broadsideblog

Posts Tagged ‘Newspaper’

Another post about the blog

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, women on September 6, 2012 at 12:01 am

I’m Caitlin Kelly, author here.

Since my last behind-the-curtain post about Broadside, this crowd has grown! Every day, new followers are signing up, men and women of all ages from across the globe, from Kenya to Indonesia to my hometown of Toronto — now at 2,300.

A few things to know about me, and what you’ll continue to find here:

I’m Caitlin Kelly, a career print journalist who’s worked as a reporter for three major dailies, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, the 6th-largest newspaper in the U.S. Each of these experiences helped shape who I am as a writer, how I think and how I approach my stories, here and for my paid assignments.

I landed at the Globe when I was 26, with no experience at any newspaper, a fairly unheard-of trajectory. I’d been freelancing for them for seven years already, but suddenly had to meet daily deadlines. The Globe, being the national paper of record, and one with five daily editions, was a terrifying, inspiring, career-making place to work. No matter what the story, their standards were scarily high, even when they didn’t pay for it…like the prison riot in a city a 3-hour drive away that I had to cover, (the competing Toronto Star simply flew their reporters over by helicopter), while I just had to work the phones.

My newspaper staff jobs, which I still miss, taught me the professional values I live by today:

Get it first, run!, do it better, ask all the questions everyone else is too scared to, stay around longer, go places you’re not supposed to. Piss off the powerful. When the press pack turns left, head in the opposite direction. Get the quote! Talk to people with quieter, less-heard voices. Go find them. The perfect is the enemy of the good — just write the damn thing!

Never give up!

One of the reasons I so love news journalism as a training ground is that it forces you to meet and work with a wide range of humanity. You can hold any political or religious beliefs you choose, but you will  cover people who are utterly different from you and it is your job to listen to them carefully and respectfully. That’s a great way to live.

We all have a point of view and the more we listen to one another, the more we’ll learn.

Some of the many people I’ve met and/or interviewed include:

Queen Elizabeth, Rudolf Nureyev, Billy Joel, Olympic golf medalist Kim Rhode, Patty Varone, the NYPD cop who kept New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani alive on 9/11, convicted felons and set designers, professional ice skaters and female chefs, sailors and district attorneys.

I’ve loved the crazy variety, the constant demands of finding/wooing/interviewing people of all ages and interests, from a professor of nuclear physics whose Scottish accent and rapid speech made note-taking almost impossible to the doctors I had to interview, in French, while working in Montreal.

Since losing my Daily News job in 2006, I’ve been working full-time as a freelance writer, editor, blogger and paid speaker on retail work. I write often on business for The New York Times, for their Sunday section. I’ve also written for Marie Claire, Smithsonian, USA Today and dozens of others.

Along the way, I’ve won five fellowships and have written two well-reviewed non-fiction books.

I hope you’ll click the links to these books — you can read a few sample chapters free — and buy them. I know that some of you are teachers and professors. I hope you’ll take a look at them for your classes as both books have also been course-adopted as they’re lively, easy-to-read and fact-based.

I’m happy to write a guest post or do a Q and A with you about any aspect of writing and publishing.

The first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” came out in 2004. I came up with the idea after I discovered a friend and colleague owned a handgun. I grew up in Canada, where civilian gun ownership is not nearly as prevalent and there is no equivalent of the Second Amendment, which many Americans use to justify their gun rights. To research it, I traveled across the U.S., to Ohio, New Orleans and Texas, interviewing 104 men, women and teens about the issue. It was a difficult subject, and I experienced secondary trauma as a result. It happens to journalists (and others) whose work exposes them to others’ trauma, whether sexual, war-related, as victims of crime and violence.

My newest book, which will be published in China in March 2013, is “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” which describes, firsthand, low-wage work in the U.S. It’s rough: part-time, no benefits, little chance for advance scheduling, few raises or promotions. It’s been compared to the best-seller Nickeled and Dimed, in which another writer went behind the scenes to work for low wages.

So when you read and link to Broadside, you’re reading the work of a trained career journalist who plays by old-school rules. You won’t read anything that’s false, made up, exaggerated. When I write about my husband, Jose, a photo editor at The New York Times and a Pulitzer winner, I tell him or ask his permission first. I don’t accept payment for anything I write, nor I do I accept freebies or giveaways or discounts.

I blog because I enjoy it.

I blog every other day, sometimes on the news, often far from it. As some of you already know, I’m passionate about a few things: women’s rights, travel, design, work, living a full and balanced life, emotional connection.

I blog because, more than anything, I want to hear from you!

A lively global conversation is my goal.

Thanks for being here!

What’s Queen Elizabeth really like? I spent two weeks with her

In behavior, culture, History, journalism, Media, news, women, work on June 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm
Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As millions of cheering loyal subjects (and the deeply curious) this weekend celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, some of you must wonder — what’s that life really like?

As Queen Elizabeth celebrates 60 years on the throne — and 1,000 boats are floating down the Thames today to celebrate –  here are my personal memories of an unforgettable two weeks spent chasing her.

