Food Writer Kim Severson Moves to Hard News

Jul 282010
 

As she announced on Twitter: “Look, I’ll still be writing about food. I’m just adding murder, natural disasters and politics to the mix.”

Food reporter Kim Severson is leaving her current job  at the New York Times, taking over the New York Times’ Atlanta bureau.

Why is she going? Maybe it’s for the food. In her memoir, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, there’s a chapter on meeting the late, great food writer Edna Lewis. Says Severson, “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about Southern cooking until I started reading what Miss Lewis had written. Soon it spoke to me in a way that is second only to the food of Italy.”

Or maybe she missed news reporting. Her passion for getting the story was clear when I interviewed her about a typical day as a full-time food reporter for the Times. Here’s an excerpt from the new edition of Will Write for Food:

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A NEWSPAPER REPORTER

How does a food reporter at a daily paper cover her beat?

“I wake up at 6:30 a.m. and immediately hit the email to see what’s come in overnight. I subscribe to several RSS feeds and listservs. The USDA might have a package of news releases, and there are emails from grocery manufacturers associations and restaurant associations. A host of food institutions might have a valuable story idea. I can see how something’s trending, like the peanut recall, when the emails keep coming. They keep growing until I see enough to know want to pursue it.

“I probably get 100 emails a day, most of which are people wanting a story or pitching a story, or press releases. A dozen restaurant p.r. people might want me to go to an opening, look at new menu, or taste a new dish. A similar amount comes from food companies who have new products. There are people who are outraged about something and think I will want to write a story about it. I used to try to answer every email, but I can’t anymore. It’s too much.

“I use Twitter a lot for reporting, tracking bloggers, hard-core food politics people, media reporters, and pop culture reporters. I’ll glance through the last 100 tweets, and see, for example, what’s going on with school food programs, or that someone in Omaha gets jailed for doing sous vide. There’s a little boot camp of about 200 people who send info, who help me scan this wide world. Then I’ll go check a round of websites, then read the newspapers. I make breakfast and coffee and sit down with my 2-year old.

“I come into the office between 9 and 10 a.m., and if it’s a reporting day, I get on the phone. I have lots of conversations about what I’m trying to find out. I might make a dozen calls, or 30 or five, if it’s a short story. If someone tells me something newsworthy I have to find a verifier. The story may turn out to be ideas or trends for more stories. I write 50 to 60 stories per year.

“All day long I’ve got my iPhone, and I’m checking email and getting texted while walking along. It’s a bombardment. I’ve had to develop a skill set to triage info quickly and decide: Does this matter, is this something that could be part of a larger trend, does this really mean something in the long run? It’s like a fire hose of constant info, and I dip in. People pay me to decide what’s relevant and important. I’m not a daily news reporter. I can pull back and let things develop.

“I also do blog posting for the online Diner’s Journal. The New York Times has a high standard for a blog post, so I have to report out stories a little more. If I hear that a chef got arrested from two people at the restaurant, I have to find out if it’s true, find out what happened, and get verification. Other bloggers might just print it, and then update it later. We don’t do that.

“I don’t go to many press conferences. Usually I want to be in front of the story. The press conference is almost like a tip sheet, and it’s too late by the time it happens. Because I mostly cover policy shifts, I have to get the story out the day before.

“When I go out, I’m doing interviews with people, trying to find people, trying to talk to anyone but a government official. I will spend the day with someone I’m profiling, like hanging out in a cafeteria if writing about school foods. Or I’ll try to find activists in school food reform movement, school administrators, or suppliers. I think, “Who in the story would someone not be talking to, who are the non-obvious people?”

“I’ll spend a few days reporting hard, and then take a few days to write. There’s a day’s worth of editing with my editor looking at it and making suggestions. I also have to think about visuals.

“Sometimes I will take a video camera out with me or work with a video crew. We’ll do some stand-up stuff, where I say, “I went out to discover…” After that, I work with video person to produce a 3-minute video. Sometimes there’s a slide show. The photo editor will assign a photographer, and I’ll help the web producer write captions. I think about how I could tell the story differently, with cool graphics online and reader comments.

“Most of the time, it’s good old-fashioned reporting, finding the underlying cause of things, finding out the truth and presenting it to people. How we present it will change, but gathering and figuring out what matters and creative ways to present it is still important. People who are under 30 think in different ways than I do, but they’re still interested in what their neighbors are doing.

“Today reporters need to be more branded, have more personality. Before it was not about me, and I tried to stay out of the story. Now there’s a hunger for people to know more about my opinion or me. I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable with this change, but at this point, it’s ‘what the heck?’ I’ve got a lot of editors looking over my shoulder who will keep me from crossing lines.”

Few full-time food writing positions like Kim’s are left in the US and Canada. Does this kind of food writing appeal to you? Why or why not?

