Diana Marcum made a career of chronicling life in the central San Joaquin Valley.
For the bulk of the 2000s, Marcum told those stories in The Fresno Bee as an enterprise reporter and columnist. Her work covering life in the Central Valley during drought earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2015, when, as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, she produced a series of collected features known as “Scenes from California’s Dust Bowl.”
Marcum died Wednesday at the age of 60.
Her death was reported in the Los Angeles Times, where she was hired in 2011.
She died in Fresno after having surgery to remove a glioblastoma in early July, according to the Times.
Marcum didn’t have a formal education in journalism, but she had a knack for writing and a desire to be out in the world hearing stories.
In an interview with Nieman News in 2015, she said the bulk of her reporting time was spent “walking around and just talking to people.”
“It was out in the little towns and the farms, way far off the road. You can’t just go around and knock on doors. It’s pretty hard to just find the doors. This was an area where life is hard and people are incredibly resilient and there’s just these stories of just trying to make your way in the world. Little stories that fascinate me. I mean they’re not little stories, but they’re little-told stories,” she said.
“It’s interesting because I don’t know when I’m talking to people a lot of the time that that’s going to be part of the story. I find that what’s in my notebook is not what goes in the story. There’s like some back part of my brain that’s videotaping everything we do and later on, those are the things that I suddenly realize are key when you start putting it together in your mind,” she said.
Mark Crosse, a former Fresno Bee photographer, became Marcum’s life partner in later years.
“It was people — it was always about people,” Crosse said of the focus of Marcum’s writing.
Marcum came to Fresno in 2001, and it was here she developed the kind of narrative journalism that would define her career, Crosse said.
She wrote about anything and everything, from the mysterious death of a well-known funeral director in Kingsburg, to a 4 1/2-acre community garden tended by Hmong farmers in southeast Fresno. In 2006, she joined a team of eight Fresno Bee reporters and photographers who hiked the John Muir Trail and wrote about the experience.
In all her work, Marcum eschewed the movers and the shakers, Crosse said, instead finding stories in ordinary people and the seemingly mundane.
Marcum did cover major events, but through the lens of narrative storytelling, said Kathy Mahan, a former editor at The Bee who worked with Marcum.
One of Marcum’s first big assignments was 9/11.
“She was sent to New York to just hit the ground and write,” Mahan said.
“She filed some pretty heartbreaking reports,” by being able to integrate herself into the community.
Marcum was ahead of her time in that, Mahan said, reporting on the Fresno area’s diverse communities “before it was in vogue to have people assigned to diverse communities.”
In 2009, Marcum traveled to Washington D.C. to cover the inauguration of President Barack Obama for The Bee. She was following the Mayberrys, an extended Black family with ties to west Fresno and wrote a series of stories on the experience.
“Wow. This isn’t an inauguration at least like any other I’ve heard of — this is a pilgrimage,” Marcum wrote then.
Mahan remembers the trip and being frustrated when Marcum would miss her regular check-ins with the newsroom.
“She would go off and vanish for long periods of time,” Mahan says.
“Then, she would return with these stories.”
Marcum left the Los Angeles Times last year and had been living in Portugal’s Azores, working on what would be her third travel memoir.
Crosse said plans for services are pending.