Q: How do you come up with stories?
A: I think most people asking this question want to know how newspapers come up with stories and not me specifically, because I don't always come up with my stories. Without going into too much detail at this point, newspapers come up with stories through two general methods: The story comes to them on the "wire" (when I started in 2000, the "wire" was an actual fax machine, now it's email, but it shows how old-school I am) or they go out and look for stories themselves. The degree by which the editor looks for the stories or delegates that part to interns, writers, and freelancers varies.
As for me, I prefer to not be in a situation where I have to exclusively rely on coming up with stories if it's strictly about building a long-term relationship with the publication. For one thing, my output will be limited by the ideas I have and I'd rather have more output than less. For another, I feel like a story will be less likely to be cut, rejected, or mishandled if it's the publication's idea and something the publisher might have covered. Lastly, it can be time-consuming to think of and research ideas. However, I can do both and pitching is what got me into many of my publications in the first place.
Q: OK, but how do you come up with stories?
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.
Q: How do you gather information if you're not a full-time reporter or at various times didn't even consider yourself a reporter at all?
A: When you say you're a reporter, what you're actually saying is I'm writing a story or working on a story. I don't misrepresent myself but I would say, in that situation, I'm interested in learning more about this situation and I have ties to or have written before for this or that newspaper. For the most part, anyone is free to gather information. I have used this method to either break into or write articles I wasn't previously assigned for the Fairfax Times, AOL's Patch News Service, the JMU Breeze (that cross-country story), and the Minnesota Daily (where I wrote a story about an entrant to the NBA draft, Kris Humphries, who seven years later became one of the biggest names in pop culture for his 72-day marriage to Kim Khardashian, I very much lucked out on that).
For the most part, you want to gather enough information to come up with a story idea and don't overwork yourself on a story that you don't know for certain will be printed.
Q: Overworking yourself, you say?
A: Yes, the margin for being underpaid and being decently paid is very thin as a freelance writer. You'll generally get paid by story or by the word rather than per hour. As a result, spending an excessive number of hours on a project will lead to dissatisfaction and lower pay (hey, long division doesn't lie) and being a good freelance writer is dependent on optimizing your writing energy. Don't be mistaken into thinking that you should turn in an insufficient product. What this means is that you have to focus your energy (be it story/article ideas, time, or effort) on what has the most potential to achieve your goals as a writer. This struggle takes on all sorts of forms.
Example: I even had to do a lot of thought into figuring out how to write this FAQ section. Did I want to spend more effort focusing on biographical details and even expand that into some kind of massive Pulitzer-prize winning autobiography? Did I want to break this post up so as to not strain the reader's attention span too much? Did I want to be to candid in these posts so that I could provide a very transparent inside scoop into my life or did I want to keep this more professional so I could use this as a cover letter of sorts when employers are looking for a sample of my writing?
Q: What would you describe as your skill sets?
A: I think young people generally are just encouraged to expand their skill set to as many things as possible. I could easily say “I write” but that’s a vast, vast universe of activity that encompasses everyone from grant writers, to lawyers, to supreme court justices. I think it’s essential to know exactly what your skill set is and what it isn’t. My grammatical skills also are not on par with a copy editor just yet. In fact, some people (half the commenters on this blog, for example) have thought my grammar was embarrassing and indicative of someone who hadn’t graduated 8th grade.
I do, however, specialize in reporting. Part of that is being able to write in the specific language (including style, tone, structure) of newspapers. I also am acquainted with AP Style and the specific ethical guidelines behind stories and after a while, the procedure for writing stories has become so compartmentalized that it’s second nature at this point.
I also can steer content, whether it’s my own or someone else’s content (i.e. managing writers), to match a specific tone. I thrive on collaboration and networking with other writers so that feeds into it. In addition, because very few people ever read my blog and I put effort into getting more people to read my blog or other internet columns I’ve written, I have become fairly experienced at this point in content promotion.
I also feel like I add creativity or an analytical mind to what I write and in some cases I write on subjects as an expert on them. The more I write on those subjects, the more of an expert I become, so practice definitely makes perfect.
Q: How do you get into the newspaper?
