Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Renee Peck was interviewed by Talia Abed. Talia and Renee discussed Renee’s work as a journalist and editor at the Times-Picayune and how that led her to co-creating the arts and culture publication, NolaVie.
Who: Renee Peck
What: Editor of ViaNolaVie, former feature writer and editor at The Times-Picayune
In her own words: “People tell me things all the time they shouldn’t. And I’ll be like, you know, I’m writing all this down and recording it; you probably shouldn’t be telling me about your first divorce.”
What are the themes that tend to draw you to a story and what do you make of these topics’ relations to your own experiences?
I’m a feature writer, which means that I write soft news, as we call it in the business, which is more lifestyle than it is hard news events. I don’t do crime and politics and sports per se; I tend to tell stories from the personal viewpoint. And I love that because every social justice issue, every event, and every political issue has faces to it. I try to tell my stories from the viewpoint of the people behind it and the lives that are changed by it, and I feel like that comes back into my own life by giving me not only personal insight into other peoples’ concerns and wishes and experiences, but it also helps me inform my own life as well. It’s all good grist for the mill when you go out and let people tell their stories, and you cover things from a personal viewpoint, from a human viewpoint, rather than from a sociological or chronological viewpoint of an event.
When following your subjects, how do you take notes? Are there ways journalists can be too invasive when gathering information?
You know, it’s interesting, I was just thinking that you do exactly what I do, and that is take handwritten notes. Sometimes I record, but often I do not. I do radio pieces and those pieces obviously are recorded, and I transcribe those pieces. At The Times Picayune where I worked, we used to record people on the telephone, and you’re supposed to tell people when you do that but don’t always, and that to me is invasive.
I find that the time spent on transcribing interviews is counterproductive for me. I take notes the old-fashioned way; I have developed over 40 years my own shorthand. I take my own notes, and then I come back and read through my notes. Sometimes I transcribe my notes, and sometimes I go through and just pull the quotes I know I want to use, and then I put those into a rough format, and then I write from that.
I don’t think that I do anything invasive because everything I do you can see, and it’s right there. I don’t record without permission. But it’s funny, Talia, the world is weird when you interview people… even when you sit there and you write down, you record, you ask, then people see things in the paper and they’re like, ‘Wait I didn’t know you were going to use that.’ I’m very careful to let people know. And people tell me things all the time they shouldn’t. And I’ll be like, you know, I’m writing all this down and recording it; you probably shouldn’t be telling me about your first divorce.
Do you find it’s hard to get the exact quote down if you’re not recording?
Yes, I do. What I have found, and one of the things I tell students when I teach journalism or when I talk to students, is don’t paraphrase the whole thing — you need to use quotes. A lot of times when my quotes are still fresh—I have a pretty good shorthand system— I do go back through them and flesh out everything I’m not sure I’ll use, or write out words I abbreviated just to make sure it’s clear. And I will say that in 40 years of doing this, I have never been accused of misquoting… I find if I say what you say and get a ‘b’ or an ‘a’ or whatever off, nobody cares. You have to be pretty careful, but unless you record it and listen to the recording, you’re not going to remember what you said to me word for word. I’m not condoning not getting exact quotes right, but by the same token, I’ve had people who have done all the ‘uhs’ and all the ‘buts’ and the ‘whatever’s,’ and I think there’s some judicial editing that goes into writing quotes; you don’t want people to look stupid. You don’t want to make them look stupid.
Do you feel like it got easier to start writing things down during interviews as time went on and you were doing it for longer?
Absolutely, I do that with people. I stop and finish it; usually people don’t mind it. Generally, it gives them a little time to collect their thoughts. Also, you’ll find that if you do this a lot you’ll kind of invent your own shorthand. You know, I haven’t spelled out the word painting in one hundred years; it’s “ptg,” and I know that’s painting.
I took one journalism class before this one and we learned all about how there is the ethical part of having to quote word for word but at the same time if someone is saying “um” twelve times, you don’t need that.
You know, this came home to me early in my career, I interviewed Aaron Neville. He’s one of the Neville brothers and he’s a well-known musician, and he’s from New Orleans, and you know how New Orleans has all these different accents. So, I went to interview him, and I was writing down what we were saying, and he stopped and he said, ‘You’re writing all this down,’ and I said, ‘yeah.’ He goes, ‘How are you going to put it in print?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, are you going to spell it correctly or are you going to spell it the way I pronounce it?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to spell it correctly.’ Because all of us say ‘wanna,’ but we mean ‘want to.’ And he goes, ‘Okay, because the last time somebody interviewed me, they spelled everything the way it sounded and it came out with this accent — you know how they do dialectic dialogue—with the gonna’s and the wanna’s. And it made me look stupid.’ And I said, ‘I don’t do that.’ Even if I’m quoting a Frenchman, I’m probably going to say ‘the’ instead of ‘ze.’ It’s like anything else, Talia, you have to walk a good line between responsibility and doing your job professionally and well, but not going so overboard that you put in every ellipsis and pause… you know, it’s common sense. Where did people lose common sense?
Great question. How do you define “alternative” and how do you see your work fitting (or not fitting) your definition?