In 1984, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took a two-week tour of Canada, from New Brunswick to Ontario to Manitoba. I was 26, a brand-new reporter at The Globe and Mail, with six months’ daily newspaper experience.

This would be front-page news every day, and the paper has five daily editions, so I would have to meet multiple deadlines for my editors in Toronto — whether I was an hour ahead or behind in time zone. No pressure!

The Queen, as you would expect, travels with a large entourage of ladies-in-waiting and equerries. Not to mention a serious and determined contingent of security. In charge on that tour was a dapper Glaswegian, in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. He was tiny but ferocious, yet managed to keep a sense of humor as he tried to keep dozens of annoying reporters and photographers at bay. One day, as we all pressed forward behind the Queen on walkabout, he walked backward, his arms outstretched toward us.

“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.

“I could use the whip,” he said. My. (I later bought him one and gave it to him as a going-away gift at our final party.)

The two weeks were an insane and exhausting blur of 14 to 16-hour days. It was also the first time the press corps — men and women of all ages from every outlet, from the CBC to Time -- was, at each event, literally penned into a very small space with cords around it.

This was also long before cellphones or the Internet and an era when the fastest possible laptop showed (!!) barely 4 sentences at a time, attached to a telephone handset with clips and took forever to download.

Not to mention trying to find a phone on deadline…I raced into a hotel lobby once and commandeered the phone in the news-stand. Another time I ran frantically to the nearest private home, banged on the door, begged for a table to write on and a phone from which to transmit, in the middle of which the man of the house (a judge) came home and wondered why a crazed blond stranger had taken over his phone line and kitchen table.

Or the house at which I banged on the door and promptly fell flat on my face as they opened it.

Good times!

Every day, the Queen’s staff gave us a little printed piece of paper with the exact words to describe her clothing; not “light green” but “eau de Nil.”

The greatest challenge of covering a Royal Tour? There is no news. Cutting ribbons. Smiling. Accepting bouquets.

So every reporter at home reading my stuff was inwardly sneering at how mundane it had to be while every one of us on the tour were desperate to find a scrap of information that no one else in the huge pack, all traveling on the same buses or planes, could access. (When the Queen’s aircraft takes off, yours must leave a few minutes behind….it’s called the “purple corridor.”)

So when I reported that a government minister touched her on the back and shoulder (you never touch Her Majesty!) it made front-page news in Britain and created a huge ruckus.

Then I wrote a later story about the oddness of being feet from a reigning sovereign whose face was on the stamps and currency I’d been using since birth — and how she is really just another human being. On that one, (having said [yes] that she had visible veins in her legs, i.e. she’s human, too), I got plenty of hate mail and calls.

One man suggested I be drawn and quartered.

In Toronto’s harbor, the press corps was invited to drinks aboard Britannia, then her yacht. I still have the engraved invitation, on thick white gold-edged card: “The Master of the Household invites…”

We were all nervous and excited. The equerries were drop-dead gorgeous in their uniforms and poured very strong G & Ts. Then we were all formed into little semi-circles into which the Queen was guided to say hello. When I was introduced, she looked past me and said “Pity we haven’t had time to read the newspapers.”

As if. She had been furious with some of my work and this was the most British diss of all. “Stories? What stories?”

Her jewelry was astonishing. Her tiara…oh, yeah, those diamonds are real!

Her detective, who I met only at the final party, had remained invisible. When we met, I’d had no idea he had, of course, been there the whole time. Short, quiet, modest, James Beaton had in March 1974 saved Princess Anne from a would-be kidnapper and taken a bullet to his body for her.

Good heavens! I’d never met a real hero before.

My favorite memory of all?

Starved for any scrap of color or detail my competitors couldn’t match, I peeked into the rear seat of the parked car in which Her Majesty had been driven to an event.

There sat a small suitcase with a very large red cardboard baggage tag.

In large black block type, it simply read: The Queen.

Performance Reviews? Gen Y Craves Them — Not The Rest Of Us

In behavior, business, Money, US on July 26, 2010 at 1:08 pm
Library report card--5th grade

Image by rochelle, et. al. via Flickr

Who actually likes performance reviews?

Gen Y, turns out:

Ms. Reder agrees that employees are usually thirsty for feedback. She has observed that those new to the work force want it most.

“One thing that’s very consistent when we look at generation Y is that they are constantly looking for feedback,” she says. “They want training and development, and performance reviews facilitate that. Employers need to understand this is a need, not a want.”

I’m definitely not Gen Y and have had a formal performance review only twice in my life, both In my $11/hour retail job.

Yup, that’s it. Never at the major daily newspapers where I worked, or the national magazines. Feedback? As if. Mostly snide criticism, sometimes shouted, and, on a few rare occasions, an attaboy from a boss.

In my retail job — the one where I folded T-shirts and swept the floor and earned no commission — their review evaluated 20 categories of behavior and skill, ranking us from a 1 (you suck) to a 5 (you rock.) The highest I got was a 4, once. I knew what I was really good at, and there was no category for it on the form.

