Beth Macy is the longtime families beat reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia. Since 1989, her reporting has won more than a dozen national awards, including two Casey medals for her projects on immigration and elderly care giving, several Society for Features Journalism awards, diversity writing honors from Columbia University, and a 2011 Associated Press Media Editors international reporting prize for a story about cholera in Haiti. She was a 2010 Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard.
Macy recently finished a year’s leave to write a book that grew out of “Picking Up the Pieces,” a 2012 Roanoke Times series examining the aftereffects of offshoring on the nearby factory town of Martinsville, Va. That series won the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ 2012 Best in Business Print-Feature award.
Her book, “Factory Man,” is a nonfiction narrative about the globalization of the American furniture industry — told through one third-generation factory owner’s battle to keep his Galax, Va., factory going. Scheduled to publish by Little, Brown and Company in June 2014, the book traces the development of furniture-making from rural Virginia to China to its current perch in Indonesia, where many of the workers who replaced America’s 300,000 laid-off furniture-makers now live. “Factory Man” recently won the J. Anthony Lukas Book-In-Progress Award.
Macy has taught journalism at Hollins University and published numerous freelance articles and essays, including for Oprah magazine, PARADE, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, American Journalism Review, Poynter Online, Salon and Garden & Gun. Her work has also been featured in the “Best Newspaper Writing” series, including an essay that outlines her approach to reporting on outsiders and underdogs: Report from the ground up, establish trust, be patient, find stories that tap into universal truths. Eat the posole. To do good journalism, be a human first.
A native of Urbana, Ohio, she has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in creative writing/English from Hollins University. She blogs about journalism, hiking and other passions at intrepidpapergirl.com.
Macy spoke by email with Talking Biz News about how she turned her feature story about the factory into the forthcoming book. What follows is an edited transcrip
How did the stories first come about for the Roanoke paper?
A photographer friend Jared Soares was undertaking an independent project to document the aftereffects of globalization in Martinsville, Va., which has long held records for the highest unemployment rate in the state. Jared and I were neighbors at the time, and we met for a drink to talk about a possible project. He showed me his work: gritty pictures of old textile mill conveyors-turned-food bank distribution devices, crumbling smokestacks, 50-something unemployed people biding their time in the middle of the afternoon.
He had funding lined up through a nonprofit, Equal Voice News. I talked to my editor at The Roanoke Times, Carole Tarrant, about us working together. Jared had loads of contacts among the marginalized and unemployed, and community activists. I did my own reporting, starting with some of his contacts. It was a true collaboration. A neighbor of mine who owns a furniture store mentioned that there was still one factory making furniture in Virginia and that, furthermore, the story of how he’d managed it was full of cunning, intrigue and – judging by the way he referred to his Chinese competitors (“the fucking Chi-Comms”) – some serious cowboy grit. When I heard there was a family saga involved, too, my story Spidey sense kicked into high gear. As my agent later put it, “Holy shit, Macy, you’ve found ‘Moneyball’ — with furniture!”
How much time did you spend reporting them?
The initial newspaper series took about six months, give or take. It was broken into three parts: a profile of John Bassett III, the main character in my book; a story about the racial/economic divide in Martinsville; and a hard look at Trade Adjustment Assistance, the government program that’s supposed to be the remedy for trade-displaced workers.
What was the hardest part about the reporting?
The race story, initially. Martinsville’s only an hour away from Roanoke, but it’s demographically and historically very different. The region had become an industrial powerhouse in the early 1900s, much of it propelled by the labor of sharecroppers and former slaves-turned-factory workers.
The city’s remedy for helping the displaced workers was to create a $152 million foundation called Harvest, but many of the people running it were the same people who ran or had connections to the factory owners, and Harvest was becoming a white-hot flashpoint for two very divergent groups: With most of the displaced whites in middle management now moved away, what remained was a majority minority community of largely unemployed or underemployed people, and wealthy former factory managers who now oversee marketing/offshoring/warehousing of made-in-Asia goods. Distrust, we soon learned, was rampant.
Why was this such an important story for the Roanoke region?
Martinsville and surrounding Henry County (home to the company towns of Bassett and Stanleytown, Va.) had lost nearly half its workforce over the past 15 years. The region is a microcosm of what globalization has wrought in small towns across America in places where the economy was largely dependent on one or two industries. What we found: increased crime (drug and property), huge increases in disability rolls, a declining tax base. Here it all is laid out for the reporter – in one rich-in-history place. But you have to bother to return there — over and over — after the factory-closing stories to grasp the slow burn. You also have to connect the dots from the corporate offices in, say, Bassett, to the booming suburbs of Surabaya, Indonesia, where much of that company’s furniture is now being made. It took me a long time to get my head around it.
