From 1997 to 2002, I worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, capping a fifteen-year stretch in newspapers. One thing I loved about the job was getting paid to tell a story every single day, and to read great stories by writers I admired: crime stories, courtroom dramas, political intrigue, heartwarming features, longform investigations, profiles, and even the obits--I’m still a sucker for the well-crafted summary of a well-played life.
At the Sun, I had the privilege of working alongside an exceptional group of writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to aspiring novelists. And in the years since, I’ve watched many of them transition from daily journalism into books. Leading the way at the Sun was David Simon, who, before going on to produce The Wire and Treme, was a helluva reporter who wrote two classics of immersive, journalistic nonfiction: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (both of which became television shows).
Simon is now married to one of my favorite writers, novelist and Baltimore Sun alum Laura Lippman, who told me by email that her success as an author “is rooted in the good habits I learned at The Sun and other newspapers.”
"Reporters in general are well-suited to publishing," Lippman said. "Deadlines, a commitment to clean copy--they're second nature to most of us. Or should be."
Two of Amazon’s recent Best Books of the Month were penned by former Baltimore Sun colleagues: Bob Timberg’s amazing memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy, about his recovery from horrific injuries sustained in the Vietnam War--and his decision to become a journalist despite his disfiguring wounds; and Dan Fesperman’s timely thriller about drone warfare, Unmanned.
This two-fer from Baltimore comes on the heals of other books by Sun alumni: Cheryl Tan's recent Singapore Noir, David Folkenflik's Murdoch's World, and the latest from Sarah Pekkanen, The Best of Us. Coming this fall is a memoir by David Greene (now at NPR), which will find a spot on my shelf beside other books by Sun reporters, former and current, including: Del Wilber, Sujata Massey, Stephen Hunter, Robert Ruby, Scott Higham, Scott Shane, Raffael Alvarez, Jim Haner, Fraser Smith, an Tom Waldron. (An honorable mention to Brigid Schulte, Washington Post reporter/author and wife of Sun alum Tom Bowman, now NPR's Pentagon correspondent. And Lippman pointed out that Russell Baker, William Manchester, and Anthony Lukas worked at the Sun or Evening Sun, too.)
I asked Fesperman for his thoughts on reporters becoming authors. “By the time I quit newspapers for good I was writing a lot of long-form narrative stories, which meant I had to set scenes, present characters and even develop a sense of pacing, dramatic tension, and so on. All of that was great practice," he told me. "But I think the most underrated skill you develop as a journalist is learning to be a careful observer and a good listener, even an eavesdropper at times.”
Of course, the Sun is hardly alone in employing reporters who also write great fiction or nonfiction. During my years as a journalist (in New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) I collected plenty of books by colleagues. I spent my first year after college sitting across from mob writer George Anastasia, at the Philadelphia Inquirer. More recent reporter-turned-author colleagues include Doug Most, Michael Hudson, and Beth Macy, who I recently interviewed about her bestselling book, Factory Man.
We’re writers, after all. We tell stories. And most of the journalists I’ve known have yearned, at least now and then, to break free from the confines of the daily paper. Still, it's always seemed to me that the Sun in particular was a fertile breeding ground for authors.
Lippman agreed... "I've always thought there must be a reason that so many Sun reporters (my father included) wrote books 'on the side'," she said. "Part of it, I think, was that some people got to The Sun and didn't really have a burning desire to go further in newspapers. It was a good paper in a good news town. So if you removed the usual ambition of onward and upward through the newspaper hierarchy, I think it freed up one's ambitions to pursue other things. Novels, in my case."
In Lippman's case--and in mine--she got an unintended boost from the Sun toward writing novels. "I've always been grateful that I had a falling-out with the powers-that-be there because it forced me to choose books over newspapers, and that turned out to be a good choice for me," she said.
(Disclosure: When I started researching my first book, an angry editor told me it wasn’t possible to write a book and still be a good reporter. And I thought: but wait... David Simon? Bob Woodward? I soon left the Sun and started writing books full time, which may partly explain my devotion to books by writers with beats and bylines in their past.)