Are reporters vultures — or just doing their job?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:

Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?

The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.

No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.

I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid  — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.

It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.

I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.

The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.

That no other reporter would have.

It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.

I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.

When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.

Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.

Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.

Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.

Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.

Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.

One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.

We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.

So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.

When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.

At our best, to speak truth to power.

That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.

Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.

I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.

But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.

I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.

I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.

Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:

— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.

Here’s what I don’t want:

— Drama, emotion, speculation, guessing, uninformed opinion.

What do you think of reporters’ behavior?

Do you watch or listen to the news?

What do you find missing — or most valuable?

After 31 years, life begins outside the NYT newsroom…

By Caitlin Kelly

Michele McNally, director of photography for The New York Times, pays tribute to Jose as colleagues gather round
Michele McNally, director of photography for The New York Times, pays tribute to Jose as colleagues gather round

My husband, Jose Lopez, has had a career few can match — eight years in the White House press corps, photographing Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He’s flown on Air Force One and been in the Oval Office.

He covered the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping in an unheated shipping container, unable to shower for six weeks, his Christmas “dinner” a packet of chicken soup.

Our amazing local bakery, Riverside Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake -- on 2 days' notice. I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a colleague)
Our amazing local bakery, Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake — on 2 days’ notice. I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a colleague)

He traveled to Rekjavik to cover a summit with Gorbachev.

For a decade, he also chose and mentored young photographers through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, creating a new generation of talent — some of whom now work at the Times.

His goodbye cake was enjoyed by all
His goodbye cake was enjoyed by all

His own blog, Frame 36A, is here.

And here is his story on the Times’ Lens blog.

He covered two Olympics and five Superbowls and then worked for 15 years as a photo editor in sports, Foreign/National, real estate, business and — lastly — as photo editor of the NYT Now app, working with men and women half his age.

He leaves the newsroom today — 31 years after arriving from his first few newspaper jobs in Texas and Colorado, a cocky young guy with a thick head of hair.

The great "Grey Lady" has some fun staffers! Cornelius, a fellow NYT Now app colleague...
The great “Grey Lady” has some fun staffers! Cornelius, a fellow NYT Now app colleague…

Gulp!

It was a very difficult decision for him to leave — he loves his work and his colleagues — and one we did not make lightly; great journalism jobs within great organizations have become unicorns.

But this buyout offer was munificent, and he still has excellent skills and boatloads of energy he’s bringing to his job search.

It was an emotional afternoon and evening as staff and freelance photographers, editors and reporters lined up to hug him fiercely and to wish him well. I was so touched, although not at all surprised — having written freelance for the paper for decades and knowing many of these people as well — to see how well-loved and deeply respected he is.

There were staffers barely out of college and retirees who came back to the newsroom — and a nearby bar after work — to congratulate him.

I love this tradition! Every time a NYT staffer leaves, they mock up a fake NYT front page with funny/loving headlines, stories and photos...here are pix of Jose from 1984 onwards, the year he arrived
I love this tradition! Every time a NYT staffer leaves, they mock up a fake NYT front page with funny/loving headlines, stories and photos…here are pix of Jose from 1984 onwards, the year he arrived

Jose blends the unusual and terrific mix of tough-as-nails under pressure and diplomatic, gentle manners. (Very Timesian!)

More essential to a job search in 2015 — he combines the gravitas and deep wisdom of a career news photojournalist with the most up-to-date digital skills he used selecting images for the NYTNow app.

On to the next adventure!

Millennials want free news — so who’s going to pay for it?

By Caitlin Kelly

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

From the Nieman Lab:

In addition to the broader survey data, researchers did deeper interviews with 23 millennials in three different locations around the country. Those interviews revealed a reluctance among some interviewees to pay for news online.

“I don’t think you should pay for news,” Eric, a 22-year-old Chicagoan, said. “That’s something everybody should be informed in. Like, you’re going to charge me for information that’s going on around the world?” And then there’s 19-year-old Sam from San Francisco: “I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news.”

A sample of 23 is small and not, per se, worth commenting on, but the larger report is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in the current production and consumption of news; as a career journalist, I am!

It’s no secret that journalism is in deep trouble a period of disruption as digital media have claimed readers and advertising dollars from print, whether newspapers or magazines.

In the year 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, (I lost mine in 2006), and many of them left the industry for good, fleeing to new careers if they could find one.

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

In nine days, my husband leaves his workplace of 30 years, The New York Times. He has loved it and is leaving by choice, having accepted a buyout package that will never again be as generous, and one we need to secure our retirement.

