From Reporting the News to Telling a Story: Journalist Ethan Michaeli on Writing a Book

Ethan Michaeli

Photo: Jason Reblando

This week we got to know the closing speaker for CWC2016 a little bit better. Ethan Michaeli is an award-winning author, publisher, and journalist based in Chicago. He was a copy editor and investigative reporter at the Chicago Daily Defender from 1991 to 1996. In addition to his book The Defender, Ethan’s work has been published by Oxford University Press, the Nation, the Forward, In These Times and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues.

1. Besides working for The Defender, what inspired you to write a book about the paper?
I worked at The Defender as a copy editor and investigative reporter from 1991 to 1996. It was a transformative experience which opened my eyes to the truth about race in America and the pivotal role Chicago’s African American community has played in national politics. More than that, working at The Defender allowed me to fill in the gaps in American history, to answer the questions which lagged in the official narrative. The dream of somehow transmitting this experience to a broader audience had been there since the time I worked at the newspaper. Over the years, I tried a variety of approaches to telling the story, but after Barack Obama ascended so quickly from representing Illinois in the U.S. Senate to the presidency, I knew that publishers would finally understand just how significant the political project launched by The Defender in the first years of the 20th Century had been.

2. How did you divide your time between research/reporting and writing the book?
I had to do a lot of research to complete the proposal; that took one year, mostly reading the academic literature about The Defender, its principals, and the context in which the newspaper operated, both political and economic, as well as spot reading issues from different eras. After getting the contract, I also conducted many, many interviews with former Defender staffers from multiple generations and read issues of the newspaper going back to the earliest preserved, from 1908. I started chronologically, reading entire issues cover to cover, and just kept going through the 1919 race riot. As the papers got longer, I read more sporadically, but made sure to read as many full issues as I could to understand the major issues covered in the newspaper as they related to each other, what made the front page, and to chart the interplay between news, editorial, sports and features. I also spent a lot of time at the Carter G. Woodson Branch of the Chicago Public Library, where the Vivian Harsh Collection is located, really the most important collection of African American artifacts and documents in the USA. The Abbott-Sengstacke Family Archives are there, larger than the equivalent collections of the Hearst or Pulitzer families. Then finally I started writing, reading many more issues of the newspaper and other sources as I progressed, of course. That took four more years.

3. What was one of the most surprising things you learned during the book-writing process?
Writing more than a century of history chronologically allowed me to see the development in the individuals about whom I was writing, to see personal weaknesses turn into strengths and vice versa, and ultimately to see people go from childhood through their entire lives. Because I was writing about other writers, journalists who were describing their experiences and their perspectives in print, I could see the evolution in their styles as well as the refinement in their understanding even as the newspaper industry itself was changing. The drama and suspense were real for me in that I was writing furiously so that I could find out how everything unfolded, how the institution changed, and how it interacted with the changing African American community as well as the city and the nation. It was all frankly thrilling, euphoric at times.

4. In light of everything that’s happened with race relations and policing in the past year, the subject of your book feels especially timely. Do you think The Defender still has a critical role to play in shaping dialogue on these issues, or has that role been overtaken by social media?
I often think that current events could easily be an epilogue for my book, that all the trend lines I observed have continued uninterrupted. We have incidents of police abuse coming to light because they were recorded on cell phone videos and posted on social media, much the way The Defender was a new form of media in its day exposing state-sanctioned lynching and the other evils of segregation. Just as in the newspaper’s heyday, there is progress on a political level as well as a wicked backlash such that we continue to see vast differences in opportunity for blacks and whites. At the end of my book, I questioned whether we’ve made any progress at all in our society, or if we’ve just made adjustments necessary to accommodate a growing population. I’ll just say that question remains unanswered.

In terms of today’s Defender, it remains a voice of conscience with a dedicated staff, albeit with a reduced frequency and circulation. Of course, other media are providing African Americans multiple venues to report the news and present their opinions – from the television /radio/social media host Roland Martin, a one-time Defender editor, to #blacktwitter, to the many African American staff members at mainstream media outlets – but I think that The Defender’s brand will remain strong as long as it’s needed, and the newspaper or whatever its successor is will continue to punch above its weight, in terms of having an influence far greater than its circulation.

5. What advice would you offer to journalists hoping to write a book?
When I was reporting, I would write about the same people regularly, sometimes every day, but I was producing a series of snapshots, articles that focused on the events in which these individuals were involved. For my book, however, I had to focus on how the individuals involved in the events changed over time. A book has to motivate a reader to follow it all the way through, or, to put it another way, my responsibility was different: I had to tell a story rather than report the news.

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