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.
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.
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.
Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.
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?
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.
The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.