On this week’s episode of Inside the Media Minds, our host Christine Blake speaks with Vera Bergengruen, Washington Correspondent for TIME Magazine.
Vera shares her wide background in journalism – from working in cities like Miami and Washington, D.C, to covering different beats for newspapers and magazines. Vera also discusses what she does now for TIME, including how she chooses her stories, tailors articles to her audiences and collects resources that will best inform her readers.
For the past few years, Vera primarily focused on the topic of disinformation and hopes her stories continue to add new perspectives where previous information was lacking. She is optimistic that people will take the lessons they learned from the pandemic, such as digital awareness, and apply those lessons to their information seeking for years to come.
Listen to the full conversation to hear more from Vera, including:
- Why journalism was always a dream job
- How to be a “stand-in” between readers and complex topics
- Vera’s “chaotic beat”: from elections and tech to national security and the pandemic
- The benefits of “generous” resources
- How to make international stories resonate with American audiences
- Vera’s love of international cuisines
0:22 – Vera’s background in journalism and travel
2:27 – What Vera does now for TIME
3:21 – How Vera chooses her stories
5:28 – Making complex information understandable for readers
6:40 – How Vera defines her audience and tailors her writing to that audience
10:00 – Most memorable stories from the past year
12:10 – Types of feedback Vera receives on her stories
13:45 – What Vera looks for in her resources
15:43 – How to make international trends resonate with American audiences
18:08 – Vera’s favorite story of 2021 and trends on the horizon in 2022
20:16 – Vera’s interests outside of work and reporting
Christine Blake (CB): Welcome to Inside the Media Minds. This is your host, Christine Blake. This show features in depth interviews with tech reporters who share everything from their biggest pet peeves to their favorite stories. From our studio at W2 communications. Let’s go Inside the Media Minds.
Christine Blake (CB): Hey, everyone, this is Christine Blake, the host of Inside the Media Minds. And I’m excited today to welcome Vera Bergengruen to the show. Vera is a Washington correspondent for Time. So we’re excited to have you here, Vera. Thanks for joining us.
Vera Bergengruen (VB):Thanks so much for having me, Christine.
CB: Absolutely. So let’s go ahead and get started with a quick rundown of your background and your role at Time, I think it’d be great for listeners to get to know you and your role.
VB: Sure. So you know, I’m originally from Miami. I was born in South America and Chile. But my parents from Uruguay and I grew up all over the place, and Mexico City and in Germany before moving to Miami. And that’s where I started as a high school intern at the Miami Herald, which is, you know, just a massive, very international newsroom in a very, very crazy city. It’s kind of a journalist dream. So I was just running around covering, you know, kind of local council meetings, and just all the crazy things that were happening there before going to college where I decided that, you know, that was not really a good career path. And everyone told me, I should be a lawyer. But after all of that, I did eventually kind of circle back to journalism, I always wanted to do this, you know, you basically just get to bug people and ask them questions for a living. And as a very curious person who loves to do that, you know, it’s honestly kind of a dream job. And I went on to work for the Miami Herald parent company, McClatchy, which is, you know, has a big Washington DC Bureau, or used to be big. And so I worked there for a couple of years, I, you know, started off as an assistant, but then ended up covering, you know, the White House, the 2016 election, which was so, you know, just so chaotic, which was kind of a crazy time to really dip my toes into political reporting, and then ended up under the Trump administration, covering the Pentagon and national security for most of its duration. And, in the meantime, you know, getting to do a lot of kind of investigative projects. And so besides McClatchy, I worked for Buzzfeed News, they used to have a big national security team that I was a part of, and for the last few years, I’ve been here time, getting to really dig in on magazine stories and more enterprise, which has been a nice change, and gives me a lot more time to really kind of choose my stories and decide what I want to do.
CB: That’s awesome. So you do take the approach of choosing your stories, and then taking time a deeper dive approach, right?
