Monday, August 06, 2007

How He Got That Story

Story of the Month Winner Stu Wong of the Brown Daily Herald describes how he got the interview with Reade Seligmann, the Duke University lacrosse player who was acquitted of raping an exotic dancer:

About two weeks before our summer issue deadline, one of my editors called me to ask me to track down Seligmann, who had committed to Brown in May.

I didn't know where to start (I figured his lawyer would never forward the request), so I called some of my old bosses at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where I interned last fall. One of them who had been following the case suggested KC Johnson's blog, Durham Wonderland. A history professor at Brooklyn College, Johnson had pretty much the most authoritative blog on the Duke case; he's actually co-authoring a book about it.

I e-mailed Johnson, asking if he would forward an interview request to Seligmann, which kindly he did. Seligmann e-mailed me back the same day from his work account, telling me that he would love to talk to the Brown paper. I e-mailed him back a day later, asking if I could have his phone number. He quickly e-mailed me back from his account at Bear Stearns, a New York investment bank, and asked for my number instead. So I gave him mine, and he e-mailed me again, telling me that he would call me that night, which he didn't.

I e-mailed him back the next day, asking to talk to him, and he said again that he would call me that night. But he didn't, and we again bounced e-mails back and forth for a week, until he stopped e-mailing for a few days.

So finally, the Tuesday before my Saturday deadline, I e-mailed him again, telling him I needed to talk to him before the weekend. He said again that he would call me that night, but he didn't. So finally on Thursday, I asked him if I could just drive down to New York that night and meet him at a cafe. He e-mailed me back, telling me that he had a company dinner in Times Square until 8 p.m., but he could meet me at 8:30. So I suggested the Times Square Starbucks, and he said it was good.

I have an internship at the Providence Journal, so I asked my editor if I could leave early since I was planning on work on Sunday anyway. I got off around 3 p.m. and drove straight to Brooklyn Heights, where I planned to spend the night with a friend. I got caught in rush hour, but somehow didn't manage to get lost and parked in Brooklyn around 7:45 p.m. I scribbled down all my notes in my notepad on the subway (totally prepared, I was not) and read some clips I printed from the New York Times. When I arrived at 8:20, he was already there.

I knew what he looked like from all the photos/mug shots in the paper. So I greeted him, got an iced tea and sat down.

To break the ice, we started talking about Brown. I feel that was the only reason I was able to get the interview — because we were going to be students at the same college. He had declined to give interviews with many media outlets. So I took advantage of what we had in common, and it turned out great because he had many questions about the university.

I really didn't need to prod him at all in my questioning. He is a talker, and he spoke freely about everything. The only things he wouldn't talk about was how he really felt toward Mike Nifong, the Duke case prosecutor, and the woman who accused him of rape. I prodded him on details about what he did when he found out he was accused, and especially about his arrest and his time in jail. I asked him what he did to pass the time in the cell, what he remembered doing, which got him to tell me about about reading the Spanish on the walls. Whenever he mentioned something interesting (about seeing his name on the Bloomberg ticker, for instance), I tried to get him to tell me every single detail: exactly where he was sitting, whom he was with, what was going through his mind, etc.

About the lead: When the lady who asked Seligmann for the psychic reading came up to our table, I was a little flustered at first, but Seligmann totally kept his cool. It was about a minute after she left our table when I realized, Holy shit! That's my lead. Then I looked around the Starbucks and finally found her, and scribble down notes about her appearance. It was a surreal, one-in-a-million perfect-interview experience, and I am just glad I was able to recognize its significance. (I have no idea how; I was pretty scatterbrained all day.)

So that's pretty much it. I interviewed Seligmann's mom the next day during my lunch period, which is where I got some more information about her. I was lucky enough to catch the Brown lacrosse coach, Lars Tiffany, Friday evening. I spent all day Saturday writing and I have to thank my editors — as well as my former editor at the Chronicle, Brad Wolverton, who took time off a vacation to look at it — for making it as polished as it could be.

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