Julie Turkewitz is a reporter for The New York Times, covering the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. She previously worked as a staff writer at Housing Works and as an associate producer at Talking Eyes Media. She is a 2008 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Turkewitz discusses her work at The New York Times, including her coverage of the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Q. Describe your job with The New York Times. What is your typical day like?
A. I’m a reporter for the national desk, based in Colorado and covering the Rocky Mountain region and beyond. This means I write features and cover breaking news, reporting on everything from amateur rodeo competitions to toxic mine spills and fierce battles over the use of public land. Unfortunately, I have also covered a number of mass shootings in recent months.
Much of my job involves getting up close and personal with rural America, and I travel about a third of the year. I have no physical office, so there is no typical day — in the past year I’ve covered an inauguration on the Navajo Nation, written about a group of middle school girls in California who wanted to join the Boy Scouts, and followed a group of cowboys on a bison roundup in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.
Writing is done on the airplane, in a tent or in the back of a rental car. I get particular joy out of filing from anyplace with the words “saloon” written out front.
Q. How do story editing and headline writing work on your stories?
A. The process of choosing and editing stories is collaborative — sometimes I suggest ideas, sometimes my fellow reporters suggest ideas, sometimes my editors suggest ideas. We keep in touch as a story develops. I turn in copy, and editors make adjustments.
Headline writing is mostly done by our skilled copy editors. But in a digital age where journalism is increasingly conversational, the desk has asked that reporters start to suggest “share lines” — meaning the phrasing that will be used to pitch a story on social media.
Q. You recently covered the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. What was that experience like? What challenges did it present to you as a reporter?
A. I spent most of January in a small town in rural Oregon, covering an armed group that had taken over a federal bird sanctuary, in protest of Washington’s control of public lands. I sometimes felt like I’d parachuted into a Coen brothers film, with armed protesters, FBI agents, a child gospel band, journalists, environmentalists and ranchers mixing in the same tiny motels and snow-lined cafes.
At the refuge, I watched children prepare snack platters for the occupiers. Sometimes I had to remind myself that the guns were real, and that the situation could turn violent in a matter of moments. (Sadly, it did, when a protest leader died after a car chase with authorities.)
Perhaps the hardest part was unpacking this story for the non-Western, non-rural reader. Out here, there is a lot of anxiety about the future of the rural West, and many blame federal rules for the decline of rural economies, whether or not this is a fair assessment.
This has produced a spectrum of political activity, including the rise of self-described “patriot” groups, who see themselves as guardians against government overreach, sort of Robin Hoods for the rural American. Some go as far as claiming that we are on the cusp of the next civil war, and the major question is how the Malheur standoff will affect these groups.
These are the greater themes lying beneath the takeover, but I sometimes struggle to explain them in my stories.
Q. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking careers similar to yours?
A. My journalism path was not “traditional,” if such a thing even exists.
After college, I moved to Argentina because I wanted to learn Spanish fluently and get outside of my comfort zone. I worked in Buenos Aires and then traveled around Latin America. Then I worked at a nonprofit in New York City, where I learned a lot about public health and HIV, and spent a lot of time in the poorest corners of the city. After that, I worked at a documentary company with some of the brightest storytellers I’ve met. I also began freelancing for the Times, reporting news stories, pitching features and eventually becoming involved with a major investigative series.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Do grunt work for smart people; you will learn so much from them. If you’re just starting out, find a story you care about and report the hell out of it. Then use it as your calling card. Show it to those smart people. If they think it’s terrible, do it again.
When you finally get an assignment, don’t go home until you’ve unturned every stone. Twice. Then turn around and pitch three new stories to that editor. If the editor hates them, do it again.
Talk to cab drivers. Read small and big newspapers, for story ideas and writing tips. Talk to restaurant workers and the dry cleaner and your neighbors and more cab drivers.
Learn to live on a budget. Get out of your bubble. Learn another language — trust me, you can do it.
But also remember that some of the best stories are the ones at your doorstep that no one bothered to investigate. And if you’re out on assignment, don’t go home because you’re tired or hot or cold or hungry or your phone died. Bring coffee and snacks, wear sunscreen and good shoes and carry two phone chargers.
Learn to file stories fast and on your phone. Make friends with other journalists; they will save you emotionally and physically. And if you happen to be covering an armed standoff in a snowy town four hours from any major city, remember to call your mother to tell her you’re OK.
Thanks to anyone who made it this far.