What’s a “source” and how do we choose?

Who are our sources and how do find and choose them?

By Caitlin Kelly

Every time you consume media — in any form — you’re also at the end point of a lot of editorial decisions made while invisible to you, the end user.

We know that a wooden table was once a tree.

We know that a cooked meal was once a pile of ingredients.

But most non-journalists don’t know, and some of course don’t care, how their information arrives to them in the final state that it does.

I’ve been a journalist for decades, staff and freelance, writing often for national magazines and for The New York Times.

It may come as a surprise to you — or not! — that we’re not told by our bosses who to quote or to interview. Maybe interns or those very new to reporting, but, apart from a friendly suggestion, I’ve never been ordered to speak to anyone specifically as a source for a story.

This is good and bad.

It’s good because it assumes we bring sufficient intelligence to the work. It assumes we know how to do our jobs without micro-management and supervision — editors and producers are busy!

It’s good because it lets us just get on with our work without endlessly seeking and getting some official approval or green light to proceed. (Our bosses are busy!)

Despite the very persistent belief that we are told what to do and what to write at the behest of our (pick one! left/right-wing managers and corporate owners) we’re usually not.

But it’s bad in a few specific ways:

It allows laziness

We will reach for the sources most easily found, certainly on a tight deadline, and those are often people we know or people who have already gained plenty of public attention. Just because someone is well-known doesn’t mean they’re smart, credible or the best person to explain a specific story. It often means they have the money, or their organization does, to hire a public relations firm ($5,000 to $10,000 a month retainer normal) to make sure their voice is loud(er/est.)

Pre-Internet, we had to work a hell of a lot harder to find and build networks of sources: no email, no texts and no instant results from Google or Bing. Now it’s the quickest option to return to someone already much-quoted.

— It allows persistent, if unconscious, bias

We tend to choose to work with/hang out with/consult people who make us comfortable. They look like us and sound like us and went to the same schools or live in the same sort of place. That means automatically and unconsciously screening out many good possibilities. Every time I start to report a story, I try to seek out BIPOC and LGBTQA voices and people living in very different ways/places from me.

How often do we even hear, on radio or TV, someone speaking English with a very heavy accent (probably sub-titled) — while we keep choosing and privileging people easier to listen to?

How often, if ever, do you see someone with a visible disability, like a wheelchair, being interviewed for a story totally unrelated to health?

— It can be a real problem if our editors push back

It’s only happened to me once and cost me an editorial relationship at The New York Times (i.e. income.) I was writing a story about what life is like when one half of a couple is ready to retire but the other is not. Instead of the usual anodyne tale I knew they wanted (he golfs, etc.) I found a gay couple whose affluent life was suddenly up-ended when one of them suffered serious health issues and the younger partner had to get a government job for the health benefits. I found and offered a real story of real struggle and real adaptation. Not wanted.

We automatically self-censor and choose sources our bosses will like

We know who our employer’s ideal market/audience/demographic is and it’s our role to speak most directly to them. At The New York Times, as with some others, there’s too often a default to affluent voices, if not the wealthy.

This also means that women over 40, let alone 60 or 70, remain basically invisible and inaudible because women’s magazine’s demo’s (the very narrow demographic appealing to its advertisers) is 18-35. You heard that right. There have been very, very few magazines that acknowledge and feature older women (36 is older?!) and they’re long gone, like Mirabella and MORE. If you read AARP magazine or its tabloid bulletin, all older women and men (50+) are presumed to care about are money scams, Medicare and aging celebrities. UGH.

— It’s a problem when we’re not paying close attention

One way a lot of reporters now find sources is through a service called Help A Reporter Out, or HARO. I’ve used it many many times. It’s a request list sent out three times a day to PR firms, universities, government, agencies and individuals.

It boasts one million sources — and 75,000 journalists and bloggers use it.

At best, you might get 100 replies. But, at its noisy and narcissistic worst, many replies are also demands for links to people’s books, websites, products and services — pay to play. When you need to produce many stories quickly, (and luckily I rarely do, as a freelancer), you don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to make sure your sources are diverse, even if you know you should, and even as diversity and inclusion are now a hiring and management focus for many employers.

