What journalists see — and you don’t

By Caitlin Kelly

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Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua — and back!

What a fun week it’s been!

Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”

So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.

If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.

Maybe you knew that.

But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.

It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.

It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:

Length and space

Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.

In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.

Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.

Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.

This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015 (my photo)

Clarity

Short is often better — get to the point!

But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.

Graphic violence

Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.

The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.

Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.

I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.

By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.

Lies

This is a big one, especially now.

If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.

It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.

We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).

Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?

Self-immolation

Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.

It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.

We’re all human and we all mis-speak.

That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen  to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.

It’s our job to untangle it all.

Far too many press releases!

I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.

There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.

Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.

Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.

Documents, leaks and FOIAs

If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.

The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.

FOIAs (pronounced foy-ahs), are Freedom of Information Act requests, which winkle out crucial documents from the federal government. As the press withstands unprecedented attacks here in the U.S., journalists are creating secret and on-line national groups to plot strategy and one writer I know has switched to an encrypted email.

The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.

You need a free press more than ever now.

 Proximity/celebrity/recency

The big three of news determinants.

The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.

Which is crazy.

Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.

(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)

Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.

If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.

The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…

I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.

 

How crucial do you think a free press is?

 

Do you agree with Bannon?

This is what the press is for

By Caitlin Kelly

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Speaking truth to power.

That’s it, really.

Sure, some journalists write puffy stories about luxury hotels and mascara and shiny new tech toys.

But the journalism a democracy relies on is one with consistent, ready access to its leader(s), holding them and their government to account.

If you don’t grasp this essential fact, you’re in for a very  long and ugly fight.

In his very first press briefing, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer managed to stun the entire White House press corps with a toxic mix of hostility, aggression and threats.

This isn’t how a briefing is supposed to go. Certainly not from the very start.

Oh, and fleeing the room without taking a single question.

Not a great start to a new administration.

This is how it works:

Journalists are hired to find out what the hell is actually going on in the halls of power.

They cultivate sources.

They dig.

They read long, tedious boring documents, where the meat of the matter may be buried 537 pages in.

They do not give up easily.

We do not give up easily.

A President who whines about every perceived slight to his fragile ego, and an attack dog press secretary , are not what Americans need or deserve.

Millions of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump, and even those who did need and deserve to know what he is doing — beyond his relentless tweets.

And the rest of the world is also watching and listening, as confused and concerned as many Americans are by the oldest President ever elected, a proven liar, cheat and misogynist — and a man who has never served a minute in office before.

The Presidency carries tremendous power, and the trappings of office are indeed impressive and daunting: a residence in the White House, access to nuclear codes, travel in Air Force One and Marine One, rafts of attendants snapping salutes.

But he works for us.

He works for the American people.

If the press, whose role it is to represent every voter unable to ask tough questions directly, are body-slammed from the very start, look forward to the most persistent, aggressive and unrelenting scrutiny of this administration you can begin to imagine.

It’s time for journalists to stand up

By Caitlin Kelly

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Columbia Journalism School

Some of you are fellow journalists.

Some of you follow the news closely and know that President Elect Donald Trump makes a habit of naming, shaming and blaming reporters he thinks have somehow insulted him, often by merely challenging him on his ever-shifting statements and tweets.

At his first press conference in six months, which penned hundreds of journalists into the lobby of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, Trump was typically belligerent and bullying.

Here’s CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta threatened with expulsion from the conference.

Even worse — and frankly, this is so bizarre I’ve never seen it in  40 years of working in news journalism — his minions jeered at reporters.

From the Times:

A Greek chorus of sorts — mostly Trump supporters and aides, including Ms. Manigault — watched from the side, applauding Mr. Trump and jeering questions from reporters they deemed unpleasant.

Here’s the New York Times‘ media reporter:

“That” was Donald J. Trump’s inaugural news conference as a duly elected United States president-to-be, in which he called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage,” dismissed CNN as “fake news” and more or less told the whole lot of reporters at Trump Tower to stuff it when it comes to his unreleased tax returns because everyday Americans don’t care and, anyway, “I won.”

