Adjusting to the Covid-19 pandemic

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t belabor you with the endless details of the coronavirus pandemic — trusting that you’re paying attention to reliable sources of news like the World Health Organization.

If you live in the United States, where millions — like my husband and I — have no sick pay or access to unemployment benefits since we are self-employed, this is very worrying.

Thanks directly to the coronoavirus, we’ve just suddenly lost a very large piece of paid work  — with no access to unemployment benefits — that we’ve been counting on for months; unlike many Americans we do have savings.

The only people I know who aren’t panicking right now have significant savings or the ability to move back home with their parents to cut their living costs.

That’s a small percentage of Americans.

What worries me most isn’t just the lack of preparedness by the American government and the lying grifter in the White House “leading” it all — but the bedrock of traditional American values.

 

Individualism.

 

The “I”ll do whatever I want and screw you” behaviors I’ve seen for years.

Only now, they’re lethal.

If you’re on Twitter, as I am, you might have seen the hashtag #CoronaKatie, a young woman who tweeted:

 

I just went to a Red Robin [a fast casual restaurant chain] and I’m 30 [a very high risk group for spreading the virus.]

It was delicious and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America and I’ll do what I want.

 

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Get used to being alone!

 

I can’t adequately express how angry this selfishness makes me.

I fully expect many of us, unwittingly, may have already infected others while we remained without active symptoms. I feel guilty and worried, and don’t even know if I should.

As one brilliant UK physician Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling, has said — stop behaving as though you hope to avoid the virus.

Behave as though you already have it and do everything in your power to not infect others!

I moved to the United States when I was 30 — but was born, raised and socialized in a country with two attitudes profoundly different from the United States, to this day, both affect how I think and how I behave:

 

cradle-to-grave healthcare provided through taxes

a national, equally bedrock concern for the common good, which this public policy makes abundantly clear.

 

Everyone matters.

 

Anyone who still insists on going out into crowded, shared public spaces — unless medically or legally necessary — is a fool and possibly risking others’ deaths.

If you’re OK with this, please stop reading and following this blog at once.

As you likely know by now, anyone over 60 — with a weaker immune system than those younger — is more vulnerable. Those with underlying conditions, especially respiratory, are very much at risk; my late mother, who died in a Canadian nursing home February 15, had COPD and other health issues. It may have been a blessing she died before this, as nursing homes are a petri dish for this disease.

I am scared.

Even though we have savings, we’re wholly self-employed and if our work dries up, we’re screwed. Whatever the U.S. government offers as help, it never — as usual — affects anyone self-employed.

For now, Jose’s two anchor clients are still going and he is able to work from home for one of them. I have work through mid-May, but nothing after that.

We will figure it out. We have to!

 

I pray that you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy.

 

Ten ways to enjoy working from home

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Step into our office!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Welcome to my life!

 
As the world  suddenly learns the words “social distancing” and every crowded place is closing, many people who have always worked away from home are now…working at home.

While The New York Times laments the lost joys of office life, I deeply disagree.

 

An excerpt:

Steve Jobs, for one, was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.

“Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Mr. Jobs said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

 

Sure…if your workplace is full of smart, motivated, helpful co-workers.

Is yours?

My last staff job, sorry to say, was a shitshow from start to finish. I was hired by someone who soon left, leaving me vulnerable to management that wanted nothing to do with me and frosty co-workers.

It was the worst experience of my life.

So I never spent much energy looking for another office job.

I’ve been working alone at home, with no pets or children, in a suburban one-bedroom apartment since 2006. I occasionally spend the day working at our local library, which is large, sunny and gorgeous.

 

Here are my ten ways to enjoy working from home if this is all new to you:

 

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— Wake up (more) when it suits you.

Even if you have to be on the clock for your employer by 9:00 a.m. you’ve lost all the mad rush to get ready/showered/dressed/shaved and the cost and annoyance of a commute.

— Savor healthy meals

I eat so much better at home! I know exactly what’s in my food without added salt, sugar, fat and calories. Your late afternoon pick-me-up might be my daily pot of tea or fresh coffee or an apple and cheese or…anything not junky and gooey and full of sugar.

— No eating at your desk!

This is such a gross American habit because everyone’s expected to work all the time. Or, worse, in your car or on the train or bus.

 

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— Take walks, maybe with your very happy dog

You must build in some breaks. Fresh air is a good perk.

