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Posts Tagged ‘journalists’

Getting the story is a story in itself

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, news, television on March 6, 2016 at 1:59 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The NYC food bank — which I saw last year while working on a story about it

I’ve been working as a journalist since my sophomore year of university; clips and details, here, at my website.

Decades later, despite the brutal disruption of our industry, I still write for a living.

Here’s a brand-new 36-minute podcast in which I describe how I conceive of, report and think through my stories and non-fiction books.

Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.

The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.

I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed.

The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.

Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.

And here’s an interview with Joshua Hammer, whose story about Ebola for the digital site Matter, a piece of 9,000 words, won him a 2016 National Magazine Award.

If you, or anyone you know is considering working as a journalist — or you’re just curious about the process — this film is truly a must-see.

It’s the only movie I know of that shows the daily minutiae of reporting and how long, slow and sometimes tedious it can be to get to the point of proof and publication.

One of the things I still admire about journalism, at its well-funded serious best, is its larger goal of public service; here are the recent winners of the George Polk Award, given each year to American journalists in all media for their investigative reporting.

And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.

Here’s a New York Times front page story about the death of one of them, a Syrian soldier who helped the Times tell the story of the mayhem happening in his country.

By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:

 

Someone gets an idea

It happens in a variety of ways.

It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.

It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.

It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist  — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.

It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.

Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.

Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.

Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.

A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:

a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?

The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.

Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.

Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.

I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.

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My desk — no news there!

What’s the story — and who cares?

Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.

We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)

As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?

Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?

Does it reflect a trend?

What expertise or insight can you bring to it?

Is it even really worth doing?

Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.

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We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client

Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.

But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?

If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.

What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.

Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.

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Time to make some money with your writing?

What’s the best way to tell this story?

One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?

This BBC video — of a former concentration camp in Germany — is astounding. The images were shot using a drone.

There are so many ways to present information.

The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.

How soon do we need to jump on it?

In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.

What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?

These New York City brothers were the subjects of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Who do we need to include to tell this story?

This is where so much journalism remains weak  — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few  women and/or people of color, as this story points out.

I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.

Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.

There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.

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Do we need to travel to do the best reporting possible? By helicopter? Bus? Military aircraft?

How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?

This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.

It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.

Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.

Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.

If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.

What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!

I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.

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A village in Nicaragua I visited for a story for WaterAid…no running water and no electricity

How much time before you’re done?

I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.

The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.

Does it make sense?

This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.

It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!

 

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On assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

 

The writer’s week

In behavior, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on February 23, 2016 at 5:06 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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An ongoing, occasional series, a glimpse into the life of a full-time freelance writer and career journalist…

It’s been a week!

And it’s only Tuesday

I spoke yesterday to a class of freshman students at New York University, invited by a friend, Sarah Dohrmann, a highly accomplished writer who’s been published in one of the Holy Grails of American journalism, Harper’s; here’s her story about Moroccan prostitutes.

She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!

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Jose (my husband, a freelance photographer) bought this book — I look forward to reading it!

One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.

So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.

It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.

We’re still figuring it out.

 

When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.

 

How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?

How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?

Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?

 

That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.

I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.

Rejection is normal.

 

If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.

 

Figure out what didn’t work and move on.

Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.

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My husband’s retirement cake; I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a former colleague)

We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!

 

 

Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.

Peace of mind.

I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — blogger Jen Iacovelli in the bow of a dugout canoe. This is where I was two years ago. Hungry for my next adventure!

I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.

Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.

Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.

That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.

In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.

One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.

The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.

We’re a tribe.

Without it, we’re toast.

 

 

 

How to conduct an interview: 10 key decisions

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, news, work on February 4, 2016 at 3:23 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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My recent interview with this author, posted here, was conducted by email, a Q and A

For those of you who work in journalism, or need to interview someone.

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. I interviewed 104 men, women and teens from 29 states.

For some people, the idea of actually having to question another human being is terrifying and which — to their professional detriment and the weakness of their stories — they try to avoid.

But very few pieces worth reading are constructed without interviews, whether they provide fantastic sound bites or simply (not simply!) the essential foundation for understanding a complex issue so you can explain it cogently to your readers.

I conduct many more interviews than may actually appear in my published stories; while I typically need three to four interviews per 1,000 words, that’s not a rule.

I’m writing a 900-word story this week and have already done more than 10 interviews, several of them 45 to 60 minutes each.

