Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

My 5,000 word story for The American Prospect is by far the longest I’ve written in a decade.

My book chapters are usually that long, but a book is a very different animal.

Today’s journalism too often demands writing “light, bright and tight” — jamming a story into 700 or 900 words.

So reporting and writing at length demands a wholly different approach and strong skills.

 

Some tips:

 

1. Who is your (ideal) audience? How much do they want to know? What are their most burning questions? Who else has so far answered them poorly — and how much better can you do?  How will you achieve that?

2.  Make sure from the very start, after you’ve found an editor who wants this story, that you’re both clear on expectations: story length (is there wiggle room?), date of publication, what illustrations or graphs or charts or photos does it need and who will be responsible for obtaining those, who’s handling social media, payment (how many days after acceptance? after invoice?), what about a kill fee, who owns copyright and make sure you will be given a chance to read the edited story with enough time before publication to make sure it is accurate.

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

3. Check in with your editor — and don’t be annoying. If the story, for any reason, might be delayed or is changing shape or focus, they need to know now. On my healthcare story, I sent my source list early on.

4. What is the key issue your story will address? The clearer your initial focus, the clearer your roadmap of who to interview, what documents to read, what videos or podcasts you need to listen to, etc. Time is money and you have to be efficient.

5. Who will you interview? Stories develop as you go, but you should have a solid idea of your key characters before you start. And bear in mind that senior/high-level sources are super-busy with work, teaching, conferences, travel. You may need weeks or even months to get some of them to agree to speak with you. Be strategic.

6. If you need help — a fixer, translator, researcher — use them, and give them clear direction. Pay as much as possible, ideally no less than $20-25 an hour; 20 years ago I was paying $15/hour to my researchers. Quality costs!

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

7. It’s a line of dominoes. Every source you speak to on a lengthy and investigative story of any true complexity will be assessing you…not just vice versa! Are you smart, well-prepared, asking intelligent and incisive questions? Are you polite and patient? Every source who decides you, too, are of value may then refer you — often unasked — to others at their level of wisdom, access and insight.

8. Share as much as you can with your sources. Some writers refuse. It’s totally personal, but I typically share quite a bit. In my decades of experience, I find that it establishes trust, credibility, a human connection. Sources aren’t gas pumps! Some will appreciate being included and feel respected.

9. How will you structure your piece? What’s your “lede” — the opening few sentences that have to lure your reader in at once? Do you have a terrific “kicker”, the final few sentences that leave your reader thinking, remembering, moved? Here’s an excellent and helpful book, “Follow the Story”by a legendary American journalist. What are your “golden coins” — bits of material (a great quote or anecdote, a compelling data point) that will continue to lure your reader deeper and deeper. You can’t lose them!

10. Find at least three “first readers” whose fresh eyes on your copy will immediately see what’s missing, what’s over-written or under-explained. These should be people whose solid judgment of the issues and how to write well you know and trust. They will help you polish your story even more before it goes to your editor.

 

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11. Pace yourself! My interviews are usually at least 60 minutes, sometimes 90 and sometimes even (whew!) 120. By that point, we’re just pooped. Two a day doesn’t seem like much, but these days it is. So if your story — like mine — includes 30 sources, do the math and plan our your time accordingly. Same for writing. I write quickly, and produced this story within maybe three days, plus revision time. But everyone works at a different pace. Do what works best for you.

12. Savor the result! It’s a serious accomplishment to win an assignment of this length and to complete it to the editors’ satisfaction. 

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

Whew!

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:

https://wordpress.com/post/broadsideblog.wordpress.com/52759

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.

 

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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!

 

 

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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.

 

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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!

 


 

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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.

How journalism happens

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Written by a documentary film-maker, daughter of the late, great NYT journalist David Carr

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s ironic — we each have more access now, thanks to the Internet, to thousands of media sources from across the globe than ever before.

Yet I see such tremendous ignorance of what journalism is.

What we do. Why we do it. What we earn. Our many constraints and challenges.

So, as we close out this decade, this is my stake in the ground, a sort of Media 101. (If this is all overly familiar, sorry!)

