The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

This shot of Niagara Falls snapped during my return trip to New York after three weeks in Canada, 12 hours by train back from Toronto


By Caitlin Kelly


Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

Thirty original interviews completed, some by phone, some face to face.

Five towns visited in five days to meet and interview sources in each one.

Here’s my post from August 13, as I was starting to work on my biggest story in years:

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

Here’s the link to my story about Canada’s healthcare systems— there are several — and how they work. It’s for The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly publication.

I spent more than three months on it, and lost money in the process, as the basic cost of a room in Toronto alone cost twice my allotted travel budget and I spent four days there working.



Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.


But, rarely, a story is worth it and I hope this one is.


There were some challenges along the way, which is normal, some of them less so:


— I knew from the start this would cost me money, not earn nearly enough to cover three months’ exclusive attention, plus travel. I applied for grants from two American organizations offering them to journalists and was denied by both. The ugly truth is that I’m making less than a third of what I would have earned for this story in the 1990s, back when journalism paid well, and when my health insurance cost $500 a month, not $1,700.

— I suddenly developed gout (!), an excruciatingly painful right toe condition, making every step painful for weeks.

— At the same time, I got a bad leg infection on my right shin, so bad it really scared me. I finally saw my doctor when I got back home after a three-week absence, and knocked it out with antibiotics. The pain, at its worst, was breathtaking, That, plus gout, made it  hard to focus on interviews that lasted up to two hours. I popped plenty of painkillers!



David Dennis

The son of a friend of mine, David Dennis, proved a perfect interview subject, and the lede (top) of the story. photo: Jose R. Lopez


— As often happens, I set up a few interviews fully expecting to discuss X…and Y proved to be much more interesting. Gotta roll with the punches!

— One key source remained, even after months, hopelessly elusive, so overworked that his secretary and I got to know one another well, and he sent many apologetic last-minute-cancellation emails. Fortunately, I found two long and helpful videos of him speaking and quoted from them instead.


Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

Sitting in a cafe in Picton, Ontario, interviewing Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. Photo: Jose R. Lopez


— The top-level sources I spoke to all know one another and realized that my reporting was deep and serious in including them all.

— You do eventually reach a point of total saturation, when you think you can’t possibly do another interview, but someone urges you strongly to do so and recommends someone else. I did, and the guy was astounding, possibly the best of the lot.



I got off a bus at 3:30 after an hour’s ride to/from a source to meet another at this downtown Toronto hotel bar at 3:45 so he could run for his train at 4:15. Gotta do whatever’s possible!


— I rarely went into each interview with a set list of questions, but kept them more conversational, which allowed for unexpected and welcome diversions and insights.



Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

photo: Jose R. Lopez


— I bought a huge white-pad to help me visualize what to do next. I decided to structure my story around the Four Ps: patients, providers, pundits/academics and policymakers/politicians.

— Others’ generosity and good humor made this very challenging project not only manageable but a pleasure to work on; every source was helpful and smart, referred me deeper into their expert networks and shared their insights and wisdom.

— Three “first readers” helped me as I revised: a veteran American health and science writer, a young, progressive writer in D.C. and a Canadian editor. Fresh eyes matter!



Family Doctor Wanted Sign

Smaller towns are having a rough time attracting and keeping local physicians…Photo: Jose R. Lopez


— It took a lot of self-confidence to tackle this complex topic. So I felt much better when a man who’s an acknowledged leader in this field, when I admitted that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it, said that after decades studying it, he sometimes is as well.

Here’s a fantastic piece — written in 2005 for the journalism website Poynter — on the iceberg theory of journalism…that only a tiny fraction of what you’ll see, hear and read will actually be visible in the final public version, no matter all the invisible hard work that preceded and informed it:


What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.

As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.

19 thoughts on “The big story: writing it!

  1. Great article – you packed a lot of information. At first, I thought it would be too long to read but after reading it, I wish the publication could have extended the word limit. I learned something about my own health care system. It was good to see what goes into writing an article like this.

    I’m sorry to hear that the payment didn’t sufficiently cover all your cost.

  2. I very much enjoyed your excellent article. The Canadian health care system has its issues but I am glad that it’s about as equitable as we can make it and that we do provide care for those who weaker or poorer.

