A typical workday for freelancer Melba Newsome

Melba Newsome

For this installment of A Typical Workday, I interviewed independent journalist, writer and editor Melba Newsome. Newsome’s byline has appeared in national, regional and local publications, including Scientific American, Newsweek, Bloomberg, AARP, Wired, North Carolina Health News and many others. This year, she worked with Wake Forest University to create the Wake Forest Mellon Environmental Justice Journalism Fellowship, a five-day intensive program designed to improve coverage of environmental justice and to diversify the ranks of journalists covering the issue. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Recent published article

I did a story for Prevention about clinical trials and the lack of diversity in clinical trials. It ran in early May. I wanted to do this story because I have been looking at clinical trials and the lack of diversity in clinical trials for a while. Clinical trials are often the last hope for some people, and it can be really hard for Black people to get into trials.

Home base

I’m in Charlotte, N.C. I have a home office, but I probably work in my family room as much as [I do] in my home office. I can watch television while I work, and the family room is close to the kitchen so I can get up to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich.

Daily routine

I have three laptops, one in my office, one in the family room and one in the bedroom. I usually wake up around 7 a.m. and check my email and organize my day. If I’m on a tight deadline for a story, I’ll probably be in my office by 8:30 am. I try to lock myself in my office and work as hard as I can for as long as I can until I get so tired and foggy-headed that I’m just wasting my time. So at about 3:00 pm, I’ll probably need to take a break for a few hours. In the evening, I’ll usually go back to work for a few hours.  But I can’t write, I can’t make sentences, more than eight hours a day. 

Office setup

I have a writing desk and a computer desk on the side that is attached and my Herman Miller desk chair. Ergonomics is really important. Too many people blow that off. I have a great chair, and my computer is at the correct height. When I’m working in the family room, sitting on the couch, I’m just not as productive because the ergonomics aren’t right.

I don’t have a lot of papers on my desk. I don’t print out white papers, journal articles and interview transcripts because it’s too difficult to find things. I keep links to those things on my computer in my notes document for a story. I’ll note page numbers where I can find what I need. It’s much easier to find things that way, and it’s easier to cut and paste. I’m a very messy person, so the fewer papers I have, the less mess I can create.

Staying focused

My most productive part of the day is the morning. When I’m really tired, I’ll tell myself, “Just 20 more minutes, just 20 more,” like how an exercise instructor will say, “Just five more reps people, just five more.” And when I can’t work anymore in the afternoon because I’m just no good, I’ll probably take a nap, or sit out on the porch or maybe watch some trash television.

Favorite tool for tracking story ideas and assignments

I don’t use anything fancy. I keep track [of everything] in a Google document that I can access from anywhere. I have a list of stories, their due date, things like that.

Recording and transcribing interviews

I use Otter.ai. It records and transcribes at the same time. But you have to go back and check the transcription because sometimes it can get a little weird. If the transcript is a little screwy and doesn’t make sense, I can just go back and press listen and hear what they say.

If you would like to nominate a freelancer to be profiled for A Typical Workday, please email Barbara at freelance@healthjournalism.org.

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