Katherine Rosman Gives a Master Class In Reporting
Here’s what you need to know about Katherine Rosman: She hates writing, she loves reporting, and she’s great at both.
As a staff writer for the New York Times Style section and, previously, the Wall Street Journal, Katherine (aka Katie) pens fascinating and often funny pieces about culture and the media.
On this episode, Katie talks about:
Where her story ideas come from
How she finds sources
What makes a story Style-section worthy
How she obsessively reports and fact checks
Katie also speaks candidly about self-doubt and writer’s block and how even someone with her stellar credentials struggles with Impostor Syndrome.
“Every single story [I write] is the last story of my career,” she says, only sort of joking.
This might be one of the most honest interviews about writing you’ve ever heard.
Katie: I love reporting. I love talking to people and I love trying to get to the bottom of something and I love trying to get information that somebody doesn’t want me to have. I love it all, and then when it comes to write, I’m just like, “Why did I pitch this story? I don’t want to do this. I can’t do it. I can’t write. I don’t know how to start. I don’t know what to say in the middle, I don’t know how to finish. This is the worst.”
Jon: That is my guest today – the incredibly honest, incredibly talented Katie Rosman, a writer and reporter extraordinaire for The New York Times. You are tuned into Write About Now and I am your host, Jonathan Small. Thank you for joining the show today.
Oh, I so enjoyed having Katie on the show. She tells it like it is. She is a really good writer. She has been with the New York Times for five years. Before that she was at the Wall Street Journal for 10 years. She is the author of the memoir, If You Knew Suzy.
Katie is as funny and honest in person as she is in her writing. I had the pleasure of writing a story for her for the New York Times. Turns out she doesn't really edit, so why she was editing me, I have no idea, but it happened and I'm happy it did because she made my story so much better. During that tense period – because it was the first story I’d ever written for the Times – she was incredibly encouraging and incredibly tough, in a good way.
It was during that experience I got to know her a little bit and was amazed and delighted to find out that this incredibly accomplished writer had the same fears that all of us writers do, the same imposter syndrome running through her head. Here's what she has to say about how she thinks about her writing.
Katie: Every single story is the last story of my career. Every single story is the one that it’s just going to be over, it’s done, why am I even wasting my time trying to write it? It's never going to run, I’m going to be fired, and I never should have left Michigan. Every single story.
Jon: So if you're in the mood to hear a really good origin story and receive a sort of masterclass in journalism from a stellar New York Times journalist, stay tuned to this podcast.
Katie Rosman, welcome to Write About Now.
Katie: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Jon: I'm so happy. Are you calling me from the New York Times Style Section Bureau?
Katie: I am calling you from the New York Times Bureau, the New York Bureau aka HQ.
Jon: It's HQ, and you're in like a conference room or something.
Katie: Yeah, I’m in a little meeting round that I had to reserve.
Jon: Wow, this is exciting. I'd love to hear your take on what is the Style section of the New York Times for people who might not be familiar with it. Even for people who are familiar with it, sometimes it's a little bit confusing to me what qualifies as a Style story in the New York Times, because we all think of style as fashion, but that's just a part of the Style section. So how do you summarize it for people?
Katie: Well, I think it's a bit hard to encapsulate, so you're not wrong to sometimes wonder. I think in the digital age, when where something runs in the paper is increasingly less important, is part of the reason.
The Style section is a feature section that covers things including fashion and beauty, but certainly not exclusively by any stretch. We also cover media, we cover youth culture, we cover sex, we cover gender. So it's a wide array of stories that all seek to really look at the news that’s in other parts of the paper and say, how is this revealing itself in the culture, in society? I would say that's something of a common thread if there is one.
Jon: Right. What do you do specifically there? Anybody who's a regular reader knows that your byline is there all the time and you write amazing stories, which we're going to talk about. Are you a writer and editor?
Katie: I am just a writer and reporter. When I first came to the Times nearly five years ago I came in as an editor, but I really had always primarily been a reporter and I segued back into that after not too long working as an editor.
My stories are a little bit hard to talk about as if they are in one category, as if I have a specific beat. I've been really lucky in that stories that come to me are generally story ideas that my editor or editors like. I write a lot about – I would say media and gender. Celebrity somewhat, but mostly as marketing. I don't really write celebrity profiles necessarily, but I'll look at, as part of writing about social media and technology, the way celebrity is used.
