Joshua Hammer started his foreign correspondent’s life as a rotating bureau chief for Newsweek from 1992 to 2006. He’s now a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside magazines, and contributes frequently to the New York Review of Books. He’s written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, among others. He was also a 2005 Nieman Fellow.
Despite these glossy magazine chops, the story that earned Hammer the 2016 National Magazine Award for Reporting appeared in Matter, a digital-only publisher of longform journalism. The piece, “My Nurses Are Dead and I Don’t Know If I’m Already Infected,” tells the story of Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, a Sierra Leonean physician and tropical diseases specialist, who led the effort to control the Ebola outbreak from the country’s Kenema Government Hospital, in the heart of the disease’s hot zone. Hammer says winning the ASME (American Society of Magazine Editors) award surprised him, in part because when he wrote the story, he wasn’t sure what kind of visibility Matter would have. But he loved Matter’s openness to a long piece (it eventually ran at 9,000 words). That gave him the opportunity to both profile what motivates people to take heroic action while facing almost certain death, and to fully explore controversial questions about the conduct of government officials and aid organizations.
Hammer, ever the industrious freelancer, also reported part of “As Legacy News Outlets Retreat, Who Will Be There to Report on the World?” for Nieman Reports while in Sierra Leone. He’s also written several books. His next, “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” comes out in April.
He spoke to me by Skype from his home in Berlin, Germany. This interview has been edited and condensed.
You’ve spent many years reporting in Africa but have said you never experienced a story like this. What made this one so unique? What were the risks of reporting a story like this?
I’ve certainly never been in the middle of a viral epidemic. I did cover an Ebola outbreak in Uganda a couple of years ago, but I’ve certainly never been around an insidious disease that’s spreading out of control. I’ve been in a lot of conflict zones but I’ve never been in the middle of this kind of hot zone before, a fast-growing epidemic, a stealthy epidemic. I was essentially putting myself at risk.
You arrived in October, four months after Dr. Khan entered the public’s eye. Were there particular challenges around re-creating that narrative? Were people hesitant to speak to you?
It was actually pretty easy to re-create that narrative. There were a lot of family members around in Freetown who I had spoken to and were eager to talk about him. When I got to Kenema, so many of his colleagues, those who hadn’t died, were around and wanted to talk about him. I would say more of the problem came with the officials. I was shut out by a lot of the government agencies. The Sierra Leonean officials would not cooperate with me, Doctors Without Borders completely blocked me off. It took me like weeks to track down the Minister of Health, who was in the position of whether to give him the medicine or not and subsequently lost her job. The officials were much more difficult.
What are the challenges of getting into a hot zone like that? What was your writing process like?
Getting to Sierra Leone actually took the most time. I wanted to go in August, but there was a lot about insurance and the danger factor that we were hesitant about, and there were other things that slowed it down. I had written about Ebola before for Smithsonian, so I had some background. I had to track down a fixer to help me get around and also help me interpret pidgin English. Actually most people spoke English pretty competently, but in the hinterlands they did not, or it wasn’t comprehensible. I also got a pretty good bit of background from some colleagues at The New York Times, then I did a lot of research on protecting oneself. That was my main concern, to minimize the risk of infection. Jaime [Yaya Barry], the fixer I used, had a lot of experience with it. In the end it was probably about 10 days of reporting in Sierra Leone, another 10 days of writing, then about a month of back-and-forth with my editor before it was ready to publish.
You had some really visceral scenes here. Any part of you that was hesitant to do things like visit the parents at their home? And since much of this story is a re-creation of events that happened in the recent past, but in a time of great upheaval, did you have a lot of conflicting accounts, or were you worried you weren’t getting the full, true story?
No, I never had any hesitation about [visiting his parents] because people loved him, his family was really proud of him. So I always had the feeling that the family was appreciative that I was there, that I had come all this way at a time of pretty serious turmoil to write about their son. Nobody had really done that – the New York Times and Richard Preston [in The New Yorker] had written something about him, but not with him at the center of the story. Nobody had approached them to really tell his story fully, so there was a lot of appreciation. I didn’t have to feel any hesitation or guilt, only that this was the story of a man who did something amazing and deserved to be celebrated. And all the family members and colleagues I spoke to felt the same way.
The British nurse I spoke to [Will Pooley], was kind of difficult to get to. He was the one who contracted Ebola and was cured. I think he was hesitant that I would be taking another sensational British tabloid approach. When he did come around, he really lifted the story and provided some amazing material, a really critical interview. He unloaded this incredibly detailed, visceral story.
I’m convinced things happened the way I presented them in the story. Maybe not 100 percent total recall of the exact language, but close enough in my book. I think you take a little bit of creative license when creating a scene. You don’t want to distort the truth, but if you talk to two or three people and they corroborate what happened, you can recreate it with quotes to give the reader a feeling of being present for that scene.
Why Matter? How did the relationship with Matter come about?
Basically the criteria I use to determine whether I take on a project is a) the project itself and b) the editor, as well as the money and the publication. They’re all part of the equation. In this case it was an editor [Michael Benoist, now an editor at The New York Times Magazine] I had worked with at GQ who went over to Matter, and at this point I had never even heard of Matter. I had such a good experience working with him at GQ, so I’d work with him anywhere really, and the money was as good as it was or would be anywhere else. It was a story we both kind of jumped on simultaneously. We were both already moving in that direction.
Also, the publication seemed intriguing to me. I had done a piece for The Intercept, and I have done a few for The Atavist. You know, I’d love it if every piece was published in The New Yorker, but for me, the delivery system is not as important as it was. There is something about the traditional longform journalism publications like Vanity Fair, Outside, GQ, Esquire. You can still think of them as print magazines, but increasingly I think that line [between print and digital] is becoming increasingly blurred. And I did love the art that Matter did. When they first mentioned the idea of the illustrated puppets, I was like, ‘What?’ I was a bit baffled and a little wary about it. I decided to let them go with it. I loved those scenes they created with the puppets, that kind of multimedia display. The movement, the animation somehow brought the story to life in an original way, an innovative way, and I also thought the puppets were quite serious in some ways. Many people commented on that, that they liked it as well. That’s something you won’t necessarily get, that experimental edge to it, at a traditional publication.
In my own mind, I kind of value a piece in The New Yorker. I have a major piece coming out in GQ in a couple of weeks. I think the online-only outlets like Matter, The Intercept, The Atavist, etc. are still far behind the print publications in terms of widespread visibility and immediate impact. But the fact that an article could appear in Matter and win an ASME [award], and this was a 9,000-word piece, which is another reason that I felt it was an advantage, the space they were willing to give me to really unspool that narrative completely. I wasn’t restricted at all, where that can happen more somewhere like The New Yorker.