Sarah Bahr: New York Times Culture Reporter

 

Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories, to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Sarah Bahr. Sarah is a cultural reporter for The New York Times currently based in Indiana because of the pandemic. Since she began there a little over nine months ago, she has officially contributed more than 100,000 words to the newspaper. Prior to this, she worked as an arts reporter and digital producer for the Indianapolis Star and writer for Indy Monthly. She’s also written for USA Today and Forbes. Sarah has three bachelor’s degrees in English, Spanish, and journalism, as well as a Master’s. And, I should mention, only graduated from undergrad three years ago. Welcome, Sarah, thank you for being with us today.

Sarah Bahr  01:09

Thanks so much for asking me.

Angela Tuell  01:10

So we’ll start with I know culture reporter for The New York Times has always been your dream job. And you had that goal of getting there in about 15 years after you graduated. Instead, it only took a few. How did you manage that?

Sarah Bahr  01:24

Well, you know, I’m not quite there yet. I’m a culture reporting fellow so I’m at the Times through the end of May. But as far as how I managed it, so I’ll just take you back to the beginning of my time with New York Times. So I applied to the Dow Jones News Fund Multiplatform Editing Internship program during my first year of graduate school at IUPUI which would have been in 2018. And part of that is that you take a copy editing test. And then if you’re selected, you’re placed at news organizations around the country. And one of the possibilities that I learned about is the New York Times because the director of the program called to ask me how I felt about working there. And I was like, “What kind of question is that? Of course, I want to go to the New York Times.” So I interned on the flex desk in the summer of 2019, which was basically editing stories from across the newsroom. From sports to politics, to debate coverage, to breaking news to newsletters, fun features, some of everything. But my true passion is arts and culture reporting. And the Times recently established a year-long fellowship program around, I think, it’s like 30 fellows a year. And one of those positions is an arts reporter. So I applied for that in my second year of grad school. And I was beyond thrilled when I found out that I get to spend an entire year you know, reporting on Broadway and New York theater and art, dance, music, TV, film, then as you know that the pandemic.

Angela Tuell  02:54

What timing, right?

Sarah Bahr  02:56

Yeah, but you know what, well, sometimes organizations canceled their internships or get called off summer stuff. I’m so glad the New York Times didn’t. And even though there’s like no live entertainment right now, there’s still plenty of news to cover in the cultural world. So I’ve been busy, and it’s a truly rewarding experience.

Angela Tuell  03:14

Oh, that’s great. And while you were an intern there, I saw that you saw 30 Theater shows in 10 weeks. So you have to tell us what were some of the favorites and not-so favorites?

Sarah Bahr  03:24

Yeah, that was a big part of my pitch to the New York Times as to why they should take me back because I was like, I’m ready to do this for an entire year. So yeah, I wrote a piece for the section at the end of my internship about seeing 30 shows in 10 weeks on a string budget. Lots of waking up early after working nights. Do you know stakeout rush tickets, entering and losing lots of lotteries? I didn’t win the Hamilton lottery the entire summer. But first shows my absolute favorite. There’s no question. It was the Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady that starred Laura Benanti. Which – I would have seen that several more times – if I hadn’t waited until the very last week to go. Dear Evan Hansen for sure. I won the lottery for that one and got to sit front row and got to see Andrew Barth Feldman give this really amazing performance of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune with Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald, which is actually one of two or three shows that I’ve seen that are currently in consideration for this year’s, I guess it’s this year’s, Tony Awards that may or may not happen. But it’s crazy to think that I’ve seen some of the shows that you know, are up for consideration, considering it’s been almost two years now since I’ve lived in New York.

Angela Tuell  04:32

Yeah. What about, say – can you say some of your not favorites? Or would you rather not mention that?

Sarah Bahr  04:37

Um, the one that comes to mind – I mean, it’s Broadway, so most of it is pretty,

Angela Tuell  04:41

They’re all great, right?

