The space between the desk and the door is wide. It must be around four feet or so, but Maggie Mulvihill gets to her work table with only a couple of steps. She always leaves the door open behind her.
There are papers everywhere. Most of them fill several folders that have pink post-its stuck on the upper right corners. The files hold a variety of subjects, some financial, others merely academic and maybe a few hold personal materials too.
The office has three desks. Each one has a specific purpose. The first one, which faces the left white wall, has an empty chair. The chair is meant for an assistant, but this semester Maggie didn’t have time to hire one. On top of the table, there are approximately fifteen coffee cups with an inscription related to the First Amendment. As a journalist, she only supports nonprofit organizations associated with Freedom of the Press. She has a particular interest in democracy and making the government accountable. That is why she holds an active position as a Steering Member of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press, is part of the Federal Freedom of Information Advisory Committee and is a Board Member of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
“I don’t like bullies. That has been one of the reason that droved me to be a journalist,” she told me.
Across the room, the second desk faces the door. I can imagine her sitting here, drinking her coffee morning coffee. But before, she briskly strides from the garage through the corridors, and maybe thinking of the day’s to-do list. Busy. Every morning is a busy morning. It´s inescapable. Eventually, Maggie enters the room with her purse on one shoulder, carrying her organizer, various papers and hand-written legal pads, with car keys hanging in the other hand. Finally, she can put down her things; the keys will stay stagnant all day long, next to the gloves and the matching purse. Everything has its own place, even if at first they seem out of order. There is a system behind everything she does. And a whole standardized world, too.
Maggie Mulvihill’s workday starts with the sound of the computer.
“I come to work and what I do is I go through what has to be done that day. What has to, not what I want to,” she explains. She describes herself as a really organized woman, certainly as a reporter, a mom, as a Professor, as a friend…
She works at the third desk in front of a monitor. There are two photos stuck to the wall: Peter, her husband and little Peter, her son, both smiling. Colorful drawings decorate the office. A white page has a ‘Maggie Mulvihill’ written in cursive handwriting. You can find toddler sketches all over the blackboard. They contrast with words listed on the same board one below the other, written sometime in the Fall 2014 semester.
“I am a happy person and my son sees it. He thinks, “Well, Mommy loves her work, even though she’s always working”. It shows him to pick what really drives you,” said Maggie.
Next to the phone is the daily planner. All the important things are fluorescently highlighted with yellow marker. Others are written with a red crayon; on the other side of the desk, to her left, there are two bottles of nail polish pots. They are half-used.
Her straight blonde hair has a mind of its own. While she talks, sometimes she combs it with her right hand. Sometimes she uses her glasses as if they were a hairband that keeps her blue eyes clear. She sometimes involuntarily twists her hair. It shows that she finds something really exciting. Maybe it shows she’s nervous, too.
Maggie has a strong presence. It is easy to tell when she enters a room; her clothes, for example, are a representation of her personality. The contrast between her brown tights and her grey Boden boots, seems to be on purpose. She has a feminine, yet firm voice. I haven’t seen her in the field, acting as a real reporter, but I can imagine that her semblance while conducting an interviewee is far from maternal. To be brave is part of the profession of being a journalist, especially, a female journalist. It’s better to seem fearless.
“Act confident. You are treated the way you demand to be treated,” she told us in a class.
Her strength has grown as time passes by. The streets of Boston have seen her reporting for over 20 years. In 1987, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marquette University, she got a job as a legal intern at The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of The Press in Washington, D.C. A year later, in May, she graduated with her JD from Vermont Law School.
Maggie moved to Boston in January 1991. She started as a research reporter for The Associated Press. Since then, she hasn’t stopped. She has a “document state of mind”, as she puts it: she believes that everything leaves a fingerprint. And fingerprints are starting point for stories.
“I love doing stories. It’s fun for me. My favorite stories have always been the ones that are really hard to get, that nobody want out there but they should be told, people should know about,” she says. She tries to transmit that enthusiasm to her students at Boston University. She has been a Clinical Professor of Journalism since June 2013.
The summer of 2014 was an especially hot one in Boston. The weather, like the people, helped me feel at home. But that first Thursday of September, home was somewhere far, far away.
That day, I met Maggie Mulvihill.