 

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Where does a “news” story come from?

The textbook definition of news means it’s new (something we haven’t seen or heard before); it affects the outlet’s audience (whether local, regional, national or global); it affects someone wealthy or powerful (a sad metric, but often used); it marks a significant change from prior experience; a natural disaster; a major crime.

It also, ideally, covers all levels of government. Ideally, also we cover major issues like income inequality/poverty, health, education, environment, etc.

Do journalists pay their sources?

No. This is common in some British tabloids, but not in North America, where it’s taboo. It demands cooperation from sources, yes, but it means (ideally!) that money doesn’t buy access or coverage.

Do sources pay to be in a story?

No! There is now the absurd belief — based on “journalism” like Forbes’ blogs — that you just pay to play. I’ve been offered payment many times by sources to write about them. Unscrupulous journalists accept, creating the fantasy this is normal. It is not.

 

 

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How do I know who or what to trust?

This is now a huge and troubling issue — I recently attended a powerful and sobering event at the New York HQ for Reuters, with terrific panelists addressing this very question.

The first speaker, who flew in from London, showed the audience five videos and asked us to vote on whether they were fake or real. Some were fake, and so carefully created it was really difficult to tell.

In an era of such deceptive deepfakes, question carefully!

 

Who writes the headlines?

Not the reporters! Every outlet has a series of editors above the reporters and they will oversee the headlines and write them. No reporter writes their own headlines; freelancers can and do suggest one when pitching, and some will be kept.

Same for book titles; I named my first book and my editor (thankfully!) named my second.

Who writes the captions for photos?

Editors. Sometimes the photographer.

 

How much do reporters make?

Hah! So much less than people imagine. In 2019, the American average was $40,081. To put this into context, I earned $45,000 as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette  — in the 1980s. If you’re fortunate enough to get hired by a major national outlet, like Reuters wire service or The New York Times, you might get $90,000 or more.

How much do TV reporters make?

A lot more, depending if regional or national. Those working at the national level — sometimes more experienced and skilled — will make more. Locally, $56,455.

 

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How much do authors make?

Some, millions. Some, pennies!

There are many, many tiers of book publishing, from academic houses to small indies to the mega’s like Simon & Schuster or Harper Collins, able to offer enormous advances to those they think worth the investment — like Michelle and Barack Obama, who got (reportedly) $65 million.

An “advance” may be divided into three or four parts: one on signing the deal, one on acceptance of the manuscript; one on publication and one (!) a year or more after publication. Hardly “advance”!

Every payment will likely lose 15 percent off the top to the agent who sold it.

Every book sold means more money, right?

Nope.

If your advance is $100,000, you must “earn out” that sum before getting another dime from the publisher.

And the game is rigged, since every book sold does not give the author the cover price!

We get eight percent of the retail price.

So this belief that a TV or radio or podcast appearance means a huge boost to our income from our books is wishful fantasy.

What exactly do TV and radio producers do?

There are “bookers” and producers who find and pre-interview people they think will be good on-air. You may have noticed a predominance of white men. People with no discernible accent.

 

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How do people actually end up getting interviewed by the media?

A variety of ways. Some have in-house communications departments or PIOs (public information officers) to handle requests formally. Some have a public relations firm pumping out press releases all the time! Some know a journalist or producer personally.

If it’s a major news event, like a shooting or natural disaster, we speak to as many people there as possible — traumatic for them, often.

 

How do you get access to documents?

Some use a Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — to get at them. It’s been in American law since 1967, the legal right to access any document from any federal agency.

Sometimes we get them offered to us by an internal whistle-blower.

 

How are freelance writers paid?

Bizarrely, by the word. Sometimes a flat fee. These range from $150 to $10,000 or more. No rules. No guidelines. It’s every-man-for-himself. So a story of 500 words at .50 cents per word will pay less than a magazine piece at $2/word for 3,000 words.

We are not paid until the story is accepted — and that can take months. It’s a huge problem.

Stories also get “killed” — not used and maybe not even paid for, maybe 25 percent of the original fee.

