We are taught from our very first jobs — and also in journalism school if we were unfortunate enough to attend one — that reporters should stay out of their stories. We go through all sorts of contortions to do so, down to saying, “this reporter” — as in “the official told this reporter that. . . .”
I followed that rule for thirty years. Once, though, I did the opposite: I created a story in order to write about it. It’s the kind of thing Michael Moore does all the time — hunting down G.M. CEO Roger Smith, taking 9/11 survivors to Cuba for treatment, and so on. Moore gets at truths he couldn’t get at any other way.
In 1999 I tried it myself. Wanting to write about what NAFTA was doing to American workers, I found a young man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who’d lost his job when the steering-wheel factory he worked in moved to Mexico. I then took him to Mexico to find the guy who now had his job. You can read the proposal for the story here, and the manuscript of the story itself here. Scroll down to “The Man Who Took My Job.” The story ran in Rolling Stone.
I mention this now because all of us who write for a living are casting about for the next thing — the way to make a living in this wretched environment of shrunken and shuttered magazines, and book publishers who aren’t even buying manuscripts anymore. Stunt journalism may be something to try. A friend of mine is reading A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, by a guy who tried living for one year according to the tenets of the Bible. She says it’s hilarious. It has me thinking.