About AHCJ: General News

Eight months later, freelancer still generating story ideas from fellowship Date: 11/12/09

By Meryl Davids Landau
Independent journalist

I had joined AHCJ only a few months earlier, but already I was starting to see the benefits of belonging. What especially caught my eye last December was the notice of an all-expenses paid fellowship for a week at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While in past years I’d always quickly deleted fellowship announcements (obligations to my kids meant I couldn’t go, so why torture myself?) this year I could.

The prospect of spending time inside the CDC set me on fire.

I quickly logged into the AHCJ Web site and started the application. I figured most members were newspaper staffers, so I emphasized how I might stand out: As a 15-year freelancer for numerous national publications, I could put information in front of several million-plus-circulation audiences – parents, midlife women, younger women, families.

The application requested a recent clip. By good fortune, the day before I had received an advance copy of a cover story I’d written for Prevention, which the magazine had beautifully designed. And a favorite editor at a parenting magazine agreed to write the letter of recommendation.

After the application was complete, I tried to put the fellowship out of my mind. When I did think about it, I wondered whether the entry box was overflowing, and if there might be a bias against feature-oriented freelancers like myself. A few weeks later, though, I got the thrilling news: I was one of 11 people selected.

It turned out only four worked full time for newspapers. (In a sign of the times, one has since taken a buyout and another has moved to Kaiser Health News.) The others represented a wide array of media: television, radio, trade publications, a consumer magazine and an online news site. I was the only freelancer. (Another sign of the times: During the week, several participants quietly asked about the business of freelancing, figuring they might soon be joining it.)

The 11 AHCJ-CDC fellows spent a week at the CDC meeting expert sources and learning about public health issues.(Photo: Christy Stretz)[Click to enlarge.]
The 11 AHCJ-CDC fellows spent a week at the CDC meeting expert sources and learning about public health issues. (Photo: Christy Stretz)

We arrived at our hotel in Decatur, a cute suburb about 15 minutes from the main CDC campus, and were warmly welcomed by AHCJ training coordinator Ev Ruch-Graham. Ev and several CDC press officers took us for dinner that first evening. It was nice to meet the CDC folks, but even nicer to get to know the other participants. My “fellow Fellows,” as we started calling ourselves, bonded so tightly we spent most of our free time together the entire week.

Each day at the CDC, experts discussed health issues from genomics to infectious diseases to child safety and more. Interestingly, they talked about bird flu, which the CDC was concerned about, but not swine flu, which wasn’t yet on the radar.

It was wonderful to meet such authorities as Rob Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases; Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases; and then-acting CDC head Richard Besser.

We were briefed on navigating databases such as the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and CDC publications. You can thank fellow JoNel Aleccia for her suggestion, since implemented, that they send media their tentative MMWR lineup the day before publication.

We toured really cool labs where they study things like ebola, environmental chemicals and cigarettes. Much of the information was intriguing, although, like any event, not all was useful. A discussion on obesity was too basic; and, most distressing to me, the heads of five CDC centers used up most of an afternoon describing their organizations rather than taking our health-oriented questions. To their credit, the CDC asked for honest feedback, so future fellowships should be even better.

I peppered my notes with the ways I saw information turning into stories: Global warming and health (later published in Reader’s Digest). Where adult and kid immunizations fall short (a More article and a section in a larger piece in Reader’s Digest). Why preventing diabetes is crucial (an article for a major women’s magazine, not yet in print). Protecting kids from toxins (slated for a parenting publication in the spring). Other pitches remain in circulation, and, months later, I’m still developing more. I just sent an editor I have not worked with a query inspired by that tobacco lab tour; she is interested.

That week in Atlanta turned out to be a lucrative use of my time. It also boosted my credentials with editors who heard I’d been selected. And it certainly made me appreciate what a great organization AHCJ is – not just because it sponsored the event, but because of the high-quality journalists (i.e., my fellow Fellows) it clearly attracts as members.

Meryl Davids Landau is an independent journalist based in South Florida. The 2009-10 class of fellows has been chosen and will visit the CDC in December.