In her more than 30 years working in broadcast, print and digital journalism, Lisa Anderson has covered a lot of territory, from fashion to politics to war to terrorism. Twenty-five of those years were spent as a features correspondent at the Chicago Tribune, and later its New York Bureau Chief. Most recently, Lisa developed TrustLaw Women, a web site devoted to global women’s legal rights and issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, for which she also covers women’s rights, good governance, anti-corruption and humanitarian issues.
Sandi: Welcome to another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. Veteran journalist Lisa Anderson has filed stories from here, there and everywhere. The United States, Europe, Asia, Africa. She spent twenty-five years at the Chicago Tribune as a correspondent and New York Borough Chief. Her beat, major disasters.
From the Oklahoma City bombing to Columbine. As a result, she trained other journalists in disaster reportage. Before the Tribune, Lisa was a Fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review at New York’s Columbia University.
Currently, Lisa is the North American Correspondent for the Thomson Routers Foundation. Reporting on humanitarian and anti-corruption issues, women’s rights, and good governments. Lisa was hired in September 2010 to develop Trust Law Women, a global news site. In 2012, the foundation started an annual conference, Trust Women, to explore ways in which to put the rule of law behind women’s rights through concrete action.
The women’s rights editor, Lisa developed a new online hub for Trust Law that incorporates content, news, and information about women’s legal rights and issues. A list of her blog topics include:
- Could equal pay threaten women’s marriage prospects?
- Girls for sale, a day in the life.
- Ethics missing in debate on climate change. [and]
- New abolitionist’s anti-slavery campaign launches in New York.
Lisa, welcome and thanks so much for joining me today.
Lisa: Thank you, Sandi for having me.
Sandi: Let’s work backwards. How and why did you become a journalist?
Lisa: I was thinking about that and it seemed I always wanted to be a journalist. But I remember distinctly growing up and there was a show on TV called “In the Name of the Game”. It was about a Time Magazine like magazine based in Los Angles. I just loved the idea of going out and reporting stories. The funny thing was, that was in the 70s. The character I most identified with was a researcher. In those days, that was what a lot of women
Sandi: Women did.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm
Lisa: So I started out thinking I want to be a researcher at Time Magazine.
Sandi: Because in the show there were no female reporters.
Sandi: So, did you?
Lisa: I did become a researcher at WCBS TV as I was working my way through college. Here in New York.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: But then I knew that I could also be a reporter. So that was a step up the ladder. I went on staff at WCBS TV while I was still in college. Then I went from there to Women Wear Daily. I was a print reporter for fashion news. Not fashion criticism, but fashion news. Manufacturing, retailing, things like that.
Sandi: Would you be covering fashion week?
Lisa: I would, but not in those days. I would be writing it in terms of the reaction from retailers. What they liked, what they were going to buy, how much. We also had W Magazine, which still exists.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: For which I did features. Those would be television personalities, theater personalities, homes. Shelter, design. It was a variety of things.
Sandi: Was it difficult to transition from one job to another?
Lisa: No, it really wasn’t that difficult to make the transition because reporting is reporting.
Lisa: As a researcher, I was used to researching things. So, when I got to Fairchild, I think the hardest thing was by day, we had the same staff in those days for both Women’s Wear Daily and W.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: Women’s Wear Daily, as people always ask me, was it daily? Yes, it was daily.
Lisa: So that was a daily newspaper. They call it the bible of the fashion industry.
Lisa: For that we were straight news reporter. I was a straight news reporter. Then, at the same time, we were also feature writers doing interviews. My first foreign assignment was for W. I went to Barbados and interviewed Claudette Colbair.
Lisa: Among other things. So, you were living kind of two lives. You were a straight news reporter doing mostly business, or at least I was, during the day but at the same time, you were a feature writer doing these incredible stories about incredible people.
Sandi: So, that’s kind of glamorous isn’t it?
Lisa: It was glamorous. It was very funny, most of us were as poor as church mice so we went home at night to these ridiculous apartments. Then during the day, we were telling Brook Aster, “really Mrs. Aster, I think you need to move that cashpo to the left for the photo.”
