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‘We had a really big purpose’

I first met Robert Samuels 10 years ago when he attended a Poynter seminar. As a feature reporter for the Washington Post, he was both ambitious and frustrated. I clearly remember him articulating his desire to write deep stories that revealed important truths.

Over the past decade I’ve followed his career closely. He was this quirky reporter who couldn’t be buttonholed. He wrote about figure skating, but also teamed up with the famous David Maraniss in early 2016 to document the growing anger across the country. 

He once accidentally invited me (wrong Kelly) into a Facebook group called the Tolstonians, where a group of smart young journalists were reading War and Peace. He let me stay.

He was part of the team of Washington Post journalists that worked on the October 2020 series, George Floyd’s America. Based on that work, he taught a Poynter webinar in 2021 on his reporting superpower, tapping into empathy. 

I was rooting for that project to win a Pulitzer and was more than slightly indignant on his behalf when it didn’t. 

This week, “His Name Is George Floyd,” the book that Samuels and his Post colleague Toluse Olorunnipa wrote as a followup to that project, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction book.

Immediately after the announcement this week, I was one of 296 people who texted Samuels. (Specifically, I wrote, “Holy $#@*!!! Robert Samuels, can I do a quick interview for Poynter?) He’d turned his phone off and when he turned it on he found those messages along with 49 What’sApp messages and an uncounted number of Twitter shoutouts. 

He agreed to my request and brought his co-author to the Zoom call.

Samuels, 38, and Olorunnipa, 37, have known each other since their cub reporting days together at the Miami Herald. Samuels recently left the Post to work for the New Yorker. Olorunnipa is the Post’s White House Bureau Chief.

What follows are excerpts, edited for clarity and length, from our 75-minute conversation on Tuesday, the day after the announcement. Samuels was at his home in Washington. Olorunnipa started the call on the metro and finished at his desk in the Post newsroom. The two talked openly and honestly about their professional history, their editors, collaborating on the book (it was the first for both of them), their literary influences, building trust with sources and what it was like to win a Pulitzer. They ended with some genuinely fresh and solid advice for journalists and for the profession of journalism. 

“His Name Is George Floyd” won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction book.

What was your reaction when your editors proposed that you work together on this book?

Samuels:  I was really excited to do it with Tolu because we’ve known each other for a long time. He’s good at a lot of things that I’m not great at. He turns in things on time. He writes with a bigger sense of sweep. He writes cleanly. So I thought, this is going to be great. 

Olorunnipa: Robert also came in with a lot of connections with the Floyd family and had built up a relationship with them that no other journalists anywhere in the country had been able to do, even the journalists in their community.

You wrote this book on a very tight timeline, in less than six months. What was that like?

Samuels: When we said we could do it in six months, we thought we were getting away with murder. But then when we actually set deadlines for ourselves, it was essentially each of us handing in whole chapters every week or every other week, which at first is fine, but then you realize you have to edit those chapters. And the story hadn’t ended yet.

How did you figure out the structure?

Olorunnipa: We wrote the book in a way that we wanted it to feel like a movie, to feel cinematic. We wanted people to feel like they were seeing these scenes as they played out. And we made a very purposeful choice to write in that way, to document as much as possible, to have an author’s note to talk about how we knew what we knew and how we could write the scenes and the voice of God as we did. But to write it a little bit differently than how we do articles.

Samuels: A number of people that we knew shared their book proposals with us. The most successful were the ones that almost paragraph by paragraph stated what the book will do and how. We took a lot of time to think about what we wanted each chapter to accomplish, how we felt they could unfold.

Our editor at Viking, Ibrahim Ahmad, suggested what was the real master stroke, which was moving the ninth chapter, which is the chapter of the day Floyd died, and making the first part of it the first chapter. 

Olorunnipa: It was late in the process, and there was a struggle to figure out how to make this move. And Robert had the stroke of genius to not take the full chapter of Memorial Day, but kind of split it in half and move over the first parts and then allow us to come back to it. 

Samuels: That’s what Tom French would have done. (Samuels once attended a workshop on structure that French taught at a Nieman Narrative Conference.) 

