Campbell Robertson's Long Road to New Orleans

By: Samuel Chamberlain Only 290 miles separate his hometown of Montevallo, Ala., and New Orleans, La. -- a six-hour drive. But Campbell Robertson's journey has been somewhat more roundabout, going through the gossip and theater beats in New York City, with stops in Morocco and Baghdad.

In August, Robertson arrived in New Orleans as a full-time New York Times correspondent. He is one of two Times correspondents stationed in the South (Shaila Dewan in Atlanta is the other), which gives him a wide area to cover in addition to the Crescent City. With Robertson?s arrival, the Times remains one of two national newspapers (USA Today being the other) to have a full-time reporter based in New Orleans.
?You have to get in your car and really learn about the area ? places like Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, that?s a lot of states to cover, and a lot of stuff going on,? explains New York Times Deputy National Editor David Firestone tells E&P.

For Robertson, returning to the region of his birth is a dream come true. ?I?m from the South, and I?ve always wanted to report from here,? he says on the phone from New Orleans. ?I heard that it was going to be open, and I raised my hand and said ?If it?s still open, I?d like to be considered,? and it worked.? Roberston succeeds Adam Nossiter, who left the beat in April to supervise the paper?s coverage of West Africa.

This is not Robertson?s first reporting gig on the Gulf Coast, having spent three weeks in Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss. immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the area in 2005. However, he feels a particularly strong connection to the city synonymous with Katrina. ?I love this city,? he says. ?I have friends here, and it?s going to be fascinating to cover the recovery effort, among other things.?

?This is one of the great and continuing national stories,? says Firestone, explaining his paper?s commitment. ?We had a natural disaster where a city was destroyed, and the government?s response became a source of debate. The recovery has taken not months, but years, and is still ongoing and other important issues have come up. We?re not going to let up on covering this story just because the country?s attention is elsewhere.?

?You can?t replace a culture like [New Orleans],? says Robertson. ?It?s sort of a national treasure, and the rebuilding process is important because it teaches us lessons about rebuilding and development, about what the lessons of the stimulus might be, short-term interests versus long-term interests. It?s a fascinating story. What happens here has huge ramifications.?

A graduate of Georgetown University, Robertson worked briefly for the Manhattan District Attorney?s 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 I?d often meet him on the sidewalk and we?d 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. ?I?d 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 city?s 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 we?d 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.

?Thankfully, I was able to go out and drive around and take my time there,? he recalls. ?It?s still one of the most important stories going on today. [The Iraqis] are trying to create a country. They?re trying to figure out a way to make this work. There are some incredibly good people and some incredibly bad people.?

Now, Robertson returns to where he?s always wanted to be. ?Some of the worst and best parts of our history come from the South,? he notes. ?It?s a place of extremes, where you have people who love art and music, and you have people who aren?t big fans of either. And it?s cheesy, but I do find that the way of life here is different. When people talk here, it?s more conducive to storytelling. And the food?s better, too.?


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