Why Pulitzer Prizes still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

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Pulitzer

This week the most coveted awards in journalism were given out, the prizes named for Joseph Pulitzer, a man born in Hungary in 1847 and who became a legendary publisher of major American newspapers; (pronounced Pull-itzer.)

It is a very big deal to win a Pulitzer Prize, both for the writers and photographers who win it for their individual, often team, efforts, but also for their editors and publishers.

It can take decades to win one, or, for the fortunate few, it arrives early in their careers. The photographer who’s won the most ever in journalism, four, is Carol Guzy, of The Washington Post — who began her career as a nurse.

In a time when our industry is struggling mightily — tens of thousands of us having been laid off in recent years — this sort of accolade is still something many of us strive for.

If you stay in journalism a few decades, you come to know, and sometimes work with, and possibly deeply admire, many colleagues, sometimes scattered globally. When they win, we’re also cheering for our tribe.

Here’s the list of all the 2017 winners, including history, poetry, drama and music.

One of my favorite stories of 2016, a stunning 18,102 word account of a young combat veteran, was written by The New York Times’ staff writer C.J. Chivers, himself a former Marine. He won the 2017 Pulitzer for feature writing.

His award is one of three Pulitzers awarded to the Times this year. Another went to Australian-born, New Delhi-based freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak for breaking news covering the drug war in the Philippines being waged by President Duterte. He also won the award in 2015 for feature photography for documenting the Ebola outbreak.

From his website:

Their Ukrainian practicality did not consider photography to be a viable trade to pursue so at an early age Daniel worked on the farm and at his father’s refrigeration company.

Not so surprising — journalism is still considered a terrible career choice by many parents: it’s professionally insecure, badly paid and sometimes dangerous.

It’s one of the many reasons we, (I’ve been a journalist for decades), are so proud of our colleagues who persist and succeed. It’s damn hard!

In an era of “fake news” and endless claims to the “truth”, we need media literate readers/listeners and viewers more than ever.

And we need smart, tough, determined reporters, whether visual or word-focused, and their editors and their publishers, to stay committed to strong, intelligent work of lasting value —- not just chase clicks and views.

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David Farenthhold — we all knew he had this one in the bag — took the prize for National Reporting, on Trump, for The Washington Post.

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer’s death aboard his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate. Pulitzer envisioned an advisory board composed principally of newspaper publishers. Others would include the president of Columbia University and scholars, and “persons of distinction who are not journalists or editors.” Today, the 19-member board is composed mainly of leading editors or news executives. Four academics also serve, including the president of Columbia University and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Also from the Pulitzer website:

What do Pulitzer Prize winners get when they win?

There are 21 Pulitzer categories. In 20 of those categories the winners receive a $10,000 cash award and a certificate. Only the winner in the Public Service category of the Journalism competition is awarded a gold medal. The Public Service prize is always awarded to a news organization, not an individual, although an individual may be named in the citation.

Selfishly, I have a deeply vested interest in the Pulitzers — as we have one in the family. It belongs to my husband, Jose R. Lopez, whose blog is here.

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On 9/11, as fighter jets screamed over Manhattan and the Twin Towers fell, Jose was a team member of talented, fast-thinking, quick-acting New York Times photographers and photo editors covering it.

They won the Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography.

Jose, then a photo editor, (and former news photographer), literally turned his basement Brooklyn apartment, (the very day he was to move in with me and everything was already packed!) into a local Times bureau — scanning and transmitting images from his computer as photographers delivered their film to him.

There was no way to physically get into Manhattan from Brooklyn in time, to reach the Times‘ building that day.

On a day of confusion and terror and trauma, the Times team stayed calm and organized. Their job — our job — always, is to witness, testify, explain, share.

That’s what we do.

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Columbia Journalism School

The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

The joys of a small(er) life

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this essay intriguing, originally published on the blog, A Life in Progress (and which garnered a stunning 499 comments):

The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.

But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?

What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up—beyond mom and sister and wife? But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?

What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship? What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough?

It was a friend of mine, someone I met in freshman English class at University of Toronto decades ago, who posted it on her Facebook page.

She is often wearied by the insane pace others have set for themselves and keep setting.

It can feel like a race.

This always felt like our theme song, from Michelle Shocked:

Leroy got a better job so we moved
Kevin lost a tooth now he’s started school
I got a brand new eight month old baby girl
I sound like a housewife
Hey Shell, I think I’m a housewife

Hey Girl, what’s it like to be in New York?
New York City – imagine that!
Tell me, what’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?

