Almost 40% of Americans have “no faith” in the media

By Caitlin Kelly

From a recent conference held in New York, with some of the industry’s top leaders…

Typical of such summits, the people speaking were largely white, upper middle class and already perched high in the industry…not necessarily the best place from which to enact meaningful change. By the time you’ve hit the heights, so to speak — like any industry, really — you’ve climbed the greasy pole and know how many ways you can slip back to the bottom: pissing off your advertisers or publisher, to start with. I’ve been working in journalism since I was 19, freelance and staff — a senior editor at three national magazines and a reporter and feature writer for three big dailies. I enjoyed my career, but I’m mostly out of it now, and not subject to the exhausting chase for clicks and views. The Washington Post recently hired a social media coach (!) to work with their reporters. This is, for me, a fresh hell. Not enough any longer to produce terrific stories…

An excerpt from that conference, as reported by The New York Times:

“The media” pops up on your smartphone and is thrown onto your front porch. It is transmitted on television sets and is featured in glossy magazines. It’s so varied in so many ways but is similar in one respect: Many Americans don’t trust it.

According to a recent Gallup poll, trust in mass media has hit a near record low: Only 34 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media, while 38 percent of Americans have none at all...

“We do need some level of news, but there are so many people that just need basic information,” argued Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, a news organization focused on low-income Detroiters.

“You can’t do a big investigation if you are not covering the city council every day,” said Sara Just of “PBS NewsHour.” You can’t find out who the corrupt mayor is if you are not there every day.” The disappearance of that kind of local journalism, she said, is what “worries me the most. That’s not going to be the for-profit center, but it is how we find out what’s going on.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, whose publication, The Atlantic, put up a paywall shortly before the pandemic, argued for a subscriber-funded model: “Our industry made a mistake 20 years ago by giving away quality journalism for free — we trained readers to expect something that took work, time and energy and funding and we gave it away. And we have to stop doing that.”

As some of you may know, George Santos — a lying sack of garbage — not only recently got elected as a Republican Congressman from Long Island, despite a barrage of lies about his work, education, life and but now sits on two committees.

Only one small local newspaper noticed what a grifter he is but there was no other media interest in following up.

I found this analysis by Dame insightful and, sadly, spot-on:

We live in a golden age of national media startups. Every week another group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed media personalities launches another cleverly branded news site to solve all of American journalism’s problems.

So why do all these sites sound the same?

Why do political news sites, begun with lots of fanfare about how different and innovative and disruptive they plan to be, end up covering the same stories covered by every other established media source?

Why are they all obsessed with whatever Donald Trump spews onto his private social accounts? Why do they listen every time GQP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks? Why do they report on what senators say on Tucker Carlson’s show, on each other’s podcasts, on Chuck Todd’s Status Quo Fetish Hour?

Why do they all move in a pack, chasing the same ball, like 5-year-olds playing soccer for the first time?

Because — as any honest journalist knows — the few who rise to a position of any power or influence, let alone a job with a liveable salary – has already been co-opted. When a year at one of the fancy journalism schools will cost more than a year’s salary and the industry is already highly insecure, only a brave (or trust-funded few) can even still afford to buy entree to the industry or stick around very long.

So those who become staff journalists can start to look and sound the same….as does their reporting.

Pack journalism dominates — one person chasing all the others to match a story (no matter how tedious!) for fear their managers (as as they will) ask why they aren’t covering it?

Not IF they should at all!

It’s lazy and easy to sneer “fake news” when you dislike what you hear or see.

I rarely see anyone ask…what’s the upside for this worldview?

It’s also pretty obvious that those sneering “fake news” have rarely, if ever, even met or spoken to anyone, anywhere, who actually works in journalism — bringing any genuine curiosity about what it’s like to produce news or features.

We all have some idea what doctors or lawyers or cops or teachers do all day but few of journalism’s most toxic and virulent critics really have a clue about the ecosystem of news production — which is why such attacks leave me unmoved.

I agree that mainstream American journalism needs to be a lot better, but few wake up in the morning determined to print or broadcast something they know to be false.

Believe it or not, like many journalists, I’m disappointed by too much of it every day.