Most of my stories are 1,000 to 1,200 words, leaving only so much room to choose who to include — while aiming for a mix of gender, race, age, expertise and geography. My recent Times Styles story included nine sources; I would normally include maybe six at that length.

And I was taken to the woodshed in a furious Tweet for not interviewing a person of color beyond an Iranian woman.

Point taken.

What if you were a reporter here who didn’t speak fluent French?

It de facto privileges people who dominate social media (TikTok, Insta, YouTube, FB, Twitter, etc.)

Many people, for lack of Internet access or savvy or language skills or confidence or time — or fear for their personal safety — can’t just promote the hell out of themselves all the time. Those who can will therefore more easily command the lion’s share of our distracted and divided attention.

That includes overworked reporters, editors and producers. Easy access to a source who’s readily available often beats the 5th or 8th or 15th un-returned text, email or call (if anyone has the time and persistence to even do it.)

It really (further) alienates and pisses off our diverse audiences who still don’t see themselves represented in our work

This is a big one.

If you’re not a cisgender white man or white woman, nor someone with a platform/organization/PR firm/ready access to journalists, it’s less likely you’ll ever get quoted or interviewed.

This creates lousy and lazy journalism. And ongoing deep frustration for every BIPOC or LBGTQA reporter or producer wanting to include voices that are quieter or less-consulted. Too often, a journalist turns to a known/respected/trusted Big Name policy analyst, think tank or academic voice to explain an issue, when someone whose own lived experience remains silent and invisible.

— The voices we hear from most also bring their own strong biases and opinions

It’s often too easy to defer to the demands for audience from the powerful and wealthy, always happy to sue and bringing threats of retaliation. Not a good idea.

Two fired journalists — and what happened next

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the many challenges of working in a smaller country — Canada has 38 million people (one-tenth of the U.S.) — is sustaining a long, thriving career when you’re going to keep bumping into the same people over and over and over.

So a recent drama over the firing of a 23-year-old journalist, Ahmar Khan, proved instructive — albeit as he was reinstated for the final four months of his contract working for the CBC in Winnipeg.

The way he was fired was messy — a coworker using a shared laptop found a tweet by Khan about Don Cherry, a legendarily loud-mouthed national hockey commentator (and one whose racist opinions annoyed Khan, and many others)and dropped a dime on him to management.

Nice!

Khan was fired, but an arbitrator (who I worked with at the Globe & Mail decades ago) decided the CBC had erred in firing him and even awarded him damages.

The CEO of CBC? Of course, a woman who shared my freshman year philosophy class at University of Toronto — cold as ice and imperious as hell even then. I kept running into her, when I moved to Montreal, when I moved to New York. UGH!

It’s one reason I’m so glad I fled Canada at 30 and never had to go back. The circles are just too small.

The second firing blew up big and fast — after The New York Times fired Lauren Wolfe, a part-time copy contract copy editor (known as a casual) for tweeting about her delight at Biden’s win. The Times’ social media rules are strict, and forbid anyone working for them, even freelancers, from expressing their political opinions online.

The drama landed up on the front page of an Italian newspaper. She had to keep asking her Twitter followers not to suddenly cancel their NYT subscriptions in protest and collected money via Venmo.

It blew up after a friend of hers, Josh Shahryar, outraged, tweeted a long thread about their friendship and her work — it got 50,000 likes, 7.5 quotes and 20,000 re-tweets.

Her firing, like Khan’s really hit several nerves at once:

— Both journalists really are completely disposable, no matter their skills or experience. Wolfe had done tremendous and difficult social justice reporting and Khan had only called out someone, Cherry, already very well known for his racist bullshit.

— I’ve worked with some real assholes. But having a coworker rat you out to management? Ugh. Khan, like Wolfe, was a journalist and also a human being expressing a widely shared opinion.

— It felt really hypocritical for major corporations to pillory two individuals when much worse internal behavior, by stars and staffers, has been tolerated for many years. And some of those people have not even been fired. If you’ve never heard about Jian Ghomeshi, for many years a celebrated CBC radio host, it says plenty about who exercises real power, with impunity, and who does not.