There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.

2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.

It better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.

The problem is multi-faceted.

Some of the issues journalists now face in covering Trump:

Many Americans don’t trust the MSM, mainstream media.

— Many Americans are gulping down “fake news” with no idea who’s lying to them and making bank from it.

—Many Americans loathe journalists and think that challenging those in authority — whether elected officials or the wealthy — is rude and disrespectful.

— In an era of a 24/7 news cycle, journalists are racing to be first, not always correct.

— In an era of unprecedented secrecy and obfuscation, (we have not yet seen Trump’s tax returns — and how long exactly does an audit take?), transparency and accountability are more essential than ever for voters to know what the hell is going on.

— The President-elect is hiring his own family as senior advisors, none of whom, like him, have any prior political experience. Also unpredecented. And why should any of us trust them? We didn’t vote for them, nor do they need to be confirmed through Senate hearings.

— Journalists have traditionally been respectful of the office of the President, but never before in recent history has there been a President who attacks the media almost daily, often singling out specific reporters, (like NBC’s Katy Tur) by name. That can lead to social media death threats and doxing.

— Journalists are working in an industry in deep turmoil financially, feeling economically vulnerable at the very moment we need them to be utterly fierce in their reporting.

— Without determined, consistent, aggressive reporting on every conceivable conflict of interest, voters, no matter who they chose (or didn’t vote at all), will have no idea what Trump and his kakistocracy are up to. Trying to intimidate us only invites doubling down.

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Count on that!

Truth matters more than ever now

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

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Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.

How “news” happens: my latest NYT piece

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.

No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!

 

Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)

Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.

It can be something we overheard or saw.

Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.

That’s how The New York Times got wind of Trump’s federal income tax shenanigans, as reporter Susanne Craig described:

Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.

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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

What makes something a “story”?

— it’s new

— it’s making a ton of money for someone

— it’s the first time this event has ever happened

— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)

— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it

— it’s happened near the story’s audience

I’ve spent weeks on this new New York Times Arts & Leisure story, told to me last spring by  an editor I’ve known for many years and have written for, about someone she knows.

It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:

Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”

With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”

She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.

My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.

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Key to this piece? Serendipity!

I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.

In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.

The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?

The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.

It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.

I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

By Caitlin Kelly

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

It costs lives.

This week, once more, journalists across the world are mourning the deaths of two more tribe members, David Gilkey, a photographer for National Public Radio (and a veteran of several U.S.newspapers) and his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.

I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.

It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.

You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.

Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.

 

There’s no other way to tell these stories well.

 

Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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I covered the unity march in Paris in January 2015 — I love breaking news!

If you can spare the time or have the interest, please take 25:03 out of your life to listen to this smart, impassioned commencement speech to the 2016 graduates from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism by Rebecca Solnit.

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?

 

I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.

It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

I hope, as you consume serious, smart  journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.

 

 

 

A life-changing week — without easy access to water

By Caitlin Kelly

In a good way!

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On assignment in rural Nicaragua…

Two years ago this month, I was returning home to our apartment in suburban New York from a week that radically altered my views on work, on luxury, on life.

With a multi-media team — a photographer from Cuernavaca, Mexico (where I lived as a 14-year-0ld), a blogger from Brunswick, Maine and a communications officer from New York — I spent a week working with WaterAid in Nicaragua, a country I had never been to before.

On paper, the whole thing sounded a bit crazy, putting together a team of people ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who had never met or worked together, and jamming us into a rickety van we needed to push occasionally to work 12-hour days in 95-degree heat.

 

Best week of my life.

I had gotten to know the comm’s person, Alanna, and knew she was fun, smart and warm. That was enough for me, so whoever else she had chosen would be fine. And they were. We had many hours together, traveling in a very small plane (so small they weighed each of us, not just our baggage!) and by van.

