Reporting a big story — a how-to

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The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t reveal the details for a few months, but for those of you interested in how big newspaper or magazine stories come to be…

I’ll be doing a fair bit of my reporting on-site, these days a luxury.

After months of editorial rejections, I found an outlet interested in the subject.

So it all starts with an editor saying yes to an assignment, agreeing to a length, fee and deadline, and the scope of the work.

A lot of my recent work has been frustratingly short — pieces of 300 or 500 or 1,300 words. Journalism — Dickensian! — usually pays by the word, so you can immediately see why a 3,500 word story is, in some ways, more valuable, even if it takes a lot longer to produce.

And today “longform” can be as short as 1,500 words, which barely scratches the surface of any complex topic.

To even begin setting up interviews with the right people — as you always have somewhat limited time — means visualizing the many pieces of the story:

 

Who are the primary characters? Secondary? Tertiary?

What powerful visual scenes can I offer readers to get into the story and keep following it to the end?

What about anecdotes?

Data and statistics?

Podcasts on the subject?

What else has been written about it?

How should it be illustrated visually — graphics? charts? maps? Photos? Illustrations?

Does it also need a video component?

Is there film, video and audio of the subject and its experts?

What about their tweets or YouTube videos or TED talks?

Books and white papers and academic studies to read?

 

Essential to the process is simply understanding the scope of the story….and sometimes that means finding a few generous insiders, often fellow journalists on the ground who are expert on the topic, to help orient you. Much as this is a very competitive business, I’ve been fortunate so far on this one to have gotten some extremely helpful insights from the beginning.

As you start to contact sources, especially experts, there’s a bit of an unspoken game happening as, when you speak to them, they’re taking your measure — are you smart? respectful? well-prepared? Are your questions incisive or banal?

I recently spoke to a major source who suggested I speak to X and Y, major players in the field. When I told them I already have an interview set up with them soon, I knew I had won some more of this source’s confidence in me — and they sent me a tremendous list of new contacts and background reading.

Every interview is in some way an audition for the next — if a source decides you have enough street cred, they’ll refer you on to well-placed others they know can be helpful as well. Or not! It’s a bit like walking out onto ice, knowing it can crack or continue to support you on your journey.

 

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

 

Especially now — in an era when the cynical scream Fake News! and yet every journalist I know lives in mortal fear of losing their job — being transparent about our methods and motivations is more important than ever,

When I speak to “civilians” — regular people who don’t have a PR firm or communications team, or who have never spoken to a journalist before — I’m careful to explain, before we start an interview, the rules of engagement:

I need to identify them fully.

I will quote their words unless before they speak we agree that those words are off the record.

They will not get to read my story ahead of publication but I will make sure to clarify anything I am not sure I understand.

So far I’ve done a few 60 to 90 minute phone interviews to better understand this story and am now setting up dozens of additional ones, some face to face whenever possible, some by Skype and phone. The worst is email, since it doesn’t create the spontaneity of conversation.

By the time I’m done, I expect to have spoken to dozens of people and read a few books on it; some of those people won’t be quoted or visible to the reader, but their ideas and insights have helped to guide me.

 

Then…oh yeah, writing!

 

Stop Lying About Your Journalism 'Credentials'!

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...
Ride that pony, kids...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Today’s New York Times carries the weekly column on ethics and standards by the paper’s columnist, Clark Hoyt.

Last week, The Times parted company with Joshua Robinson, a prolific young freelancer who represented himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer…

Robinson, two years out of college and highly regarded by Times editors for whom he has freelanced, said that he never connected his Times work with the approach he made to airline magazines seeking free international travel in exchange for articles and photos. He said he called himself “a reporter for The New York Times” — which he is not — only to establish his “street cred” with those he was soliciting, and not to imply he was on the newspaper staff.

“It was an honest mistake,” he told me. “To me, this was so far removed from anything I do for The Times, it didn’t seem applicable.”

Get a grip, kid. Really. There are dozens, likely hundreds of freelance writers who produce copy for the Times who refrain from using the paper as an artificial crutch. Yes, it’s a nice clip and gives us street cred. But not because we lie about our relationship to the paper; we’re a “freelancer for the Times” or “a regular contributor”.

Using the word “reporter”, as anyone knows, implies something else, better and more prestigious. Very few journalists will ever get an interview at the Times, let alone a job offer. Those who do get hired — contrary to many fantasies — tend to keep their noses very, very clean. They like their job, the salary, the prestige and access it affords, their colleagues. Some are also still protective of the larger organization, loyal to larger notions of what a newspaper still is or should be or can be. Or just to the Times itself.

I’ve twice in 20 years made errors that had an editor there call me, demanding an answer and a correction — now. I know the pressures that editors are under and how incredibly difficult it  can be to gain and keep their trust. I’d already written many, many pieces for the paper when I approached a new-to-me editor a few years ago who said, “Well, it’s a bit of a risk.” I’ve gone on to write a lot for this person and we’ve enjoyed a collegial relationship. I didn’t like the apprehensiveness about my skills, but I understood it.

That’s how they think. That’s how a freelancer needs to think about working freelance with anyone there, as a writer, illustrator, photographer. It’s not all about you.