But then I will have a story like – I had a story in the fall about a woman in New York who carries a table and sets it up outside the various subway stations and puts up a sign that says “Grammar Table” and people just stop and ask her questions about grammar.
Jon: That’s the greatest thing I've ever heard.
Katie: It was. Somebody actually spotted that table and sent me a picture and said, “this is such a you story.” I felt the same, and so I went and I sat with this woman for an afternoon and wrote a story. That certainly falls outside of the purview of other things that I’ve mentioned.
Jon: Where do your ideas come from? How many of them are pitched to you versus you come up with them yourself?
Katie: I get pitched a lot. A lot, a lot. Rarely does a pitch from a publicist lead me to do a story. Not never, but it doesn't happen that often.
Jon: And why is that? Because it's too much selling a product to you?
Katie: Yeah, the pitches can feel too promotional – which is no knock against the publicist necessarily.
Jon: Oh, come on, let's knock them. We don't like them. [laughs]
Katie: [laughs] Let’s.
Jon: No, it's fine. I get it. They’re doing their job.
Katie: I'm going to be most invested in stories that are my own ideas, that come because I've noticed something.
But frankly – I had a story about a bikini that has been the source of an inordinate amount of litigation, of federal lawsuits that have gone to the question of who actually created this bathing suit.
That story came because somebody noticed – a lawsuit that had been filed in federal court was sent to somebody, an investigative reporter here, and that person forward it to someone who forwarded it to someone, and it got forwarded to one of my editors, who forwarded it to me and said “Do you want to take a look at this?” I read the complaint and thought, wow, this is an incredible story. And it did turn into an incredible story.
Jon: It was.
Katie: The story about sugar dating, which was also a pretty unbelievable story – and I'm not saying what I did was unbelievable; I'm saying that the actual story that I was able to uncover, the story itself, was unbelievable.
Jon: Can you give us a quick recap of that story? That story was unbelievable.
Katie: The story about sugar dating, which is a phenomenon whereby most often a younger woman and an older man embark in some sort of relationship that has money involved – which of course relationships often do, but not necessarily in this way where it's sort of, as I coyly called it, “monetized dating.”
There is this particular website called Seeking Arrangements where sugar “babies” and sugar “daddies” can find each other.
But what is happening a lot, I can say, is that college students, young women often living outside their parents’ home for the first time, are being the ones that this website is marketing to. If you sign in with a dot-edu website, you get all sorts of special considerations. They market it as an antidote to student debt. So they're getting hooked up with these older men who either give them money or treat them well – who knows what.
Jon: It's not prostitution. They’re very clear not to use the “p” word, and “escorts.” It's something different.
Katie: Yeah. I'm not going to call it prostitution, but I think this website goes out of its way to draw distinctions and to close its eyes to things that it chooses not to see. It is marketed to college students and older men, and it tells younger women that this is a good way to help pay off their college debt. You do the math.
They say that if you explicitly discuss sex for money over their platform, through their messaging systems, then you have violated the terms of service and they’ll allegedly throw you off the site.
Against the backdrop of this happening, we focused on a story about a particular woman who, just a year or two out of college, moves to New York thinking that it's going to be all glamour and fabulousness, and instead it's incredibly expensive and lonely and she can't pay her bills. A friend suggests that she try this sugar dating stuff on Seeking Arrangements, and she ends up hooking up with a guy who scams her.
He promises to pay her and says that they're going to have a weekly or monthly meeting and she's going to be on some sort of retainer, and he then wants to pay her on a PayPal app.
Jon: So they make this plan to meet at a hotel.
Katie: Because he says that the last sugar baby he was with took care of all those details, and of course the only reason he's looking for a new sugar baby is because the old sugar baby made so much money off of their arrangement that she's now in graduate school.
So he's looking for a new regular person, and with the old regular person, she would get the hotel rooms and he would pay her back in addition to paying her to go to Drybar to get her hair blown out and to wear high heels and some cheesy lingerie, I believe, and to do a smoky eye and a nude lip – which is just a weird thing for a straight man to say anyway.