— Exercise!

If you can’t use your gym, take a walk or bike ride. If your home is big enough, you can do yoga or workout to exercise videos.

 

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— Avoid the sofa!

I literally won’t sit on it until work is done. In a small space, I have to delineate areas of work and areas of pure leisure (that includes the bedroom.)

— Avoid the TV!

Until your work is done.

— Enjoy music!

Jose and I have a few favorite stations we listen to when working from home. One is TSFJazz from Paris.

 

 

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Zzzzzzzzz……

 

— Naps

As long as you are getting your work done and joining Zoom or Skype or phone meetings as expected, you can probably grab a half hour when needed.

— Comfortable clothing is a real pleasure

Pajamas are not a great idea and sweatpants can feel gross after a while. But there’s no need to keep wearing more formal clothing unless that’s your preference.

The Devil Wears Prada: 11 life lessons

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Having now seen it so many times that I can recite its dialogue by heart, I still stan for this movie, made in 2006 for a relatively small $35 million— it’s since grossed $327 million — no doubt aided by the fact it’s shown so often on various cable channels and fangirls like me keep tuning in again.

I love seeing two of my favorite cities featured — New York (mostly the towers of midtown) and Paris.

The final scene grabs my heart every time as, in the background of that final shot, are the offices of Simon & Schuster, which publishes Pocket Books, which published my first book. I will never ever forget the joy and pride I felt crossing that same intersection  clutching the galley, (unpublished final version.)

And, now that so many magazines are gone or have shuttered their print versions and slashed their budgets, it’s also a nostalgic vision of how glitzy and glamorous life often was (and still is for a few) at a Big Name fashion magazine.

The soundtrack is fantastic as well, pushing Scottish songwriter and singer K.T. Tunstall into much wider prominence with her songs, like Suddenly I See, absolutely the perfect fit for this film.

Starring Anne Hathaway as Andrea Sachs, an initially gormless-but-ambitious young journalist, (and based on the true-life story of Vogue assistant to its editor Anna Wintour) and Meryl Streep as her voracious boss, Miranda Priestley, it’s a fun film that also offers some helpful lessons:

Never show up to a job interview with no idea who you’re talking to

Never show up to a job interview looking like an unmade bed

Your friends can be a terrific support group — or whiny and negative. Choose wisely

Ditto for your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse

Yes, your first job out of college may feel “beneath you” but it’s meant to sharpen all sorts of skills, from time management to EQ to how to read a room

Yes, for a while, your personal life may suffer. You shouldn’t do it forever, but some jobs and industries offer a weeding-out: only the truly determined survive.

If your boss is extremely demanding, what else did you expect?

Alliances matter — the only way Andy gets her hands on an unpublished manuscript quickly is knowing someone with access, and being willing to make the ask

If you want to make it in New York City journalism, you’d better bring your A-game!

Empathy matters, whether for your boss, your coworkers, your friends, your sweetie

Know your priorities and your values

 

 

The editorial relationship

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

The good and bad of blogging  — for writers and readers alike — no editors!

No one to say: “Hmmm, really?”

No one to ask: “What did you mean to say here?”

No one to suggest: “Maybe you wanted a shorter paragraph?”

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19, so I’ve worked with many editors, men and women of all ages and temperaments, some as my bosses or coworkers, many as those who chose to assign me freelance work, and my two non-fiction books.

The very best are like the best plastic surgeons — when they trim, you barely notice it, but suddenly your material looks so much better.

The very best remain calm and cool, able to re-direct us and soothe us when we’re lost or panicked in the weeds of reporting and interviewing. Book editors are gods to me — helping us make sense of 100,000 words.

I’m always amazed at the trust that each editor places in us and our skills and our character and our ethics and our work ethic when they commit to us. This was a bigger deal when top writers were paid $3/word by the big glossy magazines and a $6,000 or $9,000 or $12,000 check was still possible and not some gauzy memory.

Then as now, editors hedge their bets with contracts that may not contain a kill fee, or a very small one (25 percent), so that $4,000 you expected to earn — hah, now you’re only getting $1,000 and your bills be damned!

It’s one reason smart full-time freelancers are very, very frugal; it’s easy to blow some cash on a vacation or some new clothes or some dental work or car repair — put  it on a credit card — and, guess what?

You aren’t getting that money now.

