In Conversation: Molly Hayes

Molly Hayes is a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator. Covering mostly social and justice issues, she has provided in-depth coverage of the Tim Bosma murder. Her recent article for The Walrus, entitled Crops and Robbers, gave a face to the ever-present prison farm debate. This is a technique she has used to great effect in a variety of journalistic settings, perhaps most of all when discussing the ongoing fentanyl crises in Canada and teaming up with a colleague to tell a very personal and tragic story in Bad Medicine.

She is talented, passionate, and driven to tell the kinds of stories that we need to hear. 

I spoke with Molly about the current state of journalism in Canada, what stories fascinate the public, and how to cross the empathy gap and communicate important stories to the public that would otherwise go unnoticed. 

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I’m one of those people who knew what they wanted to be early on. 

When I was seven or eight I would say that I wanted to be a journalist. I think back then it was about the idea of storytelling - I knew that I liked to write, and it was something my teachers encouraged. 

There was also this contest that our local paper ran for kids. It was called the Junior Press Club, and you could submit book reviews and then you could win a $50 gift certificate to the book store. So I used to do this cycle, where I’d get the gift certificate, buy another book, review it, and they would publish these reviews in the paper. It was my first sense of having a by-line, and maybe I was a little narcissist, but I liked seeing myself in the paper. Initially, my journey started out idealistically - I liked the idea of writing for a paper and telling stories. It wasn’t until I actually started doing it that the focus shifted to the issues and what I hoped to achieve for the community.

The modern news landscape looks different than it did even a decade ago. Is there still a desire for news stories from the public? Or are public wants simply changing?

I think it’s the latter. Certainly working a print paper means that we’re more vulnerable than some of the digital outlets. It’s challenging, because there isn’t the same appetite for print as there would have been before my time. That was how everybody got their news. Nows there’s so many outlets and platforms to get that information, so we’re in the challenging position of figuring out how to provide the news. It makes it an exciting time to be in journalism because what don’t know what that looks like yet. We don’t know what the future of news is, even if we know that people will need the news because it’s essential for a democracy. 

"We’re in this weird purgatory trying figuring out what people want and what we can do and how to make that model sustainable."

On the one hand, we hear all the time that people don’t have the same attention span, that they want twitter length stories or headlines, that they’re not engaging anymore. On the other hand there’s also this huge appetite for long-form reporting, and we’re seeing that in print and podcasts. We’re seeing stories be drawn out over episodes. We’re in this weird purgatory trying figuring out what people want and what we can do and how to make that model sustainable. 

I really like long-form reporting, and I like feature writing. I think it’s important, and that’s why I think outlets like The Walrus because they still provide a space for that work even though it might not be the most economically viable. It’s expensive to put out a long feature - it takes a lot of editing, a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of fact checking. It’s not cheap to do. That’s why we need outlets that will facilitate that. As a writer, there’s the constant joke that it’s an ego thing. Everybody wants to write long. Everybody thinks that their story is the most important and needs the most amount of room. You have to pick and choose, but there are times when it’s important to be able to have that extra room and be able to dive into a subject a little more. 

You’ve provided extensive coverage of the Tim Bosma murder over the years, writing both daily stories and long-form features. What format provides the best ability to cover the story?

There’s a case for both. Having daily reporting on something as high profile as the Bosma case is important. There are people who are following it very closely and they need the smaller details every single day. I also think that looking at the case or the trial as a whole and writing something that contextualizes it in its entirety is valuable. You have to pick and choose a little more, but you’re also able to make sense of the big picture. It’s hard to say if one is more valuable than the other, but they serve very different purposes. 

Our job is to make sense of things for people. We’re not supposed to be just transcribing communicating everything, because that’s too much information. The job is to take information, condense it, make sense of it, and feed it back to people. I think it’s interesting that now both options exist, that with digital reporting there aren’t the same space constraints. You don’t have to condense in the same way, and you can give them everything. If they’re interested they can sift through and draw their own conclusions and build their own narratives. For the typical reader who doesn’t want to, or who doesn’t have time to follow something that closely, you have the features that will make sense of it for them. 

Sometimes the best format for communicating the complexities of a story isn’t the format that people will actually read - How do you balance these sometimes competing interests?

That’s the major challenge for journalism outlets right now, figuring out what people will read. As a writer, it never fails to surprise me. 

As a daily news reporter, I write about a lot of social justice issues. I’ll write about our jail in Hamilton. I’ll write about overdoses and mental health and addiction issues. To me, those are important stories, and I’ll write longer pieces. When I look at the stats, people just aren’t reading it. There’s a balance to the type of content and the way you deliver it. It’s challenging, but it’s what makes it an interesting time. 

It’s hard to know what people want, because we have those things like Serial where people will latch on to a story that takes time to digest. The Bosma case is another example where people hang onto every detail. I think if we published an article that just said Bosma Bosma Bosma people would click it. You don’t know what’s going to catch on, but when you get that story there’s this incredible appetite. In those cases, people will read what you publish, whether short or long. It’s with the less popular stories that you have to be more conscious of form. 

