“We try not to be dogmatic in our approach, but clear on our goals.”
Hero Parent and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Shai Oster has it all figured out, really! A devoted father and Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, previously of the Wall Street Journal and now with Bloomberg, he shares stories from his childhood (pickled herring and onion sandwiches for school lunches!), his reporting career and how he wants his children to find a driving passion.
My childhood was bit of a yoyo. I was born in Jerusalem, then moved to America, then back again to Israel and back to America. I learned Hebrew, English, then relearned Hebrew and then relearned English. This came in handy many years later when we lived for a year in France - a much easier language to learn, and later when I came to China. I think my brain was primed for languages.
Learning how to speak as a kid can be tough. Once in Israel in kindergarten, I was so excited the other kids asked me to join in a game. They wanted me to be something that to me sounded like the word "chevy". Turns out it was Hebrew for hostage.
The transition back to America also had a few hiccups. Other kids brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school. I brought pickled herring and onion sandwiches. This may have impacted my popularity.
Certain things have been imprinted in my mind. Tin cans of Israeli instant coffee, cottage cheese and pita bread. I think I remember my baby walker. I wonder which experiences my children will retain and what will wash away.
I dabbled in photography and fancied myself a bit of an artist. I daydreamed of being a new Robert Frank and documenting America in stunning black and white images that would sear the imagination. I wasn't that great of a photographer. My attempt to shoot for the college paper ended in disaster.
My parents wanted me to be a doctor. On the somewhat odd logic that you could be anything once you spend four years in undergrad, another four in medical school, then seven more accruing debt in residency.
I had two internships while in college, at the Jerusalem Report in Israel during a semester abroad, and at the Forward, the English-language edition of the old Yiddish newspaper. At the Report, I was a clipper cutting out stories from newspapers and putting them in filing cabinets. I met Jeffery Goldberg, now a prominent writer at The Atlantic, at The Forward. On his advice, I sent out letters to small and mid-sized papers across America.
I still have a binder-full of rejection letters, including one from the Washington Post addressed to "Dear Shari" and saying I would have a great career, but it wouldn't start there.
I was hired by a small-town paper in New England to cover crime, the rookie beat. It turned out to have a been a murderous little place filled with rogues and crooks who made for interesting stories. The editor taught me most of the most important lessons in journalism. "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." And, "Don't assume. It makes an ass out of you and me."
I've covered everything from small-town crime to OPEC meetings, to major earthquakes. Being a reporter is a license to stick your nose in places it doesn't belong. I've reported in England, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, China etc. I've met oil billionaires and poisoned peasants, mine workers and poets, bankers and money launderers. I've gotten death threats and thank you letters. I've helped launch careers and tear them down. All with just a leaky pen and a pad of paper.
Reporting can be really, really, really boring. On big complex stories you can make dozens of calls that end in dead ends, chase dozens of leads that turn into rabbit holes. There's a lot of spreadsheets involved in trying to map out connections. There's a lot of time surfing the internet to sift through online databases. Company registries, public mortgage records, court records all turn into an eye-straining blur of cross-referenced ID numbers, scanned signatures and blurry photos as you try to map out connections.
Most big stories have an arch: a hunch or tip starts with a high. You run off and make calls and start reporting. Then comes the valley of doubt and days of fruitless reporting digging dry holes. If you're lucky, you get a break that brings the story in focus.
Big stories start by pulling a thread. More often than not we don't know where the thread will lead or what the impact will be. There are many cases, when reporters are writing about something that's generally known, but putting what people know in black and white in print can have a big impact.
The Pulitzer for International Reporting is the most meaningful award I received. The series of stories about the social and environmental costs of China's economic growth we wrote were impactful. But that was also one of the most fun times for me. I worked with a great team in Beijing and we had a great time running around China, evading police and sometimes getting detained. In writing about an environmental activist in southern China, my colleague and I snuck into his village. Then as we were sitting for dinner in his house, dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police came into the house and started filming. The man's wife was enraged at the rudeness of police disrupting dinner. The police were filming us, the activist's family was filming the police and it was total zoo. We somehow slipped out and drove through lush countryside past bamboo groves and temples to the nearest city. To avoid detection by the police, and the hassle of detention and writing a self-confession, we spent the night in a sauna. The back story is sometimes better than the story.
There's a clear reason for why I work: food, clothing and shelter for my children. There's also a compelling reason to come home as soon as I can.
Work matters more because the stakes are higher, but also in some ways, career success is secondary to the children's success. I don't understand people who sacrifice time with their families to build careers and earn lots of money and say they're doing it for their children. Work-life balance is hard. It's hard to strike a balance between how hard to work to provide a better life for your kids at the expense of not seeing them.
I used to love reporting trips. Now, I dread them because I don't want to miss anything. Although, to be honest, it was very exciting to get an uninterrupted night of sleep for the first time in two years!
The other point, parenthood is the world's most exclusive club. Nothing brings people together faster than comparing baby photos.
Everyday brings something new. It's just the process of watching them grow into themselves. After my son was born, watching my daughter hold him the first time was so powerful. But so was watching the two of them recently bouncing like two lunatics in his crib.
"I really want my children to find a driving passion that becomes the engine for their life."
My slogan is "whatever works." We try not to be dogmatic in our approach, but clear on our goals. My parents tried to be strict with me, and they basically took a very lazy fat kid and developed enough sense of duty and discipline so that I have managed to achieve more than I should have. They also exposed me to so many things. Dragged me to every art show, book fair, opera, ballet symphony. They also encouraged every interest I had. Saturday science class, photography, painting, piano, bass guitar, trombone. My mom schlepped me around Long Island to blue grass concerts and marching band practice. At the same time, I was taken to gun shows and auto shows because, well, I was fascinated with guns, and loved cars. I hope to emulate that. I really want my children to find a driving passion that becomes the engine for their life, the organizing principle around which they can frame their goals and choices, whether its in the arts, sciences or business. I want my children to be passionate about their lives.
The worst and the best parts will pass. It's easy to lose perspective at 3 am when you're covered in baby poo and vomit. It could feel like you're entering an eternity of sleepless poo diapers. But it will end soon enough. Unfortunately, all the best parts are fleeting, too. So hold on to the moment when you're newborn is gerbil-small and nestled in your chest snuggling in your arms. Too soon, you'll be dragging a screaming two-year old who's gone boneless in the supermarket because you refused to buy Suger Bomb Rot Gut Cereal. But that will pass, too.
I admire what you've done in building this social conscientious business. And the clothes are cute! It's shocking and dismaying when so many of us are so rich, the most important part of so many people's lives is still so dangerous.