I wasn’t exactly a skateboard punk rocker, but I did leave Canada — dear friends, family, thriving career — for New York.

When two paths diverge sharply, one to crazy, restless ambition (mine), one to settled domesticity (hers), raising three daughters, and a steady job in a smaller city, it often breaks a friendship.

One life looks too sharp-elbowed, the other ordinary and mundane (M’s word choice — I showed her this post beforehand.)

Social media can make these comparisons somewhat excruciating, with all the dark/messy bits of either choice edited out.

Life is more complicated than that.

I chose to leave Canada for New York when I was 30.

When people ask why, I answer with one truthful word: ambition.

It hasn’t all turned out as I hoped. The man I moved to be with, my first husband, proved unfaithful and soon walked out on our marriage.

Three recessions severely slowed my career progress.

Jobs came and went.

Friendships I hope would last for decades imploded.

Shit happens!

But I’ll never forget the heart-bursting joy when I exited the Sixth Avenue headquarters of Simon & Shuster clutching the galleys of my first book.

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

Or how cool it was to compete for four years in nationals in saber fencing.

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I now have a happy second marriage and a home in a town I love.

I have an agent, and work, and ideas and friends.

No kids. No grand-kids. No family homestead.

Do I regret my ambition, and its costs? No.

Choosing a quieter life limned by one’s own family, town or community is a choice.

Choosing a life of ambition-fueled drive, another.

Each brings its own satisfactions and joys.

Which sort of life have you chosen?

Are you happy with your choice?

Stand down

By Caitlin Kelly

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Much wisdom in this (too-long) blog post, on Medium:

True growth and success is always sustainable. It’s not a short sprint with an inevitable physical, mental, and emotional crash. All goals are means, not ends. Each succeeding stage of your progression should clearly build one-upon-another, leaving you stronger and more able, not weaker and permanently damaged.

In order to do this, you must properly “recover” from the following things on a daily basis:

  1. Work

  2. Technology

  3. People

  4. Food

  5. Fitness

  6. Being awake

This is so damn smart!

This is so utterly counter-cultural.

I make it a point to recover from all six of these, as a matter of course and of self-care and self-preservation.

For numbers 1 through 3, I’m fortunate enough to be self-employed, so setting boundaries, and keeping them, doesn’t mean potentially threatening my livelihood.

For Number four, I eat 750 calories two days a week.

For fitness, I work out/exercise 3-4 days a week, sometimes (sigh) only twice.

Working from home, I nap as needed, sometimes as little as 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes; without dependents, not difficult.

Living in the United States these days, and I live/work near New York City in a thrashing/disrupted industry (journalism), means waking up every single morning in something of a panic.

Not helped by the daily chaos of Trump.

Whose civil rights will disappear tomorrow?

Which new executive order will require more calls and emails to elected representatives or another street protest?

Should we move back to Canada? When? Where?

If I stay — or if we go — would we be able to find work?

 

This is also brilliant, from a writing-focused website called Catapult:

Call it self-care, sure, or call it life, but a soul is a thing that requires tending. The soul is not quite interchangeable with “heart” or “mind,” or any other word we mean to denote only the “spiritual” part of a person. In the words of the philosopher Dallas Willard, the soul is the entire inner person, not detached from bodily life but inclusive of it, as well as heart and mind, thought and motivation, feeling and judgment. An untended soul drifts toward inertia.

But what does my soul benefit from being “productive”? Am I any number of inches closer to God because I wrote an essay that was praised by someone I desperately wanted to impress? What is the moral imperative to produce?

These questions are all tricks to say that I have no idea what the answer is. I know that when I am anxious, I often think I can produce my way out of it. I have an uneasy relationship with productivity, thinking my anxiety will be placated if I just do enough big things.

 

Every day, I see talented, experienced friends losing well-paid jobs in our field, with no certainty of being able to replace them. One pal needed almost an entire year to find his new job, yet another insecure contract position.

We also live in a time and age relentlessly demanding increased productivity.

We’re exhorted constantly to domorebetterfaster!

 

Not to think.

Not to reflect.

Not to sit still, alone, in silence.

 

Not to take good, slow, thoughtful care of our most valuable resource, our health.

And yet, and yet, we’re each of us simply human, de facto limited in some way, whether by lack of time, impaired physical stamina, weakened emotional energy or by restricted access to social capital or financing.

We’re not robots.

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We’re not robots. We need to rest and recharge.

We’re not machines, no matter what laissez-faire capitalism (and stagnant wages) relentlessly demand.

We’re all running too hard, too fast.

