Ask A Pro
Examples of Work
The miracle that saved Ernie Blanco's life
Life's lessons learned at Gate C3
The Palm Beach Post
West Palm Beach, Fla.
Why did you become a journalist?
A bit of luck: I was in my senior year of college, and it was spring -- nearly graduation time. I had no idea how to earn a living after I got out, but I knew I wanted to write. I also knew I loved research and talking to people -- the word "interview" wasn't even in my vocabulary yet. So I had these things I liked to do but no clear game plan. I needed one.
Then one day I was standing in the office of my English professor, and he received a phone call. The student newspaper, for which I had never written, wanted somebody to interview Norman Mailer when he came to campus to stump for Ted Kennedy's presidential bid. The professor looked up, saw only one person in his office -- me -- and I got the assignment.
From that moment on, I was hooked.
What are your main duties?
I try to find the best stories I can and write them. Some of my stories take a great deal of reporting. Often we come up with ideas that take some time to develop. We look for stories that provide a window into lives, and often the people living those lives face a particular difficulty or a big decision or moment of revelation.
I have written about a gym teacher with cystic fibrosis, who would either live or die in the next few months, depending on whether he got a double lung transplant (he got the transplant and lived). I followed a woman as she prepared for the day her husband would get out of prison -- where he had served out his term for nearly killing her. I did a long story on a grandmother who raised a set of twins, one of whom was severely disabled from Shaken Baby Syndrome, brought on by her son's own violent tendencies.
In between the drama, I try to do lighter stories, to stay sane.
How do you come up with story ideas and effectively pitch them to your editors?
It's a collaborative process. I have a lot of conversations with my editor, and out of these conversations, stories grow. I get ideas from other people, too: writers and photographers, neighbors and teachers, and also from the daily paper. Sometimes a short piece in the paper has a richer, more complex story behind it. I do a lot of fishing, and then, with luck, I pull up a good idea.
How can a fledgling journalist become a better writer?
The cliché is true: Good reporting makes good writing. That's the first rule. But even with great reporting, a green writer has to learn what to do with all the information. There are several ways to learn, and the first, I believe, is to read, read, read. Find examples of work you admire and break them down. Look for structure. Look for detail. Look for theme. Then get out there and practice it yourself. And it does take practice. A lot of it.
You can't write a successful 200 inches without first conquering a neat 20.
Your "My Cambodia" series is very moving. How difficult was the decision to write about something so personal? What kinds of issues factored into your decision?
I almost didn't write this story. My husband talked me into it. He thought it was a great story, one that I should put down on paper, both for our readers, and, later, for our girls. Pete works for the paper, too, and he mentioned this idea to my editors, who asked me to consider writing "My Cambodia." I tried out some sections, to see if I could deliver in the first-person voice, and then committed to the agonizing process of getting it all down.
How did readers react to the stories and photos?
Pete and I got hundreds of e-mails. It was really interesting to see how the story touched people -- those who were familiar with adoption and those who were not. Our family is still "recognized" when we go out, and that took some getting used to. I've had strangers hug me in the grocery store. People feel they know us, even if we have never met, and in a way they do.
What advice do you have for aspiring newspaper journalists?
Only do this if you love it, and if you love it, do it with all your heart.