Why not use them all?

Sometimes the quotes are boring, but the information was important. Maybe what they said they sent me hurtling off in an unexpected, new direction.

Conducting an interview takes forethought, planning, skill and considerable emotional intelligence. You can’t just go down a laundry list of your questions and not, as it’s happening, respond and react to what you’re hearing.

In my 30 years as a journalist and author of two non-fiction books of national reporting, I’ve done hundreds, probably thousands, of interviews. I really enjoy them!

These have included a female admiral, a Prime Minister, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, crime victims and victims of torture. It doesn’t matter who you’re interviewing — what matters most is how you approach them and your time with them.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit. READ a lot. Be smart before you pick up the phone or send that email!

Do your damn homework!

Read as many boring long detailed government, policy, non-profit scientific or academic reports as needed before you start asking silly, elementary questions.

Watch videos and listen to broadcasts and podcasts on your subject so you know what the hell they’re talking to you about. Get up to speed!

Because every interview you conduct is a potential and crucial link in your reporting chain; if you impress each subject with your preparation and ability to handle yourself well, they can lead you to the next one, and possibly with a key introduction.

I’ve won national exclusives this way. We are being evaluated every single time. Never forget that.

It means paying careful attention.

 

First decision:

Who to speak to and why? What do you need from each person? How available are they — or will you get stuck with a spokesman from their PR department instead?

Second decision:

Will the interview be conducted by phone, email, Skype or in person?

In person is almost always the best, giving you a chance to closely observe their dress.  grooming, demeanor, reactions, silences, body language and surroundings. If by phone, be sure neither of you will be interrupted by pets, children, co-workers, and block out at least 15 minutes or more — you’ll get very little of value in only five minutes.

Some interviews work well by email, especially if your subject is traveling and/or in a distant time zone; the risk is that their replies will feel stilted or, worse, be written by someone who’s not your subject. Skype can work well for subjects too far away to reach in person or by phone.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes! Don’t forget “vox pops” — interviews with people in the street and those who have turned out for an event

Third decision:

What do you want from this interview? Facts? A great anecdote? A terrific quote? Confirmation of others’ opinions — or denial? Analysis of a complex issue?

Fourth decision:

Is this interview on the record — i.e. will you be able to quote this person and use their full name, age, location and profession? If not, you need to negotiate — before they begin to speak! — if they are speaking not for attribution, on background or off the record. Only before someone speaks should this agreement be made, not afterward when they suddenly regret something they have told you. Be sure you both understand the terms of the interview before you begin.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid, our trusty translator, Dixie, in the background

Fifth decision:

Take notes or tape? Both? Use a laptop for note-taking or pen and paper? To me, these are highly individual choices, although some clients will insist, as part of your contract, that you not only tape record but provide them with a full transcript of your notes. I use pen and paper. I find laptop note-taking noisy and intrusive. It’s important to be able to look your interview subject in the eye! Don’t be a robot.

Sixth decision:

What’s the tone and mood of your interview? Confrontational? Insistent? Humorous and relaxed? Deferential? Just because your topic is serious doesn’t mean you have to be leaden and tedious. Think through the best way to make your interlocutor feel most comfortable and go from there.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Will you share your secrets with me?

Seventh decision:

Where will you conduct the interview, if meeting in person? Ideally, their home or office, as a space potentially filled with intriguing clues about their interests and passions. But if they’re traveling or a celebrity, you’ll likely be stuck in a hotel room or restaurant.

Eighth decision:

How much time will you spend with them? I rarely allow less than 30 minutes for my interviews. It takes time for your subject to feel at ease with you and for you to develop some rapport with them. If you’re writing a profile of them, be prepared to spend a lot of time around them to get a feel for their character and behavior patterns — I once spent eight hours (four two-hour sessions) with one woman I was profiling (plus many additional hours speaking to her family, colleagues and former colleagues.)

Ninth decision:

When will you ask the tough(est) and most challenging questions? You can’t just wimp out for fear they’ll get angry or yell at you (they might) or hang up or say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!” While working on a fantastic national piece for the New York Daily News, I knew I’d hit pay dirt when a Homeland Security flack sneered: “There’s no story here!”

Structure your interview time thoughtfully and be sure to get those harder questions asked, even if you have to repeat them multiple times and/or rephrase them. Yes, typically, we save them for close to the end.

