With charm, wit, and impeccable timing, New York Times reporter Rachel Donadio shared her insight into European politics and culture, and into the changing face of journalism, for scores of faculty, students, and townspeople who gathered in Dana Auditorium on April 8.
Delivering the Robert W. van de Velde ’75 Memorial Lecture was a homecoming for the Middlebury native who attended local schools, took Italian, French, and Hebrew classes at the College while in high school, and went on to become a reporter/editor at the New York Times Book Review. Donadio in 2008 was named the newspaper’s Rome correspondent – where she covered the Vatican’s transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis – and now holds the newly created post of European culture correspondent for the Times, based in Paris.
Donadio opened on a somber note as she dedicated her remarks to the journalist Matthew Power ’96, who died last month on assignment in Uganda and whom she called her “oldest friend.”
Then, as she did frequently throughout her hour-long lecture, she quickly turned to humor. Peering out at the nearly 200 people assembled before her, including a plethora of family friends and former teachers, she commented: “This is in fact the biggest audience in Middlebury that I have spoken in front of since I played Rizzo [in the musical “Grease”] in the senior play at MUHS in 1992.”
Early in her talk, before she got down to the business of Italian politics, she offered a valuable bit of advice to aspiring journalists everywhere. After graduating from Yale she worked for news outlets in Italy and then moved to New York to cover politics for the Forward, a national Jewish weekly.
“I chose this job not out of any kind of parochial interest but because I believe it’s good to have a big job at a small paper,” she said. Her experiences at the Forward, covering Hillary Clinton’s run for the U.S. Senate and many other regional and national stories, led to positions at the New York Sun, the New York Observer, and ultimately the New York Times.
But when she thinks back to her reporting overseas for the Italy Daily, an English-language insert in the International Herald Tribune, she recalls: “We used to joke that it should be called ‘Illitaly Daily’ because we had no copy editors. We made a lot of mistakes there.”
While at the Book Review, Donadio drew an assignment in South Africa to write about what happens to resistance literature when the regime it opposes no longer exists. “It was a life-changing trip,” she realized. “There is so much interesting cultural and political ferment in these parts of the world that I hadn’t really thought about before, and I decided that I wanted to cover stories and places where there was more at stake than in the New York literary world.”
A few years later Donadio got her wish when the position of Rome bureau chief opened up. Her editors figured she would write a lot of features, she said, because “no one had any idea that the Euro crisis would suddenly hit and there would be tons of Vatican scandals.”
During her five years in Rome she wrote about “the gift that kept on giving,” i.e., Silvio Berlusconi and his legal problems and mishaps. (She marveled about the time Berlusconi said Barack Obama is “young, handsome, and sun-tanned.”) She covered the murder trial of Amanda Knox, which the media jokingly referred to as “a drug-fueled sex game gone awry, as opposed to one” – pause – “that didn’t go awry.”
|Her most recent assignment is like "writing European intellectual history on deadline."|
Donadio also wrote about the earthquake in L’Aquilla in which nearly 300 people perished, and “intense” changes in the papacy from the austere Benedict to the progressive Francis.
She accompanied the Pope on seven international trips, including visits to Israel, Jordan, the U.K. and France, where she found herself contemplating the significance of the trip while other reporters were more interested in Carla Bruni’s shoes. (“She’s wearing flats,” one reporter shouted.) Traveling with the Pope was like a cross between “a medieval pilgrimage and a political campaign,” Donadio said.
The reporter pointed out ways that Italy has trouble competing within the EU, but added she has “a lot of faith in Italy’s ability to manage its decline.”
“It’s a survivor culture,” she said. “Time is power in Italy because it has these age-old institutions and interconnected groups like notaries and guilds, and all of these power structures in Italy are designed to preserve power in the hands of people who have it, and make it more difficult for people who don’t have it to get it.”
So what is a day like for a foreign correspondent covering a major story in the digital age?
“The 24-hour news cycle is not a euphemism,” Donadio declared. “You get up, have some coffee, something happens and you tweet about it, you tweet some more, you write a few sentences, you send it to the [news] desk so they can put it up on the Web, then you flesh out your reporting, make some more calls, you do some live radio interviews, you do more reporting, you write a version of the story for the International New York Times [formerly International Herald Tribune] deadline, and then your editor calls from New York and says, ‘This is great, but your day story has been online all day so now you have to write the analytic story,’ for tomorrow’s paper.
“So what used to be: Monday – here’s what happened. Tuesday – here’s what it means. Now it all gets folded into one very long day, so you end up writing the analytic story at night, and then you get up the next morning and you do it all over again.”
But you won’t find the Times’ new European culture correspondent complaining about the pressure.
“One of the things I love most about journalism is that you constantly have to negotiate between your ideas, your preconceptions, your theories, and the changing situation on the ground. You can’t just say, ‘Here’s my theory,’ without testing it. You have to talk to people and you have to look around and you have to see when the tangent is actually more interesting than what you thought was your original goal.”
As a reporter “you are often negotiating those things, often very quickly and often on deadline – that’s to me the most exciting thing and often the most terrifying too.”
The annual Robert W. van de Velde Jr. ’75 Memorial Lecture was established in 1981 by van de Velde's parents, R.W. and Barbara van de Velde; his widow, Diana Mooney van de Velde; and other family members and friends. The lecture series provides an annual talk on the confluence of public affairs, both foreign and domestic, and journalism, particularly broadcast journalism.
Reported by Robert Keren with photography by Matt Lennon '13