Why emotional armor is useful now

 

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the things that marks a hard news journalist is that, for better or worse,  we wear, and take pride in wearing, a sort of emotional armor.

I started my professional writing career at 19 and even then was assigned some emotionally difficult work — like a story for a national Canadian women’s magazine interviewing women much older than I who had survived harrowing experiences: one whose house burned down, one who had a double mastectomy and one whose husband died in front of her.

It was tough!

But I did it  — turning down offers of well-paid work is dicey when you work freelance.

The very nature of hard news journalism — whether you’re writing or editing or taking photos or video  — means you’ve chosen to cover the world and the many things that happen to other people, some of which are simply horrific and traumatic, for them and for us.

The biggest stories, the ones that make front page or gain millions of page views online, are often the ones that can also exact a heavy toll on the people producing them, no matter how calmly they appear on-camera or taking notes.

 

01- NM Prison Riot-J.R. LopezJose Lopez (my husband) at 23, on assignment, decades before we met

 

27- NM Prison Riot-J.R. Lopez

The interior of the prison after a riot and many murders

 

Jose covered the worst prison riot in New Mexico’s history as a news photographer.

I’ll spare you the details of what transpired, but they are the stuff of horror films.

It traumatized him, but he had chosen to become a news photographer, and it can come with the territory.

In later life, for The New York Times, he spent six weeks in the winter covering the end of the Bosnian war. His Christmas meal was a bowl of soup and one night he even slept in an unheated shipping container. When he finally left, initially flying into Frankfurt, he remained scared to be out after dark, his protective war instincts still functioning.

By definition, stories like this push us without warning or preparation into frightening, even horrifying situations, while demanding we  shove our personal reactions — fear, anxiety, grief, despair, confusion — into a sort of lead-lined box so we can pay full attention to our work. To witnessing and reporting what we have been sent to cover. To telling the story accurately and in detail.

The day before my driving test, age 30, I covered the aftermath of a head-on collision between a bus and a small car on a Montreal bridge. I’d like to forget what I saw decades ago, and cannot.

My editors told me I was the only reporter to have gotten close enough to the wreckage to get the make and model of the car.

 

Mine explosion on road
01/03/96–On Military Route “Arizona”– An anti-personnel mine explodes after it was safely detonated by members of the Croatian army. Soldiers from the Croatian army were clearing the mines along this route that the US Military will use when they take up the peace keeping duties. According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, a report in 2015 stated, “Of the total number of affected communities 1,369 communities are contaminated by mines, while 60 communities are contaminated by cluster munition (of which 31 communities have combined contamination of landmines and cluster munition). “

Not really “another day at the office”…

 

I’ve cried maybe once while in public covering a story, (the funeral of a young girl who was raped and murdered in Toronto), and have since covered many stories that left me shaken and upset, sometimes as upset as the people I spoke to — like those I wrote after 9/11 and a Canadian national magazine story about women who had suffered a severe side effect from taking the drug Mirapex.

The larger challenge, and burnout and PTSD are very real in our industry, is if, when and how we do finally acknowledge and process those complex emotions.

I’ve never studied journalism and have never been trained in trauma reporting. which de facto means  you’re asking people who have faced trauma — rape, war, conflict, natural disaster, a shooting — to discuss it in detail with you, a stranger they have never met before.

But I’ve done a lot of it and I know it’s changed me. I don’t think for the worse, but it does stiffen the spine and harden your heart. I don’t mean you stop caring or don’t feel compassion for the people you are writing about.

It does mean, to stay sane and productive, especially on tight deadlines, having the ability and self-discipline to create and maintain a critical, detached distance from whatever is distressing — physically, emotionally and intellectually. No matter how terrible the details, we need to learn and share them.

So it’s one of the reasons I miss being around other career journalists, because we all know what the work requires and there’s an unspoken sort of code about it all.

It’s not really like most other jobs in this respect.

 

Jose and I were talking about this in regards to our unusually phlegmatic reaction to the endless death rate from COVID.

