50-for-50 interview: Doreen Marchionni, postmodern journalist

doreen marchionni, journalist
If Doreen Marchionni could only replicate herself, the world would likely sort itself out in no time. Because Doreen is not just a synthesizer, but a master synthesizer. She is capable of taking in massive amounts of seemingly conflicting ideas, trends, and data, and, through some sort of wizardly alchemy, fusing them into a finely ground series of lenses that allow the rest of us to finally see. I’m certain that her extensive training as an on-the-ground, old-school journalist is partly responsible—she knows how to track down a story. And her subsequent immersion in higher ed and new media methodology certainly helped—nothing like a lab full of inquisitive minds to road-test concepts for clarity. But it’s Doreen’s righteousness—tempered with badass humor—that makes the stories land. Also? She is mighty fun to drink bourbon with.

When did you decide to become a writer?

When I finally owned up to the fact in college that writing was my only talent — and a legit one, at that. I’m not athletic, I can’t sing or play an instrument, I can’t fix things without breaking them more, I can’t paint or draw, I’m mediocre at cooking, I lack all forms of spatial reasoning. But writing? Oh, hell, yes. That I can do.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Mary Beth Kelly, head of the English department at Fort Vancouver High School, in Vancouver, Wash., where I grew up. I’ve worshipped the woman since the first English class I took with her as a freshman. I took every course she offered in high school and learned everything I now know about grammar, punctuation, style, organization, inductive and deductive reasoning, voice, etc. Plenty of teachers since the sixth grade told me I had a knack for writing. Few demanded as much as Mrs. Kelly. Amazing to think one teacher pointed me to my life’s avocation.

What do you love to write about?

Pathos, life-and-death stuff. I was a sheltered suburbanite when I became a newspaper reporter, and it was baptism by violence. Most of my coverage centered on drive-by shootings, rapes, massacres, arsons, robberies, child killings, pedophilia, road rage, natural disasters, manmade disasters, highway fatalities, serial killers — even terrorism (Oklahoma City). I had to give it up at one point because I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but I didn’t stray far: I ended up becoming a criminal-justice editor, coordinating, but not directly covering, that kind of stuff.

Still do. As the Sunday Seattle Times metro editor, I coordinated coverage of not one but two overnight mass shootings a few weeks back that injured 20, along with a break in the 40-year-old unsolved case of the country’s most notorious skyjacker, D.B. Cooper. I continue to like this kind of coverage because you don’t have to work hard to make the story sing — the facts alone do the work for you.

What has writing taught you?

To say exactly what I mean and don’t bullshit. To value brevity and clarity. To stand up for ideas. To stand up for myself and be heard. I matter.

How has writing made you stronger?

It’s given me self-confidence. I’ve spent my entire life earning a good living as a writer and/or editor. Not bad for someone lacking talent in all else.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

  1. Lighten the hell up. I took my studies so seriously, that I’m not sure I had as much fun as I should have in school (I’m making up for lost time now, heh heh).
  2. Don’t fear failure — to never fail is to never really push the boundaries of things. That life is for wussies.
  3. Run, don’t walk, from shitty bosses. They’re a drain on your life, and life is precious. Just get out from under them. You’ll never regret it.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

  • The Wanderer by Alain Henri-Fournier (19th-century novel about adolescence and longing)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (autistic boy tries to solve the slaying of a neighborhood dog. Footnotes in novel are priceless)
  • Romenesko (blog by and for news people about the news business, with a fair amount of catty to it)
  • Seoulbrother on Tumblr/American Drink (hubby is behind these two blogs and, well, his writing is funny as shit. Crass, crabby, pointed, wise. He’s my alter ego.)
  • @sloganeerist (I think he’s one of the funniest people on Twitter — never writes a stinker. Hate him.)

Dr. Doreen Marchionni (Ph.D ’09, Missouri School of Journalism) is a Pacific Northwest native specializing in online news research/credibility and journalism-as-a-conversation. She is a 17-year veteran of newspapers, primarily as a manager and most recently as an assistant metro editor at The Seattle Times. She received her master’s in American Studies from Columbia University (ethnic studies/immigration) and used her doctorate at Missouri to figure out a way to measure the slightly squishy phenomenon of conversational journalism. She teaches news reporting and writing, social media and editing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. and runs a Tumblr blog dedicated to translating her experimental research to a lay audience. She likes whiskey.

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