#TodayAtLA: 2020 J. William Mees Visting Scholar – Jamie Ducharme

A Manchester, New Hampshire-native, Ducharme, a journalist for Time Magazine told students, “I had always loved magazines…”

The text of Jamie Ducharme’s speech to the gathered student body in the Richardson-Mees Performing Arts Center (RMPAC) on January 27, 2020.

Jamie addressing the student body at Assembly, Monday morning…

Hi everyone. It’s so nice to be here as the 2020 Mees Visiting Scholar. Thank you to Rob and everyone at Lawrence Academy who made this possible and thank you to all of you for listening to me today.

I hope that I’ll get to meet many of you personally over the next couple days, but I wanted to start by sharing with all of you a little bit about who I am and what I do. As Rob told you, I’ve spent the last two years or so living in New York City and working as a reporter at TIME magazine, where I cover health and medicine. But not so long ago, I was sitting in an auditorium a lot like this one, at a school a lot like this one, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Back then, all I knew was that I loved writing and that I wanted it to be part of my life—and, hopefully, my job—forever. I wasn’t sure exactly what form that would take. But I did know that I had always loved magazines, probably to a not-entirely-normal degree. As a 10-year-old, I would count down the days until my American Girl magazine arrived in the mailbox and I devour every single word. My taste changed a little bit as I grew up, but that feeling didn’t. So when I graduated high school in 2011 and decided to attend Northeastern University, in Boston, it seemed like a logical decision to major in journalism.

Lake Hall houses Northeastern’s Journalism School (Google Maps)

There was just one problem: As soon as I got to Northeastern, I realized that I knew next to nothing about how to be a journalist. I was a strong writer, thanks to my rigorous high school English classes, but I had never learned how to research, report and structure an article—a fact that became abundantly clear after I picked up my first story for The Huntington News, Northeastern’s student newspaper, and turned in something so bad the editors wouldn’t even print it. Slowly but surely, with the help of my professors and some very patient editors at the Huntington News, I started to learn the basics and get the hang of things.

I stayed involved in journalism extracurriculars, even helping to found a campus lifestyle magazine at the end of my freshman year. During the second semester of my sophomore year, I landed the job that would change my life: an unpaid internship assisting the health and wellness editor at Boston Magazine. I was lucky. While many journalism internships mostly involve fact-checking and administrative work, my editor threw me into the deep end and taught me how to write about everything from medical research to boutique fitness classes. I wrote hundreds of online stories during my internship and made enough connections to stay on as a freelancer when it was done. At first, the magazine barely paid me for my freelance posts, but I was so hungry for assignments that I didn’t care. I ended up working at Boston Magazine off-and-on throughout college, squeezing in time to write and report posts alongside my homework, classes and social life. By my senior year, the magazine was looking for an editorial assistant for the health section, and I was thrilled to do it—even though it meant giving up about 20 hours of my weekly free time.

Ducharme edited Northeastern student magazine. (Woof)

I never could have predicted when I took that job that my boss would decide to leave the magazine only a few months later. As her second in command, I was asked to step in and keep the health section running after she left—despite the fact that I still had a semester and a half of college to go. In between working and taking classes, I convinced my bosses at Boston magazine that I was ready to take on the role of health editor officially, and that I had built up enough reporting connections and skills over the past couple years to do the job effectively. It wasn’t easy to convince them, given my age, but eventually, I sold them on my vision of a realistic, down-to-earth health section that would celebrate the city of Boston while making wellness accessible to everyone. I spent my last semester of college working full time during the day while taking my remaining classes at night. I had to take a vacation day to attend my own graduation, and I was back at work the following Monday. It was definitely a grind, but it was also so much fun: I had my dream job, and I was able to follow the stories that I cared about and wanted to write.

I spent the next two years at Boston magazine, where I worked with an amazing group of editors and veteran reporters, who helped me expand my skills and start writing long-form feature stories, which had always been my dream. I wrote two cover stories during my time as health editor, and the thrill of seeing my story on newsstands all over the city was unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

Ducharme wrote for Boston magazine. (Boston Magazine)

Eventually, I started to itch for something new. I had worked at Boston Magazine since I was 19, and I was ready for a new challenge. I started sending resumes to what felt like every publication in New York, writing cover letter after cover letter until, finally, a friend’s sister helped me get an interview at Time magazine. They were hiring for a job on their breaking news desk, which was something I had never done before. I still wrote mostly about health, but if a big story broke—whether the results of a contested election or a news of a mass shooting—I had to drop whatever I was doing and file a story, confirming key facts with law enforcement and other officials and calling as many sources as possible before my deadline was up. Often, if a story was breaking, I had only about 30 minutes to put together a short piece for the website. We got very good at finding reputable data and statistics on the fly, and at writing in clear, simple sentences that we could easily fact check and copy edit before posting.