How did you get people to talk to you so openly?
I went back to them over and over again — to the displaced line workers, to the retired middle managers (who now held less of a stake in affairs), and especially to the leery executives. I showed them I was in it for the long haul. I sat in broken-down trailers in snaky hollows, camped out in the Bassett Historical Center for weeks on end, bought fried pies and homemade pickles at the farmer’s market and generally inserted myself into what was going on. When the corporate execs initially refused to talk, I just kept asking — by phone, e-mail, and by talking to people around them who were passing on what I was trying to do — until, finally, they relented because they understood I was writing the damn book with or without their input.
I’m grateful they did because I think it’s a much better, more nuanced book with their input. “You know an awful lot about us,” Bassett Furniture CEO Rob Spilman said, when he finally allowed me to interview him in his office — a year after I’d started the book. When he described how the company had once used water from the adjacent Smith River to power the boilers in the factories, hell, I’d not only interviewed several of the old “boiler men” but I’d already had my own baptism in the Smith (a kayaking spill, in 42-degree river water: not recommended).
When did you start to think about expanding this into a book?
Probably the day I met John Bassett III, the black-sheep family member who’d dared take on China from the mountain hamlet of Galax, Va. I was immediately jazzed about the story’s potential – it had international heft and a slow-drawling badass for a main character — that I typed up my notes in my Galax hotel and e-mailed them to my editor that night.
What more reporting and writing did you need to do?
By the time my agent sent out the book proposal, I thought my reporting was about 50 percent complete. Ended up, it was more like 5 percent. I had the scaffolding, the outline and the narrative arc nailed. But understanding how exactly JBIII had kept his factory going – by taking on China in the Court of International Trade – that was a complex nest to untangle. Who were the characters in China who could bring that side of the story alive? How had the lawyers, lobbyists and mad-as-hell furniture retailers responded when he got duties assessed on the imported furniture? What did the business experts and economists think of what he’d done, and how did that dovetail with what the dislocated workers were saying?
I’m a feature writer, not a business reporter. Sometimes that hurt me; other times, it helped. I became a subscriber of The Economist; that was new!
How was writing for a newspaper different than writing a book?
Robert Caro has said that “time equals truth.” I had time to engender trust in reluctant interviewees, time to convince them that, Lord willin’ and the Smith River didn’t rise, I was in it for the long haul with or without their cooperation. I had time to witness globalization in the rice paddies and factories of Indonesia, time to check out the family stories too. Did John Bassett really end up in Galax because he’d been kicked out of the company he’d been born to inherit by power-hungry relatives? Was his departure provoked by a fistfight with his lifelong nemesis and brother-in-law? Did he really tip the ambulance driver $100 not to tell anyone what had transpired? Well, a friend who was reading Caro at the time suggested I track the ambulance driver down. (He’s 88 and, as I discovered to my delight, still making volunteer EMT calls on Fridays.)
How much did you rewrite and re-report what you had done for the newspaper?
Aside from one or two quotes and the overarching theme, there is no overlap between the two. The newspaper series is three separate snapshots of the issue. The book is a single narrative, driven by the story of one furniture family but held together by context and connective tissue that draws upon 110 years of industrial history in America and abroad.
Did you leave the newspaper to focus on the book?
I took 15 months away from the newspaper to focus solely on the book. Initially, I took a year, but the Lukas Prize allowed me to take a few more months away for reporting and revision. It also paid for my Asia trip, which I was about to have to charge to my home equity line.
What do you hope to accomplish with the book?
I hope the reader will come away from “Factory Man” with a deep understanding of why their furniture and other Asia-manufactured products cost a little bit less than they once did — and what that means for the 5 million Americans who used to make those products. I hope they’re entertained and inspired by my main character, an iconoclast multimillionaire who cares enough for the generations of workers who made his family rich that when others in his his industry were closing their factories, he dug in his heels and said, Oh hell no.
I hope the families impacted by all the job losses take some small comfort in seeing the full story of globalization told: That work meant something to them. I hope policy makers and business leaders reading it are inspired to compete in the global economy based on more than just the quick-hit bottom line.