Sarah Bahr  04:43

But my least favorite would have to be the first one that I actually saw, which was Be More Chill. And I had really high expectations for that musical based on the soundtrack. And I loved Michael in the bathroom. Just seeing the actual story after listening to the soundtrack just didn’t live up to my expectations. And I was like, I thought there was gonna be more here. So, you know, that was the first show I saw and it was kind of all. It all was it got better from there.

Angela Tuell  05:07

It got better. Good. That’s good. Yeah, you don’t want it the other way around, right? So for those who don’t know, define for us all what culture covers.

Sarah Bahr  05:15

Basically everything in the art world except books. I’ve considered putting that in my Twitter bio, just considering all the book pitches I get. Like, I don’t cover books. But I do cover breaking news and features in theater, art, dance, design, music, pop culture, TV, and film. I think that’s everything. There might be some other disciplines. But those are the main ones.

Angela Tuell  05:36

That’s broad.  You have to know a lot about a lot of areas.

Sarah Bahr  05:39

Yeah, definitely. I mean, it gets easier, too, after having been here. When I first got here, it was a steep learning curve of just having to be conscious of what’s happening in all these worlds, but it definitely gets easier after having spent a longer time.

Angela Tuell  05:51

Yeah. You’ve interviewed Oscar nominees, celebrities, musicians, and Broadway stars. Who are some of the most memorable to you?

Sarah Bahr  05:58

Um, so one really cool moment this fall was I was doing Tony Awards nominations interviews, and I got to talk to Jake Gyllenhaal, who told me I was low-key killing it.

Angela Tuell  06:08

Wow, what a compliment.

Sarah Bahr  06:11

So that – that was really cool.

Angela Tuell  06:14

If you ever – does it get better from there? I don’t know.

Sarah Bahr  06:17

I mean, that was I did get to talk to Anthony Fauci, which was really cool, because I mean, like, I got to talk to him about like theatres reopening. But that’s not something that you would think you would get to do as an arts reporter so that was really cool. I mean, he answered the phone. He’s like, “Hi, this is Tony.” I’m like, “Tony who.”

Angela Tuell  06:34

Does he call you? Directly?

Sarah Bahr  06:36

Yeah, not answered one. But yeah, he called me. And I wasn’t like expecting it. Because I was just expecting to get a statement from a spokesperson or something. Yeah, it was me that picked up. He was like, “Hi, this is Tony.” I was like, “Fauci?” It was great.

Angela Tuell  06:50

 You were caught off guard, right?

Sarah Bahr  06:52

Who else I talked to? Oh, Billy Eilish, Kelly Marie Tran. Matthew Lewis is another memorable, memorable one. That was actually Christmas Eve was I interviewed him from his parents’ study in the UK because he was home for the holidays. And that was a Zoom interview. So he’d overlooked the fact that his mom had basically made the room into a shrine to him, like with all his movie posters on the wall. It was just something where it’s like, he was so used to it that he didn’t think about it. And I was like, “Hey, your face is all over the walls there.” He was like, “Oh.” It was great.

Angela Tuell  07:26

That is really funny.  I’ve seen some days where you’ve written 3500 words and six stories in one day.

Sarah Bahr  07:32

Yes, that was Monday. But there was also a lot of that was the Oscars. So kinda like I mentioned before, the nice thing is like, once I kind of do the background research for an award show or kind of like, have the knowledge of like, what the storylines are, what’s been nominated, I can pretty quickly bang out other stories about that same thing. She gets it in writing, like six different stories about different topics. I mean, not all of them were Oscar stories, there were some other ones too. But it just gets a lot easier once you spent like, now almost nine months reporting on the world of film to just know, or have a better grasp of things than I would if I was just coming in as someone from another desk. Like, “Oh, the Oscars! What, what’s going on with this?”

Angela Tuell  08:15

Right, right. You’re prepared. What have been some of your all-time favorite stories?

