Class of 1995
A longtime Washington Post reporter, Hull won the Pulitzer for Public Service in 2008, for reporting, with Dana Priest, that exposed substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Prior to that, she was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005, 2004, 2003, 2000 (in both National Reporting and Feature Writing), and 1995. Both a ferociously good reporter and a beautiful storyteller, Hull has written about migrant workers, addicts, soldiers, impoverished teenagers — cumulatively, an immersive portrait of modern America. You can find her in Telling True Stories, the Nieman Foundation’s book on narrative nonfiction: “Observation, the art of watching, is one of the most underrated elements of reporting, especially in newspaper journalism,” she said. “The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you’re trying to observe. Think like a photographer. Watch. Change location. At a family dinner, change your place around the dining table. Keep moving, keep shifting your point of view, and keep quiet. Try not to interrupt the flow of events.” The narrative journalist Katherine Boo, a former colleague at the Post, praised Hull’s powers of description, citing this passage from a story on migrant workers:
She was 35, barely five feet tall in her sandals. Her pans of tamales had gradually found their way to her hips. For a mother of eight she was unusually mild mannered. A hen would fall asleep in her hand as she drew the hatchet back to chop its neck.
“In four sentences, just fifty words,” Boo wrote, “Anne included an astonishing number of facts and images: the woman’s height, age, body shape, number of children, footwear, her family’s diet, their food source, and even a fleeting glimpse of life in her rural hometown. She also fit in, crucially, the woman’s gentle, decisive, and unflinching demeanor. In those fifty words Anne created more of a feel for this woman than many writers do in an entire story. This economy works so well because Anne knows exactly what the reader needs to know about the character: her combination of gentleness and ruthlessness, the qualities that make it possible for a mother of eight to leave her home and work at intensive, degrading labor in another country. The narrative works because Anne has done the hard analysis implicit in those fifty words.” Hull credits the acute details of her stories to a favored narrative reporting approach: Gay Talese calls it “hanging out,” and Hull calls it “just being there.” She has said, “Journalists tend to be very self-centered: our questions, our answers, our timetable. Field reporting isn’t about that. It’s about going into someone else’s home. … It’s the little things that really matter in our stories, part of just being there.”
“The Other Walter Reed,” an investigative narrative about conditions in the military hospital. Excerpt:
Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.
This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely — a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them — the majority soldiers, with some Marines — have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.
They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially — they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 — that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.
—Outtakes of a Nieman narrative conference talk about how she and Priest reported and wrote the Walter Reed story. Excerpt:
We never really thought of the word “narrative” when we set out to do the Walter Reed story. We didn’t consciously think about the words that you often hear at these conferences: voice, sequencing, empathy, storytelling. But in the end, all those elements ended up being in the piece. In traditional feature writing we seek to illuminate, but this kind of journalism sought to expose and bring about change. My colleague, Dana, had plenty of experience as a journalist who exposed illegal deeds and wrongdoing. Her reporting on the CIA’s secret prison sites around the world created a firestorm. She lives and breathes for impact. The highest impact journalism I had ever done was making someone cry. So we really brought a couple of separate approaches to our journalism. And in narrative journalism, in particular, we think of highly conceived stories. This story came about in the most old-fashioned, mundane way. Dana was sitting at her desk and her telephone rang, and she picked it up.
—“In Rust Belt, a Teenager’s Climb from Poverty.” Excerpt:
Week after week, the mailman climbed the steep hill of Shenango Street to the house with the busted porch steps. “Dear Miss Rouzzo,” the letters began, or “Dear Tabitha Rouzzo.” The college catalogues barely fit in the mailbox. They stuck out like gift-wrapped presents against white aluminum siding gone dingy from decades of wear. On the porch were three new Linen Breeze decorative candles — a nice try, thought the actual Tabitha Rouzzo, who came walking up the hill every afternoon with her mind on the mailbox.
The 11th-grader seldom brought anyone home, and when she did she would sort of draw in a breath and say, “Well, here it is.”
Her Victoria’s Secret bag was crammed with track clothes and school papers. At 17, with dark hair and dark eyes, she was a version of the actress Anne Hathaway if Anne Hathaway had stars tattooed on her hip, chipped blue nail polish and lived two blocks from the projects.
Tabi shared the rental house with her mother and sometimes her mother’s boyfriend. Her four older siblings were grown. None of them had graduated from high school. They wore headsets and hairnets to jobs that were so futureless that getting pregnant at 20 seemed an enriching diversion. Born too late to witness the blue-collar stability that had once been possible, they occupied the bottom of the U.S. economy.
“I’m running from everything they are,” she said.
—“12 Tips from the Great Anne Hull,” a list culled from the former Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Excerpt:
Think hard about the tension or tensions in the story. In other words, what is at stake? Will the cop stay sober, will the immigrants cross the border, will the candidate keep her promise, will the city make budget, will the soldier stay alive? This tension or question will be the rushing river beneath your story, and it will drive the reader on. Without this, stories are flat.
—“The Invisible Reporter,” her Q-and-A with Poynter about cultural reporting. Excerpt:
Q: How could a daily writer get some of the context, quality, description, and truth of your macrocosmic New World into a microcosmic, fourteen-inch, deadline story?
A: For starters, be conscious of the distancing language that inhabits most newspaper stories. Set a goal for intimacy. As a reporter, be physically present to witness and absorb, if even for three hours. Have all your sensory pistons firing: seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. In trying to convey the nuances of a culture or neighborhood, the drama is in the small observed or spoken exchanges, and one needs to be there to see it unfold.
What’s difficult is making sense of all this on a tight deadline in a short story. So keep it simple. Limit the number of voices you introduce. Identify two or three points you want to make, and the scenes you will use to illustrate these points. Hang your scenery, evidence, and anecdotes on those points. As the newsroom clock is ticking, read over what you’ve written and ask yourself, Did I take readers somewhere or does this piece read like I never left the office? Go back and re-infuse it with sights, sounds, smells, bits of dialogue. Does the story have an ending, a real ending that leaves the reader with an echo of the themes you’ve established?
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.