Peter Applebome believes a journalist’s job is, above all else, to tell people’s stories.
“A lot of our job is to capture the culture,” the Duke alumnus said. “In its richness, in its goofiness, in the ways it’s admirable, in the ways that it’s not.”
After spending more than 40 years capturing the quirks of everyday life in local communities, Applebome will be honored April 16 with the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Futrell Award for Outstanding Achievement in Communications and Journalism. Since 1974, he has reported for local newspapers, held a variety of positions at The New York Times, taught journalism courses at various universities and published two books.
In fact, Applebome said the books are his favorite pieces of his career. Dixie Rising focuses on Southern values and how they have influenced American culture and politics; Scout’s Honor recounts the adventures Applebome and his son experienced with a Boy Scout troop in suburban New York.
Applebome took a buyout in January after 31 years at The Times and says he is pondering a Plan B, whether it’s teaching, another book or another job. He seems to care less about the prestige and prominence of his accomplishments than he does the joy and excitement that the world of journalism has offered him since he was an undergraduate at Duke.
He cites his experience writing for The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, as the most meaningful aspect of his undergraduate career, because he got to cover the politically charged events of the 1960s and ‘70s as they unraveled on Duke’s campus.
“I loved the camaraderie of [the newspaper] and the intellectual excitement of it,” he said. “It was so exciting to have your life kind of convulse and be defined by what was going on.”
“There’s definitely something to be said for the unglamorous job out in the country at a very real, grassroots environment.” — Peter Applebome
Clay Steinman, Applebome’s classmate and roommate who’d go on to be The Chronicle’s editor-in-chief their senior year, still remembers the piece Applebome wrote after the Silent Vigil. It was the biggest demonstration of students to have ever occurred on Duke’s campus, inspired by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.
“It was a really excellent, provocative and wise piece about the vigil and the experience, and what distinguished it was not only the fine writing but also that he had a distance from it that most of the rest of us did not have,” Steinman remembered. “He was able to see things in greater complexity, and that was quite impressive.”
That piece was published in The Chronicle on April 11, 1968. It began, “If it is possible for any university to undergo a tremendous transformation in one week, Duke is the university where it has happened. The events of the last few days could very well change the basic tenor of life here.”
Applebome graduated from Duke in 1971 and went on to receive his master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1974. The following year, he began working at a small newspaper in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he covered everything from traffic accidents to city council meetings.
“There’s definitely something to be said for the unglamorous job out in the country at a very real, grassroots environment,” he said. “I wish that more young people were into that kind of experience.”
When he first started working at The New York Times in 1987 as a national correspondent, he explained that he had “two competing images in my head of this place — that it [would be] scary and intimidating and a difficult environment to navigate, and that it offered wonderful opportunities to be an explorer and get out into the country.”
The newspaper ended up being a fantastic place to work, where he made great friendships and had ample opportunities to grow. Since 1987, he’s occupied various positions at the newspaper, including southern bureau chief, chief education correspondent and deputy national editor, which was his final position at the Times before his recent departure from the publication. In 2004 he also began writing his column “Our Towns,” which covered a wide variety of topics and stories from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
His colleague Campbell Robertson, a New York Times reporter whom Applebome edited when he was in New Orleans, remembered that “Peter loved the tales, the weird stuff.” According to Robertson, Applebome would get just as animated about voting as he would about, say, a man burying his wife in the backyard or someone seeing Jesus in a Pizza Hut billboard.
“He’s just a first-rate noticer,” Robertson said. “He has the ability to go to a scene or event and notice so many illustrative details that tell you a lot about the place, even though they seem like off-end things in the corner.”
Indeed, it was a 1991 piece in the Times that read, “A lot has happened here since Joyce Simpson saw the face of Jesus in the forkful of spaghetti on the Pizza Hut billboard near Coleman Watley’s Jiffy-Lube…. It all has something to do with either the power of faith, man’s search for the miraculous in the numbing void of modern life, or with the ability of people to see what they want in almost anything.”
Applebome said he loved being a correspondent because he got to witness and chronicle these slices of life. But he’s found that recent changes in the media industry have made it harder to produce powerful, well-investigated stories.
“The kind of stories that got me into journalism are much harder to do [today] because we’re just at the mercy every day of whatever’s viral,” he added. “And the most important things in life are not viral. It’s incredibly important just to tell tales.”