Jon: [laughs] Yeah, that should’ve been a little bit of a red flag. Does any guy know what the hell – I have no idea what that means.
Katie: Yeah. I only have a passing familiarity with what those terms mean. Then he wants her to bring a friend and he's going to pay the friend too, so she talks a friend into doing it, and she gets the hotel room and they get their hair done and they do the whole thing, and they meet him in the hotel room. He says, “OK, download the PayPal app. Here's how it's going to work.”
He quickly punches something into his phone and flashes it to them and says, “See? Payment's going through. Now everyone shut their phones off.” So they shut their phones off and they have sex with him. Then they leave and they turn their phones on and they see that he never hit “accept’ on their payment request.
But then the main woman involved finds out through a crazy happenstance – which you should just google “sugar dating” and New York Times and you'll find this story – she finds another woman that this guy seems like is trying to set up, and she and this woman in cahoots with one another turn around and set this man up. It's a really incredible caper.
Jon: It's an incredible caper and I won't ruin the ending, but it's almost like a sting operation. You guys were able to get in touch with him, right? Or you were? Did you call him?
Katie: I did. I called him.
Jon: What was that like?
Katie: It was very complicated because originally – we had a lot of internal discussions about issues of privacy, because though this guy used to work for Mayor de Blasio, we were able to talk to some City Hall people and look up his salary, which is part of the public record, and find that he was more of a bureaucrat than an aide to the mayor. So we didn't feel this was a situation where an aide to Mayor de Blasio was involved in this.
Jon: If that had been the case, would you have escalated it to a different news desk? Does it become a different story?
Katie: We might have named him in the main story. That was really the question. Do we name him? We ultimately decided not to in the original story.
Jon: Why was that? Why did you decide not to name him? I'm just curious.
Katie: Because we felt that he was a private person. He hadn't broken the law. It was not my call. But there were a lot of discussions about what the appropriate thing to do was. He's married and he has children, and we decided that a private person cheating on their wife and scamming girls who are going on a website in order to find people to give them money for sex was not – we just didn’t name him. But it was a very thought-through decision.
I called him, and he didn't deny it. He said he didn't remember promising to pay them. I was surprised that that was what he came up with. But he confirmed a lot of things.
Jon: Did he seem very nervous when you called?
Katie: I found him to be disarmingly calm in the few times that I spoke to him. I sort of struggled with that. I found it very off-putting. Someone I was talking to said if you're good at scamming women, if you're going to sit there with the PayPal app going through in the hotel room and telling the girls to shut the phone off, you’d better have nerves of steel.
Jon: That's true.
Katie: So he was very calm. I told him that we were likely not to name him and I would tell him if that changed, and we didn't name him. The story came out and the story blew up online, and then I started getting emails from other women saying that this same man had done the same thing to them over the course of years. So we did a second story, and we did name him.
We did a follow-up story where we then decided that this was a serial predator of sorts and that he had been doing this to a number of women that I was aware of and was able to verify, and we named him.
Katie: That conversation, when I called him to let him know that we were going to be naming him was – there's conversations that you really have to psych yourself up as a reporter to make them, and that definitely was one. [laughs]
Jon: That must've been a really hard phone call to make. Was he just as calm getting that news, when he got it the second time?
Katie: He was less calm, but he was still really calm considering what he was being told. I was pretty – I mean, I didn't soft pedal it. I wasn't worried about him being mad or upset with me. It's just hard to say. I texted him and I said, “I'm hearing from more women, and you and I need to talk.”
I asked him how many times he's done this, and he said five. We put it in the story as five, but it’s sort of like when a doctor asks you how many drinks a week you have and you’re like, “Just two! Two glasses of wine a week, that’s it.”
But then he said, “Why are you obsessed with my sex life?” I said, “I'm not obsessed with your sex life. I'm obsessed with women going onto this website because they have no money and think it's going to help them pay their bills, and instead they have sex without actually giving consent because they're consenting to a different situation with a man who sticks them with a hotel bill. That's where I'm obsessed.”
Jon: Do we know what's happened to this gentleman?
Katie: There may be more that I report about this.
Jon: Oh, it's a cliffhanger. I love it.
