Courtney Mabeus is a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Her beat is the military. She previously worked at newspapers in Frederick, Maryland, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Mabeus has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. In this interview, conducted by email, Mabeus discusses the military beat and her recent trip to Puerto Rico, where she reported on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?
A. I cover the military, which likes to report to work early, an idea that seems to be anathema to most of us in the journalism world. Seriously though, my days are generally pretty close to 9-5 as they can get, with some variations.
We’ve got every branch of the services here in Hampton Roads, but the Navy takes up the biggest chunk of my time because of Norfolk Naval Station. The naval station is the largest in the world, but in the post-9/11 world you can’t just drive on, so a lot of my in-office time is spent working the phones, coordinating interviews, talking with NGOs, think-tanks, etc.
I also cover veterans, and Virginia has one of the largest populations of former service members. I read of lot of national and other local coverage, to try to distill things down to the local level or just have a better idea of the bigger issues.
I’m also in a market that’s competitive with smaller, local papers, military-related trade publications and television, so sometimes, you’ve got to hustle. As an example, it’s 10 p.m. and I just got home from filing a 35-inch story that resulted from a 400+ page waste, fraud and abuse investigation that I got through FOIA. It arrived in my inbox at 3 p.m.
Q. What makes the military beat different from others?
A. The military speaks its own language and has its own culture, but, that said, the services are a microcosm of our larger society. Each service is different, too, and has its own traditions.
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just drive on a base to talk to those you need. You’ve got to source harder, dig deeper and FOIA a lot. Few people these days serve, too, which means fewer people understand the important role our military performs at home and internationally.
Also, you don’t get to get underway on aircraft carriers or ride on Army Black Hawks when you’re covering a city council (no offense to those reporters, as I know several who thrive from covering politics and do a darn good job of it).
Q. You recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, covering the recovery efforts after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria. What was that experience like?
A. Virginian-Pilot photographer Stephen Katz and I flew in commercial to San Juan on Oct. 2, so we arrived a little less than two weeks after the storm. The airport was sweltering and full of people trying to leave, so that’s what we walked in to: chaos. It pretty much remained that way for the entire time.
Some places relied on generators, but most were without electricity. Communication was nearly non-existent in places outside San Juan and, all across the island, you’d see people pulled over along highways where they could get cell signals. We saw people lined up for ice, for ATMs, etc.
We were on the island for about a week and crisscrossed it while covering our local Marines and sailors. You really get a sense of the devastation while flying above Puerto Rico and in the central mountain region, where we went to cover Seabees (sailors that work construction) and Marines who were clearing roads. All across the island now, you see trees that Hurricane Maria stripped, leaving them twisted, broken and brown. It looked like winter, even though it was 90+ degrees most days.
We had a rough idea of the stories we wanted to cover before we landed in Puerto Rico based on conversations we had with Navy public affairs officers in Norfolk who were in contact with those already on Puerto Rico. In a disaster area, things are going to be in constant flux so we learned to roll with story changes and communications and travel challenges, which were constant.
We were also on a budget and had to juggle that when figuring out our own day-to-day planning. We spent a few nights sleeping on cots and on the USS Kearsarge, a Norfolk-based Navy ship, and rented a car once, only because we needed to get from Ponce, in the south central part of the island, back to San Juan, in the northeast. Even when we did stay in hotels, those were difficult to find; most were only renting rooms to first responders.
Puerto Rico was a huge logistical challenge. It’s going to remain that way for residents for a long time. We didn’t bring a satellite phone, which would have made communications with our newsroom and filing stories and photos easy. Instead, I brought two phones with me, one Verizon and one AT&T. Near San Juan, texting was easy, but getting email or making a phone call was hit or miss.
You truly realize how dependent we are on technology for so many facets of life when you have to scramble to find an internet connection to file your stories and photos. It was nothing short of a miracle that we were able to get each and every one of our daily stories filed, and that was because we were at the mercy of connections provided by military.
For all the challenges, going to Puerto Rico was rewarding. There are a lot of stories there and will be for a long time. Stephen and I didn’t get to every story we wanted before it was time to leave. The Marines and sailors we cover deployed in late August/early September and are still there. Unlike a typical deployment, they don’t know when they’ll be coming home. With so many newsrooms tightening their belts these days — including mine — it was a great opportunity to go and shed a little light on what our local men and women were doing on the island and send those stories back home.
Q. What advice do you have for students who are exploring careers in reporting?
A. Absorb the sort of work that you want to create. Reach out to people who are doing now what you want to do some day. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if you think it makes you sound “stupid.”
It’s a complete cliché, but many people will be willing to spend the time to help you understand their lives/jobs/culture if you demonstrate the willingness to learn.
Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter and read her stories at PilotOnline.com.