This crap gives freelancers a bad name, one we already have with many people who just assume “You’re too lousy to get a real job.”

We all know that Times‘ clips can open some terrific new doors, inside and outside of the paper; I got yet another email yesterday from a younger writer desperate to write for them and eager for my contacts there. I’m proud of my work for the paper — and stupid and unethical behavior, by any writer, makes me nuts.

It will also make my life with them a lot more annoying as every editor will now feel compelled to climb up my rear with a flashlight to make sure I’m not being deceptive with them and my sources.

When outright lying about your affiliations — which you know full well adds deceptive value to your brand — doesn’t “seem applicable”, it’s time to think about what “applicable” means.

Everyone but you?

Should Only 'Real Journalists' Report Dangerous Foreign Stories? Define 'Journalist'

A general view of the abandoned conflict zone ...
A conflict zone in Sri Lanka, Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

I’ve blogged here several times about Amanda Lindhout, a young woman from Alberta who was kidnapped and tortured over a period of 15 months in Somalia while reporting a story there, recently released.

The New York Times’ Canadian stringer, Ian Austen, took a look at Lindhout’s slim resume and credentials this week and raised the question — should anyone with ambition and a plane ticket call themselves a journalist and head for the nearest hot spot?

Like the word “art” or “antique”, “journalist” is a word with no clear, precise or official definition. It’s also a handy title stretched mighty thin, claimed because they can by armies of people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, are stringing for teeny, tiny news outlets paying them pennies and who place themselves in harm’s way and expect their government, or families, or news outlets (who don’t think enough of them to actually put them on staff and thereby take some responsibility for them) to come rescue them.

We’ve all met them while we’re out on assignment, shrugged off their hopeless newbie-ness and moved on with our own work. But it’s one thing in Brooklyn, quite another in Baghdad.

This question of credentialing and clips is a fair question, for a number of reasons. Even the most seasoned, savvy and prepared of journalists — and photographers and cameramen — can face very real danger when reporting overseas, as The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and The New York Times’ David Rhode found out. Those backed by the money, power and arguable political clout of a major media organization can afford, and pay thousands of dollars to, their fixers, interpreters, bodyguards, people who know the local territory, customs and can usually read the signs of danger. The rest are on their own, to their own detriment, as Lindhout discovered.

Anyone who’s spent most or all of their life in a nation not at war or scraping through the aftermath of a natural disaster really can’t imagine the terror or the insanity of what happens when even basic infrastructure just doesn’t work anymore.

I caught the last commercial flight out of Caracas’ airport in December 1999 after a landslide devastated the area around that city. It’s difficult to convey the horror I saw and felt — a six-lane highway that had become a lake of brown water; entire hillsides scraped bare of their homes, and residents. I made the United flight back to New York with eight minutes to spare, it had been so challenging to even get to the airport by one bus and two taxis due to the flooding.

The friend I’d traveled with, both of us as couriers (i.e. not holding our own tickets) was trapped for days and had to be rescued, with many locals, by the Venezuelan navy. She suffered PTSD for months as a result.
And that was a vacation that went very badly wrong — not something we deliberately sought out.

Someone like Lindhout, who hungered for adventure and clips like hundreds of others have done before her, had no journalism training, few clips, little prep and no such institutional backup. It’s scary, and difficult, enough with that backup.

My partner — who is letting me tell his story with great reluctance, as so many colleagues have faced this, or worse — was sent for six weeks at Christmas to Bosnia to photograph it for the Times. I tell his story not because he wants credit, (he hates this sort of attention), but because it details some of what can happen with the best of prep and training.

He twice found himself in serious danger. He had never done an overseas war assignment, but knew enough, and, perhaps most crucially, consulted colleagues with this sort of experience, to take energy bars, water, warm clothes, sleeping bag and a Kevlar vest issued by the Times — and an enormous metal carabiner, a climber’s clip he picked up at the checkout counter on impulse. One colleague told him to stop shaving, which he did, so he would blend in better with the locals. He could not shower or bathe for two weeks. One night he slept, in his sleeping bag, inside a shipping container, this in a Balkan winter.

He also knew the Times could, and would, do whatever was necessary to help. It was still a deeply harrowing experience.

That carabiner — now our family talisman of good luck — saved his life and that of the Times correspondent and their female intepreter, caught at dusk on a crowded, narrow road, their rental car stuck in the snow. A UNHCR truck came by and towed them to safety, clipping their car to a cable to their truck thanks to that carabiner. He spent many weeks, like many others there, bitterly cold and often hungry. No one there, in most situations, cared about his credentials or experience. In those places and times, when even food or clean water or a warm, dry, safe bed are hard to find, it’s every man, and woman, for himself.

Lindhout’s family had begged for help from the Canadian government for months, in vain.

Many young journalists make their names, and their careers, doing good work in dangerous places. Every serious news outlet still hungers for live, detailed, color-filled reporting from someone they trust. News isn’t just what a faceless blogger in-country tells us it is. It still, for many editors and producers, relies on the bravery of prepared, trained, savvy journalists they know, have vetted and trust — whether they are freelance or staff, 22 or 62 — to go get it.

But what of the young, ambitious and ill-prepared? Should Lindhout have even gone to Somalia?