Hot Off the Press: Geoffrey Melada, Journalist
I have been telling stories of heroism and horror in Pittsburgh newspapers, magazines and courtrooms for nearly a decade. Originally a Philadelphia news reporter, I was inspired by the Philly prosecutors I covered to go to law school. After trying more than 250 cases of attempted murder, rape, guns, gangs and drugs as a prosecutor and after practicing white collar criminal defense for a global law firm with an office here in Pittsburgh, I am headed to New York’s Columbia University to start a graduate fellowship in journalism. An older lawyer once told me that I would have to choose between journalism and law. But I see these as complementary, not conflicting, careers. If journalism is storytelling, law is competitive storytelling.- Geoffrey Melada
1. How did you get your start in journalism?
My break came right after college graduation (Haverford), courtesy of a fellow Pittsburgher named Ben Brody. I called Ben, who was then an editor of Philadelphia magazine. The city has many terrific universities, and the competition was (and still is) fierce for media jobs. Ben got me through the door at Philly Mag with a monthly assignment writing about contemporary art exhibits in the city. Overnight, I went from fantasizing about being a Big City Journalist to having a byline in the same, gorgeous, gossipy, provocative magazine where Buzz Bissinger (“Friday Night Lights”) worked. The only trouble was: I knew nothing about contemporary art! So I poured myself into the subject. I read everything I could get my hands on about the artists I was covering and read the best arts journalism by others (Peter Schjeldahl) until I developed some authority on the subject and found my own writing voice. That’s the formula I have applied with success to every assignment I’ve been given in the last 13 years, and it allows me to move freely from topics as diverse as the Israeli peace process, transplant surgery, child abuse and kosher food. If I have any advice for aspiring journalists, it is this: don’t major in journalism in college. You can learn the craft in one to two years on the staff of a good paper. Learn as much about the world as you can. That’s the advice given to me by Cokie Roberts when I was in college. One day you’ll be in the newsroom, and an editor straight out of the Superman comic strip will yell out to the bull pen: ‘who has read Nadine Gordimer and knows anything about Apartheid South Africa? She’s speaking at Penn in thirty minutes. We need a story.’ Or, ‘who knows about private school vouchers? There’s a debate tonight. We need a story.’ The more you’ve learned about the universe around you, the more prepared you’ll be to explain these people, happenings and debates to readers.
2. What do you get from writing?
Not pleasure, in the infantile, Freudian sense. Writing is, at most, a sticky-sweet pleasure. Yes, it’s a thrill to see your name in print, but the process of getting there is slow, deliberate and decidedly unromantic. Think the opening graphs of Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh (“An American Childhood”) just flowed? Think again. Her drafts are full of “burns, bite marks, vomit, tears and blood,” she once told me. No, what I get from writing isn’t pleasure, but happiness, which I define differently. It makes me happy, by which I mean fulfilled, to use language, that very best of all of God’s gifts, to learn more about the lives of others and to pass on what lessons I glean. I write to learn, to understand and to share.
3. Do you have any complaints about the profession:
That muckraking, a noble component of the job, but only a component, has become sine qua non of the profession. Just as we journalists have an obligation to expose corruption and incompetence, we have an equal obligation to trumpet what works right, especially if virtue or reason has prevailed against the odds. This is not a defense of sentimentality. It is a recipe for good storytelling. Every good story, going back to the first story, to the Odyssey, needs tension, a problem to work through. Basically, that is the only requirement of a story If, in the end, there is a happy ending, so what, as long as the happy ending was earned. Every story should leave you sad or frustrated? The Odyssey has a happy ending. Does anyone think the Odyssey is a bad story? We are still talking about it more than a thousand years later.
4. You are a fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. What are you doing there?
Columbia J School, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, gave me a generous grant to study health and science reporting at the country’s best journalism school, and the only one in the Ivy League. I could not pass up this opportunity. Not everything in life, I have learned, is a linear progression. Wordsworth, my favorite poet, desperately wanted a narrative through line in his life, that his “days could be bound each to each by natural piety.” I no longer need this sense of unbroken continuity. I would have laughed if you had told this former English major that I would get a grant to study science journalism one day. But I have discovered, after writing about computer science at Carnegie Mellon and transplant surgery at UPMC, that science and health journalism can give a writer some of the best opportunities for human interest stories.
5. Lawyers and journalists both seek the truth and use facts to support their findings. As an employee in both fields, what other similarities do you see between to two professions? Differences?
I am a trial lawyer, and I can only speak to the points of contrast and continuity between journalism and litigation, a subspecialty in law that very few lawyers engage in. Trial law and journalism are complementary. If journalism is storytelling, trial law is competitive storytelling. But I had a mentor at my law firm, a Columbia grad named Efrem Grail who was once a news reporter himself, who taught me not to rely too heavily on storytelling skills in the courtroom, never to fall too much in love with language itself. A jury can hang on your every word, he taught me, and still find for the other side if you don’t have command of the facts.
6. After you complete your fellowship, what are the next steps for your writing career?
I am really hoping that, like fellow Pittsburgh native Howard Fineman, I will find a way to combine my trial skills and writing background into a media career that gives me a front row seat to the biggest events – and best stories – of our time.