Ask a Mentor-Editor: Jessica Seigel on getting the scoop!

Jessica Seigel is an award-winning magazine writer, radio commentator, and editor who has excavated ancient bones at the real Armageddon, generated electricity by bicycle, and run with wild horses– all to get the story. Her features on culture, health/science, travel, and celebrity have run in The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, and National Geographic Traveler, among others. She spoke with OpEd Project Intern Ravenna Koenig about what animates her passion for journalism, the farthest she’s ever gone to get a story, and what it was like to try on a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe.

Ravenna Koenig: You have a very eclectic repertoire as a reporter: you’ve written articles on culture, health, science, travel, and then done a good number of celebrity interviews. Why those subjects?

Jessica Seigel: My background is as a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. That’s a job that requires being a generalist—you have to cover breaking news across genres: politics, the economy… I was in particular covering Hollywood as a sub-specialty because I was based in Los Angeles. So those are skills that you gain from that kind of a background. Then, when I went on to magazines and radio commentary, I had that investigative, gumshoe, old-fashioned reporting under my belt. And what I have been working on as a magazine writer—it may not be immediately self-evident, but there is a theme… I’m often using science, history and just basic investigative reporting skills to write about cultural myths—often about women, but about other things as well (for example doing an expose of a diet scam).

I think that, as a journalist you don’t really consciously make an intellectual decision—you follow your passion. That’s the most important thing: just following your passions; it’s later that you analyze your passions. What animates my passion is that I was an intellectual history major in college at Wesleyan. Understanding the history of ideas informs absolutely everything I do.

RK: As a travel reporter I understand you’ve embarked on some pretty  exciting endeavors in order to get your story. Where is the most remote place you’ve ever traveled for your scoop?

JS: This summer for a book that I’m working on that relates to the history of beauty ideals, I went to the Kalahari desert to interview hunter-gatherer bushmen on their views of beauty.

RK: How does one even go about making a journey like that?

JS: Most of the work goes up front in planning the trip, in planning who your guides are going to be, who your local translator will be—all those things have to be set up in advance. That took many, many weeks of working through emails to find the correct experts, to speak to them when I arrived, to pick the right area, the right bushmen.

RK: I would imagine that you could run into a lot of technical difficulties doing reporting in situations like that. How do you deal with that?

JS: I work for both radio and for print, and being multi-media in that way requires that you have a higher level of recording. The question right now is switching to digital recording: the digital recorders are not of the quality that mini-disks are; they don’t have the depth of sound. When I went to Africa I brought both my old mini-disks and my new digital recorder because you never want to go anywhere relying on just one device. I would actually recommend traveling with three. My old mini-disk broke in transit, and then I was stuck with using only the new digital, which made me extremely uncomfortable. What I learned from old-timers, is never rely on one recorder, you should literally run two at once. Always, always, always take notes by hand while you’re recording. There have been a number of key instances in my career where the recording didn’t work for a number of reasons and I had to do my entire profile from handwritten notes.

RK: You’ve interviewed Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Hefner, and… Audrey Hepburn (among others). Have you ever been a fan of an interviewee, and if so did that make your interview more difficult or easier?

JS: I think if you’re a true fan of someone that you are profiling, it makes the interview very, very difficult. Luckily, with Audrey Hepburn, it was a phoner. It made it much easier to interview her over the phone because I wasn’t dazzled by her presence. I would say the person I interviewed who I was the biggest fan of was Bette Midler. It did make it harder. The thing that will interfere with your interview the most in the world is if you secretly want to be liked by your profile subject. And no matter how much you push that out of your mind and try to be professional, it’s still there. The main thing is to be aware of it. Know what the hard questions are and ask the hard questions anyway.

RK: Have you ever been put under pressure by an editor ask or not ask certain questions in an interview?

JS: I don’t really think so. I’ve been very lucky to work for very professional people. The truth of the matter is that the harder the questions you ask, or the more provocative an interview, the better the story is.

RK: I think one of the incredible things about the work you do is that you make your pieces very accessible to the average reader: you cover an assortment of topics that interest a great many people— but I also get the impression that you pursue the stories you want to write. In the OpEd Project’s seminars, one of this things talked about is how to package one’s expertise in a way that will engage others. What advice would you give women trying to get their opinion pieces published to that end?

JS: I really think you have to write stories that you have a particular involvement or expertise in, in some way. The op-ed that Ruth Bettelheim (OpEd Project Alumn!)published in the New York Times this week piece about custody and divorces http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/opinion/18bettelheim.html —it was absolutely a terrific piece because it was a very concrete critique of what is wrong and included very concrete and specific suggestions about how to fix it. Bringing your expertise and inside knowledge to make very specific recommendations, is a good way to get published.

The work I do takes a tremendous amount of leg work. I have a point of view but it’s married with real, hardcore knowledge. An idea isn’t going to come and hit you on the head from heaven, you have to go searching for it, you have to cultivate your knowledge, you have to stay up to date on what’s going on in your field; it take active interest and hard work!

RK: Last question, forgive me if it’s a little fluffy… what was it like to put on a dress that had been worn by Marilyn Monroe? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1385806

JS: It was really very exciting. I had to go through many, many collectors before I found one who would let me try on her gown. I got deep inside the world of Marilyn collectors and fans, one would transfer me to the other (that’s where the gumshoe reporting comes in). I had to talk to a lot of people! Along the way I found out there is a tremendous amount of fake Marilyn Monroe goods and claims on the market… I got a press release in my mail box just the other day saying they were promoting Marilyn Monroe’s girdle… now it so happens that I know that Marilyn Monroe was criticized for NOT wearing a girdle. This gets into myth, cultural myth! Ask the basic questions, never take people’s word for it!

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