In class, she asked us to briefly summarize our lives and explain why we chose to take JO503 B1 Journalism Research. I was the only international student, and she became interested instantly in the condition of journalism in Ecuador. She had a general understanding of the complex situation between journalists and Latin American governments. Since then, she has repeated time after time her life and career’s motto: the government works for the people, not the other way around.
“Investigative reporters should ask themselves, ‘what am I supposed to do? What have I done?’ I should write down that definition somewhere,” she told us in class.
Investigative reporters must ask questions and always think of new stories. Investigative reporters are not afraid to dig under the fingernails. They are prepared to notice what others don’t pay attention. To what seems unnoticeable.
Sometimes in class, she’ll randomly call on someone to give her a possible lead for an imaginary piece, based on the topic we are discussing. It is an exercise meant to stimulate an editorial meeting in a real newsroom. How would we resolve what to do next? How do we decide the direction of the next step, in order to get an exclusive? Fear is never an option, or at least not one for a reporter who wants to bring the best story to the editor, even if it requires uncomfortable encounters with the authorities.
Some years ago, Maggie applied for a job at a newspaper. When she didn’t hear back, she persistently called the editor once a week for 6 months. Finally he returned the call. He told her that she got the job because he was impressed by her determination, but also because she was very polite. Part of the challenge for a reporter is, indeed, to be able to figure out how to break barriers.
“I think sometimes I scare some of you with my reporting stories… Are you okay Ana María?” she asked me one day.
That day we talked in her office. She wanted to know why I looked so anxious. Maybe she was able to feel that in the first weeks of class I understood only half of what others told me. I was a frightened and lonely Ecuadorian rambling through this city, trying to figure it out what I wanted to do with my life. During one of our long, meaningful conversations, she told me what has become the most inspiring thing someone has ever said to me:
“You are a student, you are learning, so don’t put yourself down. Ana María, stop worrying that much. I think you have it in you.”
It’s not just me. She has inspired others’s as well. In general, Maggie establishes special bonds with her students. She has authentic interest in other’s lives, as if part of her work as a journalism professor is to stimulate young reporters to figure our path and professional place in the world.
“She knows my name, which is encouraging,” jokes Ashley Jones, my classmate. For her, Maggie has become a career advisor, and a mentor who is always ready with new opportunities. This is the second class Ashley has taken with Maggie. Thanks to those classes, she’s found out that she’s really into journalism research and data storytelling.
“Maggie has high expectations of her students. She’s always looking after you because she wants you to improve, so in that way you’ll feel proud of the work you have done. When she sees someone has potential, she’ll push even harder,” Ashley told me. Now Ashley has developed her own “document state of mind.” She’s always thinking of new stories. From Maggie she learned to possess her own reporting disposition, and she decided to follow her professor’s lead and find out what the government isn’t showing.
“I liked her from the start,” said Dan DeFraia, another classmate of mine. “She’s all about public records, the First Amendment and holding those with power accountable. It was like meeting someone who has been fighting the same good fight as you – and has been doing it for much longer, in fact.”
As a reporter and editor of The Boston Herald in the late 90’s, she learned that there is no real news in breaking news. If a young reporter wants to follow a story that has been already published, then he or she has to find a systemic pattern, get the whole idea, and conceive of the maximum possible story. After all that comes one of the most important question: who is going to care?
“The first thing you have to let go of as a reporter is the ego. I don’t care if they are rude if they answer my question and I get the story, that’s it.” She has followed her own statement, and sometimes pushes it to the limit.
“I’ve gone to people’s houses at night and ask uncomfortable questions, and call people and ask unpleasant questions. What am I willing to do to get the story? Everything within legal bounds,” Maggie explains.
Maggie misses doing stories. “I don’t have time, I wish I did,” she told me.
Instead, she has developed a new interest in helping students get excited about potential stories related to data storytelling. She works really close to them, having an active position during the process. In 2012 she supervised a project about juvenile life without parole in Massachusetts. The story –written by Boston University students- won the regional “Mark of Excellence” award given to student journalists. The same project was honored with a variety of national awards.
“We all have to figure it out in life, and you will do too, were do you fit in the world. I’ve tried to do other jobs and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not where my strengths are. What can I do well? I can encourage these guys. It’s the best use I can be,” she concluded.
The key, then, is just to lean into what moves deep inside of you.