Ever since we officially launched the Houston Landing two months ago, Maggie Gordon has been busy.
Our columnist has written about the unhealthy carbon footprints of hospitals; the egg-onomics of rising egg prices for a Santa Fe family; an intractable food desert in Third Ward; and the aggravation of stopped trains in the East End, to name just a few difficult topics she’s tackled.
Oh, she wrote some poetry, too.
The difference between columnists and reporters is that columnists are supposed to share their opinions. But Maggie doesn’t sit behind a keyboard, pontificating — she leaves her desk and gets out into the community. In fact, Maggie views this as a key part of her job. To be a good listener, Maggie says you have to use your other senses, too. And that means you have to be there.
I spoke with Maggie about how she approaches her job and what she’s learned along the way. This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What have you learned so far as a columnist about the Houston community that’s surprised you or that you found interesting?
A: So I’ve been in Houston for eight years as a journalist. And there are these moments where you really start to feel like, ‘Man, I know this place. Like, I get it. I suspected this was gonna happen, and then it happened.’ And you feel really great because you feel as though you spend all this time listening, and it’s paying off because you start to understand things.
And then you have these other moments where you’re like, ‘How is it possible that there’s so much I don’t know?’
I was just talking to this really wonderful man on the phone with this volunteer organization that he works at, and I literally said to him, ‘I’ve been working in this city for eight years looking for stories like this. How have I never heard of you guys?’ And he said, ‘It’s just amazing the number of people who are just doing good work here.’
There are so many people who are doing that. And I thought I was listening. I thought I had my ear to the ground on that. But not as much as I thought. Because now that listening is the core part of the mission of the organization that I work for, I can allow myself to tune out the noise and focus on that narrower part of Houston. It’s just absolutely amazing to me how vibrant that is. Like how many people are just dedicating all of their time to helping people. It’s just really nice to see. But it’s also just still surprising, like, ‘How did I not know?’
Q: Houston is so vast. It’s just so hard to really get your arms around it.
A: And that’s just Houston, right? So, when we talk about Houston, what are we talking about? Are we talking about the city or are we talking about the greater Houston area? The eight counties and millions and millions of people and I’m sure, like, thousands of volunteer organizations and nonprofits who have tens of thousands of volunteers. I don’t know that you could ever know all of it. But it’s fun trying to know as much of it as possible.
Q: You mentioned our mission here at the Landing. Part of our mission is to inform the community, but also to really listen to the community. What are you doing to listen to the community?
A: So I like to be a really active listener. Listening for me is more than what you can do with your ears. I think it also requires your eyes and sometimes even more of your five senses. So when I listen to somebody, I don’t like it to be over the phone, via email. I like to stand in the same space as them or sit in the same space and be with them. And it’s more than listening. It’s observing.
One of the things that I’m trying to do is watching people do what they’re doing. Meeting people where they are. I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll meet you, we’ll go to this park or we’ll drink coffee at this place, we’ll talk in person,’ and that’ll be the gateway. And then from there, it’s like, ‘Let me watch what you do. Let me be in that space with you.’
Q: So being there is really important.
A: Being there is really important because when you’re trying to tell somebody’s story or you’re trying to understand what somebody does or how they do it, you need to see that in action, right? And I think it’s not always about what people are doing. It’s about how they’re doing it. That really just illuminates somebody’s passion for something. And so when I listen to someone, I want to see, observe.
Q: Well, that’s one thing I noticed about your columns: you’re not pontificating behind a keyboard. You’re actually going out in the real world getting your hands dirty, sometimes literally, like with the Buffalo Bayou column you did. You went out there and walked it.
Q: Why is it so important to do that much reporting for a column when you could just kind of sit back in comfort and say, ‘Oh, I think this.’ But you actually go out there and soak up the details of whatever you’re working on.
A: So for me, that’s where I find the comfort. I grew up on a farm where I didn’t feel boxed in. I felt like the world was open and you were part of the open world. So to me, I feel more discomfort at a desk, at a cubicle, than I do among real people doing real things. So that’s part of it.
But then it also gets back to, you know, if you want to tell somebody’s story, you need to see it. You need to observe somebody because, like I said, it’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about how you’re doing it. By watching somebody, you can really see how they feel about things. You can see their passion. You can’t have somebody when you’re on the phone calling them tell you about the twinkle in their eye. And you can’t notice the photo of their nephew hanging in their living room and ask them questions about it, right? When you’re just behind a keyboard doing desktop journalism, you miss knowing what questions you don’t know to ask and you miss the little things. You’re not doing justice to the people you’re reporting on or the larger story that they’re a part of.
Q: You’re missing out on key details.
