Where does a New York Times story come from? Idea to print…

My notebook

For those who don’t work in the media, it can be a bit of mystery how a story, (short of politics or a natural disaster),  becomes a piece in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast.

I’ve been writing, freelance and staff, for national publications since college, so the process of:

1) coming up with an idea; 2) selling to an editor; 3) reporting it; 4) writing it; 5) revising it; 6) arranging art is pretty routine.

Here’s how my latest story for The New York Times Sunday business section came about and took shape.

Here’s the story.

The idea

I sit on the board of an American writers’ group, WEAF, that makes emergency grants to writers of non-fiction so I’m aware that freelancers, too, need financial aid they cannot get from unemployment insurance, paid sick days or any other form of standard financial help — and have access to resources others might find useful. I had never read a story about this. The U.S. still has millions of people struggling financially, many of them self-employed artists, who rarely receive coverage as the businesspeople we are.

Selling it to the editor

I’ve written only two stories for this specific editor at the Times, but I’d also written for 20 years for 10 other editors at the paper so he could easily check my credentials and personal reputation before relying on me. It takes trust to hand an assignment to a new writer.


This is the part I love: deciding who to talk to, how to find them and trying to do it efficiently. I don’t have weeks or months to produce a story of 1,800 words. I have, at most a week, and that’s a five-day week of about four or five hours a day as I juggle other work.  So I need to find sources offering me all of these story elements: anecdotes, color, a great story or two to illustrate my point, data points and statistics or surveys or polls. It’s like making a movie: I need tight and medium close-ups and long establishing shots; i.e. I need at least two sources with the wisdom and experience to give me an overview of the issue.

On this story, I found several of my best sources just by reading my Facebook news feed; I have 552 friends there, not thousands.

I never use a tape recorder because I can’t spend additional time transcribing.  I take good notes — that’s my notebook in the photo above with some of the notes for this story.


I write very fast. I can write 1,000 words in an hour and have written as much as 3,000 within two days — while a 3,000-word story is a very different animal (structure, pacing, tone, etc.) than even one of 1,200 words. This piece was assigned at 1,200 to 1,800 words. I get paid by the word, (weird, but still a common journalism practice in the U.S. and Canada), so of course I’m happier if it runs longer.


It might be a chart or map, photo or illustration or combination of these. From the start of this story, like everything I work on, I’m also thinking about its visual components and suggesting these to the photo editor. (In this section — my husband!)

The better the art, often the better play (i.e. story placement and more space) I can get. I began my career as a photographer, and have sold my images to places like Time and the Times, so this is an easy and fun piece of it for me.

I also considered age/racial/income/geographic diversity? The Times is a national publication, (international, really) so ideally my story sources and images reflect the diversity of our readers.


Stories for the Times typically go through several revisions. Every question they ask of me must be answered to the editors’ satisfaction, whether the wording or placement of a quote, an unclear phrase, questionable numbers.

Each new version of the story is sent back to me as a playback to read, review and make sure it is still accurate. If I hate a change they’ve made, this is my time to fight for it, and I sometimes do. While time-consuming, it insures the copy is clean. Copy editors, by nature and profession, are extremely methodical and insanely nit-picky. I think of them, gratefully, as airplane maintenance crew — tightening every screw and bolt to make sure the thing can fly safely.

I’ve had more than 100 pieces in the paper and not one has needed a printed, public correction.

(When editors don’t do this, your final version of the piece can have errors edited in –– like the story in which my stepmother became my stepfather instead.)

And, yes, even after 100 stories in the paper, and decades of doing this for a living, I still get excited and a little nervous when it hits print and goes up on the web. Showtime!

21 thoughts on “Where does a New York Times story come from? Idea to print…

  1. This was fascinating to me! I love reading and hearing about the process of peoples work. It is much more interesting than the title they have. The process isn’t all that different from the project I am working on, except I don’t get payed by the word, and there is no editor. Of course the out come is completely different, but it shows that people are all quite similar on some level.

    1. Thanks! I suspect any one of us describing our workday and the decisions within it could make a really interesting blog post. I once decided to become an interior designer and went out to interview a few to learn what their daily lives were like. Not at all what I’d expected!

  2. So enlightening. So many opportunities for things to go wrong! Does thinking that way make me a pessimist? I can see how it could make you nervous when it goes to print.

    1. It’s an interesting perspective — and I agree with you! I am nervous until the thing is actually in print/on-line and then I’m still nervous that I may have screwed something up. But I think worrying so much generally insures that it’s fine. Jose and I agree, even after 30 years in our field, that the day you’re NOT nervous you’re getting sloppy.

  3. This process has a familiar ring to it! One casualty here, of late, has been that checking proces – I’ll submit a piece to the local media and not see it again until it’s printed. In days gone by I’d be consulted, check the proofs, and then it would go. Not now. Cost constraints on all sides. I have a piece that (I think) appears this weekend in the national Sunday paper – they don’t tell me and I won’t know until I see it. Mildly nerve-racking, it’s slightly controversial and I have no idea whether my careful wording has been subbed because of space constraints or not.

    1. The Times is by far the most meticulous checker I have ever worked for. You really have to stuff your ego into a box as they go over every syllable with you. I find it very helpful as I am not sloppy but I am probably more focused on the tone and pace and style of the story. I like having back-up!

  4. Quessia

    I used to study journalism and reading this post made me miss it a bit. the thrill of the chase, the writting, the interviews. all of was just so much fun. fantastic 🙂

  5. I find your blog fascinating and a real insight into your creative process. Most Australian magazines pay by the word as well (you know just in case you wanted to conquer the land of Oz) I see the art for your post was pretty routine too 😉
    Thank you.

    1. I love hearing about how others do their thing…I weary of hearing about the end product with no details of how it was actually achieved.

      I told my husband I’d included a pic of my notes and he panicked if they might be legible. I’m not too fussed.

  6. Caitlin, my friend and I read your piece yesterday in the Times and we discussed it at length because he’s a theater guy. I was pleasantly surprised this morning to see this post and then realize this is the story I read yesterday; I didn’t realize you were the author when I originally read it even though I keep an eye out for your stuff when I read NYTimes now. Thanks for the very interesting and useful information and thank you so much for following my blog!!!

  7. This was a very timely post for me to read…I am working on a piece for publication and now I actually know what to expect before I see it in print. I really enjoy your blog and I have always enjoyed the New York Times…I take after my mother in that respect. Thank you for sharing what you do and how you do it. 🙂

    1. Interesting to see how the sausage is made, as it were. It’s probably a little daunting if you haven’t done it before but the basics remain unchanged from one publication to the next. It IS very different from laissez-faire blogging.

  8. I love that you say that you still get nervous seeing your work in print. I work in comms and I find myself proofreading a zillion times before I send or publish things. I can only imagine if it were at NYTimes piece! Thanks for sharing.

  9. caitliniam

    This was really fun to read. I used to be a Journalism major and I hated using tape recorders. I always brought them along and never found time to listen. I’m glad I’m not the only person who lives off my notes.

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