VB: Yeah, that’s, you know, I’ve gotten to do both, I’ve been in newspapers, where I have to write three, four stories a day based on you know just current events. And then something like Buzzfeed News, where it was a bit of a mix, but you know, working for a magazine, you know, I often do, do, you know, kind of daily stories when things are happening, but you do get to kind of focus often for weeks or months at a time on one long feature story, which is a massive luxury for, for us journalists, really think about what we’re trying to say and how to structure a story and who to talk to. And so, I’m really grateful for that. And, you know, the last two years, I’ve had no, no lack of crazy things to pursue and really dig into.
CB: Oh, yeah, I’m sure. So how do you go about choosing the stories that you write?
VB: You know, it kind of depends on most of the places I’ve worked in, I’ve benefited from looking for areas that are not being covered, I think sufficiently or not a lot in my news organization, because, you know, nowadays are obviously often smaller, there’s just way too few of us and way too much going on. So when I, for example, was at McClatchy, you know, I was a good 10 years younger than the next reporter back then. And, you know, there was no tech reporter back in the early 2010s. And I started kind of volunteering to do stories on you know, net neutrality was a big thing back then. And you know, all of these kind of what I would, you know, I call it tech issues, but were just kind of big, broad issues that no one was really covering. And I’ve kind of continued that on, you know, here at a Time, for example, I’ve been, you know, given my national security background, I kind of pivoted a lot into disinformation, communities into, you know, a lot of these online spaces where a lot of extremist and kind of problematic things happen. And so since no one else was really doing that here. I started really delving into it, especially during the pandemic, but then it really became significant, extra significant, obviously, around January 6, and everything that came after so what so that’s one of the main ways I often figure out how to approach my stories is, you know, it’s kind of doing that as is trying to figure out, you know, what is not really being covered by our publication? And what can I kind of maybe add something to, instead of, you know, obviously just competing or, or feeling like, I’m not really doing much original work.
CB: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And that’s actually, we worked with you a couple months ago on a disinformation story, because I know, that’s been a big part of your work, and it was on the Latin American elections. But it’s, you know, when we get into, you know, the tech sphere and cybersecurity, there’s so much overlap when it comes to, you know, politics and national issues of national security and all kinds of stuff like that. So it must be pretty fascinating for you to kind of dig deep into those issues.
VB: It is, and, you know, I’m not, that’s not my background, you know, I’m not originally a tech reporter, or someone who academically studied that, beyond, you know, a couple of fellowships and things like that, that’s obviously, it’s an interesting thing to feel so humbled by the fact that I barely under, you know, not barely understand, but really, I’m trying to, you know, I get to go to the world’s smartest people and ask them to explain things for you. And then I have to process it in a way to explain it back to a reader. And it’s a it’s a very, you know, deep, it’s interesting work, it’s very difficult sometimes, but, in a way, I’m the stand in for the reader, and, you know, a place like Time has a massive audience of general, you know, a general reading audience. So it’s really for something like tech, or disinformation or online, you know, all these different online spaces, it’s a really great kind of approach to put myself in their shoes. And then, you know, try to learn things on my own before I explain the back.
CB: Yeah, no, that’s fascinating. And I was going to ask that too, because, you know, Time is such a wide reaching somewhat mainstream sort of audience, like, how do you define your audience? And then how do you tailor your writing style and research and articles to that audience?
