On Monday morning, I had the pleasure of watching a panel featuring Ben Montgomery and Kelley Benham French of the Tampa Bay Times.
The subject of the panel was the relationship between an editor (Benham French) and a reporter (Montgomery), but really, it was about more than that.
Ben Montgomery is an influential reporter that wrote about an 111-year-old Florida reform school for boys whose employees beat, tortured and killed hundreds of students. Despite several governmental inspections, the school changed its name several times in order to stay open, almost undetected.
Montgomery spent months, years, interviewing, collecting data and writing. Benham French was the editor behind him, fighting for him, asking for money for hundreds of documents, brining him a late night burrito; she even helped him convince the paper to file a lawsuit in order to obtain sealed records.
After years of investigation and heartache, the story came to fruition and the Dozier School was closed for good. Montgomery and Benham French’s work was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
One of the moments that struck me during the panel was when Benham French put a picture that showed Montgomery, in a closet that they had converted into the “office” for the story. Montgomery was sitting in the center of the tiny room stuffed with documents, pictures and outlines, with his head buried in his hands.
“Every writer gets to this point,” Benham French said. “A good editor gives a shit.”
I can’t say I’ve been “there” yet, at least not to that magnitude. I’ve never had to sit for countless hours and listen to 60 year-old men bawling over a trauma that they had experienced 50 years before. I’ve never had to comb through documents tracing years of abuse, neglect and covered-up murder.
But someday, I hope to be.
There have been rough days when I report from 7am until 12am. There was one day where I sat for three hours and listened to a couple’s most personal tales of war and substance abuse. I’ve had to call someone back five times before they answered, and trust me, I’ve buried my head in my hands and thought, “It might have just been easier to pursue a ‘real’ desk job.”
But then, I read work like Montgomery’s, and I ache with longing. I want to tell a story like his. So badly, in fact, that I’ll power through 15 hour reporting days and suck down my umpteenth cup of coffee and I’ll show up to the newsroom before most people get there and stay until after most people leave.
And I hope that when I find this fantastic story to tell, I have an editor gives a shit.
Montgomery mentioned how he has a one-track mind — how for years, the story of the Dozier School was all he could think about. He also noted how he built a support network of friends to help him stay somewhat sane.
I think it’s a journalism thing. You get so invested in what you’re writing that everything else starts to feel almost secondary, mostly because you understand the profound importance of stories and the rare gift that you receive when you are entrusted to tell them.
Ben Montgomery understood, I think, so much that he was able to create something that made a difference. The Dozier School closed, the men who were abused were able to find some sort of peace and hopefully, atrocities like it won’t go unnoticed again.
The best part about being a journalist? It’s never about you. It’s about your stories, it’s about the people, it’s about your relationships and living every day with an open eye and an open mind.