— It feels equally unfair to expect journalists (not copy editors, admittedly) to promote their work on social media but pretend to have no personal feelings about the work or that of their employer.

— Being freelance or on contract is very tough — the working definition of precarity. Nothing is guaranteed. You have no union protection, even as staffers committing appalling errors in ethics or judgment keep their jobs. Forget about even collecting unemployment. Wolfe, unlike many freelancers, lives alone and has no one to turn to for financial backup. (Although The Guild, the NYT’s union, says it is investigating.)

— The only way these two journalists — both without staff backing — got real help and redress was thanks to third parties (an arbitrator at CBC and the Guild at the Times.) Otherwise, see ya later!

— The way Wolfe was treated, given her passionate and proven commitment to social justice reporting, seemed especially shitty. This is a woman at midlife and mid-career who had made some harder and less lucrative choices.

This defense was written by fellow journalist Jill Filipovic:

Instead, conservatives (and a very few self-identified leftists) say Lauren’s tweets evince unconscionable institutional bias on behalf of the paper.

The Times, like most mainstream news outlets, tries to be fair-minded and balanced; that often manifests as criticism of a politician being ok, but praise being professionally inappropriate. The job of a journalist is to be adversarial to those in power: not supportive of any particular politician, and antagonistic to all of them. From that frame, you can see how these tweets would have raised some eyebrows internally at the Times. At worst, though, that makes Lauren’s tweets a misdemeanor worthy of a talking-to, not a firing offense.

It’s also worth taking a step back and asking whether the fundamental job of a journalist — being unrelentingly tough on and adversarial to those in positions of power — also requires being only a critic. Is there room for expressions of relief, humanity, and empathy within the constraints of fairness?

…This isn’t the first time the right has come for a journalist, and it won’t be the last. The highest-up folks at our most respected media outlets need to demonstrate the same kind of backbone they expect from their reporters. They need to refuse to give in to the outage mobs that derive their power from institutional cowardice.

Then there’s this — an excerpt here from a very rare cri de coeur from Jennifer Barnett, someone who played at the highest levels of American magazine journalism — and finally, at 44, just bailed, worn out:

I had the plum job. The top of the masthead of one of the most prestigious and respected publications with more than a 150-year-old history. I left because I blew the whistle on my boss for doing something unethical then abusing the staff and undermining the editorial process during which time I was assured he would be fired but instead he was promoted and after threatening me privately in his office, he marginalized me to the point of being completely invisible. In addition to being my boss at this prestigious publication, he was also the president of the principal organization in the United States for the editorial leaders of magazines and websites. Literally every editor of every publication was beholden to him.

My career was over. I was 44 years old.

Not long after I quit, he also left but he went on to be next in line to run the paper of record, and I was volunteering to write the newsletter for the parent organization at my kid’s school. He’s since been fired, or rather resigned, for another major public failing but just last week I was told he’s working with the new editor in chief of the publication I left to write for them. He’s going to land on his feet. At the top.

I rarely tell tales out of school about the shitty men in my industry. There are so so many of them!

And, of course, they hold tremendous power and win the top jobs and keep winning them while many of us just think….are you kidding me?!

Journalism and publishing are not industries for the faint of heart.

Work? Play? How much of each?

An amazing panel of journalists discussing the prevalence of distorted/false news

By Caitlin Kelly

An interesting piece, and book review, from The Atlantic:

Even the present-oriented hunter-gatherers, it turns out, had to develop communal strategies to quash the drivers of overwork—status envy, inequality, deprivation. When a Ju/’hoan hunter returned with a big kill, the tribe perceived a danger that he might think his prowess elevated him above others. “We can’t accept this,” one tribesman said. “So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” This practice became known among researchers as “insulting the hunter’s meat.”

It was not the only custom that aimed to discourage a destabilizing competition for status and avoid a concentration of power. The tribe also “insisted that the actual owner of the meat, the individual charged with its distribution, was not the hunter, but the person who owned the arrow that killed the animal,” Suzman writes. By rewarding the semi-random contributor of the arrow, the Ju/’hoansi kept their most talented hunters in check, in order to defend the group’s egalitarianism. A welcome result was that “the elderly, the short-sighted, the clubfooted and the lazy got a chance to be the centre of attention once in a while.”

