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Reporters on Reporting

First Edition: Susan Kelleher

First Edition: Susan Kelleher
 
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.
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The Original Watergate Papers

We’re journalists. We’ve read All The President’s Men inside and out, watched the movie more times than we’d care to admit. We’ve researched Watergate ad nauseam and held the highest regard for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein since we picked up a pen and paper.

But somewhere along the way, there’s a chance we missed a step: We didn’t read the actual coverage that originally appeared in The Washington Post back in the early 1970s. (I can’t speak for everyone, but there’s a reasonable chance I speak for a substantial group).

What’s all the fuss really about? Were the articles all they were cracked up to be?

They changed the history of politics and journalism in one fell swoop, so it’s no doubt worth the time to read the original articles here.

The Post has pieced together a Watergate timeline that doesn’t end with the 1970s by any means. It’s a solid, comprehensive read or re-read if you’re looking to remind yourself of what investigative journalism is really about.

First Edition: Jacqui Banaszynski

First Edition: Jacqui Banaszynski

By Samar Khoury

Journalism might not have been the first career choice for Jacqui Banaszynski, but it turned out to be a wise decision. 

She has a Pulitzer Prize, award-winning projects and more than 30 years of reporting and editing experience under her belt.

Banaszynski worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. During her career, she followed a dogsled expedition across Antarctica and wrote about topics ranging from beauty pageants to the Olympics to refugee camps.

She was also a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for “Trail of Tears,” detailing the famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

Banaszynski won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her piece, “AIDS in the Heartland,” for which she and photographer Jean Pieri spent 15 months with a gay farm couple until they died of the disease. Both of those pieces won her and her newspaper the St. Paul Pioneer Press considerable acclaim.

Today, Banaszynski lives in Seattle but during the school year teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she serves as the Knight Chair in Editing.

During her years of reporting and editing, Banaszynski learned valuable lessons that she hopes to teach to her students.

Q: What tips do you have for young journalists?

A: If you want to do great writing, you have to do great reporting. It’s more important for a young journalist to learn how the world works, to learn how to report on the world, than it is to have pretty writing.

If you’re going to do immersion journalism and focus on one person or one situation to reveal a bigger social issue, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right situation, the characters, you’ve got to have access. You have to be completely transparent, both with your story subjects about your method and the consequences of talking to a reporter, and with the readers, the viewers, the public about how you did the story.

You always need other readers. No matter where you are in your career, you need to have other readers look at your work as it’s progressing.  We do this work for other people, not for ourselves.

Q: What was the biggest lesson you learned when writing your Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “AIDS in the Heartland”?

A:  This is the piece where I really learned that you need to have the right story subject. One big, big, big lesson was negotiating partnership. Before we went into the story and as we were doing the story, we’d constantly go back and negotiate what our partnership was, what the understanding of transparency and conditions were. That was huge because the people we were writing about and their family and extended community had a lot of reservations about being a part of the story. I had to constantly be upfront with them about what we were doing, why we were doing it, why we thought it was so important, why we thought their role in it was so important, and what our obligation was to them in terms of fact-checking, honesty, transparency, but also that our ultimate allegiance was to the public and the truth of the story, which means that sometimes we were going to write things they weren’t comfortable with, but they wouldn’t be surprised by.

Q: What did this story teach you in regards to objectivity and attachment to your subjects that young journalists can keep in mind?

A: We had to be very aware that we needed to write the story for the public and not to please the people we were writing about, and that was difficult because we had spent so much time with Dick [Hanson] and Bert [Henningson] and had come to care about [the couple]. That means we had to have people around us who read the story skeptically.

The words objectivity and detachment are thrown around a lot in journalism, and when you do stories like that, they’re problematic, because you can’t do a story like that without investing your own self, including your emotions. But you’ve got to remain purposeful about your investment and who that investment ultimately is for. The answer to that is the public, your readers. But you’ve really got to be willing to cross boundaries and lines that aren’t typically crossed in traditional civic journalism. Its why it’s so important to have a good partner. Jean Pieri [the photographer] and I were good partners to each other. We held each other up.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions you tend to hear about journalism in your classroom?

