Career Profile: Flowers, freebies and other wonderful things that come with winning a Pulitzer Prize
Truth be told, Kathleen Gallagher's career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel almost never happened.
She had worked in Chicago at the Federal Reserve Bank, writing newsletters and editing budgets. By the time she started freelancing in Wisconsin, she was in her early thirties. She did some stringing for the Milwuakee Sentinel, but the state editor almost refused to meet her in person.
When the paper lost its banking reporter, then-business editor George Stanley looked past her lack of newspaper experience. "It took him six months to convince them to hire me," Gallagher says. "George finally hired me and I'm convinced he's the only person in either organization who ever would have hired me." [She explains how she got her break in the audio clip below.]
The Sentinel merged with the Milwaukee Journal in 1995 to create the Journal Sentinel and Stanley became the managing editor. Gallagher, the once-inexperienced, banking-turned-biotech reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting this year.
The prize was awarded to the Journal Sentinel team responsible for "One in a Billion: A boy's life, a medical mystery" which Gallagher and health and science reporter Mark Johnson reported. They explained the mechanics of how they got the story to Nieman Storyboad in January. This week and next at Career GPS, Gallagher and Johnson talk about how their careers evolved and explain what makes a newsroom great. You can find the week's health media job opportunities at the end of this post and keep up with Career GPS via RSS.
The following is the transcript of a phone interview with Gallagher, edited for length and clarity. Next week, we'll feature Mark Johnson's career of many beats at many newspapers.
First of all, congratulations on winning the Pulitzer. Was that something you dreamed of in your career? Was it a goal for you?
I wouldn't say it was a goal. But it's certainly something I was aware of and knew would be great to have.
The obvious aside -- it being the most prestigious journalism award in the country -- what's good about it? What does it allow you to do in your career that you're noticing?
It has brought a lot of floral arrangements into my home. It got me free bread at the bread store the other morning. [Laughs]
You know, what's amazing about it is how known it is, not only how aware of it people are but how much they want to share it. So many sources of mine - I've been a reporter for 15 years - have called and emailed and wanted to talk about it and felt good about it. That's been really cool. We've been thinking of turning the series into a book and it certainly helped with that. And it made our agent very happy.
When you were working on "One in a Billion" with the team at the Journal Sentinel, did you know the story was going to get as much attention as it did?
We knew it was unique. Mark is the science writer and I'm a business writer, so Mark mostly had done a lot of research into whether this had ever been done before. We found one case where there had kind of been an effort to sequence all of someone's genes for diagnosis. But we couldn't find anything else so we knew it was unique. We were pretty sure we were on to something. What we said to each other many times was that because we have such a great newsroom and good, smart editors and a real infrastructure for projects we really felt like the only thing that could stop us was ourselves because everything else was in place for us to really tell this story well.
A lot of newspapers are losing their infrastructures for big projects. How is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel escaping that fate?
We have the two best editors in the country running the newspaper.
What are they doing to take on projects and keep the paper afloat?
They're really smart and very strategic. I'm a business reporter so I talk to people about that kind of thing a lot. They're really good managers, really smart about the decisions they make. We have, in the last three years, lost probably half the people in the newsroom. So this happened during a time when our staff cut in half. All along, these guys - [editor] Marty Kaiser and [managing editor] George Stanley - I think their focus has been on preserving the news gatherers. That is the most important thing to them, news gathering, and everybody knows it.
You've been at the Journal Sentinel since 1993. It's the only paper you've ever worked for. What is it about that newspaper that has kept you there and made you want to play out your whole career there?
I'm from Wisconsin to begin with. I lived in Chicago for more than a decade and wanted to come back to Wisconsin. So that's part of it. The other part - I hate to keep coming back to this - but our bosses, not only are they strategic but they're decent human beings. It's a very humane environment to work in. Not that you don't have your ups and downs. There have been times when I've been here that have been really hard. But they're just decent people which, as you know, goes a long way.
A year after I started here, the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel merged and there was hand-wringing and it was hard. Each time there has been something like this, including the lay-offs that we've had over the last few years, it has been handled so well by these two top guys.
Thinking about younger journalists, or journalists wanting to transition their career, what do you recommend they look for in considering where they want to work next?
A focus on news. That sounds flip, but I've visited other newspapers to talk about potential jobs and have been struck by how hierarchical newsrooms can be and how top-down they can be. In this newsroom, if you have a good news story, you can walk into the office of someone three levels above you and say, "I've got a really great news story." The first response is, "Yes. How can we help you tell this story?" If I were a young, aspiring journalist, that's what I would try to get a read on, whether the organization is focused on what everybody's job is and where they fit in the pecking order, or whether they are focused on news.
