The summer before she entered graduate school at Columbia University, Phoebe Zerwick wrote police briefs in Westchester County, New York. Westchester is just 30 minutes north of Zerwick’s hometown, New York City — but writing articles was a foreign experience. Upon returning to the newsroom one day after combing through criminal records, Zerwick remembers sitting at her desk, clueless about the next step.
“I was sitting there, staring at my computer screen, and the guy across the aisle looked at me finally and said, ‘What are you doing,’” Zerwick recounted. “I said, ‘I don’t really know…How do you start a news story?’”
Fast-forward 30 years, Zerwick has composed thousands of articles and now teaches others how to in journalism courses at Wake Forest University. She has also written for the Duke Law Magazine and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. In 2003 she wrote a series of narratives about the wrongful conviction of Darryl Hunt for a murder committed 20 years prior. The series led to what she describes as a change in heart for the prosecuting attorney and the Winston-Salem public that paved the way for Hunt’s release a few months later when DNA testing confirmed his innocence.
Zerwick began reporting for the Winston-Salem Journal out of its Davidson County Bureau in 1987, but was at various points assigned to the business, anti-poverty and medical desks, settling in as a news columnist in 2001. Zerwick said she struggled with the switch from reporter to columnist at first.
“I found it really hard to learn,” she said. “You spend so much of your time as a reporter suppressing your voice, and a columnist is supposed to have a voice.”
Once she got the hang of it, Zerwick said, it was the best job she ever had.
Zerwick eventually became state editor and held that position until 2008, when a declining economy forced the Journal into rounds of layoffs. As part of management, she would have had to make decisions on who was cut, so to dodge that “unpleasant task,” Zerwick left the newspaper to pursue a freelance career.
After a few years of writing and multimedia freelance work, Zerwick obtained a teaching position at Wake Forest. This fall she taught a class that produced online reports about downtown Winston-Salem, and she plans to help expand Wake Forest’s journalism curriculum to include “meaningful community journalism.”
She loves teaching, Zerwick said, but still, there are some things she can’t find anywhere else but in the newsroom.
“I miss having some connection with the community,” she said. “Even doing a story for a big magazine like Oprah, I think still preferred working with a local newspaper…It’s been a really great way to earn a living. It’s never been a particularly good living, but I feel like I’ve been able to do some good.”
Interviewee: Phoebe Zerwick
Date: November 1, 2013
Location: Zerwick home, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Interviewer: Caitlin Ball
Transcribed by/date: Caitlin Ball, November 2013
Keywords: journalism; journalist; University of Chicago; Loren Eiseley; Columbia University; Dick Blood; Mel Mencher; Winston-Salem Journal; Davidson County, North Carolina; Les Gura; Wake Forest University; Oprah Magazine; Darryl Hunt; community journalism
Caitlin Ball: I’m here with Phoebe Zerwick on the first of November, 2013, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. So Phoebe you grew up in New York—can you tell me a little bit about your childhood?
Phoebe Zerwick: Oh, sure. I grew up in Manhattan, all the way east of the East Side of Manhattan on East 72nd Street. And I’m going to try to think of things that I suppose are relevant to me becoming a journalist in my upbringing. Both of my parents were writers in one way or another. So I grew up in a writing kind of household. My father had been a journalist as a young man, and then he went into kind of what would now be public relations and political consulting. He did a little bit of both. But I remember growing up, him talking a fair amount about some of the things he did early on in his working life as a journalist. Oh, he also wrote plays as a young man. So that was just sort of part of the general environment. My mother was an artist, and then she wrote a novel when I was young. Then she went back to work when I went to college and also went into public relations. She was the public relations director at Steuben Crystal. So I grew up with this kind of writing family, or at least words and writing being [pause] I suppose just something that people in my family did.
And I think also my father in particular was a really great storyteller. And what we did in our family, I found it really somewhat oppressive as a kid, cause we didn’t do anything, all we did was sit around and talk. So, [laughs] I don’t know, when I was a teenager, and all these other people were playing tennis with their parents or doing stuff, we just sat around and listened to my father talk. But something about that, I’m sure, it was either part of my genes or it became part of the way I thought about things.
CB: Did you plan on writing in the future when you were younger?
PZ: When I was in high school I remember thinking that I would become some sort of a journalist. I wanted to…[interruption from car alarm sounding outside] I remember I think I wanted to be a science journalist. I was really influenced by a science writer then named Loren Eiseley. And I do not remember how I became interested in him. When I went to college, I went to the University of Chicago and somehow or other I sort of got sidetracked. I designed my own major in the humanities, an interdisciplinary major, but I got sidetracked and decided I was going to go to medical school, so I got all of my pre-med requirements done. Then when it came time to go, I didn’t go. I think it was because I didn’t want to be in school any longer, and I had been sort of drawn to medicine because I wanted to do good in the world. [pause] But I didn’t want to be in school any longer. And…what did I do? I worked for the university for a year. I moved back to New York City and worked in city government for a couple of years and really hated it and was kind of drawn back to journalism, I think because of the idea of writing again and being able to do good. Also I liked the idea of making something, and making a newspaper, putting out a newspaper, every day. So I went back in my mid-twenties, to graduate school at Columbia.