Sarah Bahr  08:20

Oh, well, you know, I love any chance I get to get Indianapolis into the New York Times. So this week, I just did a story on all that public art in Indianapolis. That’s March Madness. And then I’ll have another one that’s publishing either later today or tomorrow about another March Madness-related storyline. So that’s been really exciting. Um, but as far as like, all-time favorites. Well, I did one this fall which was really cool. It was another Indiana story about the Bob Ross experience that was opening in Muncie.

Angela Tuell  08:49

Yes. I saw that.

Sarah Bahr  08:50

Yeah, it was at the home where he filmed the show. So um, that was one of like, three or four in-person reporting things I’ve gotten to do since March.

Angela Tuell  09:00

How sad.

Sarah Bahr  09:02

I mean, it wasn’t it was a great day. There was like a costume contest with Bob Ross bobblehead prizes. There was a big paint out on the lawn. It was just this fabulous experience. I’m so happy that I had the chance to do that.

Angela Tuell  09:12

What about some of your worst, like difficult interviews? You don’t have to name names the story that didn’t go as planned.

Sarah Bahr  09:18

Let’s see…one that comes to mind right away is there was one I think the prize for my most sordid reporting experience recently has to go to a feature I did for The New York Times this fall. And it was about the Westchester Broadway Theater that was closing – or that closed – in November. Okay. It was one of the last professional dinner theaters in the country. And it had been home to like a number of Broadway actors over the years from Will Swenson to Faith Prince. And so basically, I set out to do this, you know, do a history of the place, contextualize the loss. It’s like the death of one of the last dinner theaters in America. And everything was going well. You know, I’d reached out to the theater’s PR person. She passed my information on to the owners who started the theater, I think it was 46 years ago. But then I didn’t get a call from them. And I was like, okay, what’s up with this? And they kind of had, you know, dropped off the face of the earth. And then I heard from the PR person who I mean, I might add, she was doing this like as a volunteer, because obviously, none of the former employees were being paid now that the theater was shut down. So it turns out that the owners who are both like 80, or almost 80, were just kind of too sad and decided they didn’t want to talk about it. I was like, what is going on? Like, is there something shady going on here? But it was just like that they were really heartbroken and didn’t want to talk about it. I was like, okay, like, I totally understand, like, you’ve invested your life in this. But also, like, there goes my story. And it’s hard to give a comprehensive history of the place when you know, the people who run it, from the founding to the President, like really can’t be a source for that.

Angela Tuell  10:51

Right. So you didn’t get to write it?

Sarah Bahr  10:52

Oh, I did get to write it. And basically, I talked to lots of other people. I was tracking them, like former employees, people who work there, not just at the current moment, but in the past. And I dug into these old clippings about the theater. And basically, I mean, I think it turned out well, I just had to, whereas I could have had like one source for the information before I had to get it from a lot of different places of people who had all played various roles. So it took like a week longer than that to be kind of inventive on sourcing. But that was a fun experience.

Angela Tuell  11:23

Yeah. And it sounds like that when almost didn’t happen. Do you have any that didn’t make it to print that you wanted to tell?

Sarah Bahr  11:29

I mean, one thing I would say is that any editor that’s worked with me will tell you, I always have lots of ideas. So if something doesn’t make it, it generally goes back on my idea list for future use. Unless there’s like something time-sensitive. One story that I really wish had run, but that the pandemic killed, wasn’t even like a really long thing. It was this, like 500-word Q&A with Andre De Shields for Indianapolis Monthly, because he had been coming to The Cabaret. And he actually had performed at the Indiana Repertory Theater, like before he hit it big with Hadestown. So I do this interview with him. And I mean, it was like a 500-word thing. But we talked for like 45 minutes. And he was so gracious. And he had these great stories about you know, rehearsing in Central Park, so his neighbors wouldn’t call the cops on him about crazy guys screaming in his apartment. The Tony Awards, because he’s, he’s still you know, the reigning Tony winner, because we haven’t had more Tony right? That’s a really great conversation. But obviously, he did end up performing at The Cabaret and the May issue of Indianapolis Monthly didn’t have, like, a ticket section. So…

Angela Tuell  12:36

Aww. Well, maybe one day, it’ll make it in. It won’t make it in it.