 

A glossary:

 

Hed

The headline.

Sub-hed

A sub-heading within the body of a story, often used to break up copy and keep the reader moving.

Pull-quote or call-out

A phrase or quote that’s memorable, meant to entice the reader into the story.

Dek

A brief description of the story.

Lede

The first sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Kicker

The final sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Graf

A paragraph.

The 5 W’s and H

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How….every story should answer these.

B-roll

Images to illustrate a TV story or video that aren’t the main event. Sometimes shot in advance.

Nut graf

High up in a story, the graf that explains why the story is even worth reading.

Explainer

A detailed story to explain a complicated issue.

Presser

A press conference.

On the record

Everything you say is now for permanent, public consumption. (Off the record means it’s not — but only if you preface your remarks with this phrase, not afterward.)

Two new stories of American labor

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy Labor Day!

As regular readers here know, how people work and earn their living — and for what pay and under what conditions — is a bit of an obsession of mine.

I’ve had many staff jobs: at three big daily newspapers and at several magazines, (trade and consumer) — and worked 2.5 years selling stuff for $11/hour as a sales associate for The North Face, by far the most difficult job of my life and the most humbling. It became my second book.

Since losing my last staff job in 2006, I’ve remained freelance, which means I am only paid for whatever work I can find, negotiate and successfully complete. Pay rates for journalism are now much lower than in the early 2000s,. when I easily brought home $60,000 a year. Not now.

It’s crazy.

 

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I grew up in Canada — a country with unions! — and moved to the United States in 1988. It is a truly eye-opening experience to live in a land of such brute, bare-knuckled capitalism! No paid maternity leave and very little unpaid. No paid vacation days, by law. At-will employment, which literally means anyone can fire you anytime for no reason at all.

Then, no severance!

Weakened unions at their lowest membership ever.

Stagnant wages — while CEOs “earn” 254 times the pay of their lowest-paid staff.

So, hey — try these!

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a friend, has finally just published his new book about American labor, The Big Squeeze.

I can’t wait to read it.

Just one of its many rave reviews…


“The power of Greenhouse’s book lies . . . in its reporting, especially on low-wage workers . . . his best material vividly focuses on the always difficult and often abusive working conditions of low-paid employees. Such stories get far too little airing and rarely are they so well told.” —Business Week

Here’s an earlier book on the same topic, from 2014.

And a new documentary,  American Factory, takes a close look at one American factory taken over by the Chinese.

From The New York Times’ review:

In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.

The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)

 

Hoping that you have work you like, and well-paid!

Isolation is deadly. Ask for help!

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War correspondent, the late Marie Colvin, was a tough nut…she had to be.

By Caitlin Kelly

It has been a brutal year for New York City police officers — two of whom committed suicide this week alone, nine so far this year.

A friend, Tanzina Vega, is rocking it as host of the daily NPR radio show The Takeaway, and they did a great segment on this; link here.

The show dug into why police officers are prone to depression and to making the terrible final decision of suicide.

A key element, not surprisingly, is a professional culture of silence.

If managers and supervisors don’t allow workers to show tender, difficult feelings — of grief, fear, confusion, anger, revulsion — all of which would be normal reactions to the toughest elements of police work, where can those emotions go?

Nowhere.

If fellow professionals sneer at you for being “weak”, you won’t ever show how you really feel, no matter how toxic is it to marinate in misery alone.

A former cop who spoke on the show referred to after-work drinks as “choir practice”, alcohol being one acceptable way to numb one’s feelings after another day dealing with violence, mayhem and death.

 

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This also hit me because journalism offers a very similar culture — long hours, low pay and a lot of stress. It’s hierarchical and macho. The “best” assignments, the ones that win us front page and major awards, are often about witnessing and describing in detail the very worst events — shootings, terrorism, natural disasters.

Some journalists are as exposed to violence and gore as cops, yet we, too, have almost nowhere to let out our feelings of horror and sadness after the story is filed or the broadcast made. And co-workers and managers working on less disturbing material have no idea what it’s like, while those who do can, like cops, often throw up a thick, tight wall of defense, dismissing anyone’s emotions about it as sissy or unprofessional.

