New books!

By Caitlin Kelly

stackbooks

It’s hardly as though we need any more books. We have hundreds already, many of them (ugh) still unread, even years after buying them, whether reference, history or fiction.

But who can resist a brand new book?

(I’ve just bought three more books: Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Hustle Economy [a bit too basic for me, 12 years into full-time freelance] and Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times best-seller that I’m enjoying but not bowled over by.)

The top three books in this stack were requests, given to me by my husband Jose for Christmas 2016.

I love the names of wine: gewurtztraminer, gruner veltliner, Vouvray, Muscadet, grenache, Montepulciano. (Dream second career? Sommelier, except for all that memorizing!) Jancis Robinson is someone whose work we read every week in the Financial Times. (My other favorite wine writer, a friend, is another woman, Lettie Teague, who writes for The Wall Street Journal.)

The next two books are a holdover from my childhood years growing up in Canada, where most of my reading material was published by Penguin; I’d read rapturous reviews of MacFarlane in the FT and am fascinated by landscapes and how we experience them.

The bottom four books were the happy result of browsing an indie bookstore, Logos Books, in Manhattan while recently waiting to meet a friend.

I so rarely spend time in bookstores — I would easily spend hunreds of dollars each year! — so I really enjoyed a good long browse.

The collection on offer was deliciously eclectic.

If you don’t know her or her work, Martha Gellhorn was a legendary war correspondent, ferocious and admired — and, incidentally, the third of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. She was the only woman to land in Normandy on D-Day and covered every war, determined to be there to record every detail, no matter what the obstacles.

I long ago read a biography of Antoinette May, another war correspondent — a birthday gift from a friend and Globe & Mail colleague. Smart, tough determined fellow female  journalists give me role models!

I’ve never read anything by John O’Hara and, frankly, I just loved the cover. The story is set in 1930. I love reading about earlier eras.

A Little Life has received rave reviews, although some say it’s a very sad book. I very rarely read fiction — as you can see, with five of these seven being non-fiction — so I hope it’s good. (I was given The Goldfinch as a birthday gift two years ago and put off opening it for a year, having heard it was far too long. But I absolutely loved it, even though it is too long.)

The bottom book is my main man, Ray Bradbury, one of the best writers of the 20th century. While his genre is technically science fiction, his voice is calm, quiet, compelling and unforgettable.

catbookstore

I recently started re-reading The Illustrated Man, which I first read when I was 12. I was so impressed with it that I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, from my summer camp in northern Ontario, and sent it to his New York City publisher, Ballantine.

Within two weeks, I had a hand-signed reply, with his home address in California, a postcard I treasure to this day.

He was real!

He wrote back!

To a little girl in Ontario!

What I could not have known then was that he — also age 12 — was magically transformed by a chance meeting. This, from his official website:

Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped.

Books can do this to us.

They connect us to the past, to an imagined future, to ideas and questions and challenges and gorgeous images.

They transport us, without a need for tickets or passports or jet lag.

saying

The words of Charlotte Bronte…

What are you reading these days?

 

 

 

 

What journalists see — and you don’t

By Caitlin Kelly

photo(34)
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.

IMG_20150111_134324002_HDR
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?

Friendships: some true, some toxic

MSDBRCL EC016
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

From the smart digital publisher Aeon:

But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.

The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?

As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.

Like here, here and and here.

One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.

We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.

A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.

A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.

img_20161210_124705853

Jose…

Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.

Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.

I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.

Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:

Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.

N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.

img_20160818_072334116

S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.

P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.

L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.

IMG_20151219_080332133_HDR

The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…

D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.

M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!

MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.

IMG_20150110_162858670
 A cup of tea at the Ritz in London…where C joined me

C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.

PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.

MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.

Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!

Some of our holiday traditions — yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

img_20161211_071138914

For some people, the holidays are a time of dread and loneliness, for others a riot of celebration.

We’re spending this Christmas at home. My mother and I have no relationship and my father (again) and I are estranged; last year we drove up to Ontario and had a lovely time with him and my half-brother and sister-in-law.

It’s been a difficult year financially — lower income and much higher health insurance costs have made this a low-budget holiday for us.

We might go next door for Christmas dinner to the Castle, (yes, it’s a castle!), a gorgeous hotel. It’s a rare, elegant treat, as cooking a whole turkey only for two seems a bit much.

A few of our holiday traditions:

— sending cards, with a letter, to about 40 friends.

— covering the back of our apartment door with every holiday card as it arrives

img_20161210_124705853

— savoring a fresh-cut pine tree, covered with winking lights and ornaments we’ve enjoyed for years (that smell!)

