Run with it: award winner shares her inspiration on health care journalism

By Heidi Li

Lola Butcher is an AHCJ Fellow.

Lola Butcher is an AHCJ Fellow. Photo courtesy of Lola Butcher.

DENVER — I met Lola Butcher, a freelance journalist and a fellow of the Association of Health Care Journalists, on March 28 at Health Journalism 2014. She was kind enough to let me interview her about her experiences as a health care journalist.

We first talked about her award-winning story, “The Mental Health Crisis,” which addressed the nation’s growing crisis in mental health due to the shrinkage of public funding for behavioral health care.

Your story The Mental Health Crisis was awarded Best Feature Article by the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors last year. How did you approach the story?

It was an assignment from my editor at Hospitals & Health Networks, which is the magazine published by the American Hospital Association. I had not written about the mental health industry previously, so I had to learn everything very quickly for that article.

I first had to do a lot of background reading, to get myself familiar with the issues. I spent probably a day just Googling to understand what the issues were. As I was gathering the background information, I was also looking for potential sources whom I thought would have something new to bring to the conversation. I had probably eight or nine interviews and a couple of interviews just for background information.

I submitted the story a month after I received the assignment, but I worked for three or four whole days in total. I just spread the workload into several days.

How do you find attending AHCJ conferences could help you and other health care journalists?

I have attended AHCJ National Conferences almost every year since 2004. It’s a great place to network with other health care journalists, and I met a lot of people who are helpful to me either by suggesting story ideas, or suggesting sources and editors. It’s been very helpful to me as a freelancer because freelancers are all very generous with their help to one another.

The sessions, however, are mostly geared to daily journalists, and the information is really helpful. There is a lot of good health policy information, and that’s what I’m really interested in.

This year, I’m especially interested in end-of-life care and the Medicare system, and there are several sessions on those topics too.

How is freelancing compared to working as a staff writer for news organizations?

I had great experiences working for three daily newspapers and two weekly business journals. I like it great, I like it fine, but in journalism today, there is little job security. As a freelancer, I have control over my work because I have to market for myself. I feel more in control rather than waiting to be laid off or in constant fear of losing jobs like many staff writers. I don’t have that because if one of my clients no longer wants to hire me, there are a lot of people I can market myself to. So, that I like.

I’m also in total control over what kind of clients I choose to write for, so every story I write is what I’m really interested in. As a staff writer, I was interested in most stories that were assigned to me, but some stories that my editor wanted just, you know, didn’t appeal to me. I don’t have that situation any more.

Also as a freelancer, I’m able to go much deeper into the beat I’m really interested in, rather than having to meet the needs of that particular publication that pays my salary.

How do you manage having multiple clients at the same time?

I have six clients, and I have been working with them for several years now. About half of my works come from assignments, and the other half from the stories that I pitch. I’m always looking for story ideas and sending out pitches to my clients. If they see something that I might be good for, they send it to me. If I’m too busy working on something else, they would send it to someone else. Right now I have 12 assignments that I know I will complete between now and the end of May, and I generally can juggle only one or two more in that amount of time.

Earlier today in one of the sessions, you emphasized transcribing the interview. How do you do that and why do you think that’s important?

When I was a staff writer, I never taped interviews, and I never transcribed. The reason that I started to transcribe my interviews was because when I was working for myself, I was afraid that I would make a mistake and have to have a correction. If you are staff writer, if you make a mistake and have to have a correction, you don’t get fired. But I knew that if I ever made a mistake as a freelancer then I would never be able to work for that editor again because I’d be done.

I don’t like to transcribe myself, and so that’s the reason I pay someone to do it. Occasionally I have to transcribe myself, because sometimes my transcriber doesn’t have time. It’s very time-consuming for me, so I just do the interviews. As soon as I finish, I would send the recording immediately to my transcriber, and a week later she sends transcription back to me, and I can just read it. So I can work so much more quickly.

Once I started reading the transcription, I realized how difficult it is to get quotes right. Throughout all my years as a staff writer, I don’t think I misquoted people, but exact words? Probably, I was fudging, because once I started seeing what people really said, it was quite different from what I remembered hearing.

In addition, there are so many more details when you see the whole transcription of a conversation, it gives me so many story ideas, and I learned so much. You know, often times in this conversation, you might think, oh she said X, then once I read the transcription, I see actually I heard one part of it, but there’s a lot more information there. So that makes my work better, you know, that makes my assignments better, because I learned more.

How do you capture the latest trends in your interest area?

I subscribe to a magazine called Modern Healthcare, and read it every week. I read two daily email pushes from Modern Healthcare and Hospitals and Health Networks. I also read a policy journal called Health Affairs. For online resources, I go to the websites of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the American Academy of Neurology, and the Healthcare Financial Management Association every couple of weeks.

What are the trends you envision for the future of health care journalism?

I guess I would say: more niches and more non-profit journalism.

What are your tips for younger health care journalists?

My first tip is, if you have any interest in health care journalism, RUN WITH IT. It’s going to be such a fast growing field. What I write about is the change in the health care system for physicians and hospital executives, I can see how in a few years, patients and consumers are going to have to be changing in response to what are happening within the industry. There’s going to be every increasing demand for good health care journalism, so it’s a fantastic field.
I also encourage young journalists to explore who they like to write for best, as they can either write for a general audience or write more about science. The deeper you get into your topic, the more successful you would be. Just pick one focus and run with it.

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