Reading about these strategies, I felt several things at once—astonished by their ingenuity, mind-blown by the notion of ridiculing exceptional achievements, and worried that my failure to imagine taking comparable pains to protect leisurely harmony meant that my own brain had been addled by too many years in productivity mode, too many twitchy Sunday evenings.

I think about this a lot, as readers here know.

I’ve been working for income from my first part-time job at 15 as a lifeguard. I started writing for income at 19 and was selling my photos at the same age, sometimes from a street corner in Toronto, sometimes to the dubious tough guy old photo editors of Time Canada (sold!) and Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsweekly.

So working hard and competing for jobs and work with many others is normal.

Leisure — rhymes with pleasure! Treasure! Not so much.

Living in hyper-competitive, expensive New York/the U.S. makes rest problematic —- many workers don’t even get paid sick days or vacation days. Freelancers like me and Jose only earn income when we work. Social media makes an ongoing performative fetish of productivity (truly a word and idea I loathe!), never legacy or creativity or beauty.

Some people have wisely created passive income streams (like owning and renting out property) but that’s always intimidated me.

I lived to age 30 in Canada, and in Toronto, an intensely work-focused place. I moved at 30 to Montreal to escape all of it, choosing a regional newspaper much less prestigious (and less competitive) than the Globe & Mail.

I was burning out and I knew it.

The balance between work and rest, ambition and chilling out, climbing a career ladder or even stepping off it is an ongoing challenge. Americans, especially, are taught from earliest childhood to compete really hard and then to work really hard.

Then….die.

I very rarely see anyone legitimately exhort them to slow down, rest, recharge!

I’m nearing the end of my career in the next few years, really not sure when or how to stop. We are OK for retirement income.

Work has been my identity for a long, long time! Journalism, at its best, can do tremendous good — righting wrongs, taking the corrupt and lying powerful to account, sharing stories that help people improve their lives. I love being part of that.

And, I have to admit, it’s a thrill to produce work published to enormous global audiences.

The larger questions yet to be resolved without work are what sometimes are the basics of a good job/career — your tribe, the people with whom, if you’re lucky, you share values and ethics, in-jokes, jargon, institutional memory.

I’ve never been a joiner or club sort of person. Same with Jose. I need a lot of intellectual stimulation to not be really bored. Neither of us has hobbies — likely the inevitable result of being too work-focused since the age of 19!

Nor, like most of our peers, do we have children or grandchildren.

So we’ll see.

Must-see TV: Ted Lasso

By Caitlin Kelly

All my friends kept raving about how great this TV series is and I thought, it can’t be that good.

It is!

It has 10 episodes and has already been renewed for two more seasons.

Ted is an American college football coach hired to coach AFC Richmond, a British soccer league — with no knowledge of the sport — because the team’s owner has walked out on his wife, and she wants to ruin the team by hiring an incompetent foreigner.

You don’t have to like soccer to enjoy this (although why not?). It’s got fun characters, some interesting plot twists and, for those of us landlocked in the U.S. unable to visit our beloved England, a nice way to travel, if only visually.

As someone who also finds many Americans too sentimental and effusive, Lasso is very much this — to the ongoing consternation of his team, his boss and pretty much everyone British he meets. He is absurdly, relentlessly kind and outgoing and supportive, to a point you think — ugggggh, saccharine.

But no.

He also faces some darker moments in his private life, so he’s a character we can identify with and find relatable.

He does have lots of adjusting to do to his adopted home, from different words and meanings for things (relegation?!) to — what is this?! — his immediate dislike of and disdain for tea.

“Hot brown water,” he says. I can’t look at tea the same way now!

There’s a classic WAG, Keeley, whose bubbly exterior conceals a solid heart, the team owner who’s kinder than she first appears and Nathan, the team’s waterboy who’s been utterly overlooked until Ted arrives and starts to offer him chances to show his stuff.

