In the early morning hours of August 4, Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, joined that select and haunted club when a man armed with an assault rifle killed nine people and wounded 27 others on a crowded downtown street in her city.
Seven days later, The New Yorker published a profile of Whaley and, by extension, the city of Dayton: “What Dayton’s Mayor Wants America To Learn About Her City.” Written by Paige Williams, it was reported in a tight frame from the time of the shootings through a quick visit from President Donald J. Trump four days later. But in sum, the piece reaches well before and far beyond those few days. Williams, who is known for immersion narratives built on finely chosen details and precisely drawn characters, uses Whaley to describe the universal horrors and impacts of mass shootings on a community. She follows the mayor as she steers her way through the political minefields of gun control and Presidential behavior.
The narrative tracks Whaley from the moment she was roused from sleep and pulled on “salmon-colored slacks, a dark jacket, and flats.” With her husband, she set out from their home, a dwelling so modest that a resident once professed disbelief that a mayor lived there. She stopped at an emergency command post and then went to the scene of the shooting, in Dayton’s Oregon District.
Williams takes us to that neighborhood through the names of local businesses — Lucky’s, Tumbleweed Connection, Gem City Tattoo Club, the Drunken Waffle — and then takes us even closer by describing their fare. She paints a compelling vision of “a tight, weird, defiantly original little town” that exists within a metro area of 800,000.
Locals know that at the Dublin Pub you should get the beef stew, that Lily’s serves the best fried chicken, and that the Annex, a sex shop, is the quickest place to find a Dr. Pepper. They know that Ned Peppers, a bar, is named not for a real person but for an outlaw character in ‘True Grit.’
Earlier this year, Williams wrote about bystander interventions during mass-casualty events. In this piece, she weaves between omniscience and Whaley’s point-of-view to reveal the gruesome remnants of murder with a combination of grisly description and sharp insight.
Blood darkened the sidewalks and street in enormous splotches and trailed drops, stains that may always be visible. Traumatic experiences imprint surreal images on the human brain, and, after surveying the devastation several times, Whaley registered various impressions: the sight of firefighters in hazmat suits, washing down surfaces with bleach; a deserted taco truck, its food waiting to be served.
The account shifts to a granular portrait of the shooter, Connor Betts, 24. Williams portrays the contradictory impulses of a misogynistic musician with murderous fantasies and mental health problems who shows up to protest a Klan rally. She relies on an account provided to The Dayton Daily News by Betts’ ex-girlfriend.
Williams freely acknowledges the contributions of local reporters who helped her get up to speed during her three days in Dayton. “The local news reporters are the grinders with the institutional wisdom,” she said. “I’d bet there isn’t a longform or magazine writer alive who hasn’t relied — considerably — on the runways laid by enterprising and daily newspaper reporters.”
The profile of Betts segues into a dramatic, chilling reconstruction of the shooting and a knowing description of the weapon: “a pistol that had been augmented with a brace; the weapon held two drums of .223-calibre bullets, a particularly destructive type of ammunition, containing up to a hundred rounds.” Given the emotional nature of the story, William’s voice is notably dispassionate, leaving readers to respond as they will to what unfolded in Dayton.
Wlliams has a gifted eye for telling details (“I hoard them”) and vivid action. These devices build upon each other as they pace of her story quickens. It takes Betts 30 seconds to fire 41 rounds. A simile highlights a striking image when the shooting starts.
Williams, as one reviewer put it, introduces characters “with the economy and evocative precision of a haiku.” She describes Whaley as “forty-three, with thick blond hair, dimples, and an unpretentious manner.” The mayor’s background as a popular Democrat in a Republican stronghold and a gun control advocate in an open carry state makes hers a Sisyphean task.
One man ran so hard that when he face-planted on the sidewalk he skidded, like a baseball player sliding into second. … (The shooter) lay with one leg askew. His belt appeared busted. A gash of red marked the flesh above his waistline. His T-shirt read ‘No heart to feel. No soul to steal.’
But in Williams’ telling, the mayor is no pushover. When she meets Trump during his visit after the shooting, she twice urges him to reinstate an assault weapon ban passed in the 1990s. After Trump attacks her for failing to give him unvarnished praise, Whaley is confronted with threats, and is assigned a security detail.
Even when pressed for time, Williams says she works hard to think visually and “observe rather than reconstruct scenes, which, in my experience, better allows for the credible rendering of actions, descriptions, and dialogue.”
That effort means little is lost on her, whether it’s the dress and pearls a politician’s wife wears under a “Dayton Strong” T-shirt, the cinnamon raisin toast Whaley has with her eggs-and-bacon breakfast, or a Tide stain-remover pen the mayor has in her purse to remove “wayward” specks of food. And then there are the codes on the coroner’s tally of victims of America’s latest mass shooting:
We asked Williams to describe how she reported her dispatch from Dayton, and then to help us annotate “What Dayton’s Mayor Wants America to Learn About Her City.”
Each name on the list was followed with coding for race, gender, age: WF22, BF39, WM25, BM57.
How did you come to report from Dayton after the shootings there?
When the El Paso and Dayton shootings happened, I was on vacation in my hometown, Tupelo, Mississippi. I was there to celebrate my mother’s birthday and to appear on a radio show. I’d been so busy that I hadn’t kept up with the news, as I typically (aka obsessively) do, so by the time I heard about the shootings a few hours before in El Paso, Dayton had also happened. Just before 11 a.m. Sunday, our website’s news editor, the incredible David Rohde, emailed me to ask if I could go to Ohio. My colleague Charles Bethea, who is based in Atlanta, was already in El Paso.
At first, I told Rohde that I couldn’t go. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Dayton. On Monday morning, I emailed him again, and said I’d go. The logistics were a little tricky; it was quicker to drive to Dayton (nine to ten hours) than to drive over to Memphis and fly, so I drove. The former newspaper reporter in me likes having wheels on the ground, so it was just as well. There was a problem with the rental car, which caused a frustrating delay; I overnighted somewhere south of Dayton and spent that night reading everything I could find about the shootings. Ohio’s public records system is excellent, and before I got to Dayton I was also able to quick-dig for information that I might need, via court records, property records, articles of incorporation. The on-the-ground reporting began late Tuesday morning.
How did you get the assignment?
I worked in newspapers before writing for magazines, where daily news reporting and fast-breaking Sunday narratives were part of the job. I worked at several Mississippi newspapers during college and then at The Washington Post (just after graduating from Ole Miss), followed by 10 years as a staff writer at the Charlotte Observer. As I recently told newyorker.com editor Michael Luo, for one of our newsletters, the importance of breaking-news events — and the instinct to jump in — sticks with a reporter. I had assumed that that part of my journalistic life ended when I left newspapers for magazines, books, and academia, but I still keep a go-bag.
The New Yorker’s breaking-news presence is evolving and deepening; alongside the usual essays, short pieces, and criticism, newyorker.com increasingly publishes more of of the deeply reported, longform pieces typical of the magazine itself, as well as investigative journalism. Rohde, along with my brilliant magazine editor, Daniel Zalewski, knew I was interested in doing quicker-hit reported pieces between magazine pieces, and that my background is a good fit for that type of situation. The news out of Dayton was urgent, and it felt like a grim follow-up to a magazine piece that I had recently reported, after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, about the devastating rise in planned mass attacks.
Did you go in with any marching orders from your editors?
Not really. My colleagues know that I loathe predetermined stories, where an editor decides what a piece will say before the real reporting has even begun. Luckily, New Yorker editors don’t put us in the position of having to compromise our instincts and integrity with that kind of editing style. They’re exceedingly thoughtful about the work and about our individual desires as writers. Rohde has a deeply respectful way of saying, basically: Go do what you do, and let us know how we can help. Even a small amount of sincere acknowledgment can free up a journalist to generate work that matters, and to feel good about it.
How much time did you spend on the ground?
All day Tuesday and into the evening; ditto for Wednesday and Thursday. I started writing late Thursday night.
The shootings occurred Aug. 4. Your piece appeared online Aug. 11. Do your stories for The New Yorker usually have such a quick turnaround?
No, not even close. A piece may take months, depending on the complexity, which can relate to figuring out the focus, adjusting and re-adjusting one’s sense of which sources to trust, tracking down records, connecting dots, and prying open access. Because I also teach, I’m not as fast as I’d like to be.
Why was this one turned so quickly?
Because it had to be. We ultimately felt that we needed to write off of the news, and to marry the substance and style of a typical New Yorker piece with the speed of the internet. We could have waited, but that wouldn’t have best served readers or enlightened the public.
What are the challenges of magazine narrative on such a tight deadline?
One challenge, for me, is knowing when to stop reporting and start writing. The secondary challenge is the lack of time for revision. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, but there’s far less time for it when you’re writing off the news. There’s also less time to plan, less time to sentence-level fuss. Less fussing is almost always a good thing, though. Writers often fetishize the mechanics to the point that a piece can feel technically competent but spiritually empty.
What reporting, writing and revision strategies did you employ to overcome those challenges?
All I know to do is plow through. I always remember what Ben Bradlee once advised after someone asked him how to overcome adversity: “Nose down, ass up, and push.” So what else is there but reporting, thinking, and writing, followed by re-reporting, re-thinking, and re-writing? I can never start writing until I know I’m finished (or almost finished) reporting, so I will say that it helped to lock down a focus: Nan Whaley, a little-known American mayor, suddenly faced the depressingly familiar — but new to her — challenge of leading a city through sudden, complicated grief.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about narrative writing?
The best advice is the advice that I refuse to practice, whenever possible: if the sentence or scene or paragraph or idea or character doesn’t advance the narrative, leave it out. For me, there’s joy in digression. If I have the luxury of space (which is rare), I’ll take that backroad, every time.
The story, by my count, is 4,360 words long? You normally write much longer, don’t you? What are challenges when the story is shorter, given your voluminous reporting?
The plan was for me to write up to 3,000 words — well under half the length of a typical magazine feature. When it became clear that I would write more, we settled on 4,500. That felt right to me. I ultimately filed exactly 4,500 words, and it wound up at 4,360. My challenge always involves mission creep: I tend to over-report, which is a better problem to have than under-reporting. It’s easier to scale back than to spackle and pack. When there’s cutting required, you necessarily lose material that you worry the reader might’ve needed. But focus serves the reader, too. Zalewski is particularly good at focus and framing. I find histories incredibly seductive, and he’s is so smart at knowing where to pare, and how to keep a piece on point. Rohde had a nice knife on Dayton. I originally included a short passage of observed dialogue involving Mayor Whaley, Governor Mike DeWine, Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, and Fran DeWine, the first lady, and Rohde asked me to scale it back, to keep the focus on Whaley. It was exactly the right call.