It’s very stressful and stories get killed for a lot of very bad reasons. One I see a lot (not in my work) is editors who commission a story, disappear for weeks or even months (!?) and then the story is no longer timely or someone else already published it. This punishes the writer, who’s done all the work in good faith.

 

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Some of my most memorable editors:

— The one who sent me off to profile David Quinn, then the brand-new coach of the New York Rangers, saying “You’re Canadian. You know hockey!” I did not. Here’s the story.

— The one who just assigned me a scary story about a technical topic for a specialist audience of readers with Phds. “You realize I never studied chemistry or physics?” I emailed him. Onward, anyway.

— The  one who told me to get what he was sure was a totally ungettable interview and I came back within a few hours with a former European leader.

— The one who sent me off on a two-week tour of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Lord, what an adventure: Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick. We flew in Lear jets, allowing Her Majesty the “purple corridor” of advance time for her jet to take off before ours.

— The one who sent me, in December, to the tiny Arctic village of Salluit, ostensibly to deliver an entire small plane-full of donated clothing, with only 24 hours there. We landed on ice and snow at maybe 1pm, and no one wanted the stuff, and it was dark by 2pm and  I had to go on the radio, a particle board shack, being translated into Inuktitut, to calm the village down and get anyone to even speak to me.

 

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— The one, at the New York Daily News, my direct manager, who said: “When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know” and never spoke to me again. That was December and I was let go in  June. Fun!

— The one who edited Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout’s official magazine, and had me interviewing Scouts (by phone) all across America. They were always terrific!

 

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— The one who read my initial manuscript for Malled and said: “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” The rest? Needed revision. We made it.

— The one who sent me from Toronto, freelance, for The Globe & Mail, to write about performing eight shows of Sleeping Beauty as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada, at Lincoln Center. I typed it up in my room at the Empire Hotel and dictated it over the phone. “This is great!” he said.

 

At best, it’s a collegial collaboration of mutual respect.

At worst, you feel butchered and never want to trust another editor again.

And you never know for sure what you’ll get!

Managing anxiety

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know, for some people, it’s a chronic and debilitating issue.

There are days I think I’m going to explode.

Being asked by my doctor to monitor my blood pressure every morning is making me much more aware how chronically anxious I am, even from the moment I wake up.

This is not good!

So I’m trying to do more deep breathing.

Keeping up with my three-times-a-week spin class, which I enjoy a lot and which burns off a lot of stress.

Taking more and longer naps, even if I don’t sleep but just snuggle under the duvet and stare out into the cold, gray, cloudy winter sky from the warm safety of bed.

 

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It’s odd…some things that make people feel really really freaked out don’t bother me at all; I recently read a tweet by someone much higher profile than I who literally ran off stage at an event to vomit with a panic attack.

Public speaking has never scared me.

But it’s time to really examine why I feel so stressed.

Part of it is very real — our monthly living costs are high and we have done everything we can to reduce them. So, working freelance means paid projects we rely on can — and do — fall through. That means making sure we always have accessible savings (which, thankfully, we do.)

Part of it is just the sheer exhaustion of constantly having to manage so many relationships — professional and personal — and the inevitable conflict and misunderstanding that often comes as a result of much (too much!) online conversation. If I piss off the wrong person, I can lose valuable friendships and clients, so I too often feel now like I’m walking eggshells to avoid that.

Part of it is knowing we have zero family support or back-up, whether emotional, financial or physical. I no longer have a relationship with my mother (her only child) and my father and I have a very stormy one. My 3 half-siblings are not people I know or like, and vice versa. Jose’s parents have been dead for decades and we very rarely see his two sisters who live far away. Whatever happens, it’s all on us.

Part of it is what happens after you’ve gotten a diagnosis of any form of cancer; mine in June 2018 for DCIS, stage zero, no spread, surgery and radiation. But I live every day in fear of recurrence.

Part of it is not having quite as many supports as would be ideal, really close friends who live nearby. I have three or four close women friends where I live, but the other day, really in a panic over a work issue, I had to call one who lives in Toronto, a woman I’m lucky to see once a year but who knows me very well. At my age, most women are retired, and at leisure and/or traveling and/or obsessed with their grandchildren, so I have very little in common with them — more with peers decades younger still in the work trenches yet also at a very different stage of life and facing very different challenges.

Part of it is just my general fears about my health and how to strengthen and preserve it as I age. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol to lose weight. I’ve added another day of a different kind of exercise. I’m trying to eat less meat and smaller portions.

