Rosette Royale, assistant editor for Seattle’s Real Change newspaper, knows how to craft a compelling story, as do most aspiring novelists. And he has the almost requisite advanced degrees in English and creative writing to take that aspiration to legitimate profession. But the Washington, D.C., native doesn’t earn his keep writing line after line of labored fictional prose at the corner coffee shop. He’s a journalist, tried and true, cemented by SPJ awarding him a Sigma Delta Chi Award for feature writing. The exhaustive 15,000-word investigative and narrative story he wrote for Real Change (titled “The Man Who Stood on the Bridge”) won acclaim after its publication in a three-part series. That series captured the attention of readers for nearly a month, as the weekly paper distributed by homeless and low-income vendors told the compelling story of a troubled young man on the brink of suicide.
What got you interested in journalism?
I went to college and graduate school and majored in English and minored in creative writing. I wanted to be a fiction writer. I wound up working for a magazine. Then I heard about a new newspaper starting up in Massachusetts. I talked to the editor, and he told me that I was just the person he was looking for.
What was that like, working in journalism with no formal journalistic training?
It was terrifying. I thought, these people want me to be accurate, and I have to be. The editor taught me about the inverted pyramid and all that stuff. Then I found that once you learn the rules, you can break the rules.
Have you gleaned any lessons from your time in journalism?
I take the job really seriously. And I have a lot more compassion about the people in every story. I think, “How can this impact someone else?” As a journalist I can hide behind the words, but that doesn’t help the person I’m writing about. And I think it’s really easy to be a journalist and be arrogant. You can call someone and they’ll answer your questions. That’s not something everybody (in every profession) can do. As journalists it’s easy to forget for whom we’re doing it.
Is there a journalist or writer — living or dead — who you particularly look up to or aspire to emulate?
I’ll give you three. Charles Dickens — he knows how to tell a story. John McPhee — he can write about anything and make you care. Toni Morrison — she writes about people who don’t get written about.
The common thinking is that smaller or niche publications are more insulated from declining print circulation and advertising slumps and that readers are generally older and slower to transition online. Is the same true for your paper?
We used to sell maybe 12,000 copies a week, and now we sell almost 18,000. So our readership has gone up in five years since I’ve been here. We made a concerted effort to rehash as a community newspaper, not just as a homeless paper. As a community newspaper we had to cover a wide range of issues that have class and social justice as a core. And we had to think about how we reflect that in what we cover.
Is there anything you think traditional or mainstream media gets wrong when reporting on poverty and homelessness?
I can give you a great example. There was a New York Times article about homelessness in Anchorage, Alaska. There was one sentence that read: “Experts say the problem of public drunkenness is part of a larger homeless problem that disproportionately affects Native Alaskans, particularly men who have moved in from rural parts of Alaska and lost their way in the city.” And I thought, there’s the story, right there. Go and follow people as they come from rural areas and see what the people coming to Anchorage actually face. But often the reporters talk to the policy voices or the public information officers. That seriously made me want to pitch a freelance piece to the Times.
(Editor’s Note: Read the Times article at tinyurl.com/yjawfay, where you can also watch a six-minute video. The video includes a brief interview with a homeless man.)
What, if any, societal lessons should we take from the story of Bret Winch (“The Man Who Stood on the Bridge”)?
There are numerous opportunities where things could have been done to help Bret. It’s really easy to write off someone, but we all know how it feels to be written off. And maybe the next time, we should think about what could possibly happen because of that. It made me challenge my assumptions. He was someone who was troubled, and he just couldn’t find his way out alone.
Your award-winning series was a three-part, in-depth narrative investigation. Did you set out trying to produce that expansive of a piece?
Not at all. It was a news brief in the police blotter (about a suicide), and my editor asked if I wanted to look into it. My intention was to look into homeless sex offenders. When I spoke to the sheriff’s office, they said Bret wasn’t homeless, and they gave me his address. And I said, OK, this is not about what I think it’s about. I learned to let go of assumptions. I learned that investigative journalism can be really fun, too. And looking for the Department of Corrections documents was completely and ridiculously intimidating. I sorted through about 1,100 pages of documents to get 600 I could use.
Was there ever a point at which you thought the story would make a real impact or win awards?
No, not while working on it. I actually thought that in writing it I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I thought it was going to be boring and that people wouldn’t want to finish it. And I thought I would be embarrassed. It was only after reading it and people started talking to me and complimenting me. People e-mailed me and told me to enter. And one of the corrections officers from the series called and thanked me. That made me think there’s something else in this piece.
What, if any, professional lessons can other news outlets and journalists take from the way you reported this story?
Here’s the thing: People love stories. That’s what touches people’s hearts. I know that newspapers talk about (hard) news — but when you report news, you can still tell stories. What I learned is that being a features writer is also being an investigative journalist, and a metro reporter, etc. As a journalist you can be any kind of writer you want to be. That’s what I’ve learned.