From her start in journalism, Nora Caplan-Bricker became known for reporting on feminism and sexual assault. Her 2016 Slate story “Flight Risk” won Poynter’s RALLY award for reporting on sexual violence by revealing how poorly-prepared airlines were to deal with sexual assault on their flights. Over time, she says, her stories became more scattered. She’s gone long on seemingly everything from D.C. statehood in the Washington Post to online testing surveillance for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and elsewhere.
“Somewhere along the way I feel like I lost my beat, or maybe my beat lost me,” she told me in a recent Skype interview.
“[M]y own pre-reporting process has often been geared to making sure I can deliver the story before I pitch it,” she wrote in an email following our conversation. For a nearly 10,000-word story in The Atavist on saving monarch butterflies, Caplan-Bricker says she spent about a month pre-reporting.
“I’m always afraid of pitching something on a hunch and then discovering that it’s not there to get after all.”
For The New Yorker, Caplan-Bricker recently reported on the post-Covid fate of the dystopian remote proctoring companies that have become notorious for surveilling students, struggling to recognize students of color, and creating barriers for disabled people. It would’ve been a stressful reporting experience for any freelancer: Proctorio, the company at the center of Caplan-Bricker’s story, has been known to sue its critics.
“I feel lucky that I was writing the piece for The New Yorker, because the fact-checking department is so amazing,” she said. “For freelancers especially, knowing you’re going to be fact checked, knowing the piece will be read over by a lawyer who’s going to tell you whether they think you’re vulnerable…that has made a huge, huge difference to my ability to do reporting.”
Looking for something to help focus her work, Caplan-Bricker earlier this year became web editor at Jewish Currents, a lefty little magazine that she’s “had an intellectual crush on for a while.” Since its relaunch in 2018, the magazine has drawn a loyal audience of young, leftist, and very online Jews. Nora and I talked about how to pre-report as a freelancer, what it means to be a Jewish magazine in 2021, and what kinds of stories Jewish Currents wants to commission.
To compensate freelancers for the enormous time commitment required for pre-reporting, she wrote, Jewish Currents is “commissioning a limited number of deep-dive reported stories through a new investigative fund, and in certain cases we’ve been able to arrange a research fee so that reporters can do some digging to see if there’s a ‘there’ there, with the knowledge that they’ll be compensated whether the story pans out or not.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Study Hall: You recently wrote this devastating, deeply reported story in The New Yorker about online test monitoring software. How did you get into that story?
Nora Caplan-Bricker: I really relied a lot on other reporters’ work. Beat reporters covering tech and covering education and covering surveillance, who did a ton of great reporting before I got started on this piece. Looking at what had already been written, it felt like the best version of the piece might be a piece that tried to kind of get inside one of these companies, to the extent that that was possible, or really get a sense of, after the first wave of criticism had already been published in the spring and summer, how the companies were reacting in the fall and winter to becoming sort of pariahs in the press.
SH: Was it hard for you to get the CEO of Proctorio to talk to you?
N C-B: I haven’t heard from him since the piece came out. So hopefully, I don’t get slapped with a lawsuit.
The rule of thumb I feel with things like this is, if it’s correct, then you’re much more legally protected. But if you make a mistake, then you’re potentially really open to a lawsuit. I would have been more nervous doing that for a place where I wouldn’t have been fact-checked. When I was freelancing full-time, I’ve definitely turned down assignments because I felt I was going to be either too legally exposed … I turned down assignments where I would have been reporting on right-wing groups, where I was worried about my safety or I was worried about using my personal computer and my personal email.
SH: You seem to be someone with a really eclectic set of interests. Do you have a way of choosing which story deserves your attention next? Do you ever feel pressure to specialize?
N C-B: When I started out as a writer and as a freelancer, I think my beat was much more clearly defined in my own head. I was covering, basically, feminism and gender equality, especially in the context of schools and the movements around Title IX and sexual assault on campus.