Katie: But do I think we're going to revisit the story.
Jon: All right, we're going to get off this story in a second, but I have one more question about it. How did you find your main subject? The woman who left Mystic, Connecticut and went to the big city and then was realizing that she – because I would feel like a lot of women would be maybe hesitant to talk about that. Especially, she gives you her first and last name. It's not anonymous.
Katie: She knew somebody who knew somebody here, and that person contacted someone at the New York Times, and that person at the New York Times came to me and said “I just heard a crazy story. I don't even know if it's even true, but it's a story for you if it's a story for anybody.”
So I started talking to the two women who pulled off this sort of caper, this sort of sting operation. I spent a long time on the story because first I just sat with it a while. I just wasn't sure. I didn't want to be scammed. It’s not that I was uncomfortable; I just wasn't yet comfortable, and I felt like there was no need to rush a story like this.
I told them that there was going to be no story without at least the main woman on the record, that the New York Times was not going to run a story –
Katie: Yeah. I'm not going to do a story where we don't name a single person in the story but tell this story that is so hard to believe.
Then I spent more and more time talking to these women. The woman who ultimately did go on the record, I came to find very, very credible. I was able to verify things with the hotel and with the other woman, this friend who she had brought along to the rendezvous that she went uncompensated for.
She really felt in some ways this was an important story – I mean, it's a very entertaining story, but it to me felt important because where is a woman supposed to go to when she has something happen to her and she's doing something that in the best case scenario is going to be very, very frowned upon and in the worst case scenario might be illegal? She has no recourse. She has nowhere to go to.
She doesn't feel that she was sexually violated in any sort of way, but I think on paper you could make the argument that she said yes to something different than she ultimately did. She said yes to sex to somebody who was lying and scamming her.
I just started thinking about all the millions of people on this Seeking Arrangements website. When something goes wrong – and God forbid something goes violently wrong – who are they going to tell? They're going to call the police and say “this guy who paid me to have sex with him raped me”? Or go to their parents and say “I was going to pay my student loan off by having sex with this guy, but instead he sent me the hotel bill”?
I was really struck by how diabolical it is to target these women who have nowhere to go, and that this woman, Chandler, felt so strongly about doing something to protect other women. I really admired her.
Jon: Yeah, because she probably didn't get her money back ultimately, right? Did she?
Katie: No, she didn't get her money back, and she's out there in the New York Times having talked about –
Jon: Right, so that's the first thing to come up in Google search now, probably for the rest of her life.
Katie: Yeah. I think she dealt with some blowback from her family. I think hopefully in the long run she can or will feel good about what she did, because a lot of other women came forward and said “this happened to me too.”
Jon: Do you run stories through a filter? I'm hearing now what intrigued you about that particular story, but do you have in your head a filter saying, “OK, this is relevant, this makes an interesting cultural argument, this is about gender”? How does a story pass the muster for you to even pursue it?
Katie: It has to be bigger than the story itself. I don't think that's me as much as that’s stories in the New York Times and in publications like the New York Times. I mean, listen, if I were reporting on President Trump, what President Trump says and does, the larger implications are a part of the fact that he's president of the United States.
But when you're doing a feature story, there has to be something larger that either connects to more people than you're including in your story or says something about the culture. In the example of the story I did about kids making PowerPoint presentations to their parents in an effort to get a dog, a phone, to be allowed to wear makeup, things like that – I loved this story. I thought it was hilarious.
Jon: That was amazing. I was not aware of that, but your daughter was an inspiration to the story.
Katie: My daughter, who's 10, sat us down one night and said “I've got something to show you, and please don't interrupt until it's done,” and she presents this incredible PowerPoint presentation entitled “Why I Deserve a Phone.” She wants an iPhone. It was really unbelievably genius and manipulative.
Jon: That’s so cute.
Katie: She gave every worst case scenario, every parent's worst nightmare about like there's a lockdown in school and everybody else can call their parents. Really, she went for it.
Jon: By the way, did she get the phone?
Katie: She has not gotten a phone.
Jon: [laughs] Oh my God, after all that.
Katie: We got her brother one when he was 11 because he started taking the city bus to school, so we felt like he needed a phone. But my daughter is not doing that yet. But I don't know. She's really continuing to do the whole [unclear].
