Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some more FAQs

Q: How do you get stories?

A: A: Well, I wouldn't say I go out story-hunting or that I even go out more than the average person. When I do go out, however, I do keep my eyes open. It's not a conscious thing at this point either. After doing this a while, I just have an internal mechanism when I see something story-worthy that goes off in my head with the thought: "That would be a good story" and I might proceed to get more information if I feel like it. Even in the time period since graduating from college where I haven't considered myself a journalist, I might have gone about the information gathering part if the story was good enough.

Another way of collecting stories is getting on a media lists. You can call most organizations and ask to be on an email feed that sends out all their press releases. The downside is you'll get a lot of junk mail. The upside is that occasionally a really cool story will come your way.

Q: What media lists are you on?
A: Because I keep a column on the film industry in Washington DC, I have a professional relationship with the DC Film Office and two days ago, I saw a story in my inbox that led to one of the coolest experiences ever as I got to go on the set of Parks & Recreation (I'll stop bragging about that soon, I promise). I get about 4 emails from them a week that I don't use. 
I'm also on the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and Arlington Arts Center media lists because I wrote stories on both of them.
I'm also on the USATF (US Association of Track and Field) media list and I would give you advice on how to get on it but I have no idea how I got on it myself (I have considerable experience reporting on track and field but not in any big enough way for the USATF to possibly take notice). For a while this past Spring, I would get invited every week to interview Olympic athletes in a telephone conference call with other professionals. I had absolutely zero outlets that would publish a story by me about Olympic hurdlers (I'm mostly localized) but it was a good experience to participate in the teleconference to learn what other reporters would ask a hurdler or a discuss thrower en route to the Olympics. That's more of a story than anything else. Sorry for the tangent

Summary: Media lists are good. They don't always let you on them but it never hurts to ask. Also be prepared for junk mail.

Q: What's all this about branding?
A: Branding is the idea of having your own voice and point of view which you bring. Some people (Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post) have said that branding is BS. I don't know whether I agree with Weingarten entirely but I don't worry about my "voice" at all and would find the process distracting if I started worrying about it now. There's a small chance that I might be wrong about this and that I should pay attention to my voice. I currently like not worrying about it.

I just try to write well and match the style of who I'm writing for. When you're writing publications are as diverse as a website for men, a magazine for woman (it was called fab and curvy, halted in preproduction), corporate clients, community reporting, and snarky humor websites, you definitely can't have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Q: How cool is to have your name in the byline?

A: It's moderately embarrassing now that I say this out loud, but occasionally it has been cool to impress someone (often a random person) reading my article by pointing out that I wrote it.

On the whole, however, I'm pretty used to it by now and there are usually a lot of larger concerns that are at stake such as whether I'm compensated for it properly, whether it's good, whether it's distributed properly, whether it's legitimately my article (I'll explain this in a second) to the point where I would gladly sign a lifelong contract to write every anonymously if some of the other stuff was taken care of.

I also don't think it's nearly as interesting to be in the byline as being in the newspaper and being written about. 95% of the people I'm writing about are more interesting than me, and I like it that way because I prefer to write about stories that interest me. I was in the newspaper three times in high school for cross-country races (by senior year, I was something like the 7th best runner in the school, I wasn't a star) and that was more thrilling for me, than the 20 times I had already written for that newspaper the summer before.

There are various reasons where I don't want my name in the byline and sometimes I use pen names. I might misspell my name by one letter or use my middle name instead of my last name. When I was writing for the website for men, I didn't necessarily want my name linked to it.

I also wish I could erase my name off the byline for various reasons. Five years ago, I wrote for NBC 4's DC Scene Blog when I was starting out. The NBC Blog came about because the person running DC Scene no longer had the ability to manage the articles coming in so he created a blog for us and even the blog started to become unmoderated, so we all got sloppier.

Some of those articles I wrote 5 years ago were awful. The good news is I've improved. The bad news is that my articles are still there with my name on it.

Lastly, being in the byline of a newspaper can mislead others into thinking you're successful at what you're doing when you're really not.

A: What does it mean to have your name in the byline?
It depends greatly. Remember, just because my name is there, doesn't mean I necessarily wrote it. Editors sometimes heavily alter what I write and often do it in ways I don't personally think improve the story, or worse, alter the story to such a great degree, I don't recognize what I wrote and feel fraudulent that my name is there.

I also have cowritten pieces which can be a greatly misleading title. In one case, all it meant was that I transcribed a debate. In another case (here's a long personal anecdote, skip to the bottom of paragraph if that's not your thing), I wrote season previews on the cross country programs for two of the three schools in Arlington County. The third one was the school I ran for and as luck would have it, I was named by my coach as one of the runners to watch for when I was interviewed.The problem was the editor grouped the three high school write-ups together with our two names in the byline. Can you guess the problem here? It looked to the rest of the team that I just inserted myself into my own story.

Q: I like to write but don't have the time. What do I do?
A: When I feel like writing, I try to capitalize on it. Usually, after I see a movie, I'll have the most desire to write because I'll respond to the movie and want to sort those out on paper. Once I do that, I might be in the flow of writing so I write about something else or something that I need to write.

I also try to write a couple different things at the same time or intersperse it with another task so if I'm feeling blocked on one thing, I just move on to another thing.

Lastly, I might write something sloppy on a message board or converse with someone about something. You might not like writing but you might like having a conversation, right? So I converse with someone online and then I start taking what I wrote and just cutting and pasting it.

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