Alan Miller: Washington Post reporter from Columbus takes interns to school

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The newsroom interns at the table last week for their Wednesday lunchtime meeting leaned in as the speaker recounted one of his amazing adventures in journalism.

Wil Haygood, a Washington Post feature writer and visiting professor at his alma mater, Miami University, told the young journalists about covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was there 33 straight days and promised himself he would write a story a day “from that awful experience.”

Haygood, 64, a Columbus native and a storyteller who paints pictures with words, talks softly at times but always with hands moving — and sometimes with arms flailing and voice rising like an inspired preacher on Sunday morning.

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He is on fire for good journalism.

He had been to New Orleans to report a story and was on his way back to Baton Rouge to file it when he stopped at a roadside diner for a bite — and potentially another story, because diners are places where people go to eat and talk.

Haygood sat at the counter and told the person at the grill, who happened to be the owner, that he was there to tell the stories of people affected by one of the most devastating hurricanes in modern times.

“Sir, there is a woman working here in my kitchen who walked here from New Orleans,” the owner told Haygood. She had lost everything in the flood after Katrina, and she left on foot looking for work and a new home.

She had walked 35 miles.

“He told her, ‘Sweetie, you don’t have to walk any farther. You have a job right here,'” Haygood said.

Sprinkled amid the anecdotes, for those who were listening, were important lessons in life and journalism.

Haygood said he reads everything he can get his hands on — from poetry to fiction — because reading good writing makes a writer better at the craft.

He described his first newspaper job, in Charleston, West Virginia, where the editor said he didn’t have enough experience to be a reporter, but they could use a copy editor. He used his days off to hunt for stories, write them and prove that he could do the work.

“When my first metro story was published, I scissored it out, folded it neatly and saved it,” he said.

Persistence paid off. When a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor asked how a copy editor could write so many stories, Haygood told him about his days off. And when that editor had an opening for a reporter, he hired Haygood.

Finding story ideas is critical, he said. “That’s your magic. That’s what makes you an authentic journalist.”

And the best ideas are not found in packs of journalists, he said, recounting the time he was sent to cover a coal-mine collapse that trapped men deep below the surface.

“I knew I had to do something to set myself apart — to separate my newspaper from the rest,” he said.

He noticed a small house where “a light was burning all night,” so he asked who lived there. It was the person hired by the mine operator to meet with family members and keep them informed about the rescue efforts.

He knocked on the door and asked if he could spend the night there — even sleep on the floor — so he could listen and watch as mothers and fathers and siblings of miners came by for news from the mine. The resulting story hit Page One, he said.

Later, as a foreign correspondent with The Boston Globe, he traveled the world and landed in South Africa to cover the struggle against apartheid. He developed relationships that resulted in a tip that put him outside the prison where anti-apartheid freedom fighter Nelson Mandela had been held for 27 years.

After a few hours, the prison gate creaked opened, and there stood a thin old man in a suit too large. Mandela stood silently and pumped his fist in the air.

“I realized there were tears streaming down my cheeks onto my notes. My blue ink was wet with tears,” Haygood said.

And at The Washingon Post, Haygood wrote the story about the White House butler that led to a book and the movie “The Butler.”

His idea, he said, was to write the story of Barack Obama’s election as the first black president from the perspective of a black person who worked behind the scenes in the White House from before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. First, Obama had to win, he said, but he had a good feeling about that.

The next challenge was to find the subject. And he spent weeks asking anyone who might know of someone — a gardener, a maid, a painter or, perhaps, a butler.

He finally found someone who thought there was a butler who had worked for two or three presidents. His name was Eugene Allen, but no one had contact information. So Haygood started calling Allens in the Washington area. On the 57th call, Eugene Allen answered the phone.

“He said, ‘I am the person you seek, but you have your facts wrong. I didn’t work for two or three presidents. I worked for eight presidents.'”

Haygood was flabbergasted. “You mean to tell me that no one has ever written about all of this — your life? He said, ‘If you think I’m worthy, you will be the first.'”

A hunch, curiosity, persistence and shoe leather brought home a great story.

Haygood told the interns one riveting story after another — all of them assembled with those ingredients and one more: being there.

“This is why you have got to go!” he said in a booming voice. “You just have to go out there — go ride a bus, or go down on South High Street, get out there!”

Oh, and one more: Get lost.

“I never use GPS, because it takes you straight to your destination, and you miss the side streets and you miss getting lost. Some of the best stories I have ever found I have stumbled upon because I got lost.”

Alan D. Miller is editor of The Dispatch.

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