Post writer Wil Haygood gives talks at Notre Dame

Written for Fundamentals of Journalism course, unpublished. 

Journalism, Wil Haygood said, is about shoe leather.

“You cannot do important journalism via the telephone,” said Haygood, a Washington Post journalist and author of six books. “You can’t. Shoe leather. Great journalism comes from shoe leather. Getting out, going to find people and knocking on doors. Because there’s somebody else not working as hard as you. That’s how you’re going to get that lead.”

Shoe leather, he said, propelled him to fame in 2008. Haygood, who assumed the 2014 journalist-in-residence position at Notre Dame this week and spoke to Dick Ciccone’s Fundamentals of Journalism class on Monday, said he had an inkling Barack Obama would win the presidential election. What if, he thought, he could find a black man who had worked in the White House before civil rights legislation passed, to illustrate how times had changed?

“I wanted somebody who lived and worked at the most powerful address in the world, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and they aren’t free,” Haygood said. “They aren’t totally free. And so I started looking. I didn’t think I would find anybody. I asked a lot of questions around town, made a lot of phone calls.”

Haygood said he combed the D.C. area looking for his subject. No luck. Then he got a call. A woman heard he was looking for a black White House employee, and her mother knew one. She gave him a name – Eugene Allen. Haygood grabbed a phone book. Dozens of Eugene Allens later, he found his man. Allen and his wife, Helene, agreed to be interviewed.

“I wouldn’t have gotten that story if I hadn’t ran around Washington and Maryland asking a lot of questions, tracking this man down,” Haygood said.

Haygood’s story, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” went “viral,” he said. It ran in newspapers around the world, and the story soon became a movie, The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.

Shoe leather, Haygood said, allowed him to find the most compelling stories, the most interesting people. Sometimes, however, those people were less than willing to talk to him. When Haygood wrote for the Boston Globe, he saw a blurb about Sgt. Matthew McKeon, a Marine recruiter who in 1956 led his men on a punishment march through a swamp. Six died. As the anniversary of the incident approached, Haygood wanted to write a profile of McKeon.

After McKeon, who had been court-martialed, declined on the phone to be interviewed, Haygood said he traveled to his hometown to introduce himself. McKeon still said no. Then Haygood asked him to talk about the Marines who had died. McKeon told Haygood to take out his notebook. He got the story.

“To get somebody to flip, to after they say no, then they say yes, that’s almost as huge a part of the enterprise of getting the story as writing,” Haygood said.

Before he wrote for the Post or the Globe, before he interviewed Frank Sinatra, Jr., got kidnapped in Somalia or watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison, before he wrote The Butler, three biographies or his autobiography, Haygood shoe-leathered in Charleston, W.Va. He was a copy editor at a local paper but ran around the city on his days off, writing stories for free. That caught the attention of the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who hired him as a writer.

Which goes to show, Haygood said –  to be a successful journalist, you had to stay on your feet, never take no for an answer and take advantage of every opportunity.

“If somebody cracks a door open, you got to kick it in,” he said. “You got to kick that damn door in and go.”

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