The Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post journalist shared his process Wednesday night as part of The Poynter Institute’s 40th Anniversary Speaker Series.
It’s a process that also includes ordering a tuna salad sandwich on rye, kicking off his shoes and strolling around the Post newsroom in his socks. It’s usually done in silence, unless he’s writing about Detroit. Then Motown lyrics blast through the house.
Those quirks might be unique to Maraniss, but the four pillars of his writing can be applied to any journalist.
The first thing he does when working on any story is to “go there, wherever there is.”
When researching his 1999 best-selling biography of Vince Lombardi, it meant asking his wife to move to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the winter. It’s also lead them to Puerto Rico, Rome, Arkansas, New York and countless other locations.
For his most recent book, Maraniss explored the spirit and soul of Detroit, which he described as an incandescent star: burning bright but with a dying light. He and his wife would stay at a bed and breakfast near the Detroit Institute of Arts. In Hope, Arkansas, he stayed at a Super 8 Motel while learning as much as he could about former president Bill Clinton.
“I feel it’s very important to really immerse myself in the sociology and geography of a place,” Maraniss said.
The second leg of the table is archival research.
Maraniss has unearthed some of the best jewels in his stories during this stage. It was when he was camped out at the rundown motel in Arkansas that he met Clinton’s great aunt.
“Half the people in Hope say they’re related to Clinton,” Maraniss said. “The other half probably really were.”
She invited Maraniss — who was battling allergies — over to her house for a homemade remedy. Offhandedly, she mentioned she had all of Clinton’s grandma’s personal effects. When she brought down a big, old cardboard box from the attic and pulled open the lid, the first thing Maraniss saw was stationery from Georgetown University.
Tucked into the box were 100 letters Clinton had written his grandma while at Georgetown University.
“There were a lot of jewels in there,” Maraniss said.
The third leg is interviews.
Maraniss estimates he’s done hundreds of interviews for all of his books. The key, he said, is to find the right people and then interview them many times.
“The first interview, often, is just to establish the relationship,” Maraniss said. “The material you get from that is not really that important…. As I go back for more interviews, I get more and better information.”
Despite having interviewed Clinton, Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and other “big-shot people,” his favorite interview, he said, was with Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas. She was telling him stories of her elementary and high school music teachers, and singing at the Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit when she took him by surprise.
“She broke into song at age 71, singing this aria,” Maraniss said. “It was quite beautiful.”
The final leg to Maraniss’ writing process is to look for what’s not there.
“To cut through the mythology and find the real story,” he said.
That writing process has helped him publish more than 10 books and material for The Washington Post that contributed to the 2008 Pulitzer for the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech Shooting, his 1993 Pulitzer for his coverage of then-presidential candidate Clinton, and three other Pulitzer finalist works.
While the Post was once a “writer’s paper,” Maraniss said that’s now gone. Instead, a new renaissance is coming under editor Marty Baron and owner Jeff Bezos.
Maraniss celebrated the paper’s political staff, a wave of new hires and increased Web traffic, but he questioned where it was all going.
“What the end game is, I don’t know.” Maraniss said. “I’m worried about it. And I’m worried about it for our entire industry.”
When he thinks about the future of journalism, Maraniss said there are two key ingredients.
One will always be there, he said, and that’s the need for human beings to understand themselves through story.
The second is more vulnerable: the search for truth. Truth that is researched, reported and vetted by journalists, not just spouted off by bloggers who never leave their apartments.
“(The Web) feeds a lot of misinformation and feeds a sensibility that seems to be growing that facts don’t matter,” Maraniss said. “They do. Without facts, we’ve got nothing. Without a search for truth, we don’t have a democracy.
“And that, I think, is the vulnerable part of this transformation of the media world.”