Sandi: What a contrast!
Lisa: It was. John Fairchild, who’s now in Switzerland, was a fantastic teacher. As crazy as a loon, if you’ll forgive me Mr. Fairchild,
Lisa: But brilliant. So, he really taught you how to see things. I think that was the most important thing I learned was how to look at things. Rather it was a dining table that we were going to photograph or how a person reacted. Body language. I learned a great deal. It was difficult and it was hard work, but we all learned a lot. Almost everyone went on to do really interesting things. Ben Brantley, who’s now the chief theater critic for the New York Times.
Sandi: The Times. Yea.
Lisa: Was one of the reporters with me in those days.
Sandi: So, that’s where you basically cut your teeth? Not excluding WCBS.
Lisa: Right. Yes.
Sandi: Researching is one thing, writing is a whole other ballgame.
Lisa: Yes. Absolutely.
Sandi: How long were you there?
Lisa: I was there for seven years.
Sandi: And then what happened? Did you go right to the Tribune?
Lisa: My husband was working for CBS. He was transferred to Chicago in 1983 to run the station there. He had already once been the news director there. I commuted every week with a dachshund.
Sandi: Yi,yi, yi
Lisa: We did that for I think two years. Then he came back to New York, and then he was transferred again to be the general manager. To run the station. At that point, I’m not going to push my luck. I’m going to move. So, I left Fairchild, and I went to Chicago without a job. But with a freelance kind of understanding with Women’s Wear Daily and W.
Sandi: And was the Chicago Tribune basically your first job in Chicago?
Lisa: It was, and it came in a funny way. I literally had just gotten to Chicago. We had just bought an apartment. The day we had the phone put in, there was no furniture in the apartment. I was there, measuring things.
Sandi: Standing. [Laughing]
Lisa: Standing. The phone rang, and this lady on the phone said “hi, my name is Colleen Dushaun, I’m with the Chicago Tribune.” I said, “oh thank you. We already subscribed, you know”
Sandi: [Laughing] We get the paper.
Lisa: And we had. She said no, no. no. you don’t understand. I understand you’ve moved to Chicago and a colleague of mine in New York said you might be right for a job we have open.
Sandi: Those things make me crazy.
Sandi: That’s really how it just happened?
Lisa: It just happened that way.
Sandi: What was the job?
Lisa: I thought the job was a general features reporter, but what it really was, was they wanted a fashion writer. They had a lead fashion writer, but they were building their presence in fashion so they needed another one. Actually, I was hired under false pretenses because I didn’t want to be a fashion writer anymore.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: I ended up being one. The lead fashion writer became ill. They called me in the beginning of August. I was hired on the 15th of August. That October, I guess it was, the lead fashion writer who went to Paris, became ill. So, I was in Paris reviewing fashion shows.
Sandi: Wow. Stuff you just don’t plan for.
Lisa; Not at all.
Sandi: Isn’t that crazy how life plays out?
Lisa: But what I did, and this is a good thing for is someone young is interested in how to make more of a job,
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: I realized it wasn’t enough for me to just review fashion shows. That wasn’t my forte for begin with but I could do it.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: Anybody really can do it but some people do it better than others.
Sandi: Did you like it?
Lisa: Yea. It was great.
Lisa: I wanted to do more. So, I started, I realized on that trip, I did other feature stories about design. I remember doing a story about Louie Vuitton, and how they make their fabulous stuff and other things.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: I realized that was the way to make that more rewarding. The next season I realized the lead fashion writer is going to Paris, but I said, if you really want to build your fashion coverage you should go to Mulan. I knew all this from Women’s Wear. I said, I’d like to go, so they sent me. I did the same thing. I did other stories about food, design, shelter, personalities. When I came back, I said, if you really want to build your fashion coverage you should cover London. In the 80s, the early 80s, London was a really important fashion resource. It’s wobbled back and forth a lot since then.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: But at that moment it was Boy George and it was
Sandi: Oh. Okay.
Lisa: The punkster rockers and the mohawks hair and all that. So, they sent me. I then built that into twice a year trip to Mulan and London. Every other trip I would do an extra week doing feature stories in either England or Italy.
