Fireside’s secret? Connecting, quickly

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been home from Fireside now for only four days…but like many of my fellow attendees, here in NY, in Toronto and beyond, I’ve been chatting with many of them via our Slack channel, Twitter, FB, LinkedIn and email.

 

Talk about connection!

 

I’m still processing so much of what I saw, heard, felt and shared, both emotionally and intellectually.

 

Here’s a great piece about it by one of my cabin-mates, Michelle Manafy, for Inc.com:

being away from the safe and familiar surroundings of home helps campers build new strengths that empower them in whatever they do.

At Fireside, attendees not only have to live without the reassuring buzz of their phones, they also have to forgo conference hotels to share cabins with strangers, sleep on bunks made for kids, without heat in weather that dips into the teens at night. Despite excellent food and well-stocked campfires it is, without doubt, both physically and technologically, uncomfortable.

Yet what occurs is nothing short of magic, warmed by campfire light and reflected in the kind of star-filled sky you only see far from the pervasive light of so-called civilization. People make eye contact. They introduce themselves. They watch speakers without the distraction of tweets or email. They walk and talk in twos and groups, reflecting on what they’ve seen and heard.

 

So why did this brief stay in the woods create such quick, powerful connections?

Egos checked

 

Without the usual conference trappings of badges and lanyards proclaiming your cool/hip/prestigious affiliation(s), without the status-signifiers of the right clothes/shoes/handbag, we were all just..people.

You couldn’t pull the usual thing (so rude!) of looking over someone’s shoulder for the more important contact because the person talking to you might, in fact, be it.

As one man said — “Everyone here is an onion.”

 

 

Long face to face conversations

 

So much of our lives are now relentlessly tech-intermediated — whether emojis, texts, Snapchat, Instagram, Slack, FB, FaceTime, Skype. It’s now radical indeed to just sit, maybe for an entire hour — as I did several times there, and others did as well — and speak at length face to face with someone you’d never met before.

 

Truth-telling

 

It’s also a radical act — in an era of relentless, isolating and demoralizingly competitive social media preening — to just speak openly and honestly about your real struggles, whether emotional, financial, physical or professional, maybe all of these!

During the conference, even the most successful among us spoke bravely and boldly about their frequent battles with anxiety and depression, their need to appear 10000 percent strong and in charge of it all, for fear of losing employees, investors, sales and street cred.

Few things are as powerful as truth and trust.

 

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Being outdoors night and day

 

Dusty shoes, mosquito bites, sunburned noses. (You should see the bruise on my left calf from ungracefully exiting the canoe!)

Just being outside, not staring into damn screens all the time, in fresh air, smelling wood-smoke and pine needles and watching a sunset and hearing a loon’s haunting call…so restorative!

 

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Campfires, literal and physical

 

It’s pretty primal stuff to sit around a fire, blazing or glowing, and stare into its embers. We’ve been doing it as a species for millennia, yet how often do we do it with strangers? It’s harder to bullshit and posture when the smoke is in your eyes and someone just handed you a gooey marshmallow on a stick.

One of the ways the conference organized us was into “campfires” where a group of experts would gather in a public spot and just…extemporize.  We were all there to be resources for one another.

That takes expertise and confidence in your skills and social poise (I did one, with several other journalists) but it’s also down-to-earth and freeing — no mic, no video, no lectern, no notes.

Willingness to brave something completely unfamiliar

 

I was really nervous!

This was not my usual crowd (all journalists and writers of non-fiction) but a wild mix of ages — 20s to 60s — and included start-ups, a few billionaires, tech bro’s and people I had to talk to (giving presentations) and with. What if they were cold or dismissive? (not!)

It was a long long drive from my home an hour north of NYC to the camp, about four hours’ drive north of Toronto. What if the food was lousy? (it wasn’t!)

I think many of us first-timers had to be a little brave. You couldn’t just flee and go catch a movie or flick through your Insta account for distracting comfort.

 

Props to the two young Toronto lawyers, Daniel Levine and Steve Pulver, who invented this thing.

