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Only Connect

Connie Schultz learned that reaching readers means showing them who she is
February 29, 2012

Connie Schultz came late to her first newspaper job. After years of freelancing, she went to work for The Plain Dealer at age 36, as a newly single mother. Within five years, she was getting offers from national papers, following her 1998 series about the death from cancer of a 41-year-old woman and her family’s first year without her. But she stayed in Cleveland. Her 2002 series on a falsely convicted man, Michael Green, was a Pulitzer finalist and helped earn her the role she has become known for: a columnist with an unapologetically populist bent. She won the 2005 Pulitzer for Commentary, for columns on topics that ranged from tipping and concealed-weapon permits to soldiers killed in Iraq.

One of Schultz’s specialties as a columnist has been finding the nexus between the personal and political, and her 2004 marriage to then-Congressman Sherrod Brown has provided a tutorial in that regard. Schultz took a leave of absence during Brown’s successful 2006 Senate run, to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest and to write…And His Lovely Wife, an account of life as a candidate’s spouse. Last September, with Brown’s re-election looming, Schultz resigned from The Plain Dealer. Now 54, she continues to write a syndicated weekly column and essays for Parade magazine, but her primary project is her first novel. She spoke with Alec MacGillis in December and January; a longer version of their conversation is available at

An angry man

My dad worked maintenance for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company for 36 years, at the power plant on Lake Erie. He hated his job. We had the “Jack and Jesus wall,” Jack Kennedy and Jesus on the same wall in the living room. But Dad’s worst boss was named Kennedy. That must be why I remember so many of those conversations. He would talk about things from work and my mom would say, “Chuck, we know you’re better than that,” or “Chuck, he should never have talked to you like that.”

My mom was a nurse’s aide before she got pregnant with me. She went back to work at the same hospital as a nurse’s aide when I was a junior in high school because it was the only way they were going to be able to afford to send me to college. I remember many, many arguments where he did not want her to work. I remember feeling so guilty. Going to college was going to be a tremendous strain on the family. And my mom just kept saying, “Chuck, how do you think she’s ever going to go if I don’t work?”

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My dad was an angry man. And he was a tough dad. I loved him and feared him in equal measure. But I understood so much more about his anger after I went to that plant. I finally toured it last year. It was a ghost town. They had boots sitting covered in ash, they had things that had been sitting there for decades. They let me have this metal sign that Dad saw every day when he went to work. It said, “The best safety device is a careful man.” Yeah, right. Let’s put it all on the shoulders of the workers.

I have that sign in my home office and I have his hard hat and his lunchpail underneath. And I have my mom’s nurse’s aide badge from Ashtabula County Medical Center. I have them there all the time because they remind me that as hard as I think I’m working, I haven’t known a day’s work, compared to my parents.

When I started at the Daily Kent Stater, it clicked that people would talk to me. When you’re a freshman from a small town at this giant university and editors are saying, “How did you get him to stay that to you?” it dawns on you that people trust you. I looked harmless. I’m a round-faced Irish girl. You look at pictures of me as a child and I look like I’m in shock because my eyes are so big. I was never a threatening presence. What didn’t particularly work well with men, perhaps, was really working well as a journalist.

When you’re 22 and you get that knock-’em-dead, blow-out quote, you tend to run with it, no matter what. But as you get older you start to realize that context really matters. And some quotes, just because you got them doesn’t mean you should run them. I don’t mean politicians—I never protect politicians. But some people say things that are just going to sound really awful. Sometimes they really do mean it and it’s what you’ve got to go with, but sometimes you’ve got to keep asking them. I’ll say, “Here’s what you said, is that what you meant?” and they’ll say “No!” It’s a lack of savvy. They’re working really hard. Whatever’s going in their lives, that’s struggle enough, and they don’t have any representatives or spokespeople or PR training. You’ve got to respect that.

Through Kent State, I did an internship on Capitol Hill with Mo Udall [the liberal congressman from Arizona]. Going to Washington changed me on a cellular level, because from then on I believed the world was conquerable. I felt entitled to have a place in the world. That never left me, for all the trials I had after that and all the insecurities. And look what happened: I got to do this for a living, where I focus a lot of my career on trying—I hate the term ‘giving voice,’ but I don’t know how else to say it—to working-class people, to people living in poverty, to people who may be on the margins, because those are the people I come from.

I really was so lucky—I did an internship at The Plain Dealer in ’79. It was a Guild shop, so I made entry-level Guild wages. And that makes a huge difference. In journalism, it’s become increasingly about where you went to school. At the bigger papers, it’s become more and more the privileged covering the privileged. You have to do an internship to get hired, so you have to be able to afford to work for free for a summer, which eliminates a lot of kids right there. And you have to have your own car. I didn’t, so I got a copy-editing internship, and I lived a few blocks away. Today, you’re hard-pressed to meet a young reporter who comes from the working class, or who’s a first-generation college kid.