 

We sleep well at night.

We nap.

We don’t spend a lot of time discussing it, or listening to (in fact, actively avoiding)  Trump — because there’s nothing we can do right now to change any of it.

I see a lot of people complaining, daily, that they suffer insomnia, anxiety, grief.

If you’ve lost your job, income and housing, I get it!

If you’ve lost someone to this terrible disease, I get it!

But if you’re marinating in anxiety, I question the utility.

We can, unless we are in truly dire shape, control our moods and reactions.

I have since posting this been told that many people with chronic anxiety are managing this with much greater difficulty and this post seems unfeeling or uncaring about their issues.

We all handle things differently.

 

I leave this medical insight here as well, from The New York Times:

 

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.

“The stress of Covid-19 is now acute, but if it persists long after April, which it likely will, it will take an enormous toll on world health,” Mr. Ropeik said.

Thus, in addition to heeding the recommended personal precautions to avoid an infection, people feeling unduly stressed about the pandemic might try to minimize the damage caused by unmitigated anxiety.

A psychotherapist I know has advised his patients to limit their exposure to the news and discussions about Covid-19 to one hour a day and, if possible, in only one location, then use the rest of the day and other parts of the home for productive or pleasurable activities.

 

 

 

 

 

The writing life, of late

IMG_6211

My big story, January 2020 — three months’ reporting, 30 sources.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to Twitter, of all things, my recent writing work has been plentiful, interesting and decently-paid.

I have no explanation for it, certainly in a year of enormous job loss for so many, but this year is proving far better than 2019 for me in steady work income.

I make my living writing journalism, content marketing and coaching other writers ($250/hour) through phone, Skype or, in happier times, face to face in New York City.

Recent work has included producing a series of blog posts, like this one, for the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest devoted to fighting pancreatic cancer, after its communications officer found me on Twitter and asked if I’d like to do some writing for them.

Another Twitter pal, based in London, recommended me to his editor in (!) Helsinki, which produced this piece, a profile of a corporate executive at a Finnish energy company. I know, sounds snoozy! But she was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the project.

Chasing money is an annoying part of my work, and that’s sucked up a lot of energy as well, with late payments from several sources — some $5,000 worth. No one wants to be a nag or a pest, but the bills don’t wait! Before the crash of 2008, I had a $20,000 line of credit with my bank and that made late payments less stressful — the bank killed it, with no warning or explanation, that year. Managing cash flow is every freelancer’s greatest challenge, since the economy remains tediously predicated on a 1950s model of payment showing up in our bank accounts on a regular, predictable and consistent schedule.

We wish!

I keep trying to add more energy to my book proposal, but reporting is only best done face to face — and that now feels largely impossible. Very frustrating. It’s an idea focused on New York City, so I need to start making calls to see if anyone will even meet with me now.

Awaiting news of a grant application for $11,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts for another book project.

Still reaching out to new-to-me editors I’d like to write for at a few sections of The New York Times, Domino magazine (print) and the Weekend FT.

Also emailed a new content marketing opp — a magazine published for a major car manufacturer — and spoke by phone for 45 minutes with another potential client.

So much of a writer’s work, working for income, is seeking, finding and vetting new would-be collaborators. Do you like them? Are they ethical? Do they pay well? Do they pay quickly? Does the content actually interest me enough to commit to doing it well?

It’s a highly competitive business, but you have to know your value and always be your own best advocate.

I had a long conversation recently with a 26-year old freelance writer who’s fed up, as we all are now, with common (appalling) pay rates of $400 for a reported story — which would easily have paid $1,000 or more a few years ago.

 

Freelance journalism, as she said to me and I’ve said to many, has become an expensive hobby.

 

Which is ironic and terrible, since we need smart, deep analysis now more than ever — and it’s increasingly concentrated in the well-paid hands of a few staff writers. This is not good.

And this looks like it’s not going to change anytime soon.

