Veteran journalist and award-winning author Donna Bryson decided to become a reporter in her teens – after giving up her childhood dream of being a tightrope walker!
Donna’s work for The Associated Press has taken her to Europe, Africa and Asia. She has written two acclaimed books. Her byline has appeared in top publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Recently, Donna became hunger and housing reporter for the online news source Denverite. In addition, she is a volunteer for Colorado Press Women and other journalism groups as well as supporting a Denver nonprofit that promotes international understanding.
“I am a huge fan of Donna Bryson,” says Sandy Nance, CPW president and past COA. “What has been marvelous to experience is her quiet, competent leadership. And her career has been impressive indeed.”
The daughter of Andrew Bryson, an Army veteran who worked for the Department of Defense, and the late Betty Bryson, a nurse, Donna moved frequently in childhood, at one point living in Pueblo, Colo. There, she spent hours balanced atop the wooden fence enclosing the backyard, honing her tightrope-walking skills. But as she got older, she questioned the wisdom of joining the circus and pondered other careers. A voracious reader, one of Donna’s favorite books was Harriet the Spy about a girl who observes and writes about her friends in a journal. Perhaps reporting was a job she’d enjoy, Donna thought. “Journalism is listening to people, taking notes and creating stories about them,” she says.
After the family moved to San Diego, which Donna considers her hometown, journalism won out. She edited her high school magazine – the Serrandipity after school namesake, 18th century missionary Junipero Serra – and was encouraged in her decision to pursue journalism by her adviser, Laura Hiltz. Donna simultaneously earned bachelor’s and master’s journalism degrees, with highest distinction, at Northwestern University in 1986.
During college, Donna interned at The Boston Globe and the AP. The AP offered her a job in the Kansas City bureau after graduation. A year later, she opened a one-woman satellite office in Springfield, Mo., and, among her assignments, covered the scandal that brought down the evangelical empire of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. From broadcasting their religious teachings to 40 countries and living in opulence, the couple lost everything and divorced after Jim Bakker was sent to prison for fraud.
Donna jokes that southern Missouri was “my first foreign job. This was unlike any place I’d lived before. This was the South.” During her year in Springfield, Donna also reported about death threats against presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson; a Missouri couple with ties to a white supremacist group was arrested in the case and agreed to a plea deal.
Being an AP office of one sharpened Donna’s organizational skills and exposed her to a wide range of assignments, great preparation for her international reporting. In 1989, she moved to New York for the AP to work as a World Desk editor and United Nations correspondent. And in 1993, she joined the AP’s Johannesburg, South Africa, bureau, just as that country was ending apartheid and anticipating the 1994 general election in which all races were to vote for the first time.
Donna saw many news organizations sending seasoned war correspondents to their South African offices at the time, sure that sporadic violence would erupt into a full race war as the election drew nearer. Donna doubted that would happen, based on her conversations with South Africans of all races. And indeed, voting was peaceful, even celebratory. Donna recalls hurrying from polling place to polling place to interview newly enfranchised black Africans who waited in good spirits in hours-long lines to cast votes. It was an inspiring experience for her. “Since then,” she says, “I have been a dedicated voter. It is so easy for us here.”
Donna is proud to have had several interviews with Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president after being imprisoned for decades for organizing opposition to white rule. “He was very personable and very easy to talk to,” she says.
She was based in New Delhi from 1996 to 1999; Cairo from 1999 to 2005; and London from 2005 to 2008. She returned to South Africa from 2008 to 2012 as chief of bureau, finding that racial policies had changed significantly since her first AP assignment there, but that the country still had a long way to go.
Each AP posting was different and offered different opportunities. In India, she covered the 50th anniversary of the partition of India and Pakistan. In Egypt, she and other staffers watched TV coverage of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
“We knew it would come back to the Middle East,” Donna recalls. Three hijackers were Egyptian, the rest Saudi Arabian or Lebanese. Despite the antagonism between Middle Eastern countries and the United States after 9/11, Donna never felt threatened. “Islam sets store by how guests are treated. People wanted to be welcoming and to be understood,” she remembers.
Almost seven years ago, Donna, her husband Fred Glick and their daughter Thandi, now 15, returned to the United States and settled in Denver, where Fred grew up. Donna wanted to be closer to her mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and lived an easy flight away in San Diego.
In Denver, Donna began freelancing “for anyone who’d take a pitch,” she says. And the list of news organizations that accepted her pitches is impressive: In addition to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Donna has reported and written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Beast, Equal Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Denver Post, Stars and Stripes and VICE.