— scattering fresh pine boughs atop our cupboards and armoires

img_20161210_124810931

— hanging a  wreath on our apartment door

— listening to a holiday mix-tape Jose made a few years ago

img_20161210_133437892

— enjoying these delicious German biscuits, which my late granny introduced me to

— attending a Christmas church service, belting out all my favorite carols

Christmas Eve has been a less-lovely memory for me since I was 14 and had a terrifying experience that night in Mexico. (I’m fine now.)

So Jose re-branded it by proposing after midnight church service, as the snow was hissing all around us.

What are some of the ways you enjoy the holiday season?

Truth matters more than ever now

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160616_134045187_HDR (5)

It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

IMG_20160213_081402949

Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.

It’s a question of character

By Caitlin Kelly

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” — coach John Wooden

L1010222

Exactly.

This week, thanks to the media, (yes, of which I’m still a member), I saw two powerful examples of character in action.

The first, which I won’t belabor, was that of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, mocking and dismissing the 14 women who have come forward to share publicly a private and humiliating and angering moment they say happened to them in his presence when he groped them.

We weren’t there, so only he and they know what happened.

But it’s how someone behaves in private — and behaves consistently — that defines the essence of their character.

It’s what you do and say to people, usually people with much less power than you have, (i.e. you can lose your job, your home, your friendship, your marriage if you fight back or tell anyone what shit they’ve subjected you to).

Some people wield that power like a billy club, swinging it with a smirk — over and over and over.

We also live in an unprecedented era of personality, where The Famous boast of, and monetize, their millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as proof of their popularity.

Oh, how we rush to buy their music and books and line up to vote for them, cheering til we’re hoarse.

We literally idolize them, projecting onto them every possible good quality we so long to see and feel in our broken world.

Yet we have no idea whatsoever who they really are.

I watch a show called Project Runway on Lifetime, a cable channel here, and have for years. It begins every season with a group of 12 or more ambitious fashion designers — some of whom have auditioned repeatedly for years to get on the show — who will be whittled down week after week by competing in a variety of difficult challenges.

Last night’s episode was an astonishing and moving reminder of character, that quaint, old-fashioned, Victorian notion of behaving with integrity and honor.

When it came time for the losing team to name one of their fellow team members to send home for good, four of the six said something unlikely and unprecedented: Send me. I screwed up.

I’ve never seen the show’s host and mentor ,Tim Gunn, so moved and so impressed with the behavior of the man chosen to leave, who had also volunteered to take one for his team.

If you’ve watched previous seasons, (yes, I’m a serious fan!), you’ll recall moments when there was a virtual stampede, (remember Ashley Nell Tipton?), to toss someone else under the bus.

It was ugly to see and, yes, revealed character.

I’ve now been with my husband for 16 years, married for five.

The decisive moment for me was a revelation of his character, in a time of fear, unplanned expense and chaos, when so many other men, no matter how handsome or charming,  would have wobbled or slithered away from the challenge or left me, once more, to pick up the pieces as her only, overwhelmed child.

My mother, living alone in a small town, had been been found — the door broken in by police after worried neighbors called them — lying in bed for days, unable to move.

A stroke? We had no idea. She lived, as she still does, a six-hour flight plus two-hour drive from us.

I called Jose, then working in one of the most senior and responsible photo editing jobs at The New York Times, and said, “We have to go. Tomorrow.”

He told his bosses and we went.

His decision to be a mensch was instant.

And invisible to everyone but me and his bosses.

It cost a fortune I didn’t have that he paid for — last-minute airfare, meals, car rental.

When we got to my mother’s house, he took her stained mattress to the balcony to scrub it clean. Not a word. No complaints. No whining.

Just — help, support, strength.

Character.

 

Better blogging, interviewing, essays — webinars May 10, 17

Are you ready to sharpen your interviewing skills?

Grow your blog’s audience and boost engagement?

Craft sharp, memorable personal essays?

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

My next webinars on May 10 and May 17, which I teach by Skype, have satisfied students from Australia, New Zealand, London and across the U.S.

One student saw her blog’s page views and followers increase 644% after the class.

Another says:

After launching a new blog for my upcoming book Pilgrimage through Loss, I found myself with a lot of questions and desiring strong professional guidance on how to further develop this…Caitlin’s specific guidance, information on growth, hints on excellent tools for gathering pictures, and critique of my present blog entries met my need exactly.  She’s practical, informative, fun to work with, and offers helpful insights from her own years of blog experiences.

I also coach individually whenever it suits you — by phone, Skype and/or email.

Each 90-minute class is $125:

Better Blogging

May 10: 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. ET

You’ll learn more than 30 practical, simple, affordable actions you can take to boost your blog’s engagement, views and followers. A great blog is still a writer’s best marketing tool. Broadside has been Freshly Pressed six times, chosen as one of 22 on “culture” by WordPress worth reading and grows daily — today at 10,241 followers worldwide.