Sandi: So, how do you move from fashion to disasters?
Lisa; I always say to people, I sort of took a wrong turn and I went from kind of the viapunch napoleaona in Milano to wearing a flak jacket.
Lisa: Around 1992 the managing editor approached me about becoming borough chief in New York. Which was quite shocking to a lot of people because I was a feature writer. I had covered fashion. In those days, which are not so long ago, those were considered very fluffy
Lisa: Frivolous topics. Plus I was a woman.
Sandi: I was just going to go there. How many female borough chiefs were there?
Lisa: There weren’t a lot in those days. There still aren’t that many, but many more now. But it was shocking. At first I thought, my first question was can I still go to Europe?
Lisa: At first he said yes you can for a while. But very slowly but surely I started enjoying hard news. There’s a lot. I know this sounds strange, but there’s a great deal in common with covering fashion and covering politics and even wars. Because it’s the contrast between people’s expectations and their aspirations that are behind a lot of these things. In a weird way, if you really apply yourself, the skills are very similar. I progressed into politics then I began to cover disasters. That wasn’t by design. I was assigned. My first disaster was Oklahoma City.
Sandi: Wow. So, you and your husband moved back to New York.
Lisa: Yes. At a certain point, my husband was named president of CBS News.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: Actually he was named president of CBS News. Around January he was appointed. I thought, well, I can’t ask these people to send me to New York. I’m barely here. Fairchild was nice enough to call me. They had just bought Ink Magazine.
Sandi: Uh Huh.
Lisa: They were merging it with M Magazine at that time. They said, you know, we have a slot for someone to do profiles of business people. Which is one of the things I did in those days. So I thought about it, and I went to my editor and I said, everyone in Chicago knew my husband had been named CBS News Chief. I said, I don’t expect you to keep me, so I have this offer, what do you think? They said no. We’d like you to stay, we’d like you to move to New York. So I moved to New York.
Sandi: And run a New York Borough.
Lisa: No, not yet. I still was a feature writer.
Sandi: Okay, okay.
Lisa: I did that until. I did that for about nine years.
Lisa: Feature writing.
Sandi: Then you wound up training other reporters in disaster reporting.
Lisa: Right. Once you start doing disasters. It was Oklahoma City, it was Columbine, things like that. After you do a few, if you’re of a mind for it, which is saying something. You don’t know it until you do it. Whether you can handle it.
Sandi: Bear it.
Lisa: Or handle it well. Then, as I was becoming a more senior correspondent, then I would start doing, not so much training, as heading up groups of people. Like at Columbine I headed up a group of people who were covering that event. You’re basically making sure everything’s covered. All the bases so to speak, but also keeping an eye on people. Because it may not be the most vulnerable, obvious person who’s having a hard time. It may be someone quite a bit older.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: You just never know.
Lisa: So, you’re also watching them to make sure they’re okay.
Sandi: If you’re just joining us, my guest today is Lisa Anderson. She’s the North American correspondent for the Thomson Routers Foundation. That’s a good Segway for me, because when I first started out back in the 80s, Routers was a newswire service. When did it become Thomson Routers Foundation?
Lisa: That’s a great question. It’s not. Routers became Thomson Routers in about 2008. The Routers news service that we all know,
Lisa: Merged with Thomson which is a basically a legal information and product service. It comes of Canada. What happened was both of them had philanthropic ventures. Arms. They had to figure out how do we create a new philanthropic arm that represents the strengths of both Thomson and Routers which then became Thomson Routers Corporation.
So, a woman, who is currently my big boss, Monique Villa, a French woman, who had been a journalist at Journaux Press and also had worked at Routers running their media service. Was appointed to figure out how to create a foundation that would represent the journalism strength of Routers and the legal strength of Thomson. She developed the idea of Trust Law. Routers works on what we call the trust principals. They’re obvious. Accuracy, Integrity, so on. So, Trust is a byword at Routers. Law is law. We already had AlertNet, which covered humanitarian news and was born in, after the Rwandan genocide in about 1994-1995. She wanted to expand obviously into something more with law. She created the first so called vertical on the site in addition to AlertNet was for anti-corruption good governments. Then, she wanted to expand further into women’s rights. That’s when I was hired.