 

 

4 days’ inspiration: the Fireside Conference

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine the smartest and most interesting people you’ve ever met.

Four hundred of them.

In the woods, sleeping for three nights in unheated cabins at a summer camp more than three hours’ drive north of Toronto, on a huge private lake.

I just spent the most tiring, intense, exhausting, interesting four days of my life — and, maybe like you, I’ve been to many conferences over the years.

None remotely like this one.

This is invitation only, and I was invited (free), waiving the $2,500 (Canadian) standard fee; I spoke twice during the event on how to tell stories, as many of the attendees run their own companies, many of them start-ups and many have no idea how to find and work with the media to promote their products and services.

 

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The age range was 20s to 60s, about 70 per cent male and probably 60 to 70 percent Canadian, from all across the country. One man came from Cyprus and others from far away in the U.S. , even Spain.

It was a wildly eclectic mix of talents and skills — from a male performance artist to a young female cryptocurrency business owner, from the female Alabama owner of a pet-sitting company to about eight other journalists.

Of the 400, about 150 were returning from prior Fireside Conferences.

Because it’s held at a camp, the remote wooded 750-acre setting is simply gorgeous and the amenities fairly basic — the cabins have no heat and it was cold (like 40 degrees F) at night.

We all ate breakfast and dinner in the dining hall; unlike camp, there was plenty of free alcohol provided by sponsors. We were woken up at 8:15 by music broadcast through speakers and at night many of us congregated around small stone-ringed campfires and made s’mores.

And the stars! I hadn’t seen the Milky Way in years.

 

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Our cabin — I shared it with three other women, all of them strangers (now good friends!) — no heat!!! Bunk beds.

 

No one wore a badge or lanyard. Almost no speakers used or needed a mic — instead we sat on a bench or on the grass to listen, creating an intimacy that was immediate, unusual and powerful as we often engaged in long, private, sometimes very personal conversations.

Unless you’d been there before, you probably arrived, as I did, a little nervous — and didn’t know who anyone was, meaning you just had to engage in conversation and you could be speaking to a self-made millionaire or a grad student, a musician or a photographer or a mother of four.

Egos checked!

The other secret?

No wifi!

There was a cabin where you could access it but this meant tremendous personal interaction without the absurd constant distraction of cell phones and notifications.

We could also — in addition to dozens of speakers and panels — enjoy classic camp activities: sailing, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, archery, tetherball. I canoed solo for a bit.

My brain is swirling — I was invited to, also did, a podcast there, and may be invited to speak at some other conferences thanks to some contacts I made.

And so many new friends.

My writing life, recently

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.

 

Some of what I’ve been up to:

— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.

 

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— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.

—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.

— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)

 

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— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.

— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.

— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.

— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)

— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.

— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York Times Magazine (twice); no answer.

 

GLOBE

 

— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.

— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.

— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.

— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.

 

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— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.

— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.

— Blogged, as usual.

 

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— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)

— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!

— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.

— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.

Leaving this week for a 12 day break in Ontario!

Failure? Let’s discuss

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By Caitlin Kelly

In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?

It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…

Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:

In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.

However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.

A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.

 

 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.

It happens!

I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.

The only true value of failure is learning something useful.

 

— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.

Lesson: trust your gut.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.

Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!

— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.

Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.

— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994. 

Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.

— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.

Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.

— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!

Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?

 

I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.

I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.

All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.

I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.

No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.

That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.

Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.

A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.

I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.

It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.

We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.

We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.

 

How do you handle failure?

Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?

 

Do you live to work — or work to live?

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Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.

 

A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.

 

Relaxing.

People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.

 

Do you work to live or live to work?

 

Has that changed for you over time?

NY Daily News halves staff; an ex-reporter, some of my memories

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One of my notebooks, complete with coffee stains! That funny thing in the middle is a stylized early camera, and the News’ logo, as it was once the city’s picture paper…

By Caitlin Kelly

It was, when I worked there in 2005 and 2006, the sixth-largest newspaper in the United States, with 600,000 readers, a real source of pride. Today it’s down to 200,000.