Have you experienced any changes or pressure at the Journal Sentinel to get more readership online?
It's not pressure here. There's an excitement here about the new ways to tell a story. Sure, we're all as worried as anyone else about how the revenue follows, but it's not about pressure. For example, we are in the process of doing our performance evaluations. The business editor said the most important thing in this evaluation is your digital strategy, which is kind of scary but in a way, how cool. Before they tell me what my digital strategy is, I get a chance to tell them what I think my digital strategy should be.
It's a reporter's newsroom. I've learned a lot from the managing editor, George Stanley, who used to be the business editor. If you had a good story, he was your best friend. And then he'd be on to the next reporter who had a good story and you'd kind of want him back. He made your good story better. It's that focus on stories, on telling the stories - that's what our job is and that's what we're here to do. I can tell at other newspapers that a lot of other things get in the way. They don't get in the way here.
I was the one who got the tip for the "One in a Billion" story and I went to Mark. We were in a project meeting pretty darn quick and in that same meeting we got assigned a photographer, an online person, a video person, a graphics person. There was nothing stopping us.
Was it the story's inherent qualities that made it such a good catch for your editors, or was it something in the way that you proposed it that helped move it so quickly?
We were just in an internal meeting meeting where some of the executives from the company asked that question. Marty Kaiser, the editor, said that Mark has again and again delivered on any project he said he was going to do, so he had high confidence that the story was in good hands. George Stanley, piped in and said that the story had all the elements that we want. It was very unique, it had a tenacious mother, a sick little boy who was doing a good job of fighting for his life, and it had local doctors and scientists who were at the cutting edge of something. So it was the story and Mark. I guess I went to the right person with the tip.
When Mark and I realized what a good story we had and sat down to do it, we decided -- it's kind of hysterical that it was my idea - that Mark would be the project leader. We agreed that if we had a fight we couldn't resolve that he would win because he was the project leader and lead writer. I really think that helped. We didn't have one fight during the whole thing. As we brought in more people it was clear to everyone that Mark was the project leader. Projects can often get bogged down with people disagreeing about how to write something or how to report. Often in a newsroom, it's never defined the way we defined it for this project. Editors just say do the project and get us the copy. For us, it was different. I'm convinced that it really worked. In fact, we have some other things we're working on and Mark is the project leader on those too.
What other kinds of daily deadlines did you have while working on your story?
I got the tip in January 2010 and we had the first interview in the family in April, and was published in December, so it was a nine months gestation. I wrote a weekly story called Investment Trends and another business story or two each week. I had 180 bylines in 2010. My regular amount of stories is probably more, but you know, I just kind of worked a lot. It was pretty intense. This was the first really big project I worked on - I had worked on smaller projects but nothing big like this.
The other stories weren't all stellar, that's for sure. But even with those - I cover investments, business technology and entrepreneurship - maybe ten were assigned. What our editors want are enterprise reporters - that term is used a lot around here. They'll assign a story if you don't have anything better, but of course we all try to have something better. Who would want an assignment when you could do your own story?
I guess if I were a younger reporter, another thing I might ask editors at newspapers is, what kind of assignments do you make and how often do you make assignments? I think the really good editors figure out what you know and get you excited about your own stories. If you're excited about your own stories, obviously you're going to bring a lot more to the table.
Does your business background help you write about health topics?
Normally I cover the business of biotech, not biotech. But we are the biggest newspaper in the state so I cover a lot of companies in Madison, where the University of Wisconsin is. Because I've been doing this for a couple of years, I know a lot of people in the biotech industry.
If you talk to the scientists you get the long explanation, and if you talk to the CEOs you get the short explanation. So I have a pretty good working understanding. Mark is much better at the deep science. For example, I covered NimbleGen Systems, which was a Madison company bought by Roche. They developed a chip used to prepare a sample for DNA sequencing. I knew a lot about it from covering those Madison biotech companies. When there's a scientific paper, Mark will read it, but I knew a lot of the business stuff. One of the main doctors we talked to, Howard Jacob who runs the genetic center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is someone I had known for quite while because he has a company and has been involved in that scene.
Are there questions you are able to think of and ask that dedicated health reporters should be asking about the business side of health?
Being a business reporter, none of it matters until it gets into the market. Mark and I were a good combination because Mark understands the science on a much deeper level than I do. What I have a good understanding of is the translational part, how it gets into the clinic and what the economics are around that. When it came to dealing with some of the companies and asking questions about the cost, I had a good background for that. Rather than the philosophical questions, my question would be, will it be profitable to sequence someone's genes?
