Mark Caro has truly done it all: He was a star writer at the Chicago Tribune, works to train the next generation, runs the successful podcast Caropop and writes fascinating books. Oh, he also emcees events and shares the stage with A-list stars.
This is an amazing resume that you don’t see every day, but Mark is not your typical journalist. He’s also been a global cities reporter covering Chicago’s international imprint. The University of Pennsylvania grad also covered culture as a critic, columnist and reporter. These days, however, he’s proving that there truly is life after the daily print deadline with a variety of projects that showcase amazing verbal and written skills beyond the printed page.
I chatted with Mark about his podcast, foie gras and the follow-up interview he’s ready to do.
Dawn Wotapka: You spent nearly three decades at the Chicago Tribune doing just about everything. What does “everything” involve?
Mark Caro: I’m a curious guy and was fortunate to get to explore many interesting topics and interview many fascinating people. I was the primary film reporter and a critic for a long time, covering the Oscars (and post-show parties), the Independent Spirit Awards and the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals over many years. I started a local-music column in the early days of Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Material Issue and other up-and-coming Chicago bands, and I reviewed many concerts and albums. I interviewed and profiled such creative people as Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, John Cusack, Renee Fleming, and Yo-Yo Ma.
I wrote a lot about food, profiling chefs (including a three-part extravaganza about the late, mercurial Charlie Trotter) and dug into the controversy about foie gras, i.e. fat duck livers. My reporting on that last topic led to Chicago’s brief ban on the delicacy and my nonfiction book The Foie Gras Wars. My final Tribune job had me writing front-page stories about Chicago as a “global city.”
Dawn: You launched KidNews. What was it and do you think you hooked the next generation of readers?
Mark: The idea was to present the news to 9-to-13-year-olds (with room to spare on either side) in a compelling, not-condescending way. We got great feedback from our young readers, who had a lot of interaction with us in those pre-online days, including their movie picks, and older readers also appreciated our explaining stories in ways that the main newspaper didn’t. Years later one of my Tribune colleagues told me she’d grown up reading KidNews. That made me feel old, but I appreciated that the section had an impact.
Dawn: OK, let’s hit on the present. You work with Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. What do you do there?
Mark: I’m the editor of the website, selecting and writing stories about what’s happening in local news on a national scale.
Dawn: Tell me about the Caropop podcast.
Mark: I’ve always enjoyed conducting long-form interviews with creative people, so I created a format for me to do so. Some guests have been movie/TV people — such as filmmaker Judd Apatow, actress Amy Landecker and, coming soon in a July 31 live Caropop event at the club Space in Evanston, actor Michael Shannon — but most have come from the music world. It’s been a combination of performers (including members of the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, Talking Heads, the Kinks, the Beach Boys and many others), producers (Steve Albini, Shel Talmy) and mastering engineers (Kevin Gray, Bernie Grundman).
Dawn: How do you decide who to interview?
Mark: A lot of the guests have made music that I love, and I’m curious to ask them about it. I reach out to many such musicians, and I’m grateful to all of those who have said yes.
Dawn: Your freelance roster is impressive. How do you pick what stories you work on?
Mark: I pitch stories that I’d like to work on, and when an outlet asks me to write something, I’ll do it as long as it’s interesting, it works with my schedule and the pay isn’t insulting.
Dawn: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
Mark: Be curious. Approach every subject as being more interesting than you are: Don’t make it about yourself. Ask the extra question. Contact the extra source. Listen more than you talk. Don’t work for free.
Dawn: You also wrote a book about foie gras. Why did you focus on that topic?
Mark: I wrote a front-page Chicago Tribune story on Chef Charlie Trotter dropping foie gras from his menu — and insulting another top Chicago chef in the process. It got national attention; it went the equivalent of viral the year before Twitter was launched. The story also prompted a Chicago alderman to propose that the city ban foie gras — the fattened liver of a force-fed duck or goose — and the ban passed before being rescinded two years later.
I was drawn to explore the topic further because both sides made sense to me: I’m against animal mistreatment, of course, and consider myself an ethical omnivore. But the very few U.S. foie gras farmers also made legitimate points and some of the anti-foie-gras campaign’s elements were manipulative. It seemed like government officials making these decisions on the public’s behalf knew little about the actual issues involved, so I decided to educate myself and see how I felt at the end.
Dawn: Should I feel guilty about eating it?
Mark: That’s up to you, but it’s helpful to know where your food comes from no matter what you’re eating. It was striking to me that the foie gras farms would allow me to observe how the animals were treated, but none of the big poultry producers — where we get way more of our food supply — would let me onto their farms. But does that make it OK to force-feed an animal under any circumstances?
Dawn: If readers aren’t already blown away by your skills, you also emcee events. How can someone know if they have what it takes to be an emcee?
Mark: When I’m emceeing an event, I’m usually doing the same thing I did in newspaper interviews and do on Caropop: I ask questions and listen a lot. For what it’s worth, I tend to write out a long list of questions in preparation but if the conversation is going well, I barely look at it.
Dawn: What got you into journalism in the first place?
Mark: I always loved the opportunity to share my opinions about movies and music, but I also was driven by curiosity and appreciated being able to ask questions of artists, of government officials, of people doing interesting things. Being a journalist put me in the room with all these newsmakers and I never took that privilege for granted. I learned something new every day and never got tired of it.
Dawn: What story stands out to you the most?
Mark: I loved any story in which I got to immerse myself in new, eye-opening experiences: traveling to Russia, Italy and other European countries with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; having actor Gene Hackman drive me around his hometown of Danville, Ill. as he explained the origins of his mystery novel set there; tagging along with actress Jennifer Hudson during her magical week in Los Angeles leading up to her best-supporting actress Oscar win for “Dreamgirls”; and, yes, visiting foie gras farms in the U.S. (for the Tribune) and France (for my book).
Dawn: What is the story that you never got to tell?
Mark: There’s one around every corner. I’ll never run out of stories I want to tell.
Dawn: What one person would you like to profile?
Mark: I was part of a group college interview with Paul McCartney way back when, and I’d love to do my one-on-one follow-up already. Can you hook me up? [Dawn laughs.’
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.