So she does this PowerPoint presentation. We were blown away by it. My son was home and he had a friend over. I said, “Is this a thing? Do kids do this?”, and this little girl said “Yeah, kids do PowerPoints to convince their parents of stuff.” She had in fact done a PowerPoint to try to convince her parents to let her have a dog.
Then I go on Twitter and I start doing searches for PowerPoint and parents, and I find a number of examples of either parents or relatives saying “my little brother did a PowerPoint,” blah blah blah blah blah. So I decide, OK, I love this. This is a story. This is hilarious.
Jon: It’s a great story.
Katie: But what does it mean? It sometimes comes down to one sentence, and to me the one sentence was: in a day where adults manage many if not most of their relationships using digital products, whether it's Tinder or Gchat or whatever it is, kids feel that the way to connect with their parents –
Jon: Meet them on their playing field.
Katie: Yeah, like have a meeting. That's how kids see a way to get through to their parents.
Jon: And it's not just an urban thing, right? It’s all over the country.
Katie: No, not at all. That was another thing. It needed to not just be what was going on in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In the story I had a kid in Kentucky, a kid in Texas, Georgia, Chicago.
Another thing is schools use PowerPoint technology. I think kids are familiar with it. They often have to make school presentations using PowerPoint or Google Slide. So it's something that they're familiar with working with.
Jon: So it has to be bigger than the story. That’s a really good example. It’s not just that a lot of kids are doing PowerPoints, but what does it mean, like the “why” of that story. Why are they doing it?
Katie: I think the “why” matters, and I think the “why” of stories can be the most interesting part of the story – even if it's just that you say the “why” in one sentence. It doesn't have to be paragraphs and paragraphs of “in a day and age when…” But figuring out what that “why” is and just putting it somewhere high up in the story I think is what elevates something.
Jon: How many stories are you writing a week? Do you have a quota that you need to hit a week? Because a story like that takes a lot of time to research. How does that work?
Katie: I got my performance review recently, and I'm not hitting the quota quite as well as I should be. But I don't have a number of stories a week because I don't have a story every week.
For example, the sugar dating story, I found out about it in May and we ran it in September. I wasn't only working on that the whole time by any means. Right now I'm actively reporting one story that is due next week. I am queuing up what I need to do to report a story the following week.
Jon: You're always busy. Whenever I call you’re always like, “I’m on a deadline!” I don’t mean it like that, but you’re always very, very busy. [laughs]
Katie: [laughs] I am busy. I’m really busy. I've got two kids, and I'm not great with time management.
Jon: No, you’re amazing.
Katie: Maybe that’s not fair to me, but I need to exercise, I try to be a mom, I've got this job.
Jon: It’s a great job. Let's talk about how you got that job. Tell me a little bit about your origin story. Where did you come from? When was the first time that you discovered that you wanted to be a writer?
Katie: I came from this place called Michigan. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and then I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
I always was writing. I wrote in a journal. I wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper. I was always, always writing. Always, always writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't really sure what that meant.
I went to the University of Michigan, which has a very august and famous student newspaper, and I did not write for it because – and this is a really, really good reason to not take a great opportunity that's right in front of you – because my dad pushed me about it too much, so I refuse to do it. He would be like, “You have to join the Daily.” I’d be like, “You join the Daily.” [laughs]
Jon: [laughs] “You do it.”
Katie: Yeah. I was like, “Stop living vicariously through me. Reenroll in college and write for the Daily yourself, Dad!” So I refused to write for the Michigan Daily – if the Michigan Daily would’ve had me; I don't want to make any assumptions – and missed the incredible opportunity there.
After I graduated, really didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I moved to Washington D.C., where my older sister lives, and I slept on her couch and then sublet a place. I was a receptionist at a law firm, I was a waitress, and then I decided I should move to New York – which I had been to once before, and I knew one person there.
I moved to New York and I just hustled, tried to call anyone who I knew or that my parents knew or whatever. I was very lucky and able to get myself a job that doesn't exist that much anymore as an editorial assistant at Elle magazine. I did that for almost three years.