Tenth decision:

The snowball effect, it’s called in sociology. Ask: “Who else should I be speaking to next about this issue?” If you’ve done your homework, conducted the interview sensitively and intelligently, they’ve enjoyed it, and you, and will send you on to your next great source.

 

 Still need some help?

I coach individually at $225/hour, with a one-hour minimum, via phone or Skype, and also offer several terrific webinars, which we schedule at your convenience, at caitlinkelly.com/classes.

Why journalism still matters — go see “Spotlight”

In business, Crime, History, journalism, Media, movies, religion, U.S. on November 20, 2015 at 1:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Their clothes are drab, cheap, poorly- fitting.

All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.

Their work takes months.

Why on earth would this make a compelling film?

I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.

The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.

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The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.

The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure,  (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.

The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.

But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

It takes patience.

It takes persistence.

It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.

It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.

Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.

Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.

The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)

The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.

That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.

It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”

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Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?

Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)

I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.

I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!

I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.

It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.

I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.

When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.

I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.

If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!

 

Are reporters vultures — or just doing their job?

In behavior, blogging, business, Crime, culture, journalism, Media, news, television on October 4, 2015 at 1:32 pm

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?

The tribe meets…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on May 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book

My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.

photo(45)

People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

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

In business, culture, journalism, Media, Technology, television, work on March 22, 2015 at 11:42 am

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.

 

 

 

 

A very bad week for journalism

In behavior, business, journalism, Media, television, work on February 14, 2015 at 1:30 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

As I blogged here a few years ago, journalism — at best — is a tribe:

The tribe, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or nationality, has time-honored rituals, the shared and inevitable scars we’ve acquired and sometimes discuss over a beer in Berlin or at a conference in Boston or at a presser in Brooklyn or Doha. The breathtaking self-assurance of some, that so often spills over into arrogance, hides the truth we all really know. Every one of us will err, whether it shows up in the paper’s corrections box or remains a private and unresolved matter of conscience. Within this industry, at almost any level of the game, there’s daily doubt and fear, confusion and pain — and, sometimes, great, shared joy when we’ve done it well.

No matter where you live or what you earn, if you yearn to tell as many truthful, fact-based stories to strangers as possible, you share a passion with other journalists that’s hard to explain to everyone else. People I call “civilians.”

The military is like that, I hear, bound by codes of honor and behavior, of hazing and terror, that only initiates truly understand and share.

Some journalists write about technology, hanging out with guys in hoodies. Others work the frontlines of wars and conflicts.

But, whether we’re a fresh grad or a grizzled 50-year-old, we all know it’s damn hard to get and keep a good job in our field — i.e. one that pays more than $60,000,  (many earn in the mid-40s), and where your bosses are still somewhat decent human beings whose judgment you respect.

If you, like me, have been the J-game for a few decades, you’ve read, heard or watched the work of hundreds of other journalists, sometimes with irritation, sometimes with envy and deep admiration for their access, skill and visibility. Many flame out. Some go into public relations or teaching.

A very fortunate few, like Brian Williams, a television anchor, pull in a cool $10 million a year. Most of will be lucky to ever make six figures in any year.

In the year 2008, 24,000 of us lost our jobs, so anyone who has one, still, is damn lucky and we all know it.

The past week has been a shitshow for our industry.

The death — of all things, while riding in the back of a New York City limousine — of legendary, 72-year-old CBS News correspondent Bob Simon. A man who had covered the world and survived many harrowing and dangerous assignments.

The death of female, Canadian baseball writer Alison Gordon, at 72, who, in her off hours, played (of course) in a band. She was the first woman to cover Major League baseball, beginning in 1979. I was offered a sports reporting job in 1985 and said no. I knew how incredibly rough, then, that ride would have been for a woman trying to cover what was still very much a man’s world. (Sent to cover a major league hockey training camp then, I watched every man there get a complete press kit. “Oh, we’re all out!” I was told.)

“She was relentless,” said Lloyd Moseby, who played for the Jays throughout the 1980s. “A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure.”

images

The sudden death Thursday night of New York Times media columnist and author David Carr, at 58. He had just finished moderating a panel discussion next door in the Times’ auditorium, went upstairs to the newsroom and collapsed there. He died that evening in the hospital, leaving a wife and three daughters. Carr, probably the least likely writer to join the staff of the Gray Lady — as a former coke addict — won tremendous respect from his peers, there and elsewhere, for his crazy hard work, sense of humor and no-bullshit worldview. Covering other journalists and their companies is a gig many of us would happily avoid; we like to be the observed, not the publicly-pulled-to-pieces. And where would he go if he ever needed another job?

