Anne Hull: A Day in the Life

words by Suzanne Merkelson '09, photographs by Beth Cole '09

Anne Hull is working on a big story. She guards the details, only telling me about them because I promise to keep quiet. The American drama that is this particular story must be kept secret until it is thoroughly reported, thoroughly investigated. Hull says she can only discover the truth of a story once she starts writing it; at this point, she’s “dropped off in the middle and is hacking [her] way out.”

Hull is one of the Washington Post’s top reporters. She knows that stories can change laws and lives; but they require commitment, time and perseverance—qualities which earned her a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. While she says that as a national correspondent with “some responsibility to work off the news,” Hull’s stories tend to be about the marginalized in American society.

Anne Hull shows Suzanne Merkelson famous front pages from The Washington Post's history including her Pulitzer prize-winning story on the Walter Reed Medical Center.
Anne Hull shows Suzanne Merkelson famous front pages from The Washington Post's history including her Pulitzer prize-winning story on the Walter Reed Medical Center.
The Washington Post newsroom
The Washington Post newsroom
Anne Hull at her desk
Anne Hull at her desk
Ms. Hull explains that she gets most of her news online.
Ms. Hull explains that she gets most of her news online.
Ms. Hull keeps pictures in her office of past story subjects.
Ms. Hull keeps pictures in her office of past story subjects.
Ms. Hull showed us a chart that she used to recognize different military personnel while undercover at Walter Reed.
Ms. Hull showed us a chart that she used to recognize different military personnel while undercover at Walter Reed.
Anne Hull speaking with her editor, Liz Spayd, about her next story.
Anne Hull speaking with her editor, Liz Spayd, about her next story.
Ms. Hull shows us a Pulitzer prize-winning picture.
Ms. Hull shows us a Pulitzer prize-winning picture.
Fifth floor newsroom
Fifth floor newsroom
Outside of the Washington Post Building
Outside of the Washington Post Building
Hull and colleague, Dana Priest, won the nation’s top journalism award for a series of articles exposing the atrocious health care Iraq and Afghanistan veterans received at Walter Reed Medical Center. Hull is also the most recent recipient of Colby’s Lovejoy Award, which commemorates courageous journalism in the tradition of Elijah Parish Lovejoy. An 1826 Colby alum, Lovejoy was shot in 1837 after refusing to stop writing anti-slavery editorials. He was the nation’s first journalist to die defending the freedom of the press.

On this April morning, as I visit Hull’s workplace—the storied Washington Post—I reflect on Lovejoy and Hull and their commitment to tell stories that matter, and whether those types of stories will continue on in the future.

I also can’t help but lament my own future: Print media is dying and I’m never going to get a job as an old-school journalist. Despite numerous newspaper closings and bankruptcies nationwide, the Post is still around.  It’s still committed to exposing society’s wrongs; there are still journalists like Hull, who continue to write about the neglected and forgotten.

I push my dark thoughts aside, as Hull greets my roommate and talented Colby photographer, Beth Cole, and me at the Post’s front door. Hull ushers us into a typical office building atrium, into an elevator and up to the fifth floor, which houses the news operation. “It’s cheap and tacky as an insurance agency,” she said. “But that’s how newsrooms are.”

But when we walk down the aisles of cubicles, I’m in awe. Sure, the place is a mess and it’s not particularly high-tech. Each desk is home to a computer and endless stacks of paper. Newspapers sit piled on the ground and cardboard boxes are everywhere (One, I notice, is labeled “Boy Scouts.” I don’t ask about the details.). Blown-up photos of Hillary Clinton and the pope line the walls, along with a map of the U.S. A big, yet plain clock hangs from the ceiling opposite a TV that silently projects CNN’s broadcasts. Each cubicle is draped in journalist “flair”—article clippings, photos, messily arranged piles of papers.

News is everywhere.