Building trust

When I went back to The Plain Dealer in 1993, they sent me out to a predominantly rural county. I wasn’t even there two weeks when a Rottweiler attacked a boy, dragged him I forget how many yards, and injured him severely. It was my reporting roots: Go to the story that everyone thinks is just another kid in trouble and tell the story of the kid. The boy was intervening to rescue a friend, and the dog went after him. Kids can be heroic—even kids who live out in Geauga County. When I turned it in, I remember an editor saying, “How did she know what his stuffed animal’s name was?” I thought, “Sweet Jesus, how did I know? I asked!” Of course the stuffed animal had a name. I realized in that moment that you can stop being defensive about the fact that you’re a single mom entering your first reporting job at age 36, and take everything you’ve learned until that minute and bring it into the job and quit apologizing for yourself, even in your own head.

I was in Geauga County for a very short time before they made me a general assignment reporter. Because I was one of the newer reporters, if there was an early morning where a young black kid had been shot dead in the streets, they would send me out to talk to the families. And what I could never get over was, here I was, a white woman, showing up in the poorest communities in Cleveland, predominantly black if not completely, and not once was I turned away, ever. I could not imagine an African-American reporter showing up on the porch at 8:30 a.m. in a lot of the suburbs we covered and asking to talk.

Some reporters embrace this fantasy of how they’re just above it all and don’t have to reveal anything about themselves—they’re just out to get the story. Showing up on those porches, one of the first things I’d say is, “I’m really sorry for your loss. I’m a mother and can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through right now.” Part of why I was able to close the distance is that I was talking to mothers and I was the single mom of two kids myself. But that only takes you so far.

People who are seldom interviewed can’t believe you want to know their opinion. Once they believe you care about what they have to say, it’s mind-blowing how much they can trust you. That’s a fragile responsibility. In the white, working-class neighborhoods, the women particularly couldn’t believe that I cared; you’d often get this nervous giggle—“What, you’re writing this down?”

And with a lot of working-class guys, who chuckled at the whole notion of having to answer any questions from a woman, I’d go up and introduce myself as Chuck Schultz’s daughter, daughter of a utility worker, Local 270. And we’d start talking. They’d give me a hard time, but I always felt comfortable with gruff white men because that was my dad. In a working-class community, if I’m a utility worker’s kid, I’m all of a sudden the American Dream for their kids because I got a profession. I was never just a reporter. The only way I was going to get in was to be honest about who I am. Why would they trust me otherwise? I wouldn’t have trusted me. It was my job to give them reasons to trust me.

I did a series in 2002 called “The Burden of Innocence.” It was about a man, Michael Green, who’d been in prison for 13 years for a rape he didn’t commit. I’ll never forget when Michael’s stepfather looked at me and started shaking his head. I said, “What’s the matter, Mr. Mandell?” And he said, “I can’t believe you keep coming back here and it isn’t because someone’s been killed.” And I looked at him and said, “You know, fair criticism, but I’m going to keep coming back, and eventually you’re going to believe I’m here for a different kind of story.”

‘I get tired of the cynicism’

The columnist slot opened up as I was working on that story. It was the perfect time, because I’m not sure how much longer I could have kept reporting about things like Michael Green and not having opinions about them. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t become a columnist.

What sort of person would you be if you’re covering the economic devastation of a growing part of the country and don’t have an opinion about it? I don’t want to be that kind of person. I was never a cynic about politics and I think that’s because I came from a union background. We knew that only in numbers were people like my family, my relatives, going to get any power. So you wanted to know politically who was against you and who was for you. And I’m a feminist—so how could I be completely cynical about politics, when I could look at the laws that changed the lives of my gender? I get tired of the cynicism.

I always find it amusing when journalists, particularly editors, say, “I never vote, so I’m bias-free.” That seems to be completely depriving yourself of any responsibility as a citizen—I don’t get that. Nobody’s objective. We should all work hard to know what our biases are so they don’t get in the way of our work as journalists.

It’s interesting that most surveys have shown that reporters tend to be more liberal than their editors. My assumption has always been that if you spend a lot of time on the ground reporting on the impact of policies, it can radicalize you. I met so many people who are doing everything they can to get off assistance, are ashamed by it, and all you need to do is start talking to those people—my people—to understand that these are real people, and they have their own dreams and desires. It’s quite moving and sad at the same time to see that their expectation was that nobody was ever going to ask their opinion.

