Journalist Q&A: Tara Parker-Pope, 'The New York Times'

Tara Parker Pope is the driving force behind The New York Times' Well blog - which focuses on personal health and what consumers can do to improve it - rather than cutting edge medical reporting.

Name: Tara Parker-Pope

Title: Columnist and blogger

Outlets: The New York Times' Well blog, The New York Times

Preferred e-mail address:

Web site:


Tara Parker Pope is the driving force behind The New York Times' Well blog – which focuses on personal health and what consumers can do to improve it – rather than cutting edge medical reporting. She talks with Frank Washkuch about the types of stories that make the cut.


How do you juggle your time between The New York Times, the Web site, and the Well blog?

Tara Parker-Pope:
I do focus a lot of my time on the Well blog, and that involves writing daily posts, it involves editing contributions to the blog, and also moderating comments. I spend a lot of time talking to readers and answering their questions. The Well blog is a very different type of journalism, and a very specific type of story. That's my focus, on that kind of content.


What specific types of stories work for the Well blog?

A Well story is one that contains actionable consumer health information. It's going to be very much something a reader can use to inform a decision and discuss with a doctor, maybe make a small change. So it would not be on the frontiers of medicine, and would not be about a new discovery that someday would lead to a cure for Alzheimer's. It might be a story about caring for a parent with Alzheimer's, what are things you need to know. That's what distinguishes a Well story.


How do you decide what goes in the blog and what goes in the newspaper or Web site?

I always look at a story and think, ‘What is the best way to share this info with readers?' That's my starting point, and sometimes the best way is to write a personal blog, sometimes it's to write a story for Science Times. It may be to create a video, or maybe do a Q&A. And so it starts with what is the best way to convey this info and how is it most useful. And once you start there, it becomes pretty obvious what you should do with it. And sometimes that's a longer-form story for the paper, because it needs that kind of treatment. And other times it's a smaller post because it needs some discussion with readers.


How has the recession affected your coverage?

The paper has created a column on it, and that's an important change to the Well blog recently, because unfortunately in this country, money is an issue when it comes to health. And it's not just healthcare, but it's the decisions you make – should I join a weight-loss center? There are decisions that come with that, and as a health reporter, we focus on whether it is proven treatment - what are the benefits? And how is it going to affect your health? We have two reporters at the paper who are focusing on patients' money. Just recently, we started hosting discussions about patients and money. We've written stories about mental health during the recession. That was a discussion, and some of the readers were featured in stories. And so it's certainly a story going on right now, especially with everything going on in Washington.


Speaking of Washington, how has the president's proposed healthcare plan impacted coverage?

I wrote a story for the paper about what really needs to change. For healthcare to change, the patients also need to change. I think, and it's not often discussed, that patients can be a stumbling block to reform. And we say we want reform, but we also want to get whatever procedure we possibly can, and I think that's often a neglected part of the discussion. So this is a huge ongoing story, and the policy story is handled elsewhere in the paper, but if it's something that affects patients directly, you can find it in the Well blog.


What aspects of health coverage do you expect to dominate your coverage for the next year?

I have a very consistent focus. My focus tends to be on the news of the day. And the mission of the blog is that health does not happen at the doctor's office; health is based on the decisions that you make every day of your life. And whatever is happening in Washington and with the economy, that doesn't change that you are still making daily decisions that influence your health. Now, it may be more expensive to talk about those decisions, or something decided in Washington may have an effect on you, but my starting point is that everyday angle about where does wellness start. And that's always going to be the focus, and I don't see the focus changing. It's always important, and will be important as the changes come from Washington. And I would say it's a situation that will be amplified by the news.


Are there any stories you want to cover but haven't yet?

Oh – there are a hundred I would like to cover, or I wish I could. I think there are so many important things, but one of the best things about online journalism and the blog is that if you can't write about it yourself, you can link to it, and you can start discussions. Readers have tons of information and I am always amazed at where they can take a story and what they can contribute. And what's great about journalism right now is that you really can leverage a lot more out of them and do a lot more. And so I do think men's health is a really important topic and one that I'd like to continue to focus on. I've done items on the blog on prostate cancer, which is really neglected, and I think men's health in general tends to be neglected. Family health is important, just general family health. I write a lot of about type 1 diabetes and it's one of those conditions that gets short shrift because type 2 is bigger. And with type 1, there's so much we can learn, and I like that as a story because I think there's always so much to be said. I think that's such a core message, and I think there's a lot to be learned form type 1, and that tends to get a little bit neglected.


How important is reader interaction to what you do?

I would say that the Well blog is one of the most interactive places in terms of reader discussions. What I like about the Well blog is that the opportunity for me as a reporter to learn from readers or to talk to them and answer their questions. We did a Q&A about type 1 diabetes and exercise and it was really satisfying because readers were asking really smart questions. The answers were interesting, and it was technically a lot of work to make it happen, but it was the end result was a great post with a ton of information that will stand the test of time for readers. Gosh, I can't even tell you the total number of comments on the blogs. Readers have questions, and I feel like we have this obligation. When we just all worked for the print newspaper back in the day, we would get a letter a week or two later, and you could respond. And when I worked at The Wall Street Journal, I published my e-mail address and I would host these forums form time to time, and it was just incredibly difficult to respond to all these e-mails. If you pay attention to the question, it can help you as a journalist.


Who in the PR industry pitches you the most?

I appreciate it definitely, the role that the PR industry plays in distributing information. It's an opportunity for universities; they all have published research and they reach out. I don't hear so much from drug companies directly. I think they probably talk more to other types of reporters. I hear from a handful of hospitals, I hear from research institutions, advocacy groups, and I get ideas from readers, from medical journals, from my colleagues, and from experience and watching TV. There are all kinds of things that can lead to a story. The volume is pretty amazing, I have to say, and I try my best to get to all of it.  


Which group do you find most effective?

Let's see, the universities or the hospitals. The universities are pretty good for good ideas. Hospitals are good because they deal with doctors and patients and they are very close to the stories. But I would say that the problem is that they have all kinds of things; they don't have as narrow of a mission as someone doing some sort of campaign and talking about something interesting. I just talked to an interesting person talking about psoriasis, and I have a personal interest in psoriasis. And that particular story involved Tim Gunn, and it was a perfect story. And I would say the best pitches are from those people who read the blog and who know what works for the blog, the kind of story that is a Well story. And the best people know what a Well story is, and the people who are consistent and keep sending pitches like that have the most success. And they are not going to send me something that belongs in another part of the paper.

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