    One point I disagree with to some extent is First Nations and Métis access to health care. I’ve worked in NWT for three years now and the care access, including dental and vision, (for all) is excellent, especially in light of the distances involved. My husband worked in Nunavut (Pond Inlet – very far north) and found access there to be almost as good. Where the issues can come in is around the provincial administration of health care for First Nations and Métis. Some provinces do this much better than others.

    So sorry to hear you lost money on such a good article.

    1. Thanks!

      I hear you…As you know better than to cover ALL of Canada in 5,000 words — in an explainer meant to just get American readers up to speed on the basics most Canadians already know and live? There was so so so much I could not include…no room! So I take your point, and thanks for that.

      Jose and I made the decision this was worth the investment. I don’t regret it at all. It was a tremendous pleasure to work on and — selfishly — has now shown a much wider audience the level of my skill goes beyond 700 to 1,000 words. It prompted (!) an invitation to write freelance for the Wall Street Journal and won me a meeting with someone v senior at the NYT which has long been a goal…plus, using this as a springboard to apply for a reporting fellowship that might get me back to Ontario.

      So, all good!

  3. the story behind the story. I always love to know these backstories. sounds like ‘the odyssey.’ you are tenacious, intelligent, and flexible. all traits needed to pull this off. your article was excellent and informative, and I hope that this leads you to other writing jobs that will compensate you accordingly.

    1. Thanks! I think people often have no idea what it takes — and I am always really most interested in “process” stories that show how something came to be, not only the shiny object at the end!

      I was very lucky to have a smart editor this time. Really a pleasure.

  4. Robert Lerose

    Congratulations on an extraordinary piece of reporting and kudos to Jose for his photographic prowess. I printed it out and learned something new and essential on every page. You helped me understand healthcare and how things really work in Canada much better. The personal stories really brought the article to life. I know that the story cost you in terms of money and time and physical stress, but you produced IMPORTANT work. I hope it leads to greater recognition and new assignments that compensate you royally.

  5. I enjoyed this article. The facts, attractive or not, were given without excuses or apologies and the opinions were not presented in such a way as to confuse them with facts: The difference between journalism and demagoguery. I expected nothing less from you. Great work, Caitlin, let’s hope everyone’s looking.

    1. Thanks!

      It’s gotten — for which I am really pleased — a lot of good traction on Twitter, from fellow journalists but from MDs as well. One plans to teach it in his class!

      I am really old school — if it isn’t balanced, (at least with TRUE attempts to do so) — it’s not credible journalism for me. Too many now are peddling opinion and “hot takes.”

      I’ll go with tepid.

  6. That issue of the massive quantity of ‘behind the scenes’ work required for proper investigative journalism (or, indeed, any other kind of non-fiction writing) is something seldom appreciated – including by editors who commission it and imagine the expenses can come out of the author fee. I struggle constantly with the problem of expenses destroying the returns on any given project, because I won’t wholly compromise the quality of what goes into it – and good quality research costs. And as you say, sometimes those projects are still worth doing, however ruinous the financial calculation for the author – healthcare issues especially, these days. Such things underscore the professionalism that goes into such work.

    For all that, it’s hard to get away from the notion that the way to make a small fortune by writing is to start with a large one!

    1. Exactly…

      The fee for this was actually much higher than many now offer, but the time invested and slow payment (still unpaid) and travel costs, even (as we did) staying many nights with friends, all add up. I don’t regret a minute of it; Jose and I worked together; it has put my skills in front of a MUCH larger audience (my hope) and may (I hope) lead to some more work in this area. I really enjoyed the challenge.

      It is distressing to me that the only affordable way to do deep work now is to get a grant or fellowship (super competitive!) to help defray costs. It certainly severely reduces the number of journalists who can do it…and that, in turn, kills economic/racial diversity in reporting and allows even those of us with good skills to let them atrophy from lack of use.

  7. Pingback: Weekend Links – Small Dog Syndrome

  8. That was a super interesting and informative read (with great photographs.) The quality of the work cannot be ignored. You should write a new piece on exactly the same subject … but this time on the French health care system!

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