A local pub plays an essential role, and there’s an ongoing conflict between the team’s youngest — Jamie Tartt, who’s 23 and supremely talented and arrogant and team captain Roy Kent who’s probably 35 or so. It all feels pretty realistic, from the many challenges Ted faces of trying to navigate a wholly new culture — being called WANKER! by everyone — while also trying to manage his troubled marriage from across the ocean.

Have you seen it?

What did you think?

Laying down tools for a bit!

A recent favorite book. I’m mad about movies!

By Caitlin Kelly

I started writing this blog on July 1, 2009.

I was convinced no one would ever find it or read it or comment. Happily, I was wrong — WordPress tells me 22,000+ people have followed it and my daily stats show people arriving from across the globe, a real compliment.

I also write for a living, so the 2,315 posts I’ve so far published here have been in addition to producing dozens of paid/published articles and a book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.

It’s very weird to…not write. For probably every writer, it’s how we process the world and how we feel about our time in it.

Our tools are simple enough — a device, our hands, our eyes/ears/brain, access to the Internet (not easy for many!)

But I’ve spent the past week not working for income but focused on a book proposal I’ve been trying to revive for a few years, about women and journalism. I’m being vague until/unless it sells. Writing a book proposal is a lot of unpaid work, done in the hope you will actually find an agent and a publisher and get paid enough to make it worth doing. Each step offers its own challenges — having an agent sounds so glamorous but I have been bitterly disappointed by quite a few, even Big Name New York ones.

Like dating, it’s a combination of intellectual and emotional fit — and knowing your agent will do their very best for you. Both of my books faced 25 rejections each before finally selling and today publishing is so much more consolidated it’s even more daunting for the mid-list crowd like me.

Two friends — within a week — including one who works for a major publisher recently urged me to write a memoir. So I bought a book on how to do that and might start writing bits and pieces. It’s tricky for every memoirist with family dramas and unresolved issues. (Likely everyone!)

My husband, Jose, is a photographer and photo editor, working freelance for the USGA and The New York Times; he’s also my transcriptionist! I never learned to touch type, as he did, so I bang everything out with only two weary fingers. At the usual $1/recorded minute one pays a transcriptionist, I at least owe him lunch!

So I’ll enjoy the next week or so, as many of you — I hope! — will as well: eating, napping, watching movies and fun TV, taking walks. Reconnecting with yourself and those you love, ideally at home!

Wishing you all a great Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa!

My 2020 year-end review

Our new/vintage rug — a happy part of this year!

By Caitlin Kelly

As we end 2020 — so glad to see the end of it! — we are still healthy, working and solvent.

We have food and housing and savings.

That is a tremendous amount in a year of unprecedented death, illness, job loss, housing loss.

It’s a powerful reminder that “enough” can be a lot.

It’s been a year of some gains — new clients and appreciative editors.

The bulk of my income came from two sources, a website called the Conversationalist, (there are several, confusing!) created and financed by a single individual, which is both odd and charming. I bumped into it by lucky accident in May and have been writing regularly for them since — essays about each of my parents and reported stories like this one, about fed-up Americans fleeing their home country to live abroad.

I also wrote for, of all places, Mechanical Engineering magazine, on STEM education and on water treatment. Both were challenging, fascinating stories to produce and — of course! — my editor then left the magazine. So we’ll see if there’s more work from them for 2021.

I wrote for The New York Times, with this fun story about listening to non-American radio.

Thanks to Twitter, I was hired by the Lustgarten Foundation to blog about their work funding pancreatic cancer research. I’m not a science writer, so I was happily surprised to be invited to do this. It’s been quite extraordinary interviewing some of the world’s best scientists.

I also Zoomed into eight classes around the U.S. — undergrad college classes in Utah, Philadelphia and Florida and high school journalism classes in Florida, Michigan, California. Ohio and Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed it and the students were engaged and lively. It’s the only bright spot of this isolation — that there’s a need and a hunger for voices like mine in the classroom and there’s a technology that makes it quick and easy.

The year started with the best piece of work I’ve produced since my books — a 5,000 word examination for The American Prospect of how Canadians experience their single-payer healthcare systems. I grew up there and was a medical reporter so this was a perfect fit for me. Jose, my husband, accompanied me for two weeks’ travel around Ontario and shot the images, the first time we had ever worked on a project together.

