Jana Meisenholder is an independent journalist, writer, and investigative researcher whose work has been published in The Atavist Magazine, Rolling Stone, Truly Adventurous, The Wall Street Journal, and Nylon, among other places.
She primarily covers character-driven stories about family, culture, and true crime and also reports & writes deep-dive long-form features. In early 2021, Jana launched Unearthed, an online publication featuring Q&A-style interviews with noteworthy individuals. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their two dogs.
Hi Jana! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?
Hi! I’m a freelance journalist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live with my husband and our two dogs (very important to note the second part––they are, after all, my esteemed colleagues). My work can be read in The Atavist Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Nylon, among others.
I also run my own online publication, Unearthed, where I feature interviews with interesting locals from the deepest corners around the world, but mostly the US. I’ve also worked on several documentaries in the development phase and am currently working on my next longform story!
Can you speak to your experience as a journalist in the Bay Area and how it’s shaped your perspective and writing?
I unfortunately cannot claim the “journalist in the Bay Area” title yet, despite the fact, as I only moved here at the beginning of 2023. I was in Los Angeles before that, New York before that, Australia and Taiwan before that… and then Japan before all of that (where I was born).
I would say the cumulative experiences in all these different places informs what kind of stories I like to tell, in that I’m drawn to stories about people living on the fringes of society, are “outsiders” in their community, or those who struggle with belonging and acceptance.
I’m also interested in reporting on stories that explore themes like family dynamics, trauma, relationships, and race. Ultimately, though, I am drawn to writing about stories of self-discovery and redemption.
Can you share with us an example of a particularly challenging story you’ve reported on and how you overcame any obstacles during the process?
Given the kinds of stories I am drawn to, I often find myself in rural and remote locations across America, and there is inevitably a lot of macho culture in those communities. In general, as a young female reporter, I don’t always get taken seriously.
To overcome this, I often have to assert myself in subtle ways: body language, mannerisms, tone of voice, phrasing media outreach a certain way. And of course, I add layers of protection in regards to my personal safety: I always share my cell phone location with three or more people, and I have two AirTags that I keep in my backpack and luggage.
Conversely, however, I do find that this kind of categorization or perception leads to guards being let down and, in general, more open conversations between myself and my sources.
What was the process like for launching Unearthed, and what has it been like to feature interviews with such a diverse group of individuals?
I launched Unearthed during the pandemic when it felt like the world was ending. I mostly did it to feel connected to interesting sources and keep the interviewing part of my brain active, and to also provide a platform where others can read their stories.
How do you choose which subjects to feature in Unearthed and what criteria do you use to select interviewees?
They’re local, unknown, and for the most part living in small towns across America. But they’re doing exceptional things for their communities or in their particular field of work. The criteria is simple: Are they living a life that’s so out there and so vastly different to everyone I know? Do their lives shine a light into a whole new world? Or, in other words, are they doing cool shit? Then yes, I should interview them!
Can you tell us about your writing process? How do you typically go about researching and reporting for your stories?
I’m driven by curiosity! For research, I find little nuggets of information and keep going down rabbit holes. It’s cliche but it’s true. These “nuggets” come up in conversation with a stranger, or something I heard while working on another story or project, or something I heard, period.
I dig through newspaper archives through my public library account, and of course go through social media to verify information or find further leads, but to be honest I mostly pick up the phone and either call or text my existing sources, or random people that I think would have more information. I’ve tried posting letters but it’s never really worked for me.
As for reporting, I always bring my recorder and record and transcribe all of my interviews, which I schedule ahead of time and confirm as the days get closer––I’ve never had a source ghost me, but I do get worried about that. I also try to interview as many people as I can, and, if my hands are free, I’ll scribble notes in the moment. I’ll also verify everything I hear or read with a second or third source.
Honestly, I just absorb as much information as possible on the reporting trips, talk to everyone and anyone, and then sort everything out much later after the “sponge” stage (which takes place in my hotel room or back at my home office).
What does your writing workspace look like?
I got a new standing desk that can be adjusted, so that was a game changer. Sitting gets boring. I also got a new monitor to avoid neck strain because I’m embracing the beginning of my 30s. Honestly, these are upgrades I probably waited too long for.
All my work up to this point was on a 13” laptop. If I’m writing a draft, I like to have a second monitor (e.g. laptop, iPad) with notes and the outline, to cross-check my structuring.
I also have a clock on the wall that I rely on instead of my phone, and some noise-canceling headphones I got two Chrismukkahs ago. Most of all, I have ambient lighting. I don’t rely on ceiling lights. I like my workspace to feel as cavernous as possible.
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