What was the most important lesson you took away from the experience?
Journalistically? Legacy media that’s known for its rigorous longform reportage and writing can execute the same type of quality across platforms. As a journalism professor, it thrills me to watch students develop this particular skillset. IMO that skillset as it applies to American journalism should involve less pontification/advocacy and more straight-up reporting. Traditionally, “print” journalists got labeled either good reporters or good writers, and either strong on breaking news or on enterprise and investigations, when it’s valuable to be a blend of both, or all.
The one designation that I’d rather not see change is that of investigative reporting, which is its own animal. Just because a piece is long doesn’t make it investigative; just because it was hard to do doesn’t make it investigative; just because it required a lot of time does not make it investigative. Depth is more often the correct term.
My Columbia University colleague Sheila Coronel, an investigative reporter and dean in the School of Journalism, tells her students in the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism that “what makes investigative reporting distinct is its revelatory character.” She notes, “A journalist needs to uncover something significant and new, even if it is on a topic that has been written about previously.” She explains that investigative “is not polemic or argument; it’s primarily about digging up new facts rather than interpreting old ones.”
I suppose I should say that as long as the work gets done, who cares what we call it. But terminology matters. By refusing to grasp the basics, journalists contribute to the public’s gross misunderstanding of our industry.
What was the biggest surprise in reporting the Dayton piece?
The mayor’s openness. You hardly see that anymore, and it’s a shame.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Williams’ responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
What Dayton’s Mayor Wants America to Learn from Her City
By Paige Williams
The New Yorker
August 11, 2019
She attended a Baptist pastor’s hooding ceremony, a public event for a Japanese sister city, and a luau held by a local nonprofit’s C.E.O. That night, she and her husband, Sam Braun, joined friends at a cookout. By eleven-thirty, she was home, knowing that she would spend Sunday in Cincinnati, celebrating her mother’s birthday. A few hours later, Whaley was sleeping deeply when her doorbell rang.You begin with a nice contrasting turn of phrase that signals the busy life of a city mayor. Why did you decide this would be your opening sentence? This is heresy, but I’m more about kickers than ledes. I don’t mean to sound reader-unfriendly, but I sort of despise the conventional wisdom of lede superiority. IMO, that leads to a lot of cliched, gimmicky, bait-and-switch writing. If a story is good enough and the overall writing strong enough, the reader will keep going. I went back recently and read the fabulous work of Edna Buchanan, who covered cops for the Miami Herald for nearly 20 years. One of her most beloved ledes, and surely one of the most famous ledes in American journalism, involved a fast-food customer who got mad that the restaurant had run out of chicken; after punching the woman working the cash register, the madman was shot dead by a security guard. The lede was, “Gary Robinson died hungry.” Something about that always bothered me. How could anyone know he died hungry? Robinson had been “drunk, loud, and obnoxious” in line, but who’s to say the food was even for him? What if he’d been picking up some midnight chicken for his girlfriend or his sick mother? I know I’m overthinking it, but still. I admired Buchanan, so this isn’t a diss. That lede is very much of its time. Even (or especially) when you’re writing short, though, I don’t think ledes have to perform backflips in order to work. When did your lede come to you? I looked back at my Scrivener snapshots, to track the evolution of the Dayton lede. The original, captured at just before 10 p.m. Thursday: On Saturday night, Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, attended a cookout with her husband, Sam Braun, at the home of friends. They got home at around eleven and went to bed, expecting to spend Sunday in Cincinnati with Whaley’s mother, who was having a birthday. At an alarming hour, the doorbell rang. Even a subversive lede-killer like me knew that this was boring AF. By four minutes after midnight, I’d changed the second and third sentences: By eleven, they were in for the night, knowing they’d be spending Sunday in Cincinnati, celebrating the birthday of Whaley’s mother. Hours later, Whaley was sleeping deeply when she heard the doorbell ring. By 3:57 p.m. Friday, the lede was: Last Saturday, Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, had a full calendar on her day off. She attended a Baptist pastor’s hooding ceremony, followed by a public event for a Japanese sister city, and a corporate luau. That night, she and her husband, Sam Braun, joined friends at a cookout. By eleven-thirty, she was in, for the night, knowing that she would spend Sunday in Cincinnati, celebrating her mother’s birthday. Whaley was sleeping deeply when, hours later, she heard the doorbell ring. By 4:52 p.m. the first sentence read: Last Saturday, Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, had a day off and a full calendar. The first edit came back with one change in the lede, in the last sentence: …Several hours later, when her doorbell rang, Whaley was sleeping deeply. I rejected the change because for me there’s a tonal, rhythmic, and narrative difference between ending on the fact that the mayor was sleeping deeply, and the fact that her doorbell rang in the middle of the night. We expect people to be asleep, deeply, in the middle of the night. The unexpected element is the ringing doorbell — who’s at the door? what do they want? — and is the one fact that propels you to the next graf, to find out what’s happened. You begin with the quotidian activities of a busy politician rather than focusing immediately on the shootings. Why? To illuminate the contrast between normalcy — whatever that even means anymore — and a violent turning point in the life of a city. The country is experiencing so many mass shootings, there’s a valid concern about gun-violence fatigue and conflation/confusion. Better to lead with a human grappling with her turn confronting a dire national problem than with the shooting itself, which was already being covered as breaking news. The ringing doorbell that ends the opening graf appears to be foreshadowing. How and why did you choose that effect? Some people have called the Whaley story a profile, others a narrative. It may be a little of both. In narrative, facts have to fuel the story’s progression. Points of tension allow for the exploration of small moments where a life is about to change. We all recognize and relate to the unexpected knock at the door. A late-night doorbell instantly creates a sense of foreboding.
Whaley lives in Five Oaks, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Dayton, a metropolitan area of about eight hundred thousand people. She and Braun bought their historic, four-bedroom house in 2008, for less than seventy thousand dollars. Braun, who Whaley told me is “obsessed with the yard,” often chats with the children who walk or ride their bikes down the street. When a young boy once asked if it was true that the mayor lived there, and Braun confirmed the rumor, the boy didn’t believe it. He told Braun that he thought mayors lived in bigger houses. What is the purpose of the previous graf about the neighborhood and their home? Layering. I wanted to provide an instant macro/micro snapshot of both Dayton and Five Oaks, and to signal that Whaley considers herself of the people, not above them. She told me it was really important to her to live in a racially diverse neighborhood. Her house’s modest sales price signaled another way in which Whaley may be different from other mayors of mid-sized cities; it made me wonder how many American mayors live behind walls and gates. The detail about the child’s comment adds to the mental image of the property — a four-bedroom house isn’t always huge. Overall, the graf poked at stereotype. What kinds of questions did you ask Whaley and her husband to elicit information about their lives, including the sale price of their house? I got the sales price from the county register of deeds. Even if Whaley had told me that information herself, I’d have confirmed it with the register of deeds. Whenever I’m reporting, I’m not just observing and talking to people; I’m asking myself what’s on paper — what documents can help fill out the narrative? That also saves precious face time with hard-to-get story subjects, like mayors. As for the questions, it’s almost cliched at this point to say that I think of interviews as conversations — but I do. I know what I’d like to know, or need to know, and I feel my way through the rest. When we talked at the pancake house the questions mostly involved Whaley’s background and politics. As the story took shape in my head, I talked to her again late that afternoon, by phone, knowing that I now needed to interview her for narrative. That’s when I asked her, in detail, to walk me through how she learned of the shooting, and what happened next. The first interview was larger in scope; the second was targeted. I remembered that she had mentioned that sometimes townspeople came to her door, so in the second interview I asked, “Why?” Whaley provided details about who drops by, and when. What do you tell sources when you ask them in such detail about their lives for a story that focuses on something different? And how much time do you spend with them to get the information? The amount of time depends on the story. Breaking news shortens the leash — you don’t have hours or days, much less weeks, to go deep into someone’s background or to build trust. You often have to go deep quickly. Was it Isabel Wilkerson who once referred to this sort of interviewing as speedy intimacy? I’m not afraid to cold-interview people, even in emotionally pitched or chaotic circumstances. Questions usually don’t sound odd within their proper conversational context, but if I’m about to ask something that I know will sound weird I may preface the question with something like, “This question may sound bizarre but…” or “It’s absolutely the worst part of my job, to have to ask you this, but…” How would you describe your interviewing style? It always depends on intersecting factors: 1. The nature of the story. (Is it a long explanatory piece? A narrative? A profile? A Talk of the Town piece?) 2. Deadline. (Do I have weeks or minutes? Can minutes buy me weeks? With Whaley I had less than a minute to make the ask: she was on the fly with the Dayton Police Department, doing a community event in an Oregon District park.) 3. The interview circumstances. (Five hours in a conference room? Twenty minutes in a restaurant? Is it the first interview or the fifth? How sick of me is this source?) 4. Tenor. (Is the person trying to hide something? Is he scared? Traumatized? Savvy? Antagonistic?) Sometimes the weather changes within the same interview. You adjust. The good ones can always see that your goal is accuracy and fairness, and that you’re trying to do the job thoroughly, thoughtfully.
Until last week, Whaley had no security detail. Neighbors and strangers often walked right up to her door, mostly to borrow something (the lawnmower) or sell something (religion). But no one ever rang the bell at four-thirty in the morning. Whaley nudged Braun and asked him to come downstairs with her. She grabbed her phone, in case of an emergency. When she discovered a member of the city’s legal staff on her porch, she knew the news was bad. You use parentheticals (“the lawnmower,” “religion”) for information that again conveys how ordinary Whaley’s life is Why? Parens are a useful form of shorthand. And I like punctuation. Not exclamation marks (except in emails, texts, and, occasionally, on Twitter), but definitely parens, em dashes, semicolons. Why did you use a delayed lede? It seemed right to start with a human in an unthinkable and complicated situation, and to back into the story by putting the reader in her position.