PZ: Oh, and actually what happened was I didn’t have a whole lot of experience and so somebody at Columbia who I knew through a friend—one of the faculty members—I called her up about the admissions process and she said, “You know, it’s really competitive to get in here, and you might not get in. Maybe you should go out and get some experience.” She encouraged me to apply to the chain of newspapers that was owned by Gannett in Westchester County. All the little suburban newspapers—they’re now published as one Westchester County paper—but then, this was in ’87, each community had its own newspaper. I got my first journalism job. I went out there, I interviewed; I filled out the application. Part of the application said, “Do you have a car?” So I lied, and I said, “Yes, I have a car.” Then they hired me. It was a part-time job and it paid $5.25 an hour, which I think was minimum wage then, and I was to start, you know, the following week, and I had to find a car and figure out how to drive the thing cause I lived in Manhattan. I had a license, but I really didn’t know how to drive very well. And so I worked at the New Rochelle Standard-Star, the Mamaroneck News and the Larchmont-something the summer before journalism school. Then I got into journalism school, but that job at those suburban newspapers really gave me my first taste of the whole thing.
CB: And what were you reporting on then?
PZ: Just whatever they sent me out to do. So some of it was things like, oh, literally garden club council meetings. But also I did some crime reporting. And these are mostly affluent communities so the crime was, you know, bicycle thefts. Really. But then there were some real crimes. There was a murder, I think. I remember I did a story about a man who had fallen out of his apartment window. An older man in an apartment building that had mostly elderly tenants, and I was able to develop that into a full story. I did obituaries. I think I covered some kind of yacht race. I mean it was not just small town things, but suburban small town things.
CB: Was that writing difficult for you, since you hadn’t done it before?
PZ: Yeah, that’s a great question. It was…I really had no idea what I was doing because I had worked in college on the college newspaper, but only for a year. I remember I went out and they told me to go to all the little police departments and collect the information about the crimes that had happened, and I came back to the office, and I literally did not know what to do. I was sitting there, staring at my computer screen, and the guy across the aisle looked at me, finally. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t really know how to start. How do you start a news story?” And he said, “Just pick up today’s paper, [laughing] look up the police briefs, pick one that looks okay, and plug in your facts!”
So that’s what I did, and it was actually really good advice. I teach journalism now, and I use that as an example because when you’re learning to write there are some basic formulas, and if you find a story that’s got a structure that works for you, until you become more advanced in the kind of subject matters you’re covering, most straightforward stories really do work by finding the structure and plugging in your facts. So I would say that’s how I learned how to write a news story.
CB: When you went to Columbia, did your writing evolve [laughs] a lot, or, I mean…
PZ: It did evolve, but the funny thing about Columbia was they were great at teaching reporting, they really weren’t very good at teaching you how to write. I mean usually—I think journalism education has evolved quite a bit—but all the courses I took focused way more on the reporting than on how to actually structure and write your stories. I remember also struggling a little bit, and I had a boyfriend at the time. I was struggling. I took a course on covering courts, and I couldn’t figure out how to structure it, and finally he said, “It’s not that hard. Just get The New York Times, pick one of their trial stories and plug in your facts!”
CB: [laughing] So you’ve learned that lesson multiple times.
PZ: So I’ve learned that, yeah, multiple times…But yeah, the stories I wrote certainly became more complex and more challenging.
CB: What were some of the influential classes or teachers that you had at Columbia?
PZ: So it was an M.S. [Master of Science] It was just a one-year program. Not a whole lot of time, but I took two classes that I think really stayed with me. One was our RW1, it was called, Reporting and Writing 1. I had a professor who had been a city editor at the Daily News. And he was sort of a classic, curmudgeonly city editor. Gruff, grumpy — students either adored him or disliked him. He had been at the Daily News around the time when a number of female and minority reporters had filed suit against the newspaper, and he’d been named in that suit for his kind of gruff manner. But I probably learned more from Dick Blood more than anybody ever about being a persistent reporter.
So he would have us…he treated the intro class kind of the way he would run a newsroom. He would give us assignments off of the AP Day Book. I think we met every other day. He would show up on campus around 7 o’clock in the morning, I think class started at 9. He had all of our home phone numbers and I remember sometimes you’d get a call at home at 7 in the morning from Dick Blood, and he’d say something like, “I need you down at the Federal Court House. The hearing starts at 8 o’clock, be there!” And that would be it. Then he’d hang up and you know, we were students, students weren’t up at 7 in the morning. But he ran that class like he was running a newsroom. And he had all these lines. He would say, “Did you make that extra phone call? Did you walk that extra mile?” He was just really tough. Not all that interested in writerly journalism, he was just interested in reporting. He could be really, really abrupt. He’d crumple things up and throw them back to you. He was not kind in his editing.
I think it was one of our later assignments in that class, we had to write a profile about someone. And I had been, for an earlier assignment, to a hearing in the Federal Court in New York that had something to do with overcrowding at the city federal jail on Rikers Island. The judge was, I still remember his name, it was Morris Lasker. He was really well-known among civil liberty circles because for years he’d had these series of lawsuits in his courtroom having to do with prison conditions on Rikers Island. And I wanted to do good, so I thought this would be really…meaning I cared about social issues—so I decided to do a profile about Judge Lasker. So I interviewed him. I interviewed all these civil liberties experts, all these legal scholars, and I turned in the profile and Dick Blood read through it once and gave it back to me. He said, “Eh.” He said, “I don’t know anything about this man from what you’ve written.” He said, “I’m not going to accept this until you interview his barber or his wife. Cause all this is is a bunch of interviews with legal scholars, and I want to know Morris Lasker the man.” At which point I know that I burst into tears, and Dick Blood didn’t care about that either. He said, “Well, just call up the judge.” He said, “I know why you’re crying.” He said, “You didn’t ask him about anything personal because you were intimidated by the office of the Federal Judge.”—and reporters don’t get intimidated by high office—he said, “So what you’re gonna do is you’re gonna call him back, you can blame me, tell him your professor is going to fail you if he won’t give you his wife’s phone number.” [laughing] So that’s what I did, I called up the judge and I said, “My professor’s going to fail me if I don’t interview your wife so can I please have your home phone number?” Of course the story was so much better. His wife told me all these stories about how he’d been threatened and the death threats they received at their home and how all these cases that he ruled in, how it affected him personally and affected their family life. It turned out to be a much more compelling profile about a human being. So that was Dick Blood. I kept in touch with him—he died a few years ago—but underneath that gruff exterior he was of course a really kind and generous person who really did care about young people becoming strong journalists.
