Posts Tagged ‘reporting’

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


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.


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.”


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!


What it takes to be a professional writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on October 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.


In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

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

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

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:


Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.


No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

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

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


We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections


It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.


No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011


Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

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

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

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

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?

American life, 2015 — income inequality ‘r us

In behavior, business, cities, culture, journalism, life, politics, U.S., urban life on September 14, 2015 at 2:21 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


Are you familiar with the Gini coefficient?

It measures income inequality — the chart linked above lists it for every U.S. state.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

New York, where I’ve lived since leaving my native Canada in 1989 — ranks 50th. i.e. second worst in this regard in the United States.

The worst? You have to laugh, albeit bitterly, Washington, D.C., home to the Capitol and the nation’s federal legislators.

I recently re-lived it, while working on a story for a New York City website about a company giving out food to bring awareness of food insufficiency — aka not having enough to eat every day — in the city’s five boroughs.

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a bequest from a wealthy patron. A gorgeous side of Manhattan many tourists see….but there are other, darker realities as well

Last week, I spent two broiling hot, humid days — 95 degrees — working in the poorest part of the poorest Congressional district in the country, the South Bronx. Local residents lined up that day, as I walked over from the subway, some carrying parasols against the brutal heat, some arriving from the public housing complex across the street, for a van offering medical care.

Many of them line up, three days every week, for whatever the food pantry has on offer; I saw many bags of bread and rolls, crisp green apples and cookies.

I was there to watch a company hand out food, and to write about it.

I did this with mixed feelings.

Yes, charity is a good thing.

Yes, alleviating hunger and poverty is a good thing.

But everything is a very small bandage on a large gaping wound.

It is deeply shocking, if you still have gauzy fantasies of America!!!!!! to see the reality of American poverty face to face.

I stopped that day for a quick lunch, (I never eat fast food!), at McDonald’s, one of a dozen fast or fried-food joints lining 125th Street in Harlem. Parts of that street, even in sunny mid-day, have some people nodding off after using a new synthetic form of marijuana.

The restaurant’s clientele that day was, possibly, 10 percent Caucasian.

I had a long conversation, half in French, half in English, with a young librarian from Normandy, traveling for a month with his wife. They planned to visit New York, Philadelphia, D.C. L.A. and San Francisco, which, I told him, would also offer some insights into the income inequality now splitting the country in a way unseen since the Gilded Age, some 100 years ago.

“I can’t believe what I see,” he told me, gazing around at our fellow diners, many using crutches, canes and motorized wheelchairs, some the result of diabetes and obesity.

Welcome to the U.S., I said.

The next day I visited another part of the Bronx; (for you non-New Yorkers, that’s one of the city’s five boroughs, north of Manhattan, a place very few tourists are ever likely to see), this one an astounding and essential part of the city, the Hunt’s Point Food Center.

I saw the warehouse for the Food Bank for New York City, an entity I was certainly well aware of; you can’t live here for any length of time without some idea of their work.

From their website:

Hunger is caused by food poverty, a lack of geographic and/or financial access to nutritious food. In New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is around every corner. Throughout the five boroughs, approximately 1.4 million people — mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities — rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. Approximately 2.6 million New Yorkers experience difficulty affording food for themselves and their families.

Their warehouse has nine bays, each loading millions of pounds of food each month, in and out.


We were given a tour by the warehouse manager, running the place since 1994, a burly, lively whiz running a team zipping about in hand-trucks in a space so enormous it simply boggled the mind.

Imagine the biggest store you’ve ever seen, in the U.S. a Home Depot, for example. Try again!

This warehouse is 90,000 square feet — the above image, (mine), gives you some idea how enormous.

In my 25 years living here, few experiences have struck me as powerfully as these past few days, powerful and visceral reminders that there are many New Yorks, not just the ones tourists see or the ones shown in movies and on television.

It’s hard sometimes, living here, to manage the cognitive dissonance that comes with being even vaguely socially conscious in New York — the size oo’s in their Prada and Gucci, stepping out of their driver-chauffeured Escalades into helicopters to fly to their mansions in the Hamptons.


What does work mean to you?

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Money, US, work on September 5, 2015 at 12:13 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

These are the tools of an artist. That's work, too!

These are the tools of an artist. That’s work, too!

It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.

It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:

  • Daily expenses
  • Retirement savings
  • To fund higher education, for self and/or others
  • Short-term emergency savings
  • Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
  • Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
  • Challenge
  • Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
  • The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
  • Learning and mastering new skills
  • To support the financial needs of family and others
  • A place to feel welcomed, to belong
  • Building self-confidence
  • Ambition
  • Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry,  the law
Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists

Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists

I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.

All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.

No wonder I, too, work for myself as a full-time freelance writer, editor, writing teacher and writing coach.

Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.

Corner stores are a part of the economy, too

Corner stores are a part of the economy, too

One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.

I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.

Since my high school days I’ve worked as:

  • a lifeguard
  • a waitress
  • a busboy
  • a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
  • a magazine editor (four national magazines)
  • a writing teacher (four colleges)
  • a writing coach (multiple private clients)
  • a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
  • an author (of two works of non-fiction)
  • a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
  • a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
  • a retail employee at $11/hour
I covered the unity march in Paris -- I love breaking news!

I covered the unity march in Paris — I love breaking news!

Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.

At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.

I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.

In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.

Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.

I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.

I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.

I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work),  a page-turner.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.

But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)

Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.


What sort of work do you do?

Do you enjoy it?

What would you change about it if you could?

The boundaries of journalism

In art, behavior, books, culture, domestic life, entertainment, film, journalism, life on August 6, 2015 at 2:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories

One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, US, work on April 7, 2015 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz,, Investopedia and many others.

Samples of my work are here, if you’re interested. I’m always looking for new clients!

The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.

While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.

This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.

The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.


Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.

I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.

They had shut down.


That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.

The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.

Boom! That story?

Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.

I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.

But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?

Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.

I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.

People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.



I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.

The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.

So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.

The problem?

Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.

That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.

Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.

You have to laugh, really.

Then move on.

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

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

One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.

When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.

Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.

When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.

Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.

If you’ve been following the Rolling Stone debacle (?)…

It all begins with trust:

— trust that your sources are being truthful

— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are

— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.

It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.

Here’s a recent popular post I wrote about this life.

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:



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


Graphic designers and page designers



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.


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.





Without trust, journalism simply doesn’t work

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, news, women on December 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust the media? Should you?

Do you trust the media? Should you?

Some of you are journalists and some of you are studying it.

So maybe some of you have followed this disturbing story about a recent Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that, suddenly, seems to have gone very wrong.

From the Washington Post:

A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.

Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.

The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.

This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.

Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.

Then the dominos started tumbling…

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.

Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational  conglomerate, this is typically how it works:

— A source decides to share their story

We think:

Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?

— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.

They think:

Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?

— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.

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

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

They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?

— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.

They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.

— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.

They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?

— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.

The piece appears.

Do you trust what you hear and read?

Should you?


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



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?


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