Not because it’s “fake news” but because it’s:

  • repetitive
  • overly focused on crime, violence, sentimentality and military
  • boring
  • ignores most of the world beyond the U.S.
  • rarely addresses the roots of complex issues like poverty and homelessness
  • doing a lousy job covering and explaining the urgency of climate change
  • sucking up to corporate interests

I have no illusion all journalists are good guys! Some are inevitably lazy, unethical, rushed, underfunded, poorly trained and edited.

But it doesn’t mean journalism is unimportant to democracy, regardless of its flaws. If you can’t access basic, verifiable, mulitply sourced facts about corrupt politicians or dangerous medical issues, to name only two key issues affecting us all — good luck!

A few more thoughts about our responsibilities:

Untrue assertions make their way to mainstream news consumers in several ways. Common tactics sources use include false equivalence, whataboutism, bothsidesism and good old-fashioned lying. Well-meaning journalists play a role by allowing sources to give “their side” of an argument — true or not — out of a belief that fair, ethical journalism requires them to do so.

False equivalence refers broadly to situations where a source makes an assertion that two things that share some similarities are equal despite significant differences between them. Comparing Trump supporters’ Jan. 6, 2021, protest in Washington, D.C., to protests following the death of George Floyd is an example. The Floyd protests didn’t turn into a deadly riot that overtook the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.

Whataboutism is a form of false equivalence in which a source responds to an allegation by claiming that someone else did something similar or worse without addressing the substance of the allegation.

Two journalism films are worth your time no matter how much you want to dismiss my defense and protestations, the 2015 film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, about an investigation by the Boston Globe investigative team of three reporters that uncovered 249 abusive Catholic priests and 1,000 victims….many more exist worldwide, as evidenced by the long list in the film’s final credits, from Igloolik, Canada to Argentina.

At its best, this is what journalists do.

Also, the 2022 film She Said, about two New York Times journalists who uncovered decades of abuse by former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — now in prison for those crimes.

Both are slow moving and procedural but also show the internal hierarchies of power at each paper and how they impeded or helped the reporters and the emotional and physical toll that such reporting on difficult issues affects us.

Because it does.

How cynically — if you even consume news or journalism — do you view the industry?

The best of 2022, hopes for 2023

By Caitlin Kelly

That last post wasn’t my cheeriest!

Some of my happiest moments of 2022:

The view from my friend’s cottage

In late May I flew to Toronto, my hometown, for the first visit in 2.5 years, catching up with dear friends there; even though I moved away permanently decades ago, I stay in close touch with about half a dozen of them. I was invited to a cottage on Georgian Bay only reachable by boat…six adults, a cat and a dog and all our supplies! It was very beautiful and quite cold! The cabin I slept in had no heat so I wore a wool hat and a very heavy wool blanket.

Big Sur, CA

My tiny perfect room at Deetjen’s, Big Sur

In June, my birthday month, I finally spent a solo month driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles — a lifelong dream only made possible thanks to a wholly unexpected inheritance from my late mother. Along the way, I stayed with a pal in a town near SF, with another in Santa Rosa, had meals with nine other pals, some I had never before met — but have known for years only through social media. It was a real joy, after so much social isolation and loneliness trying to avoid COVID, to sit and chat for hours. I reconnected with two dear friends, both former colleagues of my husband Jose at The New York Times. I had lunch with a woman who became a friend after we cooperated on an exclusive story for the Times…with 150 emails between us by the time the paper flew me from NY to San Francisco to write about Google. I hadn’t been back to that city in a decade, or L.A. in 20 years. I fell very hard to California — such beauty! I cried on the way to the airport the day I left. What a joy it all was!

A great visit with Jose in November to Montreal and a hotel four hour drives’ northeast of the city on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We live within a mile of the Hudson River — but this was a whole other sort of river! I loved speaking and hearing French again; I lived in Montreal as a Gazette reporter, in Paris at 25 and have been back to both places many times since.

A few days upstate in Saratoga Springs visiting very good friends, former Times colleagues. The hot springs did seem to help my arthritic hip!

I enjoyed some well-paid and really interesting work writing for a non-profit foundation that gives money for academic research. It allowed me to interview three brilliant, passionate and accomplished researchers. Loved it.

Jose continues to enjoy good health and has plenty of steady well-paid work, which has lightened my workload. I’m so grateful! I started writing and selling my photos at 19, hustling hard for decades. It is a great gift to just do a lot less.

