Mary Lynn Smith has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, almost all of them with the Star Tribune. She’s a Chicago native who moved to Minnesota in 1980 for a job at the Duluth News Tribune, where she discovered, what’s since become a lifetime love of running, cross-country skiing and camping in the Boundary Waters. She got her start at the Star Tribune writing obits, before a long stint covering St. Paul, Ramsey County government and the then-growing Hmong community. She has been a general assignment reporter for the last decade, many of them on the night shift.
Why did you become a journalist?
For about a nanosecond, I considered going into science. But high school physics made my head hurt. Journalism was a passport to learn new things, talk to strangers and write. It was a lot easier than physics. Watching All the President’s Men while a college student probably inspired me to get my master’s degree in public affairs reporting so I could better tell stories about how government worked and didn’t for the people it was supposed to serve.
Tell me about a typical day. Do you come to the office with a plan for what you will do that day? Does that ever work out?
I’m not sure I have a typical day. Some days I’m working on stories that might be slated to run in a week or two. But most days I’m jumping on stories that are needed for the website immediately or the next morning’s paper. Not knowing what I’m going to get into most days is what intrigues me about my job.
You’ve been a general assignment reporter for a good part of your career. A lot of reporters beg to be taken off that job, but you seem to love it. Why?
Yes, I absolutely love general assignment work. I love the constant variety of stories that allows me to stretch different reporting and writing muscles. It’s probably why I’m still energized by my work after nearly 40 years in the business.
You often cover tragedies and have to make those difficult phone calls to people still in shock or angry or grieving. How do you approach those calls?
To be honest, I dread those calls. My heart beats rapidly as I dial the phone or walk up to a house to ring a doorbell. I know I’m asking someone to talk to me when they are deep in grief or at one of the worst points in their lives, so it would be perfectly acceptable if they hung up on me or slammed the door in my face. That’s not a pleasant experience. And yet I go hoping that they might want to talk. They might want to pay tribute to the person they know and love, tell a different side of the story, provide details that give better understanding to a situation or use it as an opportunity to spark change. For example, three mothers who lost their sons to heroin overdoses provided a side of the story that wasn’t in the police reports or the criminal charges filed against the dealer who sold the drugs to their sons. These mothers were open about their sons lives and their exhausting fight with addiction – a fight some readers may not understand and others who do because they are in the midst of their own fights or similar grief.
You often cover the big breaking news stories, such as the night Jayme Closs was discovered alive? What strategies do you have for those assignments, especially as those make-or-break deadlines get closer?
I quickly gather any background and details that we know and then zero in on people who might be able to shed more light on a situation. It can be hit or miss, but the more calls you make, the more likely you might end up with what you need for the story. I often, to my editor’s dismay, want to make one or two more calls when I probably should be writing to meet a fast approaching deadline. At a certain point I write what I know with the idea that I’m giving readers the best information I can get at the time.
Do you have a favorite story that you’ve written?
I’m not sure I can point to any one story as my favorite or one that I’m most proud of. But I have stories that I’m grateful that I got to do because people opened up their doors to talk to me. For example: Jon Markle, the Minnetonka man who was legally drunk when he drove across a frozen lake with his family in the car when the ice broke and his daughter drowned. Long after he fulfilled his court obligation to tell his story to others convicted of drunk driving, he continues to talk about the painful details of that night in hopes he can change the course of someone else’s life. There was the story about Damon Thibodaux, an innocent man who spent 15 years on death row before he was exonerated and came to Minnesota to restart his life. He let me tag along for two years to document that. There’s the story of a father who, desperate to find his son’s body after he fell into the Mississippi River, turned to a man who makes it his mission to recover bodies from the depths of lakes, rivers and oceans. And there’s the story of a 94-year-old woman who held on to hope for more than 70 years that her husband’s body would be found after he was listed missing in action during World War II. She finally found peace when his remains were identified and returned to Minnesota. She and others graciously open their doors so we could tell their stories.
Have you ever had writer’s block on deadline? What did you do?
I’ve stared at a blank screen more times than I want to count. Often times I don’t have the luxury of time that would allow me to go for a run or walk to clear my head. So I eat chocolate, take a breath and know that I have to put words down — even if it’s a false start because I can come back and rewrite it if there’s time. But mostly a ticking clock -- and an editor demanding that I make deadline -- is enough to break the block.
Your husband is a retired Star Tribune reporter, your daughter is a metro reporter. Why do you think journalism is such a family affair for the Smiths?
Ha! It was all an accident. I met my husband while we were both working for the Duluth News Tribune. When my oldest daughter was an infant, she spent a lot of hours on my lap while I finished writing stories on deadline. Maybe she developed an affinity for the journalism then. Or, maybe it was growing up in a household with two journalists that inspired her to be curious about the world, passionate about telling stories and committed to the values journalism brings to our community and democracy. Or, maybe physics also made her brain hurt.