VB: That’s a great question. Because it really depends. And it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because when I started my career, I was writing for local newspapers. So you know, I was writing even when I was in DC, I was writing for California’s papers, you know, writing for a Miami audience, and it was very easy to define your audience, and what they would be interested in. When I went to BuzzFeed, I struggled a bit, because, you know, it was a much younger audience, it was an online audience, a digital audience. And it could be much, you know, I was trying to cover the Pentagon for this, for this very different kind of group. And so that was, you know, its own challenge. But, you know, recently at Time, especially given that I’m not really on a very narrow beat, you know, if you are a beat reporter, your audience is people who follow that issue. And since I’m much more doing this more broadly, for the most part, recently, especially during the pandemic, and given just all the massive, kind of earth shattering things that have been happening all around us, one of the main things I’ve been focusing on is like, what can I write that will give people information that will get them to change their minds or to see things differently when it comes to really important issues. So you know, this year, for example, I focused a lot of that on the anti-vaccine movement on things like that, where I’m like, I’m not telling you anything about medicine, that’s not my area. But I do want you to see, you know why these people are telling you, you know, you’re selling what people are selling you and what they are, you know, why they’re trying to do that. And so it’s been interesting to kind of figure out, for example, with the COVID stuff, I focused on scammers a lot, or Grifters and I’ve done that with a lot of political reporting as well, because I figure you know, no one’s not going to change anyone’s mind or give them anything useful. You know, if I just straight up right about politics in a way that puts them off. But if I kind of reveal the scam, you know, if there’s something that’s universal is no one likes getting scammed, right,
VB: And so, if I can show you that these people are just making money off you, at least as an extra data point, you have to do more, hopefully be more skeptical about this. And so that’s one of the main ways I’ve tried to define my audience is like, what can I, as an investigative reporter, uncover or add to the conversation that will, you know, again, allow people to change their minds in a way that doesn’t feel like you know, in these days where people disagree with so much of what they call mainstream media, you know, I think the only way you can really do that is by uncovering new facts instead of just kind of regurgitating things back.
CB: Right. That’s fascinating. That’s a really interesting approach to you, because you want to be able to educate that audience and give them as much information as possible on these topics.
VB: Exactly. Right. And, you know, one of the, the way I can tell it works, most of the time is, you know, just the massive amount of feedback I get, and, you know, all the way to like, you know, the Congress opened an investigation to one of the groups that covered a couple of weeks ago, that was selling, you know, fake COVID cures, you know, things like that, when you actually see an end result or you see a huge amount of, you know, a lot of people telling me, they’re sending this to their family members. Like, that’s, at least it seems like in its own small way. It’s, you know, it’s helpful and it’s making people I look at things in a different way, because I’ve uncovered new facts.
CB: Oh, yeah. And that’s so important right now in this day and age. What is one of the most memorable or interesting topics that you’ve covered maybe in, in the last year? Or even in your entire, you know, journalism career?
VB: Oh, let me see.
CB: Probably a lot. It’s a tough question.
VB: Yeah, well, you know, my colleagues joke that I’m on the chaos beat, because it’s anything that is the most chaotic, I tend to cover, you know, like I said, you know, the pandemic, the aftermath of January 6, you know, then I went down deep on conspiracy theories, and, you know, all these things. But one of the interesting stories I covered earlier this year, was that I started noticing that a lot of people who followed, you know, the QAnon conspiracy and similar kinds of conspiracies, were kind of, you know, being quiet after, you know, after everything that happened, and I noticed that, I started seeing all these, like little reports of people, you know, people who had participated, and people who were, you know, big proponents of this theory running for local school boards, running for local elections, city councils, things like that, because there seemed to be this big shift where they decided that, you know, they wanted to affect change from the bottom. But by the time I noticed this, you know, now, it’s a more covered story, but what I noticed this was, was pretty early on. And so, I ended up finding, like, you know, half an, almost a dozen examples, and putting them all together. And that was a really, really fascinating story, because the main people who were paying attention to this were teens, you know, I was noticing, like all these teens in their high schools, were noticing that, you know, that the, the kind of crazy views from their local school board member, were actually, you know, pretty apocalyptic conspiracy theories. And so they were calling them out. And so I got to talk to all these, you know, very incensed, very, very intelligent teenagers who were, you know, we’re trying to tell the adults that they should be paying attention. So that was a pretty memorable story, just because it was one of those things that, you know, we published and then I got, you know, just massive dozens and dozens of emails of people saying they were noticing similar things in their own communities, and how conspiracy theories were kind of seeping into the local government. And so yeah, one of those stories that kind of snowballs, the more you look at it.
CB: That is interesting. Wow. And you just sparked another question. Do you get like feedback from readers a lot on your articles, or just like questions or follow ups, like as emails, or even on social media?