Three dear friends each came to visit. We love our pals who live far away — one in Portland, Oregon, one in Milwaukee (both former students of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute) and my pal Scott, who lives in Pennsylvania. It was great to finally catch up with them, even though one of them fell desperately ill for about 24 hours — and so did we! With one very small bathroom, it was a bit of a horror movie. It wasn’t COVID or flu. Maybe norovirus.

Completely new, a much stronger relationship with one of my two half-brothers, 10 years younger, who fought stage 4 cancer and looks likely to be OK. We met when I was 15 and he was 5 but spent very little time together, even though we lived in the same city for decades; we had different mothers and never lived together. I had very early stage breast cancer (no chemo) in June 2018 so I have some idea what he’s been through and made sure to call and text him often. I’m surprised and glad (however a terrible way to get there) we have a deeper friendship now.

A lovely surprise — a C1 rating after my written and oral tests from Alliance Francaise (C2 is the highest), i.e. expert.

As you can tell, renewed and strengthened friendship remains my life’s greatest gift (beyond Jose and good health!)

For 2023 I hope:

For good health for me and Jose — and you!

Continued freelance opportunities

The health and income to allow me to travel more

To study and practice my French and Spanish

Mentoring journalists working at Report for America

A publisher for our book proposal (20 rejections so far, 16 more to go…)

What were some of your year’s highlights?

Hopes for 2023?

My writing year in review

One of my best memories of 2022…Pete’s Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest. I sat at the bar and had a long conversation in French with a visiting historic costume designer. She bought my beer!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing less now than I used to…in some ways, this is good because at higher pay rates I can afford to produce less.

These were three challenging and interesting assignments speaking to academic researchers on health policy for a grant-making foundation; the communications director and I have never spoken or met but she knows me and my work through Facebook. I loved speaking to such smart, passionate people. It’s a real privilege and their work can be somewhat complex to explain.

My favorite story of the year was my first ever for the Financial Times, a global business paper in London I read every day. The quality is amazing so it was a real thrill to sell a story to them, about women ironworkers in New York City. Here’s the link. The pay rate was half what The New York Times pays — barely $500. I had to drive an hour each way to Queens, spend an hour or so speaking to the women there, then do additional phone interviews, so it wasn’t lucrative. But it was a lot of fun and a real accomplishment to break into the FT, so I’m proud of that.

I had two unpleasant experiences with New York Times editors, which effectively shut off any chance of writing for those two sections. I hate any sort of professional conflict because you can’t make a freelance living without ongoing relationships! I also lost $3,000 from the shady crew at ZZDriggs, a furniture sales website, who had committed to $6,000 worth of blog posts from me in a year — and abruptly, and without any warning at all, dumped me in July and gave no explanation. My attempts to recoup that lost income from a CEO who lives in a multi-million-dollar brownstone (of course) were fruitless. Not cool.

Also my basic mistake of not having a much tougher and clearer contract. Beware of twinkly charm!

Jose and I spent a lot of time and energy producing a 20,000 word book proposal for fellow freelancers which, so far, has failed to find any publisher, much to our annoyance and frustration — OK, mine. There are still more than a dozen looking at it…

One win was getting my rating from Alliance Francaise after taking their written and oral tests — C1 (expert!) Only one category is higher. Those bloody subjunctives!

The work I most enjoy — and I really love it — is coaching other writers. I admit it, it’s money I make with the least friction or drama as clients seem to find me, mostly through Twitter. I don’t market myself heavily as such. My greatest weakness is my laziness when it comes to endlessly marketing myself to new clients and editors.

Usually when people come to me for coaching, they already have a defined need or problem they hope I can help them with. Sometimes it’s an essay they’re working on or a book proposal or a need to just brainstorm new markets for their work. I charge $250/hour (with a one hour minimum, paid in advance.) No one has asked for a refund!

My goals for 2023 are less about writing than reading and traveling more, working on my French and Spanish skills. I have a few potential clients lined up, but just won’t chase work hard at this point. I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 and I’m pooped!

Some very good news

By Caitlin Kelly

Last spring, Jose and I were chatting about doing a possible book, a sort of guide for fellow freelancers, as millions of people are now eager to try this way of living and working.