I easily made two to three times my income in the 90s producing only journalism, as pay rates were much higher and demand as well. Some people, with specialized skills or very strong editorial relationships, are still making very good money, but if you want a glamorous, high profile clip from Conde Nast or Hearst the contract will be brutally demanding of all rights and expose you to total liability.

No thanks!

Content marketing requires the same skills — interviewing, research, reporting, writing, revising. But the end user is different, and the tone can reflect that and, some won’t carry my byline, like the Lustgarten posts.

As long as the pay is good and quick, management smart and the work interesting, that’s a lot!

 

It’s just paper and words

 

IMG_5361

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.

None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.

No travel.

A good long time to reflect.

And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.

I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.

It’s not Art or Literature.

It’s just journalism.

I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.

But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?

I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?

Did it help anyone?

How?

I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.

But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.

The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!

 

We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.

We love finding and telling stories to strangers.

We see story ideas everywhere.

We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.

 

 

Water dripping on stone

IMG_5361

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve always — imagine! — been impatient.

Have always hoped, somehow, my journalism would make a difference to the world, to its readers, maybe even to voters or policy-makers.

In my early 20s, I tackled a grim and difficult and important story, the testing of cosmetics and other products on animals. I won’t detail what I saw, but I never forgot it, and to see that as a young person is to be changed. I wrote it for a brave editor, the late and much missed Jane Gale Hughes, whose Canadian national magazine — as small in size and apparently unsubstantial as a TV Guide — was called Homemakers.

Its name was misleading, suggesting anodyne chitchat.

Quite the opposite!

Jane, extremely rare for any editor who hopes to keep their job, had to fight the advertising department because, of course, the advertisers of the products being tested would object and pull their lucrative ads.

The ads whose revenue paid her salary and my freelance work for her.

She ran my story anyway and I’m really proud of it and grateful for her belief in me as a younger journalist to produce it.

This tension between money and truth-telling never goes away.

In 2005-6, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest paper, I did a huge investigation of the cruise ship industry.

What I learned persuaded me to never take a cruise.

Of course, the editor refused to run my stories — for fear of losing their ad dollars. They finally ran one-half of my work.

 

Journalism matters!

 

Every story that digs deeply.

Every press conference — pure theater! — during which smart journalists ask challenging, tough questions, even in the face of sneers, insults, pompous political lectures and hostility.

It all adds up.

It must.

Jose and I are soon at the tail end of long and challenging and satisfying careers in journalism. We remain deeply passionate about the need for intelligent, analytical, critical reporting on  every aspect of life.

But both of us were cautioned — long ago — to remember that even a lifetime of our committed excellence, even for the largest and most influential outlets, and all the work of all our talented colleagues, is the equivalent of water drops on stone.

One at a time.

Each story — each image — only a drop.

How can it matter?

Drop after drop — repeated over and over and over and over — as we and others continue the work, and stone wears away.

 

The freelance writing life

IMG_5878

 

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.)

 

 

IMG_5361

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.

 

IMG_6211

 

— 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!

 

IMG_2383

— 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.

 

IMG_3977

 

— 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

mine sign in field
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.

 

IMG_2383

 

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.

 

 

How journalism happens

IMG_5746

Written by a documentary film-maker, daughter of the late, great NYT journalist David Carr

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s ironic — we each have more access now, thanks to the Internet, to thousands of media sources from across the globe than ever before.

Yet I see such tremendous ignorance of what journalism is.

What we do. Why we do it. What we earn. Our many constraints and challenges.

So, as we close out this decade, this is my stake in the ground, a sort of Media 101. (If this is all overly familiar, sorry!)

 

IMG_4597

 

Where does a “news” story come from?

The textbook definition of news means it’s new (something we haven’t seen or heard before); it affects the outlet’s audience (whether local, regional, national or global); it affects someone wealthy or powerful (a sad metric, but often used); it marks a significant change from prior experience; a natural disaster; a major crime.