She also completed her first book, It’s a Black-White Thing, after settling in Denver. The book explores the struggle to get past racism after apartheid among young South Africans at the University of Free State. It won first place in the 2015 NFPW and CPW communications contests and was short-listed for City Press Tafelberg Nonfiction Award in South Africa. She returned to South Africa to promote the book in 2014.
A freelance assignment for Stars and Stripes led Donna to her second book, 2018’s Home of the Brave: A Small Town, Its Veterans and the Community They Built Together. The article explored how the Western Slope town of Montrose, population 20,000, developed the Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans to create a “no barriers” community where all veterans, from any war, could thrive.
The tale deserved more, Donna decided. Her book relates in detail how Melanie Kline, a small-business owner in Montrose, was inspired after seeing a TV news story about teaching wounded veterans to white-water kayak. Kline led a communitywide effort in Montrose to provide veterans with mental health support, job and housing advice and a gathering place called Warrior Resource Center.
For Donna, visiting Montrose and hearing people talk to and about veterans of the War on Terror was unusual. Most of the Americans she had met upon her return to the USA didn’t even seem to know there was a war, unlike the people she had known overseas.
She feels that both her books explore the same core issue and spring from the same source: “They are both about building communities and both are inspired by the news,” Donna says.
In 2018, Donna joined Denverite, an online publication, as the hunger and housing reporter.
“I’ve missed newsroom conversations,” she told Denverite on her first day of work. “I love journalists and their quirky sense of humor … I’m out to find stories about people with solutions to problems around housing and hunger.”
Donna has been pleased by the enthusiastic reaction to her articles. “I hear from readers all the time and they give me good ideas,” Donna says. Food banks, senior housing, senior hunger, SNAP (formerly food stamps), homeless college students, first-time homebuyers – Donna has covered all these topics and more in mere months on the job.
Donna, age 54, joined Colorado Press Women in 2014. “I was drawn by CPW’s seriousness about media training, supporting young journalists and First Amendment issues,” she says. In addition to speaking to CPW about each of her books at authors luncheons, Donna became CPW’s representative to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition about two years ago and is a member of the coalition’s Board of Directors.
Bobbi Gigone, CPW member and an NFPW COA, notes, “Donna is a busy professional journalist and author, but never seems to hesitate when asked to speak or take on a task, like the CFOIC, for CPW.” Nance, the CPW president, praised Donna for urging CPW and other local journalism organizations to voice support for The Denver Post journalists when the hedge fund that owns the paper slashed staff and funding last year.
Donna also is a member of the Denver Women’s Press Club and the Colorado Press Association.
Because of her foreign reporting, Donna joined WorldDenver, a nonprofit founded about seven years ago to foster understanding of world affairs and cultures. It brings about 600 international visitors to Denver each year in a partnership with the U.S. State Department. It also hosts speaking events and sends groups to other countries. Through WorldDenver, Donna and her family have hosted several foreign visitors.
Donna says supporting WorldDenver allows her “to pay it forward. When you are overseas, you really depend on the kindness of strangers.” The organization also helps participants “see America in different ways,” she adds.
Despite living on four continents and meeting world leaders such as Mandela, Donna says her heroes are right here in America: her parents. “I think of all the things they have seen in their lifetimes. Raising my sister Crystal and me, they wanted us to have all kinds of opportunities even when there was the possibility of racism.” Her mother died in 2016; her father still lives in San Diego.
Since returning to the USA, Donna and her family still travel internationally. They’ve seen a lot of the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. They’ve also been to Japan, the United Kingdom several times, France and Namibia. They hope to return to Egypt and India.
For relaxation, Donna, Fred and Thandi enjoy going to hear live music at Dazzle, Denver’s leading jazz club. Donna still loves reading. In fact, she often takes out-of-town visitors to see the eye-catching Denver Public Library headquarters, designed by famed post-modern architect Michael Graves, and its automated book return system!
The family will move in June 2019 to a new home in north Denver. They bought and are remodeling a former steam plant for a World War II-era Army depot, all designed by the well-known architect Temple Hoyne Buell. When it is completed, the old plant will be an open and somewhat industrial-looking living space and showcase for art the family has collected around the world, including in recent years in the Americas.
Donna is a keen observer, a quiet leader, a skillful writer and a compassionate, empathetic person. The members of Colorado Press Women appreciate her many contributions to the profession, the organization and the community, and are honored to nominate a woman of her caliber for 2019 NFPW Communicator of Achievement.
Story by Sandy Graham