Thomson Routers Foundation is independent of Thomas Routers Corporation. It receives funding from it, but it
Sandi: A separate entity.
Lisa: It’s a separate entity that has its own brief. I joined them in 2010. But, in 2008, a year that shall live in journalistic infamy, there were thousands and thousands of journalists either bought out or laid off around the country. You may recall. It was after the recession, after Lemon brothers. Things were really bad. Things were really bad at the Chicago Tribune. A guy named Sam Zell, who was a relestate magnet in Chicago had purchased the entire Tribune Company and had taken it private. In those days, the entire Tribune Company included the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, The Chicago Tribune.
Sandi: Wow. What a conglomerates.
Lisa: The Orlando Sun Sentinel and so on. It was very large, plus a whole array of television stations. He bought it, took it private, and although Zell was very talented in the relastate world, he was a bit of a, how shall I say, thuggish character.
Lisa; He was really, and he took pride in that. He was very rough spoken. Was famous for spouting off expletives. The Tribune Culture and then one that was very buttoned up. This was a big
Lisa: Culture shock.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: He also claimed that he saw no need for International News, even though he was a man with business interests around the world. So, he really started changing not only the culture, but the way things were going. Under Zell basically, there was a plan to close all of the Tribunes national and foreign bureaus and supplant them with coverage from the LA Times.
Lisa: That was one of the many changes.
Sandi: So, you saw the writing on the wall.
Lisa: I read the writing on the wall, absolutely. I also knew that anyone who got out within a year of Zell’s purchase. He purchased the company in December of 2007. So, December of 2008 was a cut off. Until 2008, December 31st, anyone who left the company was guaranteed two weeks’ pay per year of years of service in terms of a buyout or severance. After that, all bets were off.
Lisa: I could see what was coming. I knew it. I asked for a buyout. I got the buyout. I got two weeks per year of service, which in my case was almost a year, because I had worked there twenty-five years.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: I got it on December 3rd, and the company declared Chapter 11 on December 8th.
Sandi: Wow. That’s, that’s wild. Wow.
Lisa: It was very sad. I was really sad to leave but it was one of those, and this is something to remember too for people, sometimes what you’re leaving isn’t what it was.
Sandi: Of course.
Lisa: In a way, it was easier to leave because I was watching the newspaper I loved really being destroyed.
Sandi: So, you get this new offer.
Lisa: Well, first it was just to build their women’s rights site which didn’t exist because Monique was still building. She had come there and she had
Sandi: So were going to work with her.
Lisa: Yes. Absolutely. But I was going to work in New York because the foundation wanted to expand its global footprint. At that point, still, the foundation is based in London. That’s where all of our top editors are. That’s where our headquarters are. We had some correspondents then starting in Bangkok and a few elsewhere but it was still building and we didn’t have any correspondents in the US.
Sandi: So that became your role.
Lisa: That was my role. My role was basically first to build the Women’s Rights site.
Sandi: And how’d you do that?
Lisa: It was a miracle, Sandi, because I had no idea what I was doing. Not even a clue.
Lisa: Really. Although I was interested in women’s issues and had covered women’s issues but in a very general way.
Lisa: Of course, in my work, I was no expert on it, A. B, I was not the most technologically advanced creature in the world. The idea that I was going to build a website was, or a vertical in this case, was
Sandi: So, you felt you were definitely in over your head.
Lisa: I thought so, but at the same time, by then I had seen what people had been going through. In between I spent a year at the Columbia Journalism Review writing articles. I was watching what was happening to journalists around the country and I realized you had to reinvent yourself because journalism as we all knew it, especially in the print version
Lisa: was completely changing. Would never be the same again. It might get better, but at that point we didn’t know when.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: If ever. So, I thought, well, whatever it is. I can do this. I’ll figure out a way to do this. It was hard, but I started making contacts. I started seeing people. I knew I had to get content partners who would help us with content because we couldn’t supply all of the content ourselves.
