What an outgoing Detroit columnist learned from nearly 40 years in journalism

Photo courtesy Laura Berman

Detroit’s media world witnessed an exodus of veteran journalists in late 2015, as buyout offers prompted a wave of departures at both of the city’s major newspapers. One of the voices that will be most missed is Laura Berman, a metro columnist at The Detroit News. The rare writer who can blend original newsgathering with personality, humor, and empathy, Berman is leaving the field after nearly four decades.

She exits with an armful of memorable anecdotes, like the time the News sent her to interview Zsa Zsa Gabor at her Bel Air mansion (“That was just ridiculous… She wanted $300 just to do her hair and make-up if we were going to bring a photographer.”) But one of Berman’s most important stories came just this past summer, when she got an exclusive interview with the whistleblower in the office of the state’s largest private cancer practice, where the top oncologist profited from false diagnoses, unnecessary chemotherapy treatment, and a kickback scheme with a hospice. Any columnist could have found the headline-grabbing angle, but Berman narrated it with a gripping perceptiveness and patience, resulting in the definitive story on “the downfall of a cancer treatment empire.” And, of course, she followed up on the story’s long tail.

The day after Christmas, Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson wrote a send-off for his arch-rival Berman, who also happens to be his wife. They met in the late 1990s while covering Jack Kevorkian’s trial and married in 2008—“less a power couple than a poorly diversified investment portfolio,” he quipped.

A few days later, I spoke with Berman by phone about her life in journalism, the art of the interview, and the columnist’s role in not just reacting to news, but breaking it. What follows is an edited and abridged version of our conversation.

Have you written your last column?

I’m not sure. I haven’t written a farewell column yet. It’s a very tricky situation with so many people saying goodbye at the same time. I’m not sure how readers are reacting to that. Fourteen people left the News [in December]. But at the same time, you have a relationship with readers, and you don’t want to just trail off.

Tell me how you got into journalism.

I was a reader kid who spent a lot of time playing librarian. This was long enough ago that it was hard to imagine being a writer; so few women had careers at all and so few women were writers. The bylines in magazines and newspapers were mostly men, and even in high school, I mostly read books by men. Then I was exposed to New Journalism, and people like Gail Sheehy were really inspiring to me. I wrote for the high school newspaper, and began to see journalism as a tangible, practical way to be a writer. I went to the University of Michigan, and on my first day there, I showed up at The Michigan Daily. I also had a great internship in Washington, DC, right in the middle of Watergate—there was so much news to report and not enough people to do it.

I wound up getting a job as a feature writer at the Detroit Free Press out of school. I spent about ten years there, and I did pretty much everything, including writing in “For and About Women,” known colloquially as the women’s section. There were still people at the Free Press then who remembered when women were not allowed in the city room. Not even to walk through it! That’s what they told me.

After awhile, I thought, ‘I have to be a real reporter,’ so I went to the city desk and covered federal courts. My last job at the Free Press was as a magazine writer for what was then the Sunday magazine. Another vanished art form.

Then, in the mid-80s, Gannett bought the News and they were looking for a columnist. I ended up taking a job writing a feature column. I wanted to be somewhere new, and a column seemed like a challenge.

How has your column evolved?

I feel like it’s never really been one thing. If you think about it, it’s basically been 30 years of writing a newspaper column. And that can be really problematic as a writer. There’s a tendency for all columnists to become parodies of themselves. Keeping it fresh and alive is a big challenge.

How do you manage that?

I did a lot of travel. I was able to cover things firsthand, and I found that very stimulating. When you do journalism on the road, you don’t have any real life but the story. It awakens all your senses.

In the early days, my column was much more personal. Now, as a metro columnist, it’s more oriented to city government, more political, more driven by hard news. That shift happened after the dreaded newspaper strike.

I was going to ask about that. The Detroit newspaper strike began 20 years ago. How did it impact you?