As a result, many of us vibrate with anxiety, shoving sweets and fats and pills and liquor down our throats in an attempt to satiate much deeper, more painful sadness and anxiety, whether personal, political or professional.

Sometimes (sigh) all three.

It’s a very wise choice to pay attention, to read the signals, to try our best to stay safe and to protect the rights and needs of others.

But not 24/7.

Here’s a 14-minute story (from one of the best shows I listen to on NPR, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC), about how stressed many Americans are feeling since the election of Trump.

Chronic anxiety will kill you.

Even soldiers need sleep, food, companionship.

Stand down!

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Who are “the media”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, much missed

Unless you know a journalist, or are one, dismissing “the media” is an easy — and lazy — way to describe the millions of men and women, of all ages, worldwide, whose chosen profession is to find and gather accurate, verifiable data and disseminate it as widely as their medium allows.

It’s disingenuous and misguided to mistake journalists for stenographers.

As the late David Carr once said: “I don’t do corporate portraiture.”

Our job is to challenge authority.

To speak truth to power.

To insist upon clear, straight, verifiable answers.

Those who don’t?

They’re a joke.

As Trump bellows and whines and threatens to keep making reporting on his administration difficult for all but the most fawning, it’s useful to remember what 99 percent of journalists actually do:

— We report on science and medicine, digging through journals, speaking to scientists and researchers and physicians and patients, trying to make sure the latest “miracle” drug or “breakthrough” cure really is that, and not just the prelude to a Big Pharma IPO.

— We cover local government, school board meetings and other minutiae of local life, where every hard-earned taxpayer dollar is spent (or wasted.) We read long boring reports and sit through long boring meetings to keep eyes and ears on elected officials.

— We race toward danger to photograph war, natural disaster, fires and crashes. Photographers and videographers have no luxury of distance. They, too, get injured, physically and emotionally. Some are killed in the line of duty — like news photographers Tim Hetherington, Anja Niedringhaus and Marie Colvin, their names meaningless to those beyond our circles. But their bravery and determination to keep telling stories, no matter how dangerous, inspires many, like our young friend Alex Wroblewski, who’s been to Iraq several times.

— We sit with people whose lives have been shattered by crime and tragedy. We listen carefully to their stories and try to be compassionate, even while we take notes or record them for posterity. Through those stories, we try to elucidate what it means to live with daily pain and grief, the cost of lawlessness and mayhem.

— We cover cops and courts, holding police and other powerful authorities to account, to restrain, when possible, their abuses of lethal power.

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— We watch, listen to and share our experiences of culture, whether Beyonce’s latest album or a performance of 16th. century lute music.

— We dig into business and corporate behavior, reading the tiny print at the back of annual reports. We speak to workers at every level to hear their firsthand experiences, not just the shiny version presented, forcefully, by public relation staffs.

— We watch the larger culture for shifts and trends, trying to make sense of a world moving at dizzying speed.

And that’s still a very, very small portion of what we do.

Even as Trump stamps his feet and shrieks about the “failing” New York Times, (for whom I write freelance and for whom my husband worked for 31 years), pretend you’re a journalist — and fact-check!

The Times, Washington Post and others he attacks relentlessly are seeing a huge jump in subscriptions.

Even as Trump has shut them out of the White House briefing room:

The White House blocked several news outlets from attending a closed-door briefing Friday afternoon with press secretary Sean Spicer, a decision that drew strong rebukes from news organizations and may only heighten tensions between the press corps and the administration.

The New York Times and CNN, both of which have reported critically on the administration and are frequent targets of President Donald Trump, were prohibited from attending. The Huffington Post was also denied entry.

Both the Associated Press and Time magazine, which were allowed to enter, boycotted out of solidarity with those news organizations kept out.

Spicer said prior to the start of the administration that the White House may skip televised daily briefings in favor of an off-camera briefing or gaggle with reporters.

The next time someone bitches about “the media” send them the link to this blog post, please.

There is no “the media.”

There are millions of individuals working hard to do their best.

Some are biased.

Some are lazy.

Some are useless.

Many are not.

Imagine a world without accurate verifiable information, on any subject.

Is that a world you prefer?

The challenge of making a big change

This is one of my favorite bloggers, Chelsea Fuss, a single woman who left a thriving floral design business in Portland, Oregon and who is now living in Lisbon.

Her blog, frolic, is a consistent joy: frank, lovely, wise.

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Where in the world will you go? What if it doesn’t work out? What if it does?!