I did discover in one of these meetings, and it was valuable feedback, that my managers, most of whom were decades younger than I, found me intimidating and therefore difficult to manage. I told my boss to tell them to boss me as much as they felt necessary. And they did. (Not much, luckily.)

Another manager, at a short-lived start-up, pointed out that I am extremely decisive, a good thing and a useful skill. But that, very true, I don’t suffer fools gladly and won’t tolerate whiners. Not great for someone who, then, was managing younger workers.

But PRs are one-way: “Here’s what we think of you”, typically with little to no interest in hearing that — perhaps — the way you’re behaving at work, certainly when less than optimal, may also reflect the workstyles and budgets of your employer. I got dinged on one retail review for not paying close enough attention to potential shoplifters; this after the number of associates on the floor was so severely cut back we could barely get our jobs done as it was.

I think many of us try our best, but if your manager, as one of mine did, simply refuses to speak to you, it’s not going to create a terrific work environment.

Some think performance reviews need to be killed, now. From The Wall Street Journal:

This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who’s evaluated hates it. It’s a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus.

And yet few people do anything to kill it. Well, it’s time they did.

Don’t get me wrong: Reviewing performance is good; it should happen every day. But employees need evaluations they can believe, not the fraudulent ones they receive. They need evaluations that are dictated by need, not a date on the calendar. They need evaluations that make them strive to improve, not pretend they are perfect.

Sadly, most managers are oblivious to the havoc they wreak with performance reviews. To some extent, they don’t know any better: This is how performance reviews have been done, and this is how they will be done. Period.

Here’s a simple experiment you can try. Ask yourself: How often have you heard a manager say, “Here is what I believe,” followed by, “Now tell me, what do you think?” and actually mean it? Rarely, I bet.


The performance review is the primary tool for reinforcing this sorry state. Performance reviews instill feelings of being dominated.

Do you give them? Get them? Do you think they’re worth doing?

Have you ever learned something helpful (even positive) from one?

Why Crap Gets Read And Real News Doesn't: The Inherent Dilemma Of Writing For Page Views

In business, Media on May 25, 2010 at 9:38 am
Lady GaGa concert

No, this woman is not newsworthy. Image via Wikipedia

Why producing serious journalism and writing for the Web are contradictory impulses.

An intelligent — and deeply depressing to old-school journos like me — analysis from Silicon Valley Watcher:

Sam Whitmore reports:

It’s now a luxury for a reporter to write a story about an obscure but important topic. That used to be a job requirement. Now it’s a career risk.

Example: let’s say an interesting startup has a new and different idea. Many reporters now won’t touch it because (a) the story won’t generate page views, and (b) few people search on terms germane to that startup. Potential SEO performance is now a key factor in what gets assigned.

Two reporters from two different publications this month both told us the same thing: if you want to write a story on an interesting but obscure topic, you had better feed the beast by writing a second story about the iPad or Facebook or something else that delivers page views and good SEO.

Page view journalism will make our society poorer because less popular but important topics will be crowded out.

The new head of Bloomberg Business Week magazine Josh Tyrangiel, formerly at Time, agrees, telling FishbowlNY:

“Just because you have a witty tweet…that’s not journalism,” he said. “I don’t want to reward people who go out of their way to make a scene…for [Gawker Media chief executive Nick] Denton and some other properties, it may make some sense, but for us it doesn’t.”

I started blogging here in July 2009 and now receive about 12,000 unique visitors a month; this month I might hit a high of 15,000.

But only if I write something really sexy.

Yesterday set a new record for me of more than 1,000 pageviews in a day, when I wrote about the ‘Lost’ finale. I wanted to write on it and I thought the show smart and worth discussing. Cynically, sure, I also knew it was the pop culture topic of the day. It’s like driving with the handbrake on if you ignore the essential reality that popular topics rule this space.

But this means that thoughtful, serious, ambitious writers whose work appears only on-line, and whose only putative value is calculated in pageviews or unique visitors, are toast. Which is how our worth, here, is measured.

If I’m paid $1,500 or $3,000 or $5,000+ for a story that demands multiple interviews, research, reading and revisions, as most newspaper and magazine stories do, and it appears on-line later (as it will, without further compensation — nice), you, the reader have the choice to ignore it or, if you’re willing to dive deep(er) know you’re getting something solid.

It works for both of us. If you’re bored, just turn the page — you’ve already paid for the publication. In print, I get paid enough to make my time worthwhile and can still, occasionally, place a long, thoughtful piece on a tough issue before the eyes of millions of readers.

This volume-vs.-quality metric is applied in lousy newsrooms, where reporters are subjected to managers who count the number of their by-lines in the paper and the number of column inches they have filled with their words. Are the reporters producing smart stuff? Interesting? Breaking important stories?

Who cares? It’s content. It’s being read.

As someone who has become increasingly aware of on-line work and how to grease and speed the machinery, it’s pretty clear that if every piece I posted had a headline or early mention of Lady Gaga or Sarah Palin or the oil spill, I’d be golden.