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  29 Responses to “Food Writer Kim Severson Moves to Hard News”

  1. I think this is a great insight into what being a journalist is like today — reporting, writing, blogging and creating a video clip as well as becoming a “brand.”

    I’ve always respected her writing because she packed so much reporting into it. Good luck to her as she expands her subject matter.

    • Thanks Faith. And now she’s adding to her list — becoming a manager, since she’s the head of the bureau.

  2. You know, I still haven’t read her book. It’s here on my desk, but my summer reading list isn’t going as quickly as I’d like. After reading this, I think I’ll bump it up a few volumes.

    • I’ve got it right here too. It’s extremely honest and open about finding her place in the world, with the help of her culinary heroes.

  3. I’m exhausted just reading about KS’s typical day! She will be greatly missed by the food community -

  4. Total bummer. It was amazing that I, her random Twitter follower, was able to provide her an interviewee for a story, via a tweet. Made me a life long reader/believer. The restaurant was so happy when the piece came out, and all I did was write a 100 character sentence!

    • Shows you the power of Twitter as a reporting tool, eh? I had not thought about it that way until I interviewed her.

  5. I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Kim once. It was my first interview as a food blogger, I think. I enjoyed the experience. I wish I could say the same for some subsequent experiences with journalists. There are some I would definitely rather forget. Good luck to Kim.

  6. What Kim Severson does is what I think the future of food journalism should be. Food touches so many aspects of our lives: Our economy, jobs, our personal budgets, our policies, taxes, our health, our environment and natural resources, foreign relations, war, etc. I’m ever the optimist when it comes to food journalism, but I think people are realizing more and more than food isn’t just about lovely trips to Tuscany. Food impacts our everyday lives. I hope more editors and news directors will realize the same. There’s not an editor or news director who can tell me that the people in their audience aren’t interested in food. A few times a day, we’re all keenly interested in food!

    • Agreed. I get bored by the “what to do with peaches now that it’s summer” kinds of stories, but also as a cook and baker, I like to read them too. But ultimately, I like the storytelling, the deep reporting, and the relationships.

  7. Makes you think about the concept of branding vs. a writer’s voice.
    And now I want to read Edna Lewis.

  8. I just had the honor of meeting up with Kim and introducing her to a few of the farmers from my farmers’ market. She is genuine, honest, witty, and stays true to the woman she is. She is interested in all aspects of the food chain, from policy to cutting and tasting watermelons on a farm in 100 degree Arkansas weather to experiencing a new dish at an upscale New York restaurant. She will do fabulous in Atlanta and am glad that she and her family will get to experience life in the South, our culture, our food, our people.

  9. Makes me glad to be just a part-time food blogger. :-)

    I notice the trend toward adding video or at least slideshow and voiceover content. It seems that video is the Next Big Thing following on Social Media.

    • The New York Times had to implement it to keep up with what was happening on the web. But I agree, it can’t hurt to learn how to do videos. Make them part of your blog and put them on YouTube, then you’ll have enough for an app!

  10. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Evan Benn, Sam Sifton. Sam Sifton said: A day in the (current) life of my pal @kimseverson, who's moving to the ATL as buro chief of The Times: http://bit.ly/cmOIs4. #howweroll [...]

  11. There must be a high burnout rate. I just spoke with an ex-journalist yesteraday. He didn’t write about food, but only stayed with his job as an assistant editor for a local magazine for only a couple of years before making a career change to guess what? Engineering. Quite a change for a journalist major.

  12. I heard Kim at a reading her in Carmel, California.
    She is the real deal. Just wanting to tell a good yarn.
    I can see that she is not totally comfortable with putting her own voice in the story yet. I am so happy for her new position.
    They call Atlanta the San Francisco of the south.

    • Really? I’ve got some friends who moved there from the Bay Area, and I need an excuse to visit them. Think I just found it. Thanks.

  13. Dianne: Love that your Severson story got listed on National Eater!!
    http://eater.com/archives/2010/07/28/the-20-most-caffeinated-cities-fat-instead-of-obese.php

    Congrats!

    • Cool. Thanks for letting me know. I hope people can find it since the overall headline is “The 20 Most Caffeinated Cities; Fat” Instead of “Obese.” WTF?

  14. She’s gonna eat well there. I don’t miss the heat or traffic, but OH! to be able to eat just one night at Empire State South (the new venture of Athens’ famed Hugh Acheson — opening next month). Sometimes I think it might be worth the 9-hour drive from Indianapolis…

  15. I just had the pleasure of meeting here at a recent book signing and she is refreshingly candid and witty and especially supportive of this food writer and aspiring author. She has a huge fan in me and can’t wait to follow her in Atlanta.

  16. I did it! I so want to be able to write clearly enough for others to follow my recipe. I would hate for anyone to waste time and money making something that doesn’t turn out simply because the instructions were poorly written.

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