Is there anything else you want the ReportingingonHealth community to know about your career and how you've gotten this far?
One of the challenges of a story like this is that you're in this intense interaction with doctors and scientists and with the family. In the end, we really got along well with everyone involved but it really helped to have two people. During the whole summer, while Nicholas was going through an umbilical cord transplant, it was just so intense. Having two people was so important in trying to stay in regular communication. There were times when one or other of us were wrung out by the whole thing, but we could share that task. It was so important to maintain relationships with all these people. It was hard.
Do you mean that it was emotionally taxing?
Oh yeah. We didn't know and they didn't know if Nicholas was going to survive all this. Everyone was taking a risk here. We had people ask us, how are you going to write this story if he dies? Will the family even keep talking to you? What if something goes wrong in the medical treatment? Are the doctors going to clamp up? It was pretty tense for everyone.
Hats off to the family for being so open with us and to the doctors and scientists for letting us in when they didn't know what the end was going to be. They didn't know if it was going to work. Usually you walk into a story like this when it's over and when we contacted the hospital they had just gotten the sequencing results. There was a level of trust between Mark and I and also between us and all these sources that was pretty amazing.
What experiences did you have before you started this story that put you in a good position to develop those relationships?
We both have a lot of experience as reporters and that helped a great deal. I remember as a young reporter being really hesitant to call people up and say, I have this really bad thing that I know about you and I'm going to put in a story. George Stanley would always say to me, that's the fair thing to do. If you don't tell them every bad thing that you're going to put in a story than you're not being fair with them. You have to be able to deal with things on that level. That was true in this story too. There had to be a level of direct and honest communication. We couldn't not ask the really hard questions because it wouldn't fair to them.
What's next for you?
Well, we won the Pulitzer and because of that someone called us with a really great tip, so we're onto our next story. But I can't talk about it.
Next week, Mark Johnson discusses small town papers, specialization and struggling to get Cs in high school science.
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Fellowships and Grants
National Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid six-day program in Los Angeles, $200 stipend and upon completion of what are expected to be ambitious, major fellowship projects.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "To stimulate collaboration between mainstream and ethnic media, we encourage applicants to propose a joint project for use by both media outlets. Up to two collaborators for each project may receive a stipend."
Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Grants, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to all journalist members of ReportingonHealth.org. Print, broadcast and new media journalists from anywhere in the United States are eligible to apply, as are all past fellows of the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
Included: Provides funding for proposed stories or multimedia projects that illuminate or expose critical community health or community health policy issues and acceptance to the National Health Journalism Fellowship program.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "Proposals can focus on a specific health topic or delve into a confluence of circumstances and conditions that impact health, including environment; social class; crime and violence; urban development; access to health resources or the lack thereof; school absenteeism; transportation or city planning, and and disparities in health. Topics that would NOT be eligible would include clinical trials, medical research, or the latest treatments for a disease or any project involving a population outside of the United States."
Australian-American Health Policy Fellowship, The Commonwealth Fund
Eligibility: Mid-career health services researchers or practitioners who are U.S. citizens and have completed a master's degree or doctorate (or the equivalent thereof) in health services research, health administration, health policy, or a related discipline. Applicants should demonstrate expertise in health policy issues and track record of informing health policy through research, policy analysis, health services, or clinical leadership.
Deadline: Aug. 15, 2011
From the Website: "This program offers a unique opportunity for outstanding, mid-career U.S. professionals-academics, government officials, clinical leaders, decision makers in managed care and other private health care organizations, and journalists-to spend up to 10 months in Australia conducting research and working with Australian health policy experts on issues relevant to both countries."
California Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media in California, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid seminars in Los Angeles, mentoring for completion of reporting project
Deadline: Aug. 26, 2011
From the Website: "During the Fellowship sessions, Fellows get plenty of time to discuss with experts, and with each other, strategies for covering health news with authority and sophistication. Between the two sessions and for three months after the second session, Fellows confer by phone and e-mail with veteran journalists who guide them through work on major Fellowship projects."
NABJ Media Institute on Health Reporting, National Association of Black Journalists
Eligibility:Print, broadcast and online journalists (register via website)
Program: The free one-day workshop will be held April 30, 2011 at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
From the Website:"Journalists and media professionals will leave with resources to inform and empower readers, listeners and viewers on how to take action to improve their lives through better health."
Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2011, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: AHCJ members (apply via website)
Program: The workshop will take place June 3, 2011 and includes breakfast and lunch.
From the Website:"Even if your newsroom is in a bustling city, there are untold rural health stories down the road. So join us in St. Louis for this special one-day, no-fee workshop to help you find and cover health stories in rural America."