Earning the honor

The best advice I ever got, just before I started writing my column, was from my boss at the time, Stuart Warner. He said to me, “I want you to write a personal column, too, because even if they hate your position on gay marriage or abortion rights they’re going to love what you have to say as a single mom; they’re going to love how you are about your dog.” Some say there’s no place for that on the op-ed page, but that’s baloney. If people feel like they know you personally and have anything in common with you, then the next column that’s on a bigger issue isn’t going to be a brawl. Some of my favorite notes are from conservatives who say, “I don’t agree with you a lot, but I have to tell you, you’re right about underage drinking in the home of parents who allow it.”

The deal is, don’t make your little problem all about you. Find a way to draw people in with this story, get them to think how they have this in common with you and the big picture. It’s so arrogant of us to suggest that we should not have to reveal anything about ourselves, that readers are just supposed to trust us. Newsrooms are full of reporters who envy columnists and think we don’t work hard, and sure, if you’re spending too many of your columns just regurgitating reader mail, it’s time to give it up. I also made a conscious choice: Do you want to become a TV celebrity, or devote yourself to the writing and reporting? It’s bad when a columnist starts walking into a room wondering how many people recognize her. It hurts the work. If a lot of people know who you are, lucky you, but you have to earn that honor every day.

I wrote a column once about tipping in airports. And one day, I was racing to my flight and this guy drives by me in one of those electric carts. He stops and backs up, and says, “Miss Schultz?” And I say, “Yes?” And he says, “Thank you.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, because that says the people you’re writing for actually know it. You don’t do this kind of work expecting a lot of gratitude from the people you’re fighting for.

It’s interesting how newspapers determine who they’re supposed to be covering and who’s reading them. Some in the newsroom wanted only our e-mail address at the end of stories, but I always wanted to have my phone number, because I knew that a lot of the people who read my columns don’t have computers. And I know that because they called me. My voicemail would hold 90 messages, and it would fill regularly.

What always kept me going were the calls from women readers. Often, I could tell they were hoping I wouldn’t pick up—they would call after hours and were so nervous about giving me their opinion that they had written it out and were reading it. I would hear that and I would say to myself, “You know what, I really am that woman who’s figured out that I’m entitled to give my opinion, and I am lucky to feel this way.”

Always a journalist

I left the Plain Dealer in large part because Sherrod was going to be back in cycle. I’m a woman with a lot of opinions and a significant percentage of my readers never questioned that my opinions belonged to me and don’t have to do with my husband. But in the newsroom, that was going to become an issue again, and I’ve just reached the point where I don’t want to waste my energy. And I can be nationally syndicated and still write out of Cleveland. Everyone should have these great problems, where you get a national forum but are still having to duke it out over whether some people in the industry think you should do this because of who you’re married to.

The biggest shift for me is working on the novel. For five years, my editor has been encouraging me to write fiction. She said that the working class is really underrepresented in modern literature and that I could do something about it. At the time, I didn’t have an idea and I didn’t have this strong sense that I could do it. What really pushed me to consider doing it was feeling increasingly constricted as a journalist in trying to tell these stories in my columns. My mom always told her daughters, all three of us, “Don’t marry him until you see how he treats the waitress.” I remember when she told me that—it was one of those rare moments, like a holiday thing, and Mom would take just me, the oldest, out to lunch and somebody was berating the waitress. Well, I have a mother character in the novel. You can make it play out in a way that people see the origins of that advice and they live the consequences of that advice, in a way that writing one column about it can’t.

When you’re writing about the working class, of course you don’t want to say, “Now I’m going to tell you about the working class.” The point is that working-class lives are similar to white-collar lives, except they don’t have money to fix things—they don’t have the resources or the connections or the education to make life’s major problems go away, which is what I’ll be dealing with in the book. There’s a lot of tragedy in working-class lives, and certainly my family was no exception. There’s something really energizing and humbling in realizing I can call on my own roots to tell this story. Some of the secrets in this book are pretty common secrets for a lot of families. It’s fiction, but it’s all true.

I want to remind reporters that nobody knows their community like they do. What I worry about with the cutbacks is that what it’s really cutting back is the confidence of the reporters. But that’s something reporters can be in control of: You decided to be a journalist for a reason, and that reason still exists. You want to tell the stories of people that otherwise nobody would ever know about. You could change lives if you write about them. And you’re also letting everyone else know that we have more in common than we want to think.

We’re getting so beaten up in our profession, but that’s not who we are. Ambition is contagious and good journalism begets good journalism. There’s that quote from Lucille Clifton, which I still have taped to my computer: “What they call you is one thing, what you answer to is something else.” They can call me a senator’s wife until their hair falls out. I’m a journalist. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. 

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.