‘It’s a Privilege To Be a Professional Writer’

Roger ShirleyBlog

Like a lot of great writers, The Tennessean’s David Plazas developed a love for writing as a child. “I was a very introverted, shy kid. At the time, writing was an outlet for me, and I loved creative writing.”

Still, Plazas – the Opinion and Engagement director for the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee and The Tennessean, where he serves as editorial writer, opinion columnist, Op-Ed editor and an editorial board member – never considered journalism for a career when he was younger.

The U.S.-born son of Colombian and Cuban immigrants was being guided by his parents to pick one of three professions: lawyer, doctor or engineer. “Since I loved writing, I thought law made the most sense for me.” But in college at Northwestern University, Plazas discovered journalism, much to his dad’s chagrin at the time – and he never looked back.

I sat down recently with Plazas, a Chicago native, and discussed a wide range of topics, from writing to the state of journalism, to his juggling ability in guiding the opinion pages of the newspaper. What follows is an abbreviated Q&A from our conversation.

(As abbreviated as it is, here’s my writer’s note: This is substantially longer than our usual MP&F Engage blogs, but Plazas is just too interesting to conform to the standard limitations.)

Plazas, center, moderates a panel discussion about health care access and Medicaid expansion with Gordon Bonnyman (left) of Tennessee Justice Center and Justin Owen (right) of Beacon Center of Tennessee during a Rotary Club of Nashville weekly meeting. (Photo courtesy of The Tennessean)

Tell me about your start in journalism.

My first job was in Southwest Florida at The News-Press in Fort Myers, which is a sister publication of The Tennessean. I started in May 2000, took the first job that would pay me to write. I had relatives in South Florida and I felt that, because I was leaving home for the first time, I wanted to have some kind of support base.

My first week on the job, there were three murders I had to cover. Eventually I got into the education beat, and became a schools reporter in one of the outlying counties there. Then I was promoted to the main office to cover the school district in Fort Myers.

It was a wonderful time. I was there for 14 years as a reporter and editor. For four of those years, I got to be a community weekly editor at the first Spanish-language weekly paper. And then I was recruited to be the opinion editor, which was very unusual, because opinion editors historically had been people who are at the end of their career and were given a plum assignment.

In my previous job as a community weekly editor, I was out in the public, organizing forums, going to events, really talking about what we did and then also doing high-level journalism at the same time. I told my boss at the time, “I’ve never been an editorial writer, I don’t know how to do that.” And she said, “We’ll teach you, but what you bring to this is a community engagement aspect that we need to build upon.” In 2006 that was extremely radical.

When did you first think, “Hey, I’m a good writer. This is something I can do.”? When did you first think about journalism as a career?

(When I was a kid), I was accepted into creative writing camp one summer, and I was really encouraged to do it. I did a mystery writing camp as well when I was a kid. So early on, there were mentors and teachers who saw something in me, they saw that I had some talent. I could write in a way that was a narrative way.

I decided to pursue pre-law at Northwestern because it involved a lot of writing, a lot of reading. I didn’t even think of journalism as a career because I thought, “I don’t know what that is.” I really didn’t know any journalists, with the exception of an aunt who got into television journalism. It seemed such a foreign profession to me. It wasn’t until I went to college where I started meeting journalists and started meeting journalism students. I went to study abroad in Spain, and I was doing a lot of writing in the field for free at the time for a local publication. I was encouraged by a mentor of mine who I was long-form pen pal writing with, who said, “You’ve got to go into writing. You can’t go to law school.”

I think, had it not been for teachers who really encouraged me and challenged me, I wouldn’t be a writer, a professional writer, today. I tell my colleagues, we take it for granted, what we do. But there are very few of us doing what we do in this country, in this world. It’s a privilege to be a writer, a professional writer.

What advice do you give writers, especially young writers?

I remember learning about the art of storytelling, the art of the interview. I tell a lot of students I mentor (that) you’ve got to read a lot. And you’ve got to have a lot of conversations. And every now and then you’re going to flub up a bit, but you’ve got to learn from those things and learn from other people’s style of writing.

Recently I’ve been fascinated by hip-hop music that challenges you. Hip-hop like Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, “DAMN,” and you have “Hamilton,” the musical, where you use language in a different way to convey ideas and shine a light on real topics. And it’s influenced a lot of my thinking about how I cover the city.

As an opinion writer, I’ve never been completely comfortable in writing my opinion. I’m a reporter first and foremost, and this is the one thing that I’m trying to influence the opinions staff to do, which is we have to do original reporting. Yes, we have a lot of great reporters, they’re doing great work, but we can’t just riff off of what they write. We need to know for sure, we need to do the interviews, we need to do the research, know the stats, and then we can insert our perspective so it will be an informed perspective and not just one that comes out of nowhere.

Tell me about your writing style, how you approach writing.

I have rejected many a draft after writing it and started anew. I think at the end, the question I have is how does this contribute to the conversation, and how is it original? What can I say that will be special that nobody else will have considered at that time in the way that I’m going to do it?

I do a lot of writing in my head. I’m a runner, so I do a lot of writing when I’m running and thinking about complex issues like affordable housing, urban issues, the mayor’s race, things that can be very esoteric. I’m asking myself what’s the best way to make it accessible?

There are different styles – I’ve talked to several of my colleagues who prefer narrative leads where you start in with a person – so-and-so was stuck in this terrible situation and this is the face of the opioid epidemic, or something like that.

That’s not necessarily my preference. As a writer, I find sometimes if it’s done well you can have a character drive a story, but I think the things that unite people’s concerns can sometimes drive the story too. So when I started writing about affordable housing, my lead effectively talked about the fact that Nashville is growing, yet people are feeling anxious about it. People can relate to that.

How do you balance your decisions on what gets into The Tennessean’s Perspective sections to create a diversity of viewpoints?

It’s challenging on numerous levels because sometimes there’s the stereotype that we’ll run anything that comes to us. That’s not true. We reject our fair share of things, but we get quite a few unsolicited submissions, and it’s a good problem to have. And oftentimes they are very well written.

The question is what do you elevate? So we have a four-pronged mission as an editorial board in The Tennessean. The first is to defend the First Amendment. The second is to give voices to the unheard. The third, essentially, is to stand for civility. And the final one is to welcome diverse voices. And that could be challenging, especially in this polarized environment where people on either side of the equation are saying, “We reject any argument that doesn’t agree with ours.”

A calling for us as journalists is to create a platform where people can converse and at least be exposed to ideas that challenge their world view or, at the very least, expose them to things that they might not have considered before.

Who is one of your favorite opinion writers?

Frank Bruni at the New York Times. I subscribe to his newsletter, and he is someone who I enjoy because he talks about cultural issues, but he can also talk about political issues, and he comes at it in a way that is not heavily partisan. He is an honest broker, and I think for me I’d like to emulate that more, because one of the frustrations throughout this Trump era that I have found is I have a coterie of progressive friends – not all, but some – who have become absolutely intolerant of anybody else’s right to say what they want. It’s alarming because we’re seeing the goal posts change when it comes to who gets to speak and who gets to be seen. And it’s all perspectives, and I get it, but sometimes we miss the opportunity to try and understand each other.