And if I have nothing new to add on any particular topic, knowing it’s the topic of the day, or am merely shilling for eyeballs (and getting them), does it matter? If I deliberately choose to write about something obscure (educating my readers) or less popular (niche) or investigative (quite possibly depressing and complicated), I’m kissing my bonus goodbye.

Integrity versus bonus. Dark, smart, tough stuff versus lite/happy/cute videos. It’s not a divide I want to straddle, but some of us do. Feeding the beast doesn’t always mean producing my best work, stories and ideas that I — and some of the clients I hope with to work in the future — deeply value.

I find it depressing, but instructive, that my top five best-read (of more than 700 posts) stories here are on pop culture. Sigh. I don’t even care much about pop culture, so it’s a fairly rare event when I care enough and know enough to think I might have something worthwhile to add to that particular chorus.

Professional writers write for money. A very rare, and very fortunate, few freelancers are making serious coin writing only serious material.

Dedicated and amateur bloggers can become financially wildly successful if they persist and draw enormous audiences.

But who, beyond the elite troops of paid on-line journalism veterans like ProPublica, (and the on-line versions of old-school newspapers and newsmagazines) will actually cover anything serious?

Do you care?

Jurassic Park Redux: The Wall Street Journal's New NYC Edition Debut

In business, Media on April 26, 2010 at 1:44 pm
T-Rex Dinosaur

Image by Scott Kinmartin via Flickr

Welcome to Jurassic Park. Daily print newspapers are supposed to be dead — watch the the T. Rex and the Brontosaurus claw at one another anyway!

I was underwhelmed by today’s first edition of the Journal’s new, much-anticipated Metro section.

The new section is called Greater New York, ( a sop to advertisers that they’ll also include the suburban hedge-fund wives of Scarsdale and Greenwich, CT and Short Hills, NJ) and the best story on front page today — albeit not a breaking news piece — was about a rat infestation on the tony Upper East Side. Chewed Manolos!

One front-page piece looked at the state deciding whether or not to borrow money to avoid a looming $1 billion shortfall and another focused on a commercial real estate story about a Fifth Avenue property. An inside page offered tips on how to swipe your Metrocard properly, a fairly basic urban skill. There were two food stories, two pieces about auction houses, a Tribeca penthouse at $28 million and the Mark Hotel, one of the city’s oldest and most elegant, now struggling for business.

If you’re rich — as most Journal readers are — this sort of thing matters. For the rest of us, who just live here, not so compelling.

Only sports columnist Jason Gay — as WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show admired this morning in their assessment of the new section — won plaudits for his self-deprecating sense of humor:

1. Goes without saying, but this column will be primarily dedicated to New York-area fox-hunting and squash. On occasion, it will cover fringe sports, like that science experiment with a basketball in Madison Square Garden.

2. We’ll do our best to devote equal attention to the Yankees and Mets. On occasions where there is a conflict, we will simply lavish praise on the Yankees. Just kidding, Mets—calm down! Stop being the Jan Brady of New York sports.

The tone of the new section feels stiff and tentative, sort of New York Observer light.

It should be an interesting horse race. The Post is unrepentantly itself — today’s wood (front page) had Boobquake — and the Times will retain its own perspective. The Times and Journal will be duking it out for affluent readers, so their race for ad dollars is one to watch, reports today’s Post:

Shares of the Times Co. fell for a second day on Friday, dropping 68 cents, or 5.5 percent, to $11.61. On Thursday, the company reported first-quarter results that showed ad declines were easing but that the market had not yet hit bottom.

Despite the pressure on ad rates, media buyers don’t foresee advertisers abandoning the Times for the Journal’s Greater New York.

“It’s an attractive opportunity for advertisers looking to heavy up in the New York market,” said George Jansen, director of print at WPP’s GroupM media-buying unit. “Do I think they will pull out of the Times and put it all in the Journal? Absolutely not.”

The Times has some factors in its favor. Roughly half of the paper’s more than 900,000 daily print subscribers are in the New York market.

While the Journal has 1.6 million print subscribers, Greater New York is expected to reach about 300,000 readers. The paper also skews more heavily male than the Times, which makes it a tougher sell for retailers.

Still, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman are advertising in the new section, according to Ad Age. Both also advertise in the Times and fall into the paper’s high-end, New York-centric retail base.

Feel the earth tremble. Let the newspaper war begin!

What's In Your Media Diet?

In Media on March 25, 2010 at 10:06 am
NBC Nightly News broadcast

Image via Wikipedia

In addition to Hoovering up as much information from the world at large — conversations, ads, overheard remarks, keeping my eyes open, looking for trends and patterns — here’s where I get my information. Not a total list, but:

Every morning at 9:00 a.m., I listen to a full hour of BBC World News, on radio; read The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Post, may listening to the local NPR talk shows, The Brian Lehrer Show (call-in) and Leonard Lopate (culture), Soundcheck (music) and their national shows Fresh Air and All Things Considered. On weekends, I enjoy Studio 360 and This American Life, both on PRI. Yes, I am a radio junkie! (Blame it on growing up listening to the excellent programming of the CBC, in Canada; for a good taste of it, try their version of ATC, the nightly new show “As It Happens.”)

