The New York Times Insider: Finding a Story by Asking “Really Dumb Questions”

From a New York Times Insider column by Katie Van Syckle headlined “Finding a Story by Asking ‘Really Dumb Questions'”:

As the international climate correspondent for The Times, Somini Sengupta covers the human toll of climate change, particularly the impact on vulnerable populations.

Ms. Sengupta was born in Kolkata, India, the city formerly known as Calcutta. When she was 8 years old, her family moved to a small village on the Canadian prairie and later to a suburb of Los Angeles. Moving taught her to adapt, she said, “to be like water, as Bruce Lee would put it.”

Previously, she covered the United Nations for The Times and worked as a foreign correspondent in West Africa, New Delhi, Iraq and Lebanon. Here, she talks about how her grandfather inspired her to become a journalist, where she finds her ideas and why she walks to unwind.

When did you decide you wanted to become a journalist?

When I was little, my grandfather in Calcutta, who had worked all his life as a clerk in a local government office, would sit on his stoop every evening with his old, retired friends to talk about the news. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. It may have been about the price of onions or a war far away. All I understood was that the news mattered, that the actions of powerful people far away had a bearing on the lives of ordinary people like us. Somewhere back then, a seed must have been planted.

Except that as an immigrant in America, neither I, nor my parents, had a clue about how to get into journalism. I knew no American journalists growing up. I didn’t have money to go to journalism school. It was only when a journalist at The L.A. Times — the wonderful Hector Tobar — recruited me into a training program designed to diversify U.S. newsrooms. That was it. I learned on the job. I felt like a fish in water. I felt at home. The lesson of this story: Take a chance on people. Bring them in. Even those who don’t have the right résumés. Especially those who don’t have the right résumé.

What stories are you drawn to?

Stories about the forgotten, the overlooked, the underestimated.

Where do you find your ideas?

I start with questions — often really dumb questions — and then I ask a whole bunch of people for answers. From there, a story emerges.

You have reported from around the world. Is there a reporting trip that you remember vividly?

Every trip teaches you something about that place, but also about your own country and yourself. I’ve covered 10 wars, from Sri Lanka to Liberia to Syria. I’ve tried to always tell the stories of war not through warriors, but through civilians — people like me — because in those extreme conditions, you see both what brutality human beings are capable of and also what courage. I can’t help but wonder who I might have been under those circumstances.

How has your daily routine changed during the pandemic?

Because I have a global beat, I have weird, unpredictable hours. Some weeks, I might get up at the crack of dawn to interview sources in Europe, and maybe the following week, I’m making calls in the evening to Asia. That, combined with working from home, means that I have to make time. I have to give my days some rhythm, and the one thing that forces me to order my time is caring for my kid. First thing in the morning, I try to set aside five to 10 minutes for meditation. I save my early evenings for uninterrupted, device-free time with my kid. During the early months of the pandemic, when she was remote-schooling and staring at her screen for absolutely everything, I cleared my deck for an aimless 30-minute walk with her every day after school. Also cooking. I cook three meals for us. That gives rhythm to my days.

How do you decompress and unwind?

Hobbies? You mean like sleep? Or helping with algebra homework? I played several instruments as a kid — I considered being a music major in college — so I fantasize about returning to music. Probably not the bassoon. My neighbors probably wouldn’t want that. The teenager usually dictates my screen time. (We have watched “Never Have I Ever” a gazillion times.) Books-wise, I’ve got N.K. Jemisin and Rebecca Solnit on my night stand right now, and a book called “Doughnut Economics” that I’m reading with colleagues. My unwinding is walking. I pester friends to take walks with me, and when we can’t see each other in person, we schedule Zoom conversations with wine. I call it Zwine with Somini.

If you could take on another beat at The Times, what would it be, and why?

I would want to eat my way around the world. Is that a beat? It should be. Mine!


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