BETTER BLOGGING

You, Inc: The Business of Freelancing

May 10: 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. ET

I’ve spent much of my professional life as a full-time freelancer, writing for local, regional, national and international clients, including Marie Claire, Smithsonian, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal. I also write frequently for The New York Times and on-line clients include HGTV.com, Quartz.com, reuters.com, Rewireme.com, Investopedia.com, BBC. com and the Harvard Business Review blog.

Learn to Think Like a Reporter

May 10: 4:00 pm to 5:30 p.m. ET

If your mother says she loves you, check it out! I’m a veteran of three major dailies, including the New York Daily News. What’s a stake-out? A nut graf? A lede and kicker? This is the stuff you need to know.

Conducting a Kick-Ass Interview — new webinar!

May 17: 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. ET


I’ve interviewed thousands of sources, from an Admiral to convicted felons, Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, duck hunters and ballet dancers. How to best structure the interview? Tape or take notes? What’s the one question every interview should end with? My 30 years’ experience as an award-winning reporter and frequent New York Times writer will help you ace the toughest interviews.

PERSONAL ESSAY

Crafting the Personal Essay

May 17: 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm ET

From The New York Times to Elle and Marie Claire — to Thought Catalog, Salon, the Awl and Medium — the marketplace for personal essay continues to thrive. How to sell this challenging genre? How to blend the personal and universal? Every essay, no matter the topic, must answer one key question, which we’ll discuss in detail. Having published my own essays in the Times, Marie Claire, Chatelaine and others — and winner of a Canadian National Magazine award for one — I’ll help you determine what to say and in what voice.

Finding and Developing Story Ideas

May 17: 4:0 p.m. to 5:30 pm. ET

We’re surrounded every single day by dozens of salable story ideas. Recognizing them — and developing them for sale — is the art we’ll discuss in this webinar. Every non-fiction book (as with fiction) began with an idea. Developing it into a 30-page book proposal means “saving string”, collecting the data you’ll need to intelligently argue your points. This webinar will help you better perceive the many stories already swirling in your orbit and figure out who’s most likely to pay you (well) for them.

Please email me with any questions at learntowritebetter@gmail.com or call me in New York at 914-332-6065.

Sign up and further details are here.

I look forward to working with you!

 

It’s Black Friday, and retail workers deserve more

By Caitlin Kelly

Today, thousands of Americans rush out to start their holiday shopping. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the beginning of the season that pushes retailers into the black — i.e. profitability.

While shoppers clamor for more product, more discounts and even more hours in which to spend their money, please pause to remember the hard-working people who serve them, since 70 percent of the American economy is created by consumer spending.

Retail workers also deserve more:

— More money (most earn minimum wage)

— More respect (until you’ve served them, it’s hard to believe how rude and nasty some shoppers can be)

— More hours (store managers scrimp on paid hours because every other cost is already spent)

— More opportunities for raises, bonuses and promotions into a decent wage. (No worker adding profits to the bottom line should be so fiscally punished)

Here’s my op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, America’s sixth-largest newspaper and the last newsroom in which I worked as a reporter.

An excerpt:

In a time of growing income inequality, no one should assume that retail staff are uneducated or have no higher ambition than folding T-shirts for hours. RAP also found that more than 50% of them either have a college degree or are working toward one.

Some, like our store manager Joe, who fought with U.S. Special Forces in Mogadishu, have served their country overseas. And some enjoy retail work and consider it a meaningful career choice.

For others, it’s a stopgap, a place to earn a wage while awaiting a better-paid opportunity. One multi-lingual young lawyer I know recently made the move from folding T-shirts at the Gap to working at a major investment house, the fortunate culmination of a lengthy and frustrating job search.

These workers deserve and demand more respect and better economic treatment.

Walmart
Walmart (Photo credit: matteson.norman)

As some of you may know, a frenzied crowd of shoppers trampled a 34-year-old Walmart associate. Jdimytai Damour — in his first week on the job on Long Island, NY — to death in 2008.

Walmart has yet to pay the $7,000 fine levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Sitting on appeal with a review commission, the case of Jdimytai Damour’s death highlights how corporations can choose to fend off modest penalties over workplace dangers for years on end, according to occupational health experts.

For a company with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year, the $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration represents little more than a single store’s rounding error. Walmart would have vastly outspent that sum simply in legal fees devoted to fighting the penalty. But the world’s largest retailer is less concerned with the monetary fine than with the broader implications of the case. A negative ruling could compel Walmart and other retail companies like it to take additional safety precautions for workers or face new liabilities.

“It’s not about the penalty,” said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA analyst who’s now a lecturer at George Washington University. “It’s this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision.”

I’m aware that for some people — including readers here — Walmart offers low prices and may be the only shopping choice in their area. I will never ever shop there.