He’s had an amazing run — including photographing two Olympics, (Atlanta and Calgary), three Presidents, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war before working another 15 years as a picture editor inside the newsroom.

While he is retiring from the Times, he’s now seeking a new full-time position as it’s another decade before full-time retirement is an affordable option for us.

As two journos who’ve been doing this work since we were undergrads at college, (he in New Mexico, I in Toronto), we know what it still takes to produce quality journalism:

Money!

Talent

Software developers and designers

Time (to find and develop deeply reported stories)

A skilled team of tough editors — copy editors, section editors, masthead editors, photo editors

Photographers

Graphic designers and page designers

Reporters

Columnists

Paying subscribers and advertisers

Several major newspapers, as the Chicago Sun-Times did in 2013, have actually fired their entire photo staff and either relied on readers to submit their images or asked their writers to snap pix with their cellphones and/or shoot video while out reporting.

Madness. (Cheap, affordable, looks great to the bean-counters.)

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015, which I attended and reported on here at Broadside
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015, which I attended and reported on here at Broadside

One of the sad truths about technology is that it offers the misleading illusion of ease — i.e. ready access = skill.

Nope.

Thousands of people now style themselves as writers and photographers simply because they can hit “publish” on their home keyboard or snap some cellphone pix and upload them to Instagram.

It’s a fallacy, and one that journalism doesn’t help by keeping its production line, and the costs of hiring and retaining quality, essentially invisible to its consumers.

Do you trust the media? Should you?
Do you trust the media? Should you?

I think most of us realize that the steak we eat or the car we drive or the table we sit at are all products of a long production line of design, growth, production, manufacturing and distribution. We know they are businesses whose role is to earn profit.

Not so much for the naive/ignorant who think “news” is something that magically just appears on their Twitter feed or Facebook pages.

But the move is toward mobile consumption of news, as this 2013 Poynter Institute report explained:

This is why news organizations should shift to a mobile-first approach immediately. This doesn’t mean we ignore the desktop, but prioritize mobile over it — make mobile the default everything. When brainstorming a new product, start with a phone or tablet design and work backwards to the desktop. Set performance goals based on mobile performance over desktop. Conduct research that emphasizes mobile over desktop behavior. Put mobile numbers at the top of analytics reports. Compare competitive performance on mobile numbers first, desktop second. We need to immerse ourselves in devices and become a student of the industry…

Above all, we need to invest and experiment like never before. Whatever you’re spending now, triple it.

“When the Web was new, many of us went online with creativity and energy,” says Regina McCombs, who teaches mobile at Poynter. “Now, faced with even bigger potential and pitfalls for developing — or losing — our audience, most of us are getting by with as little investment as we can. That’s scary.”

Voters, readers, viewers, listeners, the curious and engaged — in order to learn what’s happening in the world, whether in our town or 12 times zones distant — still need smart, tough, skilled, disengaged, (i.e.  as objective as possible), trained and ethical reporters with boots on the ground.

Noooooo. Don't take my job away!!!!
Noooooo. Don’t take my job away!!!!

While the Associated Press is now using robots to write sports and business stories, many of us still want our news, whether consuming or producing it, to come from real people with real editors who will question their facts and assumptions hard before publication or broadcast.

In an era of racing to clickbait, it’s even more essential — (she harrumphed)–  to have some clear idea where the “news” is coming from and through what lenses and filters.

Here are six ways that digital journalism differs from print, from Contently; one of them, written with chilling casualness, by a young digital journalist:

The sourcing requirements for print outlets can be so stringent that I often joke a print writer must quote a professional astronomer before claiming that the sun will rise in the morning. Yet online, authors are commonly allowed—and even expected—to exert their own authority. And even when they cannot claim to be experts, many bloggers use their inexperience as a way to write from the perspective of a novice.

Again, this comes down to speed. Online writing has such different sourcing standards than print because it’s much easier to hyperlink to source material instead of explicitly attributing and fact-checking information.

The bold face above is mine — this is exactly my point.

I have zero interest in the “perspective of a novice”, for fucks’ sake.

On Isis? On the economy? On climate change?

And fact-checking? Yes, I want that, too. (Many of my magazine pieces are still subject to independent fact-checking.)

“Free” or cheap news doesn’t mean, or guarantee, excellent.

 

 

 

 

This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)

Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)

The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

— Offer some helpful sources

— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

— Question your logic and story structure

— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.