Here it is.

I plan to submit it to two major awards contests.

Personally, it was a year — as it was for many of us — of social isolation, fear of getting COVID, of not seeing friends or family. Visits with several physicians made clear the urgency of my really losing a lot of weight — 30 to 50 pounds — which basically feels impossible. I started 16/8 intermittent fasting November 1 and plan to keep it up indefinitely. I swim laps for 30 minutes three times a week and am trying (ugh) to add even more exercise.

I don’t mind exercising, per se, but I really hate doing all of it alone.

Probably like many of you, because seeing people face to face is so complicated now, I’ve massively boosted my phone, email and Skype visits with friends — four in one recent week with pals in London, Oregon, California and Missouri. This pandemic-imposed isolation and loneliness is very tough and I’m sure even the strongest and happiest partnerships and marriages are, like ours, feeling claustrophobic by now.

I took a chance and joined something called Lunchclub.ai — which matches you with strangers who share your professional interests for a 45 minute video conversation. My first was with a woman in another state who was half my age — but lively, fun and down to earth. Despite my initial doubts, I enjoyed it. You can sign up for two a week and at times that suit you best, between 9 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET.

In a time of such relentless isolation, why not?

Stuck safely at home, I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies. Favorites, many of which I’ve blogged here, include Borgen, Call My Agent, I May Destroy You, The Undoing, Trapped, Bordertown and DCI Banks.

My mother died in a nursing home in British Columbia — very far from us in New York — on Feb. 15, my best friend’s birthday. She was cremated and at some point I will go up there to spread her ashes and claim two enormous pieces of art she left me. We hadn’t been in touch in a decade, even though I was her only child.

My half-brother who lives in D.C., a five-four drive south, had twins in May, (the only grandchildren my father will ever have from his four children), a boy and girl, but he refuses to accept my overtures to rekindle a relationship — having decided in 2007 he was too angry with me. I was not invited to his wedding and have never met his wife. Estrangement is very familiar within our family.

On a happier note, thanks to a much better year for work, we were able to spark up our apartment a bit — adding a new silver velvet sofa and throw cushions from Svensk Tenn, a vintage kilim bought at auction, new lampshades and framing some art. When you spend 95 percent of your life at home, keeping it tidy and lovely helps a lot with the inevitable cabin fever. The money we’ve saved on not going to ballet/’opera/concerts, let alone commuting (a 10 trip train ticket into Manhattan is $95) or parking in the city (easily $30 to $50 for the day) has been substantial.

We’ve bought almost no clothes or shoes — why?!

We have eaten out, usually once a week locally, and if the restaurant is large and empty, will do so indoors.

We only took two very brief breaks: in July two nights at a friend’s home in upstate New York and two nights’ hotel in Woodstock, NY. It was very much appreciated!

I tried in late October to take a solo respite at a small inn in rural Pennsylvania — and ended up deep in Trump country. It wasn’t my style at all and I left two days earlier than planned.

I’ve tried to read more books, not very successfully.

Here are two I did read and really enjoyed.

And I started re-reading my own work, my first book, Blown Away, published in 2004. It holds up! Now a 2021 goal is finding a new publisher to re-issue it and financing the time it will take me to update and revise it.

How was your 2020?

What are some of your goals, hopes and dreams for 2021?

My writing life…the latest

By Caitlin Kelly

Last year was really rough.

This year, for reasons I can’t discern, things have been much better and much busier. For which I am so grateful!

In the past few weeks:

— I’ve pitched three editors at The New York Times (science, At Home, Well) and sold two ideas to them.

Here’s one, about listening to foreign radio.

— Pitched a fun idea I found (by reading the production notes of a recent documentary) to a Canadian magazine I admire, and was initially excited to write for, until they refused to push the pay rate into American currency, cutting a low rate ($500) to $380. Then their contract arrived and it was Biblical in length and demands. I did something very rare and backed out of the assignment. Then I had to manage the legitimately disappointed feelings of the person I was going to profile. But, when I discussed this on my Facebook page, several fellow Canadians suggested alternate editors.

