Originally, it was not about journalism.
Writing was just a side gig, something to pass the time while Vann Newkirk II worked to get his master’s degree in Public Health in Health Policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Now, he is one of The Atlantic’s staff reporters covering health and politics — the bachelor’s degree in biology and analyses knowledge don’t hurt, though.
“I’m never going to say I’m an expert on anything but healthcare,” Newkirk said. “For things like voting rights, for things like covering a race or like environmental justice, the most important part of the job is to report, to interview people. To not just write their quotes down, but to absorb their expertise.”
In May 2017, Newkirk published “The Poisoned Generation” as part of The Atlantic’s Beyond Diversity Project, one that explores how a “multi-ethnic society navigate(s) the tensions between identity and assimilation.” The project is supported by the Open Society Foundation.
“There’s no real sort of mandate whenever we have a special project that we cover certain stories a certain way,” Newkirk said. “Usually I’m working on one feature every quarter or so…but I was able to take this problem, which was lead poisoning…for some reason, all the different threads seemed to connect to New Orleans.”
Newkirk started with lead poisoning, a subject he covered at the Daily Kos, a self-described “news organization, community and activist hub.”
The cases led him to the obituary of one of the lead plaintiffs of a lawsuit, Marcel Coleman. After going through funeral homes, he found contact for his lawyer who represented Coleman’s mother in court, Dion Coleman. Newkirk spoke with the family and they asked to not be used in the story. He spoke with their lawyer who pointed him in the direction of Casey Billieson.
“The difficult thing with this story was the fact that so many people after Katrina left the area, so finding people in, or near, New Orleans that I could speak to or photograph…that was difficult,” Newkirk said. “Casey Billieson was one of the few who was still there and who was very interested in telling her story. This is a difficult story to tell, a lot of people just didn’t want to say anything. And a lots of people were still in litigation trying to handle the last bits of legal stuff, getting their money. … She ended up as being the perfect person, the perfect vessel for the story, and I guess that’s why she ended up being the lead plaintiff on the story.”
Newkirk begins the story with Billieson’s story, her sons growing up in the Lafitte housing project in Treme outside of New Orleans. He wrote about how they grew up and later had troubles in school.
“If there’s any connection I can make to a person, whether it be being from the south, too, a sports team….you build a connection any way you can. That’s important because it’s not just a cynical ploy to get them on paper — they have to understand you were there not to railroad them, not to turn them into police, not to exploit their story.”
The feature is broken up into sections, starting with Billieson and moving to Gary Gambel, more victims to the lead poisoning and science behind the lead. Newkirk said he arranged the story this way in so he could introduce a character within each part.
“Yu get people the variety a feature demands you tie them to the story,” Newkirk said. “You want to have a sense of time, a sense of place, you want a narrative arc. … I looked at pieces of feature writing I liked and mirrored it.”
Newkirk said he went through an estimated 600 pages of courthouse paperwork and spoke with about 96 people for the story. He used a story web to keep it all straight.
“I plot out every single significant event, every single significant place, every entity and every person,” Newkirk said. “I had something in the order of 96 people. … If you’re reporting for something full time for a couple months, you talk to 10 to 20 people everyday.”
After sitting down to write after months of research and interviews in Louisiana, Newkirk ended up with an internal draft of 17,000 words. After intense editing, though, the final publication was around 7,000.
“You have to decide a focus,” Newkirk said. “With features, even though you can luxuriate a little bit, you get to go long, you still want to have a good narrative focus that keeps people in the story and keeps them looking at your pages.”