Charlie LeDuff, 34, is a reporter for the New York Times. He started his journalism career at age 29, after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California. Part Native American, LeDuff was one of several reporters who worked at the New York Times series that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 2001. He spent one month working at a pork slaughterhouse in North Carolina.
JournalismJobs.com: Mr LeDuff, where did you get your start as a journalist?
Charlie LeDuff: TheNew York Times was my first newspaper job. I was an intern for three months at the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. That was my first publication-type job. But the first thing I ever wrote that got published? Well, my Russian friend in the Northeast got killed with alcohol. I just sort of wrote an obituary for the high school paper. And I wrote that and I think I wrote it pretty well. I felt good and I felt like, hey I’m smart enough. I can do this. That’s how I got started.
JournalismJobs.com: You’ve had a number of occupations before you became a reporter, right?
Charlie LeDuff: Oh yes, I worked as a school teacher and carpenter in Michigan and at a cannery in Alaska. I also worked as a baker in Denmark and as a bartender in Michigan, New York and Australia. you can see, quite varied and all over the world.
JournalismJobs.com: Why did you decide to go into journalism?
Charlie LeDuff: I was with some friends in New York and we were talking about what we were going to do and some guy mentioned he was going to journalism school and I thought that would be cool. And it turned out that my parents were proud of my decision, although they didn’t think I could earn a lot of money doing it.
JournalismJobs.com: Let’s turn to your article now. Why did you pick this slaughterhouse in North Carolina to write your story?
Charlie LeDuff: The editor wanted me to look somewhere in the southern United States. It’s the biggest slaughterhouse in the world. I got to this town and there were a lot of Natives there and that was good. A lot of Lumbee Indians.
JournalismJobs.com: When you went to the slaughterhouse to fill out an application to work, were you scared or thinking ‘what did I get myself into’?
Charlie LeDuff: What was I thinking? I was excited. I wanted the job. I didn’t know what was going on in there. The Times was going to let me actually work. … I thought… ‘I’m going to get into people’s lives. And I get to write about something important. I hope it’s interesting’, that was what I was thinking. I’m interested in who does the work.
JournalismJobs.com: What surprised you most about working at the plant?
Charlie LeDuff: Well,what surprised me the most was how mechanically people worked. People living by the hour, living three hours for the next 15-minute break and then three hours for the next 15-minute break. That’s how you live your life. The degree of numbness surprised me . The fact that there were so many Mexicans in the place surprised me. I didn’t know there were so many.
JournalismJobs.com: What sort of feedback have you received about the documentaries?
Charlie LeDuff: All kinds. Some people said “Thanks for doing that. Gee I didn’t know.” They were surprised and interested. Other people didn’t like them at all. I guess it was hard for them to accept the way things are in America. One thing is clear, though, it left nobody indifferent.
JournalismJobs.com: Some say the New York Times race series could win a Pulitzer. Do you thinkit’s worthy of a Pulitzer?
Charlie LeDuff: I couldn’t care less. If it does, that’s great. You know, this business is funny. It’s important to some people, so I hope we do. That would be nice. Is it important to me? Nah!
JournalismJobs.com: How does being part Native American affect your work as a journalist?
Charlie LeDuff: Either you are or you aren’t. I’ve got white blood, yes, but am I Indian, yeah. How does it affect my work? Well, who I am affect s my work. How I approach people. How I approach elders. Being honest. Trying to stand up if someone isn’t happy with you, you know, face to face. I went down there for another reason. I was attracted to it because it was Indian country. I’m looking to write about Native people, but it’s hard when you’re in New York. It gives me an outlook. It’s me, the person and the way I’m raised. It just affects me because that’s the way that I am.
JournalismJobs.com: Thank for your time, Charlie and congratulations on your work!