Dayton has experienced one troubling event after another since the spring. In late May, nine members of an Indiana group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at Courthouse Square—Whaley still isn’t sure why they chose Dayton. At least five hundred counter-protesters, some of them “heavily armed” with assault-style rifles, chains, bats, poles, and sticks, arrived to oppose them. Complicating the standoff were memories of the deadly white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, and Ohio’s longtime “open carry” laws, which allow gun owners to display their loaded weapons in public. The event proved nonviolent, but it unnerved everyone and reëxposed racial divisions in a city that Whaley declared “still too segregated and still too unequal.” How do you know it “unnerved everyone?” Many of the people I interviewed brought up the Klan rally as an event that had left a lasting impression. Whaley confirmed it. When I asked about race and Dayton, she told me, “Race is hard, here.” The city, which has a history of red-lining, is deeply segregated. “Midwestern cities started doing suburbs so they could get around busing, and Dayton did that too,” she told me, remembering that one superintendent was shot dead over busing. The Klan rally also confused people: the demonstrators were from Indiana, and it wasn’t clear why they had chosen Dayton. It also struck me as interesting that several Daytonians asked me how Dayton compared to other cities that have suffered mass shootings. After our “Politcs and More” podcast I got a Twitter DM from the mayor of another town that had suffered a horrific mass shooting, who told me, “I think residents of cities ask how they were different in handling a mass shooting because they want to know if you saw the specialness/individuality of their community — something they see and take pride in.” Two days after the Klan rally, on Memorial Day, fifteen tornadoes struck the area, one narrowly missing Dayton Children’s Hospital. No one in the area died as a direct result of the storms, but, again, the community was left shaken. Again more background, now focusing on the volatile racial tensions and summertime storms so prevalent in the Midwest. It all creates a strong sense of foreboding. Was that your intent? The intent was to convey how much recent drama and trauma the community had experienced. Why is “heavily armed” set off in quotation marks? That came from a press report. We do partial quotes at the magazine, and I like them. I didn’t take the characterization as indisputable fact because one person’s “heavily armed” is another person’s slingshot. Is “Now,” your way of signaling to the reader that the action that began the story has resumed? Exactly. Start in a narrative moment, give backstory, return to narrative. I took that structural approach to extremes in my recent book, interrupting the core narrative by something like a hundred pages, and while I trust the reader to get it, I’m open to the possibility that it’s wise to be careful about overdoing it.
Now, on her porch in the early hours of a Sunday morning, Whaley heard her colleague utter a phrase that she had long feared, and which was already familiar to hundreds of other American mayors: “mass shooting.”It takes six grafs before the words “mass shootings” to appear. What was the thinking behind this? I wanted to faithfully recount Whaley’s experience of the moment — the sequence of events helps us stay in her point of view. Mentioning the term earlier would have let the narrative air out of the tires. The mayor wasn’t expecting that awful news; the idea was for the reader, at that point, to know what she knew, and nothing more.
Whaley hurried upstairs, intending to throw on yoga pants. Braun, who also works for the city, in the auditor’s office, suggested that she go ahead and dress in work clothes. Whaley pulled on salmon-colored slacks, a dark jacket, and flats. The details about her wardrobe are specific. How did you learn about them? What do you tell interview subjects about your reasons for learning such information, which to them might seem irrelevant? I looked up the Day 1 news photos and saw what she had on. I couldn’t assume that she’d been wearing that same outfit the whole time. When I asked her to walk me through that morning, she said she had gone back upstairs and started to put on yoga pants, but then her husband suggested that she go ahead and shower and get dressed for the day. I asked what clothes she chose because I wanted to hear how she would characterize it. I’d have asked the same question of a male mayor. Sometimes people will say, “I had on my favorite sweatshirt” or “Whenever I do such-and-such, I always wear my whatever.” I try to draw out the specifics — the shoes are flats, the slacks are a salmon color. One could argue that it’s important to get even more specific — the brand, etc. — but I didn’t want that. Zooming in too closely on non-essential details can fuzz out the larger picture. She and Braun drove across the Miami River to the convention center being used as emergency command, and then walked to the Oregon District, the historic core of downtown.
The neighborhood is filled with Victorian homes and apartments above storefronts. The main commercial corridor is Fifth Street, paved in red brick and lined, for several blocks, with locally owned boutiques, bars, and restaurants: Lucky’s, Tumbleweed Connection, Gem City Tattoo Club, the Drunken Waffle. Locals know that at the Dublin Pub you should get the beef stew, that Lily’s serves the best fried chicken, and that the Annex, a sex shop, is the quickest place to find a Dr. Pepper. They know that Ned Peppers, a bar, is named not for a real person but for an outlaw character in “True Grit.” They remember the bar next door, Hole in the Wall, from when it was an actual hole in the wall and so devoid of signage that it might as well have been a speakeasy. They don’t think of employees as “the bartender” or “the bouncer” but, rather, as Lindsey or Taylor—although, conversely, they’ve also known people for years without having ever learned their names. They know that when you want to dance or see d.j.s you go to Ned’s or Newcom’s, and that Heart Mercantile sells fun gifts, such as socks printed with an image of a stressed-out Jesus saying “I can’t even.” How much do you rely on reporting by other media as you research and write a story? One often isn’t possible without the other. The daily news reporters are the ones who are on the ground within minutes of an event — who sleep with their scanners, who are sourced-in with public officials. They’re the ones who know the landscape, the culture and context. I almost always trust the work of local news reporters more than any of us national types who “parachute” in and try to report/write authoritatively and quickly in an unfamiliar place. Whenever possible I say where the information comes from, unless it’s common knowledge. In this case, the Dayton Daily News was essential. And when I felt that I still didn’t understand certain aspects of the story I called the city hall reporter, Cory Frolik, who generously spent time with me in the Oregon District when I’m sure he’d have much rather been home, dealing with the emotional fallout of having narrowly missed the shooting — he’d just left the bar next door when the gunfire began. How did you learn the colorful history of the various businesses? A lot of this I learned by wandering around the Oregon District, but most of it came at the last minute, on Thursday night, when I should have been in my hotel room, writing. In fact, I’d gone to the hotel, to start writing, but realized that I still didn’t know enough. I knew facts, but I knew nothing of the spirit of the place, which so often can be found in small, colorful details. That’s when I called Frolik, the city hall reporter, and met him at Ned Peppers, for a beer. We were sitting there talking when another regular, a graphic designer, wandered over and joined us. He’s one of the ones who now hugs people all the time, and he wasn’t shy about how the shooting appears to have changed him. We all migrated next door, to Hole in the Wall, and were joined by a friend of Frolik’s. These guys were real locals — Frolik had lived just around the corner until recently. They’re in the Oregon District almost daily. They knew acute histories and sensibilities because they’d lived it. That’s the kind of information and detail that I love the most — the stuff that can’t be Googled. Why did you use the specific name of the businesses, their history and the familiar culture of the community there? There’s familiarity and power in specificity, and beauty in originality. The more specific the detail, the sharper the mental image it conjures. You can tell a lot about a community simply by the names of its shops. If it’s all Starbucks and Gap, that tells you one thing; the juxtaposition of Gem City Tattoo and Blind Bob’s suggests another. Did you have any models in mind when you used the litany of business names? Nope. I’ve just always liked lists. I tend to over-use them in my writing, but they satisfy me. With the right arrangement, a list can behave like poetry. How did you gather all the detail of the area, and how much ended up on the cutting room floor? Reporting, especially reporting for narrative, requires separating Topic from Story. So I’m constantly thinking about that. Because I’m a chronic over-reporter, lots of material winds up in cut files. One example of Dayton material that I mostly cut myself involved Bellbrook, the suburban town where the killer lived with his parents and sibling. I quickly decided that that wasn’t where I needed or wanted to be. I wanted to be in Dayton proper. I also didn’t use the material from Tuesday night’s National Night Out event, where police officers attend mixers with the people they serve. I tried to get a ride-along with the police chief, Richard Biehl, but it didn’t work out. That was just as well, because it had become clear that Nan Whaley was the story. I had already tried to reach her office, but the calls weren’t returned. Then, at National Night Out, a local photojournalist happened to introduce me to Whaley’s policy aide, Torey Hollingsworth, who introduced me to Whaley right there in the park. All but the background-documents reporting happened between Tuesday morning and Thursday night, by walking and driving around, and by watching, listening, and talking to people in the Oregon District and elsewhere in the city. President Trump was reportedly coming to Dayton on Wednesday, so just after 8 a.m. Tuesday I applied for White House credentials for access to his arrival at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; I received confirmation at 8:17 p.m. Tuesday. The most useful interviewing pertaining to the spirit of the Oregon District happened on Thursday night, over beers with Frolik and other locals. We ended up sitting at a back-patio table at Hole in the Wall, overlooking a parking lot. Out front were all the TV news tents, where broadcast reporters did their stand-ups, and passersby who had come to see the crime scene. The Hole in the Wall patio was pretty empty, as was the tiki-bar patio of Ned’s. The guys smoked or vaped and we just talked. The graphic designer told me stories about the late owner of Ned’s, who was apparently one of those fascinating rabbit-hole characters, the kind that can make you want to spend a thousand words on their personality and habits alone. As for the Jesus-socks detail: I noticed that a lot of people were wearing “Dayton Strong” T-shirts, so I asked where they were getting them. I was pointed to Heart Mercantile. I went in and talked to a clerk. Afterward, I bought some “I Can’t Even” Jesus socks, which I ended up giving to Rohde as a thank-you gift. I bought another pair that’s red and orange and says “Going to hell in several religions.” Not sure who’s getting those. My mentor, the late Donald M. Murray, said that writers write best from “abundance of information.” What do you think of that opinion and is it reflected in your reporting style? Absolutely, both at the reading/absorption stage and in the field. One of my former mentors was Foster Davis, a Charlotte Observer editor. He spent time talking to reporters one-on-one, about the strengths and weaknesses of their work, and he often held in-house writing seminars. He particularly loved E.B. White and crisp physical descriptions. One of his lessons involved the reporter’s notebook. He sometimes asked to see a reporter’s notebook, in order to assess the quantity and quality of the notes gathered in the field, often on deadline. His theory was that the more detailed and sensorial the notes, the stronger the writing. I’d rather have far too much than even a smidge of too little when I sit down to write. I think this is because gaps in knowledge show, but it’s also because I need to know, in order to feel even remotely capable of explaining an event or issue or person to the reader. I’m trying to get faster, and to accumulate less information — but really, do I have to? Reporters have to know how we know what we think we know, and we have to be clear about how we think we know it. In books, we can lay out that information in chapter notes. Credible, careful sourcing is part of the trust relationship with the people we write about, and with the people who read our work. Could you describe the editing process at The New Yorker? For the magazine, I send DZ (Daniel Zalewski) the piece and he returns it with suggested changes and requests. I revise and return, and we repeat this process until we’re done. As I mentioned, I love revision. For web, Rohde and I use Google Docs, which I thought I hated. Before Dayton, Rohde and I had worked together on a follow-up of my profile of former White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and during that project I had come to appreciate the Docs method, and even to like it, a little. But I have no interest in using it for magazine work. I now think of the processes as separate: I can’t imagine doing a magazine piece via Docs, and I now can’t imagine producing a web piece in the magazine way. Neurotic distinction, I realize. After the tornadoes, Heart made a batch of “Dayton Strong” T-shirts; in response to the Klan rally, it ordered some that read “Fuck Racism.” The Oregon District functions less like a city sector than a tight, weird, defiantly original little town. Which was what made it so unreal to learn that one of its own had perpetrated such abject madness.Again, more foreshadowing. How do you decide when to withhold information from the reader? I think I just wasn’t ready to get into the shooting yet, or to introduce the killer or another facet of the horrific event. I wanted to stay on Whaley and her experience. The compartmentalization also reflects what necessarily happens when you’re dealing with trauma.