A: First, you need sufficient experience being published before. With internet 2.0, being published is a somewhat looser term, but there’s definitely a hierarchy. Opening up a blog or writing for a content farm (examiner, seed, helium) has far less prestige than writing for Premiere or Salon’s website, but it’s incremental. Writing on a blog or being published on a blog with high traffic is a good step towards writing for a content farm (sites like Examiner or Seed don’t take everyone) which is a good next step towards writing for something more prestigious.
The next step is simpler than it sounds: Just contact the editors, have clips on file with which to show them, and express your interest. Generally you will need to get their attention with a good pitch or idea for a story. Most editors have some need for freelance writers and even if they usually don’t hire freelancers, they might be inclined to do it if a very good idea came their way.
Q: Really? Every newspaper?
A: This doesn’t mean you should waste your time with a magazine that doesn’t take submissions, because those exist. Generally, you should ask what their freelance policy is in your first conversation with the editor. Don’t think that Time Magazine is going to take your article if you just have a good story idea. You generally have to have reached a ceiling before they take a look at you.
Q: Do you have to have a good resume?
A: In my opinion, the wonderful thing about freelance writing is that you rarely ever need a resume or go through an interview. You’re simply judged based on what you can do and whether you can deliver a story. Not to say that I have humongous ghosts in my closet or that I love this business because we let the scum of the Earth in. It’s just a better breeding ground of creativity.
This reminds me of an interview with cracked editor David Wong on the success of his site:
“One thing and one thing only: we decided that the world was full of great, undiscovered writers, and tried to create the most welcoming and open environment possible for them to come and contribute. There are no cold rejection letters, no one is turned away, everyone has direct access to an editor if they have questions or want feedback….
The Cracked editorial team was made up of people who had kind of banged their heads against the wall in terms of trying to get writing careers going, and the first thing we decided was that we weren’t going to put other people through that. If you can write, you can write for us. There are no dues to pay. We don’t ask to see a resume, and in fact don’t allow you to show us one even if you have it. Submissions are treated the same whether they come from a Pulitzer Prize-winner or an 18 year old kid writing from the computer lab at his high school. You can back me up on this – we just sort through the ideas as they come in, we don’t even know people’s real names until we are processing their payment.”
Q: So I sent a letter to the editor and he didn’t write back. What now?
A: That can be one of the worst things about the business. Editors can be swamped and have their inbox filled with potential submissions. This is especially the case if a newspaper openly advertises that they seek submissions (Washington City Paper before 2010 was an example of this).
One tip is that newspapers that aren’t as public about their submission policy might equate to an editor with less in his inbox and an easier chance at getting his attention.
At this point (although it’s hard to say), I’ve proven I’m a capable community news reporter and there’s little reason for an editor of AOL’s Patch News Service to reject me outright, but when I started turning to Patch in November about 90% of them didn’t respond. After consistent pestering a couple of them came through and there’s currently an editor who has only contacted me back two or three times over the last 9 months and forgot who I was in between those stints. At one point, he even offered me a story which I had to turn down because I was out of town. The point is editors aren’t necessarily rejecting you if you don’t hear from them.
If they give you any feedback at all, take advantage of that feedback to further a relationship with them, by asking if they have any other stories or what might be an opportune time of the year where they’re in need of stories (for some newspapers it can be the summer as ad revenues go up, for other newspaper it can be the school year because even if ad revenues are down, there are no interns). There is a such thing as overdoing it, but it is also ok within a week to double or even triple check on the status of your story.
This process of editor contact gets far easier once you have a story in. When I tried to get to the Washington City Paper after college, I couldn’t even get an editor on the phone. The first time I got one on the phone a few years later, I instantly had a connection upon which I could eventually write stories for the paper.
Q: How much of journalism for you have been based around formal education?
A: It’s somewhat of a misconception that anyone can just go out there and write in a journalistic manner. You definitely have to have some formal training in AP style, story structure and the news pyramid. In a way, it’s a language. I took 2 or 3 courses in college and that forms a lot of my basic education. Without them, I’m not sure where I would be.
Q: What about networking?