This week its owners Tronc (ugh, what a name) fired half of the Daily News staff — including almost every photographer and sports reporter– insisting their latest gambit will be a focus on breaking news.

Oh yeah, that thing that Twitter already owns…

Some details:

 

Media conglomerate Tronc bought The Daily News in September, adding it to a stable of other newspaper and magazines that includes The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun.

The Daily News, once the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, has been among the most aggressive New York City publications in its coverage of President Donald Trump, with the newspaper’s cover often needling Trump about recent scandals or missteps.

The paper has received 11 Pulitzer Prizes including one in 2017 in conjunction with nonprofit investigative organization ProPublica for coverage of evictions based on obscure laws that pushed business owners and residents from their property.

My year at the News was the weirdest, most stressful and eye-opening of my career in journalism — and I’d already worked for the Toronto Globe & Mail and the Montreal Gazette, both broadsheets, a name that denotes the physical size of a newspaper as much as its more sombre approach to news.

The News is a tabloid, a whole new world.

I hadn’t worked in a newsroom in 20 years when I was hired there, thanks to a manager I’d known and worked with in Montreal who came to New York from Chicago to run the paper.

For him, and for me, it was a poor match; he’s British and Canadian and didn’t know the five boroughs of New York City intimately, tribal lore for anyone working at the News. Neither did I.

The paper used to inhabit a gorgeous Art Deco building on 42d Street; I arrived to their offices on the very western end of 33rd Street, sharing a building with the Associated Press.

The newsroom didn’t even have cubicles, just a huge bullpen stretching a full city block, sunlight straggling in through clerestory windows.

I stepped into a 1940s movie, full of guys in suspenders and gold chains who liked to yell at one another and saw two co-workers edge up to a fist-fight over a noisy cellphone.

As my manager-to-be greeted me for my job interview, he eyed my outfit, (no blazer or jacket): “You packing?” My first book was about women and guns.

Never dull!

As a reporter there, I quickly discovered a city I hadn’t known before — the News’ reader’s median household income was $44,000 — maybe a healthy salary elsewhere but not much in New York City.

I drove alone to Harlem and the Bronx and Queens, getting to know its lower-income neighborhoods and residents. (I once got into such an altercation in the Bronx over a street parking spot I had to call the cops in fear of attack.)

I did a stake-out in Midtown in sweltering summer heat and humidity, which meant sitting on the sidewalk for hours — surrounded by all the competing press — waiting to nab an interview with a Quebec tourist who’d been attacked. (I got the assignment after the city editor hollered into the newsroom: “Who speaks French?!”)

I kept sneaking into the hotel to find her, only to be caught and thrown out by a furious security guard. This, after a New York Times reporter followed me into the elevator, guessing I knew where I was going and trying to match it.

I ducked into the ladies’ restroom to ditch him.

I interviewed an African-American family who showed me a blanket with images woven into it of their slain son.

I spoke with legal aid attorneys in the Bronx.

I interviewed the father of a soldier whose helicopter had fallen off a mountaintop in Afghanistan and women soldiers suffering from PTSD.

I broke a national story about how many crimes occur on cruise ships that, for many reasons, go unreported and unaddressed.

We spent a brutal afternoon listening to 911 calls from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Digital advertising has stripped away newspapers’ primary income stream, and newsgathering — even with crappy salaries — isn’t cheap.

It’s a tough time now to be a staff newspaper reporter.

I’m glad I had the chance.

 

 

 

Who’s ruling you?

 

 

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MUST BE PRODUCTIVE — ALL THE TIME!!!! (not!)

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Love this piece by friend, former coaching client, author, Viv Groskop — a UK comedian and journalist who’s (natch) a Cambridge graduate who also speaks fluent Russian, from UK website The Pool:

Although it sounds like you need to say it in Jonathan’s voice in your head (“Yas, queen, brules!”), brules are genius. They are the “bullshit rules” you’re living by without knowing it. They’re another term for “limiting beliefs”, a popular expression that describes unnecessary myths and outdated values that not only don’t serve you any more but may even never have been true in the first place. If you can identify your “bullshit rules”, you can see clearly where you’re holding yourself back.