Part of it is age. We are not able, now to get another well-paid full-time job in our chaotic industry because of rampant age discrimination. That keeps us in the financial precarity of freelance work and extremely expensive health insurance.

 

 

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We stayed overnight in this house in a Nicaraguan village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.

 

And I know — believe me! — having lived in and traveled to and worked in much poorer places (like Nicaragua, March 2014), that these are all “first world problems” — worries relatively very small indeed in comparison to those of millions of others, abroad and domestic.

 

I took six weeks off in the summer of 2017, a massive splurge of savings. It was worth every penny to travel, alone, through Europe.

When I came home I remarked to a friend that my head, literally, felt different.

“That’s what it’s like not to be anxious all the time,” she said.

I would like to feel that way again.

 

The freelance writing life

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By Caitlin Kelly

Well, mine anyway!

If you fantasize about the glam life of a full-time freelance writer — no commute! work in sweatpants! no meetings! no office politics! — the quotidian reality can be…bracing.

I’ve been full-time freelance many times in my career, this most recent stint starting (again) in the summer of 2006 when I was summarily canned (no emails, no meetings, no warnings) by the New York Daily News.

Bye-bye paycheck!

Bye-bye enormous laminated press pass!

It’s much more difficult now to earn a good living (like $60,000 year-plus) in journalism because so many magazines have shut down or gone to a digital-only version — which pay much less than print (I call it #MissingAZero, as they now offer $150 for 1,000 words [at worst] instead of the $1,500 to $3,000 that was once standard payment for that length. Yes, we are still, typical in journalism, paid by the word.)

 

 

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Here’s some of my recent writing life:

 

— A pal on Twitter, who lives in Alaska but who edits for a magazine based in New York City, tweets out she seeks pitches on retail, the topic of my last book. Sweet! I like her a lot and trust her to be a good person to work with, so I pitch her.

— I pitch a religion-focused idea to a Canadian magazine and follow up three times to discover she never saw the initial pitch. Re-send it. I get an offer but it’s short and low, and the Canadian dollar is 25% lower than U.S. — and I pay my bills in New York. Unless they’ll go higher, I’ll pass. (They didn’t, but the email conversation remained cordial.)

Phone interview for an amazing opportunity with a super-prestigious and interesting project, told I’m one of their top three candidates. This is rare! This is potentially very cool. Must wait now for further details.

 

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— The print version of my American Prospect story arrives. I love seeing my work in print! I also get paid for it (after starting work on it in August 2019 and finishing work on it in November 2019.) This is the first time in our 20 years together that Jose and I worked together on a story.

Phone conversation with an editor far far away seeking a daily editor for a major news-site. I am surprised to be in the mix (as I am so often not, now!) and ask why; as I suspected, my decades of news experience do have value. I find out I’m also the only candidate (of many) who followed up with a phone call.

— I apply for a reporting fellowship. Waiting to see if I make the finalists’ cut.

— I apply for a few staff jobs but get nothing.

— I report and write a 2,200 word story on STEM education, my first (and an assignment, not my pitch), for Mechanical Engineering magazine. Editor loves it and wants to work on more stories. Yay!

 

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— I pitch several ideas to editors at The New York Times, to Air B & B magazine, and to a new website focused on interior design. The Air B & B essay idea is rejected but it’s a good one and I start thinking who else might want it.

Need to come up with some ideas for The Wall Street Journal, as an editor there contacted me after my American Prospect healthcare story came out.

— Have found an intern, a college student, and assign her research work for two book projects. She found me on Twitter and we will meet this weekend in New York for lunch, face to face for the first time.

— A former Times colleague of Jose’s, who knows me and my work, suggests me to an editor there for a project. We’ll see!

— I lose a lot of energy and patience trying to get the two key sources for a magazine profile to give me the initial information I need. I finally get it, but after too much needless anxiety. This is the kind of story others would kill to have written about them.

 

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— I practice and time my remarks for a workshop on pitching I’m giving on March 6 at the annual Northern Short Course, a 3-day conference for photojournalists, this year in Fairfax, VA. I book two nights’ hotel in a quaint town nearby beforehand and two nights’ hotel in D.C. to catch up there with friends as well.

 

Ready for a break!

