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.
I was the last person on the reporting team to find someone. Nicholas was the youngest. Extra care had to be taken. I had to make sure I was on good terms with everyone involved. If it’s a shorter deadline I still interview as many people. The vast majority never make it into the story. This is my process. The methodology is an extension of who I am.
I came into contact with a hundred or so families to find Nicholas. I narrowed it down to fifteen. When you interview all those people, you’re studying the thing you are going to write about. You’ll have more context. You can appreciate it all the more. The bar is very high for what makes a regular person newsworthy. Access, their story, chemistry, all of those things have to come together. Access is the main challenge—being able to spend the time.
As I was working on Nicholas’s story I felt as if what I needed to do wasn’t about journalistic techniques. I read Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes [by Robert Emerson, Rachel Fretz, and Linda Shaw]. It’s like a survey of philosophy and field notes. A series of interactions. I didn’t consider them interviews. I try to blend into their world and make it comfortable for them. It requires patience. Over time, it works.