A: Yeah, and that’s unfair to the story. And also I think it’s unfair to the reporter who could be having a lot more fun. A lot more challenges, too. Not every story you go out and do is fun, right? It’s not all hunting alligators. When we were doing the food desert story, by the end of it, my arms ached for a couple of days after that. I was lugging bags of groceries miles and miles and miles. Was that fun? No. Was it important? Did it give me more tactile understanding of what I was writing than I would have gotten behind my desk? Absolutely. So, yeah, sometimes it’s more fun to be out and sometimes it’s just more revelatory.
Q: Do you think this is why you gravitated towards the walk-and-talk meetings that you’re organizing?
A: Yeah, so walking has just always been how I process thoughts. Ever since I was a little kid, it was one of those things. Again, I grew up out in the country. My block that I grew up on was three and a half miles to go around it. And I would walk the block as a kid, probably too young — I hope my dad doesn’t read this — to be out there walking by myself. But when I had something I needed to mull over in my brain, it’s how I learned to untangle big, sticky questions. And to this day, when I am writing rough drafts, I’m usually not doing it at a desk. I walk around and I do it every evening and I’m usually prewriting while I’m doing that. And so, for me, walking and stories go hand in hand.
But also, that is something that I feel we can do all over the community and meet people in different parts of the community. It’s a low barrier to entry, right? Nobody’s super dressed up. We’re probably gonna get a little sweaty. I feel like it takes that film of intimidation off people. It’s very even, equal footing. And just informal. And I just love it. Who walks away after, like, a one-hour walk and says, ‘What a waste of time.’ Also, if somebody’s gonna come to us and talk to us, I feel like they should be getting something out of it. And a one-hour walk, to me, is a gift.
Q: It seems like Houston Landing readers are sending you some good story ideas. Can you talk about how you got the story of the $6,000 water bill?
A: Bev! Yeah, so as people who are reading this newsletter probably know, when you subscribe to the Houston Landing newsletters, there’s like a whole campaign, right? And I know that it’s on day six after you subscribe you get an email from me, and it’s basically saying, ‘Hey, I want to hear from you.’ And those aren’t just words. I do. I want to hear from people. I don’t even know who you are. I don’t know what your story is. But I know you have a story.
And so I was actually really, really surprised when we launched at how many emails I got right off the bat, which was just so gratifying. So often you feel like you’re doing all of this work and you’re asking for engagement and it’s just crickets. Even at much larger organizations, you don’t get that feedback. And when the messages started trickling into my inbox, it was like — I mean, I could have gone down my street doing cartwheels. I was so excited.
So one of those emails was from this woman named Bev. And in the email, I had said, ‘Tell me what you love about Houston. Tell me what drives you crazy about Houston.’ And she did both. She told me it was coming up on the 45th anniversary of when she had moved here with her late husband. Their anniversary of living here was going to be Valentine’s Day, and it was the week before that. So she said, ‘You know, it’s been almost 45 years since I moved here. There’s a lot that I love about it. I love the weather. I love the diversity. But I have a $5,000 water bill, and I hate that.’
And I emailed her back and I was like, ‘What??!! Why do you have a $5,000 water bill? What’s going on?’ And so she kind of talked to me about it a little bit. And I asked if she would like to meet me for coffee. And Bev was like, ‘Well, I don’t really want to go out for coffee, but you can come to my house. I’ll make you some coffee.’ And I went to her house. I looked over her bills. And it was exactly what she said. Something was wrong and the city was not communicating correctly with her and she was really anxious about it.
But yeah, it all just started with an email to me and then somebody who was willing to just be totally transparent about it. That was one of the things that made that story work as well, right? Because I needed to fact-check. Like, ‘I need to see your bills.’
Q: What kinds of topics are you most interested in writing about?
A: I just want to write about real Houstonians. I feel like a lot of times you pitch a story and they’re like, ‘Well, how does this rise to the highest level? How does this affect 3 million people and how is this a microcosm of this and how does it really get into one of these five things that we’re trying to cover.’
I fundamentally believe that everybody has a story and that if you go in with open ears and open eyes and talk to them about their story, yeah, you might find that it touches on some of those other key issues that are going on right now. But there’s value in someone’s story being their story, and for the way that it also can be representative of what other people are going through. I really just want to meet regular Houstonians. And not just Houstonians in the city but like, Baytownians? Sugar Landers? (Laughter) Conroeians? If somebody knows the names, please send them to me. But I want to know those stories because I think that one of the things that journalism does really well — or can do really well — is document the human condition.
Q: You have a unique position where you can pretty much write about anything. You don’t have a specific beat. But being able to write about anything can also be kind of daunting. How do you view this? How do you plan on prioritizing what’s worth writing about?
A: Yeah, so over the course of the year, I’m going to do my Boots on the Ground series a few times, which is where I literally walk the path of something that is changing or somehow relevant. I have one coming up that I’m really excited about and I don’t want to say too much about it because I’m pretty early in the process of it. But I’m going to be meeting a group of people who have this hurdle that they need to overcome in order to access a pretty basic need and it requires a physical journey from them on a pretty regular basis.
And I’m gonna walk it with them.