A: Networking is everything. When it comes to checking for a publication and it’s a good experience to write for them, it is infinitely useful to have someone in your circle of friends or contacts who worked there. They could save you a lot of time by telling you if that place is worth working for. Because freelance writers shift “jobs” quite often and work for multiple places at once, it’s much more important than someone who works a 9-5 job.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Sunday, June 10, 2012
In an effort to share my road to being a journalist and the lessons I've learned along the way (and hopefully save a little bit of time in the cover letter process), I'm going to do another edition of FAQ's about journalism. Please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to learn more about freelance writing and how you might be able to achieve your goals if this FAQ session sparks you.
For reference purposes, FAQ's about journalism stems from the fact that people find it interesting that I'm a journalist and often ask me questions about it.
Q: So you're a freelance journalist and freelance writer. What does that mean?
A: I have consistently been working on freelance writing in some form or another since around October of 2010. This means I am either spending my time in one of five phases:
1) Working on writing projects
2) Working on writing projects while searching for a job
3) Splitting my time between writing and an odd or part-time job (I've worked for betteredit.com, in pizza delivery, and for the election board)
4) Searching for a freelance writing opportunity (this happens when I don't have much on my plate)
5) On a PR project or working towards helping other writers get into the business (this is more of an upstart phase)
Between phases two and four, I am more likely to spend time seeking a freelance writing opportunity than I am to seek full-time work at this point, nowadays. I'm not seeking out the 9-to-5 world so much unless the right opportunity comes to me and I would prefer to enter a salaried job organically. Ideally, I would like to work for them freelance so that we both see if each other are good fits.
Q: Wow that’s so awesome! You’re my hero. I don’t like my day job and you’re so free to do whatever you want. How much do you make?
A: Hmmm, I don’t think enough to live off of. Although, that could change. Let’s hypothetically say that I don’t make enough for me to continue to hold your admiration.
Q: You useless bum! Why don’t you just go get a job rather than using that energy towards freelance writing?
A: Now that is a good question! A few different reasons: I’m attracted to the short-term gain of a freelance job rather than wasting my time applying for a competitive job in a market where my resume will be dropped into a pile along with a hundred other resumes and I’ll have to B.S. my way through an interview for a job I might not necessarily want but have to take because it might be my only option and I would like to eat. Worse, I wouldn’t want to take a job only to discover I might not be of use or not legitimately a good fit for it. That happened in one of my recent work experiences.
Q: Tell me about that.
A: Well, I was working at the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency. I was a management technician or something in Management and Supply of Department 3314 or…honestly, I have no clue and that was the whole problem. Despite being well on my way towards a master’s degree, I was hired for some random desk job that had nothing to do with my training or interests, I felt expendable. Wow, you’re a really good career counselor.
Q: Well, I'm a hypothetical construct of your imagination. If you went full-schizophrenic and I became a distinctly different personality, we could work something out.
A: Well, I wasn’t pleased earning a paycheck in that manner. With freelance work, there’s a simplicity and honesty to the business relationship and those are things I value more than a paycheck. I also feel that in freelance writing, I’m learning a lot and exploring what I like doing. I don’t think the 9-to-5 job world is going anywhere and I’ll only be more experienced when I’m ready to re-enter it on my own terms.
Q: So when did you begin as a journalist?
A: I began seeing myself as a freelance writer sometime around October 2010. I had just finished grad school and finished working for Census 2010 and the only thing I knew is that I had been living at home for over a year and wanted to move to a different city, but didn't really have a plan in place. I didn't know what I was going to do next at all which rendered me pretty unproductive on the job front, the moving front, and, truth be told, the doing anything front. I was immersing myself in the fall TV schedule and noticed one day that a writer who's name I recognized from the AV Club Podcast I downloaded (Noel Murray) popped up on the facebook queue for "people you might want to be friends with" (another blogger I met in cyberspace was a mutual friend).
I contacted Noel on a whim, and asked to be considered for a show they weren't reviewing at the time. I offered as a sample to post a review of "Raising Hope" within a couple hours of the show airing on my blog, so they could use that as a sample. He redirected me to the head editor who asked me to send him some samples. (Lesson: Find out who the editors are, and go after them. Even editors of websites that don't have highly-advertised open submissions policies [of which AV Club is a prime example] usually won't be able to resist a good idea if presented to them and IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK). The head editor of the TV site, eventually rejected me but took two weeks to do so, and in that span of two weeks, wanting to keep myself busy, I reached out for other opportunities, some of which eventually accepted me. Before I knew it, a couple doors to local newspapers and a couple other outlets on the web opened to me, that previously were shut. The opening of more and more doors and seeing new avenues for which I could make writing work for me has been rewarding.