And then there was another teacher named Mel Mencher who taught investigative journalism, and he also was either loved or despised. He didn’t mind humiliating people. He put us…I don’t remember the story…I do remember the story I did for him. It was okay; it wasn’t that great. But the one exercise I remember, he had us all doing calculations, he had us working a lot with numbers. He had us calculating something having to do with tax revenue. Doing basically a very simple arithmetic problem. You knew the tax revenue, you knew the tax base in the community, but the city manager wasn’t going to tell you the proposed tax rate, so it was figuring it out backwards. And nobody could do it because people who get into journalism generally come from English backgrounds or history. Then he made a big stink about how moronic we all were because we couldn’t do simple math and how important being comfortable with numbers and facts was to journalism.
CB: That’s great. And those two teachers have obviously really influenced your writing now.
PZ: Yeah, absolutely.
CB: You’re well-known for your precise reporting.
PZ: Yeah, absolutely. And also the idea that writing … and I mean I teach writing now, so I absolutely believe in the power of writing, but that the writing comes out of the reporting rather than the other way around. Some people work differently, but I think the strongest journalism is based on really strong reporting and then you can find the words to express that once you have your facts.
CB: So you moved down to Winston-Salem pretty soon after you graduated?
PZ: Right, I graduated from Columbia, and I basically came to Winston-Salem because this was the first place I got a job. Many of my classmates already had jobs, and I don’t remember why I didn’t get it together during the school year to line up a job, but…
CB: Probably because you were reporting at 7 a.m. [laughs]
PZ: Right, I don’t … there were a few of us who were still looking for jobs. The school let us use—because of course nobody had personal computers then—the school let us use the computer lab to write job letters and resumes. Some of us had discovered that one of the offices had a phone line that you could dial out long-distance calls. Because of course then there were no…we didn’t have cell phones and unlimited long distance. So that was pretty handy to keep the home phone bill down. I looked at some papers in North Carolina and Virginia, and I didn’t get any interviews so what I did, um…and I can’t remember which one I started with. I can’t remember if it was the paper in Roanoke or the Winston-Salem Journal, but one of those papers, I called and—to all of them I said I was going to be in the area interviewing so could I come by? And they all said, “Yes.” But when I first started making those calls I didn’t have a single interview, but I acted like I had interviews at other newspapers. And anyway the Journal was the first place I got offered a job.
CB: Why were you looking in the North Carolina/Virginia area?
PZ: North Carolina in particular, and Virginia too, had a really good reputation for strong regional newspapers.
CB: So you had lived in big cities.
PZ: I’d lived in big cities, and when I showed up at the Winston-Salem Journal Joe Goodman was the managing editor. He was also a real old-fashioned kind of gruff newspaper editor. And he did this thing. He did it to me, and I later found out he did it to every Northerner who applied for a job. He chewed tobacco and every few minutes during the interview he’d open his desk drawer and spit into the drawer because he kept a can in there. Of course I had never seen anything like this in my life. I didn’t know what he was doing. I didn’t know if he was ill, if he had emphysema, if I was supposed to look away, if I was supposed to excuse myself, if I was supposed to ask him if he needed help because he would start coughing and spit out this vile stuff into his desk drawer. It was just his way of trying to unnerve kids from the North who would come down South, looking for a job. The day I showed up, the guy who had been the Davidson County reporter turned in his resignation. He’d gotten a job at a bigger newspaper and was leaving. I’m sure they had lots of other applicants, but I was there, and I interviewed and a few days later Joe Goodman called me up and offered me the job.
CB: Wow. In another article you said that your first big story was about “young people cruising the streets of Lexington?” What is…
PZ: Yeah. Oh yeah, so … actually this is sort of a sweet memory for me. I had had some experience in city government working in healthcare, and they also had an opening on their healthcare beat. When he called to offer me the job, he actually offered me the healthcare job, which was on the city desk and would have been considered a better job than a bureau job, but by then I had already talked to the reporter in Davidson County who had described this incredible cast of characters in Davidson County, and I really wanted this Davidson County job. So when Joe Goodman offered me the healthcare beat, I said, “Well that’s great. But I’d really like to work in Davidson County.” Which I think was an unusual request to make. It meant living in Lexington, North Carolina, instead of in Winston-Salem and it was considered a more entry-level job than the healthcare beat. But he said, “Okay,” so I moved in July and started work. Lexington, it still is sort of like this, but in the late eighties, it was like moving into another era in terms of…well it was a furniture town, it was pretty much a company town. It was very stratified economically: there were a few really wealthy families in Lexington and then everyone else worked at the furniture plants. It was really stratified racially. Then there were these crazy, interesting characters—interesting to me. I wasn’t from the South, I’d never even heard of people like this. Everybody had these nicknames in small-town North Carolina then, and it’s sort of still true, but it was really true then. So the sheriff was Paul R. “Jaybird” McCrary and then the district attorney was H.W. “Butch” Zimmerman. I suppose those were the two most prominent characters of that community. Butch Zimmerman was a very aggressive prosecutor. He took great pride in always trying the death penalty cases, and he always won. He also had a rebel flag hanging in his office and loved to read slave owner diaries. I mean he was just this real character. But he was just a really gifted prosecutor. He was the kind of trial attorney who when he had a murder trial, trial attorneys from all over the state would come and watch his performance because he was known for his skill as a prosecutor and a trial attorney.