Sarah Bahr  12:40

Yeah, he’ll come back one day. Maybe?

Angela Tuell  12:43

How do you like to find your stories?

Sarah Bahr  12:45

Um, so right now, I have a lot of different note, uh, Twitter lists for different interests, whether it’s like arts news, Indy news, New York news. But in the before times, it was really great to just have this network of people in Indianapolis. Like, there are people that I would talk to, and they would have a boatload of stories anytime that I talked to them just because they were like, super interesting people. And it’s great when you can like hit on something in a conversation, whether it’s actually talking to someone in person or just like reading a story that someone has written that there’s like a really small detail that you’re curious about. And you’re like, that could be a story. Like just wondering where something came from, or trying to follow up on something that’s mentioned in the story. But it’s really worth breaking out in a story in itself. You’re hunting like that is really a lot of fun.

Angela Tuell  13:34

So you recently also spent some time on the New York Times Express desk, right, which is the group of reporters and editors who monitor and report on breaking news. How was that?

Sarah Bahr  13:43

That was so much fun. So I worked days for the first week and then nights for the second. And it was an intense first two days because I covered a school shooting in Arkansas. And then one of the worst border crashes in history involving migrants that killed 13 people. So that was intense starting out, but then after that, I mean, one thing about Express is that they do hard news like that. But there’s also really fun stuff. Like I did a lot of animal stories, actually. So my favorite, I think, I did on Express is I wrote a feature that I’d coached about this mansion for sale in Chicago that I’d seen a listing for. And it was supposedly built for the woman who was scapegoated for starting the Chicago Fire, Kate O’Leary.  It turned out not so much. It was really an exaggerated listing. And I was like looking at census records and talking to historians because her son has lived there at one point, but not until after she died. So it hadn’t been built for her. But that was like a really fascinating, you know, a scavenger hunt through history. And one thing about Express that’s nice is that you do a lot of breaking news. And it’s very intense, but for like a very short period of time generally. These are only 500 to 800-word stories. So you have time to dive into, like, longer stuff like the cow mansion story, right? Because obviously, news doesn’t break all the time, you just have to be ready when it does. So it’s kind of nice to have that balance going on too.

Angela Tuell  15:11

Yeah.  What’s, what has surprised you about the New York Times?

Sarah Bahr  15:14

I think it’s just been how not like how good everyone is at their jobs, but just how much everyone really cares about the product that we’re putting out like everyone is invested in making sure we choose like just the right word here, or making sure that everything is like an accurate reflection or the best possible reflection of what we can say about what happened. And everyone is just really attuned to nuance. And like, there’s no, there’s no question that’s too small. You can email an editor and be like, oh, there’s an extra space in the story or something. Because there’s a guy on Twitter – it’s, I think the handle is like New York Times Typos – but likes flagging everything in stories. Everyone is just super, super committed to putting out the best possible news report. And that’s really refreshing.

Angela Tuell  16:02

Yeah.  So you’re in Indianapolis, not too far from where I am, actually. But you were supposed to move to New York, right for this fellowship. Is that still in the works?

Sarah Bahr  16:10

I mean, I hope so. We’ll see where I end up after my fellowship is over, job-wise. But I’ll at least be making a trip this summer to see they just announced Shakespeare in the Park is coming back. here and other fun things crop up. Because I mean, things are getting better now, like the end is in sight for the pandemic. I mean, I’m looking forward to getting the vaccine.

Angela Tuell  16:32

Yes. There’s lots of hope out there now.

Sarah Bahr  16:35

Yeah, I mean, I can’t believe it’s been almost two years since I was in the New York Times building. I mean, it doesn’t feel like that long, but it also does.