So are Woodward and Bernstein. That’s Bob and Carl. At least, I’d like to think they’re everywhere. They’ve been my heroes since I first saw All the President’s Men in eighth grade and I decided I wanted to be a journalist. To me, that’s what journalism is, what it should be. Hunting down the details of a story to find the truth. Eventually, ideally, that truth would lead to something like Watergate, corrupt politicians would be kicked out of office and I’d end up rich and famous with a lucrative book deal. At least, that’s how my fairy tale goes.

The same vision seems to exist for the reporters in the newsroom. This place reeks of historical importance and of a devotion to the printed truth.

The Post is about to merge its online and print divisions, Hull tells us as we walk down past the National desk and the Metro section. Traditionally, the two divisions of the paper have been physically separated, with the online branch of the Post located in Arlington, Virginia. This is to protect the growing, newer web division, so “old heads don’t infect the new way of thinking,” Hull explained.

We reach Hull ’s desk. “This is my ‘pod,’” she said, introducing us to David, Christian and Bob. “We share snacks and friendship…They’re my people.”

Across the aisle is “the famous” Walter Pincus (I soon learn that everyone here is “the famous”). Pincus covers national security and is legendary. Hull tells us that he just cleaned his desk—if that’s true, I can’t begin to imagine what it looked like before. It’s covered in endless stacks of paper…I don’t think the term “controlled chaos” even applies here. “The fire marshal made him [clean] it,” she said. “Usually, you can’t see his keyboard.”

Desks are important here; they reflect a reporter’s passions and quirks. Hull ’s desk is cluttered mostly with memorabilia and the occasional practical item, like a thesaurus. She points out a New Yorker carton from the Walter Reed story. “I grew up reading the New Yorker. It was really cool to see this.” She shows us a poster detailing military rankings and their associated brass insignia. The information came in handy while investigating Walter Reed. Hull needed to tour the 110-acre facility undetected, and her insignia poster helped her discern the difference between a corporal and a colonel. Surrounding her desk, there are also photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Katherine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period; a card noting the grave location in Newark, New Jersey’s Fairmount Cemetery for Shakia Gunn, a young lesbian who was murdered and one of the subjects in Hull ’s “Young and Gay” series.

There are gym clothes stashed under the desk. An old-school clunky landline phone, the kind Woodward and Bernstein use in the movie, sits next to her Blackberry— a metaphor, perhaps, for the collision between the media’s past and future technologies. She shows us a Road Atlas, frayed and folded from years of use. “This has been the Bible for a few years,” she says. “Most of my stories are out on the road.”

Hull sits at her desk on this day reviewing her notes and checking e-mail. Like most of her stories, this one will take weeks to report and write. She has just spent the past few days on the road, researching and interviewing sources. (She shared the details of the article with us, but only under the stipulation that we keep our mouths shut about it. The story sounds compelling, but then most of Hull’s stories usually are.)

“Normally, I get to take my time on stories,” she says. “It’s a diminishing luxury in this day and age.”

Though we’ve visited the Post to document a typical day in Hull’s life, we soon learn that there is no such thing. Hull spends most of her day checking e-mail and different news websites—the New York Review of Books, the BBC, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and of course, the Post. Hull ’s aware of the irony of her online habits. “I get the Post at home, but I read the news online usually before it comes out in print. So I’m part of the problem,” she smiles.

“The energy here is different than a year ago,” Hull said, referring to an awareness of the demise of the print newspaper. There’s some anxiety and less job security, a realization that the industry is in trouble. So far, the Post has been able to rely on its more lucrative subsidiaries, like Kaplan, that are doing better. “It’s suffered less than other papers,” Hull says. There have been no lay-offs; instead the company has done three or four rounds of voluntary buyouts for people over 50.

The Post has a “real commitment to excellence,” Hull says. But it’s losing money and needs some sort of turnaround to continue this historical commitment, the kind of investigative, in-depth journalism practiced by Hull, and Woodward and Bernstein. In recent years, Hull has witnessed a “bygone sense of camaraderie” among her coworkers. There used to be a greater spirit of “going out and telling American stories.”

