behind the scenes of a 5000 word draft

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

I started this newsletter all the way back in 2016, and in those early days, I often used it to give additional context on my reporting process, or even just as a space for some of what ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s been awhile since I’ve done that sort of process piece, and my recent reporting has led me down some twisty roads, so I thought I’d share some of the process.

Back in December, I started writing a series for Vox on the hollow middle class. My guiding supposition: it’s become very expensive to maintain a middle class lifestyle, and people are talking out more and more debt in order to keep themselves and their family there. The cost of living and consuming as a middle class person goes up, wages (adjusted for inflation) have not, and we make up the difference with credit and debt: on homes, on education, on cars, in credit card balances.

Since that first, introductory piece, I’m still using the larger of ideas of rising costs and debt to guide me, but I’ve strayed from the original trail. I wrote about how racist policies (and unequal distribution of programs that built the middle class, like the GI Bill) have kept the racial wealth gap in place, particularly for Black Americans (we need reparations!) and how massive amounts of student debt has made maintaining or entering the middle class harder and harder (loan forgiveness now!)

My most recent in the series is about the costs of childcare — and, like each of the two previous pieces, I started out the piece thinking I understood its parameters, and had at least a vague idea of what I would argue….and ended up somewhere else entirely. In truth, this has happened with each of these pieces. I thought I kinda knew what I was talking about, and I was pretty wrong. But that’s the great thing about reporting over time: you start with a question, and then follow the answers.

In this case, the overarching question was Why is childcare so incredibly expensive? I knew, from previous, cursory reading, that the most straightforward answer was “high ratios of teachers to students,” but I was also curious about the other costs. My secondary questions: What percentage of their pay are people allocating to childcare? What ideological understandings of care make it difficult to enact change? When did costs hit “crisis” level? How does this change from state to state? Why is the United States so comparatively bad at this?

One thing I didn’t immediately question but would quickly become central: If childcare is so expensive, why are the people getting paid to do it paid so little? In hindsight, it’s wild that this wasn’t foremost in my mind — because I had worked as care provider back in the mid-2000s, when I first graduated from college, and had to leave the center where I was working because the pay was so low that I was dipping into my meager savings every month to make my $500 in monthly rent + expenses.

I eventually got back to that time in my life — and the forces that pushed me and hundreds of thousands of other women out of the industry. But I wasn’t there yet, because I will still thinking about the problem primary in terms of family burden, not as a holistically broken system.

When I start to research, the first thing I do is ask my Twitter feed who I should be reading and talking to. Months before, in anticipation of eventually writing this piece — and including some discussion of childcare in the future of the office book — I had bought Eliot Haspel’s book, Crawling Behind, and many people suggested his work, so that put him at the top of my interview list. Historian Anna K. Danziger Halperin DM’ed me about her research in the history of the childcare movement, particularly what happened with Nixon and the Childhood Development Act in the 1970s, so I immediately scheduled time with her. [Note: It is the opposite of gauche to suggest your own research when someone is looking for suggestions; scholars, please do this more!]

Then I started doing some basic reading, particularly on the way that the pandemic has illuminated the most broken parts of the system. I posted some of those findings in the Facebook page I run, and the always generative members of the page suggested additional reading. I gutted Crawling Behind (“Gutting” = a process I learned in grad school which combines skimming and close, detail-oriented reading. You figure out the half/third of the book that is most essential to your area of interest, and pay very close attention (and take copious notes) there, and then skim the rest, giving yourself broad permission to stop and read closely when it leads you somewhere unexpected or interesting).

I read all of Anna North’s coverage at Vox, and revisited Lydia Kiesling’s writing on her work to pass affordable universal preschool in the Portland area. I spent most of a day poking around the extensive data available at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE). I queried my FB group to see if there were current ECE workers who’d be willing to talk, and that post got reposted in a handful of other Facebook groups for early childhood education (ECE) workers and advocates. I was starting to feel the contours of different parts of the story, but didn’t know what it was yet or whether and how it all fit together.

And then the snowball started to roll. This is the part of reporting when you’ve talked to a few people, and they tell you to get in touch with a few more people, and then you send emails to a few other people whose work you’ve found online, and then suddenly you come back from an afternoon run and your inbox has ten messages from people who are ready to get on the phone with you.

Included in that snowball was the lynchpin interview of the piece. Every story has a lynchpin interview or two: the conversations that cracks things open and allows you to start seeing the story for what it is. For this piece, it was with Lea Austin at the CSCCE. I’m copying a snippet of our interview from Scrivener (which I use to organize and write) so you can see how we started the conversation, because, at that point, having reviewed the CSCCE’s data on percentage of care workers who were in poverty and who were relying on government assistance, I was starting to think more about the ways in which care workers themselves were shut out of the middle class:

Later that day, Austin’s answer collided in my head with this Gabriel Winant’s NYT piece about transforming health care jobs into “good jobs,” which I’d happened upon on Twitter. But I still needed to untangle why we, as a country, are so resistant to treating these jobs as “good” jobs. The easy answer: we undervalue feminized and racialized work. But I needed more elaboration, so I posed the question to Austin.

(When I’m transcribing an interview, I don’t usually write down my own questions because, well, they’re rambling and embarrassing. In this section below, I asked Austin a very rambling question about how childcare sits at this intersection of work that we assume women should be doing for free in the home, and there’s often a real moral component affixed to people who need someone else to care for their kids. Here, I remind myself that that’s how I posed the question with that sub-heading of MORALIZING, lol).

