How She Got There: Stephanie Clifford, Author & Reporter at 'The New York Times'

Name: Stephanie Clifford

Age: 37

Job Title and Description: Reporter, The New York Times; Author, Everybody Rise

College Name/Major: Harvard University/English

Website: stephanieclifford.net

Twitter Handle: @stephcliff

 

 

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Stephanie Clifford: I currently cover Brooklyn courts for the Times. There are some must-cover stories, like the FIFA case or terrorism cases or when politicians are indicted. I also have a lot of room to come up with stories on my own, though, so when the day isn’t filled with hearings or trials, I’m meeting with sources, going through documents and trying to think of interesting issues – from animal abuse to prisoners’ rights – that may intersect with the courts.

I wrote Everybody Rise, my first novel, mostly while I was at the Times – I’ve been there since 2008, covering business and media before I switched to Metro and the courts beat. I’d get up at six most mornings and write from six to eight, which is partly why it took as many years as it did to finish!

 

What is the best part of your job?

SC: As a reporter, I’m paid to ask questions, study the world and call smart people to ask them how something works or what their opinion is – basically a professional Harriet the Spy. It’s hard, it’s fun and I learn something new every day.

 

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

​SC: I was a fact-checker at a magazine called eCompany Now! (the exclamation point was key). It was a new-economy magazine owned by Time Inc. out of San Francisco. I had been an editor at the college paper and done a college internship in magazines, so I had a bit of experience in the field. It was terrific: small enough that I could learn fast, fun enough that the learning was entertaining.

 

You recently wrote your first novel, Everybody Rise. What made you decide to write a book, and what is your writing process like?

​SC: The book’s protagonist, Evelyn, is a 26-year-old who’s from small-town Maryland, moves to New York and can’t find her place. She thinks she’s found it when she falls in with an old-money crowd and is suddenly flitting between Adirondack camps and Upper East Side parties. She lies in order to fit in, and those lies snowball quickly. I started the novel years ago, put it aside because I didn’t think I could do that plus my job and picked it back up because Evelyn kept nagging at me. She’s this smart, witty, very flawed character, and I couldn’t get her out of my head. We’ve all tried to be someone we’re not, we’ve all wanted something that’s not good for us, and I had to see what happened to Evelyn.

When I started writing regularly again, about five or so years ago, it turned out to be an even busier time in my life: I switched beats at the Times, I got married, I had a baby, I got two cats. I realized, though, that no one was going to hand me a stretch of time and, like, an oceanside writer’s cottage. I had to fit novel writing into my existing life. So I looked at my schedule, figured out that from six to eight [in the morning] was fairly predictable uninterrupted time and decided I’d write it then.

My deal with myself was all I had to do was get up and sit at my computer for those two hours. If I wanted to spend them staring at the ceiling, that was fine. That took a lot of the pressure off — at 6 AM, if I had to decide whether I felt like getting up and writing that day, I would’ve decided “no” virtually every day. Taking the decision-making out of it ended up being incredibly freeing.

 

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?

​SC: There are so many, but one who stands out is Jane Berentson. Before my senior year of college, I snagged an internship at Worth magazine, a personal finance magazine in New York. Jane oversaw what I did, and she encapsulated New York for me: she was so smart, so glamorous, so wry. She encouraged me to go beyond just making copies and doing research, pushed me to pitch stories and made sure I got a couple of bylines. She was a great advocate for me even though I was a random intern. I ended up working for her again years later, at Inc. magazine, where she sniffed out great stories from miles away, pushed us to present our stories creatively and always knew how to make a story work when we were stuck. I learned so much from her.

 

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?

​SC: My dad gave me great advice when I was in high school: Figure out what you like to do, then find someone who’ll pay you to do that.

 

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

​SC: It had to have been the day Everybody Rise sold at auction. I’d been writing it for years on my own, barely telling anyone what I was working on – I didn’t want the pressure of having people ask “so, how’s that novel coming?" (Of course, I missed so many events as a result of working on it that I’m sure my friends thought I’d been drafted by the CIA.) I didn’t know until my agent sent it to editors what the response would be. I was in court that day, covering a political corruption hearing, and because cell phones barely work in the courthouse, I’d run out during breaks to get an update from my agent — then get a call from the Times copy desk on the other line. I remember standing outside the courthouse with tears in my eyes, realizing this was going to be a real book, then answering a copy-desk question about the spelling of someone’s name.

 

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

​SC: The Times, wisely, does not put me in charge of hiring! What’s impressed me in the interns and younger reporters I think are most promising is humility mixed with ambition: They’re eager to learn, ask a ton of questions and also recognize that learning means doing lots of non-glamorous stuff, and they do that without complaint.

 

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

​SC: Don’t be disappointed about starting at the bottom. The entry-level jobs in journalism, like fact-checking, actually teach you a ton; a good fact-checker becomes a careful reporter with respect for how much work goes into a story. When you’re starting at the bottom, though, be aggressive: In your free time, pitch story after story after story. Read your publication, read its competitors and always be looking for stories. (One useful exercise I’ve done is, after reading the paper every day, to write down five new story ideas based on what I read – it got me in the habit of thinking of story ideas all the time). Most editors are going to say no to your ideas. The helpful ones will explain why they’re saying no. You’ll get better at pitching, you’ll get better at writing and eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.

 
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