Whaley was led past the whirring lights of the police who had swarmed the neighborhood, and past dozens of yellow evidence markers. Why is Whaley the point-of-view by which the reader experiences the events in this horrific story? Because Whaley’s was the perspective I had committed to, and because the deadline-driven timetable didn’t allow — and therefore the reporting couldn’t bear out — any other excavation of POV. The bodies of the dead had been taken away—there were ten, including the gunman and his younger sister. Blood darkened the sidewalks and street in enormous splotches and trailed drops, stains that may always be visible. Traumatic experiences imprint surreal images on the human brain, Did you need to consult with an expert write that sentence? No. I’ve experienced it. And I’ve written enough about trauma to know what often happens, in and after those moments, in the survivor’s mind. and, after surveying the devastation several times, Whaley registered various impressions: the sight of firefighters in hazmat suits, washing down surfaces with bleach; a deserted taco truck, its food waiting to be served. When did Whaley tell you about her lingering memories? I first heard her mention it after her lunch with the DeWines and Jon Husted, the lieutenant governor. They were at a cafe in the Oregon District and invited me to join them at the end of their meal. I asked DeWine how he’d first heard about the mass shooting. I usually prefer one-on-one interviews because in groups people tend to interrupt each other, but when you’re reporting for narrative scene, small groups can be helpful because people talk to each other. In this instance DeWine and Whaley started mentioning the details they remembered from the crime scene, and both were haunted by the sight of the deserted taco truck. I later asked Whaley what else she remembered about the walk-through and she remembered the cleaning crew and “the smell of Clorox,” which I wrote as “bleach,” because I can’t be sure, without checking, that the hazmat team was using a particular brand. How many times did you interview her? Not sure how to quantify that, since interviews happen not just in sit-down scenarios but also on the fly, and by phone, and, these days, in many other tech-driven ways so I’ll give you a list. Torey Hollingsworth introduced me to Whaley on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, Whaley spent much of the day with Trump, and I observed her participation in the Air Force One receiving line, at Wright-Patterson. That afternoon, at city hall, I attended the press conference she held, with Brown. On Thursday morning, I met her at the pancake house in time to see her sit for yet another live interview on CNN; then we spent the better part of an hour and a half having breakfast in a booth. Afterward, I followed her and her security detail to the children’s hospital, where she, DeWine, and others, announced the September summit on resilience. I was told that Whaley would then move to Lily’s, a cafe in the Oregon District, for lunch with DeWine, so I went ahead, arriving just as the restaurant opened. After I asked where the mayor and the governor would be sitting, I scouted out tables nearby, where I could observe the interaction. I waited, ate a salad, drank too much coffee. Whaley eventually waved me over and we all talked for about half an hour. Afterward, Whaley and DeWine held a presser outside, and I observed. I spoke with the mayor briefly, afterward, before she left for a therapy appointment, which she tweeted out, as part of her mission to de-stigmatize mental health. Lastly, I called her from my hotel room, for another follow-up, before meeting with Frolik and the others in the Oregon District. I usually tell sources that I’ll probably drive them crazy before it’s all over. The good and patient ones realize that the thoroughness is in the interest of understanding as full a picture, or person, as time allows, and in getting the details right. The killer, Connor Betts, was a twenty-four-year-old community-college student who had worked at Chipotle. He fit the usual profile of a mass shooter in that he was young, white, and male, but otherwise there were contradictions. He had protested the Klan rally, and yet, while in high school, he had been suspended twice for assembling a “kill list” and a “rape list” of people he wanted to hurt. He reportedly held progressive views and yet performed in a “pornogrind” band, Menstrual Munchies, part of a music scene that had a “regional following in the Midwest and is known for sexually violent, death-obsessed lyrics and dehumanizing imagery depicting women,” according to Vice.What were you trying to convey about the killer in this passage? I wanted to give the required biographical information in sketch form, and with “fit the usual profile of a mass shooter” I intended to convey regularity. These shootings are happening to such a horrifying extent that we now see patterns. The “contradictions” appeared stark — anti-racism and white nationalism but also, by all accounts, anti-woman and anti-human. In this case, you identify the outside source of information you rely on. Why? No one else really seemed to be talking about “pornogrind,” whatever that is, so it needed to be attributed. The “heavy-metal subgenre” appears obscure enough that Rolling Stone felt the need to follow up on Vice’s reference with a piece called “WTF Is Pornogrind?” Song titles included “Preteen Daughter Pu$$y Slaughter” and “6 Ways of Female Butchery.” (One band member, Jesse Creekbaum, told Vice that he’s removing the band’s albums from the Internet to avoid making Betts a “cult hero,” saying, “I don’t want any of this romanticized. I want people to erase him from history.”)
Betts lived with his parents, Stephen and Moira, in the affluent suburb of Bellbrook, a hilly town of about seven thousand, just southeast of Dayton. His parents had worked in software. Their business, Minethurn Technology, listed the family’s home address as company headquarters, and, according to archived pages of Minethurn’s Web site, its clients have included the Army Reserve and the Air Force Institute of Technology. Minethurn advertised itself as a “small, woman-owned business.” Did you visit the family home or try to interview the parents? How do you decide which of your reporting methods to disclose in a story? The street was blocked off, and only neighbors were getting through. The media had set up at the sawhorses that closed off the cul-de-sac where the family lives. I didn’t try to get in or to interview the parents. I did find it curious that the Bellbrook police chief at one point acted as the family’s spokesman, which, for me, raises questions about conflict of interest. As I said earlier, I had decided that Dayton, not the shooter’s background, was the story. A killer’s background can prove helpful in understanding motives and methods, and in preventing future casualties, but in this case I almost immediately decided against pursuing that angle. Reporters might want to know the process by which you accessed the archived pages. Wayback machine! Do you get any research help from The New Yorker staff? Some editors’ assistants help some writers find information—a phone number, a study, the name of an expert—but I don’t tend to be one of them. I recently broke my own rule by asking a checker to follow up on a picayune matter for a Talk piece—the checker was already in contact with the source and it made no sense, from an efficiency standpoint, to make multiple calls. Otherwise, I’m the reporter; it’s my job to do the reporting. Also, I instinctively distrust information that I didn’t track down myself. Anyone who knows me knows that while I love group-talking about creativity and craft I resist asking for reporting help with a ferocity that borders on pathological.
Betts had a younger sister, Megan, who was twenty-two. She attended Wright State University, in Dayton, where she studied earth sciences and was expected to graduate next year. “He liked his sister. Why would he kill his sister?” an ex-girlfriend, Adelia Johnson, wrote in a statement that she provided to the Dayton Daily News. She added, “He didn’t like his parents. But that couldn’t have been the cause.”
Johnson wrote that she had met Betts in a college psychology class. Her recollections of his behavior filled out an unnerving portrait of a long-troubled young man. Former classmates described him as an “oddball” who gave off “dark energy” and made some people “feel threatened or uncomfortable.” Others remembered specific incidents that alarmed them enough to alert parents, school officials, and the police. In one, a former middle-school classmate said that Betts admitted to having fantasized about “tying her up and slitting her throat.” The former classmate, who spoke to the Dayton Daily News on the condition of anonymity, said that when she and her parents reported Betts’s “bizarre admission” to the Bellbrook Police Department they felt they weren’t “taken seriously.” Another female classmate, who was reportedly among the ten or so girls on Betts’s high-school “hit list,” told reporters that Betts would walk up to her and pretend “to cut her throat or stab her stomach.” Someone else said that Betts had talked recently about “shooting up” Timothy’s, a bar near the University of Dayton. “Even the shooter admitted he was scared of his thoughts,” the Daily News reported. What was your visceral reaction when you learned these things about the shooter and about the apparent lack of interest in the concerns from those who knew him? One: over the years, the killer appeared to have sent abundant signals that something was wrong. Two: we’ve learned enough about mass shooters’ connection to domestic violence, in particular, that even his anecdotal record of reported behavior — a “rape” list, threats, alarming comments, intense interest areas, and mimicry of violent acts — should have warranted investigation, at the very least.
In college, Betts bonded with Johnson, the ex-girlfriend, over what she called “depression humor.” This past January, “when he started joking about his dark thoughts, I understood,” Johnson wrote. “Dark thoughts, for someone with a mental illness, are just a symptom that we have to learn how to manage.” On their first date, Betts had seemed “charming” to her, “with his big smile, baby blues, and intellect.” That night, at a bar, she found him “outgoing and electric” as they engaged in a “political debate with a Republican.” How crucial was the ex-girlfriend’s account in the composition of the story? I found its chilling specificity and nuanced characterization of depression enlightening. Her description also answered a question that many people might have been asking: how is it possible that the killer stayed off-radar long enough to carry out his destruction? The description echoed earlier lessons learned: Ted Bundy was beguiling, too. How did you decide what to quote and what to paraphrase? Ultimately it was important to stick with the facts that lent true insight: the existence of gallows humor in mental illness; the fact that someone somewhat understood him; that seemingly polarized traits may either signal an illness or help a sufferer cope with it, or both. The “big smile” and “baby blues” described the killer, so that I didn’t have to. The “debate with a Republican” characterized him, in shorthand, as not a Republican. I’m a fan of partial quotes; for me, they function as little spotlights and allow for voice without making unnecessary demands on the reader. Full quotes and/or elaboration, especially from a secondary character, might feel disruptive.