Jamie speaking with students in Mrs. Smith’s “The Individual and Society” class.

That job made me much better at reporting; I got over any awkwardness about cold-calling strangers and learned how to use social media, government databases and other sources to my advantage. But I knew, ultimately, that I wanted to write longer feature stories, rather than 300-word breaking news bulletins. So when a job opened up on Time’s health desk, I was thrilled to take it and become a staff writer, covering research, health care, medicine, wellness and psychology full time. Eventually, that job led me to two huge career milestones this past fall. In September, I published my first-ever TIME cover story: a narrative investigation of e-cigarette company Juul, and how it took over the vaping industry. It was both the longest story I’d ever written for Time and the most important. It took months of reporting, dozens of interviews, and reporting trips to San Francisco and Washington, DC, but all of the research felt worth it when I saw my name on the cover of a magazine that would go out to millions of people around the country.

Jaimie’s story, “A Historic Face Transplant”, appeared on the cover of Time. (Time.com)

The next month, I published another story that landed on Time’s cover. This one was special. For a full year prior, I had followed the story of Robert Chelsea, a man who became the first African American ever to receive a face transplant, five years after he was horrifically burned in a car accident. I had gotten to know Robert and his family through a trip to California, where he lives, and dozens of phone calls, and I had tracked his journey from pre-operation to finding a donor to surgery and finally to recovery. The article not only told Robert’s story but also delved into its impact on the medical system, which has historically not been fair to African American patients. When that story published and was immediately met with a slew of emails from people who had been inspired by Robert’s story, I knew for sure that I was in the right job.

Still, I won’t lie to you: It’s a strange time to be in journalism. Bad news is everywhere. Media layoffs are common, and polls show that trust in the media is low. People are now highly skeptical of what they read—which, to an extent, is a good thing, but can also mean journalists have to work exceptionally hard to prove that even basic facts are true. People are also just plain overwhelmed by content. Everyone spends eight hours a day staring at their phones and computers, and they can read news on a million different websites—or, more likely, from tweets and push alerts. It takes a lot to cut through all the noise, and convince people that a particular story is worth reading.

Jamie Ducharme, Journalist

But I think it’s also an extremely important time to be in journalism. People need connection right now, and they need to be reminded of powerful stories that can change the way they think and view the world. People need to know about what’s going on, even if it’s not always pleasant or easy to stomach or understand. Oppressed voices and people need to be given a platform. And I truly think people are thirsty for smart, well-researched stories that are the polar opposite of tweets that take two seconds to read before scrolling on. I hear it from my reader feedback emails, and I feel it myself.

Ducharme’s cover story for Time. (Time.com)

Sometimes, it can feel daunting to come into work every day feeling this sense of obligation, and it can be even more intimidating because I don’t write about politics or foreign policy. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if health really makes a difference. But the truth is, health is one of the few subjects that everyone cares about, to one degree or another. Everyone has a body, and most everyone wants to live as long as well as they can. Capitalizing on that feeling can provide a window into telling the most difficult stories—whether they’re about a company like Juul, which sold itself as a public-health company but attracted an international uproar over its business and marketing practices; a story about one man’s cutting-edge face transplant operation, which changed not only his life but also eased age-old stigmas in the medical system; or any number of smaller stories we write on a daily basis, from those that expose how insurance struggles keep people away from important treatments to those that highlight the role powerful companies play in medical research. I firmly believe there’s also room for stories that just make you smile or feel good, from profiles to advice columns to recipes. When day to day life feels stressful, those are the stories that can make the biggest difference in the short term.

Jamie working with Mr. Karibian’s “Conflict and Change in Society” class…

I could talk about journalism for days, and I’ve only scratched the surface of it here. I hope that over the next couple of days I’ll get to talk with many of you and answer any questions you may have. Please introduce yourself if you see me around campus—talking with all of you is what I’m most looking forward to…

Originally from Manchester, New Hampshire, Jamie Ducharme, who graduated with the Derryfield Class of 2011, studied journalism at Northeastern University.