From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to the BBC, to NPR – Mary Louise Kelly has done it all.

A Georgia native, Kelly is one of several journalists who will be inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame at a Nov. 10 dinner. She is the co-host of NPR’s flagship news program, “All Things Considered,” and has had articles published with the likes of The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and many more.

Mary Louise Kelly, photographed for NPR, 6 September 2022, in Washington DC. Photo by Mike Morgan for NPR.

Before she made the jump to radio, she interned and eventually became a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During her college years, she covered local and student politics with the Harvard Crimson, and even covered the 1992 New Hampshire primary, won by then Gov. Bill Clinton. Before that, she was taking a stand against unfair dress code policies at The Lovett School. And before that, she was just a kid covering breaking news on the tough streets of a Vinings cul-de-sac. 

Kelly has always loved asking questions, and one of the things that drew her to journalism was that people might actually answer. If she was curious enough, maybe she might be able to make a change.

“I’m certainly not under any illusion that I’m saving the world every day,” she said. “But there’s a chance to try. There’s a chance to try to make a difference. And that has always really, really attracted me.” 

Reporter Newspapers spoke with Kelly about her career and her outlook on journalism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Reporter Newspapers: You’re going to be inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame. How did you feel when you first found out?

Mary Louise Kelly: It was a lovely, full-circle feeling of coming home. I grew up in Georgia, and went to school in Georgia, and my family is still there. My first real job out of college was as an intern and then a staff writer for the [Atlanta] Journal-Constitution. It’s been a long time since I lived in Georgia, but it was a lovely feeling. You know, you look at the arc of what you’ve done in those years and think, wow – that feels meaningful, to get it for Atlanta, from Georgia, in a way that it wouldn’t from somewhere else. 

RN: Did you always want to be a journalist?

MK: Yeah, it really was. Before I even was thinking about what I wanted to do as a grown-up, I started a newspaper on our street in Vinings. We lived on Lemons Ridge, which was the name of our little cul-de-sac, and I founded The Lemons Ridge Bugle with another friend in the neighborhood.

We covered the neighborhood news!  We had a recipe of the month and had people write. We awarded a “yard of the month,” and we would come put a big pink plastic flamingo in your yard if you won. It was several pages, and I wrote it and had my dad Xerox it on the copy machine at his office, and then we went around and sold it for, I don’t know, a quarter or something like that. 

I don’t think I was at all thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. It just then – as now – seemed so fun to get to ask all kinds of questions. And people would answer them! Not because they owed 11-or-12-year-old me anything, but because I came on behalf of Lemons Ridge Bugle, and they knew it was going to get printed! [Laughs] We covered, you know, who got a new dog, and who was moving in or out. 

RN: I was going to ask – do you remember any big breaking news stories the Lemons Ridge Bugle covered?

MK: I think that was about as breaking as it got – somebody had a new cocker spaniel, and there was a new 12-year-old boy who moved into the house at the end of the road. That type of thing. But it was really fun! 

I wrote for my high school paper and ended up editing it, which was the Lovett newspaper. By then, I think I was starting to realize – it was a continuation of that [feeling of], oh my god, people will answer my questions. Not because of me, but because of who the audience is.

I remember being – I don’t know, maybe a junior – late in high school, and the assistant principal who was this stern disciplinarian, who we were all terrified of, had just come down with some new and, in my mind, really unjust uniform decree. I can’t remember what it was. Maybe our belts had to be no wider than an inch, or our earrings couldn’t dangle more than an inch below our ears. Something like that, that I just thought was completely unfair, unjust. So I went and interviewed him for the paper. He fielded my questions, and I wrote it up, and they changed the policy. 

There was this first, like – oh, wow! We can get stuff done through journalism that I couldn’t do myself, no matter how loud I complained about it. But people will read this, and it can focus attention on injustice. [Laughs] In that case, it was the injustice of could my earrings be more dangly than the assistant principal thought was appropriate for the uniform.  But that has been a through line. 

RN: You’ve covered some pretty important world events throughout your career. What are some of the stories that have affected you the most, or what are some of the lessons that you’ve pulled from those stories? 