I worked for this incredible woman named Elaina Richardson, who I remain very close to. She was a true mentor and gave me a lot of opportunity to learn about the magazine business. I didn’t really learn that much about journalism because at Elle at the time, a lot of the bigger pieces were outsourced to freelancers. So you weren't actually watching that process of reporting, but certainly Elaina was the editor in chief of Elle, so I was very privy to the goings-on of running a glossy magazine.
Jon: After you were an editorial assistant at Elle, what was your next move?
Katie: I went to work at Brill's Content, a magazine that no longer exists.
Jon: Oh yeah, Steven Brill.
Katie: Steven Brill, very legendary journalist. It was boot camp. It was intense and competitive.
Jon: And it was about journalism, right?
Katie: Yes. It reported on behind-the-scenes of what goes in the making of the news, which now is really a part of every publication, but it was fairly unusual in its time. It was a crazy and amazing experience for all sorts of reasons. He’s really known for many things, but certainly training journalists.
I was very lucky to learn from him, though it’s a tough way to learn and it's not the sort of culture that could exist now. A lot of yelling, a lot of mean criticism. Empathy is too much a part of corporate culture now.
Jon: Not a place for millennials, necessarily. [laughs]
Katie: Not a place for millennials. It was tough. A lot of crying in the office and stuff. Not only me, but certainly me.
Jon: But you learned how to be a reporter, I guess, there.
Katie: I did. Incredible. I wouldn’t [unintelligible], but I’m certainly glad it's done. I stayed there maybe two years, and then I got a job at the Wall Street Journal in 2004. I worked at the Wall Street Journal from 2004 till 2014, so I was there for 10 years, and it was obviously a very important part of my career and I continued to learn a ton about reporting there.
Jon: I know you're very thorough. When I've written for you, you're like, “Did you check that? I don't like when facts are not checked.” You have to get your facts right.
Katie: I'm a crazy fact checker. It doesn't mean I don't make mistakes sometimes, but it's certainly not because I was careless. Usually, at least.
When it comes to fact checking, I am a very big believer in – and I don't see it done as much as I wish I did – printing out the story on paper and taking a pencil and reading through it and putting a line through every single word as you've read it. I’m like, “Yes, I know this is true. Yes I've checked this. Let me go back and check that.” When you have a proper name of a person or a business or something, putting a line through every single letter in the word to check that you've spelled it correctly.
I think it's very hard to fact check on-screen in that way. I’m sure with breaking news, some people don't even have the time to do it that way, necessarily, but I'm a big believer in having a master document where you end up annotating what your sourcing is for everything and crossing out every word. Then if somebody says you've made a mistake or something, you can go back. Doesn't mean that you're right for sure, but you can see where you checked it and where you got the information from, and it forces you to go back and verify everything. So I do that like crazy.
I also think it's really, really important to speak to people. There's so much reporting that now goes over text, over email, over Gchat. I just think it's really, really important to pick up the phone – which of course is secondary to meeting with somebody in person. Again, a luxury that can't happen all the time, but you've got to pick up the phone and speak to people. You have to.
Also, you need to know that they are who they say they are. If you email somebody questions, it's like you're getting a statement. You're not getting an interview.
Jon: We were going to do an email for this conversation. I was going to just email you questions, and that wouldn't work out for a podcast, unfortunately, we realized.
Katie: No. That is not good for a podcast, and you can’t build a rapport.
Jon: It's terrible. I mean, it's definitely a big timesaver, and I'm sure you sometimes – if you need just a quote from somebody, do you sometimes say “can I get your” – or do you almost always get them on the phone?
Katie: I wouldn't just take a quote from someone over email, unless they said “The only way I'll do it is if I can just email you a quote.” Then I will say, “I'm going to say in the story that it came from an email.” I'm not going to present it as something that came in conversation. Sometimes that'll force people to get on the phone. You can say “it’s just going to sound stilted,” or I'll say “If you're too busy I'll call someone else for the story.”
Now, if it's a story where I need somebody’s comment because there's going to be things said about the person and they need their opportunity to respond and they will only respond over email, then it's not up to me. Journalistically, I have to make sure that their responses get in the story.
But then I will say, “so-and-so said in an emailed statement,” because you also don't know – is it coming from that person? Is it coming from a lawyer, from a publicist? So I try to be clear with readers about that.
