Meet Journalist Nora Caplan-Bricker
Nora Caplan-Bricker is a freelance journalist, essayist, and critic, and a regular contributor at Slate, where she writes about gender, feminism, books, and culture. Her work has also appeared at or in The New Yorker online, The Washington Post Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, Outside, The Atlantic, The Mary Review, and elsewhere. In 2017, she won an inaugural RALLY Award for feature writing on the topic of sexual violence, conferred by the Poynter Institute, for her story "Flight Risk."
Nora and I talked on the phone about her career path into journalism, her interest in feminism and gender, and her advice to other journalists looking to break national stories on issues that matter to them.
How did you decide to go into journalism?
My uncle is a journalist, and he’s one of the people I admire most in the world. I think I would have become a journalist anyway, I loved to write as a kid and I loved books. A lot of it stemmed from wanting to be a writer and having a model of being a journalist. I worked at my high school newspaper and college newspaper, and I took creative writing classes in fiction and nonfiction and poetry. Part of going into any creative work is imagining how you make it happen financially. When I was a senior in college trying to figure out what it would mean to be a writer, a job in journalism was the only way I could envision doing that, so I applied for journalism jobs. I’m lucky that I’ve ended up loving it because it was the first thing I settled on and the first thing I could see myself doing.
Did you have any internal debates about choosing journalism vs. creative writing?
I’ve always tried to combine the parts of my writing voice or my ideas that feel creative with my journalistic work. Long form narrative, nonfiction, criticism and all of journalism at its best has a lot of creative work involved. I write personal essays and creative nonfiction essays, and was doing that on my own time when I first started working in journalism. I ended up going back and doing an MFA in nonfiction, which I’m almost done with. When I decided to do the MFA I wondered if my friends would think I was crazy to stop working full-time and go back to school, and people were supportive. I got to talk to my friends about the creative writing they were doing. Journalists are writers, and we have things that are closer to home that we do. I’m still figuring out how to balance those things and what that will look like in my writing life, but it’s been helpful to have the masters program. It’s built some of that writing into my life in a structured way.
How did you start covering the feminism/gender beat?
Journalists are told “write what you know,” and unless you have a set beat, there’s a “catch-as-catch-can” nature to getting writing assignments in the beginning. Those assignments might be something that you have something to say about, whether that means writing about higher ed, gender especially for young women, or issues of identity that we all have some foothold in.
There was a big Title IX case at my school when I was an editor of the campus newspaper. I wrote about that for the paper and in my writing classes. So I went into my first journalism job with a sense that it was something I had something to say about. When I was trying to pitch stories as a fact-checker and an assistant, those were a lot of the stories that I pitched. It was cyclical; the more I learned about these issues, the more I cared about and had something to say about them, and the more I pitched them. Eventually I was offered a position as a contributing writer at Slate for the XX section, which covers gender and feminism. By then, I had taken up residence in this beat without planning to.
What have been some of your favorite stories?
I’m really proud of the reporting I’ve done at Slate, and I’ve had great editors there who care about doing deep reporting on sexual violence and issues that affect women. I was able to do a story about undocumented victims of domestic and sexual violence. The Trump Administration was making it harder for people to call the police or seek help for fear of being taken by ICE because of their immigration status. I wrote that story almost a year ago and unfortunately that has become more true and terrifying since. Their immigration enforcement is emboldened under this presidency and that’s endangering women and families dealing with violence.
I also wrote a story for Slate about assault on airplanes. That story came out before our president was accused of assaulting a woman on an airplane, so we are increasingly aware of the fact that this happens and that travel in general can make women vulnerable to assault. One of the things I found was that airlines had no policies around this, and had put no thought into how to deal with this problem.
Not specifically under just the topic of feminism, I recently broke a story about the intersex race movement for the Washington Post Magazine. That’s an issue for anyone who cares about feminism and people’s right to control what happens to their bodies. That same set of values and belief systems applies to surgery on intersex children who are too young to consent to anything happening to their bodies.
Any advice for journalists looking to report on similar topics?
My advice is have interesting friends and listen to the things they talk about.
