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So What Do You Do, Lisa Belkin, New York Times Blogger/Writer?

'There is an immediacy to [blogging] that is exhilarating and terrifying'

By Noah Davis - November 5, 2008
When reached by phone for this interview, Lisa Belkin, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the paper's former Life's Work columnist, provided the perfect lede: "Can I call you back in a minute? I'm trying to get my son's AP scores sent to college." Soon after, Belkin -- who recently started penning the Times' Motherlode blog and will moderate's Women's Magazine Dinner on November 12 -- called back (after successfully submitting her son's scores) and provided her insights on joining the parenting beat, journalism in the new media world, and finding the elusive work/life balance.

Name: Lisa Belkin
Position: Motherlode blog writer, New York Times Magazine contributing writer, host of "Life's Work with Lisa Belkin" on Sirius XM Radio
Resume: Started at the Times as a clerk, answering phones in the Washington bureau, then worked her way around the Times ever since then, writing books along the way. Wrote the Life's Work column about the intersection of life and work for the past nine years. Article that got the most attention: The Opt-Out Revolution, about high-powered, highly-paid women who leave the workforce.
Birthday: April 10
Hometown: Westchester, NY
Education: Princeton University
Marital status: Married to Bruce Gelb
First section of Sunday Times: "Magazine, except I almost always read it before Sunday, online."
Favorite television show: Lost
Last book read: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Guilty pleasure: Mallomars

You're a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and recently started penning's Motherlode blog. Talk a little bit about what each of these jobs entail. How do you structure your days and weeks?
[Structure] would be a good thing to have, wouldn't it? I don't know that I have as much of it as I should. The blog is a daily exercise in terms of what is out there and being talked about in the parenting circles. There's always a magazine piece in the background. Depending on whether I'm reporting or writing, that's another part of the day. There's periodically a column that we are just starting [in the NYT Magazine] so I don't even know how that's going to work, but it will be blog ideas that become longer and larger, and rise to the level of a column. Every day is different, and structure really is one of the things I'm working at right now.

"A blog is more about what will get people talking and print is more what will get them reading."

How do you decide what goes on the blog and what becomes a column? Do you write a blog post and then if the response from the readers is strong, it turns into a column?
It's the other way around. There are some things that are longer and a little bit more than a daily blog post and those tend to become columns, either a Life's Work column for the Styles section or a front-of-book column for the magazine.

How does the blog work? Do you have editors who you work with to figure out topics?
Yes, there are two people who I work with daily. Megan Liberman is the content editor, so I'll bounce ideas off of her. We'll decide what has legs on any given day. Then I write and send it to her. She looks it over and sends it to Jeff Delviscio, who is the tech person. This is all brand new to me. There is an immediacy to it that is exhilarating and terrifying. I can write something at 8 a.m. and it can be up by 8:30 a.m. if things go well. It's lightning speed. And then there's feedback, which isn't brand new, but it's constant. So I'm learning.

How does that immediacy of the feedback alter how you're writing?
That's a good question. I've been [writing the blog] for exactly three weeks, so I don't know the answer to a lot of the questions yet. But there is a subtle difference between what will get people reading and what will get people talking. I can't quite articulate the difference, but I'm beginning to know it when I see it. A blog is more about what will get people talking and print is more what will get them reading.

"The comments are the conversation. It's not just what you write. It's also what they then add to it that makes a blog richer."

It's fascinating what types of columns get the most comments.
Right, but it's not only about comments because I don't think comments are a complete reflection of who's reading. The things that are most commented on are not necessarily the things that are most trafficked, but the comments are fun. The comments are something that we never used to have. You used to write and then wonder. I would be really happy when I would see someone on the treadmill or the subway reading something I'd written because that would mean they actually did.

Now, they tell me they did. I put it out there and a few minutes later, they write back. The comments are the point in a way, because the comments are the conversation. It's not just what you write. It's also what they then add to it that makes a blog richer, I think, than just sending it out there.

I find there's something about having commenters that makes me take one more look at what I'm writing and think, "Is this actually what I want to say?" because I know if I get something wrong, I'm going to hear about it immediately.
Yes, if it's not exactly what you want to say, you will know. You will hear about it in five minutes. The beauty is though you can say, "Oh yes, you're right," and you can add or write back. It's truly interactive. When I first started hearing [the word interactive] a decade or so ago, I didn't really get it, but [writing on the Web is] completely interactive.

How did you end up on the parenting and work/family beat?
It evolved. The Life people came to me. I got a call one day, and interestingly it happened to be a particularly bad, disorganized, frantic day, and they called and said, "We want to do a column about life and work, and we'd like you to write it." So for nine years, I did. You can't write about life/work issues without having an eye on parenting. Not everyone who struggles for life/work balance is a parent, but parents have particular struggles.