It also, ideally, covers all levels of government. Ideally, also we cover major issues like income inequality/poverty, health, education, environment, etc.

Do journalists pay their sources?

No. This is common in some British tabloids, but not in North America, where it’s taboo. It demands cooperation from sources, yes, but it means (ideally!) that money doesn’t buy access or coverage.

Do sources pay to be in a story?

No! There is now the absurd belief — based on “journalism” like Forbes’ blogs — that you just pay to play. I’ve been offered payment many times by sources to write about them. Unscrupulous journalists accept, creating the fantasy this is normal. It is not.

 

 

IMG_6011

 

How do I know who or what to trust?

This is now a huge and troubling issue — I recently attended a powerful and sobering event at the New York HQ for Reuters, with terrific panelists addressing this very question.

The first speaker, who flew in from London, showed the audience five videos and asked us to vote on whether they were fake or real. Some were fake, and so carefully created it was really difficult to tell.

In an era of such deceptive deepfakes, question carefully!

 

Who writes the headlines?

Not the reporters! Every outlet has a series of editors above the reporters and they will oversee the headlines and write them. No reporter writes their own headlines; freelancers can and do suggest one when pitching, and some will be kept.

Same for book titles; I named my first book and my editor (thankfully!) named my second.

Who writes the captions for photos?

Editors. Sometimes the photographer.

 

How much do reporters make?

Hah! So much less than people imagine. In 2019, the American average was $40,081. To put this into context, I earned $45,000 as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette  — in the 1980s. If you’re fortunate enough to get hired by a major national outlet, like Reuters wire service or The New York Times, you might get $90,000 or more.

How much do TV reporters make?

A lot more, depending if regional or national. Those working at the national level — sometimes more experienced and skilled — will make more. Locally, $56,455.

 

malled cover LOW

 

How much do authors make?

Some, millions. Some, pennies!

There are many, many tiers of book publishing, from academic houses to small indies to the mega’s like Simon & Schuster or Harper Collins, able to offer enormous advances to those they think worth the investment — like Michelle and Barack Obama, who got (reportedly) $65 million.

An “advance” may be divided into three or four parts: one on signing the deal, one on acceptance of the manuscript; one on publication and one (!) a year or more after publication. Hardly “advance”!

Every payment will likely lose 15 percent off the top to the agent who sold it.

Every book sold means more money, right?

Nope.

If your advance is $100,000, you must “earn out” that sum before getting another dime from the publisher.

And the game is rigged, since every book sold does not give the author the cover price!

We get eight percent of the retail price.

So this belief that a TV or radio or podcast appearance means a huge boost to our income from our books is wishful fantasy.

What exactly do TV and radio producers do?

There are “bookers” and producers who find and pre-interview people they think will be good on-air. You may have noticed a predominance of white men. People with no discernible accent.

 

IMG_5361

 

How do people actually end up getting interviewed by the media?

A variety of ways. Some have in-house communications departments or PIOs (public information officers) to handle requests formally. Some have a public relations firm pumping out press releases all the time! Some know a journalist or producer personally.

If it’s a major news event, like a shooting or natural disaster, we speak to as many people there as possible — traumatic for them, often.

 

How do you get access to documents?

Some use a Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — to get at them. It’s been in American law since 1967, the legal right to access any document from any federal agency.

Sometimes we get them offered to us by an internal whistle-blower.

 

How are freelance writers paid?

Bizarrely, by the word. Sometimes a flat fee. These range from $150 to $10,000 or more. No rules. No guidelines. It’s every-man-for-himself. So a story of 500 words at .50 cents per word will pay less than a magazine piece at $2/word for 3,000 words.

We are not paid until the story is accepted — and that can take months. It’s a huge problem.

Stories also get “killed” — not used and maybe not even paid for, maybe 25 percent of the original fee.

 

A glossary:

 

Hed

The headline.

Sub-hed

A sub-heading within the body of a story, often used to break up copy and keep the reader moving.

