Believe in Your Stories and Believe in Yourself, says the NYT's Kim Severson
The New York Times staff writer wants you to keep going, and ramp up your journalism skills.
I almost fell off my chair last month when I saw that Kim Severson, a New York Times correspondent who covers the nation's food culture, became a paid subscriber.
I had to take advantage of the situation. So, I asked her if we could discuss what journalism brings to food writing, and how she does it so well. (I have unlocked all The New York Times stories I’ve linked to.)
Since 2004, Kim has reported on food news at The New York Times. She has contributed to NYT Cooking and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.
Before she joined The Times, Kim wrote about food and culture for The San Francisco Chronicle and was a news and features editor and reporter at The Anchorage Daily News in Alaska.
She has won several regional and national awards for news and feature writing, including four James Beard awards. She has also written three books.
Here’s why Kim thinks journalism should be important to writers, how she approaches feature stories, and what bugs her about today’s food writing:
Q. First of all, I’m delighted that you became a paid subscriber recently. Would you mind telling me what prompted you?
A. It’s hard for all of us to support people who write about food, because subscriptions can add up. But I try to subscribe to as many newsletters as I can, including Stained Page News, Hanna Raskin’s The Food Section, and yours. Because there’s not many people writing about the craft and business of food writing.
You have been in the game for a long time, and you know of what you speak. I like that it’s not so much about you but about craft, if you know what I mean.
Q. Thank you. I always struggle with how much of myself to put in this newsletter. Is that just something everyone goes through, with personal writing?
A. There’s an entire genre of food writers who can’t imagine how they would write about food without putting themselves in it. There’s just a lot of first-person food writing out there, but not a lot of reporting and fact-driven writing. It’s anathema to me to put myself in the story, but my editors are always encouraging me to do more with my voice.
On the other hand, readers want to know how you know something, and what you did to gain that knowledge, so all of that speaks well to putting yourself in.
People don’t always want to know the emotional journey you’re on. I just don’t have time. And you have to be really skillful to tell it in a way that’s terrific to read.
Q. You’ve been a journalist for decades. How is journalism different from personal essay and experiential-based writing?
A. In journalism we try not to traffic in ‘truthiness.’ We try to be fact-based. We believe in one set of facts, and we base our journalism on it. Reporting a story is based on asking questions, discovering information, and making sure it’s accurate. From there you build on whatever you’re writing.
It could be an opinion piece full of first-person journalism, but is incredibly fact based. The stuff that I do is verifiably true. Tamar Haspel of The Washington Post reports the hell out of things. Hanna Raskin too.