— Negotiated with a physician about possible coaching.

— Did a bunch of Zoom classes with high school and college journalism students.

— Got back in touch with a few editors to try and start lining up assignments for January 2021. I always have to think at least two months ahead!

— Got some good news on a potential book project for which I need to speak to some very senior journalists.

— Connected two writers I admire, one in Nashville, one in London, to help one another on a project. I love connecting people!

— Wrote more blog posts for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds research into pancreatic cancer. The topic is challenging, as so many people don’t survive it, but it’s also been an honor to speak directly to the researchers working on so many different ways to detect and manage it.

— Enjoyed an unusual two-hour phone chat with one of my editors, who’s been buying a lot of my work for The Conversationalist. Only after two hours did we actually discuss work!

— Managed money! I work so hard to earn what I do, it’s easy to forget that what savings we do have need to be properly managed. We expected the stock market to soar after Biden was elected, and it did. I jumped and pulled some of that windfall into cash. I’m damn grateful to have savings and investments, without which I’d live in monthly fear of not being able to meet all our bills. I tell every would-be freelancer this — if you don’t have at least two to three months’ worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll never be able to turn down work or walk away (as I describe above) from a lousy deal.

— Swimming three times a week, at 12:30 p.m. at our local YMCA. They allow only four people at a time, one per lane. It’s bliss. I get some exercise, some social interaction, some relief from sitting alone at home all day. I even found the perfect source for my NYT radio story swimming in the next lane. He connected me, after we chatted as we left, to a great source in Miami.

— Participated in multiple Twitterchats: #TRLT (travel), #CultureTrav (travel) #RemoteChat and #FreelanceChat. I really enjoy these lively global online/real-time conversations and have met some great people through them, like an Australian woman living in France or a Dutch woman in New York. Each session is about an hour and focused on discussing a specific topic. I always learn something new and — especially with the terrible loss of social life due to COVID — they help keep me going nuts from loneliness and isolation.

— Kept up with my normal media consumption. I read the Financial Times and New York Times every day in print. I may scan others, like The Guardian, online. I listen to CBC and NPR radio, for news and pleasure. I also read books (slowly!) and some magazines, although many fewer than we used to. I’m not loving Vogue these days but enjoy reading even old copies of Smithsonian.

I really miss working in our gorgeous local library, with its soaring ceilings and tall windows and enormous tables.

I miss seeing other people face to face!

But we’ve spruced up our apartment, thanks to a good year, and that’s helped: new sofa, new rug, framing some art.

Here’s another writer’s description of her writing life — she lives alone in Brooklyn with her cat and does a lot of science writing.

Our writing lives are all, in some ways quite different and in many ways, very similar.

Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?

How?

What do you want them to see?

By Caitlin Kelly

So, finally, I have a new headshot, thanks to a sunny fall day and our balcony and a good salon and Jose’s talent.

I’m really happy with it, as my previous ones were, to my critical eye, all too casual or too formal or just out of date.

My favorite one until now was a quick snap Jose took on our balcony in March 2014 (!) just before I flew to rural Nicaragua with WaterAid for a fantastic week of work with them. I’m always my happiest when challenged, facing a trip or some sort of new adventure and it showed!

I’m very much my parents’ child in this respect — my mother traveled much of the world alone for years on end, and lived in places like New Mexico, Bath, Toronto, Montreal and Gibsons, B.C., a pretty coastal town. My father traveled the world for his work as a film-maker and, at 91, is considering trading the solitary boredom of rural Ontario for….Marrakesh.

I’m in!

Because I live on social media, on here and Twitter and Facebook and (ugh, rarely) on LinkedIn, I always need a fresh, appealing headshot. I do a lot of interviews for my work, and I always look online for any images of the people I’ll be speaking with — seems only fair to let them see who I am as well.

But my image needs to be:

not stuffy

not boring

friendly and approachable but also professional

When you’re in the public eye — and these days if you’re self-employed you really have to be — you need a terrific headshot!

So why does this one work?

— fresh from the hair salon! I can never do this so well myself.

— subtle make-up, but strong enough it reads well in black and white.

