Rachel’s note: When I read Lane DeGregory’s follow-up feature article on the Girl in the Window, I immediately knew I wanted to feature Lane on Faces of the Newsroom. The passion was palpable in the words she wrote in following up on her earlier story on this young girl who was found in horrid conditions. In my opinion, it is articles like this that prove just how important journalists are to our world. These stories need to be shared and we need journalists to share them. I hope you enjoy getting to know Lane as much as I did!
Q&A with Lane DeGregory
Q: How many years have you been working as a journalist?
A: Hmmm … I created a newspaper for my elementary school when I was 10, in 1977. I wrote for my middle school newspaper, then for my high school newspaper, and in my senior year, when I was chosen by our advisor as Editor-in-Chief, the Rockville Rampage won a Gold Crown in Columbia University’s student press awards. I started writing for my college paper, The Cavalier Daily, the first day I moved into my dorm at the University of Virginia. I wrote for it all four years and was elected by the staff to be editor-in-chief in 1988-89.
My first paying job at a newspaper was during my sophomore year of high school, 1983, when I typed car ads and classifieds and obits for our local weekly paper, The Montgomery County Sentinel, working from 4 p.m. until midnight at the local press. The summer after my first year in college, I got an internship at another local weekly, The Gaithersburg Gazette. I sold ads on Mondays through Wednesdays, then got Thursdays to find and write a story, Fridays to edit it. If I didn’t sell enough ads, there wasn’t an empty page for my story. So I started selling “advertorials,” little stories about local businesses that we framed in thick black lines and called ads.
In the summer of 1987, I had my first real professional, paid internship at the Charlotte Observer. The next summer, and the summer after college, I spent interning at The Virginian-Pilot.
After earning my undergraduate, then master’s degree, from the University of Virginia, I got my first full-time journalism job covering the University for the local paper, The Daily Progress.
I’ve been a full-time news / features / enterprise reporter for daily papers ever since.
So the short answer is: I’ve been paid to be a professional journalist for 30 years.
But I’ve thought of myself, and have been working as a journalist, for 40 …
Q: Lane has been working for the St. Petersburg Times / Tampa Bay Times since 2000. She has also freelanced for several national and state magazines. Where did you grow up and why did you decide to get into the journalism game?
A: I grew up in Washington, D.C. during the 1970s, and my father used to read the Washington Post to me and my sister while we ate Cheerios. I was in elementary school when the Pentagon Papers, then Watergate, rocked our city. And I thought it was so cool that these young reporters were informing the world and bringing down the president of our country. I already loved to write. I was insatiably curious and nosey. And, I thought if I could combine those loves and interests, and make a difference, and have thousands of built-in readers, I’d be blessed with the best job in the world. And I have been.
Q: What do you remember about the early years of reporting? What stories helped cement your passion for writing?
A: I remember being so thrilled to have an excuse to ask anyone anything during my early days of reporting. I got to cover carnivals and fishing tournaments and murder trials and hang-gliding festivals and go into the bowels of courthouses and cop shops and city hall. I felt like I had literally the key to the city, the inside track to anything I – or my readers – might want to know.
My favorite early stories included riding on a charter boat at dawn, while the captain prayed over the radio, and a fleet of white crafts followed him through the waves, into the tangerine sunrise … Profiling a teenage surfer before his trial; his mother had tried to cut off his ponytail, so he slit her throat with scissors and buried her in a sand dune … and following the nutritionist at the North Carolina zoo who made all the meals for the primates. I still remember that lead: Remember that old joke; What does a 400-pound gorilla eat? Anything he wants. Not so at the N.C. Zoo 😊
Q: Today there is a lot of talk about the liberal media trying to brainwash readers and all this – has it always been this way that you recall? Have journalists always been the enemy or talked about as being liberal in a negative way?
A: I think most mainstream journalists have long been considered leaning toward liberal, but I have never felt hated or distrusted or demeaned until these last two years or so … and I don’t ever cover politics, but I still feel the general public’s raised distrust while trying to convince people to be part of my human interest stories.
