Jen Maxfield, MORE AFTER THE BREAK: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories

Jen Maxfield, MORE AFTER THE BREAK: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories

Zibby interviews Emmy Award-winning reporter Jen Maxfield about her extraordinary new book More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories. Jen describes the unrelenting curiosity and profound empathy that drove her to revisit the most memorable interviewees of her career, from Staten Island ferry crash survivor Paul Esposito to domestic violence survivor Tamika Tompkins. She offers us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the demands and challenges of her job and reveals how she has kept her emotions in check for the last 20 years (especially when she goes home to her children!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories.

Jen Maxfield: Zibby, thank you so much for having me on. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: I was so into this book, by the way — I was finishing it on the bus on the way back from this retreat we were just on — so much so that I ignored my phone for so long. It turned out one of my kids had broken a bone. My husband had been trying to call me and had to call someone else he knew was on the bus with me to get me. He’s like, “What were you doing?” I was like, “I was reading this really great book. I just didn’t look up and check my phone for so long.” It was really great.

Jen: I hope your child’s okay. I’m glad it was a distraction, at least for some period of time.

Zibby: All good. Nothing serious, but still. Why don’t you tell listeners more about More After the Break and why you decided to revisit these news stories? You wrote about that also in the book, but just to tell people who haven’t read it yet why you did this.

Jen: Absolutely. Just to set the stage here, I’ve been a news reporter for twenty-two years. The typical length for a story of mine that airs on television is ninety seconds. The one constant in my news life is that we pitch stories in the morning. We got out on an assignment with a photographer. I write the story for that evening’s broadcast. It goes out on the news. Very rarely do we return to that story the next day. In the first place, the pace is relentless. In the second place, the amount of time that we can actually spend on each individual story, both reporting it and then the ninety seconds we get on the air, it’s just not that much time. There were people over the years who stuck with me, people who I sat with in their living rooms or I was with at breaking news scenes, and I just felt that their stories deserved more. I was genuinely curious about what happened to a lot of the people I’ve interviewed over the years, but in particular, the ten who are featured in More After the Break. That’s what I did. That was the genesis of the idea, just that real curiosity. I figured that if I was interested in what had happened that viewers and readers would be as well. I set out to find them.

Zibby: Wow. I know it was during COVID at first when you were doing all this. Did you think about doing it as a documentary, a conclusion, a visual piece to it, or no?

Jen: My first love is reading and writing. When I was a kid, I actually wanted to be a doctor. I went off to college to be a doctor. I was taking a lot of math and science classes. As much as I loved TV news, which I eventually went into after I got an internship at CNN at the United Nations, as I said, my first love is reading and writing. It was wonderful for me to have the luxury of time and to be able to spend all this time with the families who trusted me now a second time with their stories. I felt it was also a challenge to write a book without the assistance of video that I’ve had these last two decades and really try to take you, the reader, into the situation that these people found themselves in and make you feel like you knew them and that you understood them without the aid of any video and really just doing it through my writing.

Zibby: Excellent. How was the process?

Jen: Obviously, writing a book is a heavy lift. I don’t need to tell you that. I will say that having been writing on deadline in a moving van for the last twenty-two years was an excellent training ground for being able to write a little bit and put it down and write a little bit and put it down. I did try to write in the mornings before my family woke up. Oftentimes, I was trying to write a couple pages in between my daughter’s dance classes or while I was waiting for my son to finish up soccer practice. I was able to do that. Really, the hardest part was just getting the people to understand the project and to agree to it. I went into those asks, I would add, with a lot of humility. I wasn’t sure if people would be welcoming me with open arms this second time when I wanted to revisit their stories for my book. I was prepared, in some cases, to apologize in the event that they were not happy that their story made it on the news or that they had all this attention in the public eye. I thought maybe they would’ve preferred to have kept it quiet. Thankfully, it did go well with all of the people who I returned to. I’m just so grateful to all of them for participating in the book and letting me write it.

