1. Interview with Greg Garcia, Northern Virginia Magazine (2015)
I looked up the relevant party on the CBS website and asked for an interview. My request came back with, “Thanks, but we’ll pass.” I also tried Yellow Paging Garcia’s production company and narrowed it down to a building in LA. The best I could do was call the building manager and he said he didn’t give out tenant information. My friend Will Harris, who has interviewed a ton of people for big publications, suggested that I contact Garcia’s talent agency, and before I knew it, Garcia called back. What’s funny is that he didn’t even know that I had requested an interview with CBS.
Because I wasn’t familiar with Bethesda, I decided to use that afternoon to do some scouting. Within a block of walking, I came across something interesting: a surf and skateboard store. I asked the employees a bit about themselves and they were amenable to having a story written about them, but I’d have to come back later during the off-peak hours.
While waiting, I walked upstairs and met a guy who owned an electronic cigarette shop with his three friends. He was generally amenable to being the subject of an article, but had to check with his business partners. It turned out that I only had to wait half an hour before his senior business partner came in. Then, I was ready to roll at pretty good speed. The shop owners were fascinating and generous people, and their self-reliance in building the business of their dreams was equally impressive. I got a sense from them that there’s a large subculture of E-cig smokers or vapor-smokers out there. They let me stay on their couch while I wrote the story over the course of an afternoon. I was also free to ask for quotes from people walking through the shop.
What I think is most interesting about this story is the circumstance by which Bethesda Vapor Company was chosen as my subject: They were within a block from where I started walking when I sought out a story. What gets in the paper and what doesn’t often has to do with what’s in a reporter’s vicinity. I thought about doing my next story downstairs at the surf shop (or at the diner I found a block away) before I considered that maybe readers would realize that I’m only writing about places within a one-block radius because I’m a lazy pedestrian.
I originally planned to run the Marine Corps 10K run in 2008, but I ended up not going through with it because my training got broken up. Instead, I volunteered at a booth, tracking runners for people who wanted to know where their friends and relatives were on the course. While I was monitoring the race in progress, I noticed that a runner in his early twenties was in the lead. I recognized his name from my time covering the cross-country and track beat for my college newspaper at James Madison.
Dumm was a UVA runner from Northern Virginia who wasn’t particularly impressive in high school but ended up rapidly improving in college to the point of becoming the ACC champion. I instantly thought that this was a great story and called a friend of mine who ran for UVA and asked him if that was the same Andrew Dumm I remembered. The marathon was run on a Sunday and I decided the next day I'd make a call to the Fairfax Times.
To me, the impressive thing about this story is how the cards all fell into place. Normally, stories require advanced planning, but this one came together really easily and quickly. I called the editor of the Fairfax Times the next day and convinced him to give it a shot. Within a day, I had contacted Andrew, his brother, his mom, and his high school coach. The high school coach was the hardest to work with since I had to catch him during the school day when he had a free period, but I lucked out pretty quickly on that front.
Speed isn’t the ultimate goal in journalism, of course, but considering the fixed pay of freelance articles, it is a very good thing to be able to do a story quickly. I also get a sort of focus when doing a story in one continuous bout that I wouldn’t trade.. Lastly, there are the issues of deadlines and timeliness, which mean that being on your game as a journalist means being able to do a story with quick turnaround.
Everything I pitched got rejected except for an idea about disastrous events in the Olympics (I tend to get obsessed with the Olympics every four years) that had some editorial note saying it was good but too late for the 2008 Olympics. Hey, that wasn’t complete rejection.
Four years later, I still had the research I’d compiled for that pitch, and I had published an article or two with Cracked. I re-pitched the Olympic disaster idea, but editorial put me through a tremendous amount of hair-pulling frustration as they repeatedly rejected different parts of my article and sent me back to look for more examples of outrageousness. I felt like I had combed through the entire Complete History of the Summer Olympics.
I was ready to give up when I pitched the article to Mental Floss Magazine during the first few days of the London Olympics. I had been pitching to Mental Floss for three or four years with no luck at all but this time I caught the editor’s attention on Twitter. Pretty soon, he got in touch with me and said he was in immediate need of Olympic material. We had an extremely good relationship and he let me publish my original article with pretty much complete creative freedom regarding which events I wanted to feature. This led to me publishing several articles through Mental Floss, including two more about the Summer Olympics and one about the Winter Olympics in 2014 (I strategically withheld the Winter Olympics entries because I anticipated I might use it down the road).