Over July and August we worked really hard and, writing it together, produced a full book proposal which we shared with a pal in Toronto who worked for years in book publishing and now teaches it. She liked it a lot but made some very specific suggestions to improve it.

We did that and started submitting it to agents, with a few rejections.

Then — yay! — we found an agent quickly, also in Toronto, my hometown I left decades ago. So we are now officially represented and very excited. She won’t be submitting it to editors until early November after we take a badly needed break, (Jose’s first for 2022), to Quebec and upstate NY.

Then, all digits will be crossed!

It’s a wild notion to be co-authors after 22 years together, and Jose is a photographer and photo editor and photo archivist — not a writer! But he writes very well and has been a good soldier with all my demands for revisions.

I haven’t sold a new book since September 2009, when I sold Malled, so am eager to rejoin the fray. The industry has changed a lot since then, and getting tougher, of course. There’s been a lot of consolidation so fewer places to submit to. Then the nasty fact of payments in 25% increments…the first payment (- 15% to the agent, standard every time) upon signing the deal; the second upon acceptance of the manuscript; the third upon publication — up to a year later then the final one (!) a year after that. Unless you get a huge advance, which few do, it’s not a way to make a lot of money!

But we know for sure there’s a global market for this subject and we’ve read some of the “comps” — comparable books, a must for every non-fiction book proposal. I won’t get specific yet, but ours has at least six very distinctive features that competing books just don’t offer.

Wish us luck!

My 2 weeks with Queen Elizabeth

By Caitlin Kelly

I admit — we were in the middle of a restaurant lunch yesterday when we learned that Queen Elizabeth had died.

I burst into tears.

I know for many people the monarchy is something hated and archaic. I get it.

For a Canadian who grew up, initially, with photos of Her Majesty on our classroom walls, then later on our stamps and currency, the Queen was a daily part of our lives, even if only her image.

As a young reporter for the national daily Globe and Mail, she became a part of my daily life in person when I was chosen to cover a Royal Tour of the Queen and Prince Philip.

It was the oddest sort of high profile assignment as it meant my stories would run on the front page most days — yet there would be little to say beyond what she wore, what she might say and who she met. It was both thrilling to be chosen and terrifying, especially as this was long before cellphones or the Internet or light, quick laptops. I would have to file for up to five daily editions, racing to meet each deadline with no easy access to a telephone or even a place from which to send my story or even to sit down and write it.

This made for some seriously weird moments — like the big old house in small-town New Brunswick where I begged to use their kitchen table to write, and, when an older gentlemen entered his own kitchen, muttered “Globe and Mail, on deadline!” Then I had to kick the lady of the house off her own telephone to commandeer the line, unscrew the handset, attach alligator clips, and transmit my story in time. The gentleman was a judge who would be attending a formal dinner with her that evening.

Or the hotel lobby gift shop whose pay phone I needed to use.

Or the small-town rural home whose front door I banged on in desperation…scaring the hell out of its poor owners as I begged yet more strangers for their help and to use their phone.

Each day was long and tiring, often with multiple events, and I think we were working 12-15 hour days, whipped.

We must have eaten, but I don’t remember when or how or what.

We traveled in a huge press pack, with Time and Newsweek and BBC and CBC all jammed into press planes or buses. Sometimes we flew in a Lear jet (a first!) and observed the “purple corridor” — the elapsed time between when Her Majesty’s plane took off and ours was allowed to.

We were all technically competing with one another for…no real news!

It was very odd to watch her turn her charm on and off like a spigot on walkabouts — we’re so used to politicians and celebrities who crave our attention, admiration, votes and money that to observe someone with multiple castles, the wealthiest woman (at least then) in the world up close — becoming cool/distant when she felt like it, was quite disorienting.

A dapper Glaswegian security man in a tweed jacket followed behind the Royal entourage, holding out his hands to keep us at bay like wild animals.

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

“I could use the whip,” he replied, with a flirtatious twinkle in his eye. (I later bought one and gave it to him as a joke at our final party.)

I broke a few controversial stories and ended up being the brunt of some serious bullshit from competitors who had not matched my reporting. At a crowded mess hall somewhere in Manitoba, the legendary BBC TV reporter, Kate Adie, saw my distress and whispered in my ear: “The higher your profile, the better target you make.” She later mentioned me and that event in one of her memoirs.

