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How a fellowship helped one journalist cover the business of oncology Date: 06/24/15

Lola Butcher

By Lola Butcher

I cover health policy and the business of health care for Oncology Times, a twice-monthly news magazine, and I started gathering string for a hazy story idea in 2010 after writing this piece on the financial problems oncology clinics were facing.

What captivated me was this paradox: Private oncology practices are being driven out of business because of Medicare payment policy, but cancer care delivered at hospital-owned practices actually costs the Medicare program more than if the same services were delivered by private practices.

If I were a staff reporter, I would have bugged my editor to give me time to dig into this topic. But, as an independent journalist, I could not justify the time needed for the just-checking-this-out interviews and to wrap my arms around a hazy topic that might not lead to anything worth publishing.

In a folder I started collecting press releases, journal articles and other people’s clips that seemed somehow related to the topic. And, occasionally I’d end an interview with a statement like this: “I’ve been thinking about a story idea and wonder what you think….”

By 2013, that folder was getting full and one of my professional goals for the year was to stretch myself professionally. So I applied for the AHCJ Reporting Fellowships on Health Care Performance that fall. I saw four benefits to the fellowship:

  • A mentor to help guide the project

  • A stipend that would mitigate the fact that the articles would take so much reporting time

  • Continuing education about my beat

  • The requirement to complete the project and get it published in 2014 (a hard deadline that would keep me from procrastinating any longer).

Doing the research needed to write the fellowship proposal proved to be its own important piece of work. By the time I submitted the proposal, I had assembled and reviewed a lot of the important documents and created a list of possible interview sources.

When I learned that I had received the fellowship, I celebrated a bit and then made a reporting plan and started conducting interviews in late January. I planned to spend at least 15 hours each week on the project and, with a couple of exceptions, pretty much met that goal.

Although I was fairly well organized and hitting my early targets, by June, I recognized signs of impending disaster. I was getting overwhelmed with information, wasting time on reporting tangents that were not completely on point, and becoming obsessed with finding the “perfect” interview, quote or anecdote that would top the dozens I already had. At the same time, it was becoming clear that I needed four packages to tell the story, and my editor needed a lot of lead time to fit those packages into issues before yearend.

I took a big gulp and set a deadline: I would submit the entire project Aug. 1. That forced me to commit to an organizational scheme, a writing timeline and many long evenings and weekends at the computer.

The series ran in the fall — and I was gratified to see that each installment hit Oncology Times’ Top 5 “most viewed” and “most emailed” lists for several weeks.

Based on this experience here are my tips for other journalists:

  • Go for an AHCJ fellowship! It was a fantastic experience in all ways. I received great advice on my application from previous fellowship recipients. AHCJ members are extremely generous with their time and in sharing their expertise, and I learned more about my beat than I could have ever imagined. Plus, getting to know the other fellows has been wonderful. And, did I mention two trips to New York City?

  • Use Document Cloud to organize and analyze documents and interview transcripts. The fellows were introduced to this excellent tool at our first session, and it was a lifesaver when trying to find a certain quote from more than 50 interview transcripts or a statistic buried among more than 100 documents.

  • Develop a strong sense of self-discipline. This skill is essential, especially if you’re a freelancer. When I tackled big projects as a staff writer, my editors were always close by to keep me focused on deadlines and word count. Without that support, it was tough not to get overwhelmed.

Lola Butcher (@lolabutcher) is an independent journalist in Springfield, Mo. For an AHCJ Reporting Fellowship on Health Care Performance last year, she wrote about how federal law and economic conditions make it difficult for oncology practices to continue to provide care to cancer patients.