An interview with Jeanne Marie Laskas

What made you want to go into journalism?

I wanted to pursue the one thing I felt confident in, which was telling stories. I was a really shy kid so it was a big deal for me to kind of talk to strangers and part of it was sort of overcoming that too – talking to strangers and writing about them in my field.

What’s the most rewarding
aspect of being a journalist?

Oh boy. It’s changed, honestly, in the last couple of months. It really has. I think it was always rewarding to be paid to do what you love, for me personally. I just love the work so much. It’s like an artist getting to be a sculptor. Like, “Oh, you are going to pay me to do this?” I feel a little bit that way, personally. As we move into this strange time of so called fake news, and our political discourse pushing back on this world of reporting, it just put in relief how important real stories are and the responsibility of journalism, of journalist to doubt and to stay curious and to not accept the first answer and to be skeptical and to push until they get to the truth. Maybe I took that for granted before, but now I don’t take it for granted. Now I’m so grateful that there are those kind of reporters out there doing that kind of work.

When you say reporters doing “that kind of work,” what do you think constitutes good journalism? Do you have an example of a recent report you’ve read that shows why journalism matters right now?

Well, it’s hitting me in the face right now with all the political reporting – the events of the last week and the reporting going on in the White House. I don’t do that kind of work, that daily journalism. So that kind of stuff is in the foreground right now, but longer, wider lens is more the work I do. Equally important in this long-form journalism … is that I need to now learn about my neighbors in the Rust Belt and who they are and what their issues are and what they are so desperate about that led us into this current climate. It’s something not to make fun of. It’s something the cultural elites don’t understand – the Rust Belt. And now we need to. I need to, as a journalist, get in there and be a translator for that world, and I feel like that is just vital in this climate. So yeah, it matters.

How do you decide what topics you are going to delve into? You said it takes you around six months to produce a story. So how long does it take you to really get into a topic?

Well sometimes, things are a lot shorter than that. … Sometimes, it’s just a really specific thing. … I did a story about a guy who got a face transplant and my question in that was, “So, what’s it like to walk around with someone else’s face?” It wasn’t really a wide lens. It was really narrow. So, that’s like specific, but these wider lens stories, like this Rust Belt story I’m thinking about, are a little bit like a coal mining story I once did where I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. I just need to understand this culture. And so I will dive in and find the characters who I will follow that will help me tell the story of this culture and what moves it, and what matters to it and what the values are.

What prompted you to
investigate the concussion story?

It was a little hidden piece. Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story was a hidden, unknown piece of that whole concussion conversation going on, and it ended up being the key piece – the guy who figured out the disease. So, when I found him and found that he had been ousted, I just couldn’t believe the world didn’t know about him. I just couldn’t believe it. I almost felt obligated to tell his story and it opened up the conversation in the way that hadn’t yet been open.

You’ve worked in the industry for 20 years and worked for
a range of publications, and have had a variety of different audiences. What do you think you’ve gained from those
experiences?

I think it keeps you fresh. … I’m writing for GQ magazine. I’m a woman writing for a men’s fashion magazine, what is that? Who are these readers? But, some of the best writing is in that magazine, GQ and Esquire. But, that audience is really specific. It’s male. It’s young usually, wealthy. And I try not to think about who I’m writing for because I want to say to myself, “Well, they are just like anybody, ultimately. If I care about a coal miner, they’ll care about a coal miner. We’re going to meet in the middle somewhere.” So that’s really a specific audience, but when I’m writing for the New York Times Magazine, it’s so much broader. There’s women. There’s children. There’s academics. There’s just a much wider swath, and you’d think that would be freeing, but in fact, sometimes, it’s more narrowing. You have to appeal to so many different people. I feel the danger is that your writing can get bland. You take fewer risks when the audience is giant like that. I do, but it’s good experience.

Is there any piece of journalism that you are particularly proud of?

I did a profile of Joe Biden for GQ, and it took me forever. I spent so much time with that guy. We went to see the Pope, for God’s sake, but the story was really boring. It was just politician, politician, politician, even though I knew he was so much more interesting. I couldn’t get a moment with him when he was real, and so I wouldn’t write it until finally, the key to the whole thing ended up being him going to Wilmington, to where he grew up, and I got invited along to go on that trip and it literally was just walking around Wilmington, his boyhood home, where he used to swim, where he used to walk into the woods. He just opened up and he became this lovable character, no longer a politician. I got to write that story.

What advice do you have
for writers, more specifically
upcoming writers who want
to enter your field?

The two biggest things are to write like crazy, constantly, no matter if you are publishing it or not. Just to get practice. Just like piano-playing – you don’t start with a symphony. You just got to play and play and play. It’s the same thing. Write and write and write and read and read and read. Specifically, find writers, journalists, whose work you admire and follow them and read them. … Study them. Copy them. Try and write like them for a while as you hone your own craft. And I think you should publish online no matter who will publish you, even if it’s your own blog.

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