Posts Tagged ‘investigative journalism’

“World On Fire” Finalist for The PEN Literary Non-Fiction Award

August 27th, 2013 No Comments



The morning after the fire

As the sun rose, there was little left of the warehouse


My story “A World On Fire” was a finalist the PEN literary non-fiction award for 2013, but alas it didn’t win.

The story is about eight young travelers who died in a squat fire in New Orleans 9th Ward just before New Years 2012.  I went to New Orleans two weeks after the fire and two more times after that.  I interviewed at length six of the families of those who died  as well as many of their friends in New Orleans and wherever I could snag them on the road. The story expanded from the night of the fire to the reasons young people choose this dangerous life and what keeps them there, as well as the agony of the parents who worry that they may never see their children again.

When the story was published in Boston Review’s January/February issue, it got a lot of attention.  I’m attaching here a link to my appearance on “Talk of the Nation” the NPR weekday morning show that was cancelled recently.  Neal Conan asked if any of the parents of the dead would consent to be interviewed and I immediately thought of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the young women who died in the fire.  The piece starts with her beautiful sentiment of peace and acceptance told in her  angelic voice.  The comments on the piece are pretty good too.

I am honored to be a finalist.  PenUSA only nominated three stories in the literary non-fiction category, which makes my story one  of a very select few.

I spent a year working on this story which, as you will see if you read it, is very close to my heart. I am so pleased that the traveling community let me in and gave me a chance to honor their friends and the families who have suffered greatly for this tragedy. I am also grateful to PEN for seeing this as a story of value.

Talk Of The Nation features “A World On Fire”

February 28th, 2012 No Comments


Of the three radio interviews I did for my story in The Boston Review “A World On Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat” this one is my favorite. First off because it features the beautiful voice and memories of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the eight who died in the New Orleans warehouse fire that is at the center of my story.

The love for Katie in Marty’s voice is pure and strong, particularly when Neal Conan asks her if she thought Katie was happy living the life of a hobo, “Oh, I know she was,” Marty says. I knew this of my daughter too and, like Marty, I could hear it in Marissa’s voice every time we spoke on the phone.

In addition to Marty’s loving response, I enjoyed hearing the stories of the many people who called the show, some of whom had been or were traveling the country by rail, and the parents who were concerned about their children, or concerned that their children might choose to hop trains. One caller said he was relieved to hear this program because he had been so worried, so angry, when his daughter disappeared. This father, named Forest, was soothed by knowing that his daughter had joined a culture, not just fallen  into degradation and danger.  Forest said that at Christmas his family, furious with the girl,  had decided none of them would  send his daughter money as an expression of disapproval. I offered my unasked-for opinion that he should send her money anyway.

The immediacy of my feeling about this surprised me. When my daughter left town to hop trains, I had the same feeling as Forest. I said that I wouldn’t send her a dime, and I was furious when her father sent her some money. I had believed then that if I was stern and tough, communicating nothing but disapproval,  my daughter would feel shame and return home to please me. If I sent her money, wasn’t I in some way endorsing this terrifying way of life? So she should get nothing, which would hasten her return because she’d see just how rough it was out there.

After my year in and out of New Orleans I see this completely differently, as I said in “World On Fire.” Parents have very little control over children when they are young adults. I could be stern, or I could be accepting, but the journey my daughter was on was her own, and it really had very little to do with my opinions. In the end what would bring her back, I realized, was that she knew she was loved and that home was a safer place than the road. If all I communicated was scorn, why would she ever want to come home? Home in many ways might feel as dangerous to her as a treacherous train yard.

The advice I gave Forest was to send his daughter, who rarely asked him for anything, a few dollars. If he sent her $50, she’d eat that night and so would her friends. Or maybe they’d use that money to rent a motel and get shelter from a storm. When she was ready to come home, she would find her way back.

It is humbling for a parent to understand how little influence he or she has, so my message  was one that expressed not my sense of my power, but my sense of how deep my love for my daughter was, and how realizing that took me down a peg or three.

I’ve often wondered since this radio program aired if Forest sent his daughter money, and if he talked it over with his family members who said he should not. I hope for all of their sakes that he did. Fifty bucks is just fifty bucks, but it can mean the world to someone who is down on their luck enough to call home.

The interview is half an hour in length so I must post it here in two parts.


talk of the nation travelers 1:25:12 part 1

talk of the nation travelers 1:25:12 Part 2


March 22nd, 2011 No Comments


Magazines are broke, and so am I.

That’s not completely true. I’ve got a few dollars in the bank, but it appears most magazines do not.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to sell a story that is very important to me about the GutterPunks in New Orleans, and a  tragic fire that killed eight of them in a squat at the end of last year. The story is much bigger than that, as you will see if you read my previous post: Why Can’t I Sell This Story? These days anyone who is a magazine journalist finds it harder and harder to sell stories, and gets extremely low fees for the work. As a result, fewer good narrative pieces are being published, and many fear this form will die off.

I’m trying something new as of today, a new way of paying journalists to do their jobs, that might help ensure long form, investigative journalism survives. I am trying to fund my story through SpotUs, and I’d like you to make a tax deductible donation to this effort.

What if people financially supported the stories they wanted to read in advance, rather than waiting to see if the editors caught on to subjects that matter to them? That’s the idea behind the website Spot.Us, a venture funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a foundation dedicated to advancing journalism in the digital age. Spot.Us is a space where journalists describe the story they are working on and ask the community to help them fund it.

If you go to the Spot.Us website, you’ll see a collection of different kinds of stories: the homeless, nuclear power, school safety, wine making,  the labor protests in Wisconsin and my GutterPunks story in the center of the front page. People who want to fund a story click on the description of it  to register and pledge their contributions, which are tax deductible. When the project is fully funded, the supporters’ credit or debit cards are charged and the journalist gets the money.

It’s a way of doing journalism that turns the old model of reporting up-side-down.  As I raise money for the GutterPunks story, I’m also experimenting with something I call reporting in public.

In the pellet-dropping publishing paradigm, the reporter gets the assignment and works busily behind the curtain under direction of the editors, who get the privilege of unveiling the completed product for the profit of the magazine and its greater glory. In reporting in public, the audience of supporters I develop through Spot.Us and the people who follow my website will be witnesses to the whole process and help shape the story.

$7,000 is the goal

Instead of hiding behind the veil, I will post little pieces on my website as I work. The idea is to pay back my investors by giving them inside information on what I am uncovering along the way. If I meet someone interesting, I might post a small profile. When I go to New Orleans to investigate the fire, I expect I’ll post something about my talk with the cops and the coroner. I did a little bit of this  last week when I posted a comparison between economic conditions that caused kids to hop trains in the Depression and the ones who hop trains now (very similar). At the end of my reporting, my piece will by published by Boston Review, which has contributed the first $500 to my campaign.

This is an experiment in the kinds of connections and community that is possible on the web, the kind of association that ties us together in a spirit of curiosity, inquiry and innovation.I’m making a plea to you to support my story and this innovative way of doing journalism. My goal is to raise $7000 to cover my travel and time, which the founder and director of the site David Cohn says is difficult to do.  Any amount of support is greatly appreciated, from pocket change to the big bucks. Please go to Spot.Us right now and toss in a some wholly tax deductible cash that will make you  part of the community that pioneers a new kind of journalism in the digital age.