Meet Rita Rubin, medical reporter for USA Today.
Tell us about your dream assignment.
I think I have had at least one dream assignment. Maybe two. Many years ago, I got to go to Stockholm to cover the Nobel Prize ceremonies, because two doctors from the medical school in Dallas were the first to win one for research conducted in Texas, which was a pretty big deal there. To top it off, one of the morning papers ended up running a photo of me dancing with one of the Dallas laureates at the ball after the awards ceremony and banquet. See, back then, at least, unmarried laureates couldn’t bring a date to the Nobel festivities. A recent dream assignment: Interview Dennis Quaid. In person. Yes, his dimples really are that deep, his teeth that perfect. Yes, he really is that charming. And yes, he really has done his homework about the cause to which he and his wife are deeply committed: preventing medical errors. As for dream assignments I haven’t yet done, they’d be any assignments in which I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to have enough space to tell it.
Describe the wackiest story you’ve written.
I’m not sure anything I’ve written in recent years qualifies as wacky. Autism, addiction, genetic testing, drug safety and the FDA, infertility, and pregnancy, a pretty representative sampling of the subjects I cover, aren’t exactly riotous. I’m definitely open to medical stories with a humorous slant, but they’re hard to find.
Okay, I just thought of a wacky story that’s really going to date me. And it wasn’t a medical story. It was my turn to work as a general assignment reporter one Sunday in Columbus. My assignment: Try to buy a Cabbage Patch Doll (I told you this would date me) at Target, which had announced it had received a new shipment of the highly sought-after dolls. They were to go on sale when the store opened that Sunday, probably at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. After dinner Saturday night, I asked my boyfriend to swing by the store, because I was curious to see whether people were lining up already to snare that year’s hottest Christmas gift for their favorite child. They were. There was no way I was going to spend the night in the Target parking lot. I returned maybe an hour before the store opened and got in line, figuring all the dolls would be sold before I got inside. To my amazement, I was mistaken. I got a baby boy with a face only a mother could love and then, after chatting with some of the other victors, returned to the newspaper office to write my story. But first, the photographer wanted to shoot the doll. For fun, I thought, he took a few of me hoisting the Cabbage Patch baby up in the air and grinning at it like a besotted mother. I was shocked when one of those photos ended up on Page 1 the next day, alongside a story that started out something like this: Little Johnny Cabbage (his given name now escapes me) was born Sunday morning after a couple of hours of hard labor in the Target parking lot. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering it was the same paper whose editors made me write a first-person story about getting ticketed for not clearing off the snow on my rear car window.
What is your PR pet peeve?
Pitches from people who clearly never read the paper and have no idea what I cover. Repeated phone calls to follow up on an e-mail. People who aren’t upfront about who their client is. People who think a USA TODAY reporter needs a local angle. People whose pitch consists mainly of a story by another news organization. On the other hand, I have only praise for PR people who have an uncanny knack for coming up with story ideas that one, fit in with topics I cover, and two, surprise even me. It really helps if they can come up with a perfect patient or two who’s willing to be photographed and identified by name (we can’t use anonymous sources).
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve been a medical reporter at USA TODAY since April,1998 — the longest I’ve ever stayed put anywhere. Previously, I covered medicine at US News & World Report, The Dallas Morning News, the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, and the late, great Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal.
I have a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (David Landis and I have been friends since the first day of college), and this year I graduated from Johns Hopkins with a master’s degree in writing. I’ve discovered I enjoy writing fiction and have actually published a couple of short stories in small literary magazines. I live with my husband and two daughters in Bethesda, MD, about 10 minutes from the National Institutes of Health’s main campus. Bethesda supposedly has more PhDs per capita than any other town in the country.
Follow Rita Rubin on Twitter, @ritarubin.