Wesley Lowery stumbled onto his biggest story the old-fashioned way: Last summer, as unrest stirred in Ferguson, Missouri, over Michael Brown’s shooting, the 24-year-old Washington Post reporter approached Mark Berman, who runs the Post’s national-news blog, about getting reactions from Washington politicians.
“A few minutes later, deputy national editor Scott Wilson came to my desk and asked if I could get on a plane,” Lowery says by e-mail. Conveniently, Lowery had been visiting his family in Michigan over the weekend. “My grandmother had generously insisted on doing my laundry before I left Detroit—so I grabbed that same bag and headed to [Reagan National].”
Everything that has happened in Lowery’s career since, however, might have come out of a panel discussion on the future of news and has turned him into a Rorschach inkblot, especially in conservative media circles, where some see him as all that’s wrong with journalism today.
A few days after he touched down in Missouri, Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly were arrested after the two were slow to leave a McDonald’s that was being evacuated. Depending on your worldview, (a) the cops overreacted, slamming Lowery into a soda machine as he videoed the scene on his phone, or (b) the pair refused in order to make headlines of their own.
Morning Joe cohost Joe Scarborough chided Lowery for getting popped: “Next time a police officer tells you you’ve got to move along because you’ve got riots outside, well, you probably should move along.” The Daily Caller has dedicated dozens of articles to Lowery, including a multi-part series “investigating” whether he is actually black.
Despite the criticism, Lowery has continued to let his micro-updates feed his work at the Post and has become a parachuter par excellence: establishing deep sources, writing colorful solo pieces, and contributing to team coverage. Wherever he roams, Lowery’s smartphone is his best reporting tool. “He does represent something new,” says Cameron Barr, Lowery’s editor on the national desk. “I sometimes wish others would do more of it.”
This is presumably what Post executive editor Marty Baron had in mind when he brought Lowery from the Boston Globe, where the reporter had pumped out gripping, atomic updates on social media while covering former NFL star Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial, Boston’s mayoral race, and the marathon-bombing manhunt. In their hiring memo to Post staff, the national editors noted that Lowery used Twitter as “a reporter’s notebook for a 21st century journalist.”
Such missteps have demonstrated the double-edged sword that social media can be for journalists and their organizations. Since Ferguson, Lowery has attracted 100,000-plus Twitter followers. (Those with more tend to be nationally syndicated columnists like Charles Krauthammer.)
“For a long time I responded to almost every single tweet sent at me,” Lowery says. “That’s manageable when you have 3,000 followers. But once I started covering Ferguson and then my follower count ballooned, that became both completely unmanageable and counterproductive.”
The Post also seems to be learning how to manage the costs and benefits of a social-media “it” boy. Concerned that his high profile is providing too much ammo for his haters, management has clamped down on Lowery’s interactions with the press—he was allowed to answer questions for this story only via e-mail. At the same time, the Post announced Lowery would own the provocative, high-profile beat of the moment: “the interactions between law enforcement officials and their communities.”
“What we’ve discussed with Wes is how to find the appropriate balance between the immediacy of Twitter and rapid-fire blog posts and the depth and impact of longer-form projects and stories aimed at A1 and the top of our digital platforms,” Barr says. “Wes has a large audience on social media—115,000 people can see his tweets, to cite just one of his stats—and sometimes engaging in that conversation can be a distraction from other goals, as he would himself acknowledge.”
Lowery says he wants to use the new perch to talk about the “breakdown of trust between many communities and their officers” as well as the “specific and broad challenges that our nation’s police officers face, and to write pieces that will help facilitate tough yet productive conversations.” Looking down the road, he says he’d one day “like to be in a position to help shape coverage.” (“Like many talented people at The Post, Wes will have opportunities to move into positions that involve guiding coverage,” Barr says.)
But as 2015 dawned, Lowery shared on Tumblr more modest immediate goals: “More writing, less Twitter”; “Assume the good in people (no social media fights)”; “Eat real food.”
“I’m never going to be able to exist on any medium and believe that it is going to be unconnected to my role as a reporter,” he says. “I do think that my issues with sorting personal and professional life—especially on Twitter—speak to the struggles that plenty of people have with work/life balance.”
Lowery, who says his Chipotle intake is already way down, is looking forward to turning 25 next month. Renting a car, he notes, “will become so much easier.”
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.