The panelists at the Women's Magazine Dinner consists of women who've taken their careers online. How has the Internet changed the opportunities for journalists, and specifically female journalists?
The buzzword for the decade I've been covering life and work has been "flexibility." If you can work on your time in your space then you have more control over both your life and your work. Women in particular are looking for this because they are the ones who -- at least up until now -- feel the most pressure. For them, it's been a game changer. It means that you are more likely to be able to fit the puzzle pieces in to form a whole that works for you if you are able to take the work piece of it in a tablet-sized box with you wherever you go. That's how I do it. I got myself a wireless card, and I can work absolutely anywhere. It was almost true before the wireless card. It is now absolutely true with the wireless card, except maybe on an airplane.

"This profession is entirely mobile, and for women who are looking for flexibility, it's changed everything."

If you're a writer and you have this thing you can take anywhere and write anywhere, suddenly all sorts of possibilities are open that weren't open when you needed to sit at a desk and talk face to face with an editor. It means this profession is entirely mobile, and for women who are looking for mobility and flexibility, it's changed everything.

Are there specific aspects of Web sites aimed at women or parents that you think work well?
I'm drawn to two kinds of Web sites when I'm looking for fodder. One is really good news people who have a hand in what's new out there: new studies, new conversations, new trends. The other [kind] are really talented essayists, people who have a lot to say about something that's universal, but phrase it particularly well. The thing about parenting is that so many people are doing it -- it's a universal experience -- and what I find powerful is when somebody manages to capture that in a way that hasn't been captured before.

Where are you finding those people? Is it more on the sites of mainstream publications or on personal blogs?
Both. I actually spend a lot of time on blogs that maybe nobody else has heard of. There are women out there exploring their lives, often anonymously, which is one of the fascinating parts of this. It allows moms who have something to say -- they are mostly moms, although there's a growing daddy lit, if you will, that is much more recent -- [to say it]. Women who were going through this life-altering experience of parenting were doing it in this relatively isolated way and some of the most interesting blogs are their stories without their names, so they can be completely honest. There are a lot of pseudonyms out there.

When you find one of these writers, what do you do? Does it spawn ideas? Do you contact the blogger?
I haven't done anything. What I hope to do is reach out to a lot of these women and bring them onto my blog and make it more of a community there. Again, I've been at this for three weeks, so that's one of the things I haven't quite gotten to do yet.

What skills does a journalist need now to succeed? You have an XM show. Do writers need to know about satellite radio? What about Podcasting? Video shooting/editing? Blogging?
I'm surprised about how much of my journalistic life is spent talking. It started out completely writing. I'm stunned that probably the most important training I got early, early on was my speech and debate class in high school. I talk all the time now. The speeches, the radio show, so much of it is verbal. Writing is still the core. It's still the root of it, but it's so much more about the oral part than I ever would have expected a few years ago. I have actually contacted my high school speech and debate coach to thank her.

What was her response?
She was very pleased. Then she saw me a few weeks later on the Today show, and she sent me an email telling me I was talking too fast.

I would imagine that being the parenting columnist has a certain time limit, both in terms of available material and your interest in continuing to write the column. I know you just started the blog three weeks ago, but any idea what's next?
I have no idea how long it's going to last. I have a feeling I will know when it's time to leave. My first question when they asked me to do this was, "Aren't my kids too old?" which is sort of a way of saying, "Aren't I too old?" The answer was, anyone we pick is going to be at some point on the parenting spectrum, so in a way it makes more sense to have someone who's been through more of it because you have more touchstones. You have more experience under you're belt. I'm finding that even though that was my concern that's actually right.

First of all, there are many fewer people out there blogging who have teens than those who have young children. It's unusual. And secondly, I guess I've actually accumulated some wisdom along the way. I do have the perspective of "This too shall pass," which you don't have as much, or I certainly didn't, when you were smack in the middle of it. I'm grateful for that perspective now, and I wish I hadn't made some things as huge as I did along the way. I hope to pass that on, but I'm also grateful for it journalistically because I'm not drowning in the middle of many of the things I'm writing about. I do understand that the good things end and the bad things end, and you appreciate the good things and you get through the hard ones. I don't know where end will be.

What's the key to the work/life balance?
If you find out let me know and I'll write it, okay? I have not figured it out. I thought the column was going to be about answers. That's what I wrote about in my last column: There never were any answers. There were a lot of interesting questions, and there was great conversation, but if you figure out the answer, let me know.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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