Why did the public take such an interest in the Bosma case?

One of the main aspects of the Bosma case was that it felt relatable. The Bosma family was a very normal family in a normal city. They lived in the suburbs, they went to church, they had a kid. The whole nature of the crime itself stemmed from a test drive that was arranged through Kijiji. We all use Kjijii or something similar, and that resonated with people, that it could have been anyone.

"With a lot of other murders or even domestics, despite the statistics, it’s easy to think that will never be me, I would never be in that situation. With the Tim Bosma case, it was hard to argue that."

The truck was targeted, but Bosma himself was not - he was just a random vessel for the truck. More than anything, the popular feeling was that it could have been anyone. With a lot of other murders or even domestics, despite the statistics, it’s easy to think that will never be me, I would never be in that situation. With the Tim Bosma case, it was hard to argue that. Things are less scary when they’re black and white. The Bosma case is less explainable, there’s this general evil and a random target. It makes it much more unsettling. 

How has the public’s relationship with the reporter changed?

Even in the last five years, the change has been amazing. 

Before, you would publish a story, and maybe you’d put up a web hit during the day, and that was the news. That was the end of it. 

That’s not the case anymore. People want to be involved from the beginning to the end. You have to be tweeting from the moment you get any sort of confirmation in a story. People are following the story line by line and wanting to be engaged. 

With something like a murder trial, myself and the other reporters are live tweeting at the courthouse, and people are tweeting back at us with questions and comments. They have groups on Facebook and different forums where they’re dissecting the evidence and forming their own conclusions. I’m sure that it’s always happened in some way, but technology has facilitated that process to such an extreme. Like you said, they want to be part of the story, and they feel like they are. I had a lot of people getting in touch with me, wanting to reach out to the Bosma family, wanting to send them a card. We can’t facilitate that, but it’s interesting to see how personally connected people feel, and the internet is a big part of that. 

Does that relationship improve the nature of the discussion or the news itself?

It’s another one of those things that we don’t really understand yet. It’s also not really up to us. With newspapers especially, people got their news a certain way. That has definitely changed, and it can be frustrating for old school outlets when they have to keep up. But if people want to engage with us and weigh in, we simply have to keep up with them. 

It can be excessive at times. There’s a lot of hateful discussion about news stories online, and we probably would have been spared from much of that before. Especially if you read the comments section on, well, most stories. Sometimes we sadly give people a platform for hate or ignorance that doesn’t need to be out there. We have to figure out our role around the public’s need. 

I share your passion for social issues, and I know those stories can be a hard sell. Communicating those stories is made even harder by social media, which magnifies stories that are already popular. How do you reconcile that public behaviour with the need to report important stories that garner less attention?

Part of it is continuing to write about what’s important and hoping that somebody figures it out. I hope the advertising executives of the world figure it out.

It’s disheartening when you write stories you care about, and that you think can make a real difference, and then you go on twitter and see that the top stories are about Kanye West and who Prince Harry is dating. I don’t know if that was always the case, or if that’s a product of the internet. We don’t know how to make people care more about the vulnerable people in their community than about celebrities that live in Los Angeles. As a reporter, I have to think that it’s not my job, and that my job is to keep telling stories. You have to see all stories as important regardless of the clicks they get online, and you have to fight the clickbait mentality.

"Without that personal connection, it’s easy for people to say that happens to poor people, it won’t happen to me. I am cognizant of trying to make people aware of why this affects them."

At the same time, there’s definitely an awareness on some level that you’re trying to make people care. I’ve been writing a lot about Fentanyl lately, which in North America has helped lead to an opioid crises and a spike in overdoses. It’s a very deadly drug that’s on the streets, and i’ve been writing about Fentanyl for a while now. Generally speaking, it can be really challenging to get people to care about the story if they haven’t been touched by addiction themselves. Without that personal connection, it’s easy for people to say that happens to poor people, it won’t happen to me. I am cognizant of trying to make people aware of why this affects them. Recently I had a colleague whose family member died of an overdose. We got together to tell that story of a well-to-do kid and his struggles and his very tragic downfall. That was a story that got a lot of feedback and resonated with a lot of people because it felt more relatable, that it could happen to someone like them. 

One of my goals is to humanize these stories as much as possible. You can’t control what people click on, but you can make the stories human and give them a face. 

Is the public’s hesitancy to click on those stories the result of an inability to relate, or a lack of will or effort? 

I think it’s just unpleasant. It’s easier to absorb other kinds of stories after work, or before work, or on your break. Part of it comes down to what people are uncomfortable with. We don’t always want to acknowledge those uglier parts of our world. Part of it is that we live in Canada - we’re lucky enough to live in a country where we don’t have to care. If we were in Syria, we wouldn’t have that luxury. We’d have to read the news everyday to know if our neighbours were alive, or if our school still exists. We’re a little spoiled to live in this hyper-developed world and to know that regardless of what people are concerned about, things will turn out at least mostly okay. 

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You can find Molly Hayes on twitter @MollyHayes.

InterviewDuncan FieldComment