A: Some of the students are not plugged in. A lot of them are still really connected to the legacy masthead such as the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. The digital world is emerging so fast, and they haven’t been plugged into those possibilities, as they need to be to go where the jobs are. Journalists and the public need to be smart consumers when they open up and see where they want to work and read.

One of the keys to good journalism is to be interested in how the world works. You need to be passionate about and interested in the story you’re writing about, not just the things you’re interested in. I tell my students all the time if they only want to write what they’re interested in, I’ll give them a journal and wish them a very happy life and hope they keep in touch. If they want to be a journalist, they need to get interested in what they have to write about. Every story becomes practice for the next story.  

Q: Can you tell me about your ‘have a beer theory’ and how it would be beneficial for journalists?

A: I call it the “Banaszynski Beer Rule” and it means  when you go do a story as a journalist, all you have is your own curiosity and your own mind. When we get a story assignment or are chasing a story, pursuing a story, it’s very natural to then get really focused in on what the story needs by conventional journalistic standards. The beer rule basically says you need to expand your mental TV screen to include people who aren’t journalists, people you’re writing for, the public, and you need to plug in to their curiosity and their interests. So you find a person or a few people who have no interest in the story you’re doing, and ask what they would want to know or what they’re interested in or what they want to learn. That helps you plug in to the public you’re writing for.

The gig came from when I was going out to do this interview and I didn’t know what to ask this person. I stopped somebody in the newsroom who had no interest in the subject I was writing about, and I said ‘what would you like to know?’ And he said ‘not a goddamn thing.’ So I finally said, ‘if you could sit down with this person and have a beer and ask her any question in the world, what would you want to ask?’ And it shifted the conversation and allowed him to say, ‘well if I could just really ask her anything, here’s what I’d want to know.’ And it wasn’t a journalistic question; it was a human question. And it taught me so much when I did that.  

First Trailer for Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo’s Catholic Sex Scandal Drama ‘Spotlight’

The Spotlight movie trailer is finally here. And a Nov. 6 release date has been set. Congrats to all of the Boston Globe reporters and editors involved.

12 Journalists Signed on for In Other News

It is with great enthusiasm Rosie and I announce that the following people will be participating in interviews with us for In Other News: Reporters on Reporting.

The book will profile 12 journalists from various beats and backgrounds. Each chapter will focus on a different journalist and share his or her experiences in the field. The book is intended to educate and motivate aspiring and/or working reporters and editors.

Here’s the lineup:

Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief, Roll Call

Michael J. Berens, Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, Chicago Tribune

Geoff Edgers, national arts reporter, The Washington Post

Sonari Glinton, business desk reporter, NPR West bureau

Mitra Kalita, managing editor, Los Angeles Times

Andrew LaVallee, New York deputy bureau chief, The Wall Street Journal

Mara Leveritt, author and investigative crime reporter, Arkansas Times

Carrie Lozano, documentary filmmaker

Terry McCarthy, Emmy-winning reporter, formerly of TIME, ABC, CBS

Joan Ryan, New York Times best-selling author, former sports reporter

Kendall Taggart, investigative data reporter, BuzzFeed News

Stay tuned for more details on the book.

Questions? Contact stephanie@insideothernews.com.

Vote for your favorite book cover

We are excited to share with you four options for our book cover of In Other News: Reporters on Reporting. Please let us know your thoughts.

The talented Ryan Lambert designed each of these, so we thank him for the amazing options. We look forward to hearing your feedback.

We will be announcing the full line-up of journalists we are interviewing for the book later this week. They are a great group from print, radio, TV and new media backgrounds across various beats. Stay tuned.

Rosie & Stephanie

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‘SNL’s Cecily Strong Asks Media Not to Talk About Hillary Clinton’s Appearance

ICYMI: Still laughing. The points Cecily Strong makes about journalism are funny… because they’re true.

KCBS News Anchor Pat Harvey To Receive L.A. Area Governors Award

Sony Picks Up Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton Movie ‘Spotlight’ in Multiple Countries

Can’t wait to see this film. It is sure to be eye opening about both the scandal and the diligent reporters that stood by the controversial story.

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