One of his many bons mots, (which so many of us long to shout!): “I don’t do corporate portraiture.”

My husband works at the Times and knew David there; one day he shared an elevator with him. “How are you?” asked Jose. “Happy!” Carr shouted.

That, so un-Timesian raucous and, always, real, was Carr.

Hundreds of his colleagues gathered in the NYT newsroom for an hour to pay tribute; Editor Dean Bacquet on the stairs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger in shirtsleeves standing; photo Jose R.Lopez

Hundreds of his colleagues gathered in the NYT newsroom for an hour to pay tribute; Editor Dean Bacquet on the stairs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger in shirtsleeves standing

photo by Jose R.Lopez

The newsroom filled at 3pm Friday for his colleagues’  many tributes to, and speeches about him, heartfelt laughter and tears. For a tough-minded, elbows-out culture like the Times, the outpouring of love and respect was unprecedented.

Here’s a lovely piece about him from The Globe and Mail (my first newspaper employer.) I’ve worked for three big dailies; Carr, more than many, knew and really appreciated what a fantastic, fun gig a newspaper job can be. I loved it and miss it terribly.

The firing of Jared Keller, the news director of Mic, a popular website, after charges of plagiarism. He had previously worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and the Atlantic — which is to say, for non-journos, he had already enjoyed a pretty nice career in an industry pretty much in chaos these days. Why blow it?

The six-month unpaid suspension of NBC News anchor Brian Williams, for his inability to clearly recollect memories others had to explain to him. I normally watched his show but was appalled when, in his nightly news broadcast, he mentioned his daughter, Alison Williams, a regular on the HBO series Girls, appearing in a show of Peter Pan — with no nod whatsoever to their family relationship. Seriously?!

Whose newspaper is it, anyway? The New York Times and the 1%

In business, culture, journalism, Media, Money, news, US on November 14, 2014 at 4:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

nyt

Loyal readers of The New York Times consider it one of the world’s greatest newspapers. Founded in 1851, today it’s read by millions of people worldwide thanks to its digital version. Some consider it the only news source they can rely on for accuracy and depth of reporting; others find its coverage of the world grotesquely skewed.

My husband and I — to use that classic American sports analogy — have skin in this game; I’ve been writing for the Times as a freelancer since 1990; my latest story for them, about Americans married to a foreign national who choose to retire overseas, runs in this weekend’s edition. My husband, a photo editor there, has been a staff photographer and photo editor for the Times for 30 years.

But the paper is now going through what one insider calls a “tectonic change” as it shifts increasingly to digital and prepares to rid itself of 100 staff. It’s offering them buyouts which must be accepted by December 1.

The Times is also shifting in the way it covers the world and, according to some, not for the better.

Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor — whose unenviable task it is to take her own employer to the woodshed within its pages — recently addressed the paper’s new and consistent attention to the concerns of the wealthiest:

I often hear about from readers who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.

It’s not hard to see why they feel that way. The featured apartments with their $10 million price tags and white-glove amenities seem aimed at hedge fund managers, if not Russian oligarchs. The stories on doughnuts at $20 a half dozen are for those who are flush with disposable income, not struggling to pay the rent. Many of the parties, the fashions, even the gadgets are well beyond the reach of the middle class.

It’s no secret that The Times often is intended to appeal to its many affluent readers and, at least sometimes, the advertisers who want to reach them. (Consider the ad-heavy special section produced twice a year and called, simply, “Wealth.”)

Claudia Griffiths, a reader in Maine, put it this way: “$160 flashlight and $219 level? Do the one percent of the one percent need your home-tool shopping help? Hello. Could the Times editors consider for WHOM they are actually writing? Here, not most Americans.”

I’ve lost patience with it, both as someone who wants to write about a broader and more diverse cross-section of sources, and as someone weary of other media outlets chasing down the wealthy and sucking up to them hard — from the FT’s (yes, this is really the name of their magazine), How to Spend It to The Robb Report to Town & Country, Tatler, you name it.