Zibby: Let’s talk about some of the stories. Oh, my gosh, the emotion with which you drew me, at least, as the reader in — obviously, it’s one thing to know that Katrina happens, or the Staten Island Ferry or the terrorist attack on the West Side Highway or all these things, which, of course, I remember, but you find the one person and make it into something where we all feel like we’re in their shoes. You start the book with the Staten Island Ferry crash. This man, Paul, has lost his legs based on, basically, where he was based on two steps he took at the last second. He survived and was helped by this British nurse who happened to be on board, all these random life, fate — I feel like all the stories, to be honest, are about the randomness of where you are. Actually, maybe I should start with that. Do you feel like there were themes like that that linked all these stories for you?

Jen: Yes. I remember interviewing Paul Esposito in his hospital bed and thinking to myself, that could just as easily have been me lying in that hospital bed. The circumstances were so random that landed him there. Look, I don’t interview sports stars or celebrities. I don’t have a publicist setting up these interviews for me. It’s not choreographed. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks that they’re going to be at the center of a breaking news event and being interviewed by people like me. I always keep that mindset really present when I’m going up to people and asking them to do an interview with me because there typically is some level of shock in that. Part of that does speak to exactly what you’re talking about, the randomness of life and what people have to go through. That’s definitely one of the themes that runs through the ten stories. The other is really the way that people survive and triumph after experiencing adversity. I feel that in all of our lives, tough things happen. I think that the ten people who I write about have a lot to teach readers. They certainly taught me about being able to deal with a hand you were dealt that you never asked for but being able to do it with a lot of grace and joy.

Zibby: Yes, very true. Tell me about what it was like revisiting people, like the man who was killed, the gentle giant who was killed on the West Side Highway whose parents had to stay overnight at Bellevue and then find out the next day. You were the only one with the parents before even their family arrived. What is that like for you? Then what was it like revisiting?

Jen: This addresses some of the misconceptions about TV news reporting, so I’m glad you brought it up. We’re talking about Darren Drake, who was this amazing, vibrant, thirty-two-year-old young man. So many exciting things happening for him in his life at that time when he was killed while riding a bike on the bike path there in Lower Manhattan along the West Side Highway. We’re getting to these scenes sometimes so early that, to your point, the family wasn’t even there yet, Jimmy and Barbara, Darren’s parents. Here I roll up. I’m a complete stranger. I’m with a photographer. We’re putting together a news story. That was a national story. That was a terrorist attack, and right in the shadow of where the twin towers had once stood, so certainly a major news event. What it really comes down to in those moments are the families and the people at the center of it. Look, I would never say that my emotions would even approach what the family’s going through, but I am with them.

I’m with people sometimes on the best days of their lives and the worst days of their lives and the most chaotic days of their lives. I’m not a doctor. I can’t heal the wounds. I can’t arrest whoever did it. I’m there to tell people’s stories and to share them with the broader community. I think that is part of the responsibility of the job, is recognizing I’m not a news robot. I’m not some disembodied microphone going around asking questions. I’m a human being. I’m there with people during these times that they never forget, and neither do I. I’ll just never forget being there with Jimmy. We stayed with him for quite some time after we had finished up the interview and gotten all the information we needed because I felt in that moment that I just couldn’t leave him. He seemed so alone. That’s just one of those stories that, as important as it was to get the information out there to the broader public, I also felt as a fellow human being that it was important for me to sit with Jimmy on that day, the day after he lost his only child.

Zibby: Then tell me what it felt like to revisit that particular scenario.

Jen: For Jimmy and I, we both remember that day very clearly. One of the things I was able to do in a lot of these chapters is fill in some gaps. I mentioned Darren’s mom, Barbara. She wasn’t even able to come out of the bedroom. People do open the door for us. I think it’s astonishing how many people do open the door for us and invite us into their homes. Obviously, not everyone is in a position to speak with us emotionally on that day. Here we are five years after. Barbara was ready to talk to me. I learned so much more about Darren and about their family. I feel that one of the gifts to the readers is just to give them that additional context and all of those layers and talk to all these people that just wasn’t possible on the day that we did the initial story. That’s why I love that quote. News is the first rough draft of history. What we’re giving you on day one or day two is an accurate depiction of events. We’re doing the best we can in the short period of time, but there’s so much more to these stories that you get when you go back and revisit them, something that we typically don’t have time to do.

