by Kevin Allman
As readers of The New York Times know, the paper redeployed its New Orleans correspondent, Adam Nossiter, to a post in Africa last spring, and his last byline from the Crescent City was in April. Nossiter came to New Orleans post-Katrina in 2006 with a pedigree both personal (a well-regarded book about the death of Medgar Evers) and familial (his father, Bernard Nossiter, had worked at both the NYT and The Washington Post in his long career). When Nossiter left, the Times, as is its wont, didn't tip its hand as to whether it would be dispatching another full-time correspondent to the city, or just leave the region in the hands of a "Southern correspondent."
Well, now we've got one again: Campbell Robertson, a native Alabamian who covered the aftermath of the hurricanes in Mississippi, but spent most of his career in New York in a variety of jobs. Editor & Publisher profiled Robertson today and had this nice summation of his career to date:
A graduate of Georgetown University, Robertson worked briefly for the Manhattan District Attorneys office before detouring to Tangiers, Morocco, for a year, where he taught high school English. When he returned to New York, Roberston found that he lived downstairs from a man named Charley Conway, who worked as a day clerk for the Times. He was a lifer, says Robertson. I worked nights, and he worked days, so Id often meet him on the sidewalk and wed talk about books and movies, and things like that. One day, he showed me around the Times building and I thought, What a wonderful place. Shortly thereafter, in 2001, Campbell Robertson was hired by the Gray Lady as a clerk.
Robertson quickly became a reliable stringer. I sort of grew into this role, he says. Id have to fill in for a month in the police bureau, or spend three months as the Long Island reporter. But he proved to be most proficient at the Times Metro gossip column, Boldface Names, which was then headed by Joyce Wadler and had developed a reputation as a snarky answer to the citys tab offerings. I got to attend a lot of gossip parties, which is not nearly as fun as it sounds, Robertson says of his time with the column.
When Wadler left the column in 2005, Robertson was named as her replacement. Robertson saw the column through to April 2006, when Times management decided to scrap Boldface Names after five years of publication. He then served as a reporter on theater for two years. On day he was sitting with some editors, talking about things wed like to cover. I mentioned Iraq, probably a little more casually than I should have. And in June of 2008, after covering the Tony Awards in his last official act as a theater reporter, Robertson was off to Baghdad.
From Broadway to Baghdad to Baghdad-on-the-Bayou is as unlikely a career path as one could imagine in these parlous times for newspapers (and New Orleans), but Robertson is well-liked and -respected in New York. I met him over the weekend and he was a nice and obviously sharp guy. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that some in the city felt Nossiter's stories had run out of juice by the time he left, framing every story in town through the lens of race (which is certainly a major lens in New Orleans, though not the only one). In an American Journalism Review story about his leave-taking, the topic was raised:
"The South has the heaviest historical baggage of any region of the country," [Nossiter] says. While this legacy of conflict and disagreement makes race "an ongoing good story," it is also a touchy subject to cover. "He tends to frame things a lot in a racial way," says New Orleans resident Karen Gadbois. Nossiter profiled Gadbois last August for her role in uncovering a nonprofit agency's misuse of federal funds meant for reconstruction. "[Race] becomes a player in the story but I'm not quite sure that it's always the player in the story that he makes it out to be."
Racial issues are always touchy, of course, but in New Orleans they're often heavy with nuance and layer, something that Nossiter didn't always seem to grasp. (For another perspective, see this long local blog discussion titled simply "Is Adam Nossiter a Tool?".)
Translating the sometimes-enigmatic Kabuki of New Orleans social situations (race, class, family, neighborhood, status, money, provenance, where you went to high school, and much more) is a tall order for anyone, particularly a reporter who's expected to explain it to a larger audience, and New Orleanians -- let's admit it -- are quick to swoop in when they get a whiff of inauthenticity or think someone is missing part of the story. (You know we do.)
That said, it's nice to have the Times feel we're still worthy of a full-time correspondent, and it's great to have Campbell Robertson in town to get a fresh take on things. He's hit the ground running, with a small place in the Marigny as home base, and he's looking to meet people, find great food and hear some good music.
So: welcome, Campbell; we hope you enjoy your time among us. If you meet him in your travels, point him toward a decent po-boy, buy him a beer (he'll accept) and let him know you're glad he's here. And if you want to catch up on his reporting from the real Baghdad, check out his archive of stories.