A few specific memories:

— The stunning jewels of a tiara she wore to a dinner

— a brooch with an emerald the size of a baby’s fist

— a small suitcase in the back of a car, with a large red cardboard tag: The Queen

— being given a small piece of paper each morning with the official language we were to use to describe her clothing; eau-de-nil, not “light green.”

At the end of it all, we were invited aboard the royal yacht Britannia for drinks. That was amazing enough, and then we were each presented to Her Majesty.

It was brief, but memorable.

Work should be fun! (Really?)

By Caitlin Kelly

Long loud harrumph.

Thumps cane for emphasis.

No!

Ok, yes, of course, often, maybe, if you’re really lucky, much of the time.

But always, every damn day of a 40+ year career?

Unlikely and foolish to desire.

The tedious cliche is “that’s why they call it work.”

The opposite fantasy is “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Ask anyone who’s been in the working world for a decade, let alone 20, 30 or 40 years.

This is also, I know, somewhat stiff-upper-lip generational — and I think an insistence work be “fun” is really proxy for a lot of other frustrations: carrying massive student debt for decades, low wages, terrible/non-existent promotions and raises, toxic managers, coworkers and/or customers (hello, foodservice and retail!)

As I’ve written here many times, I generally enjoy my work as a writer of journalism and content marketing, coaching and teaching. But there have been many times I was utterly miserable, even for a full year — like my last staff job as a reporter at the New York Daily News — where I was consistently ignored or bullied. It was torture.

It was a steady, decent paycheck at a then-respected newspaper, then the nation’s sixth-largest.

But happy? No, I was not happy. Fun? No, it was not, ever, fun.

When I worked for a few months in Toronto at Canadian Press, the national wire service, I had to write up every weekend’s accidental deaths across the province, slugged (named) Fatalities — aka Fats. NOPE. Not fun.

As a trade magazine editor in New York, I had a terribly low freelance budget and a highly demanding boss. Not a fun combination.

I do not subscribe to the belief that all work is, or should be, drudgery. But accepting that even the coolest-looking work has downsides and frustrations is more realistic. Even the best-known and wealthiest musicians and film stars have had work that failed to find an audience, auditions that were a disaster, spent years in the trenches working away before hitting the big time. Fun? Probably not.

I think we’re fortunate if we can find work that:

pays decently

offers kind, fun, funny, smart co-workers (even one of these!)

decent management

respect for the work we do

offers room for growth, internally or a boost to our next job elsewhere

helps other people live better/safer lives

I admit that, at its best, journalism has been amazing fun for me, many many times.

But it’s not a well-paid career.

It’s not a secure career and getting fired or laid off is pretty normal, even if expensive and annoying.

Forget a pension.

It’s often insanely competitive, even within your organization. So there’s plenty of stress and anxiety as well.

What’s the most fun job you’ve ever had?

No more yelling!

If you ever watch the HBO series Succession, here’s one very toxic boss, Logan Roy

By Caitlin Kelly

My favorite place in the suburban New York county where I’ve lived for decades is an indie art film house; some weeks I’m up there multiple times to see a film. I love movies!

Its programming director was recently fired for yelling at his staff, leaving one in tears.

There have always been bad-tempered toxic bosses, but in some places there’s now (happily!) a diminished appetite for them — as several high profile male NPR radio hosts have also learned in recent years, also fired for abusing their staff.

I welcome this, as someone who grew up in an emotionally abusive family and then worked in journalism, one of the most dysfunctional of industries; with a constant oversupply of eager job-seekers, nasty bosses can thrive and rise, thrive and rise, usually without any form of accountability. If they keep losing talented staff, well, hey, whose fault is that?

Having also survived years at boarding school, also being yelled at by old women who were our housemothers, I have little appetite for people unable to hold their damn tongues and be civil. I don’t care how frustrated you are.

I’ve survived quite a few terrifying bosses, one a woman at a trade magazine publisher in Manhattan, who thought nothing of shouting abuse across the room at all of us and, when I dared confront her, stood very very close to me and leaned in further….her pupils oddly dilated. I quit within a month, and with no job waiting and newly divorced.

