I never thought a pig named Penny would change my career.
About a year and a half ago I was nagging my editor for more newsy, in-depth stories. I had written about luxury hotels, pedicures, plus more serious subjects like cancer and eating disorders but I was itching for something else. Something I could sink my teeth into. My editor calls them “meat and potato” stories. They’re heavy, substantial and take awhile to digest. They’re the hardest to write but the most fulfilling. I was hungry for one.
Jeff Burlingame, then a book writer, had received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do a series of stories on family homelessness in Pierce County for the magazine. My editor put me on assignment with him.
When most people think “homeless” they think of a guy on an urban street corner holding a cardboard sign. But for our project we had to find homeless families.
It felt nearly impossible. Homeless families don’t carry signs. They don’t draw attention to themselves. They sleep in their cars or crash on friends’ couches. Their kids go to school, partly for the free lunch, but are often too embarrassed to reveal that they’re homeless. They’re everywhere but they fade into crowds and dark parking lots. It’s as if they’re invisible.
Someone from a veteran care center told us to talk to a guy named Jeff Craighead. We got to know each other a little over the phone and then I met him for coffee. As we talked I had a hard time getting him to tell me where exactly he slept during his homeless months. I knew his stepson was staying with friends at the time and his wife in a motel. Then, he suddenly dropped the name Penny.
“Wait, who is Penny?” I asked.
“Penny the pig,” he said, as if my question was bazaar.
“I slept in the back [of the car] with her,” he continued. “Are you kidding, she was warm!”
A pig? I couldn’t believe him so he showed me a picture of her. She was an enormous American Razorback with dark gray spots and all I could think was, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
But while Penny was a great hook, it was Jeff’s crisis of not finding a home after serving in two American wars that really grabbed my attention. Jeff told me he’d serve in Iraq and Afghanistan all over again if he knew he’d have a place of his own to come home to. That became my lead and I often think about the way it felt when he said that to me. He was angry, furious even, but his patriotism was overwhelming.
Jeff’s story was published in the series along with another feature I wrote about a homeless mother who had been abused for years and was currently living in a shelter with her two young children.
The package of articles was a huge success. Our readers were impressed by the coverage. They sent in emails and called us asking how they could help. Jeff Craighead called too. I knew he’d hate the story. I’d exposed the intimate details of the most terrible time in his life. But to my surprise, he was gracious and said “Thank you for the beautifully written story about family.” I was so surprised my jaw about hit my desk.
In early April we learned that our homeless package won the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service Reporting in Magazine Journalism. My colleagues couldn’t make the award gala so I flew to Washington, D.C. to accept the award on my own.
On the night of the banquet the National Press Club was jam-packed with journalists from all over the nation. Tables were reserved for major news organizations like The Washington Post and NBC. I felt like a little guppy in a room of big fish. I sat next to Tom Archdeacon, a sports columnist from Ohio who had won for column writing. One of his stories was about a golfer with Alzheimer’s who hit a hole-in-one but by the time it came to celebrate, he’d forgotten all about it. I also sat with Alan Prendergast from Colorado who wrote about a book club at Limon Prison where criminals serving life sentences try to illuminate their lives through the discussion of complex literature. It was the only party I’ve ever been to where everyone had a really great story to tell. I shyly mentioned our homeless project and everyone wanted to know more about Penny. Somehow, a spotted pig from South Tacoma had become the star of my writing career.
All of us at the table had different background and worked on different stories but there was one thing we all shared: we were all really proud to be there. Not just as award winners but as proof that journalism is still a vital force in America. That the stories we slave over can be groundbreaking, that the words of a writer can leave a lasting impression on our readers. And while people will always love fluffy stories about fine dining and vacation rentals, the heavy, all-consuming stories still hold their place on front pages and magazine covers.
When the award presentation started everyone quieted down. For dinner they served meat and potatoes.