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Pick of the day: Inside the Dear Mr. President story

Writing to the president has always struck me as utterly futile, only slightly more worthwhile than writing Santa Claus. So I was surprised to learn earlier this week from Eli Saslow's very good story that a small army of staff and volunteers plucks 10 letters out of the 20,000 letters and e-mails that inundate the White House each day for President Obama to read. Just as astounding -- at least to me, someone who after nearly six years has yet to finish sending Thank You cards to her wedding guests -- is that the president writes back! And unlike Apple chief Steve Jobs, he uses pen and paper.

The story documents the journey of one letter to the president's desk and what inspired its author, Jennifer Cline, a 27-year-old working mom in Michigan, to write it. It also describes the elaborate system that has evolved to handle all of this correspondence, including a mailroom in an undisclosed location.

The secret location of the mailroom made me wonder how much effort it took to report the story. Anything involving the White House requires jumping through many hoops. And Cline was such a perfect subject. Those don't exactly fall in your lap. So I asked Eli for the story behind the story and this is what he said:

Q: How long did this story take to do, from conception to execution?
A: I first approached the White House asking for access in mid-January. I was doing other stories while I was waiting for them...I'd say it was 2 months from conception to completion.

Q: How many letters did you actually look at?
A: Before I went to Michigan to spend time with the woman who wrote the letter, I was in the mailroom and saw letters then. The White House gave me a sampling of letters also...What I liked about her letter was it hit on a few different topics: unemployment, health care, cancer. She was cool with me coming out to spend time. A lot of the letters you read are from people who explicitly ask for something. The most crushing thing about [Cline's letter] is the circumstances of her life were so bleak, but she wasn't asking for anything.

Q: How many letter writers did you approach?
A: I ended up talking to about a half dozen.

Q: Did you have any duds, as in subjects that balked or turned out not to be very compelling?
A: No. I'm always surprised by that...If they already felt so moved by an issue to write the president, when The Washington Post calls to put more attention on it, they're receptive.

And I knew that while the letter writer was important...we were talking about a 1,200-word story. Not that I could make anybody work, but I wasn't super super picky about it because I knew whoever the letter writer was, they all go through the same process.

Q: How hard was it to get access to that process?
A: I would say I had four to five coffees/lunches with White House people explaining what I wanted to do...The hardest thing was to get to the mailroom. They didn't really get why I wanted to be there. They were hesitant to give me the address. I said, "But how am i going to get there?" So they gave me the address...They were worried I would tweet the address.

Q: Did they freak out when you named one of the mailroom employees?
A: That was another point of negotiation. I knew I wanted a small piece of the story to be about one of the people who opened the mail. I talked to her boss, the head guy, and explained to him what I wanted to do. Once he knew me a bit, then he was cool with it. It took a little time.

By Annys Shin  | April 2, 2010; 8:25 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, Story Picks, The inside story  
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Eli Saslow stated there is a grammatical error in President Obama's letter to Jennifer Cline. In the article it looks as if the columnist thinks "give" should be "gives". I feel "give" is correct. He is saying "folks---give me confidence"

Posted by: kandnhawk | April 2, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

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