Later that day, I talked with Lea McHorse with the United Way’s Success by 6 program in Travis County, Texas about the specifics of keeping workers in the industry in a high cost of living area like Austin — where workers drive in from outside of the county, because it’s the only place where they can afford to live. The traffic’s horrible, the pay’s horrible, and they can get a better paying job at Target — so what’s to keep them in the ECE industry? McHorse was very patient with explaining how the current subsidy voucher system for low income families works (a section that eventually got cut from the final piece) and why the state can’t incentivize students to pursue ECE degrees (the field, like, say, welders or dental assistants, is in demand — but the ultimate pay is too low to qualify it for the program).

In the days that followed, I talked to people in Alaska and Montana and Mississippi about the specifics of care and cost and shortages in their states. I talked to a state rep. staffer in Vermont about the childcare funding bill that’s trucking its way through the legislature. I talked with Miren Algorri, a second generation home childcare provider and proud member of childcare workers union in California. A conversation with Dr. Juliet Bromer clarified the real value of homecare (as opposed to center-based care) and why the solution to the current problem can’t just be totally state-run extension of Kindergarten down to infant care. Molly Sullivan at First Children’s Finance in Minneapolis broke down the ways in which childhood care has been a total market failure.

It was difficult to figure out time to schedule calls with the dozens of ECE workers who responded to my general query, so I tried sending a handful of questions over email instead, asking about their path to the field, their current level of pay and whether they have to take on secondary work, whether or not they feel their work is valued, if their lives would change if they were paid on par with public school educators. I would periodically message Haspel or Danziger Halperin to ask a contextualizing question, like, when did we start thinking of the American childcare situation as a “crisis”? (Haspel pointed me to conversations in the ‘90s, and a search of the New York Times archive turned up this gem from 1979). And I talked to my friend and former colleague Katie Notopoulos, whose son is in the pre-K system in New York, who has a lot of observations on how the system works (and doesn’t). (As a general rule, it’s very fun and fruitful to talk to journalists about areas of their lives that aren’t their beat but which they’ve nonetheless spent a lot of time navigating).

In my experience, you rarely reach a point where you feel like you’ve exhausted all of your reporting opportunities, so better start a draft. Instead, you report and you report and you report and then you realize oh shit you have to file in two days so you just have to start writing. At that point, I knew that the answer to all those initial questions — the ones about cost and affordability that had explicitly or implicitly guided my reporting — was, in fact, pretty simple. Childcare is expensive, and pay is low, and the system is broken, because we don’t think of a childcare as a public good. If we can shift that understanding — and fund it like we fund other public goods — we can begin to address all of the other cascading complications with the system. The fix is a feminist issue, but it’s absolutely a racial equity issue as well.

The draft started with fits and starts. I always force myself to write a headline and dek (aka: subtitle) before I start a piece, even a bad one, because if you can’t do that, you’re usually not quite ready to write the piece. That’s where “One Weird Trick to Fix Our Broken Childcare System” came from, which miraculously made its way to the final edition.

I tried making the lede (aka: intro) out of quotes about the cost of care, but it wasn’t flowing, and it wasn’t gripping, and I was struggling to make the intro + nut graph (aka: the paragraph where the writer really nails the argument of the piece) not feel disjointed. I had been staring at the draft for the better part of the afternoon and had about 400 words to show for it. And then, right as it was nearing time to take the dogs for a walk and start dinner, I started writing about my own experience in ECE, which was easy because it’s often easy to write about what you already know. I initially wrote about double of what made its way into the piece, and then started hacking away at it, cutting down the asides. (That the lead teacher in the toddler room would often buy supplies for the class from her own very small salary, for example — I vividly remember a pair of rugs she bought from IKEA for the room).

The dogs started pawing at me, but I ignored them and stitched what was left of my own story with the existing lede, fleshed out the nut graph, and found the Lea Austin quote that could help tie it all together.

The draft I eventually turned in, 4500 words later, was an unruly octopus. I admitted as much to my editor, Julia Rubin, who helped turn it into something far more ruly and coherent. But I also think the state of that first draft speaks to just how conceptually layered the problem is, and how much we should admire the people who’ve made it their work to understand it and try to advocate for the change in the field, even when the most common response to this sort of work is still “but where does the money go??” I spent a month trying to wrap my head around all of this, and I am still learning so much — and I was only able to synthesize what I did because of the patience and deep knowledge of the various people who agreed to teach me, in some way, what they understood.

And a lot of that knowledge didn’t make its way into the final piece. I probably spent 30+ hours interviewing people; each interview comes in between 1000 and 3000 words; would you like to read 90,000 words with your morning coffee? This is how writing and reporting works: you ask questions and more questions and repeat previous questions, and then you try to braid all the answers to those questions together in a way that makes sense. The braiding process is not and can never be “neutral,” because lives are not neutral, and interviews are not neutral, and the questions you ask during them aren’t neutral, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is telling themselves and you a lie. But it’s also not just me deciding on a narrative ahead of time and trying to find people and quotes and stats to support it.

Instead, the piece begins with the understanding that the current system is broken — which, believe it or not, is an opinion unto itself, despite reams of reporting to that effect — and then asks: If it’s broken, and people are suffering because of it, how do we fix that? There are more answers than what I’ve synthesized here, but the shift to thinking of early childhood care and education as a public, common good — to what Elizabeth Warren described as infrastructure — and the difficulty in making that happen….that’s what tied these conversations together.

I didn’t write about childcare costs because I’m a parent — I’m not — or even because I used to be an ECE worker. I wrote about it because a broken societal system hurts everyone, even if indirectly.

I hope you’ve found the description of the process weirdly interesting, and please feel free to ask any questions about it below — and if you want to get the next snowball rolling, tell me who I should be reading and talking to about the cost and conceptualization of cars in American life.

And finally, Things I Read and Loved This Week:


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