Sarah Jaffe was a Nation intern in 2009 and is now a fellow at The Nation Institute. In this interview, Summer/Fall 2016 intern Emilio Leanza talks to Sarah about how she became a labor reporter and her new book, Necessary Trouble.
1. How did you get to be where you are now?
I am a proud beneficiary of nearly every program The Nation Institute has to offer, from the (invaluable) internship, to an Investigative Fund grant to report on temp workers in manufacturing, to my Nation Books book, to the (invaluable) fellowship that has supported my reporting from all over the country and the world for the past two years. So it's safe to say that had I not found my way into the Nation family, I would not be where I am now, with a book about to come out!
I did a lot of miscellaneous not-very-well-paid freelancing between undergraduate and graduate school, but it was 2007 when I decided to go to journalism school and make it my full-time job. And then the financial crisis happened (more about that in a second), and I was very lucky to go from the Nation magazine internship to working for Laura Flanders at GRITtv at a time when the country was at nearly 10 percent official unemployment. Laura was the best teacher a budding rabblerousing journalist could have, and I met so many incredible people while working on her show, many of whom turn up in my book! Then I worked at AlterNet for a while and was there when Occupy Wall Street broke, which sort of cemented me on the social-movements beat alongside the labor work I was already doing. I left AlterNet to freelance for a while, then joined In These Times for a year as a fellow, and then when I left there, doubled down on finishing and selling the book proposal which became Necessary Trouble.
2. When did you realize you wanted to cover labor, specifically?
I had a lot of lousy jobs and listened to a lot of punk rock. Seriously! I grew up outside of Boston and the Boston punk scene has a lot of proudly working-class bands that sing about unions, the Dropkick Murphys being the most famous. And I worked in the service industry and occasionally staged one-woman revolts over things like scraping gum from underneath tables when we had no customers and I was making $2.13 an hour.
And then when I was in graduate school, the financial crisis happened and everything was moving so quickly, I thought, "Well, I have to figure this stuff out." When unemployment was through the roof, it wasn't a great time to want to cover the labor movement, but Max Fraser (then-internship director) and Esther Kaplan and Laura of course gave me early encouragement. And then the Wisconsin protests kicked off in 2011 and suddenly publications wanted labor writers again!
3. The internship program revolves around fact-checking; that is, rummaging through data to make sure an author's sources are what they say they are. Was that experience useful later on? If so, how?
Fact-checking is an incredible experience because you're really reporting a story backwards and with a hard deadline. You figure out how great reporters got their stories. I was a web intern, which meant that I was fact-checking things that needed to go up quickly, and I had the good fortune of working with Jeremy Scahill on several big stories that summer, which taught me a lot. Especially these days when not that many publications have a budget for fact-checking, it's a great experience to get used to double-checking and triple-checking your facts. Writers, thank your fact-checkers if you get them, because they are worth their weight in gold.
4. One thing thing that sticks out about Necessary Trouble is the staggering number of interviews you draw on. And most, if not all, are from activists on the frontline of nearly every major uprising that's broke out over the last five years. What was your research process?
Most of my research process was being a beat reporter for five years! I drew on a lot of reporting I had already done and went back to talk to people, sit down with them for longer interviews, pull out nuances we hadn't seen. For the events that happened several years ago, those interviews were fascinating, as participants really had the benefit of hindsight. For other events, fresher ones, it was more a question of trying to find the voices that weren't being heard.
In a few places, I should give shout-outs to my "fixers." Foreign reporters and conflict reporters in particular rely on fixers, and the work I did for this book often involved similar issues. In St. Louis, Shannon Duffy connected me with some incredible interviews. In Seattle, Rob Cruickshank did likewise. In AtIanta, Shab Bashiri. In each of those cases, the trust that they had with their friends and colleagues was transferred to me, and I hope I did right by it.
5. What do you see as the public role of the journalist? Would you consider yourself an activist-reporter? A participant-observer?
I think the idea that some reporters are completely objective and others are "activist" is a fallacy. All reporters influence and affect what they're covering by covering it. Pretending that you aren't taking a stand by choosing to tell a certain story is disingenuous.
That doesn't mean that we don't have an obligation to tell the truth, to base our work in facts, and to try to be fair as best as we can.
I had excellent professors in journalism school (Temple University!) who encouraged us to be skeptical of police and government sides of the story. In one particular case, in my first-ever class, Linn Washington, our News Reporting professor, told us "Your job is to provide context." I hear that, over and over, in his voice, in my head, when I think about what journalism is about.
6. In addition to reporting/writing, you also co-host Dissent's "Belabored" podcast. Does your approach to story-telling differ when working across mediums?
I worked for Laura Flanders on a TV show right after the Nation magazine internship, and so I had to learn to think about writing for TV. Writing for spoken word is definitely different than it is for print, and also I like to the podcast to feel more spontaneous, more interactive. But the core values I think stay the same: can we tell an interesting story, illuminate a complicated issue, introduce our audience to compelling characters? Can we tell stories that otherwise aren't being told?
7. What advice would you give anyone who's interested in journalism?
Keep a well-organized file of your contacts. Talk to everyone. Look at the story that everyone is telling and then figure out whose perspective is missing. Never trust an authority figure without verifying. Have friends who aren't in the media. Don't blow deadlines. Figure out whose opinion of your work matters, and use that as clarification. Don't write hot takes. Trust your gut.
I have a lot of advice! Oh, and The Nation Institute is an incredible resource.