So, yeah, I really wanted to write about all these issues in the community, and I suppose really do the Dick Blood thing, “walk that extra mile” like he always said. The big issue in Lexington when I showed up that summer was teenagers cruising—limiting cruising up and down Main Street. Which of course had been going on in small towns across America forever. But again it was new to me because I was from Manhattan and people don’t cruise in New York City. So I found it interesting. I also was, I think I was 27 then, but I looked quite a bit younger, so I went cruising with all these teenagers and wrote pretty interesting stories. They were news features, but they were interesting enough that they got on the front page out of little old Lexington, which was pretty good for a cub reporter.
CB: How long did you work in Lexington at Da—
PZ: So I stayed there for two years, and um…they almost fired me my first month because I made a couple of errors. The most notable error I made was I wrote a police brief which said a man, a Lexington man, was in satisfactory condition after being shot in the face with a shot gun. And my editor called me and he said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yeah, but let me check my notes.” And I said, “Oh, my notes say a rifle, but aren’t they the same thing?” [laughing] Because of course I didn’t know…you clearly know because you’re laughing.
CB: His head would be blown off.
PZ: His head would be blown off! He couldn’t be grazed…in fact this guy was fine. A bullet had grazed his cheek with a rifle shot, so he was fine, but that would not have been the case with a shotgun. So I stayed in Lexington for I think about two years and then there was an opening on the business desk, so I did that for I think another two years. At that time, Winston-Salem was home to at one point five Fortune 500 companies. So it was a big center for business news. When I started on the business desk, I think it was ’89. Wachovia was based in Winston-Salem, which was a big bank. Reynolds Tobacco was based in Winston-Salem, and Reynolds Tobacco had been one of the major national business stories. They had just gone through one of the biggest leverage buy-outs in the history of leverage buy-outs, so it was a huge business story. Piedmont Airlines, which was based in Winston-Salem, had just been purchased by U.S. Airways. Then there was a big trucking company based in Winston-Salem called Pilot Freight that was…I think it was going bankrupt, or it was involved in all kinds of strange litigation. So, there was major, major business news in Winston-Salem in that era, which made business reporting pretty interesting.
CB: So you did business reporting for a few years, and then…
PZ: And then…oh! Joe Goodman decided that we would have a poverty desk, and I was going to be the anti-poverty reporter. That didn’t last for very long, but I did that covering—sort of public health and social services and … I suppose it was basically public health and social services. So I did that for probably about a year, then I covered city hall and local politics and neighborhoods—all of that fell under city hall.
CB: And while all of this is going on you’re starting a family, right?
PZ: Yeah! Oh gosh, you did good research. So, yes, while this is going on I got married in 1990 and had my first child in 1992. My children’s father is from Winston-Salem. I’m trying to think of what I did pregnant with my daughter…oh! I remember, absolutely one of the things I shouldn’t have done pregnant I did do. There was this horrible accident in one of the … it wasn’t a public housing neighborhood, but it was a big low-income housing project. Some teenagers had gotten a hold of some big piece of earth-moving equipment. I don’t know if they were stealing it, but they had gotten it started and they were driving around. Somebody had called the police, and the police came. Anyway, they ended up running over this police officer and killing him. So it was the homicide of a police officer. It was this huge story, and it was in the summer already. It was in June, and I was huge, enormously pregnant. The police had the whole neighborhood cordoned off so all the reporters had to park their cars really far away and walk in…Then everybody left…the police left and all the press left and I was still trying to get, you know, that extra interview. And at some point I looked around and realized that I was parked close to a mile away, the people I was talking to were dead-drunk and that maybe it would be wise for me to get out of there. I left, and I basically shouldn’t have done that. I ended up totally dehydrated. That night…um…I had to leave without completely finishing whatever I was supposed to do because I felt sick and that night I started having all these early contractions. The doctor told me to drink a gallon of water and hope that that would stop them and it did. Um, yeah, that was something I definitely should not have been doing at that point in a pregnancy.
CB: When was you daughter born?
PZ: [laughing] She was born in August. Then my second child was born in ’96. That also entered into my reporting pretty heavily, actually. So by then I was the medical reporter—finally I got back to what I had been originally hired to do—and we had a new managing editor. The paper had been writing for years about this—Forsyth County had a persistently high rate of infant mortality. But we’d never really gotten to the bottom of it. So he had assigned me to do a project on the infant mortality rate in Forsyth County and try to humanize it. We’d always just done kind of a numbers story. Actually this sort of took me back to Mel Mencher because he gave us a sort of numbers assignment having to do with infant mortality back in journalism school. I think I got the assignment sometime in the spring and by then I was fairly far along with my pregnancy with my son. The first thing we did was we wanted to talk to women who had lost their babies, and those records are not kept by the state, so…Well, they were kept, but they wouldn’t release the names of the women that went with the statistics, so I went to the registers of deeds office and pulled—I basically looked at every death certificate from the previous year until I found, I don’t remember the numbers…I think there had been twenty-some odd deaths in Forsyth County that year, so I looked at every death certificate until I found all the death certificates. I knew how many I was looking for. The death certificates you know list the parents, so from there I had names and I was able to track down some of these mothers and fathers who had lost their babies in infancy. By the time I found those names it was probably May, and I was pretty obviously pregnant, and I didn’t know what to do with the interviews. So I stupidly did nothing. I remember I showed up at the home of the first woman who I was going to interview, who had recently lost her baby, and there I was, very pregnant. Fortunately she forgave me, but the first thing she said to me was, “You really should have told me you were pregnant. I don’t know that I can handle this.” Um, and then we went from there. So I suppose that was um…a real incident when being a women and having children and being pregnant entered into the reporting. And then I spent several days in the intensive care unit. Again, enormously pregnant with all these parents who had infants born at one and a half, two pounds. It probably in a way helped the reporting because it established some common ground right away…it also made me pretty anxious by the end of my pregnancy. [laughs] And it probably made me more clued into being able to conduct really strong interviews I think. The other thing that happened with that whole experience was we came down pretty hard on the medical center, which staffed all the pre-natal care clinics for low-income families. The question was, “With all this great medicine in this community, how is it that there are still so many premature births?” The people who ran that department, that was the medical practice I was going to. We talk all the time in journalism about conflict of interest and one of the doctors in my practice was a doctor who … I didn’t nail him in the articles, but we came down pretty hard on the quality of care that the medical center was providing to low-income families.
