|Researchers serve as ‘foster parents,’ bonding with northern bald ibises shortly after they hatched in captivity, acquainting them with the paraplane that will join them on their winter migration over the Alps from Germany to the Tuscan region of Italy. Photo: © Johannes Fritz|
Amid much discouraging news about the environment, “along comes a feature story that lifts the reader off the ground with hope.” That was the high praise judges gave 2014 SEJ award winner Chelsea Wald for her story about a scientist trying to teach ibises to migrate again. Wald, a native of Alexandria, Va., writes about science and nature from Vienna, Austria. Her work has appeared in Science, Nautilus, Slate, Discover, TheAtlantic.com, The Economist, BBC Wildlife and more. She is also the author of “A Traveler’s Guide to Astronomy and Space in the Southwest.” “Inside Story” Editor Beth Daley interviewed her recently. For more great photos accompanying this story, download the Spring SEJournal PDF here.
SEJournal: What elements constitute a good feature story for you?
Chelsea Wald: One trick I’ve learned is to try to sum my story up in a single intriguing sentence: “A scientist thinks he understands migration — until he tries to teach an endangered bird to fly south again.” Done right, these sentences can convince you that you have everything you need for a good narrative: strong characters, twisty plots and a rich sense of place.
Far from oversimplifying the story, they make you want to sit down and read a good yarn. And, for freelancers, they can be the key to a successful pitch. That’s not to say that I can always get this sentence right before I begin writing. It’s a process of drafting and revising, as well as challenging it with the facts, like a hypothesis.
SEJournal: Your ibis story was deeply reported — you even camped out with the researcher. What is the trigger for you to know that a story is worth that much time?
Wald: I devoted an absurd amount of time to this story. I first read a quick news story about this ambitious conservation project on a local English-language news website in early 2012. Yet almost nothing had been written about it in English for an international audience, which I figured was potentially great for me. So I contacted the project leader and arranged to meet up with him the next time he was in Vienna at a conference.
It was clear to me that something very real — and complex and inspiring — was happening, and I had been yearning to do some field reporting, so I arranged to travel to southern Germany by train and to camp out with him in the field for a night. After that, I was sure I had a great story, but I wasn’t sure what form it would take.
Over the next year I spent another five days or so in the field with the project’s anti-hunting team. I hadn’t placed a feature, but during that time I sold some news stories about it that helped cover costs. When Nautilus bought the feature (before their first issue even came out), they covered another night in the field (in a hotel this time) to bring it up to date.
I’ve continued to follow the story and place shorter pieces since the feature came out. I consider this a sort of micro-beat, which continues to pay off.
SEJournal: Can you give fellow SEJers any tips on structuring long pieces? How do you approach it, handle transitions?
Wald: Find a great editor! That’s probably the best advice. Also, after lots of grief, I now tackle first drafts by writing the story in chronological order as much as possible. I love stories that jump back and forth in time but think that most benefit from a straightforward structure.
Beginnings and endings are also big challenges, but it helps me to approach them together, as two parts of a whole. I’ve noticed how I read, especially online: If I’m liking a long story but don’t have time for the whole thing, I read the beginning, scan the middle and then jump to the end. If there’s a meaningful link between top and bottom, a sense of closure, even though I haven’t read every single word, the experience can still be sublime.
SEJournal: What project are you working on now and most excited about?
Wald: Thanks to a travel fellowship from the European Geosciences Union, I was able to deeply report a story in Nature about a soil scientist who works in forensics, solving crimes. [See story here.] It wasn’t supposed to be a profile at first, but the more I got to know this scientist over two years, the more I realized that she was the story.
SEJournal: You have a degree in astronomy from Columbia University and worked in Chile on a Fulbright studying ancient astronomy. What got you interested in journalism?
Wald: I was one of those people who was fascinated by everything and didn’t want to specialize. I thought that being a science journalist would allow me to continue to learn my whole life, and it has. What I didn’t realize is that it would make me an expert in something, after all — in science and environmental journalism — and I take a profound pleasure in doing this work well and continue to try to get better all the time. (And, believe me, I don’t usually feel like an expert.)
SEJournal: What advice can you give to freelancers to pitch stories to publications?
Wald: Freelancing features is an endurance sport. I maintain files and get Google alerts on many different story ideas that I’m following — probably dozens at this point, although some are more active than others. Some of them I’ve pitched once or twice, and others I haven’t yet. It’s important for me to keep a running list of ideas for when an editor (very rarely) comes to me and says, hey, what ideas do you have for me? It’s amazing how blank my brain can go if I don’t have that list to reference.
I think the biggest mistake that freelancers (including me) make is to fail to focus the pitch. We leave too many threads in there, thinking that the editor will pluck out the one that he or she wants, but the reality is that the pile obscures all of the threads.
“Inside Story” editor Beth Daley is reporter and director of partnerships at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and affiliated with WGBH News.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.