Some of her thoughts on the challenges of changing your life, big-time, (of which there are five in her post):

1. Nothing is perfect. Often, when I engage in these sorts of conversations, people are looking for a magical answer, a perfect life. Nothing is perfect. As my brother likes to remind me, everything in life is a trade off. Whatever new life you are able to acquire, one thing is for sure, you will have a new set of challenges. Weigh the positives and negatives and be honest with yourself about what your priorities are and what you are willing to sacrifice to make your dreams real. For example, when I left my home base in Portland, I was giving up a creative community, a great location for operating my business, all of my current and potential clients, most of my business and the ambitions and goals I had for it, everything I owned! The list goes on! Some people might say, “You traded all that and more to work as a glorified slave?” It’s all in how you look at it. At the time, my priority was to get my hands in the earth, apprentice on organic farms (I volunteered on farms in exchange for room and board, cutting out the rent factor), see more of the world, meet new people, and mix things up a bit to see what happened. I actually had no end goal in sight. I ended up staying in Europe and moving to Lisbon. I got a whole new life, and a whole new set of problems, with my new-found-life and accomplished dreams.

Two bloggers I follow have done this as well; Cadence (an American in London) and Juliet, a Canadian in Paris.

I know many of you are immigrants or ex-pats; here’s a brand-new blog, by an American man now living in Bucharest.

I’ve cast off my former life a few times and…it’s terrifying!

OK, it was for me.

The first time, I was 25, and won an eight-month fellowship to Paris (!) to study, travel and work in a group of 28 journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35. I ditched a live-in boyfriend (willingly), my dog (sob), friends, family and a thriving freelance writing career I was sick to death of.

I was stuck in a cosy cocoon, but desperate for some wings.

It certainly gave me that!

I’d left my parents’ home at 19, and there I was, living for the first time in a college dorm room (tiny!) with bathrooms down the hall and a hyper-vigilant staff who grilled me when they thought I had “un clandestin” (i.e. a man) in my room.

I traveled alone (on reporting trips) to Sicily, Denmark and Amsterdam and spent eight days in a truck with a French driver going from Perpignan to Istanbul, still one of the best adventures of my  life.

I’m still good friends with some of the people from our fellowship.

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships, near Montreal

I did it again when I left my hometown of Toronto for a job in Montreal, where I’d once more be working en francais.

I loved my enormous top-floor apartment and quickly made new friends and met my first husband.

But the city was a poor fit for me, as was the newspaper I went to work for. Montreal, a charming place to visit, offered a brutally cold, snowy and interminable winter; very high taxes; limited professional opportunities, terrible public services and a much higher crime rate than Toronto.

I was gone within two years.

Off to a small town in New Hampshire to follow my first husband’s medical training there — but I had no job, no friends or family, and it was long before the Internet and its easy social and professional connections.

Then, two years after that, we moved to a town in the suburbs of New York City, just in time for a recession. Again, with no job, no family or friends and no alumni networks to lean on.

I had never lived in a small town before New Hampshire.

I had never lived in the suburbs before New York.

You can make a huge change.

Chelsea did. I did.

I know many people who have.

It takes guts, self-confidence, resilience.

Savings and good job skills are essential.

It may not work out at all as you’d hoped or planned; my first husband walked out the door (literally) barely two years after our wedding and promptly married a woman he worked with. That was very definitely not in my plans.

But here I am today, with a home, a town and a second husband that all make me happy that I made the move  — and that I toughed it out.

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Grand Central Station, NYC. One of my favorite things about living here.

Have you made a huge change in your life?

How did it turn out?

A week in the life of a freelance writer

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s not what you might think, or expect.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006.  You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.

I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.

Errands

To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.

The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.

That’s a business deduction.

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I write for money. Pleasure, too, but mostly for money.

Invoiced

I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.

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I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s

Pitched

The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.

Total time-suck!

Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.

I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.

Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.

Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.

We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.

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The Chinese edition of my 2011 book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Negotiated

Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.

Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.

Researched

Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.

I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.

Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.

I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.

Persisted

Hate this.

Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.

Coached

My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.

I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Read

Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)

If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.

Wrote

The least of it!

Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.

Networked

Without which, nothing happens.

Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)

Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.

Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.

Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.

Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.

Scored!

Two new assignments from a new-to-me editor at The New York Times, a place for whom I’ve been freelancing steadily since 1990; here’s my most recent, about the odd things people find when they renovate a home.

Being a “difficult woman”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Well-behaved women seldom make history — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976

The photo above is me, age 37, fencing at nationals, among the women who made U.S. sports history by being the first to fence saber at that level.