CB: That provided a bit of an awkward situation then…
PZ: It was quite awkward.
PZ: [laughing] Yeah, it was quite awkward.
CB: When you were a medical reporter—
CB: —would you be writing weekly or was it just sort of…daily, or?
PZ: The medical beat was more oriented toward weekend stories, but there would be some daily stories and some breaking news. The breaking news was more about the business end of medicine or research—that we did a lot of, I did a lot of stories on research coming out of the medical center. New reports on various things coming out. All those stories you do about the flu season and vaccination times, but most of it was geared toward the weekend paper.
CB: And then in 2001 you became a columnist, right?
PZ: I think so…hmm…I think it was 2000. It might’ve been 2000 because … oh, I can tell you exactly because I’ve got this first column up here… [She gets up and looks at framed newspaper column, hanging on the wall next to her.] Oh no, it was 2001! May of 2001!
CB: Okay…What was it like switching from reporter to columnist?
PZ: It was really, I found it really hard to learn to—you spend so much of your time as a reporter suppressing your voice, and a columnist is supposed to have a voice. It was a reported column, so I wasn’t writing for the opinion pages, everything was for the news pages, but I could still have a point of view, or sometimes I had an actual opinion. So learning to write with…where you allowed your voice to show, is hard.
CB: Once you got the hang of that though, did you like being able to express your opinion?
PZ: Yeah, I really liked it! And I liked the form. I liked…I think I had 19 inches, so it was about 900 words. Yeah…I think that was my favorite job ever, was being a columnist. It’s very demanding though to write, to come up with three reported columns a week.
CB: How did you get your story ideas?
PZ: Well…I mean I tried…some of my columns went off the news of the week…some of them came off of national news. I did not want to write a personal column. I think I did that maybe three times. I didn’t want to be…I wanted to be a news columnist, not a person…not a feature columnist. And I didn’t want to be, um…I didn’t want to write columns about my kids and my dog. [laughing] Sometimes it was really hard coming up with…that was a part of being a columnist, was the grind. When you’ve got that space you’ve got to fill three times a week it can be really hard. And you want to be good three times a week, and sometimes you’re just not that good.
CB: So it was when you were a columnist when you released the series of Darryl Hunt stories…
PZ: Oh, so then they took me off…I’m trying to think of what happened. So I’d been the columnist for about two years and by then we also had a new city editor. And the newsroom was, well, at least three times the size it is now, maybe four times the size it is now, but it was still a pretty small place. And I’d been there a long time, so we all knew each other pretty well. We had a brief story come out of the court beat that said that Darryl Hunt had made a request to have a new … there was a new state law that allowed inmates who had an innocence claim to ask for DNA testing. So he filed a motion asking for DNA testing. Of course this case was incredibly well-known to anybody who had been in Winston-Salem for a long time. But our new city editor, who had been at the paper for about a year, had heard about it. He didn’t really know anything about it. So he went upstairs and he pulled all the clip files. Before newspapers were digital, there were these little brown envelopes filled with clippings, and the library, which was called the morgue, was filled with these clip files. He brought all these clip files back to his desk, and I saw him reading them and then he called me over and he said, “Wow, this is incredible! This guy’s been claiming innocence for nearly 20 years. Why haven’t we ever investigated this?” I said, “Well…” I knew that the managing editor had some interest in it but he couldn’t get anybody, any of the other editors interested. I said, “Carl’s been making noise about wanting to do something for a couple of years.” That was kind of Les’ opening. He went into Carl’s office, and I saw them talking and I thought, “Oh no.” And Les came out and he said, “Phoebe, we want to take you off your column and have you re-investigate this case.” I would say going into it, I was really, really skeptical, for a couple of reasons. First of all we had—the paper had done taken three reporters off their beats a few years earlier to do a series on tobacco and the tobacco industry. And it had been a pretty well-received series, but it didn’t open any new ground. So it was good, but it ended up being more of a history rather than any kind of hard-hitting, ground-breaking journalism. And I thought, “Oh, great. I’m going to spend months on this and end up the same place we are now: that nobody knows what the truth is in this case.” So I was really uneasy about that, and I was also uneasy because Darryl Hunt by then had had two trials. He had a state appeal and then his case had gone up to the North Carolina Supreme Court. His case had gone all the way up through the federal court of appeals. It wasn’t as though he was somebody whose case had never been adequately reviewed. It had been investigated by three different sets of police, and I just was really skeptical that we would be able to turn out anything new or ground-breaking.