Betts then “pulled out his phone” and delivered a “play by play” of footage involving the deadly Tree of Life synagogue shooting, in Pittsburgh. “Even then, I did realize that that was a weird thing for a first date,” Johnson wrote. But psychology students are often interested in what she calls “the horrors of humans.” Later in the relationship, when Betts confessed to having “uncontrollable urges,” Johnson dismissed it as the talk of “a sad, drunk man who was afflicted by unchecked symptoms of mental illness.”
One passage in Johnson’s missive stands out. “I have no idea what his motivation was,” she wrote. “This wasn’t a hate crime. He fought for equality. This wasn’t a crime of passion. He didn’t get passionate enough. This wasn’t very premeditated. He wasn’t a thorough planner.” Betts supposedly had considered suicide. Johnson wrote that “him getting shot is exactly what he wanted.” Why did you spend so much time relying on Johnson’s account? Hers was the fullest public account of the killer’s personality and apparent worldview. Also, the “wasn’t a hate crime” quote provided contrast to what was happening in El Paso. Because the El Paso/Walmart attack involved a shooter who was quickly connected to an online comment about a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” prosecutors were considering federal hate-crime charges. I think we always want to get to the “why” answer as quickly as possible. The ex-girlfriend’s perspective added potentially valuable context. Why, then, did he wear body armor? Why did he wear headphones as protection against the deafening gunfire? Why did you set up this paragraph with these questions as a preamble to the introduction of the police chief. It’s almost as if you’re talking to yourself. Just to change up the texture and pacing a little. I like doing that sometimes, and it’s not the kind of move that I’d likely make for the magazine. The questions also injected the sense of an ongoing investigation. Real crime scenes aren’t like an episode of CSI. They’re chaotic and confusing and even conflicting; investigators had (and have) many questions, these among them. These were the questions now being asked of Whaley and Dayton’s police chief, Richard Biehl. A former Cincinnati cop who is regarded locally Who provided this portrait of the chief? This came from Dayton sources and from published reports of Biehl’s background. I also watched him interact with Dayton residents in the Oregon District on National Night Out. I wanted to include a certain informative exchange that he had, with a citizen, but there wasn’t space. Watching his interactions actually told me more, I think, than I’d have gleaned from talking to him for a conventional quote. as a thoughtful, compassionate police chief, Biehl cautioned that investigators—who now include the F.B.I., because the shooter had articulated “violent ideologies”—will release details only after establishing a factual time line.
Betts apparently arrived in the Oregon District by car, wearing khaki shorts, black sneakers, and a dark T-shirt. His sister and their friend Chace Beard were with him. Betts, at some point, separated from the other two. His car was later found near Blind Bob’s, across the street from Ned’s. Somewhere, he put on the tactical vest, the headphones, and a black mask, and picked up what police later described as a pistol that had been augmented with a brace; the weapon held two drums of .223-calibre bullets, a particularly destructive type of ammunition, containing up to a hundred rounds. Betts walked up the alley beside Blind Bob’s, ignoring an easily accessible crowd on the patio, before crossing Fifth. How are you able to reconstruct his path with such detail? What are your sources? Various human sources, plus surveillance video, as well as still photos extracted from video. The police also held pressers that provided valuable narrative details or otherwise put out releases as the investigation developed. The killer’s clothing can be seen in the videos that were circulating and in a photo that I obtained. Some outlets were reporting definitively that the shooter retrieved the tactical vest, gun, and headphones from the trunk of his car, but this hadn’t been confirmed in time for our story, hence the use of “somewhere.” The alley was confirmed. I walked up and down it, to see how “accessible” the people on the patio would have been. Mourners had left carnations, which by now had now been crushed underfoot. The “particularly destructive” characterization of the ammunition comes from prior reporting for other stories, including my recent piece on the rise in Intentional Mass Casualty Events. The energy that the projectiles from these weapons inflict on the human body is simply unimaginable.
Dozens of people were outside, smoking and drinking. One couple was hugging as the shooting started. How do you know this? Surveillance videos and interviews. As it became clear what was happening, people fled down the tree-lined boulevard and into doorways and alleys. One man ran so hard that when he face-planted on the sidewalk he skidded, like a baseball player sliding into second. This is such an evocative simile. Did someone use it in conversation with you? Did it appear in your notes or come out during composition? It appeared on one of the surveillance videos. When I saw the man skid, it immediately reminded me of a baseball runner. How useful do you think similes are in narrative writing? When they land well, they can make an unfamiliar situation familiar to a reader. A simile involving physical force can impart feeling/sensation. The one about the face-planter also echoes, a little, the earlier idea that in traumatic situations people make curious mental connections.
At Ned Peppers, a long, cavernous bar with a tiki patio out back, a stout bouncer, Jeremy Ganger, ran out and herded people inside. Around two hundred people were in there, screaming and cowering. Cornelius Frolik, who covers City Hall for the Dayton Daily News and who had just gone home when the mayhem began, later told me that, if Betts “had made it into Ned Peppers, it would have been a shooting gallery. There’s nowhere to hide.” This is the first time you appear in the story. In traditional journalism, the reporter is in the background. Why are you here? We use the first person in reported pieces at The New Yorker but only, usually, as a means of letting the reader know how we know our information. I try to limit my presence, but if I think readers are better served by my letting them know that I was there I’ll include it. Sometimes readers can understand a story with more clarity, or at least appreciate it more fully, by realizing that we take the time to show up at a scene or event, or that we talked to the story subject or source in person. Journalists, overall, don’t do a good enough job explaining ourselves to the public. I’ve found that when the average person hears the word “reporter” they first assume we’re all from TV news. When you arrive in a new town for a story, what’s your routine? Where do you start? It depends on the town, the story, the competition, and the deadline. Before I get there, I almost always map out places I’ll want or need to see — the scene of a crime, the homes of the major player(s), secondary stops that might prove useful, like the courthouse and library. I like being on the ground — walking and driving around. I can’t imagine reporting any other way. Overseas, it’s different. I might hire a fixer and/or take taxis and the subway, though my instinct is always to move independently.
The gunman was moving toward Ned’s when police officers, who maintain a strong presence in the Oregon District, sprinted from an adjacent alley where they often congregate, their service weapons drawn. In thirty seconds, the shooter had fired an estimated forty-one bullets; the police, advancing toward him, fired on him just as he turned and tried to run into Ned’s. The killer fell to the ground, and struggled to get up. He lurched, again, toward the bar door. Police continued firing until the gunman stopped moving, as they had been trained to do. (They reportedly fired sixty-five shots in all.) What were your goals as you reported and wrote the section about the shooting? Accuracy and clarity are always my chief goals. I also try to add an original or unexpected detail. In this case it was the one about police training and an active threat. Why did you choose the term “reportedly?” I wasn’t able to confirm the figure that other media were reporting, and if I can’t confirm it I’m not declaring it fact. Ganger, the bouncer, bounded out of Ned’s to where the shooter lay face down in the doorway, and yanked the gun out of his hands. The responding police—Sergeant William Knight and the officers Jeremy Campbell, Vincent Carter, David Denlinger, Ryan Nabel, and Brian Rolfes—had “neutralized” the killer and saved scores of lives.
Nine bystanders were dead: Megan Betts, Monica Brickhouse, Nicholas Cumer, Derrick Fudge, Thomas McNichols, Lois Oglesby, Saeed Saleh, Logan Turner, and Beatrice Warren-Curtis. The shooter was dead, too, but officers cuffed him anyway, behind his back, as they are also trained to do. Stylistically, the story profits from an omniscient point of view that alternates with Whaley’s. The point of the police being trained how to deal with an obviously dead shooter is an example of the subtle but very deep layers of reporting that undergird the story and give the voice its power. Is that what’s at work here? I hope so! Ideally, reporting accrues as knowledge that’s useful across story types. The reporter who’s covered one mass shooting after another, as my colleague Charles Bethea has, can build institutional memory — weapons, circumstances, behavioral patterns, locations. And any reporter who goes deep on even one story may use elements of that reporting in later work. The public often looks at police actions and wonder, “Why do they do that?” We journalists rightly and necessarily cover the use of force, as well as bad actors who surface in the protective services, but we do too poor a job of learning and consistently explaining the world of law enforcement. That knowledge gap creates mistrust between law enforcement and the journalists tasked with watchdogging the public sphere, and it creates potentially lethal mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they swear an oath to protect and serve. One of the tropes of mass shooting stories is a brief bio of the victims, “She was the mother of two,” “he had just become engaged…” Why did you omit these from the story? Tropes bore me. They’re lazy. If I see a cliche in a piece of writing I will immediately stop reading. Cliche simply isn’t necessary. It doesn’t take five seconds to swerve around one. My poor students are sick of hearing me bemoan the excessive use of cliche, particularly in journalism. The greater foul is cliche in fiction, but that’s a screed for another day. He lay with one leg askew. His belt appeared busted. A gash of red marked the flesh above his waistline. His T-shirt read “No heart to feel. No soul to steal.”What is the source of this information? A scene photo that I obtained. By its nature, much of this story is reconstructed narrative, which you seem to achieve effortlessly. What are the challenges of that form? How do you overcome them? Oof, I’d rather observe any scene than be forced to reconstruct it. I dislike relying on human memory, which can be short-wired by chaos, trauma, and the passage of time. But we work with what we’ve got. If I’m reconstructing, I’m looking for documentary corroboration, such as photos, videos, court transcripts, audio, public records in general, as well as documents accessible only via sunshine laws/FOIA — basically whatever useful materials exist, in any form. If I don’t know a detail, I don’t pretend to know it. I don’t guess, and I try not to assume. For example, regarding your earlier question about the shooter’s physical appearance at the time of his death. I couldn’t be sure that his belt was “busted,” hence the use of “appeared.” Until the autopsy report was complete, which can take eight or more weeks, I couldn’t know that the gash represented a bullet wound, so I went with what I did know: it’s a red mark. Anything beyond that would be guesswork. Let the reader infer cause. One of the traits that I love most about Zalewski, my magazine editor, is that after the better part of a decade, working together, he knows without my having to voice it that each sentence is worded precisely for reasons that relate to what I know, what I can prove, what’s verifiable, what’s ethically and journalistically sound. Fact isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a malleable medium. Immediately, Dayton crawled with media. Whaley, as mayor, stood at the center of it. She is forty-three, with thick blond hair, dimples, and an unpretentious manner. A succinct yet evocative description of the mayor. Why did you choose these details, and why describe her with such economy? I dislike having to physically describe people. I’m much more interested in how they behave. I tend to get it over with and otherwise let actions, dialogue, interactions, and style convey personality, status, and intent. With Whaley, I chose what stood out to me: a mix of physical features and personality. Before the shooting, she had experienced little demand to appear on national television, but now she was all over cable news, which she does not watch. That’s fascinating. When did she disclose that and in what setting? At breakfast. We’d been talking about how silly the national media look, especially television, when they swoop in and discover that a mayor of a midsize Midwestern city is skilled at media. It surprised her that a couple of the cable channels broke live for the city hall presser, after Trump’s visit. She told me, “Look, I’m focused on: How can I get the community to grieve, and how can I get something done? I don’t even watch cable news, so I don’t know who these people are. People are obsessed with Anderson Cooper, but the rest of these people — I have no idea.” The nation learned That’s a deft way of introducing her bio. Why did you frame it that way? I’d rather not talk at the reader and grind them down with a litany of fact. I’d rather locate the exposition within the narrative of the nation’s discovery, which in turn allows the reader to experience the revelation. The framing also provides a subtle vehicle for conveying that Whaley is now known outside of Dayton and politics. that she grew up in Indiana and graduated from the University of Dayton. A Democrat in a state governed by Republicans, she has been mayor for the past six years.
