Leveraging in-person opportunities enabled reporter to turn out dementia series on a tight deadline Date: 03/04/20
By Katherine Foley
The online publication Quartz last December published a five-story series on the cumulative costs of dementia and possible ways to curb those costs. The first piece was a roughly 3,500-word overview that included global statistics related to aging, dementia and the costs associated with hospitalizations in the U.S. Three stories were features, ranging from 2,000 to 2,500 words, that provided three perspectives on how to lower dementia costs. The final piece was an interactive quiz that gave readers a chance to play with the statistics on how a person can develop dementia.
Quartz regularly publishes series like this as part of our weekly paid membership series. My editors were aware that I had been covering neurodegenerative diseases for a few years and asked me to plan a series based on what I knew and saw as the trends in the dementia field.
Before I started reporting, I spent a few days researching to figure out a single lens through which to view dementia. That was essential for making the stories cohesive and the entire package comprehensive. I selected costs as an angle because Quartz is a business publication. This framing also made it easier to identify stories that focused on science and research-based solutions.
I had from late October to the last week of November to complete my work on the series. I broke the time into three periods: two weeks to research and report, one week to write (with roughly a feature due per day) and one week to address edits and polish.
I was fortunate that back in September, I had been awarded a Gerontological Society of America fellowship that included the opportunity to attend the group’s annual research conference in November, which fit my reporting timeline. Although I originally had planned to report a different story there, I decided to switch gears to focus on this project and do most of my reporting during the conference. The week before the event, I researched which panels I wanted to attend and attendees who would be important potential sources for my story. I set up most meetings ahead of time.
Going into the conference, I had a rough outline of the stories that I wanted to write but also planned on letting the interviews guide me. I knew I wanted each feature to tackle the costs of dementia at different stages of the disease: Before a person receives a diagnosis, as they receive a diagnosis and begin planning, and once it has advanced to the person’s end of life. I also considered writing about how technology might assist in caring for those with dementia but ultimately abandoned that angle due to time constraints.
The best trick to reporting in this instance was to ask every person I interviewed who else I should talk to for the story. The advantage of being there in person is that if one of these other sources was attending a nearby panel, it was easy to introduce myself, explain the series, and sit down for a brief interview. I also had the opportunity to tell sources more about my ideas for the entire series (as opposed to just the story they’d appear in) to get their feedback. This was a useful technique for building trust since some of the researchers hadn’t worked with the press before. It also helped to identify other sources to approach and consider more carefully the structure of each story.
There was no way to get around the difficulty of filing and editing — especially around Thanksgiving in the U.S. But knowing that it was a finite amount of time helped. While I was reporting, I made sure to tell each source our timeline, and asked them in advance if we could set up a time to speak again after I had gone through a round of drafts and editing. These subsequent phone calls provided an opportunity to double-check my reporting as a form of modified fact-checking. I also checked every hyperlink, as well as dates, name spellings, affiliations and other details. (As a digital publication, fact-checking falls on reporters, rather than designated fact-checkers.)
We also decided to make the fifth story a collaboration with our data visualization team. My colleague Youyou Zhou came up with a creative quiz to tell readers what their chances were of getting dementia in old age, and I helped her write the text to explain how we arrived at those calculations and what the future of aging may look like. One benefit was that this piece was a much easier editorial load for me to manage while filing the four other stories.
The hardest part of reporting features, in my opinion, is narrowing them down to provide a clear focus. My tight deadline in this instance helped with that enormously. I also stayed in close contact with my editor and bounced ideas off her throughout my reporting. She helped direct my line of questioning and reporting, which helped me make some of those editorial and reporting decisions.
Katherine Foley is a health and science reporter driving aging coverage at Quartz based in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP 33), and her undergraduate degree is from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.