I watch much less news television: NBC Nightly News and BBC. I check in a few times a day with mediabistro.com. which has a lot of media-related news and may scan a few other websites I like, quirky, personal ones like Shakesville or huge ones like Arts & Letters Daily and Broadsheet.

I often read British and Canadian newspapers on-line, from The Guardian to The Globe and Mail. I speak French and Spanish, so sometimes read in those languages, in print or on-line, like Le Point or Liberation from France. I was reading the Washington Post on-line and in print for years – looks like my subscription has lapsed — and also sometimes read The Los Angeles Times.

I read a lot of non-fiction — just finished eight books as background for my own — and try to read fiction when I can squeeze it in. I just bought my first copy of Lapham’s Quarterly and look forward to reading it.

I read a lot of colleagues’ non-fiction to blog about it and support other writers. I think it’s important both to share ideas and great work, and to create a sense of community.

I read a ton of women’s magazines, mostly for amusement. I sometimes read Vanity Fair, rarely read The New Yorker (can’t stand its elitist tone and dominance of male writers, a problem for me with many magazines.)

I read all the (remaining) shelter magazines, for pleasure and inspiration. We have subscriptions to: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Fortune, Forbes, SmartMoney, Barron’s, PDN (a photography trade magazine), Bon Appetit (after Gourmet was killed). At the library, when I have time, I’ll add Maclean’s (Canadian newsweekly), New York, maybe Time or Newsweek, but only rarely.

We fight over the weekend Financial Times we love it so much.

Here’s 13 Big Name writers and their media diets, from The Atlantic.

As fellow True/Slant writer Sara Libby recently wrote:

There you have it: If you’re not, male, white and straight, you simply cannot judge things fairly. Or report on them.

Only two women made that list — which is one reason I rarely read The Atlantic. Get a grip!

How about you?

'It's worse than AIDS': Interview with 'Superbug' author Maryn McKenna

In Health, Media, Medicine on March 23, 2010 at 8:25 am
Rob looks like a doctor...

Make sure he's washed his hands!Image by juhansonin via Flickr

It’s extremely rare that I start a book, certainly non-fiction, never about science, and can’t put it down because it reads like a thriller. Maryn’s book, “Superbug”, published today, is an astonishing read — I gulped it down in one sitting.

It’s not an easy read but it’s essential: terrifying, sad, powerful, persuasive.

She’ll be interviewed today by Terry Gross on her NPR program, “Fresh Air”, every writer’s dream. I spoke to Maryn, a friend and colleague and fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, about it:

Tell us a little about yourself. Why journalism? Why science and/or medical journalism?

I was born in Brooklyn, NY; raised in England where my father was working on an engineering project; high school in Texas, college in Washington, DC. At Georgetown I took an English honors degree in 16th-c theatre and 20th-c poetry, which meant I was very well educated and completely unfit for the job market.

I looked around for a graduate program that would be quick but give me a credential to make me marketable, and went to Northwestern to study journalism. After I got my degree I started the painstaking climb up the ladder of newspaper circulation. My first job was in finance journalism, but after the market crash of 1987 I was a bit burned out, and my paper offered me an open job covering science and medicine and the environment, and it was a good fit.

A bit of career history: where you worked and why you chose those places.

I had internships at the American Banker and as Washington correspondent for the Oak Ridger of Oak Ridge (TN), home of the Manhattan Project. Full-time jobs at the Rockford (IL) Register-Star (3 years), Cincinnati Enquirer (2 years), Boston Herald (5 years) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10 years). For the first half of my newspaper years, I was mostly an investigative reporter focusing on public health, and for the second half, I was the only U.S. reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

I left my last newspaper job in mid-2006 when it became clear opportunities were contracting — I kept hearing, “We don’t see you doing any projects for us” — and went freelance.

When and where did this idea for a book come to you?

About a month before I left my last job, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Sara Austin, news and health features director of Self magazine, at a conference. My first story for her, published in Feb 2007, was the genesis for “Superbug”. I’ve since done two other major features for her and am lined up to do several more. I’ve also written for Health, More, Heart-Healthy Living, and am a regular contributor to the Annals of Emergency Medicine. My first stories as a freelancer were for Susan Percy at Georgia Trend, for which I will always be grateful.

That first story for Self was on the unappreciated threat that community-strain MRSA posed to women and children — because, even in 2007, people were still talking about MRSA in the context of prisoners and athletes, groups that were mostly male. The story was published; it was picked up by the TODAY show and by Montel, which suggested it had broad demographic appeal; and my in-box exploded with notes from dozens of women and some men wanting to tell me how MRSA had changed their lives. It was clear there was a larger story there.

Where and how did you find your agent?