After I wrote my first article for Run Washington Magazine, I remembered this anomaly and proposed it as a subject for a second article. The article became something of which I was highly proud because I discovered a lot of new information along the way that fit perfectly into my article, such as the relationship history between Falls Church and its school district, and the dilemma of having kids double or triple up on extracurricular activities. It also helped that the athletic director, who was also the football coach, was very passionate and knowledgeable about the cross-country team and gave quotes that conveyed that passion.
The editor added a nice graphic but I felt he might have short-changed the article by insisting that a kid on the team needed to be quoted at the expense of some of the athletic director’s material.
I don’t mind admitting that Run Washington Magazine and I have parted ways in a non-amicable manner. My writing wasn’t a good fit for them. Translated in less tactful way, the editor did not like my writing style. Fortunately, Pacers New Balance loves my writing and continues to use my running material, so it has all balanced out.
I’ve always sought to make film history relevant to modern day audiences through my writing and here was a very literal example of film history’s importance: Why would a guy in the 21st century care about a feud regarding a 1941 film even if his grandfather was involved? By all accounts, Ben Mankiewicz is a very regular guy. He was a political reporter in broadcast news before being poached by Turner Classic Movies, and most will agree that he comes off as more of a TV host than a film obsessive. At the same time, he is a link to film history because his grandfather worked on Citizen Kane and his grand-uncle Joseph Mankiewicz is the two-time Oscar-winning director of classics such as All About Eve and Guys and Dolls. These connections make it all the more ironic when he introduces a film either of those two had a hand in with any sort of partiality.
I had already published an article with Nostalgia Digest but that involved previous research. For the Mankiewicz brothers article, I had to start from scratch. I checked out a couple of books from the library to just absorb and gobble up. I found a lot of interesting stuff, such as the fact that the Mankiewiczes were raised by a Prussian academic father who pushed them to perfection and indirectly led to at least three generations of incredibly successful people; the fact that each of the brothers had different vices (Herman had gambling and ego problems; Joseph was a womanizer with workaholic tendencies); the stories of Joseph’s incredibly life-draining shoot of the disastrous Cleopatra film and Herman’s early work with the rambunctious Marx Brothers, etc.
I started the article in 2012 and because it didn’t pay much, I tossed the project aside when another article opportunity came along. The savior here is that I wrote out my notes and printed them out. A year later, I worked from those notes and submitted it to Nostalgia Digest. Nostalgia Digest had a loose policy of never guaranteeing placement in advance of the issue because they had no idea how much space each article would take. Since I had already typed up the article, I sent it in, although I didn’t like the risk of it taking forever to run, if it ran at all.
Something fortuitous, happened, however. That fall, Ben’s father Frank Mankiewicz, who was famous in his own right as a speechwriter, passed away and his obituary was printed everywhere. This suddenly made my article relevant and it was printed in the very next issue.
When I looked into the hotel further, I found it to be fascinating for a number of different but linked reasons. The Americana Hotel and its large Art Deco sign were noticeable from the limited-access highway because at the time of its construction in the 1950s, that big highway was a regular road from which cars could turn off into hotel parking lots. The transformation from a normal road to a highway actually hurt the Americana because it could no longer use its front side as an entryway and it was much less noticeable from the backside. In the 1970s, a hotel boom changed the landscape in Arlington and today, Crystal City is dominated by some of the most glamorous hotels in the region. The Americana is the only relic from former times left on that strip. Furthermore, Arlington hotels are interesting in general because the Marriott hotel chain got its start in Arlington. I was able to tie the Marriott’s story into the story of the Americana.
With sharp editing, I wrote this all in about 400 words. I thought that was pretty incredible.
My neighbor, who was around 80 at the time, inundated me with great stories but had all sorts of preconditions. She was a bit of a worrier about consequences, as a lot of newspeople are. She didn’t want the names of her siblings to be mentioned because they didn’t have a say about being in the newspaper. She also wanted to read the article beforehand, which generally isn’t something that happens, but my editor allowed a special exception. We ended up using a picture of her and mentioning her married name , initially against her wishes, but she eventually acquiesced. There isn’t too much to say about this story because it basically wrote itself really well.
I can’t take credit for this initial story idea. At Connection newsroom meeting, one of the interns suggested writing a story about a guy at the 100 block of King Street who played a glass harp, but no one knew much about it. We walked all the way down King Street (our office was on the other end of Old Town at the 1600 block) and the two interns decided to break for either lunch or another story. I asked if they still wanted to explore the story about the glass harpist and they shrugged it off. When I got to the end of King Street, I found Jamey giving an incredible concert using water-filled glasses. He was incredibly friendly and amenable to being featured, and I got a fantastic story out of it. Moral of the story: Don't break for lunch because a more ambitious reporter might take your story away from you.