Sandi: What was the bend? What were you going for?
Lisa: I was going for a way to fulfill Monique’s mission which was that in everything we do, we also represent a legal aspect. I was looking for covering women’s rights and issues but always with the idea of laws in the background. Which is not hard, because almost every issue having to do with women’s rights or issues has something to do with law. Whether its abortion, whether its contraception. Now we’re looking at should the hobby lobby
Lisa: Should they be forced to provide a contraceptive for their employees.
Sandi: Coverage. Right.
Lisa: Or is it child marriage? Is it inheritance rights? So, I just kept looking for things and people who could contribute to us in a way that pulled in that legal aspect as well as the social and the economic. Really, all aspects, but legal was always at the heart of it.
Sandi: So, give some specifics.
Lisa: For example, when I was building it, one of the things we wanted to do was to see if we could collect a database on laws around the world pertaining to women. So I went to Washington and I talked to the ABA, which had a division on women.
Sandi: Uh Huh.
Lisa: We ended up partnering with them for a while because they too were trying to collect a database on laws regarding women. We’ve gone past that now in a way, but that’s the kind of thing we were looking for.
Sandi: But what are laws regarding women?
Lisa: Well, since
Sandi: And they vary so from country to country.
Lisa: They do. That’s why it’s almost impossible to gather every law.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm.
Lisa: It was, for example. Remember we’re global.
Lisa: It’s not just the U.S.
Lisa: It would vary from what are inheritance laws in Kenya and always with the idea too that laws around the world, and you must have the law. The law is the beginning but it’s often not the end because cultural traditions and norms will almost always trump civil law in a lot of societies. Particularly in Africa and Asia.
Sandi: So, you may have a law that a woman should inherit the land if her husband dies.
Lisa: Right. But in that village, if the tradition is when the husband dies, his brothers get the land or his father or whoever, or male cousins, then that’s what is usually going to prevail because local law, that’s implemented by local chiefs or whatever will almost always trump civil law. Still.
Sandi: So, your role was to
Lisa: Expose, but also write stories about, illustrate
Sandi: In the hope of change. Or fostering change.
Lisa: That’s it. At the end of the day, what we’re looking for is impact.
Sandi: Impact. Right.
Lisa: We’re looking, if we can, it’s very hard to do. But that’s your goal at the end of the day. You really want the stories to illustrate problems. Maybe offer solutions through the voices of the people on the ground who are working with these problems. In the hopes that maybe things will change. Sometimes, they do.
Sandi: And when do they? Give me a couple of examples.
Lisa: Well, for example. One of my colleagues who’s in Senegal, had done a story I think it was inheritance rights. A woman was denied her rights, blah, blah, blah. And later, after his story ran, a letter appeared on the Prime Minister’s desk saying this is wrong from someone important and they looked into it. It has started to cause to change.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm
Lisa: We’ve had that happen a number of times.
Sandi: If you’re just joining us, my guest today is Lisa Anderson. She’s the North American correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. You have correspondents all over the world.
Lisa: The foundation has its own correspondents. We have, now we have three in the U.S., two in New York, one in DC, who specializes in corruption. We have Bogota Columbia. They’re all fabulous correspondents. One’s in Dakar, Senegal. One’s in Nairobi. Two are in Bangkok. One is in New Delhi. One is Rome, specializing in food security.
Lisa: Which is a new area for us. We’re hoping to get another correspondent in
South America this year and we’re aiming to get one in the Middle East/ North Africa region. Those are correspondents who work for the foundation.
Sandi: And their works are published through Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Lisa: They’re published on our site. We have our own site.
Sandi: Your site. Yes.
Lisa: But yes, also, they’re picked up by Thomson Reuter’s wire.
Sandi: Wire service. Uh Huh.
Lisa: And then we also draw on Reuters thousands of correspondents around the world. But they are still writing primarily about financial and political matters. Not so much about the kinds of things we cover. In fact, we say the foundation covers the worlds underreportedstories.