But…I got into it and…well this sort of gets us back to the beginning! Where we talked about writing and reporting. So we got into it and I re-read all the court transcripts, re-read all the police reports. The police reports turned out to be the key because we were able to piece together what had happened in the early days of the investigation. I interviewed anybody who had ever had anything to do with this case: jurors and lawyers and witnesses. There was a period when I was driving up and down Patterson Avenue in Winston-Salem through this area. There was this one woman who was a prostitute in the ‘80s who still was a prostitute in 2003 named Lisa McBride. I really wanted to talk with her and she wouldn’t talk with me. Somebody who had been in Darryl Hunt’s defense team, Larry Little who eventually became a city councilman and then by then he was in the faculty at Winston-Salem State, he would call me every time—he lived somewhat near Patterson Avenue—and he would call me up and he would say, “Phoebe! She’s at French’s Fried Chicken! Maybe she’ll talk to you this time!” And I’d just go driving over there and she would never talk to me. But it got to the point where Lisa McBride would introduce me to whoever she was with. She would say something like, “Oh, here’s that newspaper lady I told you was trying to talk with me. How are you doing?” And we’d walk along and chat, but she’d never talk to me. So I either talked to or tried to talk to anybody who was still around who was connected to the case.
Early on it was pretty obvious to me that because of the way the investigation was done, that the case against him had virtually no merit. But we never did find some red herring, some brand new piece of information that had never come out in trial.
PZ: We never found a witness that recanted who hadn’t already recanted or some evidence that had never been found. As far as I could tell when it came time to write it, I didn’t really have a lead. Working with Les Gura, who was a really fantastic editor, we realized that what we had was a different way of telling the story. We decided that what we were going to do was tell it as a narrative and let the story unfold. Instead of telling it in the more traditional way that investigative stories are told with this hard-hitting lead…it was hard-hitting, but it was a narrative. The impact of that was that we were able to show rather than tell—that’s that old journalism adage: show, don’t tell. But we were able to show by letting the story unfold, how absolutely screwed up the case was. The other thing that was so powerful about the narrative was most people in Winston-Salem knew about the case. Most people thought they knew the facts because they read about the trials for years and years and years. Most people in Winston-Salem had a pretty strong opinion already about the case and weren’t really inclined to read another news story about it, but they read the narrative. And it changed people’s minds about the case. It actually ended up opening the eyes of not the original prosecutor, but the prosecutor who was objecting all along to the re-opening the case. It allowed people to see the facts that were for the most part already out there. It allowed them to see it in a new way. Then after the series was published, the DNA evidence came back, and they found a match with the person who turned out to be the murderer in the case. So it was a pretty incredible experience.
CB: Yeah. What are some other huge stories that you covered? Or memorable stories for you?
PZ: So, after the Darryl Hunt story, I did some more work on wrongful conviction. I did a series on a man named Calvin Smith, who is still in prison. There was no physical evidence, and so getting those kinds of cases re-heard or overturned is really, really difficult. I’m still always drawn to stories about people. So stories that stick with me aren’t always the bigger, harder-hitting stories…I’m trying to think of…there’s a story I did for Memorial Day, I’m trying to think of what it was…it was probably some time around 1998 or 1999. No reporter ever actually wants to be stuck with the Memorial Day story—any of the recurrent holiday stories. There was—I suppose we got a press release about it—there was a man near…not Kernersville, some place just southeast of town. Colfax, I think…no, Sedge Garden was the community. It was a few years after the Berlin Wall had fallen and this man had died in World War II and had been buried in a marked or unmarked grave, I don’t remember, in East Germany. And there had been this effort after the Berlin Wall had fallen, by Germans, to retrieve some of the remains of Americans who had been buried in East Germany. His widow, who by then was in her seventies or eighties, received word that—and she, of course, had gone on to remarry—he died when they were in their early twenties. But I ended up doing a story about him and their romance and what happened to her. He never came back, and so she went on with her life. That Memorial Day they brought his remains back, and he had a full service in a church in Sedge Gardens and it was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life. The pastor was a military pastor, and he must have sensed who was in the room because there were all these people there, and they weren’t people necessarily that had known him. People who had come to the funeral were her friends and family, but also all these other men who had served in World War II. They were there out of a sense of—well, I think one of them said, “There but for the grace go I.” They were all there to honor this soldier who had died by then…forty-five years ago? In the late ‘90s…forty-five, fifty years ago. They did a full military burial for him in the church graveyard, and it was just so unbelievably moving to see all these older men—and they were all so choked up with emotion over something that happened so long ago.
PZ: So that story sticks with me. I would say it’s the stories about… [pause] I always like telling stories about people whose stories don’t normally get told.
CB: You’ve told—along with the Darryl Hunt story—you’ve told stories about sexual abuse and domestic violence—
CB: And…how do those stories affect you personally?
PZ: Um…yeah I never know how to answer that question. I suppose, I think there’s… journalism can still do such important work in helping to right wrongs. So finally I think I’m just kind of old-fashioned in believing in the power of journalism to play the role of the fourth estate and make this place a better place. I suppose that…I don’t know, I don’t really have an easy answer to how it’s affected me. I mean I think I was pretty compassionate beforehand—I don’t think it’s actually made me more compassionate. Um…
CB: Where there times when you—
PZ: I think it’s made me believe, still really believe, in the importance of fact. If you want to tell compelling human stories you still have to get the facts right and be able to kind of keep a little bit of emotional distance from whatever the human part of the story is about because you can’t really do your job well if you get sucked into the human story of it all. Um…but as far as the way it’s affected me? Yeah, I don’t know how to answer that question.
CB: That’s fair…so you left the Journal in 2008?
CB: Why did you decide to leave?
PZ: Part of it was personal and part of it was professional. So by then I was state editor, and I really liked being an editor and working with other reporters. I liked it more than I expected. But by 2008, the news business was kind of going down the tubes, and we had done one round of layoffs and we were getting ready to do another round of layoffs, but as state editor I was in management so I was going to be involved in picking the people who got laid off. I found this to be a really unpleasant task. I also sort of felt—so by 2008, I was not 50 yet, I was 48 years old—and I basically felt like I had to find something else to do—that I could probably hang on a few years longer, but it didn’t look like the place that I could work at for the rest of my career. So I was thinking about that. Also I had fairly recently remarried. I remarried in 2005—so I’d been remarried for about three years, and my husband worked as an executive at Reynolds so he made good money and we didn’t need my income. He traveled a lot so there was…We had three kids including my teenage daughter who was not happy being part of a blended family at that point and two boys and there was just a lot of stress at home, and we didn’t need my income. That combined with the idea that I really should find something else to do, combined with the fact that I really didn’t want to be one of the people laying people off, it just seemed like a good time to leave and to find the next thing to do.