It’s so much more amusing for editors, writers and the advertisers of expensive goods they need to keep selling to coo over the cars/homes/furs/jewels of the filthy rich than contemplate the misery and frustration of the poor, let alone the struggling middle class, whose stagnant wages, stuck for decades at appallingly low levels in an era of record corporate profits, have left millions running as hard as they possibly can just to stay in place.

If a newspaper with the putative authority and depth of the Times keeps fawning over the rich — and just take a quick look at the quarter-page ads that run in it every day from Chanel, Cartier and other luxury goods purveyors — what signal does that send to the rest of us?

If the world’s soi-disant best newspaper barely looks at, let alone seriously addresses the underlying policy shifts that have created the worst income inequality in the U.S. since the Gilded Era more than a century agowho will?

Some people — and you may smile indulgently at their naievete and idealism, and yes, a career journalist I’m one of them — believe that journalism exists not merely as a megaphone with which to trumpet the “achievements” of the wealthy and powerful but to shine a light on the many interwoven reasons so many Americans languish in poverty.

(My last book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” talked in very real terms about what it’s like to live on low wages in the U.S. Only by working 2.5 years, even part-time, at $11/hour [a wage many employers here consider munificent] did I appreciate what a nightmare of a life it is.)

Jose and I read Neiman Reports, a magazine about the business of journalism, which last year addressed the paucity of poverty coverage by American journalists:

Nearly 50 million people—about one in six Americans—live in poverty, defined as income below $23,021 a year for a family of four. And yet most news organizations largely ignore the issue. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indexed stories in 52 major mainstream news outlets from 2007 through the first half of 2012 and, according to Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director, “in no year did poverty coverage even come close to accounting for as little as one percent of the news hole. It’s fair to say that when you look at that particular topic, it’s negligible.”

Instead, as Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans notes, at most news organizations poverty comes up sporadically. “Poverty becomes a sort of ‘very special episode’ of journalism that we sort of roll out every so often,” he says.

The reasons for the lack of coverage are familiar. Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than those struggling to pay bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment. Yet persistent poverty is in some ways the ultimate accountability story—because, often, poverty happens by design.

“Poverty exists in a wealthy country largely as a result of political choices, not as a result of pure economics,” argues Sasha Abramsky, a journalist whose upcoming book is called “The American Way of Poverty.” “The U.S. poverty rate is higher than most other developed nations, and the only way you can square that is there are political choices being made—or not being made—that accept a level of poverty that most wealthy democracies have said is unacceptable. We make these policy choices that perpetuate poverty, and then because poverty is so extreme, it becomes impolite to talk about.”

Do you find the media’s coverage of poverty adequate?

Does it matter to you if journalists ignore the poor and their struggles?

Please crowdfund this young British author — his idea is terrific!

In antiques, art, beauty, books, culture, education, History, journalism on October 29, 2014 at 12:40 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Josh Spero ed pic 2012 crop

If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered the wit and wisdom of Josh Spero, a 30-year-old London journalist who covers art for Tatler, a glossy British monthly magazine whose primary audience is people with multiply-hyphenated surnames and country houses that make Downton Abbey look shabby.

He also edits Spear’s magazine.

Josh is crowdfunding his lovely and unusual idea for a book — to seek out the previous owners of the books of classics he studied while at Oxford; so far, he’s got one-quarter of his goal amount.

We have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so when I get to London in early January 2015.

A few Spero-isms:

“I’ve never been able to stand rules and regulations”

“My working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama”

“I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it”

Tell us a bit of your personal history….

From six months until 26 years, I lived in Edgware, a barren untroubling suburb of north-west London, whose best escape was books. We used to walk down to the second-hand bookshop the other side of town, near the salt-beef bar, and I would buy half a dozen Hardy Boys novels a week, before I moved on to cheap copies of literary classics. My dad was then – is still – a London black-cab driver, my mum a housewife until I went to private school, when she had to get a job to pay for it.

University College School was in Hampstead, a leafy village within London which had been home to Freud and Daphne du Maurier (not as cohabitants), and it was famously, perhaps notoriously, liberal, which worked for me: I have never been able to stand rules and regulations. And still I read everything I could find.

Where and what did you study at university and why?

At UCS, I was taken by Classics – the Greek and Latin languages and their worlds. I loved the drama of their histories, the great men who kicked the Gauls’ arses (I was never a fan of Asterix) and beat back the Persians. It was a revelation to delve into Vergil’s occultism and Euripides’ mania, so I was desperate to study it at Oxford, the best place in the world for Classics, no doubt.