No, you won’t intimidate good journalists

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12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements.” photo: Jose R. Lopez/New York Times

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The past week has offered another look at how men try to bully women — this time an exchange between NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

From Kelly:

He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, do you think Americans care about Ukraine? He used the F word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said people will hear about this. And then he turned and said he had things to do. And I thanked him, again, for his time and left.

 

Here’s the reply from the CEO of National Public Radio.

An excerpt:

NPR CEO JOHN LANSING: He did not dispute the facts as she reported them based on the conversation that occurred after the interview when he had the expletive-filled rage. I think that’s important to point out. I think it’s also important to point out that Mary Louise Kelly has an email chain with Katie Martin, an aide to the secretary of state, confirming that she would be discussing Ukraine. So that’s a provably false statement. And it’s also important to point out that no journalist would agree to go behind closed doors with the secretary of state and agree to go off the record. That would just be something no honorable journalist would do.

 

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me — and to others who work in journalism — that many many consumers of news, whether print, broadcast, web, have no idea how the news is gathered.

 

It is not read from sanitized press releases!

 

It means sitting face to face with a wide array of people, some of whom are physically frightening (a warlord, say) or who can try to destroy your career thanks to their wealth and political power.

They will do everything possible to intimidate us — especially women. Because a woman journalist, doing our job well, often means being “unfeminine” — not deferential, compliant, flirtatious — genuflecting to power automatically.

It is our job, even politely, to question.

 

To challenge authority, to tell truth to power.

And the best reporting is not — as you’ve seen so often on television and in the movies — done amid a shouting, shoving pack, thrusting cameras and microphones into someone’s face.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Caitlin Kelly interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

No, it’s personal, done privately face to face, often alone in a room with a closed door, and often with a powerful man accustomed to nodding, smiling agreement.

No woman journalist worth her pay is someone scared to enter those rooms, to gain access in the first place.

We don’t sit there with a boss or colleague or chaperone along to make sure we’re safe and comfy.

We know things can get heated.

I’ve had my share of men — and women — trying to scare me off a story. I worked as a reporter at the NY Daily News for a year, when it was still the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper. Tabloids chase stories hard.

 

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I’d been there a few weeks when some flack (PR person) for the New York state government (i.e. my taxes paid his salary) started shouting at me on the phone because he disliked my questions. I told him to calm down and call me back when he was able to be civil.

Instead, he called my (male) boss to complain about me — to mess with me.

Inside that newsroom, the large photo editor also decided to raise his voice to me. I told him that wasn’t going to solve the problem. He, too ran to my boss.

See a pattern here?

I can’t count the number of times in my career — as a reporter for three major daily newspapers — and as a freelance journalist, that someone who disliked my inquiries has tried to bully me, to intimidate me, to shame or embarrass me into shutting up and going away.

Hah!

Here’s what you need to know.

The best journalists have one job that’s very clear to us — we represent YOU, the audience:

 

The taxpayer.

The voter.

The patient.

The student.

 

The (relatively) powerless.

So, like soldiers heading into battle, we know it’s part of our job to take some verbal hits, to withstand sneers and derision.

It’s a point of pride that we do, and keep going, and sometimes actually get to the truth.

We will not back down.

 

 

Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

 

Some tips:

 

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

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

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

This shot of Niagara Falls snapped during my return trip to New York after three weeks in Canada, 12 hours by train back from Toronto

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

Thirty original interviews completed, some by phone, some face to face.

Five towns visited in five days to meet and interview sources in each one.

Here’s my post from August 13, as I was starting to work on my biggest story in years:

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

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

Here’s the link to my story about Canada’s healthcare systems— there are several — and how they work. It’s for The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly publication.

I spent more than three months on it, and lost money in the process, as the basic cost of a room in Toronto alone cost twice my allotted travel budget and I spent four days there working.

 

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Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.

 

But, rarely, a story is worth it and I hope this one is.

 

There were some challenges along the way, which is normal, some of them less so:

 

— I knew from the start this would cost me money, not earn nearly enough to cover three months’ exclusive attention, plus travel. I applied for grants from two American organizations offering them to journalists and was denied by both. The ugly truth is that I’m making less than a third of what I would have earned for this story in the 1990s, back when journalism paid well, and when my health insurance cost $500 a month, not $1,700.

— I suddenly developed gout (!), an excruciatingly painful right toe condition, making every step painful for weeks.