“Dayton’s personality is one that is very inclusive and open, which is strange for a city our size,” she told me last week, in Ohio. Why was it important to say you talked to her in Ohio? Just to make it clear that I was in Ohio and not calling her from New York. “I always say that I’m a good example of this.” She was talking about having become, at age twenty-nine, the youngest woman ever elected to the city commission. “I was unmarried and I rented a house, but everyone’s, like, ‘I’m gonna take a chance on this girl.’ That wouldn’t have happened in another community our size.” She said, “I think of Dayton as a gritty city. I fell in love with it because it’s very blue collar. It’s the quintessential ‘If you work hard and play by the rules, you should get ahead.’ What’s heartbreaking to me is that’s not enough anymore.” That’s a powerful, long quote. Do you use a notepad or tape recorder? And when and why do you choose either technology for your interviews? Tape recorder, always; notes, always. I cannot imagine doing it any other way. There have been times when I’ve transcribed tapes and heard something in the background that I hadn’t noticed while in the field. That’s incredibly valuable. If your mind misses it when you’re on the ground, there’s no getting it back if you’re relying only on notes alone. I like the connection of other people’s voices — it’s hard to convey or remember inflections and tone via notes. I also think of recordings as a record of a person, place, and a moment in time. What tape recorder do you use? iPhone, plus a cheap Olympus. I once foolishly bought a crazy-expensive recorder a friend recommended and I don’t even know where it is. My payday mostly goes only to the core gear these days — laptops, phones.
Traditionally, Dayton’s city manager has overseen daily operations while the mayor functioned more as a figurehead. The current city manager, Shelley Dickstein, was But Whaley, who was first elected in 2013, has never been a figurehead. “When I got in, I’d go to the meetings and they’d say, ‘You’re good! You’re smart!’ And I’d say, ‘I know! I show up on time and speak in complete sentences—what a miracle.’ ” After four years, she was reëlected, running unopposed in the first uncontested mayoral race in Dayton’s history. “That surprised me,” she told me. “It’s not like everybody loves me.” In 2017, Whaley briefly ran for governor. She’ll probably run again. Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s senior senator, and a Democrat, told me that Whaley and he have been friends since around 2005. “Nan came to her politics by sitting around the dinner table during the Reagan years, hearing her dad talk about how Reagan betrayed workers,” he said. “She’s always been a workers’-rights, civil-rights, women’s-rights Democrat.” How and why did you bring Brown into the story? I’d heard that Brown planned to not meet with Trump in Dayton. He changed his mind after Whaley asked him to stand with her. His quote explains why he felt the need to show support for Whaley. To me, the gesture spoke of solidarity but also provided insight on how politicians think, especially when they feel outnumbered. I liked that Whaley admitted that she had asked Brown to attend the Trump visit with her. You don’t often see politicians showing vulnerability. At this point, it’s abundantly clear that Whaley is the focus of the story. Why and when did you choose her as your focus? In any quickly moving story it’s important to find a focus without jumping to conclusions. Ideally, the writer can find a way to home in on, or expose, something that another news outlet hasn’t already produced. At one point, I had the fleeting idea to focus on women and leadership, but that was more Topic than Story. Then I realized that Whaley represented that idea and more. The more I saw of her the more interesting and compelling she became as a character navigating complex circumstances. She was already dealing with the evolving investigation and leading a city through its grief; then, as a Democrat, she had to figure out how to handle the sudden presence of a divisive president whose office she respects but whose character she doesn’t. In that way, she represented a huge swath of the national sentiment.
In the wake of the shooting, Daytonians did seem to love her, with the visible exception of one garrulous older man who stood on Fifth Street with a homemade sign that read “Fu*k Nan Whaley.” Who censored the sign, the holder or The New Yorker? The holder — likely because he knew he and his sign wouldn’t make the newspaper or TV news if he used the whole word. The New Yorker has no problem with the word. Could you describe the fact-checking process for this story? The magazine’s factchecking department is headed by Peter Canby, who, in 2012, wrote a lovely, thorough description of the process for the Columbia Journalism Review. Peter manages an overall checking team of 25. Eight are dedicated to the website, headed by Sean Lavery, who has written about Donald Trump’s dangerous lies, and who has fact-checked books by my colleagues Jill Lepore (the post-1945 sections of “These Truths”) and Ronan Farrow (the forthcoming “Catch and Kill”). The checking teams increasingly work together, Sean recently told me. Factchecking, procedurally, was a weird adjustment for me when I left newspapers for magazines. I remember telling the checker of my first magazine story, with haughty ridiculousness, that I’d already checked my own facts, thank you very much. Now, I can’t imagine life without checkers. My goal is always to give them nothing to correct — the reporter should always the first line of defense — but inevitably they find something that needs a change. The checkers come along behind the reporter, call our sources, double-check our spellings and locations, recheck our math, and challenge our reasoning. The Dayton piece was checked by Linnea Feldman Emison, who is part eagle. She deleted an errant “C” and corrected (after kindly consulting with the reporter) the description of the structure of the murder weapon. More examples of the depth of her checking and our overall process: she asked for photographic evidence of the post-it memorials and the protester’s “FU*K Nan Whaley” sign. Linnea also checked quotes and details against the interview transcripts, and she spent a lot of time on the phone with Whaley and others, including Sherrod Brown. The night after the shooting, mourners cheered Whaley at a candlelight vigil and shouted at Governor Mike DeWine, chanting, “Do something! Do something!” Were you in town for the vigil? No. The vigil happened on Sunday night and I didn’t decide to go to Dayton until Monday. How were you able to describe it? Video and interviews. How do you decide with a fast-moving story what to cover or not? The question kind of answers itself. If you miss the vigil, you don’t cover the vigil. If everybody else is saturating one aspect of a story and you’re writing the third-day piece or weekender, you have to find a fresh angle. The trick, in this case, was how to be newsy and fast without resorting to first person, essay or prognostication, and while adhering to New Yorker style. What differences are there in your reporting and writing methods when you’re producing story on a tight deadline like this one compared to your longform narratives for The New Yorker? The reporting methods are more or less the same because I’m the same reporter no matter the medium. I’m not going to under-report a story just because it’s a quick web turnaround. The key difference between magazine and web: for the magazine, I have more time to read, think, track people down, spend time with story subjects and/or sources, re-interview, gather documents, organize. I have more time to embed, more time to immerse myself in a subculture or situation, more time to absorb varying points of view. Those are the reasons I moved into magazines in the first place. The writing feels essentially the same across platforms. Two days after the shooting, DeWine unveiled a seventeen-point proposal, which Whaley endorsed, to reduce gun violence. Under the plan, relatives and others who are concerned could take out a “safety-protection order” against anyone at risk of committing gun violence, and, after a court hearing, a judge could seize firearms from those deemed credible threats.
The Republican governor and the Democratic mayor explained the details of this new initiative to me last week, after they had lunch together, at Lily’s Bistro, in the Oregon District. Jon Husted, the lieutenant governor, had joined them, along with DeWine’s wife, Fran, who had put on a “Dayton Strong” T-shirt over her blue dress and pearls. Whaley listened closely as DeWine explained, “People said, ‘Do something.’ Now we’re saying, ‘You have the power to do something.’ ” She nodded when he added, “Every community has somebody who fits that category where everybody says, ‘Oh, God, someday something’s gonna happen.’ ” How did you manage to get into this meeting? Were you the only journalist there? I asked. Yes, I was the only journalist at the table, and I think I was the only reporter in the room. Lots more were outside, waiting to talk to DeWine and Whaley, but I don’t know whether their security details kept them out of the restaurant or what. There were other customers in the dining room, so it’s not as if the cafe was off limits. How long was the lunch? About an hour, I think. I always try to write down when something starts and ends. In an interview with “Art Dealer Diaries,” you say, “I like eavesdropping.” Is that what you were doing here? No, I didn’t creep on their lunch. I was several tables away, too far away to hear them. I had asked to join them for the whole lunch; when I was told that that wouldn’t be possible, I asked if I could place a digital recorder at their table. Instead, Whaley suggested that I simply join them toward the end. I do like eavesdropping, though. I love listening to the unfiltered way that people really talk. I’ve been that way since I was a kid. It’s thrilling to run into original characters. Why did you include include the pearls instead of just saying she wore the T-shirt over her dress? Because the T-shirt and pearls conveyed that Fran DeWine seemed to feel it important to both express solidarity with Dayton and retain her first lady-like appearance. The hi/lo combo stood out to me as worth noting. Whaley told me that she appreciated being included in these conversations. “I always prefer folks that govern, not just advocate,” she said. “In governing, you’ve got to get it done.”Makeshift memorials materialized at the scene of the shooting, as they always do. A recreational group plastered handwritten Post-its to shop windows: “You are braver than you think,” “Today is not the day to let fear win.” Heart Mercantile ran out of “Dayton Strong” T-shirts and ordered more. The neighborhood regulars, vaping and drinking, both hugged everybody obsessively and hated on posers who “never in a million years would’ve worn a ‘Dayton Strong’ T-shirt” but now couldn’t wait to get one. Who you told you this and why didn’t you identify them? Oregon District regulars. I didn’t identify anyone in this passage because it would have introduced new characters unnecessarily. Abstraction can allow for better pacing. It’s worth mentioning that even when we don’t identify sources, our checkers know who they are and call them to confirm the material.