Lisa: And that’s also a commentary on journalism in general because years ago, a human rights watch could pick up the phone and say we have a great report now on child marriage, are you interested in writing about it, and you’d say sure. Nowadays, very few places, including the New York Times even, have enough people available
Lisa: To cover these things.
Sandi: As I was doing research about you, sex trafficking and
Lisa: That’s a big issue for us.
Sandi: This article that you recently wrote. Disgraced anti-sex slavery crusader mom unveils plan for new group. This is a fascinating story.
Lisa: Yes, it is.
Sandi: Would you just talk a little bit about that. You tell it rather than me.
Lisa: I will try to make it brief because it is a saga. There was a very famous anti-sex trafficking activist in Cambodia. Her name is Somali Mam. She has nothing to do with Samilia, so it’s very confusing.
Lisa: It sounds like Somali Mon, like man.
Sandi: Yea. Hey Mon, yea.
Lisa: but it’s not, its Mam.
Lisa: She was a very charismatic figure. Beautiful woman. Her story, her personal story, which she wrote in her autobiography, talks about how she was trafficked into sex slavery as a young girl. Spend years in a brothel.
Sandi: In Cambodia, right?
Lisa: In Cambodia. In Penaumpen. Then eventually was, she met a Frenchman I believe. Married him and was liberated from a life of prostitution. Then, decided to create her own foundation to help girls who were sex traffic situations. That was great, and that went on for years. She became the toast of all kind of very fancy circles around the world. There had been rumors that things weren’t quite what she said.
Lisa: Right. But nothing concrete. The only way you could ever have known was if you literally back traced her story on foot in Cambodia. A reporter from Cambodia, who had been watching her. A western reporter. Decided to write a story for Newsweek. Back track and, he claims, and I have no reason to think he didn’t, to go back, step by step with her story.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: It all kind of fell apart, according to him. The timelines didn’t match. She said her parents, she hadn’t seen her parents as a girl for years. A village chief in the village where she grew up originally said he saw her with her parents in x years. Those were the years she was supposed to be in the brothel. Girls that she claimed had been terribly mistreated, turned out. Like one girl had lost an eye, but it wasn’t due to abuse by a john. It was due to an eye infection.
Sandi: [Laughing] So it was all falling apart, huh.
Lisa: It all fell apart. He documented it step by painful step. It was really a litany of disgrace. That was in May. She didn’t respond to any questions, but her own foundation, which is based here in the United States, they hired an outside law firm to do its own investigation because they were concerned. Before the Newsweek story came out. Apparently the outside law firm came to the same conclusion.
Lisa: So, Somali Mam, abruptly resigned. The foundation thought it could go on
Sandi: But fell apart.
Lisa: But fell apart also. That was through the end of it. Somali Mam refuted all the charges in a Marie Claire article. Now, you’re at the point of he said/she said.
Lisa; Because the only way I would know the truth, I believe, is if I personally went back to Cambodia and I back tracked myself.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Lisa: You just don’t know exactly who’s right.
Lisa: But clearly, something was terribly wrong or she wouldn’t have resigned.
Lisa: The foundation would not have hired the outside counsel to investigate. So, something went terribly wrong. We thought was it, and then all of a sudden she’s back.
Sandi: Reinventing herself.
Lisa: Yea. Right before Christmas. She announced that she was going to go back in business. No longer rescuing girls as she had before. Instead, rehabbing them. Teaching them how to be self-sustaining. Employment opportunities. Trying to get them integrated into the hospitalities so to speak industry. Not the bad one.
Sandi: Right, right, right.
Lisa: But the Marriot type of one, which is a booming industry in Cambodia and a lot of these areas where there are runes and there are lots of tourists. So, that’s the plan now, but it was a real shock in the development community, all of this.
Sandi: So, there really is an eclectic type of reporting here.
Lisa: Oh. Absolutely.
Sandi: Which is really, really fascinating. Well, it’s unfortunate we’ve run out of time. [Laughing] We could go on and on. Your life is so interesting and the work you do so fascinating.
Lisa: Thanks, Sandi, it was great to be here.
Sandi: It was wonderful. Thank you Lisa. Join us for another edition of Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.