I see so many people making themselves unhappy living by other people’s rules — those of their parents, their peers, their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers.

And I hear so many (broke, resentful, frustrated) Americans say: “But I played by the rules!” As if the people who make the rules (banks, insurance companies, government) actually have to abide by them.

Life is short and living by other peoples’ rules that make you miserable can feel safe and secure — everyone else is OK, right? — but can be a real waste of time.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of creatives — my father made films and my mother and late step-mother were writers — so the notion I had to get a “real job” sitting in an office wasn’t ever one of our rules. (Be charming! Compete hard! Keep going! were more like it.)

 

Some of the “rules” I live by:

 

— Make as little money as possible in the least amount of time. Every day I see fellow writers crowing about their six-figure incomes — i.e. making $100,000 a year — a sum I never attained, even in my best-paid NYC journalism staff jobs. We have decent retirement savings now, so the pressure to make bank is lower than it was, and is, for many. I’ve never measured my human or professional value based on my income. I’m most proud of our savings, a more valuable figure because they give us freedom.

Sleep a lot. I typically sleep 8-10 hours every night, counter to the I’m-so-busy draaaaaaaama proving how “productive” some are. I also take naps, as needed. I’m not ashamed of my need to rest and recharge.

I’d rather be creative than productive.  I make much less money than some others, but I’m also not cranking out shit I find silly or stupid. People do what they have to financially, but after decades working as a writer, if a story doesn’t engage me intellectually or emotionally, no thanks.

— I enjoy cooking and cleaning. Our marriage is pretty retro in that regard and I do almost all the housework since my husband is earning the bulk of our income right now. Working at home makes this much easier for me, not losing hours every day commuting to an office.

— Travel as often and far away as possible. This definitely affects my thinking on everything — if something costs the same as a plane ticket or a week spent abroad, travel always wins! I just had lunch with a friend this week who’ll soon be teaching in Hong Kong for four months, a place I’ve never been. Hmmmmm. Time for a visit?

 

What are some of the rules you live by?

 

 

My tribe — journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

 

GLOBE

One of the many reasons I still enjoy journalism  — after working in it for more than 30 years — is the people who choose to do it for a living: smart, sharp, a quick learner, down-to-earth and a team player.

I’ve worked as a staff reporter and feature writer for the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, each of which offered some wild adventures. At the Globe, I covered a Royal Tour across three provinces and met Queen Elizabeth aboard Brittania; at the Gazette I flew into an Arctic village of 500 people and came home through an iceberg and at the Daily News broke stories like the DHS — back in 2006 — holding onto migrant children.

If you’re not, always, insatiably curious — the kid who drove your parents and teachers and professors mad with questions and challenges — it’s not a great fit.

 

It is our job to challenge authority.

 

Right now in the United States, we’re massively and daily under attack, even to the point of murder — as five journalists, a mix of writers and editors, were murdered at a small local paper in Maryland, The Capital Gazette.

This is what I’m talking about:

One week after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, President Donald Trump put an end to any speculation that the tragedy could lead to a truce in his unrelenting war on the news media.

“Fake news. Bad people,” Trump said, pointing at the news crews covering his rally Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, as the crowd went wild.

“I see the way they write. They’re so damn dishonest,” Trump said. “And I don’t mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75 percent of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They’re fake. They’re fake.”

“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he continued. “These are really bad people.”

This, from the President whose latest Cabinet member just resigned mired in scandal, Scott Pruitt.

I’m appalled by Trump’s incessant lies and hostility toward us.

Watch his spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, actually insult reporters during White House press briefings and you wonder why anyone keeps showing up to give her the opportunity.

Watch the 2015 film “Spotlight” –– which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on a true team working at the Boston Globe to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — for one of the best and most truthful depictions of our work.

People who know nothing of journalism or why most of us do it or why we believe it’s of essential value to any functional democracy — at its best, speaking truth to power — can easily spit on us and scream at us or, as several have, kill us.