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Our WaterAid team

We met up in Managua, a three-hour flight from Atlanta. We flew from there to Bilwi, a town on the eastern coast, of 40,000 people.

We quickly learned that our hotel’s showers and toilets and sinks with running water were a rare luxury there — that almost half the population had none of these things. They had a pipe in their front yard with water supplied by the city, if they had it at all. Or they walked a mile or more to the nearest well.

It was really hot, about 90 degrees every day all day. When you sweat that much, you need to drink a lot of water and you really want to bathe and clean off at day’s end. Now, I realized, these were luxuries I had taken for granted for decades. My whole life.

We drove into the countryside, a two-hour journey each way, to watch local villagers building their own toilets and sanitation projects so I could write about them for WaterAid and Rodrigo could make photos and videos. Jen and I did a Twitterchat later in the week to explain what we were seeing; it gathered a staggering response.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid; Jen beside me, Dixie in the background

To conduct interviews, we worked in Spanish and in Miskitu, for which we had a translator, a local academic with the delightful name of Dixie. Tall, gentle, Dixie was our right hand.

One night we all stayed in the home of one of the women we were writing about, Linda. The house was all made of wood, with a corrugated tin roof and wide open windows, without glass but with curtains. The floors were soft and smooth beneath our bare feet, meticulously clean and free of insects.

 

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Linda’s home

We brought our own food, which Linda and her family cooked for us on their clay stove. Their home has no electricity or running water, so they cooked by the light of flashlights and headlamps.

We slept together in one large room on narrow cots with sleeping bags and mosquito nets, lulled to sleep by the sound of someone speaking in Spanish from the transistor radio hanging from a very large nail on the balcony.

In the morning, Jen and I traveled with Linda and her mother in law and her daughter across a river to collect vegetables from their plot there. We walked through the forest to reach the river, followed the whole way by a very large, very friendly and very determined turkey, one of the many animals living beneath their home.

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Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

As we reached the river’s edge, Linda’s mother in law, wielding a very sharp long machete casually reached behind herself, lopped off two lengths of bamboo, cut their ends at an angle and dropped them into the wooden dugout canoe for us — seats!

We were accepted without demands or interrogation. Welcomed into their home and treated as guests with kindness and respect. For most of us, there are few moments in life when you connect across culture, language, nationality, age, education. They are deeply moving. Unforgettable.

 

On both side of the river, we climbed steep sandy banks to reach the vegetable crops. By the time we returned to the house, the sun was so hot that I feared heatstroke, heading to the well to throw buckets of water over me.

The time we spent in Nicaragua — working as a team, meeting and interviewing and getting to know some of the local people — also could not have been a greater contrast to my work at home in New York.

It was a week of easy cooperation (not relentless competition.) Open-heartedness and kindness (not resentful close-fistedness.) Bottles of ice-cold water and comfortable beds to keep us going, comfortably (not the standard annoyance of being ignored or rejected by busy editors.)

And what joy to be part of a team of smart, passionate, funny and warm professionals. I work alone at home, and have done so for a decade. This was a great break from isolation and total self-reliance.

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When we parted ways in Managua, we were teary. Two years later, Jen and and Alanna and I remain friends, in close contact still. Their country director, a fellow Canadian named Josh, came all the way out to our home to visit when he came up to New York.

I cried several times over this experience, which shocked me — I never cry.

But what I saw and felt there deeply touched me, both the ridiculous contrast between our easy life here and the penury we saw in Nicaragua. And also for the kindness and camaraderie I felt that week.

Journalism is very often a brutish business and its people too often gruff and dismissive, no matter what level of experience or skill you offer. They rarely praise or thank. They fight you over every penny you need to earn or to do the job well, and more than 24,000 of us have been fired or laid off in recent years.

To be treated as…valuable? Enjoyable? That was a blessedly unfamiliar feeling.

I now look for different kinds of work and deeper relationships with people whose values I admire.

I also turn off the water when I brush my teeth.

650 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.

Imagine being one of them.

 

 

Getting the story is a story in itself

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

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

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.