As a Roanoke native, Matt Chittum knows the valley as well as anyone in our newsroom. He’s a natural storyteller with a writing voice that can make even the most complicated topics an interesting read. Matt’s devoted most of his journalism career to reporting and writing but in 2007 he took on a new role as the newsroom’s database guru. You can check out some of his work at the Datasphere.
Hometown: Brambleton Avenue, Roanoke
College: Roanoke College, BA in English; VCU, MA in English
Why journalism: By accident. I started here with a part-time clerical job that I worked along with two other jobs, as an adjunct English professor and bartending. I decided pretty quickly this is where I wanted to stay. I felt like, even with my menial tasks, I was part of something important, something that mattered outside the building in which it was done. It was service. I liked all that. It was also a way to write for a living, and for an English major, that’s Nirvana. Finally, it forced me out of my comfort zone and made me grow personally. I avoid confrontation by nature, and it’s not my way to make people uncomfortable. But you can’t do this job, you can’t serve your readers well, if you aren’t willing to ask hard questions and make people uneasy, if not flat out mad. I don’t relish that, but I like that I’ve found the fortitude to do it when the job requires it.
Years in journalism: 17
Years at The Roanoke Times | roanoke.com: 17
Proudest journalism accomplishments: I’d have to put the series on Roanoke’s Lebanese community, Grapevines, from 2003 at the top, I think. Because it was partly about my family and a personal quest to uncover my own heritage — and an act of mourning for my mother, who had recently past away — it was rewarding in a way that newspaper reporters rarely enjoy. But readers responded to it in a way that shocked and overwhelmed me. The responses by email and phone the first week alone numbered in the hundreds. That was seven years ago, yet every month or two, I hear from somebody in a far off place who stumbled across that series online, usually while doing their own genealogical search. I’ve also worked on numerous large projects and stories with colleagues that I’m proud of. Many have won awards I’m proud to share in. Too many to name, actually. Beyond that, I’m proud with how diverse my career here has been. There’s not much I haven’t covered as a writer and reporter. I’ve worked in the online world, and for a while left words behind in favor of databases. Finally, I still think it’s just a great thing to be able to work for your hometown paper. And for all the damnation the press endures these days, I’m still immensely proud to be a journalist.
Journalists you admire and why: The journalists I know best are my colleagues here, and I admire many of them for many different reasons, some for their guts, some for their smarts and savvy, some for their writing, some for their sheer doggedness. I think great journalism is practiced at all levels of the game, not just at big city papers. I have and have had colleagues right here in Roanoke that are as good as you can get. As long as you’re doing this for the right reasons — to inform and entertain readers, shine light on the powerful, and tell moving stories — and you go about your business ethically and with a conscience, then you have my admiration.
Web sites you visit regularly: facebook, washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com
Favorites books: Hard to name particular titles, but Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman have been very influential for me as a thinker. As a literature student, I’ve read so many great books, it’s hard to narrow it down much. Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is a favorite. “The Great Gatsby.” Lots of William Faulkner stuff. These days, I read non-fiction almost exclusively, especially history. Erik Larson is a favorite author in that arena. Summer means lazy stuff like Carl Hiaasen novels.
Favorite movies: I can’t narrow this down.
Interests outside of work: My family (wife Ellen and daughters Hadley, 12, and Harper, 6), running, coaching youth lacrosse and soccer, playing guitar and teaching myself to play piano.