So then what happened was we had a really nice summer and then my husband got laid off! [laughs] When we planned on this, my husband kept saying, “If you give yourself enough time, I’m sure you’ll get a freelance career going, but you don’t have to worry if it takes you a couple of years—that’s fine, we’ve got that luxury. Take your time with it and enjoy the summer.” And that’s what I did. I thought, “I have been working pretty much since I graduated from college. Working really hard.” I took June and July pretty much off completely and sort of started pitching stories and kind of doing writing for non-profits. I started doing a little bit of networking, and then in September he got laid off.
CB: [laughs] So…
PZ: So! So then suddenly neither of us had a whole lot of time! [laughing] Yes, it’s quite funny!
CB: It worked out okay I think.
PZ: It worked out okay. But Les, the editor at the Journal, he said, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re Jewish like I am.” He said, “Because the Jewish God would be laughing.” [laughs] And it was—it felt like it had the potential to be a crisis, but it wasn’t. My husband actually worked through March or February and then he had a really generous severance package so we were not without income for any of the time that we were both unemployed and looking for work.
CB: Mm-hmm. So you started doing freelance work and …
PZ: So I started doing freelance work and booked some kinds of freelance work that I probably would have turned my nose up at if I didn’t feel like I had to get a client base together. I pitched a story about domestic violence to the Oprah Magazine and that panned out, and so I had one really good journalism assignment. I started doing multimedia documentary work with a photographer who I’d worked with at the Journal. So we did that while I was freelancing—
CB: About rivers, right?
PZ: About the Yadkin River. We actually got quite a good amount of grant support for that so I wrote a lot of grants, I learned how to do that. I ended up producing a corporate video—I did all kinds of things I really had no idea how to do. There was a pharmaceutical company in town called Targacept that had been spun off from Reynolds Tobacco and they did research not with nicotine, but with compounds that were similar to nicotine that acted on the same receptors. They wanted a corporate video done, and I knew the president. He wanted their corporate history told and then that morphed into a video and I said, “Oh, I can do that.” And I’d never written a video script…But I did it! I found a really great video production company to work with, so I did that. Then I saw this job listing at Wake Forest and applied for that and that whole process took—that probably took six or seven or eight months. So I did a number of things while I was freelancing, but I was basically trying anything I could get somebody to pay me to do, pretty much.
CB: What was it like working for clients instead of the newspaper, or a newspaper?
PZ: Hmm… well, a lot of what I was selling was my ability to tell stories, so I liked doing the corporate history. But it wasn’t journalism. I didn’t like doing PR at all. I did a little bit of PR—trying to pitch stories to newspapers. I hated that. I did some writing for foundations in town, that was fine; I kind of liked that. But it still wasn’t journalism, it wasn’t…it wasn’t telling. It was telling a story that the client wanted told, it wasn’t telling the best version I could get to of the truth. So it was okay, but I don’t think I liked it as much as doing journalism.
CB: Mm-hmm. Do you feel like you’ve gotten back into the journalism vein with your most recent projects, or are you still missing it?
PZ: The multimedia work that I did I really like. I miss having some connection with the community. Even when I did the—I’ve done a little bit of magazine work, and even doing a story for a big magazine like Oprah, I think still preferred working with a local newspaper. I really liked having that connection with the readership and the people I wrote for, and I didn’t feel that when I was freelancing for the Oprah Magazine…I mean there were things about the newsroom that I didn’t miss at all, it’s a pretty stressful life, but I like working with a group of people. I’ll continue to do freelance magazine work if I can get it, but when you don’t know your editor, and working at a distance with people—I don’t like that so much.
CB: How do you like teaching?[Interruption. Narrator gets up to get a glass of water.]
PZ: So the first thing I learned about teaching was that it’s so much harder than I imagined it was going to be. Um…I don’t know if anybody at Wake Forest should hear this, but when I got the job I sort of thought, “Oh, this great! I just have to show up three days a week and then I have two days to myself that I can continue doing journalism in! And I completely forgot about prepping for class, finding material to teach and grading and office hours and meetings and…I think I work harder during the semester as a teacher than I did working at the newspaper. Or my hours are longer. But I get the summers off, I get a month off at Christmas, and also my time is way more flexible. So if I have something I have to do on a Friday afternoon, if my son needs help with meeting his November 1 early-action deadline at N.C. State, I can take part of November 1 off and just postpone my grading and spend Saturday doing it. So my time is way more flexible, and I really like working with students, and I like my colleagues.
CB: Mm-hmm. You’re sort of in the reverse role that you were in the start. [laughs] Do you feel like you’re like those teachers that you look up to?
PZ: Oh! I’m not as hard as Dick Blood or Mel Mencher. But I try to be as demanding, but I’m not as hard as they are. I teach journalism, one course a semester, and then I teach two first year writing courses. So no, I’m not as hard. I probably should be because I’ve always remembered Dick Blood and Mel Mencher, so maybe I should be meaner and tougher and make my students cry and…[laughing] I haven’t made any of my journalism students cry. I’m teaching a class this semester that I’m really enjoying. I suppose the thing that I miss about teaching is that, again, I miss being part of the daily life of the community. I’m teaching a new course on community journalism, and we’re putting out an online, regular news report about downtown as a community. I’ve only got six students because it’s a new course, but we’re about to put out issue four and the stories are really good, and I can work with them to get to the point of being publishable. I’m beginning—I feel like I’m back in a newsroom. I don’t know if the students feel this way—I get really excited about these stories, and I make them do another interview or clean up their sentences. I edit the heck out of their stories. They get sent back to them completely marked up. And I think most of them are really enjoying being part of and covering a real community and getting off campus. And getting back into sort of the thrill of knowing what’s really going on…I miss that.