VB: Yeah, right. I do, you know, everything from you know, back when I worked for newspapers, I got actual physical letters mailed to me all the time, which was kind of funny, recently, you know, obviously, it’s gotten a bit scarier, especially being, you know, a female reporter, you know, you get a lot of backlash, sometimes, given the topics that I cover a lot of, you know, hate mail, which isn’t that concerning, or actual threats. But I mean, I did. I mean, that’s obviously a small proportion, but I do get a good amount of feedback from readers. You know, and also from, from sources or from potential sources. You know, that, it’s, first of all, you know, the story I told you about, that I covered about, you know, people, these doctors peddling kind of fake COVID cures, like, you know, like the famous HorseFace, Ivermectin, things like that, and how they’re making money off all of this. You know, I just got so many pharmacists, and doctors all across the country, who are seeing the same thing and who had no idea. And then some people who worked for some of these pharmacies and things like that, who told me they quit, because they knew something weird was going on, but they did what they weren’t aware of how much they were involved. So you see, like a big range from people personally involved and things recovering all the way to, you know, just general reader interest, but I will say that the split between positive and negative feedback is usually 50/50.
CB: Okay, yeah, that makes sense. That’s interesting. Um, and then, you know, you mentioned, you know, getting, talking to smart people on the, on these topics and learning a lot from them, and really playing that role as a reader yourself. So what do you look for, when you’re talking to resources are trying to figure out who your resources should be? What do you look for?
VB: You know, it’s just one of the things I really truly love the most about this job is that almost anything I write about is, like, you know, this case, when I worked with you guys on the story and on Honduras, like you will find one person or a group of people who are experts in the most niche topics like you know, you will, you will find people whose, who spend their entire lives focusing or like a big chunk of their careers focusing on one thing, and you get to ask them and they will, you know, gladly for the most part, I’ve almost never been rejected, you know, gladly share all of their expertise with you. So, one of the things I usually look for is, you know, obviously expertise. You know, there’s I did my chunk of political reporting, where you, you know, basically ask politicians to just riff and that’s my least favorite thing. But, you know, people who truly understand the subject matter and who are willing to share. There’s, you know, usually I find that I look for sources that I can tell are often also generous like their hands Copy to not only share their time, but to refer me to other resources to colleagues to reports, I can often tell who those people are. Because again, if it’s someone, I basically what I guess what I’m trying to say is if one person is, is a truly a subject matter expert, and really wants to talk to you and is happy to share their expertise, then they are usually a gateway to finding much more than, you know, which is much more that you can use. And, that tends to be the case, again, if people truly are experts in a certain area, and that generosity is always just kind of, you know, I’m always amazed. I’m wondering why people would talk to me at all. But, you know, I guess I’m speaking more about organizations and experts, but obviously, when I speak to sources in terms of, you know, human sources, so people who’ve experienced events, the same thing applies.
CB: No, yeah, that definitely makes sense. Um, let me see here. So we do, we do ask listeners for questions. I do have a couple for you here. Um, so one of them is, you know, focusing on some international stories as well, I think over over the course of your time at Time. How do you make these international trends resonate with American audiences for those particular pieces?
VB: Yeah, you know, that’s a really good question. You know, I they said before, I’m from South America, originally, I always thought it would be, you know, a foreign correspondent, my natural interests often lie in international stories. But having worked only for US based publications, it is hard to make it and it’s been my, you know, whole struggle of my career trying to make people care, or editors even who, you know, no fault of their own. But you know, they just very much need this story to resonate with an American audience in order to be able to approve it. And so I’m always finding, trying to find new ways to do it. When I was a National Security Correspondent, it was a little bit easier, because, you know, there’s so much going on that you can just kind of write off as a US national security issue, and then actually write a foreign story. Because everything kind of relates back, you know, national security, and many technology issues as well. I’ve been focusing recently on some stories about Facebook and social media. And that’s ultimately a global story. Right. So, so trying to kind of zoom in on on what Americans will relate to, and then kind of remind them, I mean, like the story that we mentioned, about disinformation and Honduran elections, I mean, this is something that Americans are very aware of, from their experience in the in the last election, in the 2016 election. And so kind of relating it back to that. And for example, in this case, framing it as a lot of other countries, taking a page out of, you know, disinformation efforts in the US and then applying it to their own countries is a way to write about a foreign issue, while also putting in the framework that American audiences really understand. And, you know, the other way to do it is obviously just, you know, always kind of flicking back to you as foreign policy, but it’s something that I’m always trying to do. And, you know, it’s always kind of trying to come up with new ways to make these things resonate.