After passing Magdalen College’s stiff interview and being told I had a decent chance of a decent degree, I spent four glorious years there, half of them locked in the library, the other half arguing my way out of positions I hadn’t meant to argue my way into and doing Oxford Things (punting, politicking, student newspaper, inedible Formal Hall dinners).

Where did you get the idea for this book?

One of my first freelance writing jobs was covering the summer auctions of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s for The Guardian in 2007, those thrilling incomprehensible displays of pills in cabinets and what looked like disassembled crates. There the idea of provenance insinuated itself into my brain: every catalogue listed with delicious rectitude a work of art’s previous owners; soon it occurred to me that the same thing was true for books – and not just expensive books either. That’s where Second-Hand Stories comes from.

Over four years at Oxford, and six years tutoring afterwards, I had accumulated well over a hundred Classics books, from how to write in Greek verse (weirdly pleasurable) to texts of everyone from Plato to Propertius. There had to be curious tales tied to the names inscribed in them, so I sorted out the fifty-odd books in which their owners had recorded their names and set about tracing them, the previous owners of my books. I didn’t mind if they weren’t celebrities or lords or royalty: my working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama.

What was the best part of writing it?

The best part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. While I thought I might uncover some unusual tales from my eleven subjects, I never imagined what I’d find.

Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a thick purple-covered commentary on the historian Herodotus, had led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete in World War Two. Peter Levi was a poet-priest who had a chaste love affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Emilie Vleminckx is a student my age who conquered a blow-up at Oxford, a university she had fled to to escape her stifling life in Belgium. There was an actor in Hollywood films, a teacher in fascist Italy, a code-cracker from Bletchley Park and a boy I loved who died too young. To read the full stories, you need to buy the book! http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories

There are, in Second-Hand Stories, some incredible tales, all of which I was lucky enough to come upon.

What surprised you most when you started seeking out the previous owners of your books?

Although I knew Classicists were an interesting bunch – we end up everywhere, from Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) to the darkest recesses of the library – I  had not the slightest inkling so many amazing lives were contained in my library. You’d have to be a great novelist with the broadest imagination to assemble half the characters that reality did. I was also surprised by how willing almost all of them – or their relatives – were to talk to me. Without them, Second-Hand Stories would have been utterly impossible.

What was the most difficult/challenging aspect of writing it?

The most difficult part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. Some were somewhat easier, having written their name and Oxford or Cambridge college in them. But others involved detective work, Google work or, frankly, guesswork.

One book was dedicated ‘To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice’, where Maurice was obviously Maurice Bowra, the author of the book, a translation of the odes of Pindar (a vile toady to winners of the Olympian games). But the Peter was mysterious, until a smart suggestion from a former tutor made us look at the introduction, where Bowra had thanked Peter Levi.

Another only had the letters ‘MBMcCB’. It took several solid attacks on Google before I discovered someone else who had the same final three initials and it turned out the owner was his brother.

There was plenty of direction and serendipity in putting the cast of Second-Hand Stories together.

Any thoughts on e-books (which would have made your entire project — sadly! — moot.)

I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it. For a start, as you say, my book wouldn’t exist if we only had e-books – owners have no way of writing their names on them (if, by the terms and conditions, they even own them in the first place); they easily disappear or are wiped or become obsolete (we’ll always have the technology to read paper books, ie eyes); and you can’t have any real engagement with them (all those immaterial words on a screen have none of the heft of black ink of white paper). The physicality of books, their beauty and weight and feel, is my ultimate reason for rejecting the functional dullness of e-books.

Were there any other challenges in writing Second-Hand Stories?

Yes: getting it published. I was rejected by a great number of publishers largely with the note that ‘it isn’t commercial’. Good! It doesn’t have to be commercial – it has to be interesting. That’s why I’m thrilled Unbound http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories believe in it. They’re a crowdfunded publisher, which means I need your support.

If you like the sound of my book, please pledge towards it here http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-storiesit’s only going to be published with your help. There are rewards at each level too, ranging including signed first-edition copies, invitations to the launch party and even a private tutorial on Classics with me.

I’ve never done this at Broadside before, but love Josh’s idea and his spirit.

I hope you’ll support his book!

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