CB: Oh, your exhibit “Story of My Life” just opened too, right?
CB: Will you talk a little about that?
PZ: Sure. So I started doing this multimedia work with my friend Christine Rucker who’s a photographer and another friend Michelle Johnson, who’s an audio producer. Well, she now calls herself a multimedia producer. She started off as a radio reporter and then learned to edit video and edit audio and combine it all. This project took us forever. It followed the lives of six disabled adults. If we’d been at a newspaper it would’ve taken a month, but we all had other jobs so we had to spread it out, and it took probably about a year and a half. It’s the story of these six adults who have various kinds of developmental disabilities. Then we got some funding from Wake Forest to do the initial part, which was six short videos of them online, and then I wrote a series of profiles and a kind of overview essay. Then we got additional funding when we decided we wanted to put it all together as an art exhibit. We got additional funding from Wake Forest to work with the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, which is a community art school in Winston-Salem. It’s been here for 30, 40 years. It’s where young kids go to take art classes and adults go to learn pottery and weaving and jewelry making. It’s a really wonderful place. They got funding to work with the six people we’d worked with on projects. Then Christine also worked with the six people we worked with teaching them to do their own photography. So we ended up with this exhibit in which we tell the story of these six individuals through these different media. Yeah, that turned out to be really thrilling, again because it really ended up really touching this community and people, and I suppose I’m always interested in doing work that has that kind of connection.
The exhibit opened three weeks ago now, and it was completely packed. It was packed mostly with the family and friends and caretakers of those six men and women who we worked with, which was just really moving to see because when we were doing the project, I wasn’t sure if it really meant that much to them, partly because it was so drawn out. So I sort of had the feeling that I’d show up, I’d do a little interview, I’d leave, I’d come back a few weeks later, and then we’d go bowling with them, or some event they were going to, and then I’d disappear for six more months…This comes up in journalism too sometimes—are you doing this work to satisfy your own impulses to do creative work, or are you doing it for the people you’re working with? And this was meant to be a really collaborative project. It was like doing journalism except we did things you wouldn’t do as a journalist. We had them read over the essays, we had them look at the videos that they or their caretakers — we brought them into it. I don’t think many things were changed by engaging them in that way, but it was not a pure journalism project. It turned out that it meant a great deal to them, and it was obvious when seeing these crowds there when the exhibit opened. I’ve heard since then that a number of the people we worked with kept coming back—they brought their housemates with them…some of them have been back two, three, four times to go through the exhibit and see the video and see themselves. So it really ended up being a pretty profound experience for them.
CB: That’s really satisfying work.
CB: What do you think the effects of a changing journalism scene is on community journalism?
PZ: Well, part of the reason I started doing this multimedia work is, first of all, I wanted some of my own work to do, and it didn’t depend on finding somebody to publish an article, but I also really wanted to learn how to do multimedia storytelling and multimedia journalism because that’s the way the field was going. And it’s a really powerful way of doing journalism. So the digital world offers journalism some tools that we didn’t have when I was first starting out. I mean it’s incredible to be able to post documents online, or to tell a story in a written story and then in video and then in photographs. To be able to hear people’s voices when you go to a website. Or to do those interactive maps and graphics. All of that just makes the storytelling deeper and more significant. But the problem is the economics haven’t kept up. The Journal has gotten a little bit better in the past year and a half, but the newsroom’s empty. It’s got at most a third of the staff that it had when I left in 2008 which was only seven years ago. And you can’t do…you know they’re not posting lots of documents online—they don’t have the staff to do it. They’re not producing great multimedia because they don’t have the staff. So, until the economic model catches up, I think overall it’s been pretty bad for community journalism. But if the economics catch up I think it’ll be good. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with civic journalism, so I don’t have really developed thoughts on what the merits are on being able to engage a community newspaper through civic journalism.
CB: What are your plans for the future? I mean you’re starting to get into multimedia—
CB: And you’re teaching—do you plan on continuing to teach and continuing to do freelance work at the same time?
PZ: Yeah, I haven’t really figured out exactly what I want to do with my life. [laughs] But yeah, I’m going to continue to teach, I want to continue to do some freelance magazine work, and I want to continue to do this multimedia work—I really like it. And it’s funny because I’m really bad at technology. I think ideally I’d like to help—these are very half-baked ideas—but I’d like to help develop the journalism curriculum at Wake Forest so that students can be more involved in producing meaningful community journalism for the community, but we’re a pretty long way off from doing that. The rest I haven’t thought through all that well.
CB: Overall do you feel like you’ve been able to “do good” with journalism? With your writing?
PZ: Yeah, it’s been a really great way to earn a living. It’s never been a particularly good living, but yeah, I feel like I’ve been able to do some good. I feel like I’ve been able to touch people, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to know all kinds of fascinating and wonderful people. And that’s the privilege of being a journalist: even if you’re in a pretty small community, you have the opportunity to really understand the place you live in and get to know the people who live in that community with you.
CB: That’s great.
PZ: I don’t know that I have anything to…yeah.
CB: Thank you so much for your time.
CB: I’ve really enjoyed interviewing you and getting to know you.
PZ: Yeah, yeah. You did really well.
CB: Thank you.