I’m a legacy journalist, which means that I have been a journalist for 40 years, and I started back when it was only print journalism and digital journalism had not yet been invented. And alternative journalism at that point meant anything that was not daily, traditional news…it was anything that was skewed more toward lifestyle and entertainment and less than daily. In the digital context, I think alternative has come to mean marginal and marginalized populations. So, an alternative publication will be for the LGBTQ+ population or maybe for the Latin population or maybe autistic people. It has come to be a narrower definition than it used to be. It’s no longer you have a daily paper that lands on your doorstep. Traditional or legacy journalism has broadened at the same time that alternative journalism has shrunk in meaning.
So then do you feel if you’re not a minority you can still write alternative journalism?
Yes, but can there be alternative journalism politically, socially? Yeah, I think so. Is Breitbart News alternative journalism? Probably. I mean, it’s a far-right wing targeted niche audience, so in that respect it’s alternative journalism, yes. Is alternative journalism anything with a bias or a specific viewpoint? Doesn’t all news have bias these days? I don’t know if there is any news that doesn’t have bias, whether it’s CNN or Fox. So, in that respect, those are alternative journalism streams because they have an editorial viewpoint, which I was taught you should never have. Alternative would be an alternative to the traditional straightforward, non-bias, non-viewpoint journalism, which is kind of rare these days.
Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
I think bad things happen to all people, and good things happen to all people, and that we tend as a human creature to pay attention to the bad things or the good things because they stand out. I don’t think that bad things only happen to good people, but I think when they do happen to good people you notice them more. Having said that, I also believe that the universe operates according to natural laws, and although I do believe in a deity, I don’t think it’s a deity that goes in and makes it rain or stop raining based on what I want or you want. I think that the natural laws of science and evolution and geography cause bad things to happen, whether it’s Katrina, or a tsunami, or you getting hit by lightning tomorrow. I hope you don’t.
I appreciate that.
I think there is a randomness to it — that bad things just happen, and sometimes that’s going to be to good people, but I also think it’s part of the human perception that we make those events newsworthy.
Did you ever feel like quitting journalism? If so, why?
I never felt like quitting journalism for journalism’s sake. I was ready to get out of the traditional legacy news print business in 2009 when I did because of all of the changes in the industry. As news delivery went digital, it changed the way things were done, and I have no problem with that — I run a digital magazine. But the way it was done was not with a lot of sympathy or understanding of the audience. The Times Picayune went digital and dropped to three days a week in a pretty arrogant manner, without the right message to the people that it cared about them and wanted them to come along. So, I was disenchanted with the way newspapers were being run, but I was never disenchanted with journalism itself; I’m still in love.
Do you feel humor is essential for good journalism?
Based on what you’ve written, I assumed yes. Do you mind elaborating a little?
Obviously journalism is a broad field, and when you’re covering a car wreck or carjacking, there is no room in there for humor. I think good, traditional journalism does not incorporate humor. And I think that hard news reporting has suffered somewhat from a trend toward personalizing, editorializing, making the news more conversational. People don’t do the old fashioned, ‘who what why where when’ lead and just get the facts; they try to do some entertaining lead, and they try to make something more literary than it needs to be.
I think sometimes writers misuse humor and try to make something entertaining that does not need to be. That being said, I feel like any journalism product that is soft news—that is, sports or lifestyle, for instance—can benefit from humor. The individual piece determines if it’s appropriate. Humor is not always appropriate, but where appropriate, it’s mandatory. It’s irreplaceable. Humor will take a good story and make it great. But humor used wrongly can wreak harm. You don’t want to have a funny story if somebody dies, you just don’t. Or use a clever twist of phrase.
What do you feel is the best article you ever wrote and the best article you ever read?
Just ask me what my favorite restaurant in New Orleans is, too, because I’m not going to answer that one either. It’s so funny, I’ve written so many stories over the years and I go back and sometimes I read them and I go ‘Oh, that’s better than I thought it was,’ or ‘Oh, that’s worse than I thought it was.’ One of my favorite stories: I wrote a column after Katrina about rebuilding, and I wrote a piece about how I discovered that there had been a squatter in my house as I was refinishing it, named Percy; he was coming in and sleeping at night with his girlfriend. And I wrote a column about Percy squatting in my house overnight; unbeknownst to me, and that got a lot of reaction. So that was one of the most popular, fun stories I ever wrote. I wrote a series on teen pregnancy back in the ‘80s that I was very proud of because it incorporated a lot of research and personal interviews into a problem that was not getting a lot of attention at the time. I felt that it was change-making, which is what you’re proud of. I’ve won awards for various stories, but I can’t say those were my best.
Probably the best thing I ever read, well there were two. They were both commencement speeches. One was by David Foster Wallace, called This Is Water, and he talked about being a goldfish and all this weird stuff, but it was just beautifully written. And then the other was by Elie Weisel … he did a commencement speech at Dartmouth about his time in a concentration camp and what it meant. The gist of the article was that what caused him to survive was not the will to live, but mutual respect of other people, which was a really powerful message. Those two pieces stick with me, but I’ve read lots of good pieces. My favorite journalist ever was Edwin Newman; you’ve probably never heard of him; he’s dead now. But he wrote a bunch of books on language and he was wonderful.
Do you speak other languages?
French. My junior year I studied in Paris.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.