Whaley had always believed that Donald Trump’s campaigning would never bring him to Dayton. She often told herself, “I’ll only have to deal with him if something bad happens.” Then it became clear that Trump planned to visit both El Paso and Dayton, whose mass shootings had happened hours apart, leaving thirty-two dead and at least fifty-two injured altogether. Whaley and her staff had “pretty healthy fights” about whether to receive him, she told me. Whaley neither likes nor respects Trump. On TV, she had said that “every politician has the power either to bring people together or to divide people.” Trump, she told me, was doing the latter. She did respect the office of the President, though. She decided that she would meet with Trump when he visited Dayton and use the opportunity to urge him to revive the nineteen-nineties ban on assault-style weapons. She told me, “Every mayor wants something good to happen out of something bad.” Why did you repeat, “she told me,” twice in the same paragraph? To make it clear that she was talking to The New Yorker. I probably could have used “She said,” in the second instance.
On Wednesday morning, at around eleven, Air Force One landed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Trump descended the plane’s stairway in silence, with no audience of supporters to applaud him. A receiving line waited for him and his wife, Melania, following the hierarchy mandated by White House protocol: governor, First Lady, mayor, senior senator, junior senator, and so on. When Trump reached Whaley, he shook her hand, and she immediately brought up the reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban. Trump moved on to Brown, who had not planned to meet with Trump until Whaley asked him to stand with her. (“It was a zillion Republican operatives and White House staff and elected officials who don’t see the world the way Nan and I do,” Brown told me. “She and I were able to reinforce each other’s arguments with the President.”) Given what follows, it appears you were there for the President’s visit. How close did you get? Credentialed media were instructed to meet in a certain location at Wright-Patterson at 8:10 a.m. Wednesday, for the president’s 10:40 a.m. arrival. We were shuttled to holding, at a terminal building. After the Secret Service searched us and our gear, we were ultimately led into a waiting room that I mainly remember as an alarmingly coffee-free zone. I was sitting with my back to a wall, with a view of the corridor, when Sherrod Brown walked by — that’s how a lot of us in the room learned he had decided to come. Sometime around 10 we were led out to the tarmac, and everyone chose a position along the barricade, and waited for the plane to arrive. We knew it was close when one Secret Service officer walked to a designated spot on the tarmac and stared off into the empty sky, and two others stood 20 yards to his right, side by side, watching him watch the sky. The plane landed. Down came the stairway. The White House press pool and aides deplaned at the rear and assembled beneath AF1’s left wing. The presidential motorcade pulled up, but from where I stood — I don’t know, 30 yards away? 40? — I could see the receiving line. I could see Trump as he reached Whaley and Brown, which meant that I could time how long he talked to each of them and see the extent to which he interacted with them — for instance, he both shook Brown’s hand and clapped him on the right shoulder. The reception lasted mere minutes. Trump and the entourage left. Media weren’t allowed to observe him at the hospital he visited, or during his meeting with first responders, so I’m sorry to say that there were no independent accounts of what happened there.
When the group prepared to leave for Miami Valley Hospital to visit survivors and first responders, Whaley was relegated to travelling with the press pool. Notified of the snub, the two senior Ohio Republicans, DeWine and Senator Robert Portman, and Brown sent a message: she’s the mayor, and she’s with us. At the hospital, Whaley and Brown found a second opportunity to press Trump on guns. Both told me that Brown advised Trump, “You could pass an assault ban—you could bring it back.”
Whaley said that Trump asked, “Why did it lapse?”
“Obama couldn’t get the votes,” Brown told him.
“That’s right, Mr. President,” Whaley told Trump. “You could do something that Obama couldn’t.” Are you reconstructing dialogue here? If so, how did you confirm this is what was said? Two-source confirmation: Whaley and Brown, interviewed separately. You’ll notice that Trump’s part of the dialogue is attributed to Whaley. That’s because I didn’t observe it and wouldn’t have been able to get the line confirmed. I’d rather attribute than render as fact.
After Trump met the six police officers who had stopped the shooter, Whaley heard him say, “They’re gonna come to the White House and I’m gonna give them a big award.” Brown told him, “The best way to honor these officers and police everywhere is to get these guns off the streets.” Whaley told me, “Trump kept saying he was gonna ‘do something,’ but I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about legislation or ‘very big awards.’ ” Did you think she was trying to throw shade on the President with this last comment? Oh yeah.
Trump left for El Paso. Whaley and Brown appeared in a press conference at City Hall. A couple of the cable networks carried the presser live. Trump apparently watched. At 3:48 p.m. he tweeted that Whaley and Brown had “misrepresented” his visit to Dayton; he called the news conference “a fraud.” A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter recorded a video of Whaley seeing the President’s criticism and responding, “I’m really confused. We said he was treated, like, very well. . . . Oh, well, you know. He lives in his world of Twitter.” The variety of documentation is impressive. Before Twitter and YouTube, what sources would you rely on? Stone tablets? Such descriptions of meta-level media consumption and sourcing would have been impossible because there were no platforms that allowed for them. Platform generates action; action must be observable to be reportable. Pre-Twitter/YouTube, Trump might have seen the presser on cable news and then vented to aides, so I suppose that if a reporter were interested in that anecdote she would reconstruct the moment via interviews with reliable sources on the inside. Which is more difficult than waiting for a tweet to land. High-profile stories like the Dayton shootings lure hordes of journalists, many parachuting for a couple of days of stories and them moving on. How do you differentiate yourself from them to secure the participation of participants? I’ll give you the answer that I often give students, and one that won’t be unfamiliar to you: it depends. It depends on the story, the location, even the weather. The breaking- and daily-news demands of newspaper reporting and/or quality online journalism teach reporters how to walk into a scene, size it up, and adjust the approach. It’s less about “technique” than about some learn-as-you-go amalgam of instinct, practice, cool-headedness, originality, and empathy, especially when the story involves trauma.
Early the next morning, Whaley did a live interview with CNN in a back corner of the Legacy Pancake House, a Dayton icon. Afterward, she and I stayed at Legacy, for breakfast. The restaurant has been one of her favorites since college. You can get two eggs, toast, and jelly there for two dollars and seventy-five cents. What’s the purpose of giving the menu price? When you’re in a place like The Legacy Pancake House, what are you looking for? The menu prices reinforce the information about Whaley’s home and neighborhood. It doesn’t mean much to say that Whaley is a working-class mayor; better to try and show it. The type of food conveys diner vibe. The detail about Legacy being a favorite since college shows the mayor’s roots in Dayton, and suggests loyalty. It was clear that the restaurant was authentically familiar to her. The place draws truck drivers, light-and-power workers, and seniors, who get a discount. That morning, a tableful of F.B.I. swat operators were sitting nearby, dressed in fatigues, silently inhaling their food. The last phrase is striking. What were you trying to convey? The operators’ silent presence struck me as simultaneously intense and comical. One, we’re living in a perilous time. Two, life goes on — those dudes were chowing. Their enormous, military-grade SWAT vehicle was parked, nose out, in the parking lot, alongside regular-people vehicles like Hondas and pickups. The sight was surreal enough to be worth mentioning. One detail that I didn’t include: one Legacy server made it clear, with hilarious and obvious disdain, that she was ready for CNN to pack up their lights, camera, and tripod, and please vacate the building.
The mayor, who tends to wear pants, flats, and structured tops, had on a bell-sleeved, turquoise jacket over a white shirt. She ordered two poached eggs with hash browns, bacon, and cinnamon-raisin toast. I love the details like this one that are sprinkled throughout the story. Are you always on the lookout for them? I hoard details. I use them because I appreciate them so much as a reader: the more specific the detail, the better I can see the people and places in a story, and experience or feel the story. I think readers are often looking for those toe-holds of familiarity; a moment of relatability may be the force that leads a reader through. I usually wind up with more details than I can ever use. In this case, I initially wanted to convey that the Legacy doesn’t serve cinnamon-raisin toast — the kitchen sprinkled the cinnamon onto raisin toast for Whaley, as a favor, because she is a longtime regular. Early drafts contained that detail but while the explanation was short it felt unwieldy, so I cut it.
It was “very dangerous to speculate about the mind of the President,” but she said that maybe Trump had lashed out at her because he disliked her pushing him on guns. It “shocked” her that the culture of celebrity that usually surrounds a President seemed “really heightened with this guy.” At the hospital, survivors and their families “were super excited to see him — that is absolutely true,” but, for her, the celebrity atmosphere was “scary for democracy.” The structure as a whole, I believe, follows a chronological approach, except for background about the mayor, the town, and, of course, the dramatic section describing the shootings, which is a narrative flashback, in a sense. How and why did you choose this structure? It just made sense to me. A mysterious visitor in the middle of the night wakes a sleeping, unsuspecting mayor, who is then tested personally and professionally, while under intense public scrutiny. Then: what caused this moment of crisis? An ultimately unknowable figure who ended the lives of strangers in an increasingly familiar way — and in doing so killed his own sibling, whom he may or may not have targeted. IMO, the central narrative really starts with the second section; we simply wrap back around to Whaley, and pick up where her survey of the crime scene left off.
A waitress brought our food and refilled our coffees. At one point, Whaley looked down at her white shirt, plucked a Tide stain-remover pen from her bag, and erased a wayward speck of food. What a wonderful detail. Is it one of those that jump at you and you know they’re going in the story? Definitely. It was a human moment. A person who carries a Tide pen is, to me, an organized, prepared person, and one who cares about her professional appearance and knows herself well enough to realize that she should keep such a tool on hand. Another thing that happened in that moment: Whaley turned to Torey and said something like, “Why am I always spilling stuff on myself?” I didn’t include that because I felt that even that extra tidbit would swell the detail to a distracting degree. Speaking of accessories, what kind of a notebook do you use? And writing instrument? I’ve always used the typical reporter’s notebook — 8×4, slender enough to jam into a back pocket to and keep, in multiples, in my bag. They stack easily and hold a lot, if you use fronts and backs. I had always used the one made by Portage Notebooks — blue and white; says “NEWS” on the cover. Then a few years ago, friends in Boston introduced me to a notebook sold by Bob Slate Stationers. The notebook had the same dimensions but it had a brown (recycled?) cover and discreet lettering. It was sturdier than the Portage, and prettier. I loved it so much that I bought it in bulk. But Bob Slate’s manufacturer stopped making them, and despite my ongoing harassment the shop doesn’t seem too interested in finding a new supplier, so I’ve gone back to the blue-and-white NEWS: spiral bound at the top, 70 sheets, Gregg ruled. As for writing instruments: I’m weirdly particular about pencils and pens. When I’m organizing materials at my desk I use a legal pad and a Number 2 Blackwing pencil. In the field, I take notes with a Uni-ball Vision, fine point, black; a Tul, medium point, in either blue or black; or, though I generally dislike ballpoints, a Paper Mate Profile, black.
