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NBC New York’s Jen Maxfield: Telling the Rest of the Story

Image via Columbia College Today

“Sometimes, I would even dream about some of the people I had interviewed on the stories. And, so through the years, I had the idea to write a book and put it all together and try to return to some of the stories.”

On July 6th, Merion West’s Celine Sleiman was joined by Jen Maxfield, an Emmy Award–winning reporter and anchor who has reported live from thousands of news events over her 22-year career. In addition to working at NBC New York, Mrs. Maxfield is an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In their conversation, Mrs. Maxfield discusses her new book More After the Breakin which she revisits ten memorable stories from her career as a television news reporter. Combining past interviews with Mrs. Maxfield’s own reflections, the book immerses readers in visceral, human struggles before aiming to inspire them by sharing their ultimate triumphs. In returning to find these people after so many years, More After the Break answers the ultimate question: What happened when the cameras stopped rolling? What is the rest of the story?

Jen, you’ve obviously been sharing stories for years as a journalist, but More After the Break is your first book. To begin, I wanted to ask: Where did it all start? What made you decide to revisit these stories—and through this specific medium of storytelling?

I had been thinking about a number of stories for many years after I actually first reported them on the news. Sometimes it might be when I read something about them, or perhaps I drove past the scene where I interviewed somebody. Sometimes, I would even dream about some of the people I had interviewed on the stories. And, so through the years, I had the idea to write a book and put it all together and try to return to some of the stories. This was not only to find out about what happened after I left the scene but also to take a deeper look—a behind the scenes look–at what it actually takes to get these stories on the news. I think people are accustomed to watching the news on TV or clicking on stories through their Twitter feed, but I felt that it would be interesting for the general public to understand what it’s like to do these interviews and to be with people on the best, the worst, the most chaotic, and the most tumultuous days of their lives.

To follow up on that, actually, I noticed in the first couple of chapters, you acknowledged a common criticism that journalists face–a criticism that you agreed with–which is the lack of follow up after a story has been aired. So, was this project intended to be an act against that? Was it something you’ve always wanted to undertake for that reason?

Where I report news in New York City, there are 20 million people in our viewing market, and it encompasses sections of three states; there is a tremendous amount of news to cover. New things are happening every day, and making sure we’re informing the public is an important mission in my work. But this idea of returning to other stories, of returning to people, and following up is simply not something that we have time to do because of the intense cycle of the daily news. What I enjoyed about writing the book and why I think it worked as a book–perhaps better than it might have worked on air–is because I was able to spend so much time with the families.

People opened up to me in this second round of reporting these stories and investigating what happened–people who did not want to speak with me the first time or who were not emotionally ready to speak with me then. So, even if you are familiar with the news stories that the book is based around, we’ve broken a lot of new ground in this book.

Speaking to that personal connection with the interviewees, you describe the need to dissociate and be objective when pursuing a story–moments when you had to set aside your guilt or unease. But you also mention moments when your ability to empathize with the interviewee is what made the story a success and what made the people you wrote about willing to speak to you again. So, having written this book, and having reconnected with those people whose stories had such an impact on your career, how would you elaborate on that relationship between the objective and the personal? Has your outlook on it changed at all?

I think that’s a really good question. And I think it speaks to the inherent tension of being a news reporter and interviewing people. On the one hand, I am an empathetic person, and I went into journalism because I really enjoy meeting new people, and I really feed off other people’s energy. So I enjoy sitting with people, listening to their stories, and having those conversations. And I think that’s what makes me a good journalist and a good interviewer. But, on the other hand, to continue doing this job, and to interview–as I write in the book, I’ve interviewed more than 10,000 people–day in and day out, year in and year out, I also do need some sort of distance between myself and the subject. At the end of the day, I serve the viewer. If I don’t get the story on the air by my deadline and tell an accurate, full picture story, then I have not done my job. I have not served the viewer. So those two factors are really the two parts of the whole, and I think that creates some tension.

Look, I’m an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, and I tell my students–as I write in the book–I’m a human being first and a journalist second. But the truth of it is, I don’t think those two things are in conflict most of the time. I think most of us went into journalism because we care about people, and we care about what’s going on in our community. We’re telling people’s stories. And, if you’re an empathetic person, you can tell their stories in a much better way. So, I think most of the time, those two things are really closely aligned, actually: being a good storyteller and being a good person.

Definitely. And speaking to that tension that you described between your responsibility as a storyteller and the risk of intruding on someone’s privacy [after a difficult event], did that tension also factor into which stories you chose to revisit? Or maybe even the ones you chose not to revisit?

