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Coffee With A Journalist: Katherine Foley, Quartz

Coffee with a Journalist: Katherine Foley, Quartz

In Episode 20 of Coffee with a Journalist, host Beck Bamberger talks with Katherine Foley, Health and Science Reporter at Quartz. In addition to her reporting on age-related health and the science behind it, she has recently shifted to covering the COVID-19 pandemic. Katherine sits down with Beck to discuss her efforts reporting on the pandemic in new and useful ways, how she goes about writing both long and short-form stories, and the current need for curiosity and optimism within journalism. 

Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:

Her Work Inbox

Beck:

We usually go into, Katherine, the inbox and what it looks like from a journalist perspective. And I think my hypothesis is you’re going to have some different responses, but maybe not, maybe it’s going to be surprising because usually journalists get tons of pitches. And this is of course, a podcast to inform hopefully publicists and PR people what’s going on in that inbox. And how does my pitch get read? What’s your inbox like these days?

Katherine:

Well, I would say it’s tricky because I am an inbox zero kind of person.

Beck:

Another one.

Katherine:

Yeah.

Beck:

There’s only like 10% of you, I’d say.

Katherine:

So. Usually I leave things unsorted if I mean to get back to them or need to process them fully. And I would say it’s been much harder to do that. So I usually actually try to leave some time, even in normal times I would try to leave like an hour or so on the weekend just to sort everything out. But these days it’s especially hard because, I mean, I didn’t start out being a COVID reporter at all. None of us really did other than some folks who had been focused on infectious disease for a while. So I’m still getting some of the usual pitches that I would get, you would expect me to get, as a health reporter. So I still am getting some of the wellness pitches, which I almost never really pick up. That’s not really my thing.

Katherine:

I’m grateful for a lot of the different advocacy groups that are reaching out and saying like, “This is how COVID is affecting our lives. This is what we are concerned about for X, Y, and Z.” And I’m even more grateful for the statements from scientists who do have time to talk. I think that is definitely something we’ve noticed is a lot of the people that we want to get information from are really, really busy just treating everybody, which is totally understandable.

Beck:

Yeah, of course.

Katherine:

And then I think it’s interesting to me that people are always trying to sell stuff. That’s not really something we do at Quartz, but I have been getting a lot of pitches about like, “This app will help you exercise at home if you’re interested. Or these cookies are like, whatever, a special kind of cookie that you can snack on when you’re stressed eating from home and they’re somehow healthier.” And it is interesting to see how the product pitches that I get change over time. And now it definitely seems like they’re more focused on how to stay sane at home all the time. Normally during the summer months, I’d be getting stuff about Lyme disease and avoiding mosquito bites and all of that stuff.

How She Writes Stories

Beck:

So, that’s easy. Wonderful. Okay. Making a great story. So we like to talk about this too. How long and what is the process like to make a story come to life? For example, the one we were talking about before we hit record was on the business of birth and fertility, for example, and how capital intensive it is for aspirational, let’s say, parents to freeze their eggs, freeze embryos, IVF, all that stuff. And you said you were on your Twitter, and it’s a pinned pin note here. It took you several weeks on that one to probably just to research and talk to a bunch of people. So what does a story typically take, time, et cetera?

Katherine:

That’s a great question. So for the series I did on fertility, I think it was five, four or five stories. That took a really long time because I think I had pitched it even back in January and to even pitch a series of that magnitude requires at least a couple of days of research. I had sort of fallen into it because I cover a lot of age related health. And I had really been asking like, “Well, what’s the flip side of age related health?” And that comes down to fertility and looking… We looked at the different trends in fertility in developed countries. And while that’s interesting, I think what’s more interesting is the business that has come out of people trying to have babies.

Katherine:

And particularly later and later in life as we’re doing. And I mean, I think where I came at it and where I tried to add value was it really explaining the science behind the business. Because I think there are stories that you will read about either the science before it’s a final product, or just an overview of the industry. But I don’t, in my opinion, the science really informs the dystopian nature of the industry. And I only say that because it’s just such a field, it’s miraculous for people when it works. And I think it’s opened the door for a lot of people who would not be able to be biological parents to be biological parents, which is great, but I also think it is such a gamble and there’s so much uncertainty in the field overall. I think that it’s really important to understand that before going into that.

