, critical people decides what goes on the front page without regard for viewer metrics. I love that you can sit down for 15 or 30 minutes in the morning and look through it, and it's not on a tab that you can close or forget about, and it's not changing and updating before your eyes, and there aren't video ads popping up, and that it's the best version of facts and truths that have been published piecemeal online over the previous 24 hours. There's no better way to grasp the issues of a given day than by spending a couple minutes with a newspaper. And it costs less than the guacamole surcharge at Chipotle.

Every couple years or so I watch "All the President's Men," not because I'm a romantic or a cliche — although I am both — and not because I aspire to greatness, but because it's a really good movie that happens to remind me that journalism is so simple and hard and elegant and frazzled. It reminds me to ask questions. To be curious. To care. To push a bit against the typical, the recalcitrant, the evasive. To type, BANG BANG BANG, even when the cannons are louder. It also illustrates, in dramatic fashion, the types of people I've worked with for 10 years. When Jason Robards says "Run that baby," in that movie-set of a newsroom that was actually a movie set, it reminds me of the gung-ho support that I've felt from editors and fellow reporters over the years.

There is a thing about newspapers that exists beyond individual owners, publishers, and executive editors (I and many others have been through multiples of each, though the Graham family shaped this thing). This thing is its own thing. The Post has always had this thing. It is a thing that nurtures and pushes and frustrates and somehow makes it all worth it at the end. It is the thing that we work for, and with, and occasionally against. It is the thing that "All the President's Men" captures in its screenplay, its acting, even its musical score. That thing is the methodical but brazen chronicling of time, and the passage of it, even as we are swept along by it. The chronicling helps us keep a handle on what would otherwise slip away. I hope everything keeps changing except this devotion to chronicling it. I guess that's why I started writing this 10-year-anniversary note to myself.

I also occasionally watch "Dick," in which Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as hapless, insecure weirdos.

Life doesn't usually conform to a single narrative.

Anyway. I technically spent my 10th year at the Post away from the Post, on a book leave that is now coming to an end. I would not have been able to take on this project without the experiences I've had at the Post, and I would not have had those experiences without the glorious people who work there: those who've left, those who started long before me and remained, and those who've arrived since. Those who keep working at it, at this thing, year to year, era to era. I start my 11th year on Monday and I think my brain and heart have caught up with my feet.   -30-

Say what about Dick?

Say what about Dick?