I worked part-time, from 2007 to 2009, at an upscale mall near my home in suburban New York selling for The North Face, costly outdoor clothing manufactured — as most apparel now is — in low-wage nations across the globe, from Peru to China. I earned $11/hour, with no commission, for a job that demanded devoted attention to 14 simultaneous tasks, from spotting shoplifters (no store security staff) to scrubbing the toilets. We were given daily sales goals. The lowest was $400, the highest — during the holidays — $6,000.

malled cover LOW

It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it. I’ve never seen the world the same way since then.

It showed me a sort of corporate brutality I could never (naively) have imagined had I not stepped behind the cash wrap. Shoppers assumed we were stupid, uneducated, unable to get or keep any other sort of work, when many of us had lost much better-paid jobs in the recession. Or we were going to college, and/or supporting a family.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” details my experience, as well as that of hundreds of others nationwide.

Yet the word most industry experts use to describe these workers?

Disposable.

Retail work is the largest source of new jobs in the U.S., yet most of them  — part-time, with very few hours and no benefits — pay such low wages that workers end up using food stamps to supplement their meager incomes. Enough already with corporate welfare!

LAST CHANCE TO SIGN UP FOR THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — “CRAFTING THE PERSONAL ESSAY”. CLASS SIZE IS SMALL, SO EVERY STUDENT RECEIVES INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION.

THERE’S PRE-CLASS READING FOR THIS ONE, SO IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, DON’T DELAY!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

Out of your PJ’s, you slackers! Yahoo orders workers back to the office

Telecommuting
Telecommuting (Photo credit: ScottMJones)

You can hear the sighs from here.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, has ordered all remote workers, those at home in their bunny slippers and sweatpants, back to work in the office.

You know, where they can make sure you’re being productive:

A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture — a hallmark of Google’s approach to its business.

In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: whether the ability to work from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration. Across the country, companies like Aetna, Booz Allen Hamilton and Zappos.com are confronting these trade-offs as they compete to attract and retain the best employees.

Bank of America, for example, which had a popular program for working remotely, decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office.

Employees, especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts say. And over all the trend is toward greater workplace flexibility.

Still, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and executive coaching firm, “A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home some of the time or all of the time because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”

Excuse my language, but I call bullshit.

Every time a company wants employees all perky and visible and audible and crammed into cubes they insist it’s all about the innovation.

Yeah, right.

I worked for a martinet at my first New York City magazine job, who insisted I be at my desk “and working!” by 9:00 a.m. sharp, even though taking a slightly later train in from my home in the suburbs meant arriving at 9:15 or so.

It’s a power game, a way to demonstrate — just in case you forgot! — who’s in charge of your life.

I’ve been working, alone at home, since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper, in June 2006. Alone for almost seven years, working — yes, even as I type this — in sweat pants. Yet I’ve managed to produce a well-reviewed memoir, dozens of newspaper and magazine stories, edit others’ work, consult, fly around the country on well-paid speaking gigs.

Productive? I dunno. Look at my retirement savings account. I’d say so.

Every morning I get up and no one anywhere, tells me what to do or when to do it or how to do it. I have not one penny of income guaranteed to me. I have to hustle it up every single month, a minimum of $2,000 a month, just to meet my basic bills.

Any one of you who works in an office knows this — just because an employee’s butt is in a chair in some manager’s clear sightline doesn’t mean they’re not lazy, ass-kissing or politicking or backstabbing.

Innovative? Collaborative? Cooperative? You wish!

With a phone call or email to the right colleague — whether in Nova Scotia or California — I can get serious, smart help and advice. At the Daily News, despite every effort to be collegial, I was ignored by colleagues and managers alike.

New York Daily News front page on August 9
New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband commutes every day to The New York Times, at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street. It costs him about $600 a month to go to work in an office: $200+ for his train pass; $200 month for the taxis that take him to and from the train station in our town (too far to walk); $200+ for subsidized cafeteria meals at work. Plus commercial laundering of his shirts.

He also has six meetings every day; putting out a newspaper like the Times, like many enterprises, does require incessant discussion and teamwork.

Yes, some workers are indeed quite incapable of self-discipline and do better work under others’ supervision. Some workplaces really do thrive on having lots of smart people in the same building to rub brains and bump into one another in the hallways and suddenly come up with some fabulous, profitable new solution.

But mostly they want to Own Your Ass.

I spent a day last spring at Google reporting this story for the Times. It was a little creepy — OK, a lot– how much they wanted their hip employees, hoodies and all, to be there 24/7, providing them with free food, laundry rooms on-site, even a hair-stylist.

In the 21st century, long past the Industrial Revolution that took us away from artisanal work and attached us all to machines inside large buildings, here we are again.

Plus ca change, mes chers…

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

My notebook

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

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

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

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

Here’s the story.

The idea

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

Selling it to the editor

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

Reporting 

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

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

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

Writing

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

Art

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

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

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

Revising

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

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

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

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

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