Katherine:

So I guess my goal was to produce something that is reliable and readers can feel like they learned from that also isn’t coming from a marketing place at all. Because I think a lot of the information that I found out there was being presented to me by a fertility clinic. They obviously have a vested interest in getting people to come in. And then there’s also online forums, which might not be the best. I don’t want to say they’re not valuable. Of course they’re valuable. But when looking for hard and fast scientific answers, they might be harder to peruse through.

Katherine:

So that was my goal with that series. And to go back to your question, I mean, it took me, I would say it took me a good six weeks, a good four weeks to research everything and then probably a week of writing and a week of editing and polishing. And that was a heavy lift. And I would say those series in general are heavier lifts and that’s not the typical case for our news stories. So typically, I mean, they all start the same way, which is a question that I pose to my editor. And she’ll say, “Maybe tell me more and tell me more and tell me more.”

Beck:

Okay.

Katherine:

Yeah. And I think the difference with big series versus like a shorter news story is usually I can tell her enough within a couple of check-ins over maybe a week or so. And she’ll say, “Okay, you’ve got a story there, go ahead and write.” And with those longer series, it’s like, “No, we got to make sure we organize this from the top before moving forward.”

Beck:

Oh yeah. Just to pitch a story that you want to do. And we’ve heard this from the editors who have been on the show, so you got to go to them and say like, “Hey, okay, I see this thing emerging, or I see this topic. I want to do a story on that.” How quick is that typical turnaround of the green light of like, “Yes, absolutely do that.”

Katherine:

I think it depends on the story and it depends on, I think there’s a big consideration of how big a lift something is going to be. If I find an interesting dataset that we can turn into a chart and publish it as a chart and a couple hundred words, because I already know a lot about the topic or I’ve reported on it before, that’s going to be a green light pretty quickly. I usually have a meeting once a week with my editor where we go over a couple of ideas that I’m noodling. And then she helps me prioritize what I should be working on first. And usually that’s based on how long we assume things are going to take me to report.

Katherine:

Because it does take time to find the right number of experts. I usually assume that for every three emails I send, I’ll get one response. And then you have to set up the interview time and then you have to talk to them and then you have to think about how that fits into the story overall. So I would say like our meatier stories, they can take anywhere from a full day to execute to a couple days to a week for sure.

Beck:

Well, that’s meaty. You got to get in there.

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. But I think I would be great to sit and report stories forever, but sometimes it’s really great to have that constraint on your creativity. So it forces the story to materialize as well.

The Future of Journalism

Beck:

Love it. Okay. What do you think the future of journalism looks like?

Katherine:

That is a great question.

Beck:

And maybe are you positive? Negative?

Katherine:

So one of my favorite things that someone ever told me, it was actually Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I grew up watching his show and I adored it. Like he was so proud of being so nerdy and I think I really identified with that. And he made it so it was okay to be smart and curious. Right?

Beck:

Yeah.

Katherine:

So I got the chance to interview him as an adult. And I was like, “What would you say now? We’re in such a mess right now, what do we do? What would my childhood Bill Nye’s answer be to that?” And he was like, “Well, I think we need optimism and curiosity.” And I think it’s Rebecca Solnit who wrote about how optimism is very different from hope. Hope is just assuming that things will work out, but not putting effort into it. And optimism is knowing that things can work out well, but you do have to work at it. And I think when Bill Nye mentioned that, I really feel that is sort of how we have to look at journalism too, not just the state of the world.

Katherine:

So I think we have to be curious. I think we have to pay attention to what is working for readers and what other publications are doing and what seems to be working and what we like to read. And I think that also requires us being optimistic in the sense that we know we can find the things that continue to work too, but it is going to take work and it is going to take noticing and noticing things and taking feedback and realizing that not every idea is going to be a home run, but also that all of these tries have value, just like science itself.

______

Get to know more about Katherine and her work in our blog Twitter with a Journalist: Katherine Foley, Quartz. In our Twitter with a Journalist series, we extend the Coffee with a Journalist experience onto Twitter chatting with top-tier journalists to dig deeper into their work and processes behind their reporting. Learn more about how Katherine got her role at Quartz, how her role has transitioned over time, and how she finds sources for her stories! Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter to stay up to date on all of the latest interviews and blog drops!

Mathew Cruz

Mathew started at OnePitch in January of 2020 as a Marketing Apprentice. At OnePitch, he handles content creation from social media to the OnePitch blog. Mathew studied Integrated Marketing Communications at San Diego State University. In his free time, he loves creating art, visiting museums, and traveling.

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