What other writers have inspired you?

Olorunnipa: I’ve been blown away by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s gift of being able to craft a narrative and tell a story in the fiction space but just make it feel so real and make you feel like you’re knowing the characters and pick up on little details and nuances and complexities. She talks about the danger of a single story and how it’s important to allow characters and people to be their full selves with all of their complexities. All of that was in the back of my mind as we were writing about George Floyd. 

Samuels: When we first encountered each other, Kelly, I probably was not shy in stating my frustration. I had always envisioned myself as trying to be like Anne Hull and Tom French in that great narrative tradition. And it felt like often people just didn’t see me that way because it wasn’t the greatest use for a newspaper to have a Black guy from the Bronx in areas that everyone could go to. It was a greater use for them to send me to really tough neighborhoods where other people could not go. 

Part of the reason why I wanted to do things and make them longer and make them bigger were so I could get recognition to justify my worth as a reporter. I was attracted to stories that were just deep and revelatory and almost simple. 

David Maraniss had once said to me that it’s best to tell a simple story in great detail. And I think that’s a part of what we tried to do and what made the book work. The simple story is we’re talking about George Floyd’s life. But the deeper story is that when you pull apart everything that happened in George Floyd’s life, so much of it was fueled, tainted, powered by these larger structures that existed that George Floyd didn’t necessarily know about. And when doing the original series, you kind of felt like at times you had to choose one or the other. You could not do both because that’s not how newspaper series work. 

Olorunnipa: Robert and I are pretty aligned on this in terms of the importance of being able to tell the story with incredible detail and the value and the benefit of being able to put into prose the mundanities of life. And let people see someone through the written word just as if they were looking at someone in front of them or watching them on TV. There are these more significant parts of a person’s story that connect to all of our story, that connect to the American story, that connect to history. It’s important to be able to see some of those things through the life of an individual. There are all these social science papers and studies that talk about racism and systemic racism and disparities, and people either don’t read them or they read them and they don’t feel anything. One of the powers of journalism, one of the powers of storytelling, is that when you have a compelling character and you have these systems at play, then you’re rocking and rolling in terms of being able to use the power of storytelling to do something in the world.

Poynter’s Kelly McBride interviews Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa about their Pulitzer Prize for the book “His Name Is George Floyd.”

You both got a head’s up to come into the Post office on Monday for the announcement. Your wives and families were there. What was that like?

Samuels: I’ve had this suit that I’ve been really excited to wear. I’ve had it for more than a year, and I wore it yesterday. It’s sort of like plaid and gray, and everyone thought I bought it for the ceremony. And, I thought people at The Washington Post knew me well enough to know that I’m way too much of a superstitious basket case to ever do something like that. 

I didn’t know that we would (first be announced) as a finalist for biography. And then you start thinking like, “Oh, gosh, did I miss-hear something? Have I been punked? Is this like (Post CEO) Fred Ryan’s last attempt to embarrass me because I left? What’s happening?”

Olorunnipa: I still get imposter syndrome and still sometimes feel like I’m out of my depth. I’m surrounded by so many great journalists and you constantly have to be upping your game in order to feel like you’re in the mix, or that you’re keeping up with all the greatness around you. But yesterday, just having so many people say nice things and having this award recognized on this global stage was so moving and powerful. And having the opportunity to celebrate it with our families was really sweet and really a joy. 

A photo from George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. (Photo by Chris Tuite /ImageSPACE/MediaPunch /IPX)

What have you heard from the Floyd family?

Samuels: It’s been really great to connect with some of the people who shared those precious memories with us and shared their stories with us and trusted us. This is their award as well, because they didn’t have to trust us. They didn’t have to pick up the phone. They didn’t have to open the door. They didn’t have to welcome us in and give us a seat at their dinner tables and tell us these stories. And they did. 

Olorunnipa: Some of the best and most vivid interviews I’ve ever done in my career came from people who grew up around George Floyd and could tell a story and could mimic his cadences and could bring him to life, in a way that you rarely see from some of the polished people that I talk to in my day job as a political reporter. And some of that unfiltered journalism, that unfiltered storytelling from those sources and those people in George Floyd’s life, was really what brought this book to life. 