Pull-quote or call-out

A phrase or quote that’s memorable, meant to entice the reader into the story.

Dek

A brief description of the story.

Lede

The first sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Kicker

The final sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Graf

A paragraph.

The 5 W’s and H

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How….every story should answer these.

B-roll

Images to illustrate a TV story or video that aren’t the main event. Sometimes shot in advance.

Nut graf

High up in a story, the graf that explains why the story is even worth reading.

Explainer

A detailed story to explain a complicated issue.

Presser

A press conference.

On the record

Everything you say is now for permanent, public consumption. (Off the record means it’s not — but only if you preface your remarks with this phrase, not afterward.)

What does it take to do good journalism?

thumbnail-5

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I know two people right now whose teenagers, both from very privileged backgrounds, are eager to become journalists.

They like to write and are determined and curious.

Good start!

But the sheer number of factors and skills — soft and hard — that allow for decent journalism go far far beyond knowing or liking how to write.

Like:

Knowing how to listen, carefully and attentively, to everyone you interview — whether face to face, by Skype or phone. Email is the worst because you have no way of knowing who actually wrote it. Listening carefully is tiring and difficult sometimes. Without it, we get nothing of value.

Knowing how to make total strangers feel (more) at ease with us. This runs both ways, as it can be also be highly manipulative. But unless we can get people we’ve never met, and who may be very different from us in education, ethnicity, race, religion or political views, to open up, we’ve got nothing. This requires the ability to tune into others quickly and effectively.

Knowing how hard it is to get a job anywhere but in three expensive major cities.

The journalism job hunt can be particularly challenging between the coasts. Last year, Emma Roller, 30, took a buyout after working as a politics writer for the website Splinter, which was part of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group. She got married and moved from Washington to Chicago to be closer to family. But as she looked for a new job, she found many positions required that she live in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

 

— Knowing you’ll even have a job a week or a month later. Not a joke. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs — and 2019 has been a bloodbath.

 


 

IMG_4597

 

Knowing what makes a story compelling. You can waste a lot of time and energy — yours and theirs — asking stupid or irrelevant questions. Know what your readers/audience care most about. Get that.

Knowing when to stop digging, and when to dig harder. Too many lazy, tired and overworked journalists, mostly digital, are merely rewriting press releases or aggregating others’ work. But when you’re reporting a real story, you have limited time and budget to get it. What’s key? What haven’t you understood fully yet?

— Knowing that some stories are going to harm us, physically and/or emotionally. For every corporate blablabla “profile”, there’s a powerful and important story being reported about rape, sexual abuse, violence, crime, gun massacres, war…These are the stories that can boost a writer’s career but at a significant cost in secondary trauma.

— Knowing we represent our audience. Too many journalists think it’s all about them. They preen on social media and prize their thousands of “followers”….and say nothing interesting. The job of a journalist is to dig, question, challenge authority and be accurate.

— Knowing our work has consequences. For better or worse. If someone cannot be safely identified as a source, you don’t do that.

There’s a new (to me!) six-part UK TV show, “Press” I just started watching, about the values and ethics and behaviors of two rival newspaper staffs, both their reporters and the editors who tell them what to do.

It’s got a lot of truth in it.

Home again

thumbnail-5

Much catching up to do!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I hadn’t been gone that long — 23 days — since my six-week vacation in Europe in the summer of 2017, a big splurge worth every penny.

This trip to Canada involved stops in six cities and towns, and eight places I laid my head at night. Jose and I drove up to Ontario from Tarrytown and worked together on a story for the first time, he taking photos and I doing many interviews.

We were lucky and grateful to stay with friends in four of these, saving money on food and lodging and enjoying renewing our friendships. I only get back to Toronto maybe once a year.

Jose drove home and back to work, then I had a solo week in Toronto, meeting with some very high level sources, so was a bit nervous but it went well. The final four days were time to relax and enjoy the city: St. Lawrence Market, a great Italian restaurant called Terroni and three new younger women friends I met at Fireside.