She was remembering other details about Trump’s visit. It occurred to her, she told me, that the President seemingly had no compassion or emotion, no ability to read a room. He called Brown and her to the bedside of a patient and said, “These people used to be Democrats and now they’re Republicans.” Whaley told me, “This was a victim’s room. Sherrod and I were, like, ‘We hope you’re O.K.’ ” How would you describe the proportion of reporting and writing time for this story? Seventy percent reporting, 20 percent writing, 10 percent revising. How and where did you write the story? In my hotel room, in bed, with my laptop and an enormous coffee. I can read and organize and strategize in coffee shops and airports, but I can’t write there. The typical setup is no TV, no music, no unnecessary phone calls, no nothing — no food, even, until it’s locked down. It’s a pretty rigid process that I adopted early in my career; it’s what works for me — though I’m open to change. I do monitor Twitter, just to keep an eye on what’s happening outside that room.
Trump didn’t seem to understand that the people around him had been traumatized. Whaley said, “There’s a guy in a Rutgers shirt and the President’s, like, ‘Oh, did you go to Rutgers?’ The guy’s, like, ‘No.’ Then the woman next to him says, ‘I got shot in the arm, but the worst part is the emotional trauma.’ I thought it was very brave to say that. The President went back to the guy in the Rutgers shirt and said, ‘You’ll be O.K.—you’re a very tough guy.’ ” (Whaley, meanwhile, is so determined for Dayton to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental-health issues that, after her own therapy appointment, she tweeted, “I have a counselor who I just went and talked to about how hard this week has been. If you need to talk to someone—do it.”) I’m always curious about parenthetical asides. Why did you use one here? What do they represent to the reader? Do they shift the voice? I’m wary of them but in this case I used parens because I was talking about two different points in the narrative. I wanted the reader to take in the “stigma” graf almost as an aside, so that the narrative could continue. These details came from three different reporting points: I learned of the stigma-eradication efforts by observing the press conference at the children’s hospital, and about Whaley’s own therapy appointment by lurking in the background as she talked to Cory Frolik and Campbell Robertson, of The New York Times, on the sidewalk, after her lunch with DeWine. How would you describe the voice of the story? You’re making me feel like one of my students. I’ll now empathize with them when they wail, “I don’t know!” I guess I’d say somber and measured, with a couple of bittersweet winks. Do/did you outline? How do you normally organize your material? I don’t outline. I organize chronologically at first, during the thinking stage; then I may change it up, via structure, during the writing. Did the structure change during revision? Not really. Section 2 originally began with a 129-word passage about El Paso and FBI statistics on domestic terrorism, but Rohde suggested — rightly — cutting it. I originally wrote Trump’s visit as the start of a new section but ultimately folded it in. I’m the kind of writer who writes, files, and keeps writing as the editor edits. I may rewrite a section or passage several times. And I’ll tinker with a story, down to the sentence level, until the moment we close. I’m fortunate that Zalewski is as obsessive as I am and reads for precision and nuance.
At the Pancake House, Whaley was drinking water from a tumbler branded with the logo of an ironworkers’ union. Now here’s a case where you’re more general in your description. Why didn’t you use the name of the union? It was in my notes, and I intended to go back and look for it, and use it, but then I decided the story didn’t need it. An exact description might have distracted the reader by forcing him to stop and say, “Wait, should I know what that is?” Sometimes the general detail allows for better flow. If the tumbler’s insignia had read “Teamsters,” on the other hand, I’d have probably used it. Her father was an ironworker, as was her grandfather, whose nickname was Dynamite. Did the nickname come up in the course of an interview? Did you sit down for a formal interview with her where you obtained this biographical information? She told me the biographical information, including her grandfather’s nickname, during the breakfast interview. I had asked, “Why politics, for you?” Her mother was the elected clerk-treasurer of Mooresville, Indiana. “The town was, like, five thousand people. Really conservative place,” Whaley told me. “My parents went to college, but neither of them graduated. They were all about my brother and I going to college.” Whaley studied chemistry (“First-generation college students have to do science, or get a business degree, so that you can get a job”) and ran her school’s chapter of College Democrats. “When I came to Dayton, Bill Clinton was running for reëlection,” she said. “My mother said, ‘Ohio decides the Presidency, so you’d better go help in the election.’ I took a bus down to Democratic headquarters, and that’s how I got involved.”
She worked on campaigns, and liked it, but she never thought she would run for office. When she was twenty-seven, Emily’s List called and asked her to run for Congress. “They flew in to see me and said all I’d have to do was raise a million dollars,” Whaley said. “I’m from a working-class family. They might as well have said, ‘You need to go to the moon.’ ” Great quote! How do you recognize when something someone says is going in a story? If I’m on the phone and typing notes, my hands tremble. If I’m face to face with a source and recording, I’ll time-stamp that moment in my notes, on instinct, I guess. You know it when you hear it.
Whaley declined to run for Congress, but realized that she was interested in public office. She ran for the city commission, the body that governs Dayton, the Montgomery County seat. “This county is the fourth-largest county in the country that flipped from Obama to Trump, population-wise,” she said. “In 2018, media would come here and say, ‘These white people used to vote for Democrats and now they don’t.’ They acted like it had just happened. It’s been happening since Reagan.”
America knows depressingly little about itself, she told me. Ignorant responses to the Dayton shooting had aggravated Whaley’s sense that people don’t “really think about the middle of the country much.” She said, “I mean, come on—the President said, ‘God bless Texas and Toledo,’ and Joe Biden said, ‘We’re really thinking about the people of Houston and Michigan.’ ” She added, “There are still more people in Ohio and across America living in small and midsize cities than there are living in big cities. These communities are interesting. It’s not ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.’ ” The conversation over breakfast seems to be the heart of the story, the message Whaley wants to convey to readers about Dayton and Middle America. Did you know this was important as it was happening? Did you place it here because it followed the chronological order of the story? Or did the conversation happen at another time and you placed it here as your conclusion? I knew it was important as it was happening, but at that point I had no sense of scene hierarchy. I knew I’d be shadowing Whaley all day — at the children’s hospital press conference, and at lunch and afterward. The conversation proved so fruitful that after the DeWine lunch I knew I was more or less ready to write. As I mentioned earlier, I went back out that evening, to report for the human spirit of the Oregon District, but otherwise I felt ready to go.
Dayton had now joined an unwelcome roster: two hundred and fifty-three U.S. cities have suffered a mass shooting this year alone. Across town, the coroner’s office was working on the autopsy reports of the Oregon District victims. Megan Betts had been shot in the right forearm and chest. Derrick Fudge had been shot multiple times in the torso. Lois Oglesby had been shot in the head. Each name on the list was followed with coding for race, gender, age: WF22, BF39, WM25, BM57.
The codes are such a devastating detail, as heartbreaking in their own way as the injuries. Why did you choose to name just these victims? How did you learn about what happened to the the three victims you cite? And the codes? Why did you use them?
I forgot to name coroner reports in the list of the public records I used for this piece. I’ve covered crime long enough to know to go ahead and put in the request for autopsy reports, so I did that almost immediately. A full report can take eight or more weeks, depending on toxicology, but the Montgomery County coroner, Dr. Kent Harshbarger, released a summary on Friday. I received his office’s email at 2:36 p.m., well in time to use the information in my piece. A typical autopsy report may run several or more pages. This information was skeletal but much appreciated, because if nothing else it offered cause and manner of death. The first name on the list read:
MEGAN K. BETTS – WF22
Cause of death: Gunshot wounds of the right forearm and chest.
The manner of death has been ruled as a homicide. The rest of the dead were coded in exactly the same way. I chose the names and the subsequent coding examples based on a desire to convey the range of victims — age, gender, race, location of wounds. One aspect of this mass casualty I wish I’d had time to explore: six of the nine people Betts killed were black. I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from the fact of that imbalance. They brought to mind this line from the opening of your 2013 New Yorker piece “Bones of Contention:” “Eight feet tall and twenty-four feet long, the specimen had been mounted in a predatory running position, with its arms out and its jaws open, as if determined to eat Lot No. 49220—a cast Komodo dragon, crouching ten yards away, on blue velvet.” What’s the value in narrative writing of using such shorthand? I’m drawn to subcultures and to the specifics of how people communicate. For me, there’s value in knowing how systems work — the auction industry, in the case of the dinosaur skeleton, for instance. Did you think about ending the piece there? No. That would’ve been too abrupt. I wanted to come back around to Whaley — to life. What reaction did the story get? One type of reaction involved kind words from fellow journalists, but it especially meant a lot to me to receive emails and DMs from current and former Daytonians, readers in general, and the mayor of another city that had experienced a mass shooting. In terms of metrics: it was the top New Yorker web story published in August, in terms of average engaged time per reader. If we as an industry insist on applying metrics, average-time-per-reader is the one that I value the most. Deep engagement suggests that people care.
Whaley planned to attend as many of the funeral visitations as possible. For now, she had to go—her security detail was waiting at the door of the restaurant. She left to meet the governor at Dayton Children’s Hospital, where they announced a September summit on resilience.Why did you choose this ending? What were you trying to accomplish by focusing on the future? I found it poignant that in announcing a summit on resilience they were enacting resilience. And as I mentioned in the previous answer, I wanted to land on life, not death. Did you know your ending before you began the story or did it emerge during composition or revision? It emerged like kickers so often emerge, for me: in an instant of recognition. I wrote the sentence and left it alone. What were the greatest challenges you faced reporting and writing this story? My concerns existed on numerous levels. I wanted to write with nuance, which requires reporting for detail, which requires asking potentially upsetting and/or intrusive and/or asinine questions, which is tricky when the subject matter is sensitive and the situation is developing. You have to be careful not to re-traumatize people. And no reporter likes to get beat. I also wanted to maintain reportorial distance and avoid heavy reliance on the first-person or on anything that could remotely resemble an essayistic approach, which is what too often happens when speed and desperation for click-through traffic dictate a news organization’s response to serious events. Essay is a wildly entertaining and often beautiful form, but it’s not my area of interest. Lovely, meaningful writing and reporting needn’t be mutually exclusive, as we all know by now. We’re not inventing a new form here; we’re just talking about the broader application of a specific skillset.