Jon: I want to ask you one thing about your learnings, because you're a wealth of information, especially for aspiring reporters.
How do you find your sources? Let's just take the PowerPoint story. That story originated because your daughter made this adorable pitch for a cellphone, but then you said you went right to Twitter to see if this was a real thing. Is that often your instinct? I guess every story is different, but how do you find people to talk to you about things or figure out what experts should weigh in on this or that?
Katie: For the case of the PowerPoint – hold on. I’m going over my time on my conference.
Jon: OK. Do you want to get off?
Katie: I'll go in the hallway.
So for the PowerPoint story, I found all these examples on Twitter of people, like I said, saying “my brother did one, my so-and-so.” You start with that, but then you have to find those people because you have to talk on the phone with them. You can't just…
Jon: Take their twitter.
Katie: So I would send a direct message to someone and say, “I'm interested in this. Could you put me in touch with your mom or your dad or your parents?” Then I would speak to the parent on the phone and I would ask permission to talk to the kid on the phone. So for that story, it worked like that.
For a story I'm doing right now that has some sort of LA connection, I'll call the couple of people in LA who tend to be my go-to’s and I'll say “Just on background, meaning I'm not going to quote you, who do you think I should talk to?” They'll say, “I don't know if this person will be the person to talk to, but they might know the person to talk to.”
So I'll call them and I'll say, “It’s Katie Rosman from the New York Times. So-and-so said I should reach out and that you might be able to help,” and then that person will say, “I'm not the person, but this person might know.”
Hopefully you can get to the people who are primary sources, who have actual knowledge of what you're looking to find out about, without going through too many loops. But sometimes you go through a lot of loops.
I really am a big believer that there's no such thing as a wasted phone call. You never know. You’re making a connection, and that person could be great for the next story. I tend not to think those things are time-wasting.
Jon: Do you have a little recorder, like an automatic recorder on your New York Times phone so that you can record all your conversations? Or do you take notes as you’re talking? Are you clicking away?
Katie: We take notes. There was this big brouhaha on Twitter this week about whether to record conversations or not. Of course, if you are going to have a long, serious interview with somebody, you should try to record it. You should also try to do it in person. You set a phone down or a recorder down in front of them and you ask their permission – which you always have to do as a journalist.
So yes, when you can, you always record. But when you're a newspaper reporter on short, quick deadlines and having a number of phone calls that you have no idea if something's going to be relevant or not, I don't. I will speak for myself. I don't generally record telephone conversations, and I don't have the mechanism to do that.
Jon: Are you a really fast typist? So you've got them on your headphones and you’re just typing?
Katie: Yeah, I’m a really fast typist. Also, during the fact checking process – which again, as a feature reporter, I have more time than somebody who’s in breaking news about the Justice Department – but I generally will call back every person quoted in the story and I will paraphrase what is being attributed to them.
If they object to a fact – I won't take something back because they don't like it, but if they say I've gotten something wrong, then we can talk about it then. But also, if I somehow in paraphrasing use a particular word that actually isn't a quote and they say, “I would never ever use that word. I couldn’t possibly have said that. I would never ever use that word,” I'll say, “OK, so tell me.”
Jon: Yeah, what word would you…
Katie: Yeah. And they’ll say it, and I will write it down and I will stick that quote in.
Jon: I don't know if you can talk about this – because you're in front of all your colleagues now, right? Sitting in the hallway of the New York Times. [laughs] I'll ask the question anyway. You can tell me.
I remember having a conversation, and it was so funny, because you're actually very funny – and funny in this interview, but you're very funny. Some of your emails to me just make me laugh out loud. You were saying, “This is the story that's going to do it. This is the story that's going to expose me as a fraud. This is the one that's going to” – you know, impostor syndrome and all this stuff.
Here you are, an incredibly accomplished New York Times writer. It’s the highest echelon of journalism you can be in. It was just refreshing to know that even you had doubts and insecurities about writing. I don't know, I just wanted to put it out there because I just found it very refreshing.
I think anybody who's an aspiring writer would probably like to know that I'm not the only person that writes something and is like, “This sucks. I suck. This is the story that's going to expose me as being the suckiest writer ever.”