MK: There’s so many ways to answer that. Just to take a very recent example, this year covering the conflict in Ukraine both from Ukraine and then from neighboring countries. The value of going there in person, of seeing it, of hearing it, of talking to normal people living through extraordinary events. I’ve thought about that. You think about it in Ukraine, where you’re covering huge armies on the march. But what brings the story home for Americans, and I think what resonated so much that Americans are still flying Ukraine flags from their front porches, is it’s just ordinary people living through extraordinary events. 

The ability to go there and capture that cannot be replicated. We really learned this during the pandemic. You can’t replicate it calling somebody on the phone, or seeing what people are posting on social media. There is still a real value in a journalist going and reporting to the best of their ability what they see and what they hear. 

I suppose I think about that in places where it’s very difficult to report. I’ve reported from Russia, and from Iran, and from North Korea. In North Korea, for example, you only see what they want you to see. You’re not free to go where you want. You’re working with a government-assigned interpreter, who sometimes doesn’t like the questions you’re asking and so just doesn’t translate them or doesn’t translate the answers back in real-time so that you could follow up. 

People ask, what’s the value of that? Are you just a prop for the regime and just reporting what they want you to see? And my answer to that is always, what’s the alternative? That we see nothing but what they put out there? Which is so little? Any glimpse, any chance to interact in any way with people living a very different life, drawing on very different experiences and sources of information of the world to me feels like it has such value. 

RN: You’ve worked in so many different modes of journalism, from print media to radio. Do you have one that’s your favorite, or have you found that there are limitations with each one? 

MK: This sounds obvious for a journalist, but I love to write. I love words. Again, of course, yes, you’re a journalist, but it’s one of the things that attracts me to radio and has for years to broadcast. I didn’t set out to work for NPR or be a radio journalist. But if you think about it, the words are all you’ve got. They are all you’ve got. TV is so about the pictures and the images. That’s great – they can do things that we can’t do on radio and vice versa. But if you love words, they’re always going to be secondary on TV.

Obviously, in print you can do all kinds of things you can’t in radio. You can get really deep into complex issues, and if people get lost or need to go back, they can go back a few paragraphs – now I’ve got it, now I’m going to move on.  In print, you have pictures, you have charts, you have graphs, whether it’s an old-fashioned newspaper or online. But in radio, really all you have are the words. If you lose somebody’s attention, or they get lost in something complex that you’re not explaining clearly, they’re probably going to turn it off. They can’t go back and listen to what you said live 30 seconds ago. So it forces a discipline of how you tell a story. You’re trying to be fair, you’re trying to be accurate, you’re trying not to oversimplify. But you have to keep people. You’re tugging them with each word [that] you’re choosing so carefully. 

I’ve always found that such an interesting challenge. So I love that, but I also really love to write. In radio, you’re just opening your mouth and whatever comes out comes out, and sometimes you don’t quite know what’s coming out. I also love the discipline of writing. I’ve always tried to do both, to try to keep my hand in writing op-eds or reviews or stories for print as well as doing radio. 

I wasn’t looking to move away from print, but I got an internship at the BBC when I was finishing grad school in England. The adrenaline of a live microphone is hard to replicate. If you’re a journalist, you probably like deadlines or thrive on deadlines. The adrenaline of a broadcast deadline where you’ve got 17 seconds – not 18, 17. And then you’re live, and then you go. You either love that or you hate that. But once you get used to it, if you enjoy it, it’s hard to go back and do deadlines that are a whole day or a whole week. I write books too, and that’s a different discipline where you’re trying to carry a really big idea and big project for months and months and months, and land on something that’s going to be several hundred pages long. 

It is funny, sometimes my publisher  will come to me and my editor for my books, and be like, “You know, I’m thinking, what if we tried this, could you possibly get it done in the next month?” And I’m like, “I’m done! Like, I did it while we’re having this conversation.” [Laughs] I’m so used to having to do things so fast!

RN: I do want to ask about the books, but it’s interesting you bring up the challenge of not oversimplifying complex issues, but making sure they’re digestible. How do you walk that line? 

MK: Well, first of all, I’m sure I fail all the time. Some days you nail it, and some days, you know – maybe if I had another hour to work on this, or another day to work on this, it would be better. I’m trying, and learning every day as I do it. 