— very simple clothing, which is very much my style.

— Simple gold earrings for a hint of shine.

— a lovely background.

— no direct sunlight! We, both being photographers, know this. I see a lot of not-great headshots, often a selfie. I’ve tried, many many times, to snap a selfie that works as a headshot and, occasionally, have done well.

— obviously, very fortunate to have a talented professional as my photographer, my husband Jose Lopez! For The New York Times and others, he has photographed three Presidents and thousands of images, from the Bosnian war to pro football to cowboys.

Taking my photo is never that easy!

I have versions of this high and low-res and both in black and white as well.

It makes me feel more confident to be seen as I am now — but cleaned up!

Caitlin Kelly headshots, October 2020

Why work freelance?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful reminder that some jobs scar us for years, written by an HR expert I really admire and follow on Twitter, Katrina Kibben:

Trauma is the only way to describe what happens when managers go out of their way to demean and shrink their team’s confidence. Nothing is the same. The safety humans need to thrive, especially at work, is gone. Three years into owning my own company, those bad managers still influence how I lead my team every minute. I go to extremes to make sure I’m never like those bad bosses.

I will spend hours writing and rewriting a coaching email to ensure that people know I see them. Why? Those moments when someone you admire makes you feel small are seconds you never forget. When the shame happens on a daily cycle, it’s a whole new world of mind games. I can’t do that to people.

I know first-hand that the mind games don’t end because you quit your job either. After I walked away from my worst managers, I caught myself questioning the intentions of everyone with feedback. Let me tell you – that is not a good way to live your life. I still get coaching on feedback to make sure I deliver and receive it with empathy.

I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with American high school journalism students and really enjoying it — so far, with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California and with Texas and Pennsylvania ahead.

One of the questions — why freelance?

What are its advantages?

My first reply?

Intellectual freedom!

I enjoyed aspects of my three staff newspaper jobs — at the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

But each job carried some truly heinous challenges as well: cut-throat internal gossip and competition, stupid or lazy or rote-minded management, sexism.

I loved breaking stories (i.e. getting them ahead of all my ferocious competitors).

I loved the crazy adrenaline rush of reporting and writing on deadline.

I loved learning so many new things and having tremendous experiences — from meeting Queen Elizabeth to visiting a rural Quebec commune to flying into an Arctic village of 500 people.

I loved knowing that my work was being read by so many people and could, occasionally, prove helpful to them.

The Daily News job, as Katrina writes, was the last straw for me. I won’t bore you with all the details but here’s one — I started in June and by late September my direct boss stopped speaking to me. He never again spoke to me until I was laid off about a year later.

As the unofficial company motto said — Sink or Swim!

So I’ve since stayed freelance, which is basically intellectual piecework. We joke that we eat only what we kill — i.e. no paycheck or pension or paid sick days or paid vacation.

Holidays? Hah! Only when we can afford the time and cost of using them.

But it also has freed me from working with and for bullies and brutes, a huge advantage for me.

I’ve also found a few communities of fellow independents on Twitter and participate in weekly Twitterchats, like #remotechat (Wednesdays, 1pm EDT) and #FreelanceChat (Thursdays, at noon EDT.)

The range of people on them is terrific — with people arriving from across the U.S., Canada and Europe. It makes us feel less lonely!

I also really enjoy the wild variety of my work.

In the past year, I’ve written on:

— STEM education (for an engineering magazine)

— pancreatic cancer research (for the Lustgarten Foundation)

— A Finnish energy executive (Neste)

— Why some long-resident foreigners in the U.S. choose not to become citizens (The Conversationalist)

All of these are on my website.

Working on your own — as so many are now doing because of the pandemic — is challenging, and next to impossible for women trying to manage multiple small children (800,000 have left the American workforce!)

It means being super-focused and self-disciplined, and not having an office with an appropriate chair, desk or lighting. (I write on a laptop on our dining table.)

It can also mean working to others’ needs and schedules — not, as some fantasize, sleeping til noon. My husband, a freelance photographer and photo editor, works freelance and his hours can start at 6:00 a.m. and sometimes go until 2:00 a.m.

But we enjoy it.