I’ve heard other authors describe how difficult it can be to find an agent, and every time it makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been. In the summer of 1998, I was taking a year off from my newspaper job to do a year-long fellowship at the University of Michigan, in the Knight-Wallace program (which is amazing and refreshing; I can’t recommend it enough).

A colleague, Gary Pomerantz, had been to the same program shortly before, and had come out with a book. I wanted to do a book too, and he introduced me to his agent, David Black of the David Black Literary Agency, who pointed me toward Susan Raihofer there. The book I had in mind didn’t come together, and so for the first three years of our acquaintance I didn’t have anything for her to agent.

But during the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks, I embedded with a CDC investigative team working on Capitol Hill, and that gave me the idea for my first book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL, a narrative and history of the CDC’s “disease detectives,” the Epidemic Intelligence Service. We sold that in 2002 and it came out in 2004.

Describe selling the book.

It went very quickly. I did a 20-page proposal in about a week, and then reworked it with Susan’s guidance over a very long weekend. She sent it out to a selected group. There were some expressions of interest and then couple of bids, but the high bidder was Free Press, [an imprint of Simon and Schuster] who had published my first book. From start to sale, it was very quick, probably less than a month.

How long did it take you, start to finish?

It depends on when you start counting! Three years from the time the contract was signed; 3.5 from when I started work on that Self story, a tiny portion of which appears in the book. But I first got interested in MRSA during research for my first book in 2003, when I shadowed CDC disease detectives in Los Angeles through an investigation of MRSA infections monitoring gay men who visited sex clubs.

So it may have been gestating for twice as long as I thought.

You name so many people in your acknowledgments — tell us about building so wide a set of sources and why that mattered to you — and to other ambitious writers tackling complicated topics.

The horror of doing a book like this is that, to make the problem real to an average reader, you have to find victims who are like average readers themselves. The benefit of doing a project like this now is that, thanks to social media, you can tap networks much more reliably and reach further than I think you ever could before. I was offered a lot of contacts thanks to that Self story, and to one I did for Health magazine a year later — but still, I worked my networks relentlessly. For every victim in the book, I probably have 10 others whose stories were moving, but not exactly what I wanted.

Overall, between victims and scientists, I did about 200 interviews.

Tell us about the Dart and Kaiser fellowships and how they helped you.

I’m a big believer in fellowships, which I think are the best way — maybe the only way, in the current environment — for journalists to study up on any particular topic. I got a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship for “bridge funding” when I left newspapers; the idea was to spend a year of overnight shifts in ERs to see what the overcrowding was like. I thought I would do a book on ERs but saw so much MRSA that it fueled “Superbug” instead.

Then in 2009, I went after a fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, at Columbia, because I had collected so many stories of awful things happening to people as a result of MRSA that I realized I needed some help in processing them. I wanted to find a way to tell them that preserved the victim’s dignity and autonomy and wasn’t just disease-porn.

The Dart fellowships are a week-long immersion in both learning about the effects of trauma, and being helped through whatever processing you need to do for any traumatic events you have witnessed as a journalist. After 20 years as Scary Disease Girl, I had seen a lot of trauma, and the fellowship helped me get some distance on those events.

What did you enjoy most about writing the book?

I think people whose work has been newspaper or long-form magazine stories, but who haven’t written a book, tend to think, “Ooooh, a book, that will give me all the space I ever wanted to tell a story.” Well, no. You are still, always, making decisions about what to leave out. This book is about 85,000 words, but it could have been twice as long, and deciding what to cut was very painful — because I’m extremely detail-oriented and like to describe the smallest granular aspects of events. At the same time, I loved having that length in which to tell a braided, complex narrative.

The thing that was most challenging, though, was how time-consuming it was. I worked, without exaggeration, 12 hours most days, 6 days most weeks, for 3 years. I felt that this was a story that needed to be out soon, and that I couldn’t take the time to explore it over 5 years or more — someone else would beat me to some part of it. And to tell it with credibility, I needed to be immersed in the subject. But I made a lot of personal sacrifices to do it.

Are you now scared of doctors or hospitals? How — seriously — do you think most of us will ever challenge a doctor (if we are scared of MRSA) when we are scared or in pain or facing surgery? How scared should we be?

It is not my intention to make people paranoid, really. I don’t want to frighten people away from hospitals. But I do hold hospitals responsible for not doing better, and because they do not, I do think we have to defend ourselves.

What that means is doing due diligence before going into the hospital — if you are in a state where there is a mandatory-reporting law for hospital infections or MRSA, look up the institution’s metrics. And when you are in the hospital, try to find the courage to ask health care workers if they have washed their hands. It’s an easy thing to recommend, a very difficult thing to do, because it challenges the power differential in the relationship between health care worker and patient. But I think it’s necessary.

Next book? current projects?

One of my favorite parts of the book is tracing the detective story of the “third epidemic” of MRSA in food animals, It got me thinking about how complex and multi-national our food system is now. So I think my next project will turn in that direction, probably toward the difficulty of making food safe.

Reporting — you know, asking a lot of nosy questions — is dying

In business, Media on March 16, 2010 at 9:00 am
Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...

