Storytelling

A couple of weeks ago, I pointed you all to a story by the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Salopek as an example of kickass journalism still going on in this country. Fact is, there’s quite a few writers out there who deserve the multi-million-dollar paychecks and reps the TV pundits and the Krauthammers of the world get. Sharon Cohen of AP is another fave of mine, because she gets inside a story, tells you what it looks and sounds like in there, lets her subjects talk and stays the hell out of the way. Witness:

Farming is a risky business, especially in North Dakota.

Snow comes as late as April, frost as early as September. With 60-below wind chills and 100-degree heat, seed weevils and army worms, floods and droughts, low crop prices and high blood pressure – it’s enough to push farmers over the edge.

And it has.

One-fourth of North Dakota’s farms have disappeared in the last 20 years. About 30,300 remain.

At 59, Levon Nelson is a fifth-generation farmer who works the same fields his Norwegian ancestors homesteaded in 1872; he has been at it since he was a 7-year-old driving his grandpa’s tractor.

About a decade ago, Nelson was working as a financial consultant when some farmers facing foreclosure turned to him for help. With three decades of banking and farming under his belt, he was a natural.

Nelson began talking up their troubles over coffee and Danish pastry at a Wednesday prayer breakfast with nine men at a Lutheran church basement in the town of Mayville.

Nelson helped one farmer reduce his debts but he needed $75,000 for planting – and no bank would go near someone who still owed nearly $1 million.

Nelson approached the farmer’s lender. Their talks turned into a delicate minuet.

No, no, no, the lender said. Yes, yes, yes, Nelson replied.

They were getting nowhere.

“Then I said, ‘Will a million dollars in net worth be enough?”‘ Nelson recalls.

Two days later, five men from Mayville marched into the bank office. “We said, ‘We’re here to cosign the $75,000 loan,’ ” Nelson says. “All he could do was swallow and give us the papers.”

Speaking truth to power is perhaps the most important obligation of a journalist. But no less crucial to the health of our country is the continuation of our stories, the preserving of our way of life by those who seek out that which is about to disappear and write it all down so someone remembers it. Journalists do this, too. Cohen does it better than most.

A.