The last interview: Summing up a life in a subject’s last days

October 23, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Getting that final interview right; going caravan crazy

The call came to the newsroom. This would probably be the subject's last interview. He had pancreatic cancer. 

Jenna Ross of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis drove out to Todd Bol's home one afternoon this month, where she talked to the man whose idea of a Little Free Library in a person's front yard had captured the imagination of the world. In nine years, more than 75,000 front yards in 88 countries hosted Bol's boxes. And Bol, on one of his last days, told Ross that he considered himself the most successful man in the world, more so than Jeff Bezos.

Why? Certainly he was not as wealthy; he even set up the libraries as a nonprofit so he wouldn't have pressure from shareholders to maximize profits.

Bol explained: He was successful because he'd been able to bring so many people together with the libraries, with mini-libraries in community police cars and with Action Book Clubs, where members both read and do service projects together.

Bol talked about the two Little Free Libraries outside his home — one for his dad, made from wood from his childhood bed; the other, the first ever, a tribute to his teacher mother, who tutored kids and brought books around the family table. That library looks like a little red schoolhouse.

“Both my parents, they hugged the world as they left — with an embrace of appreciation,” Bol told Ross.

Ross took it all in. "It was one of those afternoons that reminded me what a privilege it is to do this work," she told me Monday via email.

After the interview was over, Ross moved quickly. Her feature story saw life shortly before Bol's death, becoming one of the newspaper's most popular and prompting scores of comments. Tony Bol, Todd's brother, wrote Ross a note that said, “We read the article to Todd and maybe we saw a smile."

After Bol died on Thursday at age 62, the paper added a line in italics at the top of the story that noted Bol's death, and adding that Bol had it read to him before he had passed. Ross turned to write a formal obituary, with notes that she didn't get in her first story.

When subjects are willing to bare their souls, readers often respond. Ross said readers such as Sharon Rosenberg-Scholl, writing on the paper's Facebook page, provided strong material herself. 

Rosenberg-Scholl wrote about this nice guy who showed up to install their Little Free Library one day.

"I said, 'So what do you do? Besides this, I mean. Like are you a contractor, or … ?'” Rosenberg-Scholl wrote.

"Todd" replied that he mostly built and installed libraries, and ran the organization. And Todd Bol kept digging, talking with their family about life and books.

Quick hits

ON-STAGE JOB OFFER: “You know, you’re welcome back any day,” New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said Monday at a public event to his interviewer, CNN’s Brian Stelter. Stelter, an NYT alum who is now CNN's chief media reporter, replied that CNN was fine. On another front, the interview yielded this from Sulzberger: “Curiosity” is an underlying trait of Times readers. (h/t Erik Wemple)

'BUT HER EMAILS,' 2018 VERSION: President Trump has a murdered journalist to think about and a Russia probe, but he's turning his focus before the election to a group of Central American refugees. Oddly, the group Trump considers an enemy — the media — are helping him concoct caravan hysteria from nothing at all, writes Margaret Sullivan. 

THAT CARAVAN: AP removed a tweet that referred to the thousands of northward-bound Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence as “like a ragtag army of the poor.” Says AP: “That wording was poorly chosen and has been removed from our coverage.” The National Association of Hispanic Journalists had protested that wording. Jamil Smith had taken exception to the “army” part, tweeting: “It enables a racist narrative sold by this @POTUS and his supporters. Armies invade. These people are running away.”

FROM CJR’S EDITOR: “Trump doesn’t care about a dead journalist because he doesn’t care about journalism.” Kyle Pope, writing on Jamal Khashoggi and a “sobering realization” about the state of journalism in the Trump era, said Trump’s blase attitude also explains why the current president was so reluctant to commemorate the lives of the five people slain in the Capital Gazette newsroom. Asked Julia Ioffe, nervous about the administration’s reaction to Khashoggi: “Is this how they’ll behave if something happens to me when I’m reporting on Russia?” (h/t Jill Geisler)

BEFORE KHASHOGGI'S KILLING: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman already has swept the kingdom free of press opposition and dissidents to the monarchy, Washington Post reporter Kevin Sullivan found. Said one dissident, in self-exile in London: “He is trying to silence everyone. There are no human rights defenders still free in Saudi Arabia. They are all behind bars.”

WHAT A LEAD: Writer Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times, on the Trump administration's consideration to define people by their genitals, eliminating a category for transgender people:

"I was surprised to learn on Sunday morning that I do not exist.

"This will come as sad news to my children, to whom I’ve been a mother for over 20 years now.

"It will come as a shock to my wife, too, to whom I’ve been married for 30 years."

A NEW (OLD) OP-ED CHIEF: Sue Horton, a Reuters editor handling immigration, the Supreme Court, healthcare and the midterms, is returning to the Los Angeles Times as op-ed editor. Horton was a former op-ed editor, Sunday opinion editor and deputy metro editor at the LAT from 2001 to 2014. She is also the author of “The Billionaire Boys Club” and once was editor-in-chief of L.A. Weekly.

MEET THE POD HOST: Martine Powers has been named host of The Washington Post’s flagship Monday-through-Friday podcast, “Post Reports,” which is launching soon. She has been an interim host of the Trump podcast “Can He Do That?” and a former transportation reporter. Previously, Powers worked at Politico and The Boston Globe and was a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop for audio journalism.

THE READ: How one family turned an obituary into a gripping story on how opioid addiction hits, how to help and who is left behind. (h/t Bill Grueskin)

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Have a good Tuesday. See you tomorrow.