Image via Wikipedia

Facts? You want facts?

You wish.

It’s only getting worse, according to the new, annual State of The Media, an annual report from the Pew Project For Excellence in Journalism. The report, their seventh, is enormous and detailed.

This, from the executive summary, struck me immediately:

Technology is further shifting power to newsmakers, and the newest way is through their ability to control the initial accounts of events. For now at least, digital technology is shifting more emphasis and resources toward breaking news. Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive. It is also leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers — their press conferences and press releases — make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the Web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary. What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events. We saw this clearly in a study of news in Baltimore, but it is reinforced in discussions with news people. While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.

I have added the bold and italics. This worries me enormously.

Here’s what happened yesterday when I spoke to the public affairs office of a major corporation. I asked for an interview with their CEO and determined, after more discussion, that lower-level executives might be better suited to this topic — part of the research for my book.

“Oh, a book,” she said. “They take up so much of our time.”

“No more time than a magazine or newspaper interview,” I retorted, a little — maybe a lot — sharply.

“No,” she said, “There’s all that fact-checking.”

News to me — most publishers do not fact-check at all; the onus is on the non-fiction writer to be ethical and honest and get it right. The most meticulous (or well-financed) hire their own fact-checkers, knowing no one else (which they still do for most major magazines) will make those calls.

I always explain in detail to potential sources not just what I want from them  — 10 minutes (more like 60, to start) — but why I need their point of view and how they fit into my larger story. I choose my sources carefully: my time and energy is limited and my book is only 75,000 words, of which most is my own story.

I was told I would have to sign a legally-binding document allowing them to review my material about them and to amend it as they see fit.

She called my request a “deep dive.”

This used to be called reporting.

I recently emailed a list of 20 questions to another source — who freaked out. “I don’t have time for this! Do you have any idea what you’re asking?”

Yes, I do. Like any reporter who cares about their work, I want as much detail as I can possibly get my hands on — not just that someone drove a car, but what color/year/make/model and whether the left mirror was cracked and why. I once covered a head-on car crash in Montreal between a small car in which everyone was killed and a city bus. It one of the most horrific stories in my career — the car’s windows, a sight I will never forget, were sheeted with fresh, wet blood. I only saw that because I got as close to the car as police would allow. My editor told me I was the only reporter to get the make and model of the car.

I didn’t want to do it. It was disgusting and terrifying — and I had my driver’s test the very next day.

That’s what reporters do.

We do not: sit in press conferences and take hand-outs and re-write press releases and let spokesmen tell us their shiny, happy versions of the story. Letting “newsmakers” tells us what matters — hey, it matters to their shareholders and Wall Street! — is BS. Letting corporate and government interests set and control the agenda is a recipe for disaster. And the more they get used to a lazy, stupid, under-paid, under-trained style of “reporting” the harder they bite down on the dinosaurs among us who want facts, dammit.

Not spin. Not a press release. Not just one interview, with three of their flacks sitting in and recording every word — but maybe three or four or 12.

I once interviewed a Navy admiral. She actually reached for my notebook to see what I had written. I shoved it under the desk and kept writing.

People will try, whenever and wherever and however they can — and they have powerful tools at their disposal — to intimidate, ignore, stonewall or confuse reporters.

You, readers, deserve better. John Edwards — shiny, happy guy….until some dogged reporters found out he wasn’t. Enron? Great company…until reporter Bethany McLean led the pack and said, Not so much.

No one likes to be asked a lot of nosy questions. Takes up their valuable time. Might make them uncomfortable. Might raise an issue they hoped no one had even considered. Might scare them.

The day we stop doing that, we’re all screwed.

Powerless twice this month, I'm one of 500,000 Northeast homes affected by storm

In news, Weather on March 15, 2010 at 9:07 am
Storm Damage

A typical sight here now...Image by Tobyotter via Flickr

The Westchester hotel parking lot was filled with Mercedes and Lexus, with MD and DDS plates — hotel refugees fleeing their suburban homes after this weekend’s brutal wind and rain. The diner across the street from it was so full we could barely find a spot to eat breakfast. Our newspaper delivery man — God bless his work ethic — had braved six dark flights of stairs to bring us our New York Times and New York Post.

On Friday morning I watched the tree on our terrace, the sixth and highest floor of our 50-year-old suburban New York apartment building, rocking on its base like a metronome in 50 mph winds before we brought it indoors for protection.

We lost electricity at 7pm Saturday evening, just as we were starting dinner. We often eat by candlelight, but this was now a necessity. Reading required so many candles, (we did have a flashlight), we gave up and were asleep by 8:30. Makes you appreciate 18th-century life in a whole new way.

We’re very lucky to have a hotel three blocks from our home and the rate wasn’t terrible, so, for the second time — we lost power recently in a huge snowstorm, and shared a room there that night with my Dad, visiting from Toronto — we checked in there Sunday afternoon. I can handle having no power — but when it goes, our building also loses heat and hot water and the temperatures here are still in the lower 40s.