Zibby: Do you worry for your safety? I know there’s physical events. You were in Katrina. I mean more with this raw emotion from people who are so destabilized, for the most part, by something massive that’s changed their lives, and in you walk. Aren’t you ever afraid about the doors you knock on, that something’s going to happen? Is it just me worrying on your behalf?

Jen: Thank you for that. Yes, that is a concern sometimes because, you’re right, you don’t know what’s behind that door. People are dealing with a lot. There is safety in numbers, for sure. Sometimes on TV shows, they depict all of us in TV news as being revivals. We’re just competing for the story. The reality is that oftentimes when we do have to go knock on a door, we will go in a group. I may go up with the person from News12 and the person from ABC and the person from The Daily News. We decide we’re all going to go up together because sometimes that’s a safer situation. I don’t report stories on my own. I’ve always worked with a photographer. We always have each other’s backs. I’m very grateful for the friendship of my photographer colleagues because I don’t know what I would do without them, not only knocking on doors, but just in general, being with people on these days and getting the stories done on time.

Zibby: I feel like one thing you do with the news shows, and which you point out in the book too, is raise awareness and also funds to help some of the less fortunate. Do you feel like there’s a way through this book that you’re going to continue to give back? It’s almost like — not charity, obviously. That’s the wrong word. There’s so many causes to help. You draw our attention to anything from a nice man buying space heaters to help one family with a coughing child to other funds that you publicize on the news and get people to invest in. For the average viewer and somebody reading the book, what should the viewer do to help and live out some of your recommendations here?

Jen: Oftentimes, there are GoFundMe sites for some of the stories that we’re working on. From a larger standpoint, we’re shining a light on issues that people may not have thought about. I also think that oftentimes, we are putting a face to issues that may seem very theoretical or something that you’ve heard about but don’t really understand. There’s something about watching another human being tell you their story. Really, that makes you feel. I could tell you ten stats about how domestic violence, for example, has gotten so much worse since COVID and that it is a really big issue for families today. Tamika Tompkins, who I feature in chapter five of my book, who’s a survivor of domestic violence — she was stabbed twenty-seven times. She spoke with me that day in 2012 and continues to be out with me in the world. She’s doing events. She’s speaking about domestic violence to larger audiences now because she is a survivor. I think that people can really feel and understand an issue more if you have someone talking to you about it from the heart as opposed to hearing all of those statistics. I do hope, generally, that people think about some of these issues that I bring up in the book. Also, frankly, I hope that when people read the book that they really take every day as a gift and not take time for granted. You brought up earlier, a great point, that so many of these circumstances were random. I think that’s been the takeaway for me these last twenty-two years, feeling so grateful for every day and savoring it because you just really don’t know what’s going to happen.

Zibby: How do you — you did mention this, that one time, you were getting drawn in in particular, and you had to put on your reporter mask to keep your emotions in check and not let yourself get drawn in. Otherwise, you’ll imagine your child in the same situation. What tricks are you using to protect your emotional state? Then how do you go home and have dinner with your kids and be all cheery if you spend your day with all of this? How do you reconcile those two worlds?