CB: No, absolutely. And then another question, we kind of touched on this a little bit, and that a lot of the things that you’ve been covering this year, but you know, as the year wraps up, what has been your favorite and or most important story of 2021? And then what are you, you know, thinking maybe some of the big, big trends are big things on the horizon for you in 2022.
VB: Oh, man, as I’m looking forward, you know, it’s, yeah, that’s a really good question. And a very tough one to answer. You know, based on, on just again, not to be repetitive, but what I tend to focus on what I cover, there’s such a strong thread throughout, which is basically disinformation, which is kind of a, you know, a catch all for a lot of things and hard to explain to people. But you know, because everything could be, you know, myths and disinformation online. It’s just such a broad topic. But it’s something that just isn’t going anywhere. And it applies to every single area of our lives from the from, you know, it’s one of the big reasons that we can’t seem to end the pandemic is a lot of online doesn’t misinformation, it’s going to be very, very significant in the upcoming midterm elections, which is something here in DC Bureau, we’re obviously focusing on and I’m constantly kind of trying to figure out if coming out, hopefully, you know, knock on wood, coming out of this pandemic, whether people will kind of come out of some of these online rabbit holes, online spaces, you know, these kinds of echo chambers that we built for ourselves during the pandemic, when people were spending less time together and people spend so much more time online, in which was obviously kind of only spurred on by social media companies and, you know, the, just the complete lack of preparedness for this, or whether, you know, it’s only going to get worse. So I’m kind of optimistic. I think that over the course of 2021, everyone just became very aware of the disruptive forces of this and you know, we just keep making progress. You know, people like to rag on tech and social media companies, but I do feel like at least a lot of the public’s eyes have been opened to a lot of the ways that this works. So, this is a thread that I will continue that followed a lot this year and then it will follow into the next will be just kind of kind of that whether we’ve all kind of learned some lessons through this and whether it’s becomes easier or more difficult to kind of, I guess counteract these forces of online disinformation.
CB: Yeah, no, definitely. Great. And then variably so just, you know, for our listeners to get to know you a bit more to like, what are you interested in and outside of work and outside of your reporting anything interesting that you know, people may not know about you?
VB: Well, I do spend a good amount of my time just going back and forth to see my family who lives in Miami and traveling pre pandemic and in South America. So, I feel like that’s, that tends to take up so much of my time. But yeah, I mean, I, you know, I love to, I feel like all my hobbies are always just there. I feel like I talk to a lot of, most of my friends, are a good amount of my friends, are journalists. And I feel like, you know, here is said to be common, but I feel like we joke that all of our hobbies seem to be like, kind of bare sustenance, you know, it’s like, I like to run, I like to cook and people are like, yeah, that’s just, that’s not really a hobby. That’s just things in general. But yeah, I mean, that’s something I’ve really enjoyed during the pandemic. You know, it’s so stereotypical, but I got really into, you know, cooking again. And, you know, it’s funny, my birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and I got, like, at least five different cookbooks. So, I think I made that clear to all of my friend group that this is something that I really love international cuisines, and just kind of, especially during the pandemic, kind of traveling through just trying out all these crazy recipes, and then inviting friends over once we were able to do so yeah, I mean, again, just kind of normal topics. But when you spend all day especially like, I tend to do just kind of marinating in some of the darker things on the internet. It’s really nice to kind of focus in something completely different,
CB: Right? And just be mindful as you’re cooking on what you’re doing in that very moment. And so that’s exactly. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today and joining me on the podcast. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and learning more about how you approach your stories and your role at Time.
VB: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
CB: Absolutely. And everyone this has been Christine Blake, the host of inside the media minds. Thank you so much for listening.
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