When they are human.

In my early 20s, I worked briefly at the Canadian Press, a wire service, and my Sunday night job was “fats” — short for “fatalities”. I had to find the province’s deaths that weekend — like car crashes — and write them into a story.

I began to dread it.

I really hated it when a perky coworker named Judy finally said “It’s just numbers!”

No.

It’s human beings.

The day we ignore, dismiss and bury our grief and rage — whether created by our feelings about work or politics or climate change or family dramas — is the day we turn that violence against ourselves.

 

Everyone needs and deserves a safe space to air these out.

Who exactly is “middle class” in the U.S.?

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Can you afford a house? We can’t. Not anywhere near where we live….Maybe this is why I enjoy reading about others’.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And, another hate read from The New York Times, somehow insisting that an annual income of $100,000 to $200,000, even $400,000 (!) or more means “middle class”:

This is the introduction, while the story focuses on seven families, with only one single man.

Being middle class in America used to come with a certain amount of leisure and economic security. Today it involves an endless series of trade-offs and creative workarounds, career reinventions and an inescapable sense of dread.

We asked readers to tell us what it’s like, and more than 500 people, with widely varied incomes, submitted responses. They described not just their financial worries but also he texture of daily life. Even those with very good incomes expressed fears of instability. They have seen their wages and bargaining power stagnate and wealth spiral to the top, while they struggle to acquire the markers of middle-class life — a college education, health care, the deed to a home.

As one reader, Kristin DePue, put it, “There is an extraordinary burden on my generation to fund our own retirement and also afford college costs for our children.” Indeed, “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago,” the journalist Alissa Quart writes in “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.” And yet, for all the talk of “everyday Americans” among the presidential candidates, politicians do not seem to understand what it takes to get through the day, or what would really help.

 

 

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Georgetown, DC. Pricey but lovely

A few thoughts:

 

— No American — unlike some Britons who will proudly say they are “working class” — will use that language to describe oneself, even if it’s true. There are so many euphemisms for poor: broke, impoverished, low-income, underprivileged, each of which is vague and subjective. One man’s “broke” is another man’s notion of luxury.

— Many factors affect how far one can stretch a budget: housing, health insurance (if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, free), educational costs, number of children, etc. If you’ve chosen to raise a child, or many children, that’s an assumed cost bringing many additional costs with it: food, clothing, medical care, etc. Plus childcare!

— Some areas of the country are brutally and punitively expensive for housing and if, for reasons of employment, health and/or reliable family support you can’t leave, that cost alone is going skew what you need to survive.

— If you have multiple children and every one of them attends a private university or college, let alone graduate or professional school, it will cost a fortune. Yet it remains a very loaded and un-American idea to suggest trade school or vocational training instead, even though many such workers, unionized, make very good incomes, have plenty of work life-long and tremendous pride in their skills.

— This story generated 1,358 comments (that’s a lot for the Times), as “class” is a loaded word for Americans, raised from birth on the “American dream” of social mobility.

Here’s one of them:

The median household income is $59,000 per year. All of these people in the article are far above that, but they are still struggling to afford basic things like education for their children because life is very expensive. Imagine what a family making $25,000 is going through, trying to send children to college. Everyone that is thinking about this election needs to realize that the real middle of the country is hurting. All of our security has been turned to risk, and the billionaires pay themselves as if they carry the risk, instead of us. The corporate establishment “center” has completely discredited itself, by telling us how great the economic numbers are, how “free trade” has really been great, and that there “is no money,” for the things that most people need, because, according to the owners of capital and the media they own, the only way for capitalism to work is for their corporations to get fat, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, while those same corporations have their taxes cut to zero.

Jose and I live in a suburb of New York City, in a one-bedroom apartment. Our monthly housing cost is $2,000, health insurance $1,700, various other insurances another $400+. Add food, gas, the $95 cost of a 10-trip off-peak train trip into New York City for work or pleasure, parking, dental, etc.