I think the key to me is in the preparation, doing your homework and your research, no matter what level you’re at in your career, or who you’re interviewing. You have to understand something really well to make it simple. It’s counterintuitive. But if you’re trying to do, I don’t know, the Iran nuclear deal negotiations on air in a way that’s going to be compelling to someone who knows about that and is following it, but is also going to be compelling to someone who doesn’t spend that much time thinking about foreign policy – forget the nuances of a nuclear deal negotiation – you have to have really read, though, and asked everybody all your questions so that you can distill it in a simple way. Otherwise, you get lost in the jargon. If you don’t fully understand it, you fall back on jargon and more complicated ways of explaining it, because you’re trying to figure it out yourself.

The other thing, and the really fun thing about broadcast journalism is you’re learning in real-time. I mean, when breaking news is happening, you can’t do the research on it. It’s unfolding in real-time. You can do all the preparation you can possibly do, but ultimately you’re dealing with the news that’s changing moment by moment. So you’re learning in real-time and trying to help people follow and figure out what’s happening in real-time. So you’re always explaining, here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, here’s how we know it. 

RN: You mentioned your books. I believe you’re working on another one right now, right?

MK: Yeah, it will be out in the spring – April 2023.

RN: Can you share a little bit about that book? 

MK: It’s going to be a really different one. My first two books were novels, and they were suspense, mystery thrillers – really fun to write! I found I could not write those fast, unlike my journalism because I was trying to figure out, what is the story? Anything could happen. I’m making it up as I go, like, anything could happen! 

I was trying to figure out, how much detail do you want to know? If I’m describing this room, do you want to know everything about what it looks like? Does that bring it to life on the page? Figuring out those decisions, I found really fun, but it took me a long time.

I have another novel in my head that I’m working on as I can, but in the meantime, I’ve written nonfiction and it’s the story of this last year, which was for me a year of just profound change. My oldest has just started college, so it was the story of his senior year of high school. I have traveled so much and worked full time and missed a lot of his soccer games and his science fairs, and activities. I always kind of thought well, but next year I’ll be there. Next year, I’m gonna figure this out somehow. And the years kept going and suddenly I was at the beginning of his senior year and realizing there’s no more next year. This is the last year we’re all going to live together in this house. He’s out. I have no more do-overs, I’ve got to figure this out right now. 

I found the whole juggle, and work-life balance, and trying to figure out how you have it all as a working parent – I was not expecting that to get harder as my kids became teenagers. And it was! It was easier when they were babies. 

It’s the story of that, and I lost my dad last year, and I turned 50 last year, and of course, we were in the middle of a pandemic, and I had some other things going on in my life and I just decided, I”m going to sit down and write this in real-time. It was really fun. It’s called, “It Goes So Fast,” because you think, your life when you have kids will be forever. And then suddenly you’re looking at an empty bedroom and they’re gone, and you’re thinking where did that go?

RN: Do you have any advice for young journalists who are just getting started?

MK: I think the first thing I would say is go for it. There’s been so much angst about journalism and the media industry, and does it still have a future, and how on earth are any of us going to make a profit, and be sustainable, and remotely maintain credibility in a moment in this country where there’s so much distrust of the media, for some legitimate reasons. I and my colleagues in the newsroom here at NPR are trying to figure out what we’ve learned over the last few years, how to do things better in this election and the next one, how to share more with our listeners and readers about how we cover the news and why we make the decisions we do. We have these fraught and spirited conversations about – we’re going to cover this this way, or we’re not going to cover this, and here’s why. But we weren’t really sharing those with our audience. All they know is the final product. There’s no perfect way to do this, we’re all figuring it out as we go. But this is how we arrived at this and it was actually a really thoughtful process, which you can disagree with or agree with. But there was a debate and a discussion over how to do it. We’re trying to get a lot better at that.

I think the bottom line is what a joy this profession has been and continues to be. That I can travel the country, and travel the world, and see things I would never get to see as a civilian, and meet people I would never get to meet, and ask questions I would never get to ask, and then write about it and share it with everyone, and that I get paid for that, blows my mind on a near daily basis still. So my advice, I guess is if this is something that remotely interests you, yes there is a way to make a living doing this. You’ve got to write, you’ve got to get out there. You’ve got to start building your body of work. Be curious, and ask all the questions. Don’t be afraid of sounding like an idiot, because I do it multiple times a day, usually with a few million people listening – you get used to that. Enjoy it. I certainly have. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.