Charles Bethea '00
Every time I come across something particularly interesting-particularly powerful online, it turns out Charles Bethea ’00 wrote it. From covering gun control in the south to the Alabama Senate race to training himself to run a sub-five-minute mile, everything Charles writes is intriguing. It was not enough then, to simply highlight his work or “share” his many story links on social media. In an age where journalists are challenged, and judged, arguably more than ever before, we want to know how Charles came to be where he is.
- When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
Not until a year or two after graduating college. I'd majored in English (with a poetry focus) at Brown and figured I'd go to law school like so many English majors
Photo: Maria Lioy
I'd hiked the Appalachian Trail during a semester off, so this seemed interesting: a job combining writing and the outdoors. I moved to New Mexico to take that gig in the fall of 2005 and I've been in the magazine world ever since. But it took a long time to feel like I'd earned the "journalist" badge. It felt aspirational for many years.
- Is there a teacher (or teachers) who you remember from Paideia who influenced your career?
Paul B. made us read the New York Times, I think, in his "Modern America" class. It didn't become a habit for me then, but it was a good idea. Clark Cloyd made a few positive comments on papers and class performance evaluations of mine that, in retrospect, helped me see that I had a particular aptitude for writing. Susan Percy was a terrific advisor when I was an editor of The Forum and has, in the years since, been a kind supporter and colleague in the Atlanta journalism world. I recall a rather chaotic newsroom environment when I was working on the school paper, and Susan helped corral our energies and push us to put out meaningful stories on occasion. I remember covering a powerful visit that Congressman John Lewis made to the school, which I turned into a Forum cover story. On the less serious side of things, I also wrote a piece about a benign prank that Nick Pedersen and I pulled one day—blasting music off the top of the Mother Goose after a Monday morning meeting—but omitted who the perpetrators had been. Paul Hayward pulled me into his office soon after, intrigued by the amount of detail the article had included. Either I was one hell of an investigative reporter, at age seventeen, or I'd been involved in the act. An early journalistic thrill.
- What published piece of yours are you most proud of? Why?
A couple come to mind. Last fall, I covered the Alabama senate race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore. I wrote at least a dozen stories for The New Yorker during the campaign. One, however, broke the news that Moore was a predatory presence at a Gadsden Mall decades ago. This made national news and—who knows—may have helped tip the scales for Jones. The other is a long true crime narrative I wrote for Atlanta magazine, back when I was a contributor there, about a small town Georgia pastor who stole millions from his parishioners, lost it all, faked his death and then, eighteen months later, reappeared with a literally unbelievable story about where he'd been. It's been optioned for film, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm mostly proud of how I broke a very complex story, which many journalists were pursuing at the time, and made it into (I hope) a powerful read.
- As our outlets for journalism have changed over the past decade (print, online, social media etc.), how has your job changed?
Ten years ago, print was still king and most people dismissed blogs and web writing. Now the web dominates. As such, I've been asked to do more quick-turnaround news reporting for The New Yorker's web site. It's no longer considered a second tier venue. The editing and fact-checking are just as intensive and top-notch as they are for print. And the stories are, often, more timely than those in the magazine. So resources are being shifted to the web in a major way. I don't think the print editions of major publications, like the one I work for, are going to go away any time soon. But their collective readership is shifting online and the talent and money is going that direction, too. As cool as it is to hold a copy of The New Yorker in my hands, and see my name, I love being able to get my stories out to a big readership even more quickly online. Eight years ago, I'd wait months for a story of mine to appear in print. The web landscape is much more immediately gratifying.
- What message do you have for current Paideia students interested in journalism? Is that message different say than it would have been two years ago considering the current political climate?
Just as I was told to proceed with caution, I'd advise the same. Journalism is arguably more important now than ever, but it's also just as cutthroat and just as tough to make a living at it. I was a "successful" journalist—meaning, I was published regularly in magazines and papers people have heard of—long before I was able to make a sustainable living doing it. Additionally, there are now some very powerful people—I won't say who—calling journalists "enemies of the people," "sick and disgusting," et cetera. It's dispiriting and dead wrong. It's also a call to arms, or pencils. Despite the adversity, subscriptions to serious papers and magazines are up. I'd say journalists are currently winning. So I'd tell aspiring journalists: if you really want to write and report, and you have some budding talent and thick skin, and you don't have too much debt, or expensive tastes, and you're willing to work in the trenches and cover things like school board meetings for a few years, I'd be happy to talk in greater detail about this often interesting, exciting, even impactful life. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @charlesbethea.