In our good years, we make just over six figures, as full-time freelancers — i.e. wholly self-employed; in bad years, we have had to tap our retirement savings (and thank heaven we have some.)

That, for many people, is a fortune!

But our combined income can also disappear at any moment without warning if one of our clients cuts their budget or management changes. We have no paid time off or paid sick leave.

At this point, effectively shut out of any full-time job (that would cut $20,000 a year in costs with job-supplied health insurance) by age discrimination, we are OK, partly because we have no children or dependents, and have stayed in this home for decades, driving a 20 year old vehicle.

 

How about you?

 

Where do you fit?

Climate change: what next?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t repeat the endless warnings I read daily.

If you follow the news, you’re also well aware.

We were back up in Montreal last weekend where I was heartened to see this large street protest — calmly protected by multiple police officers — as students took to to the streets for their Friday school strike.

 

 

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“Don’t adapt — act” …

 

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They were inspired by a high school student far away across the ocean, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, recently profiled by Time magazine as their cover story, extraordinary in itself.

An excerpt:

Castigating the powerful has become routine for the 16-year-old. In December, she addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland; in January she berated billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her London speech was the last stop of a tour that included meeting the Pope. (“Continue to work, continue,” he told her, ending with, “Go along, go ahead.” It was an exhortation, not a dismissal.)

Just nine months ago, Thunberg had no such audiences. She was a lone figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying a sign emblazoned with Skolstrejk for Klimatet (School Strike for Climate). She was there for a reason that felt primal and personal. While Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11, she reacted in a surprisingly intense way: she suffered an episode of severe depression. After a time it lifted, only to resurface last spring.

“I felt everything was meaningless and there was no point going to school if there was no future,” Thunberg says. But this time, rather than suffer the pain, she decided to push back at its cause, channeling her sadness into action. “I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference,” she says.

 

I confess to feeling daily despair over a changing climate wreaking havoc worldwide: floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, incredible heatwaves, all of which are damaging agriculture and the oceans, drying up crucial sources of water and causing millions of people living in vulnerable areas to wonder where else they might possibly live safely.

Indians recently fled a cyclone thanks to receiving in advance millions of warning text messages —- while Ottawa, Canada’s capital, recently coped with the worst flooding in 25 years.

 

No one is safe.

 

What, if anything, are you doing to deal with climate change?

 

Is it affecting your life?

 

Will it affect how you vote?

 

Some thoughts about guns

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By Caitlin Kelly

Another week in the United States — which, every week, only means more gun deaths.

This week, one of them was a student about to graduate high school, Kendrick Castillo, killed trying to save his classmates from a shooter.

In their classroom.

From CNN:

The 18-year-old was watching “The Princess Bride” in his British literature class when the shooter pulled out a gun, demanding that nobody moved. After Kendrick lunged at the shooter, three other students also tackled the gunman and tried to subdue him while the rest of the class fled the room.
Kendrick was an only child, but his friends, including the members of the school’s robotics team, were like his siblings, his father said. They would host holiday gift exchanges at his home, shared his toys as a child and would pay for a friend’s movie tickets if someone didn’t have money.
“Be selfless, that’s what my son was, and it got him killed, but he saved others,” Castillo said.
Is there anything useful to say about this?
I don’t blog about guns because there’s so much coverage of the issue.
But there’s little substantive discussion of why Americans insist on owning one — some owning hundreds.
The state of California has 9,400 residents who legally should not now own one, but do. Officials are overwhelmed.
In the years 2002 and 2003, I traveled the United States, alone, mostly by car, to try and better understand this attachment to firearms, incomprehensible to millions of others — whether Americans or those living outside the country.
I did three sessions of handgun training, and have fired everything from a .22 rifle to an AR-15, a Glock 9mm (standard police issue) to a .357 Magnum.
I don’t own one or want to.
But, unlikely as a Canadian, I’m now considered one of the experts on the subject of Americans and guns.