At the New York Daily News, I dared to ask the photo editor a question in an open newsroom so large it ran from 34th to 33rd street. His idea to humiliate and intimidate me, he yelled at me that I was asking a really difficult question; how to fill out a photo request. What a dick. This was a wholly normal question for a new employee offered zero training. I was then 50 — and quietly told him that being abusive wasn’t going to alter my request. He then ran to my boss to complain about me. Such a FUN workplace!

And, of course, there was another trade magazine boss, a weird little troll who shouted at me for disappointing him when I was editing a 48 page trade magazine with no staff at all, able to offer only extremely low freelance rates that guaranteed careless work from the only writers we could afford.

He came into my very small office and, as I pleaded with him that I was doing my best, snarled: “Define best!”

I was, no surprise, fired a few days later.

I ran into him decades later while riding our shared commuter rail line. As he went to sit beside me, he asked: “Do you remember me?”

“Yes,” was all I said.

Journalism attracts people who are smart and tough and highly impatient, expected to produce flawless results very, very quickly…not a great combo. Then the most demanding rise into management where, sure, they have high standards — but also can get away with shouting and raging with impunity.

I’ve even encountered this toxic arrogance as a freelancer, like a young woman then an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review (ooooh, the delicious irony) who I finally had to hang up the phone on since she was unable to let me finish a sentence.

And, funny thing, she too has since risen in the industry.

I shook for an hour after that phone call — because if you’ve been the subject of a lot of yelling, especially as a child, it really evokes a sort of PTSD.

So every time another abusive manager loses their job, income and authority, I’m thrilled!

Have you been the victim of such bad behavior?

How did you handle it?

My writing life, recently

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a long time since I’ve offered an update here on my writing life.

Most recently, I coached two writers in two days, very different personalities working on very different projects. I really enjoy coaching, but sometimes — rarely — I have to conclude I’m not the right person to coach a particular writer, whether our differing personalities, goals or the type of work they want to pursue. As an old-school hard news reporter, having worked for three major daily newspapers, I believe in original reporting, thoughtful interviews and smart, incisive work. Lighter stuff just isn’t really my jam.

When people hire me to coach them — at $250/hour — I’m very aware they’re entrusting me with their hopes for bigger and better sales or new markets. If I really feel I’m not a fit, as I recently did with one writer, I’ll say so and not take on the work. I’ve now helped more than 50 people worldwide; most find me organically through my social media profiles. It’s hardly a full-time income, but a very welcome piece of my annual revenue.

This past week I also began a four-part series with another writer, a first for me. I’m really excited by this new opportunity.

In my own writing, I’ve been doing profiles of grant recipients for a non-profit, of highly accomplished academic researchers working on complex and thorny issues. It’s challenging! I don’t get a byline (i.e. my name on it as the author), but I’m happy to have the work, as it’s well-paid and interesting.

I also recently applied for another job, writing about a local non-profit organization, and we spent a lively hour on Zoom getting to know one another. These initial meetings are uncompensated, as we both need to discover if there’s a good fit between our styles, deadlines and budget. Budget is often a sticking point, as inflation is making me ask for higher rates now. The meeting was terrific and we’re going to re-group in about a month.

I had another hour-long meeting, also by Zoom, also with two principals, about my ongoing work as a design blogger for ZZDriggs, which recently hired two specific experts — aka my new bosses! We had a great conversation and discussed a few ideas; re-grouping in a few weeks as well.

The truth of these meetings with strangers — they’re tiring, really an hour of selling myself to them, truthfully, as someone smart and fun and collegial and skilled and…whew! It’s also a two-way street as, even though I need to earn income, I’m now more cautious about who I work with, having had a few disappointing experiences where I had to walk away and lose the money I had budgeted for.

Jose and I have been working on an idea for a book about how to freelance successfully, as something we’ve done. I hope we can find an agent and publisher.

I’ll also be writing for a trade publication, also about design; I studied at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s while still married to my first husband; a physician, he made a good income, which would have allowed me to start a new career at the bottom. But he bailed after two years of marriage, so I never went into the industry. I loved my training and it’s helping me now, years later, with expertise and authority — two things I can offer as someone deep into my career.

And someone referred me for a science-writing opportunity; I need to find out more to see if there’s a fit.