Katie: Every single story is the last story of my career. Every single story is the one that it’s just going to be over, it’s done, why am I even wasting my time trying to write it? It's never going to run, I’m going to be fired, and I never should have left Michigan. Every single story.
I hate writing. I hate it. I always say, and I think more famous people have said it before me, that I hate writing. I love having written. I'll go back and read a story and be like, “Wow, Katie, you're such a good writer!” But during the time, every word kills me. I hate it. I find it to be an agonizing process.
Jon: That is so refreshing to hear, because I am so with you. Which is probably why I'm so into podcasting these days, because it doesn't have that same kind of –
Katie: Yeah, this is easy.
Jon: This is fun.
Katie: This is good.
Jon: I get to talk.
Katie: I’m happy to chat. I love the reporting. I love talking to people and I love trying to get to the bottom of something and I love trying to get information that somebody doesn’t want me to have. I love it all, and then when it comes to write, I’m just like, “Why did I pitch this story? I don’t want to do this. I can’t do it. I can’t write. I don’t know how to start. I don’t know what to say in the middle, I don’t know how to finish. This is the worst.”
Jon: Do you think that's what keeps you going? I mean, there's a part of you that does that – that kind of anxiety keeps you motivated? Who knows?
Katie: I don't know.
Jon: Maybe you could ask your shrink about that. [laughs]
Katie: Yeah. It keeps me going to yoga, but I don't know that it keeps me going. I could do without it, and frankly it’s – I had a recent conversation with my editor where she was like, “The anxiety you feel about writing slows you down and it's unnecessary. You're a good writer.” I mean, my story is always improved by editing. I'm hardly somebody who commits my prose to the page and it just zooms into print.
Jon: You're a good editor. You added a few lines to my story, one of the stories I wrote for you, that were so good.
Katie: Oh, good, I’m glad.
Jon: Yeah. Something about “He asked Google; Google said no.” It was just a really good little clever phrase that I was really happy was in there, because I was like, “I wouldn't have written that and that sounds good.”
Katie: The collaborative process is very, very important. It really is. Part of the anxiety with writing is that it's been completely solitary until that moment, and you're putting something down that is then going to be shared, at least initially, with an editor. But it's always great. I don't mind doing a rewrite. I'm great with a rewrite. I’m great with doing editing.
Jon: It’s the first – yeah, the first draft is just hell.
Katie: It goes from not being something, that blank page, and filling it up with words is just – I just find it agonizing.
Jon: Excruciating. It's refreshing to know that you are so honest that you can admit that. There's nothing I can say to tell you that you're crazy because you're such a good writer. [laughs]
Katie: I appreciate it. But even journalism where you're telling other people's stories and where sometimes it's fact, fact, fact, fact, fact, it’s still coming from your heart and it's still something that you've put together with your brain. So it's personal, and that's scary.
Jon: Yeah. It's you, it's your name. It's right there. Would you do any other job? Do you ever have fantasies about doing anything else? I mean, of course we all fantasize sometimes, like “I just don't be doing this.”
Katie: Not really. I mean, I've thought of other things related to doing other things that are offshoots of what I do now. But I really feel like this is who I am as much as it's what I do.
Jon: Any books in your future?
Katie: Any books in my future? No, not right now. You have to really want to live with something for a couple years, and there's nothing that I've come across that I want to have my sole focus for a couple years right now. The pace of the newspaper suits me right now with my family life.
Jon: Yeah. All right. Well, you're awesome, Katie.
Katie: Thank you.
Jon: Thank you for taking this time to talk to me. I can't wait to read your next story, and I'm now going to go immediately and find the follow-up story on the sugar dating, because that is fascinating.
Katie: I’ll send it to you when I get back up to my desk right now.
Jon: [laughs] OK. Take care.
Katie: It was great to talk to you.
Ella: Thank you for listening to Write About Now, hosted by my dad, Jonathan Small. Do you like what you heard? Please subscribe to his podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you may find podcasts. Or you can go to his website, writeaboutnowmedia.com, and listen there. This is Ella, reminding you to…
Jon and Ella: Do the write thing!
Jon: Thanks, Ella.
Ella: You’re welcome.
Ella: Can I listen to it?