A few reasons why getting rid of guns is so incredibly difficult:

Sentimental and emotional reasons. A gun is often handed down as a family heirloom, generation through generation, as revered as a set of delicate china or a favorite armchair. A father’s service weapon, a great-grandfather’s hunting rifle.
— Hatred and fear of government. This is intensely and unchangingly American in a nation founded on the hatred and fear of centralized authority. I’ve “debated” on BBC a man absolutely convinced the government is likely to burst into his home one day and grab all his guns.
Self-defense. Linked to fear and hatred of government, the belief (true in some communities) that law enforcement simply won’t be there, or quickly enough, to save your life from an attack.
— Autonomy and independence. Deeply American is the value that it’s all up to you to take care of everything.
Regional differences. For every urbanite who disdains the very idea of touching a gun, let alone owning one, there are many Americans who love to hunt, whether for sport or for food to feed their families.
— The National Rifle Association, which offers letters grades (like elementary school) to elected officials, dinging those they dislike with an F. Voters vote accordingly.
— The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If it didn’t exist, the entire debate could change overnight: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  An analysis, here.
I spoke to 104 Americans from 29 states, from teens to seniors,  and asked each one of them how a gun has affected their lives. Some love them, some fear them.
This is the book I wrote about it.
BLOWN AWAY COVER
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 obsesssions

How does a story become a story?

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These large laminated tags are usually press credentials that make clear who’s allowed into an event and allowed to get close to the action.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you who still care about the quality of journalism, a few insights from a career journalist who has been a reporter for three major daily papers and who freelances (i.e. sells individual stories I come up with) often for The New York Times.

 

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The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

Where do story ideas originate?

Some of the many ways:

A press release from a company, individual or organization. It’s unlikely that only one release is the entire story, unless for the trade/industry press. Journalists, staff and freelance are pelted daily with hundreds of press releases from people who want us to write (favorably!) about them.

A tip from someone inside an agency or organization who wants this information made (more) public and possibly deeply investigated for misdeeds or wrongdoings.

A conversation with someone in an industry or field about interesting or new developments.

A cultural trend we hear, see or notice out in the world on our own.

An upcoming event, for which we write or produce a “curtain-raiser”, a story than runs in advance of the event.

An anniversary of a major event, five, ten, 20 or more years later. What, if anything, has changed since then?

Breaking news: natural disasters, shootings, weather stories, terrorism, crashes. etc.

— We all really want a “scoop” — a powerful story no one else has

 

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The New York Times newsroom

 

How do we know if it actually is a story?

Fact-check. We make calls, send emails and texts, check in with sources we know are smart and trustworthy to confirm or deny the basic facts of the story.

Firsthand reporting. Always the ideal to have a reporter/photographer/video crew on-site.

Talk to firsthand witnesses, but that’s also tricky because they may be lying. It’s happened, which is deeply embarrassing.

 

 

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The Charlie Hebdo march in Paris

What happens next?

 

— Every reporter, in every medium, has a boss! That person (or people) have the final say as to whether this story will even ever appear or get the time and energy needed to report, research, revise and edit it that they think it deserves; five minutes on-air (a lot!) or 500 words in the paper or on-line or 5,000 words in a glossy magazine.

— The reporter/producer (teams, generally in broadcast) work together to decide how to proceed and in what  depth and at what speed. Breaking news is insanely competitive so there’s a mad rush to get the story first or exclusively.

— If the story needs a lot of reporting and interviewing (documents, on-site reporting, speaking to sources) the reporter needs to decide who to speak to, when, why and in what order. If the story is controversial or potentially damaging, many people will refuse to discuss it, which means digging for more sources and/or persuading some to speak without using their names or affiliations to protect them.

— If the story is happening very far away from the newsroom, the decision will be made to send a staff correspondent (costly) or possibly use a local freelancer, called a stringer, exclusively or in addition to the staffer’s reporting.

— On truly major stories, there can be as many as a dozen reporters sending in various elements they have gathered and a writer in the newsroom (originally called rewrite) will craft it all together into one cohesive narrative, with credits for each contributor added at the bottom.

 

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My favorite reporting trip! I flew to rural Nicaragua on assignment for WaterAid in this really small plane, so small they weighed US and our baggage!

