Mandela’s South Africa

Mandela’s South Africa

Even when it’s expected, death still surprises. Prior to Mandela’s death, I had numerous conversations with editors about content that they wanted to have at the ready. It’s standard practice for news organizations to prepare obituaries of well-known people on file, but the preparations for Mandela were extreme. In the hours and days after the […]

On Instagram and Scooping Yourself

On Instagram and Scooping Yourself

This morning, after I’d briefed the photographer about the story in progress, we waited in the parking lot of a community hall for a source to arrive and escort us to a new location. I walked to the slightly crumbling mural of O.R. Tambo, snapped a photo, and posted it to my nascent Instagram account. […]

Pistorius sentencing and reporting come to an end

Since February 2012, when Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp, USA Today has asked me to go out and speak with those so-called regular people to get their take on the unfolding facts. Cell phones make person-on-the street interviews tough. Look around any public area: the people by themselves are invariably chatting on their mobile, or […]

Ebola as a geography teaching tool

On a nonstop flight from London Heathrow to Cape Town last week, I had to sign a compulsory new form stating that I didn’t have any ebola-like symptoms, and that I would notify … er, somebody, possibly the Department of Home Affairs, though they didn’t provide any sort of literature for me to take with, […]

The other B word

Posted in business, journalism
The other B word

My latest for Balanced Life is a piece about the hot B word, Bossy. As one of the women I interviewed said, “It’s not a case of being bossy. I am the boss.” Bossiness can sometimes be confused with bullying, which is psychologically more challenging to deal with–think sabotage, humiliation, and intimidation. According to the […]

Jerry Seinfeld: How to Write a Joke

The wronger it feels, the righter it is, says Jerry Seinfeld about joke writing.

Real success, real failure, real people

Real success, real failure, real people

On the ever growing list of “Who Remembers How These Things Worked Before the Internet?” is the finding of so-called real people for articles–that is, people who will speak on the record about their own personal experiences. Rather than an expert trend analyst who comments on data, these people are in fact a single data […]

How do you answer, “Who do you write for?”

How do you answer, “Who do you write for?”

Like most questions about freelace writing and journalism, the real answer here is, “It depends.” When sending a query to a new-to-me editor, typically my bio line lists a few credits tailored to the publication. If, say, it’s a enviro/science story, I’ll mention Discover and Ensia; architecture editors find out about Dwell; education editors are […]

John Oliver on native advertising

Posted in journalism

The best analogy I’ve heard in a while compares how advertising and editorial are like licorice and guacamole. “Separately, they’re good. But if you mix them together, somehow you make them really gross,” quips John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight.” His riff on native advertising pretty much covers it all:

Vanity searches and Danzy Senna

Whenever Google finds somebody with my name (such as me, or the real estate agent, or the OB/GYN, or the Chicago English lecturer) doing something new, a message alert pops up. The main purpose of this is to catch new articles when they are published online. Sometimes vanity searches turn up reprints or references, such […]

Mandela Day

Mandela Day

Mandela Day has been an informal day of service here in South Africa for several years, where people are asked to contribute 67 minutes in “service to one’s fellow human” in honor of Mandela’s birthday. (One minute for each year of service he gave the country.) This is the first Mandela Day since Madiba’s death, […]

Mandela paralyzes Koppel

On the eve of Mandela Day, what more could you want than a genuine laugh with Madiba:

Screen saver

Screen saver

My annual visits to the optometrist followed a clear pattern: for many years, my eyes became continually more nearsighted. With glasses or contact lenses, vision was 20/20, and at some point the technology improved enough to render lenses thin enough to throw away the coke-bottle glasses of childhood forever. Great stuff for somebody who surely […]

Wole Soyinka turns 80

Wole Soyinka turns 80

Over time, most interviews, be they phoners or even in-person, start to blur together. Some stand out in your memory because of a great conversation or odd location; Wole Soyinka was a bit of both. When I met him for lunch a few years ago, it was with a small group of other journalists, so […]

An even shittier first draft

Posted in writing
An even shittier first draft

Writing longhand is something of a luxury. It takes more time than typing just on the first draft, and at some point I then have to enter it onto the computer. The quality is often messier–an even shittier first draft, to paraphrase Anne Lammott–yet it’s usually a richer experience that somehow lets me make different […]

A story killed and resurrected

A story killed and resurrected

Throughout my years of freelance writing, there is one recurring situation that is genuinely tricky to prevent: the story that gets killed because the assigning editor leaves the publication. You might think that the new editor would be so busy trying to get up to speed that the last thing they’d do is kill a […]

Gaggle or gang?

Posted in animals, editing

On land, a gaggle or flock. In flight, a skein or team. When flying closely together, a plump. But when sizing up passersby (not to mention leaving untenable amounts of green poop), the new collective noun for geese should be a gang.

On My Bookshelf: New Life, No Instructions

On My Bookshelf: New Life, No Instructions

Cherry red. Deep blue. When visiting New York, off-white with a thin seafoam stripe. Whomever designs veterinary surgical tape knows that when your dog comes out of the back room, the best response is, “Ooh, how cute you look, all bandaged up!” My dog, a red fawn Shar-pei, has always gotten a lot of attention, […]

The reporting for this story stinks

The reporting for this story stinks

Move over, grass-fed beef. Insect-fed fish have arrived. Standing in a room of one million flies, my senses were at full alert. Each cage undulated with wriggling waves of the buggers, and the stench was powerful. Ostensibly all the insects were secured into compartments, but if even a half a percent were free, that’s a […]

Conference call

Posted in business, freelance

Conference calls are a part of a freelance writer’s life, but often they leave me feeling like I should have received hardship pay. This little video, “A Conference Call in Real Life,” transforms every bit that is super unfunny in real life. In the sequel, I’m guessing there will be somebody getting dressed or eating […]