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Behind The Correspondent’s beat on how infancy shapes who we become

Irene Caselli on her “first 1000 days” beat, how to engage readers, and finding opportunities to rest

Irene Caselli is one of The Correspondent’s five full time beat reporters working for the “unbreaking news” start-up famously financed by its audience — 52 thousand paying members. It’s the sister publication of a Dutch version, De Correspondent, which has been around since 2013. Caselli has over 15 years experience in journalism, having written for the BBC, The Washington Post, The Guardian and El País.

But Caselli doesn’t have a typical beat like finance or science. Rather, her beat “first 1000 days of life” looks at how this important time forms one’s personality. Caselli suggested the beat herself and was hired to report on it. 

Since then she has spoken to parenting experts, neuroscientists and pediatricians to create ever-green content that can help readers on their parenting journey. Aside from beat reporting, Caselli also produces weekly newsletters and organizes thematic events. 

The Fix spoke to Caselli about her priorities in reporting, how The Correspondent’s slow journalism has been influenced by the coronavirus-driven agenda, and what it takes to keep her community engaged on a daily basis. 

As COVID-19 broke out in Europe Caselli was trapped at her parents’ home in Naples, Italy. Just like everyone she is deeply worried about what will happen next, but also says it feels right to be a journalist these days. 

“Journalism is not irrelevant, it’s not dying,” Irene Caselli explains. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Irene Caselli’s illustrated portrait (by Cléa Dieudonné)

Alicja Peszkowska: I really like how The Correspondent has been covering the pandemic [using a slow new approach]. I personally can’t deal with any breaking news at the moment – to wake up and start my days like this.

IC: This kind of [breaking] coverage makes you very anxious. My parents, here at home, are keen on TV News… We fight about it. 

I think The Correspondent is doing a good job. We decided we should help digest information, pick up the best reads that will be valid tomorrow as well as in two months, rather than the breaking news. 

We’re noise canceling to help people not go through the noise of the 24-hour news cycle. In the meantime, each of us is coming up with something that may be relevant to their beat.

We’ve received a lot of good feedback from our members who say they are very thankful. Interestingly, our membership base is growing at the moment. It proves we are doing something right.

AP: What is “a beat”?

IC: At The Correspondent journalism is shaped by beats each correspondent covers. Unlike some traditional media, our beats are centered around a theme rather than a region.

We have a climate correspondent, for example, and a mental health correspondent, Tanmoy Goswami, who has just written about the anxiety this crisis is causing. That’s very relevant for the topic he covers. 

AP: What do you focus on in your reporting?

IC: I report on the crucial period in which our brains are built and how it shapes our future. My beat is called “first 1,000 days” and the idea is to explore how a time in our lives of which we have no memory affects us as adults and society overall. 

So far I have written about conception, abortion rights, gender, and childhood trauma. In March I was about to enter a stage of writing about learning through play – how things have shifted in our societies to the point where we’re not leaving children enough space to really express their curiosity and creativity. 

I’ve been planning this for a while now and somehow it seems weirdly relevant. We’re stuck at home with our kids, a lot of people are very new to this amount of time spent at home. 

In a way, when you adapt this broader perspective, like we tend to do at The Correspondent, it is easier to get “ahead of the curve” and be relevant no matter the current situation. 

AP: Are there any challenges to delivering on your promises right now?

IC: The big challenge is that we are a transnational platform with only five of us working full time as correspondents. Our readers and members (currently 52,000) are based all over the world, just like our correspondents. 

It’s always a breath of fresh air to check in with teammates reporting from Lagos, Delhi, or Cairo. We want to make the kind of journalism that is relevant beyond the Western world even though a big chunk of our members are based in the Netherlands and in the US.

Since in my beat I focus on the first 1,000 days in the current situation, many people tell me they wish they were babies right now because they wouldn’t really have to be tuned into all that is happening. 

In the West it might actually be a great time to be a baby. You suddenly have your parents around 24/7. But what happens if there is an abusive father? What happens if your parents can’t get any health or financial support? 

AP:  Is it difficult sometimes to still see yourself as a journalist? Your current position combines the roles of researcher, organizer and community manager

IC: I feel very much like a journalist, I still think that is my first and foremost duty. But I think it’s been very interesting as a process to see how much feedback and things I’ve actually learned from members and the community.

AP: How do you open yourself to this feedback?

IC: One example is that apart from my longer articles, I also write a weekly newsletter. It is, basically, a behind-the-scenes look at what I am doing. 

This newsletter might include details about a book, films, podcasts or videos that informed my writing, which I didn’t think were worth a full article, but are still a good recommendation.

It’s a space to be genuine and transparent, which is important to being a journalist and something our members value a lot. My newsletter has a high click open rate – people really read it.