I actually left my job at the News in the early ’90s, before the strike, and freelanced for magazines for a few years, just because I was ready for a change. And I always wanted to work in New York. Working in other markets was an interesting challenge. I wrote for business magazines, lots of women’s magazines, and I did almost no local journalism.

When I went back to the News as a columnist, I moved from the features floor to the city floor. I came back at a semi-controversial time. The strike wasn’t really over for years. I went back when just about everybody I knew went back, but there were people who were out much longer.

The strike is still a very difficult topic. It left so many bad feelings between people. When I went back, I worked out of a suburban office in Birmingham. I avoided going downtown, where there was still picketing. I did that for quite awhile, and I never crossed the metaphorical picket line. But it was just ugly.

Why did you want to cover more news in your column?

Before, we had such a deep newspaper with much more staff. As the staff contracted, it started to seem more important to contribute to the news side. I think my column has been much more reported over the last couple years than it used to be. That’s been a deliberate change.

The other thing that’s been difficult for me, working for a paper with a conservative editorial page, means that a lot of our audience is conservative. I’m not. I have to find a way to talk that is not doctrinaire liberal, to find approaches that don’t immediately trigger the same old response. On certain issues, that’s almost impossible. Like gun control. There’s almost no way to talk about guns that engages left or right people without pushing buttons.

What are the moments in your writing life when you felt like you made a great leap?

Like many writers, I’m often disappointed in what I write. But I thought that piece I did on the whistleblower was pretty good. It combined being a columnist with all the other skills I have.

It was an amazing piece. How did you even get that interview?

A year ago, I realized that [the News] had been so consumed by Detroit’s bankruptcy that a lot of other stories hadn’t gotten attention. I was looking for stories that interested me that hadn’t yet been written. I looked up clips on Dr. Fata and realized that I never read how he got caught. I interviewed a delightful, passionate nurse who tried to blow the whistle on him, but nothing happened with her complaint. That led to me getting a tip that the person who had been the ultimate whistleblower might be willing to talk. I eventually was able to tell the longer story. I think [the whistleblower spoke with me because he] wanted to disassociate himself from the humiliation of being associated with this cruel doctor.

What does it take to earn the trust of people you interview?

Well, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you say the wrong thing. A couple weeks ago, I interviewed a woman who I had reached out to two years before—but I had offended her then and she didn’t want to talk to me.

She was one of the first cases that came up in the testing of the rape kit backlog. [Originally] I did a fair amount of research on her case and reached out to her. She called me back when I was standing in a store, and I said something that made her decide not to talk. I was so disappointed. Two years go by, and I knew I was going to leave, and it always bothered me that I had scared her off. So I called her up and said that I’d always wanted to tell her story. She appreciated that I made the effort, so we connected, and I finally wrote the story. The lesson: Doors that close aren’t necessarily closed forever.

What are your thoughts about the role of newspapers in today’s Detroit?

They’re still fundamentally important in covering the basic operations of government. Even though our staff is smaller, we still have more reporting staff than anyone else does. No TV station or radio station has the same kind of staff. Everybody relies on newspapers for basic newsgathering. We still have two reporters in Lansing, but I worry that we only have one in City Hall.

In the mid-’90s, the News sent me to Bosnia for a few weeks, right after the Dayton Peace Accords. I saw how people looked at me as a journalist, doing the work of just getting information out about the massacre of Srebrenica, which was basically regarded as mythology at that point. I interviewed all these refugees in this village who told me what they saw, but it was almost 10 years later until they excavated the gravesites. It was like the Holocaust; there were deniers. When I think back to that, I remember that we can’t expect that facts will just become known. They don’t. That’s why we as journalists need to document what happens.

Hold up a minute: The Detroit News sent you to Bosnia?

Yes! One reason I had a great career at the News is because they let me do fantastic things. I covered the funeral of Princess Diana in London, which was amazing. I came up with the Bosnia story when I found a Detroit woman who hadn’t seen her family in 10 years. When the war was over, she said I could go with her when she went over to reunite with them. I’m still friends with her and her family today.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.