I have friends who are teachers and lawyers. The things they’re doing are rich material, newsworthy, and important. Some of my best ideas have come from talking to someone about the work they’re doing in the corner at a party, and realizing no one is covering it. That’s the biggest one, keep an ear out for things that interest you.
The other thing is read obsessively. Often there will be a nugget in a story that you know could have its own story. If you’re interested in a beat, figure out who’s great at writing on that beat, who’s doing both the best commentary and the best reporting and read. Always look for that one phrase or sentence that looks like it could open up into its own story. If you find that, poke around and see what’s there.
If you cover a beat, it gets easier as you go. People will bring you ideas. I’ve written stories that I’m proud of that came to me because I was writing about Title IX issues. A lawyer, advocate, or a person who had an experience seek out journalists they know care about these issues. Of course, there’s a lot of work that goes into vetting those stories, trying to figure out the larger socio-political frame and all the background research I would do. In terms of finding the human narrative inside an issue, it can be valuable to have people who are looking to tell their own stories. Always be on alert for stories to come to you. They pop up like pennies on the sidewalk and you have to be looking for them.
When you hear about a potential story that you want to pursue, how much pre-reporting do you do before you pitch that to your editor?
For editors I have a close relationship with, I may do little pre-reporting. It’s nice to work with editors you have personal rapport with, because you can go back and forth informally and shape ideas together. It can also lead to a better process if you’re simpatico in the way you’re looking at the story. That can be a great experience for everyone that’s invested in the piece.
I also cold pitch, and that’s important too. If you have good ideas hopefully they’ll speak for themselves, but it can be hard to get in the door somewhere where you don’t know anybody. When I’m pitching an idea to someone I don’t know personally, I do a week or multiple weeks of pre-reporting. Especially if it’s a place I’d like to write for or is the right place for the story and feels like a high stakes pitch.
My advice is that it’s necessary to have back-up plans. If you’re going to put time and work into getting started on a story before you pitch it, hopefully you have multiple places that you could pitch it to. Even if the first place does turn you down, you still not only get to write the story, but ultimately get paid for some of that work, which is necessary to have a career as a freelancer. You do a lot of work upfront and on your own dime, but if you don’t have a plan to eventually be able to support yourself through that work by selling the story, then you get into a bad situation.
How have you developed your relationships with editors?
I worked in journalism full time for a few years before I started trying to freelance. When I did start freelancing, it was under a contract at Slate. I’m still feeling my way into being a freelancer. I can’t imagine making it work if I hadn’t worked with great people as first a staff writer in different places, and then a contract writer who was part of the stable of writers working for a particular section. A lot of the people I write for now are people I worked with at one of those jobs, even if they’re no longer at the place where we worked together.
It’s valuable to work in an office. If your goal is freelancing, you need relationships. You need people who you can rely on to try to work with you and get you work, and you need people who are interested in the work you’re trying to do. Editors are besieged and overwhelmed people. It’s hard to develop a real relationship with somebody over email [and] for editors to carve out the time to develop those relationships with people they’ve never met. It helps to have had face time and made friendships in the industry.
Do you have any advice on how to craft a pitch?
It’s important to convey a sense of what’s exciting about a piece, which can be hard when you’re excited about the idea yourself. Make sure to convey, “In the national conversation about (blank),” or in the context of a topic the editor will be familiar with, “here’s why this idea builds on that conversation.” Pitches should be well written because it’s not only the idea, it’s your ability to execute the idea that you’re trying to sell the person on. Likewise, it’s good for pitches to convey the feasibility of the story. If you have a great idea but the editor isn’t convinced you can do it, that can undermine you. If you know you can get access to someone, be clear about the fact that you have access. It’s good to be confident before pitching that you can deliver the story. Being able to say, “I write about this topic or, “I’ve written for these other places you would have heard of” helps. That’s where cold pitching is tough if you don’t have a few degrees of connection to a topic, editor, or publication.
What can readers do to help support you and your work?
Readers need to subscribe to magazines they care about. That’s the big one. Of course none of us can afford to subscribe to everything that we read. There are a lot of publications that I could read most of what I want to read in a month without subscribing to it. But if I love that magazine I’m going to subscribe because it’s the small thing that I can do to keep it print.