Kaleem, a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, reached out to the family behind the tweet. Before long he found himself in tiny Ottertail, Minnesota (population 700, give or take), in lake-laden northwestern Minnesota. It’s more than a three-hour drive from Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed during a police arrest in May. The county was settled by immigrants from Scandinavia and Northern Europe, and remains mostly Christian and white. The 2016 vote went 2 to 1 for Donald J. Trump.
In the midst of that world, a lone white woman on a lakeside road, holding an “I Can’t Breathe Sign” and pulling a red wagon with an American flag, would be story enough. But what Kaleem found in Ottertail was a far more powerful tale of family bonds, identity and race.
Kaleem’s piece was published Sept. 3, 2020 under the Times’ Column One storytelling umbrella. It led with a matter-of-fact headline that hinted at far more tension beneath: A white mom marched alone to say ‘Black lives matter.’ Her Black son urged her to do more.
The white mom is Marcy Ugstad, 65, a lifelong resident of Minnesota’s lake country, churchgoer, motorcycle rider, mother of four biological and two adopted children. The Black son is Jesse Ugstad, 22, an aspiring songster who loves his rural life and his family but is wrestling with a world that doesn’t look like him. Both of those realities are evident in photos by Dan Koeck, a Minnesota native whose camera work offers portraits of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The access and intimacy of Kaleem’s story is startling. It opens with a tense argument between mother and son, then delves into the love that binds them, and the differences that make them clash.
“I wanted readers to understand how much of a transformative moment this summer was for Jesse and Marcy,” Kaleem told me when I reached out to ask him about some of the standout moments in his layered profile. He not only introduces us to the interior struggles of a family, but to the backdrop of Ottertail, including the four-block main street and a diner that lists the 16 local churches on its menu.
Kaleem pulled a thread on one tweet to unravel his way to the center of a visceral and viral story — about one family and one town that are caught up in a national argument about race.
For the storytelling journalist, his piece offers noteworthy lessons about finding and telling sensitive stories. Those lessons reinforce the value of using new reporting tools while honoring the foundations of narrative work.
Don’t dismiss the opportunities in front of you
“Social media can be so fleeting and limited in terms of how much of a story it can tell,” Kaleem said. “Yet, this story is one I would have never found without Twitter. It is at once a story of its time and one that is a bit timeless. I hope to continue to look further into stories that I see flash across my phone screen to dig beyond the limits of what can be told on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms. I encourage reporters to do the same.”
Avoid snap judgements
Judging a social-media post can be as easy as a dismissive scroll forward or as easy as clicking a heart icon. Kaleem took the extra moment to note his curiosity about an intriguing tweet, and then to do a bit of quick work to follow up on it.
“There were hundreds of large protests around the country after George Floyd’s death. But I hadn’t seen many one-person events,” he said.
Kaleem followed the person behind the tweet — Marcy Ugstad’s son, Jesse Ugstad — and began a series of gentle questions to learn more. It took a bit of patient and open-minded back-and-forth, but he found his way to the deeper story.
Pre-report to build knowledge and trust
“I did not know (Jesse) was Black or about their ongoing conversations on racism,” Kaleem said. “I learned those details only once Jesse and I messaged, and then when we spoke on the phone along with his mother Marcy, who initially didn’t know her son put her on Twitter. It took a few phone exchanges over a few weeks for me to really understand the potential of telling their story and for them to get comfortable with the idea.”
Report for scene and detail
In the time of COVID-19, traveling and on-site reporting can be limited and stressful. Reporters and photographers should always take pains to be safe.
But Kaleem’s story shows the type of details that can only be gathered in the field, and how those details can illuminate people and places in ways that bring readers into their lives
“Seeing that this story is a about conversations between two people who were very accessible via email, Twitter and phone calls, it could have likely been reported from my home office in L.A.,” Kaleem said. “But I would have missed so many details and context if I did not travel to Ottertail. I spent time with Marcy and Jesse around the town and region to absorb its people and qualities, and took time on my own to explore.”
When Kaleem was in Ottertail, he made an effort to fill in a sense of place, and the details he collected paid off.
“In one part of the article, I reference a moment where Marcy stood up at a local political event at a diner to declare that “Black lives matter.” I asked her where this happened and made my own visit to the diner. There, I found a wall with framed historical documents on the region as well as a listing of local churches that I cited in the story to explain how dominant Christianity is in the area.”
Let sources be storytellers, and report out what they say
The reader is corralled by the opening scene, a raw fight between mother and son captured in fine-grained detail. Kaleem didn’t witness the argument, but he reconstructed it through diligent reporting, talking to both family members separately and making sure the quotes matched.
How did Kaleem know that argument was important? His sources told him. Both brought it up separately, even emphasizing it in follow-up phone interviews after his in-person reporting was finished.
“As I did phone reporting a few weeks after leaving Ottertail, the two again brought up the argument, saying they couldn’t recall if it happened during or after my visit and that they wanted to make sure I knew about it,” he said. “All of this made me realize how strong of a moment this was — not only from my perspective as a journalist but to Marcy and Jesse in terms of their journey. I was considering putting this scene elsewhere in the article but decided instead to lead with it. It wasn’t just captivating — it framed the dialogues to come throughout the article.”
It’s a useful lesson for fellow journalists. Many times, your sources can be the best storytellers, if you’re willing to let them.
Postscript: Before Kaleem joined the L.A. Times, he was a reporter at the Miami Herald and a reporter and editor at HuffPost. He offered a glimpse into what he’s been reading lately for inspiration: “When we were packing up the old L.A. Times building downtown for our move to El Segundo, I got to grab a bunch of old books on LAT journalism. One I’m taking a look at right now is a 2003 collection of Column Ones from over the years called “How Far Can a Piano Fly? And Other Tales From Column One in Los Angeles Times.”
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career.