New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said he struggles to grab readers’ attention when writing about humanitarian crises around the globe, including violence against women in Sierra Leone, civil war in South Sudan and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
More than ever, journalists have metrics showing them exactly which stories are read and which ones aren’t and, unfortunately, some of the most important stories of our time don’t earn clicks, he said. That can weigh heavily on publishers searching for profitability.
“They’re expensive to cover, they can be dangerous to cover, and readership plummets for those columns compared to those when I’m sitting at my desk doing a Trump sex column – and it’s frustrating,” Kristof said in an interview last week with The Durango Herald. “But I’ve been very fortunate that the Times is still deeply committed to covering these kinds of stories and paying the bills and letting me go and write stories that only my mother will read.”
Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, will visit Durango on Oct. 4 to be part of a new speaker series called “Making a Difference,” sponsored by the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado.
“Making a Difference” recruits national speakers who can share philanthropic stories or inspiring anecdotes about changing the world one person at a time, said Briggen Wrinkle, executive director of the foundation. The foundation’s next speaker will be Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former President George W. Bush, who will speak about “compassionate giving” and early childhood education.
As a syndicated columnist, Kristof is published in newspapers across the country, including the Herald. His event is sold out.
“Lots of people know his column and what he does,” Wrinkle said. “We have several organizations in town that touch on issues in Myanmar, which is an area Kristof is passionate about. Our committee and the Community Foundation Board felt like he was a great kickoff (speaker).”
Kristof, 58, has traveled to more than 150 countries to report on civil war, economic unrest, sex trafficking, environmental degradation, humanitarian crises, and other calamities in the developing world. China and India strike him as two of the “most amazing” places to report from, he said, because so much of what they do and how they develop will impact the rest of the world.
“The stakes are just enormous,” Kristof said. “But they’re also difficult places to report in, partly for that reason.”
Kristof has passed through Southwest Colorado, but he lacks an intimate knowledge of the region, he said. He will be returning from a “somewhat dicey place” shortly before arriving in Durango, “so when I get to Durango, I will be feeling nice and relieved and relaxed,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to the visit.”
‘Deeply tied to rural America’Kristof graduated high school in the rural town of Yamhill, Oregon, southwest of Portland. He studied government and worked on the student newspaper at Harvard College. He earned his law degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, and studied Arabic for a year in Egypt. He joined The New York Times in 1984 covering economics. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a syndicated columnist for the Times. He lives in New York.
He describes himself as liberal with “fairly urban values,” but having grown up on a farm in rural Oregon made him “deeply tied to rural America.”
“I think I’m the only New York Times columnist who knows how to weld or inoculate a sheep,” he said. “I see a lot of issues through the prism of my hometown.”
Last week, he wrote a column about the drug crisis in America, something that “devastated” his hometown. He supports the protection of public lands, saying Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation this month to shrink four national monuments in the West, including Bears Ears, would be a mistake. “Historically, I think in every case, we’re glad that lands were protected and regret when lands weren’t protected,” Kristof said. “The trend has been to try to engage in more protection. This is a move in the opposite direction, so I hope it doesn’t get very far.”
Rural residents may feel isolated and powerless to help solve the world’s most vexing problems. But Kristof said rural residents play a significant role in steering America’s global policy. He pointed to the United State’s initiative to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Small-town churches put pressure on the Bush administration in the early 2000s, which led to the creation of the president’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), “which has saved millions of lives and is the best thing that President Bush did,” Kristof said.
Likewise, the country’s refugee policy will be decided in large part on how “Trump Country” responds to the president’s attempts to reduce the number of refugees coming to the U.S., he said.
Foreign needs shouldn’t be pitted against domestic needs, Kristof said.
“There are really important humanitarian things we need to do abroad, and there are also huge challenges at home,” he said. “Indian reservations are a classic example, where there is just tremendous deprivation. To the extent that many of those are in rural America, the attempts to deal with them most knowledgeably are also going to come from those small towns.”
From economics reporter to humanitarian columnistWhen Kristof started at the Times, he wrote news stories about international economics, including wonky topics such as exchange rates. But as a foreign corespondent, he had latitude to cover other topics. He was jarred by some of the human stories he came across, including sex trafficking in the late 1990s in Asia.
“It was really kind of haunting to see young teenage girls in Cambodia being sold very openly,” he said. “It felt like slavery. It’s sort of hard to go from that to writing again about exchange rates.”
Some of the scenes Kristof describe in his columns barely pass the “Corn Flakes” test, meaning readers would rather not stomach that much gore or violence first thing in the morning. But that doesn’t stop Kristof from looking for the most arresting stories to grab readers’ attention.
“Where we in journalism have greatest influence is taking important and neglected issues and trying to get them out there and make people spill there coffee as they read about them,” he said.
“So that’s what I try to do. I try to make people spill their coffee.”
A moral compassAs a columnist, Kristof thought it would be easy to influence public opinion. “I quickly realized it doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Opining on issues such as abortion, gun violence, the Middle East or President Donald Trump has little to no effect at changing minds, he said. Instead, he focuses on the most important but neglected topics.
Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have co-written at least four books, all best-sellers, spotlighting the human condition in Third World countries. They have encountered heartbreaking situations – people whose lives could be forever changed or saved with a little money, a ride to the hospital or responsive law enforcement. Some of the situations they encounter present a challenge to journalists: How much can a reporter do or offer without changing the story?
Kristof said he is a human first and a journalist second. He has used his car to give injured victims a ride to the hospital, he is willing to give a mother $10 to buy medicine for her children, and while in Sierra Leone, he notified police of a man who was raping young girls.
“I have no regrets about that,” he said.
If he becomes involved in a story, he discloses it to his readers.
“I’ve wrestled with these issues a lot,” Kristof said. “One has to be very careful that one isn’t paying for interviews and distorting what people tell us as a result, but I all the time in the field will do what I can to be a human first.”
Kristof has no qualms using his column as a moral compass to guide readers through humanitarian quagmires. It is easy to look back 50 years and see atrocities committed that society was all too silent about, he said.
“I don’t want historians 100 years from now to make the same comment about mistakes that we as a society make today and refer to my silence,” he said. “The risk is that I can come across as sanctimonious and screechy, but when I see things that I find offensive and contrary to our values, then I want to jump up and down about them.”
Kristof, who served on Harvard University’s Board of Overseers from 2010-16, declined to weigh in on the college’s decision this month to withdraw its visiting fellowship invitation to Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman, formerly known as Bradley Manning, who was convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks while serving in the U.S. Army.
“I don’t have a really good, thoughtful answer on that, so I think I’ll pass on it,” Kristof said.
An early adapter of social mediaAs for Trump, Kristof thinks the president will finish his term rather than be impeached and convicted in the U.S. Senate or removed under the 25th Amendment.
“He remains so popular among Republicans that I think he’s probably going to be around for his full term,” he said. “It will keep journalists busy as a result.”
Newspapers are not dead, but their business models are collapsing, and new ones must be created, he said. Print media has been too reluctant to experiment with new mediums, he said, but that is slowly changing.
“Some of the experiments are going to be embarrassing failures, but I think we’re at a point where we all collectively have to try new things and have to try to engage young readers in particular,” he said.
Kristof hosts an annual win-a-trip contest, in which he takes one or more college students on an overseas trip. He’s also hosting a Trump poetry writing contest.
None of these is “silver bullets” for saving newspapers, he said, but every little bit helps.
In the meantime, Kristof plans to keep telling stories that go under-reported, even if only his mother reads.
“I believe deeply that information and storytelling has value,” he said.