Angela Tuell  16:44

Yeah. I have to ask about the bachelor’s degrees, too. So you have three of them. How or why did you decide on three?

Sarah Bahr  16:52

I kind of got into IUPUI just with English. And then I added Spanish because like, I’d taken enough classes that I was, I was just going to have it be a minor at first. But, like, I tested out of most of the introductory courses, so it was a situation where I was like, I might as well just get a major in this. Um, and then journalism. So that was something that I added my sophomore year, where I really got reporting experience with this online student news outlet, which was the campus since then, and really decided that that was something that I wanted to do in the future. I mean, that was something that I thought coming into college, but I wasn’t sure that I needed the degree in it either.

Angela Tuell  17:33

Okay, okay. So you thought that you’d get the degree in English, but still do journalism.

Sarah Bahr  17:38

And then it was kind of a similar situation to Spanish where just the amount of classes, I’d considered doing a minor in that too. But I had a lot of AP credits from high school. So I didn’t have to take a lot of the introductory classes, which kind of opened it up for me to take higher-level courses in these other disciplines. That made it a situation where it was feasible for me to get a major and not just a minor in these subjects.

Angela Tuell  18:00

Right.  Do you have advice for others going into journalism?

Sarah Bahr  18:04

I would just say, ask as many questions as possible about everything. Be as curious as possible, not just about like stories and sources, but also just talking to people at the organizations that you’re at, whether you’re interning or whether you’re starting a new job. Just, like, people are fountains of institutional knowledge, and they’ve had all these fascinating experiences. And they’re just like sitting there. I mean, that they won’t like ever volunteer things. But when you start asking people about things, they have fascinating stories. And it’s a great experience learning from like, more experienced or older reporters that have really covered all variety of things in the world and have really fascinating insights about just how to do that in the best way possible.

Angela Tuell  18:46

Yeah, it sounds like that’s how you’ve been so successful, too, that you’ve really taken advantage of that. Before we go, we’d love to hear your insights into some of the best artists, musicians, and actors we should be following right now because I’m sure you’re following them.

Sarah Bahr  18:58

Yeah. Um, so I’ll give some local shout-outs first. So I just wrote the Indianapolis March Madness meal story. And I love Joy Hernandez, if you’ve ever been in Broad Ripple, or Fountain Square, and you’d like the little astronaut guys, the murals. She does those. So she did an artist-designed basketball court for the tournament, and it’s Being the Astronaut, which is named after the painter Alan Bean who walked on the moon. And hey, that was really cool. And then also Gang Gang is a local startup or an incubator, that’s working to elevate artists of color, and they’re doing some really cool work in the city. Nationally. I mean, I really got into All Creatures Great and Small on PBS. So I wrote the Matthew Lewis profile for that. But also the main actor in that is Nicholas Ralph. I’m now a big fan of just because I mean, he was great in that series. So if you’re looking for, you know, wholesome television right now, All Creatures Great and Small is about a veterinarian’s adventures. But it’s as exciting as a Marvel movie, I promise.

Angela Tuell  19:46

That sounds great. Well, thank you so much, Sarah. I really appreciate your time.

Sarah Bahr  20:14

Oh, you’re welcome.

Angela Tuell  20:16

That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined. Available anywhere you get your podcasts. You can find more at CommunicationsRedefined.com/podcast. I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

On this episode of Media in Minutes, we talk with New York Times Culture Reporter, Sarah Bahr. She shares some of the most memorable celebrities she’s interviewed, what story didn’t quite go as planned and about the time she saw 30 live New York City theatre shows in just 10 weeks! Sarah also gives us her recommendations on music, theatre and art. 

Check out Sarah’s article on the Westchester Broadway Theater.

Read her article on the Mansion in Chicago for the express desk at the New York Times.

Check out Sarah’s article about artwork in Indianapolis during March Madness

Learn more about Gang Gang

Learn more about Sarah’s recommendation, All Creatures Great and Small.

Follow our guest