As a generalist, I really enjoy this odd mix of topics. It keeps me intellectually nimble, which is welcome in a time when so much journalism is tedious clickbait.

I’m doing less and less journalism, which is in some ways sad — but pay rates are abysmal, and contracts hideously restrictive — so there’s little pleasure to be found!

My last published story was February 10 in the Financial Times, which I’m super proud of. But a later pitch to another editor there, of course, was completely ignored. This is quite normal at larger outlets, where one editor has no say over another, so a referral onward internally can mean almost nothing. It’s extremely frustrating!

I found out, after long months of waiting, that I did not win a fellowship I applied for — nine others did. These things are horribly competitive, always. Having said that, I might try for another fellowship, one that offers more money and is less initially demanding (like insisting only people with guaranteed publication can compete.) That’s massively unfair to most freelancers.

I loved my month off, and came home completely refreshed and grateful to just not have to hustle, negotiate, produce or revise for those blessed weeks while Jose’s June freelance photo editing schedule was truly heinous — 15-hour days every day, plus the endless noise of renovations in our apartment hallway and in the apartment below.

There are days I think: “NO more work!” But I have an appetite for luxury, mostly travel, and the income still has to come from somewhere! I’m grateful so many people still want my skills and my point of view; I’m finding a new and much happier way to work when it’s not journalism, which remains a greedy and hierarchical model. My non-journalism clients really appreciate the skills I bring and even some of my ideas, a breath of fresh air when they’re internally stymied or new to the organization. Cooperation! Teamwork!

As I contemplate retirement I also have no hobbies! A friend suggested birding, which doesn’t feel like a fit.

For now, a slower schedule bringing in a decent-enough income is fine with me. It allows time off for travel and brings in the means to do it.

Some birthday thoughts

By Caitlin Kelly

My birthday is June 6.

This year (gulp) is a landmark/milestone birthday, one many never reach.

Some thoughts from a few decades’ experience:

The house that got away! I chased it really hard (rural Nova Scotia, November 2021).

It was a bit of a debacle and cost several thousand dollars to determine it wasn’t a

wise choice. Oh well!

Take more chances

I know some of us are limited, for a while or a long time, by fear of losing a job, relationship, the comfort of the familiar, some bound tightly by bonds of duty to children and/or parents.

I’ve been lucky to enjoy a lot of independence, even within my 22-year marriage, so have been able to take on work that scared me at first with its new challenges (and met.)

At 25, weeping so hard I could barely stand up, I threw a bunch of stuff into a duffel bag, boarded a flight to Paris and began an 8-month journalism fellowship that required each of us (28 people from 19 nations, aged 25 to 35) to make four 10-day solo reporting trips across Europe. I was scared!

I knew it would forever change me, and it did, in every possible good way. I came back to Toronto brimming with new and hard-earned self-confidence, better reporting skills, a better sense of teamwork cross-culturally, fluent French, lifelong friendships and the respect of some people I admired greatly.

At 30, I left Canada for the U.S. , permanently.

SO SCARED!

I felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean. I left behind a solid career, deep friendships, my identity. Would I ever regain these?

Yes I did.

Taking chances means risk. Risk can mean disappointment and failure — but also amazing new possibilities.

Cherish your deep friendships

Oh my! My bestie Marion, maid of honor at my first wedding, 1992, met in freshman English
class at university. Still besties!

As an only child of not-very-loving parents and relatives, my friends have always really been my family — celebrating my triumphs, mourning my losses and tough times. They have stood by me through a marriage, divorce and remarriage, through unemployment, through relocation and breast cancer.

Their love and strength and constancy have been essential to my survival, literally.

I have not found this sort of devotion to friendship, certainly in adulthood, in New York and have found it lonely. If you have friends, anywhere, cherish them! Stay in touch!

Venice, July 2017

Travel as far and often as health and your means allow

I know — a very privileged point of view! I was fortunate to grow up in a family of means who really valued travel and exploration. My father and I drove from Toronto across Canada the summer I was 15, and he and I visited Mexico, Ireland and some southern U.S. states together. My mother inherited enough money she lived many places and flew me to Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia and Fiji. On my own, I’ve been to more than another 30 places, from Istanbul to Copenhagen, rural Texas to coastal Maine, Victoria, B.C. to Newfoundland. Not having children allowed me more freedom and income to do this, I realize.