— At the same time, I got a bad leg infection on my right shin, so bad it really scared me. I finally saw my doctor when I got back home after a three-week absence, and knocked it out with antibiotics. The pain, at its worst, was breathtaking, That, plus gout, made it  hard to focus on interviews that lasted up to two hours. I popped plenty of painkillers!

 

 

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The son of a friend of mine, David Dennis, proved a perfect interview subject, and the lede (top) of the story. photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— As often happens, I set up a few interviews fully expecting to discuss X…and Y proved to be much more interesting. Gotta roll with the punches!

— One key source remained, even after months, hopelessly elusive, so overworked that his secretary and I got to know one another well, and he sent many apologetic last-minute-cancellation emails. Fortunately, I found two long and helpful videos of him speaking and quoted from them instead.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

Sitting in a cafe in Picton, Ontario, interviewing Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— The top-level sources I spoke to all know one another and realized that my reporting was deep and serious in including them all.

— You do eventually reach a point of total saturation, when you think you can’t possibly do another interview, but someone urges you strongly to do so and recommends someone else. I did, and the guy was astounding, possibly the best of the lot.

 

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I got off a bus at 3:30 after an hour’s ride to/from a source to meet another at this downtown Toronto hotel bar at 3:45 so he could run for his train at 4:15. Gotta do whatever’s possible!

 

— I rarely went into each interview with a set list of questions, but kept them more conversational, which allowed for unexpected and welcome diversions and insights.

 

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— I bought a huge white-pad to help me visualize what to do next. I decided to structure my story around the Four Ps: patients, providers, pundits/academics and policymakers/politicians.

— Others’ generosity and good humor made this very challenging project not only manageable but a pleasure to work on; every source was helpful and smart, referred me deeper into their expert networks and shared their insights and wisdom.

— Three “first readers” helped me as I revised: a veteran American health and science writer, a young, progressive writer in D.C. and a Canadian editor. Fresh eyes matter!

 


 

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Smaller towns are having a rough time attracting and keeping local physicians…Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— It took a lot of self-confidence to tackle this complex topic. So I felt much better when a man who’s an acknowledged leader in this field, when I admitted that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it, said that after decades studying it, he sometimes is as well.

Here’s a fantastic piece — written in 2005 for the journalism website Poynter — on the iceberg theory of journalism…that only a tiny fraction of what you’ll see, hear and read will actually be visible in the final public version, no matter all the invisible hard work that preceded and informed it:

 

What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.

As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.

The creative life has never been easy

 

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The bright lights of Broadway

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine needing a job.

Imagine having 20 children to support.

Meet Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1721 presented six concertos — now named the Brandenburg Concertos, named for the Margrave for whom they were written — to a local official he hoped would offer him a job.

Today, these much beloved pieces resonate still.

The Margrave did not hire him and it’s possible he never even heard them.

The 1946 Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, is equally hailed as a great of the film classics.

It failed at the box office and the original story met with such rejection that its author decided to self-publish and send it to 200 friends instead.

At museum shows of the legends Michelangelo, Charlotte Bronte and the Japanese print-maker Hokusai — whose Great Wave is one of the most familiar of all images — I learned the more nuanced truth of these lives, of penury and struggle, their lost and cancelled commissions.

It’s tempting to think that all the great art and music and literature we still enjoy today was produced from warm homes filled with good food, with healthy children and wives and husbands. In fact, there was much sorrow to endure.

 

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Bronte’s dress and boots

 

Bronte suffered the early death of all her siblings, married late (37) and died the following year.

 

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Bronte’s writing desk

 

I so admire anyone who chooses the creative life.

My father made films and documentary television shows. His second wife wrote and edited television scripts. My mother worked as a print and radio journalist.

I get it!

We lived its ups and downs, emotionally, intellectually and financially. Rejection can feel annihilating, most often wielded by people with salaries and pensions, unwilling to take creative risks themselves while harshly judging those of us who do.

Without a wealthy family or partner (and some have this) it can mean many years of financial struggle, and the endless hope of recognition.

No one needs a new novel or oratorio or painting!

So I gave my husband — a freelance photo editor and photographer this book for Christmas.

 

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One of my favorite sources of inspiration is Tharp’s first book, The Creative Habit; she’s a choreographer, but the challenges she faces, and her wisdom and practical advice, are just as fitting to many other creative efforts.

 

If you’re working to create something new, keep going.

The world needs it.

You need to make it.