I didn’t choose the stories all at once. I know that the book looks very organized now because it’s all laid out in chronological order, and it’s ten stories. But the way the book actually took shape was in a more organic way, where I would be writing one chapter and researching the next, and I did not have all ten stories lined up when I first started. The book took shape over time based on the stories that I was interested in pursuing more, the stories that I felt that I could get the right amount of information on and new information on, and, of course, whether or not families were willing to speak with me.

I think the common thread that runs through all of the stories is really the triumph of the human spirit, which is the spirit in which I wrote the book. A lot of these stories deal with people going through some really challenging situations. But I think the upshot of all of it is that they have emerged triumphant. Whether that means rebuilding after a natural disaster or finding happiness again after being the victim of a crime, I think the people who are featured in this book are amazing. I think they’re inspiring, and I hope that people who read the book feel a sense of optimism when they’re finished–that wow, these people went through a lot and they really have something to teach me about dealing with challenges in my life.

That’s perfect because I actually did want to ask you about that very prominent feeling of optimism that seems to connect the chapters, though they are separate stories. Even in the stories of great loss, like Darren Drake or Miranda Vargas, there was still that underlying optimism. So, was that the feeling that you’d intended to capture when choosing the stories, or did that message of endurance and faith build up naturally as you were writing it?

I am naturally an optimistic person. So, I’m sure that I put some of that into it. At the end of the day, we’re always asking, “What is this all for?” “What is the purpose of this?” And I’ve always felt a great sense of purpose and responsibility doing my work. I think some of that comes from my inherent optimism, where I feel like, yes, this terrible thing has happened, but maybe something will come out of it–maybe something positive will come out of it. And writing a book like this, where these events have happened years and, in some cases, decades prior, has given me and the subjects of the stories, the benefit of hindsight.

For example, in the case of the Paramus school bus crash, Zaina lost her best friend and her teacher. She survived the crash. She was ten years old. And now here we are, four years out, and she has spoken before Congress. She’s gone to the statehouse in Trenton, and school buses across the whole country are safer because of that child, because she stood up and advocated for bus safety reforms. Even someone like Corrine, Tiffany’s mom–nothing’s ever going to bring Tiffany back, but Corrine has found so much purpose in her life in supporting other parents who’ve lost children and in maintaining that love for her daughter by sharing it with other people.

So, I do think the benefit of hindsight, here, is that it’s not just people agreeing to do interviews on the day of a breaking news story; it’s that people can see the purpose behind putting that information out there to the public, and they can see everything that they have gained from that in the years after. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a new law; it could just be support from the community. So much about the local news is community based—like in chapter six, with Darren Drake’s parents. When the news of his death was out there for the public, they received a tremendous amount of support from the community, whether it was in their town or even nationwide–when the 9/11 parents went to visit them at Darren’s wake. So, I think, sometimes we open the door by sharing people’s stories. We open the door for the community to step in and support people.

You write in the conclusion that, as a news reporter, the goal of publicizing pain and grief is to evoke that kind of introspection in your audience. Do you feel that was also the intention here, or does More After the Break target a different kind of reaction? What do you hope that these particular stories, or rather the rest of the stories, will inspire in readers this time around?

I suppose that what I’m hoping is for readers not only to feel a sense of admiration for these people but also to take away some of their strength. Perhaps, even the very premise of the book– returning to stories–I hope that it makes readers think about reaching out to people in their own lives. Maybe it was a teacher they had that made a big impact on them, or maybe it was the doctor who helped them, or maybe it was the grocery store clerk who was always nice to them. There are so many people we interact with on a daily basis, and I hope that people think about the individuals in their lives who made a difference and reach out to them and return to some of their own stories.

I also think that personal quality is very much reflected in the narrative style. I know it’s based on past interviews, as well as your own recollection of events. And I remember you wrote at the very end that you were initially reluctant to insert yourself–your own reflections–into the narrative. Was it strange, as someone who’s used to asking all the questions, to approach these stories from that angle and to ask yourself what their influence on your life has been?

Yes, and I think that’s what I meant when I said I had to get outside my comfort zone. For so long, I had been directing questions at other people, and I was rarely the one being asked to answer them. There was something about the process of writing this book where in the beginning it did seem very awkward, and almost indulgent, to be writing my own reflections. My view is that whatever I’m feeling while reporting these news stories pales in comparison to what the families are experiencing. But then while writing the book and reflecting more about my role and my relationships with some of these people, I did feel it would be instructive for the reader to answer the question: “What was it like for me to sit with people on these days and to go knock on people’s doors?” “What was it like to be called out for a breaking news story and wonder if it were my kids who were impacted by it?” Again, the stories we put on the news…they’re less than two minutes long; there’s only so much we can tell you in that period of time. It just seems to me there’s more of a story behind the story to report here. And some of that is my story, too.