I think most journalists really research their topics, try their best to understand both sides, then, unless they’re columnists or editorial writers, they make a tremendous effort to write stories that show both sides, and keep their political opinions to themselves. Sometimes that’s the hardest part about being a journalist, at least for me: Not being able to share my opinions.
Q: When it comes to journalism, how has the job changed over the years? What has been bad / what has been good?
A: When I started working in journalism, everyone seemed to at least trust the mainstream media, even if they didn’t agree with the editorial stance. People revered newspapers for uncovering untruths and corruption and holding political officials accountable. And, there was only one edition every day, so journalists had until about 10 p.m. to get the story right … longer if the editor let you bust deadline to fact check or land that last phone interview. Now, we have 24-hour news cycles, and a push to get breaking news up on the website ASAP, so partial stories wind up getting published, then updated, then rewritten. More mistakes are made. And we have half as many copy editors covering our backs.
I think the addition of multi-media story telling options, and linking to original sources and other citations, has been great.
But I worry about young readers, especially, who don’t seem to be able to discern a credible news report from a blogger or aggregated website.
Q: What hopes and dreams do you have for the future?
A: I think more and more journalism is going to be listened to on podcasts, instead of just read either in print or online. I think newspapers are going to have to stop covering the play-by-play of city council or professional football games and start giving more analysis and context. I think investigative reports are going to become more and more necessary – and popular – and private people are going to be willing to pay to support research and in-depth journalism, a la Politico. And, I hope that long-form narratives continue to be consumed and shared and given the space they deserve.
Q: What have been your favorite stories over the years? What have been the award winners? Have those award winners surprised you?
A: I had no idea I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. I wasn’t even a finalist that year. I knew “The Girl in the Window” was a special story, one of the best I’d worked on. But I had never conceived of myself as being able to compete as a storyteller on such a national and revered platform.
Q: Why do you keep working as a journalist?
A: I keep getting offers to teach journalism at universities. Or write for a monthly magazine. Or ghostwrite books. But I keep working as a journalist at a daily newspaper because, after 30 years of getting paid to do this job, I still love it. I still love getting up every day, knowing I’m going to learn something new. I still love getting to meet all sorts of people, convincing them to let me into their homes and lives, asking them anything I want, trying to understand their motivations, fears and hopes, being intimate with strangers, diving into their worlds, then retreating into my own little cave and writing their stories for 300,000 readers I’ve never met.
Q: And, most importantly, what do you do when the dreaded writer’s block strikes?
A: When I get writer’s block, I take a walk. Or a shower. Or throw a ball for my dogs. Or do dishes. Or laundry. I try to engage my body in some mindless task and focus my mind only on the story … I turn off my phone and don’t check Facebook or sit anywhere near an internet connection. I have to be in that space where I can concentrate on seeing my story, almost like a movie … What scene will unfurl first? Where will the camera focus? What’s the complication? Where are the cliff-hangers? How do I make people care? What’s the one-word, universal theme that this story really is about?
I don’t ever let myself have writers’ block at the keyboard. I keep notepads in my car, by my bed, on the toilet so that when I think of sentences, or leads, or questions, I can jot them down. I sometimes say sentences out loud, practicing them. And if I’m still dry, I read a Flannery O’Connor short story, or the latest New Yorker fiction, or crank up a Bob Dylan album.
Here are a few of Lane’s favorite stories that have won awards over the years:
- The Girl in the Window: Can love and a new family save a feral child?
- The Girl in the Window: 10 years later
- The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck: Her dad tossed her into Tampa Bay
- One way out: Teenage football player longs to escape Pahokee
- Mr. Newton: A 99-year-old man still sweeps a seafood factory
- The Old Daredevil: Evel Knievel comes back to earth
- Chasing the Light: A photographer takes portraits of dying children
- Fight, fight, fight: In defense of her son, the cheerleader
- Davion’s prayer: Teenage orphan goes to church to find a family http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/amid-churchgoers-orphan-pleads-for-a-family/2145907
Follow up story: Davion’s answer: Finally, a family
- I brake for Bobo: Rescuing a stuffed elephant along the highway