First Edition: Susan Kelleher
By Samar Khoury
Twenty years ago, Susan Kelleher was one of five reporters at the Orange County Register who took home the coveted Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. She couldn’t have guessed that her career would lead her to writing for The Seattle Times’ Sunday magazine, Pacific NW.
Kelleher, 56, started as a news clerk at the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, and worked at several papers before joining the Register as a general assignment reporter covering the southernmost cities in Orange County. She later worked as a health reporter and investigative reporter.
Kelleher was a hard news reporter for nearly 30 years. When she worked for the Orange County Register, she and her colleagues uncovered fertility fraud occurring at the University of California, Irvine. That piece won them the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2000, Kelleher moved to Seattle to work for her current newspaper. Kelleher’s enjoying her position at the magazine, but reflects on her days as an investigative reporter with pride.
Q: What got you into investigative reporting?
A: I have a really low tolerance for cruelty. If I see someone being cruel to another person, it affects me on a really deep level. When I feel safest in the world is when I know the truth. If I know and can see that something is real, I feel safe.
You’re kind of being a warrior in a way — people are getting hurt; people are doing bad things to people. You can spend weeks, months, or even years working on those problems. That requires obsessiveness. You have to constantly feel an outrage about what you’re working on. You couldn’t possibly do that work otherwise. That sense of outrage, or wanting to correct a wrong, that requires an intense focus. A lot of times I would question everything as I was reporting it and automatically assume I misunderstood things.
Q: I’m sure you probably felt those feelings while reporting on your Pulitzer Prize-winning piece about fertility fraud. Can you tell me about that?
A: There was a series of stories that ran over a year about a fertility clinic at the University of California, Irvine that was committing fertility fraud. They were experimenting on women with unapproved drugs, stealing women’s eggs and selling them to women who needed donor eggs to get pregnant. They were hiding all of this from everybody.
We decided to contact several hundred women who had appeared to have eggs stolen or received stolen eggs and didn’t know it. One doctor went to jail and two became fugitives.
Q: What was it like reporting on a story like that?
A: It was horrible. It was great in the sense we were really happy to expose such a terrible thing. Intellectually, it was really challenging as a journalist. Skill wise, it was also really challenging, gaining the trust of the people who were inside. There are a lot of skills I acquired in that story.
It was pretty challenging for all of us; I experienced some depression afterward. You’re telling people that their genetic material is stolen and somebody else had their baby. You’re kind of messing with people on a fundamental level. You could only devastate people so much. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done and one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Q: Why did you transition from an investigative reporter to a magazine reporter?
A: The transition happened a couple of years ago. I was one of the people working on long-term projects. When I came here, the culture was more that people would spend huge amounts of time — sometimes two years — working on a project. It was more traditional investigative stuff. I really liked more of the breaking news. I liked getting out more.
At some point they were culling people from the newsroom, the economy was tanking, and they were cutting the staff. So at that point, I started thinking about the quality of my day and how I wanted to be in my life. I really missed breaking news; I really missed the responsiveness, the immediacy of it, and I went back to metro, and I did some investigative stuff on the city government, then I was doing the politics stuff.
That’s what I was doing when they asked me if I wanted to do a stint on the magazine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to because I’ve never done it before. It just worked out. The people I’m working for, I really like. I like the flexibility of it that you can think about things, that you can write about whatever you want. You get to work when your best time is. It really is a softer way to live in the world. I think at my age right now, and given the fact I’ve been doing hard news for 30 years, it feels really good to do stuff that connects people on a different level.
Q: What types of stories are you reporting on nowadays?
A: I did a piece for Labor Day about women in the trades “Puget Sound’s hard-working women in traditionally male jobs.” I got to interview the women and do mini profiles of them. We did [12 women]. It got published, and I’ve gotten so many beautiful emails from readers.
People really appreciated seeing women doing non-traditional jobs. It touches people in a different way, and I like the experience of being able to spend time on a story, but not so much time where you get bored with it. I like the pace; I like everything about it. It’s really interesting.
Q: Can you tell me how the Sunday magazine differs from the newspaper?
A: The magazine doesn’t do a lot of investigative stuff — we operate under a theme. [A recent one was] about newcomers. [We looked] at all these people coming into Seattle and how it’s changed. Next year we’ll have a different theme. In a newspaper you cover whatever is news.
You’re writing for a Sunday audience; you’re writing for someone who wants to spend a little time, maybe take a journey. They want good writing and think and learn something new. It’s a longer piece.
Q: How do your days compare to when you were an investigative reporter?
A: Similar, except the deadlines. I spend a lot more time writing now than I did as an investigative reporter. With the magazine, you write discrete pieces. You know exactly what you’re working on. I’ll spend two weeks reporting and one week writing. That is a perfect pace; I love it. With anything, you’ve got so much to learn, and I have so much to learn on the magazine front. There’s a much more mindful, intentional way of working that feels calming to do.
Investigative reporting was more formulaic. I was always looking for new systems and talking to new colleagues to keep track of stuff. You gotta keep your eye on the prize, keep digging, and synthesizing.
Q: What advice do you have for journalists wanting to pursue investigative reporting or feature writing?
A: The best way to learn is to watch what other people are doing and read what other people are doing. There are tons of tip sheets on how to get records. You can start incorporating investigative reporting in your beat reporting. You go and file a public record, or you go to a courthouse and grab a file. You’ve just got to play around and see what’s out there.
If there’s someone that you’re interested in, see what you can find out about that person. Just baby steps. Just practice and incorporate a document mentality in all of your stories. Think of what kind of record can be there. There’s no other way to learn than just doing it.
With feature writing, it’s about reading people who are doing great writing. It’s really thrilling and also really humbling.