Getting Personal With Millions of Readers

From a Times Insider column by Sarah Bahr headlined “Getting Personal With Millions of Readers”:

When Brooks Barnes, a correspondent who covers Hollywood for The New York Times, pitched an essay late last year about what it was like to grow up in a carnival, he half hoped that his editor would say no.

“I’ll be honest, it’s hard,” Mr. Barnes said of first-person writing. “I have to wrestle with it in an emotional way that I don’t have to with most news stories or features.”

Mr. Barnes has written pieces for The Times about returning to his conservative hometown in Montana, where he was bullied as a child, with his husband, and his visit to the recently resumed Gay Days at Disney World. He is one of several journalists at the paper who occasionally insert themselves into their narratives.

Of course, it’s anxiety-inducing to share intimate details of your life with an audience of millions. But it’s worth it, Mr. Barnes said, if it helps readers connect to a story.

“The reaction can be electric if your experience helps people understand something about themselves,” he said.

Three journalists who have recently shared personal stories in The Times’s pages or on a Times podcast tell us why they decide to open up, what boundaries they set and whether they have any regrets after the fact.

Should I Share?

Inserting yourself into the narrative of an article is never an easy decision. Many New York Times journalists do so only a handful of times in their careers, and only when it truly strengthens a story. The ideal scenario, said Anna Martin, the host of The Times’s “Modern Love” podcast, is when she believes sharing details of her own experience will encourage her interviewee to open up.

But, she added, it’s a delicate balance between drawing connections to her own life and treating the podcast as a therapy session. “I never want to share too much of myself in a way that moves the spotlight from the person I’m interviewing to myself,” she said.

Sometimes writers use their experiences to better reach and connect with readers. Priya Krishna, a Times Food and Cooking reporter, recently wrote about her lifelong struggle with Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that wreaks havoc on the body’s stomach lining and often leaves her with a stomachache for hours after a meal. She said she felt it was important to write because half of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori.

Drawing the Line

Details are the lifeblood of great storytelling. But how personal is too personal?

“I tend to overshare at first,” Mr. Barnes said. “Editors can help you decide where the line is.”

Mr. Barnes said he was willing to make fun of himself in his first-person pieces, occasionally to the extent that he diluted the emotional power of an anecdote. “Sometimes the powers that be are like, ‘That’s a little much,’” he said.

That’s not to say the first-person voice comes easily for all journalists. In Ms. Krishna’s first draft of her H. pylori piece, her editor told her that her tone was too formal, too reported.

“So I rewrote it and made it much more conversational and casual,” she said, “as though I were telling it to a friend, versus treating it as a scientific report.”

Even though Ms. Martin shares personal anecdotes more often than print reporters do, she still often finds herself weighing how much to divulge up until the last minute. For instance, in a recent episode, she planned to exchange dating profiles on air with a young woman who has a prosthetic leg and had recently written a piece for The Times about navigating dating apps in New York City.

But in the days leading up to the interview, Ms. Martin began having second thoughts about sharing her dating profile. What calmed her nerves, she said, was knowing that she was sharing “as a means of opening up a connection with a guest.”

Try (and Fail) to Get Some Sleep

No matter many how many years a journalist has been sharing their own experiences, all three interviewed for this article agree: The night before a personal piece publishes or airs is a special kind of torment.

Mr. Barnes described an array of night-before anxieties, including “Am I making a fool of myself?” and “What if I got something wrong?” Being vulnerable, he said, has itself been a valuable experience; it has helped put him in the shoes of the people he interviews.

“You have to talk yourself out of the panic of having millions of eyeballs on your story,” Mr. Barnes said. “I’ve been at The Times for 15 years, and it never gets easier.”

Respond to Readers

While the night before a piece publishes can be nerve-racking, once it’s out in the world, the result can be exhilarating. Journalists are often flooded with emails, tweets and comments from readers who saw themselves, or someone they knew, reflected in a particular aspect of the article — and many express their gratitude for the journalist’s vulnerability.

Personal articles can also lead to epiphanies. Ms. Krishna said she received numerous emails from readers who thanked her for sharing her experience with her condition. “They would say, ‘I think I have this, too,’” she said.

Of course, for as many positive comments as journalists get, they receive a fair amount of negative ones, too, such as people complaining that they had overshared. But surprisingly, none of the journalists said they had ever regretted sharing a personal detail in a piece.

“It’s figuring out the moments where sharing and opening up yourself will amplify and encourage their opening up,” Ms. Martin said, adding, “I love it when listeners tell me they connected with something I shared.”

Sarah Bahr is a senior staff editor at The Times. She has reported on a range of topics, most often theater, film and television, while writing for the Culture, Styles and National desks.

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