An Award-Winning Journalist and Analyst
Issue   |   Mon, 11/12/2012 - 21:01

Whisked away from her usual routine to cover the reporting of Hurricane Sandy, one might have expected Betsy McKay ’83 to be flustered rather than composed and ready to tackle the issue. But McKay, the Atlanta bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, is no stranger to excitement. As a foreign correspondent in Russia for the WSJ, McKay won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage and analysis of the Russian financial crisis of 1998. Although McKay currently works in a slightly less volatile environment, she remains focused on her demanding and often eventful job.

Kindling a Passion

“I always liked to write,” McKay said, “and I kind of knew that after college I wanted to be a journalist.” As a first year at the College, McKay joined The Student right away. She reported news, served as a managing news editor and wrote a column about campus issues. The Student provided a tight-knit community for McKay, and she found some of her closest friends in the newspaper staff.

McKay also formed close friendships on the cross-country team, for which McKay was a long distance runner.

“I always loved running in the bird sanctuary,” said McKay. “Going for long distance runs and getting off campus was something that really helped me when things seemed stressful. I would go on a seven mile run, along these loops that the cross-country team would do, and they were far enough from campus that you felt like you got to know the community.”

Though McKay’s journalistic ambitions may have begun at The Student, her love of Russian literature and language — which would shape her career — began in the classroom.

“Stanley Rabinowitz’s Russian Literature class was very difficult to get into back then, it was so popular. But I took it, and I just loved Russian literature. I felt this kinship with the writers and what they were writing about,” she said. “I double majored in Russian and English, but my real affinity was with Russian lit.”

Living History

McKay’s ideal job after college was to be a foreign correspondent. But the journalism job market was sparse at the time, so she decided to attend a Russian graduate program at Bryn Mawr. During this time, McKay met her husband, Neil Bainton, who was working towards his M.B.A. at Wharton.

In 1990, McKay’s path changed again ­— her husband had been offered a job for an American company in Moscow and the pair moved to Russia, expecting to stay for just three years. They ended up staying for 10.

“During those 10 years, I went from looking for a Ph.D. thesis to working as a journalist part-time, wherever I could,” McKay said.

Soon after arriving in Moscow, McKay joined a group that was starting a newspaper. This paper, The Moscow Times (named by McKay), is the main English language newspaper in Moscow today. After helping the paper start up, McKay worked for The Moscow Times as a reporter and editor. She then began working for Newsweek as a foreign correspondent and remained at that position for the next three years.

McKay had always dreamed of working at the WSJ because she greatly admired the newspaper’s writing. In 1996, her dream became a reality — there was an opening as a foreign correspondent in Moscow for the WSJ and McKay was hired to fill the position. McKay was writing for the WSJ at a very unstable time in Russian history; the market economy that had developed in Russia during the previous years had begun to crumble.

“We were in Russia during the waning days of the Soviet Union —food was disappearing from store shelves, there were political rumblings and the demand for change… we saw the Soviet Union end and the market economy begin. So it was just a really fascinating yet turbulent time,” McKay said.

McKay’s husband described her passion in the face of the tumultuous political climate.

“I remember when she was six months pregnant,” Bainton said, “and she was still going to the protests. She was very intrepid about it and not at all fearful.”

The collapse of the market economy led to the Russian financial crisis in 1998. McKay reported on all aspects of the crisis, covering its effects on the population as well as news from the banking and economic sectors. It was for this analytic coverage that McKay won the Pulitzer Prize in the International Reporting category in 1999.

“Because she spoke the language and understood the culture, I think she had a unique perspective that helped her report to a foreign audience,” Bainton said.

Success in the States

After completing her coverage of the Russian financial crisis, McKay and her husband decided that they wanted to raise their children in the U.S. They moved to Atlanta, where McKay began working at the Atlanta bureau of the WSJ. She was originally a reporter covering health issues, but quickly rose in rank to the deputy bureau chief and then, in 2009, to her current position as bureau chief.

As bureau chief, McKay wears many hats — she still reports occasionally, although the majority of her job consists of helping reporters determine which stories to pursue, editing and checking different newsfeeds to keep on top of the latest news. McKay assists WSJ reporters in figuring out the best approach to particular stories, as well as determining the forum for which a story is best suited. In her recent coverage of Hurricane Sandy, McKay has been balancing the demand for immediate coverage with more time-consuming analytic coverage.

“We once wrote stories for the paper; we’d spend all day reporting and file at the end of the day. Now we feed breaking news as quickly as we can to our website… We can’t do everything at once, so we have to prioritize in a way that will deliver news in a way readers want,” McKay said, explaining her shifting duties.

Though most of her time is spentmanaging the WSJ’s coverage of the southeast and of the six New England states, she occasionally reports on public and global health. Some topics covered by McKay include news in HIV/AIDS vaccine research, drug-resistant tuberculosis, childhood obesity and tobacco-related health issues.

Once McKay began coverage of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) as a reporter for the WSJ Atlanta bureau, she became fascinated by health and global health issues. Though McKay has no background in science or medicine, she has a knack for explaining difficult subjects ­— especially health-related ones — to the general population.

“Betsy is good at taking complex subjects and paring them down to what people need to know. Not trivializing them, but just making them accessible,” Bainton said.

Down Time

When asked what she likes to do in her spare time, McKay joked, “I have no free time.”

But, on the occasions that she manages to find time to relax, McKay still enjoys running, as well as reading and spending time with her family. She loves to attend her son’s baseball and basketball games, as well as her daughter’s concerts. McKay’s husband commented that she tries to be very present on the weekends and that the family spends a lot of time together.

McKay’s focused nature allows her to balance her hectic work with her family life.

“She just goes about her work, which is sometimes a consuming endeavor because when news hits, you don’t have a lot of control over your life… I don’t think people realize just how intense that is,” Bainton said.

Amherst’s Lasting Impressions

Despite her time-consuming career and being an involved wife and mother, McKay makes time to reconnect with her Amherst roots. By keeping in touch with old friends and attending reunions, McKay has kept herself involved in the Amherst community.

McKay recalled a particular occasion on which she spoke on a panel with old classmates and professors at a reunion. She remembered feeling truly impressed by the conversation, and thought to herself, “I never have conversations like this anymore.” The discussions McKay had, in and out of the classroom, were some of the most memorable college experiences for her.

Now, in her professional world, McKay highly values a liberal arts education.

“When I see someone who went to a college like Amherst, someplace really devoted to the idea of liberal arts and discussion and giving all points of view their due, I can tell right away they are interested in the idea for the sake of the idea,” McKay said.

The Amherst community still emits a sense of “home” for McKay. When she meets people, in both her professional and personal lives, who have attended Amherst, she feels a certain commonality that is “very comforting.”

“The nice thing is,” McKay said, “that when you come back to Amherst and visit, you kind of have this feeling of ‘I never left here.’”