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.”
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?