“The spirit is diminished,” she said. “We need a place for the kind of stories we tell.” Right now, the internet doesn’t seem to be that place.

That’s different from when Hull first started. She “grew up in a newsroom” working summers doing copyediting at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. She too was influenced by Watergate, and says the Times did a similar kind of journalism. She worked her way up from the obituaries and weather until she eventually became a national correspondent.

At one point, we meet with Liz Spayd, the Post’s new managing editor, the first woman to hold this position. Hull talks about the story she’s been working on and Beth and I soak in the scene. Liz’s office is along the North wall, where Hull tells us all the important people work. It doesn’t look like a newspaper editor’s office, but Liz doesn’t look like a typical newspaper editor.

She’s almost too cool. “What other editor has Patti Smith [posters] on her wall?” Hull asks us. “The kind that wears jeans to work.” A helmet with fake blood designs sits on the desk. Both Hull and Spayd ride their bikes to work. The office itself is beautiful. Big windows let the light pour in and her desk is actually neat, unlike the reporters in the cubicles outside. Shelves of books line the wall behind her big desk. Underneath them rests a black and white poster of the young Bob Dylan. Four white daisies sit in a vase on her desk. A “Girls Rock” bumper sticker is stuck to the wall. Katherine Graham would be pleased with the moment’s arrangement, I think.

Spayd gives Hull some advice for moving forward with her story. Hull seems both frustrated and excited about the story. She’s been “pounding the pavement” trying to find the right angle, the right subjects. Hulls spends most of her time researching “figuring out the story” and finding a “navigator” to take her through whatever particular world she happens to be exploring.

Hull acknowledges that her brand of journalism is pretty unique. “Most journalists are looking down on the world,” she says. “This is the inverse…it’s seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.”

Hull takes us on a tour of the rest of the building. We visit the photo department, design, Style and Features and the sports section. Hull has an easygoing camaraderie with her coworkers, yet certain kinds of whispers pervade. One woman we meet has just accepted a job teaching at a university, for example.

We chat a bit more about the particulars of journalism. We agree that objectivity might actually be impossible to achieve. Hull navigates this patiently, persistently, spending time with her subjects and seeing how the issues bear down on their lives. The best you can do, she advises me, is to “hope to get to the truth of someone’s experience.”

Journalism is supposed to be black and white, she says, “but life isn’t black and white.” This insight is part of what makes Hull’s storytelling special. “The [journalists] whom I admire the most dwell in the gray and have a strong sense of justice without lecturing their readers.”

As we sit down to do a more formal interview, Hull looks out of the cubicle, excitedly. “That’s Bob Woodward,” she says, pointing down the aisle. We’re both momentarily starstruck. “It’s hard to work at the Post and not feel that,” she acknowledges.

We also get to meet Dana Priest, Hull ’s co-writer on the Walter Reed series. The story is still on the agenda. Hull gets phone calls and emails from soldiers across the country; the Post is a place for them to go with their complaints. While Hull ’s able to offer a sympathetic ear, she hasn’t been able to continue reporting. Hull and Dana talk about Walter Reed everyday, even though the pair hasn’t written about the military hospital in a year. They like to keep on top of their story, and it is hard to let go of the veterans who trusted these two reporters to expose their anger and frustration with a medical center that failed to care for its wounded soldiers.

A picture of one veteran interviewed for the story remains tacked to Hull ’s cubicle, a connection to a series of articles that outraged the country, prompted government investigations and resulted in better medical treatment for veterans.

The photo is of Garth Stewart, an infantryman who stepped on a mortar and lost a leg. The image captures Stewart legless, in the spotlight. “We’ve kept in touch and became friends,” Hull said. “Can you imagine throwing a picture like that away?” she asks, tenderly posting the picture back on her cubicle wall.