For sure, and I also wanted to ask about your own writing style and narration. Did you explore different ways of combining past and present, your voice and theirs, before finding the right format–the right rhythm? 

The parts of the writing itself that I found the most challenging were, number one, the last 22 years when I’ve been writing my news stories, I’ve always had the assistance of video. So, I am writing to pictures, and when you’re listening to my news report, you’re also seeing the picture. When writing a book I had to help you, the reader, create those images in your own mind. And that was a very different way of writing. So that was one of the challenges, and then the other challenge, of course, is dialogue. I don’t write dialogue on the news because I run sound bites. So I would say those two aspects of it were very different. Then, of course, there’s just the sheer volume of writing a book. A typical news story that airs on TV is about 250 to 300 words, and my book is 70,000 words. So it’s a very different process.

But the most common question people ask me about my book is whether I wrote it myself, which is a really curious question. The answer is: “Yes, I wrote my book myself.” I enjoyed writing my book myself. And I think it speaks to a larger misconception, which is that I’m not sure people always know I write my news stories myself. When you see me out, reporting on a story, and you hear the news piece that we put together, I’ve written that story. I’ve selected the sound bites, and my editor has put it together. I did really enjoy putting the book together. And, even more than the writing of it, I just enjoyed reconnecting with the families.

As far as having that kind of immersive narrative, in addition to speaking with the families, I also worked with two research assistants to find pieces of the puzzle that we just hadn’t had access to before. Whether that was filing Freedom of Information Act requests for legal documents, 911 calls, or court records–even having people who agreed to interview with me this time who didn’t before–that all contributed to, I hope, making you feel like you were there and making it feel very visceral.

On that subject, you said there were people who were willing to speak that weren’t before, but you also write that there were some people you were never able to reach. Did any of them reach out later on, or were there some stories that didn’t get that kind of closure?

That hasn’t happened yet. I’m wondering if that will happen once the book comes out. With the people I tried contacting, a few of them got back to me and said, “We’re not interested.” More often than not, I would be contacting people through social media, or through what I thought was their email address or what I thought might have been their phone number, and I just never heard back. So, I still don’t know if that was even the correct person. For obvious reasons, I had more trouble finding people from stories that I reported before social media existed. It started getting a lot easier from chapter three onward, but for the stories that I reported before 2010 it was just more challenging. Occasionally, someone might “friend me” after a story–like Corrine–and I would get some window into what was happening after I left. But, before social media, it was just harder to keep in touch with people after a story like that, and it’s harder to find them now.

And following the theme of time, I think the book touches a bit on this nostalgia for a golden age of journalism, for a pursuit that you describe as noble, and part of a greater, very human, storytelling tradition. I wanted to ask, do you think that that kind of storytelling–the kind that’s very face to face and on the ground–is slipping away from us, especially in this post-pandemic landscape where we’ve seen that stories will still be shared in spite of any distance?

No, and I actually don’t think I harken back to any golden age of journalism because I don’t believe that’s the case. If anything, we’re in it now. Everybody has a camera, more or less, on their phones; and the democratization of technology has allowed people to go live, to shoot video and broadcast video, and some of the gatekeepers have fallen away, which has its pluses and minuses. But if we’re in the business of telling people’s stories, I believe the greater access we have to more people is a good thing.

Again, I’m a journalism adjunct professor at Columbia, and what I see from my students is that they’re very engaged. They’re very interested in covering news. They’ve grown up on camera, right? They have YouTube, they’ve been doing FaceTimes; they’re very familiar with how to be on camera or, at a minimum, how to operate a cellphone camera, which we certainly weren’t when I was there in 1999. And I believe that today’s young journalists are very motivated and ready to tell authentic stories. I really believe that people are engaged, and it’s just a matter of being able to shape the stories: to tell the stories in a way that captures the imagination and works with the new delivery methods. I mean, people are getting their news now on TikTok, so we need to adjust and meet people where they are but still make sure that the public is informed about issues that are important.

That’s a really promising outlook, and I think we’d all like to agree. So Jen, just before we wrap up, I’d like to circle back to the writing process. You said how much you enjoyed it, and I’m sure it was a refreshing change of pace, despite the challenge; so, can we expect more books from you in the future?

That’s hard for me to commit to right now since this one hasn’t even come out yet. But I will say that these were certainly not the only ten news stories that I was thinking about. And, I feel so good about the way the book turned out, about the response that it’s getting, and everything that I hoped people would get out of it when I was alone, doing the very solitary pursuit of writing it. It does make me interested in seeing what comes next. But, for now, I’m very focused on this one, and I’m so grateful, like I said, that you took the time to engage and to read the book and then to interview me about it. So thank you so much.

Of course, it was our pleasure

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