We also get a lot of contributions from members, such as tips or corrections as comments to our published newsletter or simply email replies. Most recently I wrote a piece about Sex Education, the Netflix series, I mistakenly referred to the vulva as vagina. The artist who created the Vulva Gallery – Hilde Atalanta – reached out to let me know I made a mistake.

Apart from the newsletter, there are also transnational conversations run by our conversation editor, Nabeelah Shabbir. We also do what we call “call-outs” which are consultations with our members about what we should be focusing on or ways in which we can reflect their experiences in our texts. 

I’ve asked members for their earliest memories, or to become experts for my first 1,000 days Advisory Board. I also invited members to participate in a meet-up in Buenos Aires.

AP: What is the idea behind an advisory board?

IC: The idea is to have 20 people around the world that are on their first 1,000 day journey – planning on becoming parents or already pregnant, or with a child up to two years of age. 

I am trying to include a diverse group of individuals and think beyond white, highly developed countries. I want to create a group that can basically check the stuff that I’m writing. So before publishing pieces, the idea would be to consult them. 

If I write about playing and if there is a mother of a deaf child, for example, that mother can point out if I’m missing out on a perspective. It’s a way to be more inclusive to become more aware of things that we take for granted or the perspectives we’re totally missing out on.

AP: You also mentioned special events. What did you mean? 

IC: At The Correspondent we are encouraged to think creatively when it comes to how to connect to members. Every beat reporter participates in or organises events whenever they think this can help them reach out to the community or simply make their reporting better. 

When I went to Buenos Aires, one of the members of The Correspondent, Chani Guyot, who is the editor of Red/ACCIÓN – a local member-based media –  and one of their reporters who covers a lot of topics like childhood, gender, and human rights, thought that it’d be interesting to organise a small meetup together and to center it around the idea of how to raise a child. 

It was a very low key, spontaneous event with a sociologist who’s an expert in breastfeeding and parenting. One member that showed up doesn’t have kids, and it was great to have this kind of a meeting attended by someone not directly involved in the topic discussed.

I took part in another event in November. I wrote about Born in Evin, a documentary film about a woman born in a prison in Iran. It was being shown at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam; at the time, I was writing about memory and trauma. 

I managed to organize a Q&A with the director after one of the screenings and let members know in my newsletter. A bunch showed up, including a woman who was born in the same Iranian prison. 

It was one of the most incredible moments I’ve ever witnessed. This is what we, journalists, are really here for. We bridge realities that wouldn’t normally come together. 

Sometimes I beat myself up and think that nobody cares about me writing about a specific topic, that its importance is all in my head. Then the person who read my story and came to the screening to meet the director tells me that I changed her way of thinking about herself… 

AP: Sounds like the collaborative nature of your reporting makes your work better… 

IC: The situation I just described was a good shake-up to me, as a journalist, about how unimportant numbers can be. Of course it is tricky because we still depend on numbers, money, we’re a startup after all. But there definitely is some big lesson to be learned about listening more to what people out there are telling us.

When I started 20 or 15 years ago, it was very common in newsrooms to think that the person reading our pieces was a fool, that we had to teach them. I think that’s totally ridiculous. 

I’m not a neuroscientist, so when I wrote about trauma and the effects it has on children I consulted our member, a pediatrician specializing in trauma, and he proofread my piece. He read it and added an extra layer to my reporting.

We need to trust people more, that’s valid for humanity overall. We need to get rid of echo chambers, get rid of negativity… Instead, we should focus on what we do well and just do it.

Journalism is not irrelevant, it’s not dying. “Now” is a great example of how important and relevant journalism is and how important it is to see what is happening beyond your little community. 

Because most of the big issues we’re facing are transnational, like Covid-19. It is, however, important to be able to aim for diversity in our outlook and the way we approach issues and we need that to be reflected in newsrooms as well as in our reporting.

AP: What are your reporting plans for the next few weeks?

IC: First of all – providing context to what is happening. We published an explainer about how to read the pandemic numbers. Another one explained what herd immunity is. 

We’re going to write a piece on vaccines, talking about anxiety, too. We’re working on a guide with links to context articles or visualizations that will be updated everyday. 

We also want to help our members get some rest. Most of us are locked at home, maybe we can’t even go outside, but we are still capable of reading and entertaining ourselves. So why not take our mind off things?

Last week I had an existential crisis when my article about Sex Education came out. I was worried it was totally inappropriate. Then I recognised that I am in a rare position to actually be able to offer some rest to people and get people to think about other things than the pandemic, because there still is a whole world out there. 

For those of us who are privileged enough to sit down and read something, we might as well be reading something that can contribute to our brain growth or thinking positively.

If you’d like to follow the “first 1000 days” series, you can sign up to Casselli’s newsletter here. You don’t have to be a The Correspondent paying member to do that

Alicja Peszkowska is a Copenhagen-based consultant, researcher, and a participation strategist focused on technology, digital culture, and social change. Her track record includes working with IOVIA, Outriders, Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, TechSoup Europe, and Creative Commons.

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