Pre-Publication/Broadcast

 

— For anyone who loves to insist it’s all “fake news”, I can assure you much of it is not. Every major news/publishing outlet has a lawyer either on staff or someone they turn to regularly to make sure the story is safe to publish.

— If the magazine or outlet has the staff and budget, and many do not, they hire and pay fact-checkers to do exactly what the name implies; check every fact to make sure it is accurate, after the reporter is finished.

— Graphics, design, podcast, video and photo editors decide the best ways to present visuals to accompany the story: a drawing? a graph? a map? a photo essay or slideshow gallery?

— For anything going into print, careful space measurements allow for design and page placement of all elements: copy, visuals and the all-essential advertisements that help pay for all of this! For digital, visuals count as well, plus SEO.

My best advice for consuming any form of media/reporting is to choose multiple sources, not only one set of political or national views. I read The New York Times and Financial Times (UK) daily, listen to NPR and occasionally the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. I also see news from many other sources, like Canada’s CBC, through Twitter.

 

Is there something you’d like to better understand about journalism? Ask away!

The $$$$ cost of American college: a fix?

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Aaaaaaah, the “promise” of higher education!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I generally avoid wading into political issues here  — we get enough of that elsewhere! — but this is a subject I care a lot about, the skyrocketing costs of American university/college education. In an elbows-out nation addicted to capitalism, being hampered in any meaningful way from being able to compete effectively for well-paid work is a huge problem.

Many colleges now charge $60,000 (!) a year, to a wealthy family mere pocket change — and for many others, an unfathomable sum to assume. That’s assuming only undergrad, not graduate school or further professional training.

I taught in 2014-2015 at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, to students who had decided that paying $60,000 a year to study writing was a wise investment.

But seriously?

Few writers, whether of fiction, poetry or journalism, will ever earn $60,000 a year; a very fortunate few will make it to that level and beyond, and generally those who were able to afford and attend and graduate from Big Name Schools. Hence the crazed arms race to get into them, which will likely send a few celebrities to prison for paying bribes for this purpose.

I recently read the comments of an entry-level newspaper reporter — yes, a “real job” — paying $14/hour.

Yes, there are state schools.

Yes, you can spend the first two years at a community college and save a lot of money and transfer for the name on your diploma.

But still.

It shocks me deeply — in a nation that fetishizes college (they never call it university) as the golden key to prosperity –– that student debt is the only form of indebtedness you can’t discharge by declaring bankruptcy.

I know people in their 40s and beyond (!) who still owe a significant sum on loans they took out decades earlier.

Here’s potential Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, with her bold proposal, published on Medium to help millions of American shed this burden:

An excerpt:

 

Higher education opened a million doors for me. It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for President of the United States.

Today, it’s virtually impossible for a young person to find that kind of opportunity. As states have invested less per-student at community colleges and public four-year colleges, the schools themselves have raised tuition and fees to make up the gap. And rather than stepping in to hold states accountable, or to pick up more of the tab and keep costs reasonable, the federal government went with a third option: pushing families that can’t afford to pay the outrageous costs of higher education towards taking out loans.

The result is a huge student loan debt burden that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy. It’s reducing home ownership rates. It’s leading fewer people to start businesses. It’s forcing students to drop out of school before getting a degree. It’s a problem for all of us.

 

I first saw this piece posted on Twitter — where, not surprisingly, it had gathered 17,741 re-tweets and 66,877 likes.

I paid $660 a year in the mid 1970s to attend University of Toronto, Canada’s top school. Today, resident tuition for and arts & sciences undergraduate is about $5,000.

Not $50,000.

That four-year degree gave me the self-confidence and skills to compete effectively against the most expensively groomed and educated writers in New York, the publishing capital.

But if I had graduated burdened by decades of debt, my life — and my career — would have looked very different. Jose, my husband, had all four years at New Mexico State paid for because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe. He, too, rocketed out of school with a degree, a ton of ambition and the freedom to take chances and learn needed professional skills wherever he best could.

We were really lucky.

Success should not be predicated on luck.

Are you — or your kids — saddled with American college debt?

 

How does it affect you?