Even though our 2007 Nieman fellowship year ended little more than a decade ago, two of our classmates have since died: Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was murdered in her car by a police officer in Afghanistan in 2014; and Chris Cousins, statehouse bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News, who died in August after a heart attack at just 42.
From the outside, they could not have seemed more different. Anja had traveled the world, shooting sports and endless bloody conflict, from Afghanistan to the U.S. military’s assault on Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. She was profane and loud.
Chris, in contrast, was born and raised in Maine, and except for his year in Cambridge, had spent his entire life in the Pine Tree State. He would often simply appear, quietly, at your elbow and begin chatting with understated humor and his Maine lilt.
Despite their outward differences, the two shared incredible similarities. Both had a fierce affinity for overlooked people, those with little power or means. But the world got to see Anja’s warmth through her camera and her international platform. Chris’s enormous heart didn’t get as wide an audience.
Boy, did the world miss out.
Chris, the 2007 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Community Journalism, was the youngest member of our class and the least experienced when he first walked through the front door of the Lippmann House 12 years ago.
But there was so much to learn from him. In his work and his life, Chris had a boundless generosity. Whether toward his young family—his wife, Jennifer, and young son Caleb, eventually joined by a second son, Lucas—or his Nieman colleagues, Chris was just used to thinking of others first. He was always quick to volunteer to help at a Sounding, to shovel a driveway, to offer a lift to the airport, or a kind word. And he never stopped.
When Nieman Damakant Jayshi told Chris in 2010 that he planned to quit the newspaper he helped found in Nepal without knowing what came next, Chris encouraged him, adding, “Kudos for following your heart.”
Nieman Alagi Yorro Jallow, who ran a struggling independent newspaper in Gambia before coming to Cambridge, said Chris was the first classmate to reach out and congratulate him when Gambians finally embraced democracy in 2017. “I always knew Chris had my best interest at heart,” he said.
Wall Street Journal reporter and Nieman colleague Cameron McWhirter recalled that Chris exuded a sort of innocence, an aw-shucks demeanor, which was easy to mistake for naivete. But he was always watching people, sizing them up. And his observations were sharp. They just weren’t ever cruel.
This full-spiritedness carried over into Chris’s work after his Nieman year.
In a time of toxic politics, with media credibility under constant assault, Chris made it a point to really get to know everyone, and not superficially. When he asked after politicians’ pets, chatted with them about hunting and fishing, shared his aspirations for his own children, he wasn’t building sources. He actually cared. He knew the personal stories of the janitors and staff members who roamed the halls of the state capitol.
“He related to people on human terms,” said Robert Long, who had been Chris’s editor at the Bangor Daily News since 2013, but had worked closely with him at other publications on and off for 15 years. “He had this incredibly rare ability to connect with people from all walks of life.”
Chris was confident, but eschewed bravado. He was disarming—but never manipulative. He was a tough reporter; he just carried himself with humility. He saw the good in almost everyone.
About Maine’s ever-bombastic governor, always quarrelsome with the press, including Chris, he once wrote, “I consider myself pretty lucky to have the opportunity to cover a governor who doesn’t tiptoe around all the time trying to please everyone.”
In his own story memorializing his colleague, Long recalled Chris sharing a quip from someone who’d just angrily told him off. Chris was unperturbed. “I still kind of like him,” Chris said.
Chris’s integrity was inescapable. Everyone saw it. Hundreds attended his funeral. Two weeks after his death, all 186 members of Maine’s legislature sponsored a “memorial sentiment” honoring Chris. The Senate president stepped down from the rostrum to talk about his own anguish at Chris’s death.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Sen. Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, praised Chris in a joint statement as a “consummate professional who embodied the best ideals of journalism.”
They were right.
Chris wasn’t getting rich or famous. Money was a struggle. He could have easily gone on to a national news outlet or many other higher-paying journalism jobs. But he knew Maine needed him, and he felt lucky to be there.
Nieman Evelyn Hernandez, whose daughter babysat Chris’s first son while in Cambridge, felt a connection with Chris because he was a community reporter.
“I considered myself a community reporter too, as I was covering the Latino community in New York,” she says.
When Evelyn pointed out to him that they both covered the challenges and triumphs of ordinary people while many of their colleagues traveled the world, Chris brightened with evident pride. “Thanks, Ev, that really means a lot to me.”
“It was difficult, but Chris was adamant about persevering—he was committed to ‘sticking it out’ as a journalist because of his love for Maine,” says former Associated Press reporter and Nieman colleague Tini Tran.
When author and Nieman colleague James Scott’s daughter was born during our Nieman year, Chris gave her “Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee” by Chris Van Dusen, a children’s book author whose stories highlight the wonders of Maine. Scott’s daughter, and later his son, loved the story so much that they bought most of Van Dusen’s other books for them over the years.
One of Scott’s fondest memories was the summer after our Nieman year. Chris invited James up for a weekend visit. Both loved fishing, so they went out to the beach, a cooler of beer and rods in hand. It was a glorious afternoon.
They caught little more than a sunburn and a hangover, but had a ball, reflecting on the year we had enjoyed in Cambridge and looking ahead at the return to our newsrooms.
Asked how he thought Chris would want to be remembered, Long, his editor, did not hesitate. “Fearless, which he was,” Long said, but also as “a human being who just happened to be a journalist.”
“He would be embarrassed almost to the point of being pissed off that this much attention was being paid to him,” said Long.
The story was always supposed to be about someone else.