 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 46 of us died on duty in 2017 — six of them freelancers like me.

One of them, Kim Wall, was a massively talented young woman who went out on a submarine in Denmark to profile its inventor. He murdered her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

It stunned every one of us who — by definition  — have to be self-reliant and often go out alone on assignment to meet people whose character and motives we do not know.

It creates foxhole camaraderie.

So I wrote this story, which ran last week on Poynter, a website devoted to journalism, (named for its benefactor) about long-term newsroom friendships, quoting (among writers from the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a friend and highly accomplished science writer Maryn McKenna:

 

McKenna thinks that’s, in part, because of Foxhole camaraderie. Journalists work weekends and holidays and have to deal daily with sources who don’t want them there.

“That all tends to build a gestalt of: ‘The outside world doesn’t understand us, so it is up to us to appreciate each other.’ There’s definitely a journalistic personality — we’re simultaneously deeply cynical and utterly committed to old-fashioned virtues of truthfulness and accuracy and grinding hard work — and the stresses of journalistic practice make it clear pretty quickly who in the newsroom shares those values and who doesn’t. Once you find people who do share them, you cling to them.”

Five questions about my 2 books

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.

 

 

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 obsessions

 

 

malled cover LOW

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.

 

For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.

 

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

 

For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.

For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.

 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

 

They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.

 

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

 

My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.

 

Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.

 

Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.

Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.

Is college worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt Institute’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

 

Tis the season of graduations and commencements.

For thousands, it’s a hard-earned moment of excitement and trepidation.

For many Americans, though, it also means facing decades of debt.

And educational debt is a form of fiscal servitude from which it’s very difficult to escape via declaring bankruptcy.

 

In the United States — where all post-secondary education is called “college”, while in Britain, Canada and elsewhere it’s “university” — it’s anathema to suggest the very possibility of not attending college.

By this I mean a four-year degree —  (Americans don’t confer three-year bachelor’s degrees) — from a private or public institution whose annual costs can be up to $60,000 a year.

This in an era when many blue-collar/manual labor jobs are begging for employees and, once you’ve finished your apprenticeship, (and usually gained union membership, which protects your wage-earning power), can make up to $100,000 a year — far more than many jobs that require multiple degrees.

In 2014 and 2015, I was an adjunct writing professor at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn best known for the arts.

I taught freshman students in their four-year-writing program, amused and appalled by their parents’ willingness to cough up more per year — $60,000 — than 99.9% of the students will ever earn in a year of actually selling their words to anyone outside of Hollywood.

My husband attended New Mexico State University at no cost because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe and he was given scholarships. I attended the University of Toronto (Canada’s best) and paid full freight — a fat $660 (yes) per year, also graduating debt-free.

 

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Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

 

What did I learn at university that has stayed with me?

 

Intellectual confidence

Having to argue my ideas in front of smart fellow students has helped me in a business where I have to do it every day.

Social confidence

I led a student event in my junior year and that reminded me I do have leadership skills.

Professional confidence

I wrote so much for the college weekly newspaper in freshman year I was writing for national media before I turned 20, still an undergrad.

Language skills

I studied French for three years (fluent, thanks to a year spent in Paris) and four years of Spanish, both of which I’ve reported in.

— Dislike of authority

I got virtually no support from my professors or administrators beyond a (much appreciated) shout-out in a freshman English lit class. A year later, when I dared to ask for college credit for being nationally published, the chair of the English department sneered in reply without a word of congratulations or praise.

I’ve never given my alma mater a penny since.

Almost none of these was my course material — not Conrad or Chaucer or Locke or Plato. 

 

The best thing university did for me was to force me to work hard for demanding professors who basically didn’t care if I succeeded or not, competing with smart and determined people around me.

 

Sounds like the “real world” to me!

Unless you’ve mastered specific technical skills — engineering, architecture, dentistry, law, medicine, business, computer science — I often wonder if college/university is truly the best preparation and the wisest investment of time and money.

What do you think?

What did you study and how has it helped you succeed professionally?