Even the worst moments, (blessedly very few!), have been worth the going and seeing. I regret none of it: new friends, a deeper understanding of and appreciation for different cultures, the chance to use my French and Spanish skills.

Read/listen/watch widely and deeply

These days, more important than ever, especially in the U.S. where there are such deep divisions some fear a new Civil War soon.

Guard your time jealously — it’s precious and fleeting

Not a huge Steely Dan fan but this 1972 lyric of theirs is hitting me much harder these days:

Are you reeling in the years?

Stowing away the time?

There are so many moments in life when we’re impatient, waiting for something great we really want(ed), wishing that time would move faster.

The older I get (cliche alert!) the slower I want to move, the fewer people I want to have access to my time, attention and energy and the frightening fact that I have fewer years ahead of me than behind me.

As a full-time freelancer, I’m super selective now about who I work with and what amount of energy and time they will need from me, and at what pay rate.

Every time you feel guilty about taking time just for yourself — to sit still and think or write or pray or nap or hug someone you love — this is the time best spent.

Set and keep boundaries

Huge! Especially challenging for girls and women, socialized to be “nice” and “go along to get along”, often deeply suppressing our rage and grief behind yet another quick fake reassuring smile.

It’s taken me a long time to say “Nope!” to people and situations that are really not healthy for me, whether in work or relationships.

Therapy can help. Breaking old habits is difficult, but worth it.

Apologize sincerely and quickly

I’m not sure how anyone can manage to retain any long-term relationship without this.

It’s hard!

It demands self-awareness and humility.

What if the person is too angry at you to accept it?

Do it anyway.

Flee toxic people and places

Not easy…although The Great Resignation is making clear how badly so many people really wanted out of a job or workplace or team or corporate culture they loathed.

I’ve put up with some seriously toxic people and workplaces and it’s never good for your mental or physical health.

Keeping solid work skills and a network of peers to refer you to opportunities is crucial.

Having access to deep, nurturing friendships will also steel your spine in moments of doubt about fleeing.

Saving as much money as possible also allows us the chance to get out of a terrible situation, whether personal or professional.

I’ve fled both.

Before my first (short, miserable) marriage to a physician, I made sure I had a pre-nuptial agreement; it saved my home and the family money I inherited that gave us the down payment.

Having an attorney (luckily pro bono) allowed me some dignity when I was bullied and shunned at the New York Daily News for months.

Leave a legacy

It might be a garden or a child or a scholarship fund.

It might be a piece of work you’re known and admired for.

Think about what you leave behind.

Women — time to speak up!

By Caitlin Kelly

The editor in chief of the Financial Times, Rouala Khalaf, (probably the most male of the big newspapers — and boy are they male, especially at the very top) — recently implored more women to write to their letters page.

I was thrilled to have my letter published there, verbatim, a few months ago.

I can see why so few women do:

— It’s intimidating! Letters to the FT routinely arrive from Lords and CEOs and deans of elite universities. How dare we add our voices?!

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of professional reputational loss (see above!)

— Too busy working/parenting/caregiving

— Modesty…why listen to us?

As you know (cough!) I’m fine expressing my opinions publicly, here and on social media and in classrooms and at conferences and in letters pages, including those of The New York Times and Newsweek.

I was basically raised as a boy, to be smart and competitive, not sweet and submissive as so many girls and women still are, so this never scared me, even if maybe it should.

I am very careful on Twitter not to discuss the most divisive topics — abortion, guns, politics — in any detail. Women are trolled and harassed and get death and rape threats when they do. No thanks!

So, when and where should we speak up?

— Protest marches

— School board meetings

— City council/town hall meetings

— at industry conferences, either as a speaker, moderator or audience member

— your blog, and others’

— social media

— writing and publishing essays and op-eds

— voting

— call-in radio shows

— as a member of an organization or group or community

I know, it can feel scary to invite argument or ridicule or dismissal!

But the more we stay invisible and inaudible, the more we allow this behavior to dominate and silence us.

Now that the landmark abortion law Roe v. Wade is in danger, and so many U.S. states ready to ban abortion, it’s no time to sit back and shrug. Our many bodily rights to autonomy are being erased daily.

Our voices matter.