One night in a hotel, luckily for those who can do it, is an affordable adventure; two or three, plus meals out, quickly adds up.

One occupant of the room next to our practiced cello for seven hours, lovely at first, annoying after endless sawing and scratching. They had several dogs with them. The dining room, normally an elegant quiet space, was filled with screaming infants and restless teenagers. I had hoped to use the indoor hotel pool — but it was closed due to fears of a lightning strike.

The damage to homes, landscape and people is frightening and sobering. Six people have been killed, as my former Daily News colleague Russ Buettner reports in today’s New York Times:

The scenes of devastation in the New York area were so widespread that some compared what they saw to the worst of natural disasters. Nearly everyone had a storm-related tale, mixing inconvenience and a sense of wonder at forces that effortlessly ripped trees from the ground, roots and all. And there were stories of loss and tragedy.

By the time the worst of the weekend’s storm was over, at least six people were killed, countless vehicles and homes were smashed, scores of roadways were left impassable and more than 500,000 homes had lost power — many of them to face darkness for days to come.

On Sunday, the storm’s lingering effects — and the recovery it required — became clearer…

Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Power Authority, called the storm among “the top five or six weather events that have impacted Long Island in the last 40 years.”

One of the many issues that is not receiving coverage — people who are ill, disabled and elderly who do not live in single-family homes. While news  reports and photos inevitably focus on the terrible damage done to private houses — trees crashing through windows and ceilings — millions of us here also live in multi-story apartment buildings. On our top floor, a 96-year-old woman lives alone, but usually has a a day-nurse and has a nearby daughter; we make it a point to check up on one another down the darkened hallways.

I’m under doctor’s orders right now to avoid walking and stairs until I get an injection in my hip — and had to climb down six flights of stairs to leave. The pain was so bad I wept, and I had managed to leave my codeine pills upstairs. Advil helped.

I am home now writing this on my desktop, tea freshly made, fridge humming, lights on.

How long will it be until the next time?

Stop The Presses! Bloggers To Get Official NYC Press Passes, Just In Time To Compete With New WSJ Metro Section

In business, Media on March 3, 2010 at 9:03 am
*(en) press pass *(nl) Perskaart *(fi) Lehdist...

Like this, but new, and cooler. Image via Wikipedia

If there is any artifact I treasure more than the oversize official NYC laminated PRESS pass I was issued while at the Daily News, it’s my green card. These two bits of plastic are as work-life-defining as anything I own.

They are, sue me, so cool. I felt some serious envy (they expire, as mine has) while covering the Madoff trial here last fall and watching everyone swagger about with theirs.

Now bloggers can get one too.

From Fishbowl NY:

We can thank blogger Rafael Martinez Alequin, who filed the lawsuit that precipitated the change.

Update: Gotham Gazette alerts us that two additional plaintiffs — the Guardian Chronicle‘s David Wallis and Featurewell.com‘s Ralph E. Smith — also pressed the case.

Before today, journalists who worked online were routinely denied press passes, presumably owing to antiquated definitions of what it means to work in media. Frankly, we’re surprised it took this long. From today’s announcement:

Under the proposed new rules published today, to obtain a press credential, an applicant must show that he or she has covered, in person, six news events where the City has restricted access, within the two-year period preceding the application. In addition to employees of traditional news gathering organizations, the new rules cover self-employed newspersons and other individuals who gather and report the news. The new press card will be issued every two years.So it’s not like any old yahoo with a blog can get special access to exclusive or difficult-to-access events; the yahoo must be invested enough in the beat to have written about restricted events six times. Only the most dedicated bloggers get access. Seems fair.

Next month, the Wall Street Journal finally launches its new Metro section. It’s going to be fun!

From editorsweblog.org:

Rupert Murdoch announced The Wall Street Journal‘s plans to launch a New York edition this April during a speech before the Real Estate Board of New York yesterday. Murdoch has reportedly set aside a $15 million budget for the new metro edition with the hopes of rivaling The New York Times in local news.

Murdoch, whose’ News Corporation acquired the Journal in 2007 and also owns The New York Post, had not previously acknowledged public reports over the new section, one of the worst-kept secrets in the newspaper industry. His remarks mark the Journal’s first foray into local news with a stand-alone daily section featuring articles on culture, sports, politics, and other news from New York.
“I’ve always believed that competition starts at home. So in the next few weeks, one of our other papers will be giving the Post some competition on their home turf. I’m talking about the Wall Street Journal,” said Murdoch.

Murdoch did go into further details, but did confirm that the new section “will be full color — and it will be feisty.”

New York City already has more dailies than most North American cities, but The New York Times shut down its Metro section in 2008, the Post is the Post and I don’t read the Daily News. For a city of its size and complexity, it’s still not well-covered; the obvious stories (the rich, Wall Street, sleazy politicians) get too much attention while entire communities and voices remain unheard. Manhattan gets most of the coverage and Manhattan remains a boys’ town.

I’m hardly looking to the WSJ for feminist redress but anyone, anywhere, seriously kicking butt on this stuff might do us all a bit of good.

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