Jen: That’s the juxtaposition of my life. I could be reporting on something that happened to somebody else’s family, and then I have the privilege to walk in the front door and have my three healthy kids greet me. It is a challenge. I’ve spoken with other people, for example, doctors or emergency workers, other people who really do, as part of their professional lives, have to be with people during some really tough times. My professional obligation in these moments is to get the story out on the air and to share what happened with the larger community. It’s not that I am not empathizing with people. I said in another interview, I just switch to waterproof mascara. It’s not that I’m not crying. I also think that it would be incredibly distracting and making myself part of the story if I’m doing a live shot and trying to tell you about something that happened and I’m hysterically crying. That feels like putting myself at the center of the story where the focus should really be on the families. I do certain things. For example, I’ll plug my work phone in as soon as I get home on the charger and not really look at it again. Sometimes, whether it’s talking to my photographer friend or calling my mom or going for a walk around the block or listening to an audiobook that has nothing to do with the news — it could be anything like that just to decompress after some of these days. I do think that over the years, I still feel something. I think that the day that I go out on one of these stories and I don’t feel anything is the day that I should retire.

Zibby: That’s funny. Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet in the book world, do you want to write more books? Do you want to stop this, one and done? How do you feel about this whole industry?

Jen: I did really enjoy the process of writing the book. Then I also have enjoyed having conversations with readers these last three months since the book came out. I’m so accustomed to talking to people on the news and not being able to hear them answer back at me, so that’s been really wonderful. I did have more free time during COVID, not because I was working less. I was working the same or more. It’s just that so many of the other activities weren’t happening. If I were to write another book, I do think it would take a lot longer. Then the big question for everyone after you’ve written your first book is, will the second be as good as the first? I really felt like I put my whole heart into this book. That’s what’s intimidating, if I had to be honest about it, about writing a second one. Could I do what I did on the first?

Zibby: Interesting. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jen: First of all, my book looks very organized now. I’ve got the ten news stories. They’re laid out in chronological order. That is not how the book was written. The book was written in a more organic or haphazard way, one might say. I did not have all ten stories figured out when I started writing the book. My process was that typically, I was writing one chapter, researching the next, and thinking about and strategizing how to find the person for a third. I actually think it was better this way because if I had picked all ten stories ahead of time, I don’t think I would’ve made the same choices. I think that you really needed to see the breadth of stories and human experience that was actually eventually presented in the book. I hope that gives people some hope that if you’re writing something and it feels like it’s not as organized or you don’t have everything figured out, I didn’t have everything figured out either. I don’t even know if I believed that the book would be finished until I was about halfway through it.

Zibby: Congratulations on finishing it. Are you back into the news? You’re not stopping at all? Are you getting tired? This is a stressful life, isn’t it? Do you ever think about retiring or doing something different in studio? Do you just love it?

Jen: I do love it. I currently do a hybrid model where sometimes I am out reporting and sometimes I am in studio anchoring. I really enjoy doing both of those things. I’m an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School. I love working with students. I’ve been speaking at other universities around the country as part of the book tour also. I really love this job. I think it’s a privilege to be invited into people’s homes and their lives to be able to tell their story. No, I’m not stepping away from the news business. I’m reporting for NBC in New York. That’s the plan for now.

Zibby: It’s so exciting. Jen, congratulations. The book was great. You’re a really great writer. I was drawn into these stories of resilience and how people get through, oh, my gosh, insurmountable odds, it seems. They get through it. It’s really, really inspiring.

Jen: Zibby, I appreciate that. I also hope that you had a couple laughs in the book too. I don’t want people to think it’s too heavy. I did try to put off some of those misconceptions about the TV news business. I don’t have a hair and makeup team with me traveling around all the time. The live trucks don’t have bathrooms, which is a constant struggle. The struggle is real out on assignment. We actually do write our own stories. Can you believe that was the number-one question that I got from people when I initially announced that I had written a book? Did I write it myself? That was kind of insulting at first. I felt better about it after a while, after people had read it and were still asking me that. I thought, well, if you think I had to pay someone to write that, then okay, but I did write it.

Zibby: As long as it’s not your mom asking.

Jen: It was not my mom asking.

Zibby: All right, good. Thanks so much. It was great to meet you. Congrats.

Jen: Thanks so much for having me on. Have a great day.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Jen: Bye.

Jen Maxfield, MORE AFTER THE BREAK: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories

MORE AFTER THE BREAK: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories by Jen Maxfield

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