Q: So did you write before that?
A: When I was a high school junior, I was looking to distinguish myself among a crowd of over achievers by doing something big and important. The opportunity came when I was at the local courthouse outside of a job fair.
Having never seen a county board meeting before, I was curious and went inside where I sat next to a reporter for a local paper. I asked him if they took interns and he gave me a card. I then got some bylines in the community newspaper while I was still in high school. This was kind of ironic because I wasn't on my school newspaper staff.
(Lesson learned: Now that I think about it, what led me to the courthouse that day is a curiosity to see and experience different things around me and that’s been a big part of both why I like journalism and why I’ve had any success with it.)
Q: So you’ve been doing journalism your whole life since then?
A: Not exactly. Journalism was one of a few things I was interested in when I arrived at college. In my first college, I took two or three journalism courses. That was my main formal education in the process which, make no mistake, has been pretty much the foundation through which I've gotten everything else. (Lesson learned: A little bit of formal education goes along way. One must definitely learn AP Style, the basic structure of a newspapers and the reasons behind why news stories get published in order to get published yourself). I tried to make a dent in the school paper without much success, before deciding on geography as a major. When I transferred to my second college, I was eager to take on a minor in journalism but discovered it had been abolished. I decided the best way to cope with my disappointment in these new surroundings was to reinvent myself and because I had messed around with writing movie reviews on imdb and had a strong interest in film history, I would take a minor in film studies.
I wasn’t initially planning on writing for the school newspaper when I transferred to JMU. I was a track and field buff and I noticed that the editors asked why they didn’t cover that particular sport and they replied that no one knows much about it or wants to cover it.. I said, what the hell, I’ll cover it and they were surprised and when I turned in my first article, they were surprised that I knew what I was doing and how to write a story and asked me to stay on as a beat writer for the track team the first year and although there were a couple slight bumps in the road the first year (I wasn't good at juggling deadlines and homework at first. Since improved), I got promoted to staff writer the second year and working the style department.
Q: After that, is it smooth sailing to a career in journalism and freelance writing?
A: Not really. It took about four years. Out of college, I was hired to be a film critic for a newspaper in Takoma Park. To do this, I went to 50states.com, looked up every newspaper in Maryland and Virginia and just called them all until I reached somewhere (Lesson: If I had to have done this again, I would have gone to the Virginia Press Association's Website where they have a convenient listing of nearly every newspaper in the state). Anyways, I was dropped before anything I wrote was ever published or I was ever paid. I didn’t know whether I wanted to continue with journalism but I wanted to at least find a way to professionally publish the movie reviews I’d written for the first newspaper. About six months later, I got hired to write for NBC 4’s DC Scene as an unpaid contributor. They published nearly everything I submitted including some of those early movies I reviewed (by then, they weren't in the theater but on DVD), gave my writing a professional editing job (Maggie from Minnesota was my assigned editor, my first random writing friend [Lesson: Networking with other writers is the lifeblood that keeps you going]), and put everything on a website with the logo NBC 4 under it.
For the most part, I saw writing as an option and though I kept a blog, I saw myself as an aspiring geographer and a year later, a grad student who aspired to a job in that field after he graduated. Between when I got hired from NBC and approximately 4 years out of college, I was hoping to be employed at a job and it was between stints at jobs-a couple rounds of substitute teaching, a relief worker in New Orleans, a long-term intern at a traffic planning company, a desk drone for the department of defense, a practicum for AARP- that I would go after journalism and give it a shot to make some money. I even botched my opportunity to be published at one newspaper because I got hired by a job and subsequently stopped writing my story for them.
I did have a few articles published in various places here and there over that span and was put in charge of uboast's job blog in addition to getting a column at examiner.com. It was mostly a matter of steadiness in the work that kept me from really being attached to journalism in the first four years.