Loved this recent column by stroppy British business journo Lucy Kellaway, initially published in the Financial Times:

Being difficult at work is not generally thought to be a good thing. On Amazon there are 1,387 titles on how to deal with difficult people, including Since Strangling Isn’t an Option. I failed to find a single volume called What to do When the Difficult Person is Me. Or How to be Difficult and Influence People.

As a columnist, being difficult is part of the job – if you do not enjoy sometimes getting up the noses of readers, you are too bland to be any good. Indeed, as a journalist, being personally difficult can serve you rather well. I can think of one or two writers who are so impossible their text is never tampered with. Their words invariably command pride of place because no editor can face the fuss that would result from doing otherwise.

Being difficult has other advantages too. It means that people tend not to lean on you for small favours. As one of the most important tricks to survival in the corporate world is to avoid grunt work, this makes it a powerful weapon. Being difficult also means you are likely to be better at getting your own way. It is a balancing act – you must be difficult enough to insist that things are done as you see fit, without being so difficult that people refuse to work with you.

In my first ever newspaper job, at 26, for the national daily Globe & Mail, I won that moniker as well.

I like it.

I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist, in which she ponders the problem of being likable, of needing and wanting to be likable — and how playing along with the status quo so often weakens us as women.

“Even from a young age I understood that when a girl in unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman.

Women who stand up for themselves, and others, are often labeled “difficult” — as in non-pliable, not sufficiently obedient or deferential or polite or, worst of all, just not very “nice.”

Not friendly.

As though these were the most crucial attributes a woman can offer to the world.

A must-read book for every woman who wants to remain alive, safe and free from criminal predation is The Gift of Fear.

I was given it by a man I dated in 1998 — a con man, a convicted criminal I discovered had served time in Chicago and moved to New York where he found fresh victims, which included me. Being a lot more difficult would have kept me safe from him, but I was lonely, isolated and vulnerable to sustained attention.

This smart, tough book, written by a security expert, makes very clear that our wish to be seen as kind or welcoming, as unthreatening, can kill us.

Of course, no one wants to work with or live with or marry or be friends with someone who’s always a frosty bitch or a draaaaaaama queen or queen bee.

You can be “difficult” and still be someone people love deeply and respect the hell out of — it just might be a much smaller circle.

When I meet a woman, or hear about one whose accomplishments I admire, I rarely care if she is or was a likable person.

Better she be passionate, compassionate, principled, intelligent, articulate, active, connected, courageous.

As resistance to Donald Trump grows, one American writer credits women with reinvigorating the left.

From New York magazine:

Women, with women of color at front and center, can be the engines of new progressive activism in all arenas. It’s a rebuke to the theory floated by some on the left that there is a disjunction between “identity politics” and politics, a rebuke to those who suggested in the wake of Trump’s electoral win that the future lies in moving away from divisive “social issues” and identity-framed movements and back to economic policies.

What this event did, on the most massive scale we have seen in this country, is reaffirm what has always been true: The impact of identity bias has always been economic, and economic issues have always most powerfully disadvantaged those who experience identity bias. Or to put it another way: Women’s rights are human rights.

It takes guts and determination to fight oppression.

To ask for the job.

To speak truth to power.

To ask for a raise.

To leave a crappy marriage.

To stand up to a bully, even one who’s not talking to you. (Bitch!)

To challenge the status quo.

It also takes having some money in the bank, a fuck-you fund to pay the bills when the boss decides you’re just too annoying.

It’s difficult.

Are you a difficult woman?

How’s that working out for you?

What journalists see — and you don’t

By Caitlin Kelly

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Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua — and back!

What a fun week it’s been!

Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”

So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.

If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.

Maybe you knew that.

But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.

It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.

It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:

Length and space

Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.

In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.

Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.

Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.

This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015 (my photo)

Clarity

Short is often better — get to the point!

But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.

Graphic violence

Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.

The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.

Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.

I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.

By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.

Lies

This is a big one, especially now.

If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.

It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.

We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).

Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?

Self-immolation

Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.

It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.

We’re all human and we all mis-speak.

That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen  to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.

It’s our job to untangle it all.

Far too many press releases!

I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.

There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.

Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.

Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.

Documents, leaks and FOIAs

If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.

The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.

FOIAs (pronounced foy-ahs), are Freedom of Information Act requests, which winkle out crucial documents from the federal government. As the press withstands unprecedented attacks here in the U.S., journalists are creating secret and on-line national groups to plot strategy and one writer I know has switched to an encrypted email.

The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.

You need a free press more than ever now.

 Proximity/celebrity/recency

The big three of news determinants.

The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.

Which is crazy.

Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.

(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)

Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.

If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.

The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…

I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.

 

How crucial do you think a free press is?

 

Do you agree with Bannon?