Storyteller with the heart of a poet

June 1, 2020 — When journalist Christopher Maag ’95 was invited by a local New Jersey ambulance corps to ride along as part of his pandemic coverage, it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

Christopher Maag ’95
    Christopher Maag ’95

“I was pretty freaked out afterwards but in the moment I jumped on it,” says Maag, a features columnist for The Record and USA Today. “We (reporters) are always striving to get access, and here’s this guy saying, ‘get in the truck, we’re going on a call.’”

The resulting story was eye-opening and heartbreaking.

In his two-plus decades career as a journalist, including freelance work for TIME magazine and The New York Times (he became their traveling Midwest beat reporter), Maag has covered everything from the waning days of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the devastating floods that overran Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s why at age 46 – despite the tribulations of journalism – he remains committed to it. “I’ve been on helicopters and in coal mines,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten to do some really cool stuff.”

Maag’s alternated between columnist and investigative reporter, but his goal has always been to report the news with the heart of a poet.

“At age 28 I discovered Tom Wolfe and found what writing could be. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and thought, ‘This is amazing. I’m feeling things.’ I had never read anything where art was the point.”

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Maag didn’t grow up thinking he’d become a writer, although he won a statewide poetry contest in fourth grade. “It would have been a lot easier if I’d known early on that I wanted to write,” he says. At Grinnell, he didn’t take a single literature class, focusing instead on history (his major) and political science so he’d be better informed about the world. He played on Grinnell’s Ultimate (frisbee) team, founded the skydiving club, and participated in numerous Grinnell Outdoor Recreation Program (GORP) trips.

After graduating Maag threw himself into different professions to figure out what he wanted to do. His first summer he led canoe and cycling trips, though outdoor leadership “seemed like a very hard way to make a living.” He moved to Minneapolis and tried politics as a community organizer with ACORN, then taught in a Portland middle school for a year with AmeriCorps. When a friend with a small paper asked him to write, Maag discovered his calling.

He worked at a variety of magazines, weeklies and daily papers, and after returning to Columbus and writing long features for Columbus Monthly magazine, Maag went back to school and earned a master’s in 2003 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

For the past seven years he’s been at the northern New Jersey-based Record, writing columns and investigative pieces covering New Jersey and New York City, on topics ranging from vultures to cranberries to a local serial killer. Maag searched for and found the killer’s sole surviving victim and interviewed her.

He’s as enthusiastic about writing as ever, maintaining a spreadsheet with some 540 story ideas.

“I never let an idea go, and the quirkier the better,” he says. “An editor at the Times once said to me, ‘why don’t you give us some quirky Midwestern stories,’ and that became a license to look for fun. And usually there’s depth to those stories.”

—by Anne Stein ’84

For your information:

To read more of Maag’s articles and columns, visit his website.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.