Why did George Floyd’s family and friends trust you?

Samuels: The first reason is, who knows? Who knows, really? They were nervous that we were going to do something that would make it harder for them to get legal justice. And that George Floyd had parts of his life that if reporters who did not have sure hands handled it, it could be really devastating and catastrophic and retraumatizing.

The first thing I said (reporting the Post series) was, “I’m just here to hear some stories about your brother.” And the first question I asked was, “Tell me about your mom.” And that sort of approach, you could see the tension left, like you could see them light up. And the next time that I met them in Minneapolis, they were really happy to see me. They had seen the series, and Rodney Floyd had said to me, “You promised you’re going to have the world see my brother like I saw my brother. And you kept your promise.”

I never asked them, “Where were you when George Floyd died? Like, where were you when you saw the video?” Which was the first question most people asked them. And it was a question that I never asked because I figured at some point, if they wanted to tell me, it would come. 

Olorunnipa:  We have to be so careful about that in a book-length project where not only those individual interviews can trend towards being exploitative if you’re not careful, but also the full import of the work where you are putting a book out. It’s very easy to fall into a trope of writing a book just about Black pain and tragedy and having it be sort of this thing that people read to feel sad or to feel better about themselves or to engage with the sad parts of our society and have nothing redeeming or nothing valuable in terms of figuring out the other parts of the story. 

We titled the last chapter of the book American Hope, in part to give due reference to that striving and that willingness to continue to commit to the American promise that we see in the Black American community, despite all of the challenges. And it’s present in George Floyd’s life, present in his family’s experience. It’s present in the experience of so many other people. And so we wanted to marry both the tragedy of his death and the tragedy of the trauma he experienced while he lived, with the willingness to keep getting back up off the floor and dusting oneself off and moving ahead and believing in the American promise and the joy that is so pervasive in so many families. There’s something hopeful about that. 

What do you want other journalists to know about your journey?

Olorunnipa:  I was part of a group of journalists (Diverse Future, in 2018) that were brought together to do some strategizing and career work and listen to a bunch of seminars. One of the exercises we had to do was to write out a list of goals for the next five years, short-term goals of things we wanted to accomplish. And I had a number of things on that list, but two of them were write a book and win a Pulitzer. I thought they might be separate enterprises. I think there’s a lot of value in putting your goals on paper and seeing them as things that are achievable, even if they sound way out of this world, especially for young journalists. I think it helps one to get rid of some of the fear that can be involved in our industry and just sort of envision things as if they could be a reality. 

Samuels: I remember clearly the first time that I saw Stephen Buckley, he was about to become the managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times. And not just seeing a Black man, but being a Black man who was of Jamaican descent, and also from the Bronx, and having that really incredible feeling of seeing that there are paths. It dovetails with what we had talked about earlier. There was a pretty strong feeling that I had to work pretty hard to be seen as a reporter in the way I had wanted to be seen. 

And I hope that one of the things that journalists take away is that if there’s a person who is like me, reading Poynter, who felt simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed when talking about their dreams about journalism, that they could think about what we did as a really good example of what they can do. 

Things started clicking in general for me at the Post when I was with editors who not only joined me in my ambitions, but thought about things even in bigger ways than I could think about them, and said, “You could do it.” Who were encouraging you and not waiting for you to trip over yourself. Because that’s a management style, too. I believed more in me when people believed in me, and that’s a testament to good management. 

I remember hearing from a pretty high up editor after it was finally solidified that we weren’t going to win (a Pulitzer for the 2020 Post series). I said that it fundamentally did not matter. It did not matter. Because the work we did was good. Because the stories we wrote, you could tell that they meant something to people. 

Winning an award felt so small in comparison to what we thought the work could actually do to help people. To demystify systemic racism is so much bigger than winning a Pulitzer Prize. We had a really big purpose. And I think having that really big purpose is part of the reason why the award eventually came. But even if it didn’t come, the important part was that we had a big purpose. 

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