Jen Maxfield, veteran Emmy-winning broadcast journalist, wasn’t satisfied leaving behind some of the most affecting stories she covered in her decades-long career. So she went back.
“I wrote this book because most local news is a one-day story. You spend emotional time with people, but you never know what happens afterward. I thought their stories deserved more.”
—Jen Maxfield, Reporter and Anchor, NBC New York, and Author, More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable New Stories
Jessica Pliska: You’re a first-time book author, but you’ve built an enviable 20-plus-year broadcast journalism career. When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
Jen Maxfield: I went to college as a pre-med student, thinking I’d be a doctor like my father. As a junior, I happened to see a listing for a CNN internship at the United Nations. I’d always been a people person, a real extrovert, and I love to write. So I applied, more or less on a whim, thinking, “Well, this could be interesting. I’ll do that on Fridays when I don’t have class.” I got that internship, and it changed the course of my life.
Pliska: How so?
Maxfield: I was paired with CNN’s Gary Tuchman, an incredible mentor. He let me write stories, come with him to news conferences, and ask questions to world leaders. I learned how the news business worked from behind the scenes—a real 360-degree view of how stories get on the air. After that, I was hired part-time at CNN while still an undergrad, working as a production assistant and a guest booker. I transitioned from pre-med to a political science major, went to journalism school, and never looked back.
Pliska: Do you have one of those stories about sending out 500 video reels to get your first job?
Maxfield: Yes! In those days, you had to make copies on a dual VHS machine and mail tapes out, which got very expensive. It was also incredibly intimidating, because any time you interviewed with a news director, you had a visual representation of your competition, since most news directors had those VHS tapes stacked up behind their desks and you saw the names of everyone who wanted the same job.
Pliska: But that didn’t deter you?
Maxfield: I’ve always been motivated by rejection. I applied to 13 colleges and was rejected by nine, including all my top choices. I sent out 65 VHS tapes and got zero calls back. Not a single news director thought I should work at their station. I’ve honed that skill of being rejected and moving forward anyway. If you accept rejection and use it as motivation, you get comfortable being uncomfortable when people say no. I’m actually at a stage now where if I’m not getting rejected, I feel like I’m not challenging myself enough.
Pliska: So how did you end up getting that first job?
Maxfield: By taking the advice of fellow journalist and friend Gigi Stone Woods, who told me to go on a road trip: pick a geographic area, get in the car, and once in the town, call the news directors to whom I’d sent VHS tapes to say, “I happen to be passing through your town today. Would you have 10 minutes to meet with me?” That’s how I got my first job, in Binghamton, New York.
Pliska: I’m interested in this idea of rejection as a motivator rather a deterrent—it requires a certain confidence. Where did that come from?
Maxfield: From my parents, who raised us to be pretty fearless. I’m the oldest of six, three girls and three boys. My father wouldn’t have called himself a feminist, but he set an example that he expected a lot from us, boys and girls equally. But being confident doesn’t mean you don’t doubt yourself. It’s about pushing through doubts. I still feel nervous before a live shot or a newscast, or before I speak in front of an audience. But it doesn’t stop me from doing it. It says to me that I care about doings things to the best of my ability.
Pliska: We hear from young people how scared they are of failure, which for seasoned professionals is part of any career trajectory. Do you have an example from yours?
Maxfield: In journalism school, I made a documentary on the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and my partner and I interviewed two men serving a decade in prison for nonviolent, first-time offenses. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras inside, but afterward we took video outside the prison gate. We were detained and questioned under suspicion of trying to break these men out of prison. It was embarrassing for us—our dean had to vouch for our intentions and we had some stern conversations with advisors. But our mistake was compounded exponentially when these men had their cells turned upside down. I still have letters they wrote us from prison asking why it happened. 22 years later, I have to live with how our naiveté ricocheted back on them so gravely because we failed to put ourselves in their shoes.
Pliska: That’s one of the stories in your book, which revisits 10 stories and families you covered over the years. Why did you write this book?
Maxfield: Because most local news is a one-day story. We rarely go back to follow up. As you do these stories, you spend emotional time with people, but you never know what happens afterward. I would think about these people, or drive past places where I interviewed them, or even dream about them, long after. I thought their stories deserved more. I also wanted to flip the script, because most journalists’ memoirs are written with the journalist at the center of the narrative. I wanted to put the subjects at the center.
Pliska: Why do you think people trusted you to come back and tell more of their stories?
Maxfield: Certainly due to the sense of connection I had built. But I also live in this community. I grew up in this state, and I have a vested interest in what happens here. There’s something about reporting close to home—I feel a deep connection and I hope viewers feel it, too. That’s why families tell us their stories. I felt humbled and honored that these families spoke with me for this book, that they were willing to reopen these wounds.
Pliska: Can you share a story in the book with the kind of impact that convinced you readers would care?
Maxfield: Tiffany Jantelle was killed in a hit-and-run crash while trying to help a dog on the road late at night, which tells you so much about Tiffany. Her mother, Corrine Nellius, feels her loss acutely every day. She doesn’t try to act like she’s moved on. I felt there was more story to tell about how a parent who loses a child pushes through their grief to help others, because that’s what Tiffany’s and Corrine’s legacies are—kindness, empathy, and a generosity of spirit. I think we can all learn from people like Corinne.
Pliska: That’s beautiful and makes me want to ask you for another example.
Maxfield: One that shows the impact of local news is Yarelis Bonilla, a girl with cancer, whose sister, Gisselle, was twice denied entry into the U.S. from El Salvador to donate bone marrow to Yarelis. Gisselle was let in after news stories aired shaming the American government into letting her in. That’s powerful. But the tension for me, and I hope for my readers, is that it was joyful for this family, but how many others have this issue and don’t get coverage? For each positive outcome, how many stories don’t we hear?
Pliska: What do you hope the impact of this book will be?
Maxfield: I hope people understand more about how we get news stories on the air and think more deeply about the news they’re consuming. The rise of this phrase ‘fake news’ has been hard for me because my experience as a journalist is truth in telling people’s stories. There isn’t anything more real than sitting in people’s homes and talking with them. Most of us in the news business genuinely care about the stories and communities we cover. I hope the book makes a powerful argument for the importance of local news.
Pliska: You’re about to kick off a book tour and will have a chance to connect with more people from those communities. Maybe you’ll collect stories from them for your next book?
Maxfield: I haven’t started writing anything else because I’m focused on this one. But I always have a notes page on my phone where I just write random ideas. You just never know what might come next.