At a certain point, I felt that I wanted a broader beat, or that the questions that were occupying me as a person and a reader and keeping me up at night were different questions. And maybe there was some disillusionment for me with some of the versions of feminism that I had reported on.
I spent a bunch of years jumping from one interest to another and writing some stories about politics and some stories about climate stuff and some stories about tech. I think I was kind of searching for my next beat, and I’m still not sure exactly what that is.
Maybe there’s an ideal balance between having a beat that you know really well, and then having some freedom, both within the way that your editors think of you and in the way that you understand your own writing, where you can experiment and push the edges of your beat and write on a variety of things…I have switched to primarily editing for a number of reasons, but I think one was that I felt like I needed time to think through some of those questions, or I needed to be engaging with reporting and nonfiction narrative from different angles.
SH: Do you have any other notable stories about pre-reporting a piece? I’d love to know how you found the story about monarch butterflies.
N C-B: It came out of a personal feeling of sadness or agitation that I was experiencing being a human in this world and spending a lot of time outside, when I spent an extended period of time visiting my in-laws in a more rural place. And I think [I] confronted some of the ways that that landscape was different than it looked in my own childhood.
I started by trying to get a sense of what had been written about monarchs and monarch conservation … There were a few conservation biologists and ecologists who had spoken about that species of butterfly in some terms that really resonated with me, as this charismatic species that they as conservationists were almost thinking of how to use to attract attention to the plight of pollinators more broadly.
I started by talking to some of those people, just sort of called up the most obvious people and tried to start getting a sense of them and what they were currently working on and what was in front of them.
When I first went to my editor, that was sort of what I had: This is what’s been written about it, these are some of the major characters, these are the themes I want to write about and why I think a story about this one species from this one angle can get at some of these bigger questions. What ended up feeling really good to me about the process of pre-reporting that story was the editor at The Atavist who I worked with, Seyward Darby, knew that she needed more to figure out if there was a story there and needed more sense of, what are the scenes? Who are the characters? What is the arc of the piece and the structure?
I went out in search of some of those things with pretty clear marching orders. I called a zillion people who were doing conservation work around monarch butterflies … I had maybe 30 conversations between that first conversation with the editor and the piece actually getting assigned, where I was hunting for characters, and then asking people what was on the schedule for them such that I might be able to go and see it. Through that, I got to talk to this advocacy organization that does an annual monarch count. And it seemed obvious that the count would be a good scene, and that did end up being the guts of the piece.
SH: How did you decide to move into the editing job at a Jewish Currents?
N C-B: My life as a freelancer was pretty scattered, and I wasn’t sure what it was adding up to … The idea of getting to be on a staff and be editing and be looking at a magazine holistically was really appealing because it felt like I could be part of making something bigger.
The magazine, for me, was speaking a certain language or speaking to an identity or set of experiences that felt really resonant to me, and that I didn’t see elsewhere. It felt like a unique chance to be part of something that I was really excited about as a reader.
SH: Do you see Judaism or Jewishness as a part of who you are as a writer?
N C-B: I guess to answer that question, I’d have to be able to tease out what it means for Jewishness to be part of who I am, and also the link between my personhood and my writing, in ways that I feel not totally able to do. I guess I’m not sure, but it’s certainly part of my work now.
SH: Who do you see as Jewish Currents’s audience?
N C-B: That is an interesting question. There’s the literal answer to that, which is who’s reading the magazine now. But I guess I’ll go with the aspirational answer. I think the aspirational answer is any person who is interested in the animating questions of the left in a broad sense.
Jewishness for the magazine [is] kind of a lens turned outward instead of inward, meaning that the stories tend to use questions about Jewishness or Jewish identity or the U.S.-Israel relationship to explore broad questions about race or politics or foreign policy or class or influence or power … Many of the stories, if they have some link to Jewishness, the ultimate kernel of the story is not limited to Jewishness.