Diana Marcum, a 2018 Nieman Fellow and former Los Angeles Times reporter, died on August, 9, 2023, in Fresno, California, following surgery to remove a glioblastoma several weeks earlier. She was 60 years old.
A gifted narrative writer, Marcum was known for her perceptive and empathetic portraits of the individuals and places she profiled. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Scenes from California’s Dust Bowl,” a series of articles about the farmers, field-workers and other Californians in the state’s Central Valley.
“Diana’s coverage of the California drought is some of the most beautifully told and humanely reported journalism I’ve ever read,” said Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski. “She had more than an ear for speech and conversation. She seemed to form easy connections with story subjects that relaxed them and made them feel heard, not just observed. I loved her description of not writing about ‘them,’ but writing about ‘us.’”
In a 2015 conversation with Nieman Storyboard, Marcum discussed how the “Dust Bowl” series began, her work with photographer Michael Robinson Chavez and the importance of listening: “I think my overall purpose was to introduce people to each other, to let them get to know one another. And I think how we bond with each other is through laughter. … When you’re talking about something that’s very wrenching and has a lot of pathos, if it’s just all the grit and despair, it’s not servicing telling the reality because the kind of people that I’m writing about are very resilient, and they have humor. And there’s something to be admired there. And it usually comes through in the lighter moments. And you don’t care as much about the dark unless there’s at least a little pinpoint of light.”
An untraditional path to journalism
Born in 1963 and raised in California’s Sonoma County, Marcum attended classes at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California, but in her Nieman Storyboard Q&A noted: “My parents died when I was young. I didn’t get through college. I didn’t have any of the right credentials,” she said. “But I could write. People seemed to think I could write.”
Following her dream to become a journalist, she began her career as an editorial assistant and later a reporter at the San Bernardino Sun. She also worked a reporter and columnist at The Fresno Bee. She freelanced for the Los Angeles Times before joining the newsroom as a staff writer in 2011.
In her 2016 Nieman Reports article “Let the Interlopers In,” Marcum wrote about the need for reporters from different educational backgrounds: “We need diversity of all kinds in the newsroom, especially from places where catching a few classes at the community college can take as much Herculean effort as getting into Harvard. So that means maybe overlooking the empty box by degrees from time to time.”
At the Los Angeles Times, Marcum worked with editor and close friend Kari Howard, who edited the Column One feature and later became editor of Nieman Storyboard. Howard died in 2022 at the age of 59. Marcum wrote about traveling across country to see her terminally ill friend in the 2021 Los Angeles Times article “An American road trip through troubled times.”
Marcum described their special working relationship and their work together on the “Dust Bowl” series: “It’s just a dream, a dream come true. When you finally, finally meet somebody who’s like-minded. … We’re almost like those chipmunks from the Disney cartoons, you know? It’s very respectful and very warm, and we’ve developed a friendship from working together on so many stories. So we can almost complete each other’s sentences at this point. And sometimes if something isn’t working, we’ll say, “Let’s take a pass at this and see what you have.” And we’ll come back the next day and find out we changed the exact same things.”
After taking a buyout from The Fresno Bee, Marcum traveled to the Azores, home to group of immigrants she had meet living in rural California. The trip formed the basis for her first book, “The Tenth Island: Finding Joy, Beauty, and Unexpected Love in the Azores,” a 2018 memoir about the diaspora of Azoreans who return to the Portuguese archipelago each summer.
She wrote her second book “The Fallen Stones: Chasing Butterflies, Discovering Mayan Secrets, and Looking for Hope Along the Way after visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Belize.
At the end of 2022, Marcum left the Los Angeles Times and bought a house on the island of Terceira. in the Azores with her partner, former Fresno Bee photographer Mark Crosse, and her friend Janet Sluis. The couple had arrived there in June. Marcum had been planning to write her third travel memoir.
Reflecting on her work shortly after winning her 2015 Pulitzer Prize, Marcum shared her thoughts about the power and impact of narrative reporting:
“It just makes me so happy to think that there are stories whose main purpose is just to introduce people and make them understand a certain way of life or make them feel like they know this person. … Even though they’re very sad stories and very tragic circumstances, people will write me and say, “You know, I was having such a bad day, and then I read about this guy. And it made me want to do something kind for someone.” I get these “Thank you for the story” notes. And I am really the wrong person to be thanking; I’m just telling the story. But you get the privilege of being the go-between, of saying, “Hey, this is part of the world too.” If we only write about the bad, that’s not a complete picture. There is a lot of perseverance and faith and friendship and humor. There’s everything. It’s a big, complex world of good and bad. And the good counts.”
Nieman Foundation: A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Diana Marcum
Nieman Reports: Let the Interlopers In by Diana Marcum
Books by Diana Marcum
- The Tenth Island: Finding Joy, Beauty, and Unexpected Love in the Azores
- The Fallen Stones: Chasing Butterflies, Discovering Mayan Secrets, and Looking for Hope Along the Way
Portuguese American Journal: Straight from Pico: An interview with the author of ‘The Tenth Island’
Pen America: The Pen Ten with Diana Marcum