On top of that, I was dealing with a topical treatment for a skin cancer on my right shin, gout (!) and joint pain from the medication I have to take to reduce the risk of another breast cancer. And 80-degree heat.

But I soldiered on.

 

thumbnail-7

A view of Niagara Falls as our bus headed south to the train

 

The pain in my leg was excruciating — so this week, at home I finally saw the doctor to find my leg was infected, hence terrible pain. Now on antibiotics.

Home, grateful for silence and my daily and weekly routines.

I’ve lived in this one-bedroom apartment half my life now, but I am always glad to return to it.

 

thumbnail-6

Somewhere in upstate New York — it’s a 13-hour journey from Toronto, with two of them spent at the U.S. border — but some of it is gorgeous!

 

Home nurtures me for the next adventure!

The art of interviewing: 11 tips

IMG_1486By

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been interviewing people for a living — journalistically — for decades.

These include the former female bodyguard for New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on 9/11 (global exclusive), a female Admiral, Olympic athletes, an NHL coach, convicted felons and just regular people, aka “civilians”, people who may never before have spoken to a journalist and realized that every word counts.

My 11 tips:

Always start and end with a sincere thank-you for their time and attention.

 

Very few people have to speak to us, and for some, it can feel like an ordeal. The more warm, empathetic and human you are, the better it will go. Yes, some interviews are very tough on the subject, even adversarial. That’s also our job. But being an efficient robot is rarely the best way to elicit great stuff.

 

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

 

Nothing is ruder than waltzing into someone’s home, office, or life without knowing who they are, why you are speaking to them and how they fit into your story. Do your homework! It shows respect and will, always, elicit a deeper, richer exchange as a result.

 

Consume everything you can on this person before you speak so you’re easily able to reference their books, videos, TED talks, podcasts, essays, journal articles.

 

Obviously, if you’re writing 300 or 500 words, you can’t afford to do this. But a story of 1,000 words or more means digging deeper. Few moments are as flattering to an interview subject than letting them realize you’ve really done your prep on them and their ideas and accomplishments. Sometimes I go all the way back to college or high school yearbooks and friends from those years.

It only appears social.

 

A great interview can be conversational or feel like it. There are times I just lay down my pen and stop writing,  preferring just to listen, watch their body language and take a breather. I also, when it feels legitimate, may share a personal detail with them that’s relevant to the story and its focus. This can build trust. Why would anyone just spill it all to a stranger?

 

Allow at least 30 minutes unless you truly only need a very quick quote.

 

My interviews are routinely 30-45 minutes, often an hour, sometimes 90 minutes and (whew!) rarely, two hours. After that I am utterly whipped and so are they.

 

IMG_2383

One of my old notebooks — coffee stains and all!

Tape or take notes on paper or computer — whatever works best for you — as long as you are accurate!

 

Do what works for you. Fact-check!

 

Make sure, whenever possible, no one — pets, children, the mailman, an assistant, your cellphone — intrudes and interrupts.

 

This is a sacred space. Don’t check your phone! Create intimacy and trust. Focus.

 

Allow plenty of time beforehand, certainly when doing this face to face, to find the right place, settle in, use the washroom and steady your nerves.

 

We all have those “ohhhhhh shit!” moments — your kid melts down as you’re leaving the house, you feel ill, the bus/train/subway is slow or late or cancelled. Give yourself plenty of time to get calm. Your subject needs to feel confidence in you.

 

Ask them who else they consider essential for you (and your audience) to understand and explain the story properly.

 

If you’re done your job well, they’ll share some great intel they might not give someone less skilled.

 

 

IMG_4515

What’s the story’s direction?

If this feels comfortable, consider sharing the focus, length and direction of your story, and maybe some of the other sources you’re speaking to.

 

Some journalists totally refuse to do it. I do this, judiciously, for strategic reasons.

 

Ask them, at the end, what you failed to ask.

 

Always.

I also coach other writers to excellence for an hourly fee. Details here!