In every situation there’s a way to carve out a little bit more time to go a little bit deeper than you otherwise would. First of all, you don’t start out doing this kind of work. For me it was a matter of inserting a little bit more into even my daily news stories, some element of narrative that would bring more of a human element, some window into something potentially larger, more emotion that would have the reader connect to what it was to be in this place—whether a crime scene or a flower show. Sometimes these things would make it, sometimes they would be cut. There are opportunities in every story, if we are open to it, to introduce the elements. Over time, editors begin to recognize this in the reporter. There will be opportunities and whenever you get one, take it and run with it, which is what I did with the Nicholas story. We did not have forever. Given how in-depth the pieces were, we did not have huge amounts of time. A couple of months searching for the person, getting in that person’s world. Anthropologists take years and years. We’re forced to get a whole lot done in less time. Ultimately, I put more time in the front end for the reporting and spend less time on the writing. You can’t recreate the field again. It’s a matter of how you apportion the time you have. I have a theory that it’s about four to one, or five to one, reporting to writing. If you’ve done the work in the field, the writing comes easier. We’re talking increments of time. If you have more time to feel open, to trust, then it will yield results in the final piece that you cannot manufacture. Sometimes you literally can’t go back. The homeless are gone.
Time is a relative thing. It might mean taking a day rather than half an hour; a couple of months when ideally you would have taken a week. It means making the choice, taking the risk, to spend more time with an individual. It means finding the right individual who has insight. Who is the person the reader will be able to identify with? They’re not perfect. They’re candid about their trials and their triumphs. The reader has to say: I know people like this. What would you have done if you had been in this circumstance? What would you have done after Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami, or the Haiti earthquake? That’s how people learn.
It was during the time of a lot of drive-by shootings, and this was an attempt to go beyond the numbers. They brought together ten reporters. Each would have a topic on what it was like to be a child. Each reporter had to come up with a subject. I came up with ten things—children at risk, gangs, sexuality. Family was the tenth idea, and that was my assignment. It’s everything, so where do you begin? It could be an extreme case or something so common that teaches us nothing. I had to first figure out what I was looking for: a child still dependent on a family; not a teenager; between nine and twelve. Fourth graders were perfect. Not an only child; I wanted supporting characters. I also wanted someone in the middle—not the gang-banger, not the valedictorian, more universal. You learn over time how to read people. I wasn’t looking for a particular race.
I went to GED classes. I wanted movement. If you want someone fully out [of the situation], they may be looking backward. So I’m looking at someone on the cusp; trying to get out of where they are. That would give momentum.
I found a training program for nurses’ assistants. They were giving out travel vouchers and there was a big turnout. I said I wanted someone who had a child age nine to twelve. I asked for names, fields, and ages of their children. Nicholas’s mother wasn’t there when I made the announcement. The sheet was going around but she came in late. She sounded great on the phone. The first thing I did was ask what she did and what was she doing tomorrow. She said she was doing laundry. I went with her. I went to the laundromat and helped her fold socks. If you try to get everything you need, you won’t. It’s a learning process for them and for you. You learn their world and you learn what they do. It’s very much like a courtship.