Maxine Bernstein was just getting home from a weekend of camping with her family when she turned on the local TV news channel.
She caught a snippet of an interview with a woman who said she had helped one of the victims of a violent stabbing on the MAX train in Portland, Oregon over the weekend.
Bernstein, a crime reporter for The Oregonian, saw her chance.
She tracked down the witness on Facebook and sent her a message around 11 p.m. that night. To the reporter’s surprise, Rachel Macy responded.
Macy turned out to be the key source to Bernstein’s in-depth follow-up story on the tragedy that shook the city of Portland in late May. With Macy’s first-hand account, a clearer picture began to emerge — that of a man yelling racial and anti-Muslim epithets at two teenage girls on the public transit system, the three innocent men who lost their lives when they stepped in to stop the harassment and a hero’s dying words spoken to a stranger providing comfort.
The story, “Portland MAX hero’s last words: ‘Tell everyone on this train I love them,’” remains one of the most shared stories of the year of Advance Publications, an umbrella company encompassing dozens of newspapers nationwide.
“This was a pretty significant incident that occurred,” Bernstein said. “The fact that people were killed on public transportation, not too late on a Friday night, who were heading home from work — that was pretty significant, so I think everyone wanted to find out as much information as possible as quickly as we could.”
Beyond the significance of the attack, Bernstein attributes the story’s success to the element of human connection.
“It was a tragedy, but there was a woman who did good and sacrificed…to help others,” Bernstein said. “And she was providing a first-hand account of it, so I think that just struck an emotional chord with people perhaps.”
The morning after making initial contact via Facebook, Bernstein called Macy to interview her for the specific details she wanted — what Macy saw and felt, where she and others were seated on the train, even what people were wearing.
“I’d say, ‘This will sounds like a silly question and I’m sorry, but I’m just trying to get an accurate account and picture of what occurred,’” Bernstein said. “And so that’s how I would preface some question that seemed completely silly to someone who’s not used to this.”
After an extensive interview, she hung up the phone and began writing, but called Macy back three or four times that morning to clarify certain details and fill in gaps.
“I think it’s important if you have questions — if there’s something missing or a gap — to find out, not just breeze over it,” Bernstein said.
After the back-and-forth with Macy and with her editors, the story was published in the early afternoon — less than a day’s work.
With over two decades of crime reporting under her belt, Bernstein said she has learned how to talk to sources who have just experienced a traumatic event. The key is listening, she said.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had to run into situations where people are at their worst — they’re suffering, they’re at the worst part of their lives — at the moment I’m showing up asking questions,” Bernstein said. “But I have recognized that a lot of people, you know, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s it’s somewhat cathartic talking about it and sharing what they saw and having someone listen.”
The reporter first got hooked on the police beat while covering a small town in Connecticut when she wrote a story exposing a police chief who sent his officers across the country to collect baseball cards for his personal collection. The chief resigned.
“From that point on, I enjoyed covering law enforcement,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein got her start in journalism when she served as her high school paper’s editor. In college, she majored in history and never took a course in journalism, but worked at the school’s student-run daily newspaper and spent summers interning at papers in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
She enjoyed the rush of covering news, and asking questions for stories helped push her outside of her comfort zone.
“(Journalism) kind of married my interest in writing with my curiosity about lots of different subjects,” Bernstein said.
After an unsuccessful job search post-graduation, she decided to volunteer at an army base in Israel, where she learned Hebrew and eventually got a job at an English-language daily newspaper in Jerusalem.
After another several months of traveling through Europe, Bernstein moved home and got a job at a Hartford paper’s Washington bureau covering the Connecticut congressional delegation.
Seven years in Hartford bouncing from beat to beat ended when a colleague offered her name for a job opening at the Oregonian, a paper she had never heard of at the time. She was offered the job after a two-day interview and called her dad to help make the decision.
“My dad said, ‘What do you have to lose? Go there, you can always come back after 2 years,’” Bernstein said. “And so I did, and I’ve been here for now 18 years.”
Throughout her career, Bernstein has learned the value of being persistent — in asking questions, hunting for sources and following up on stories.
“As a journalist you can’t be lazy,” Bernstein said. “If a door closes one time, there might be another opportunity. You just can’t be lazy, you got to keep trying everything that could potentially work, that’s all.”