Friday, March 07, 2014

How I became a journalist Part I

I'm a journalist who has published somewhere around 150 articles in what I estimate to be 20-30 publications. The latter is hard to define. My earlier resumes would count school newspapers, a community newsletter and a synagogue newsletter to back up the line in my cover letter that I've written in a dozen publications but now I have bylines in places such as Mental Floss, Nostalgia Digest, Run Washington, Arlington and Mental Floss Magazines; Washington City Paper, Santa Barbara Independent, Richmond Times Dispatch, AOL's Patch News Service, and nearly every newspaper in Northern Virginia.

How did I do this? For one, it's largely a function of time and having been doing this off and on for 13 years. A year ago I couldn't have called myself someone who's been in a nationally distributed magazines. A year before that, I couldn't have boasted about a writing credit on a West Coast newspaper, contributing writer status at, or bylines in Virginia's second biggest paper: the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Next month, I hope to be published with Deadspin and if you ask me where I've published a year from now, I hope to have a better answer for you.

The other key is finding stories. Let me go through my history as a journalist and explain how I got stories.

1. My first internship:
I was a junior in high school and wound up at a county board meeting outside a job fair where I was sitting next to a reporter who covered politics for the county paper. I chatted with him and asked about internship opportunities and that's where I got started. Unpaid internships (where newspapers require you to start if you have no previous clips) are usually desirable for cash-strapped newspapers because you're producing content for them and saving them money.

I worked in a newsroom for a small-town weekly about ten years after this internship and the place was teeming with interns. In my day, I was the only intern who showed up at the office that summer (although a friend of mine got an internship a couple months later with that paper but he trained on the school paper and was experienced enough to send in stories remotely. That friend, ended up majoring in psychology while writing for his college newspaper. He got a job that moved him into the middle of nowhere in Casper, Wyoming right out of college. A year or two later, he moved home to Washington and took a boring job writing manuals for some industrial training company while building up clips. He then got hired for USA Today after about 4 years and for the last year, he's been writing for his dream job at the Washington Post. If you want to know about someone else's job other than mine).

I thought this whole experience was a highly prestigious one and it blew my mind at first that the newspaper delivered to my home every Wednesday had my name on the top of it. The funny thing was that inside the newsroom, people didn't think what they were doing was impressive at all. At one point, the reporter who was assigned as my internship director asked me, "Orrin, don't you have anything else you want to be doing during the summer like go outside and play?"

Most of the story ideas came from the paper but I do remember writing two of my own story ideas: a tennis camp and a local artist. In the case of the former, I had attended that very same tennis camp. This happens a lot: Journalists write about what's in their immediate vicinity. In the case of the latter, I didn't write about the artist with any knowledge about what constituted good art. I just knew that the local library had two or three artists of the month and picked one at random.

2. Minnesota Daily
I went to college thinking I might possibly declare a journalism major and had one semester with a heavy journalism course load which included writing articles for the school newspaper as part of a practicum course. This is where I also got the bulk of my formal classroom-style training (approximately 2 courses) and I can't emphasize how useful that was.

Some personality clashes with the dean of the journalism program prompted me to declare another major. After two years, I spent a year in Americorps outside the academic world and when I returned, I decided to go to college out of state at the University of Minnesota. Because the costs were too expensive, I didn't stay more than one summer session but I did write one story for the newspaper that would impress my mom seven years later.

I was getting a ride to class from a guy who said he had been invited to an after-party for Minnesota basketball player Kris Humphries on draft night. I asked him if he knew where Kris would be and he called a friend. I had no affiliation with the University of Minnesota paper at the time but thinking this was a big story, I decided to be a few minutes late to class that day and look up the university editors email address and phone number. I spent class frantically wondering if things would work out. Was I going to be able to find the editor in time? Was I going to find the restaurant and convince Kris Humphries and his people that I was with the paper?

At the end of class, the library was closed and this was 2004 before the existence of smartphones, so I didn't have time to check my email and just took a cab to the restaurant in question. I got there and just asked if I could interview him for the school paper. They told me to wait at one of the outside tables while he came out from what was something akin to a VIP room.

It's also worth pointing out that someone who was drafted 14th in the 1st round would ordinarily be in Madison Square Garden and it was extremely unusual for Humphries to be celebrating with his family in Minnesota so I lucked out there.

It wasn't until the next morning that I was able to get in touch with the editor and the question then wasn't "can I write this article for you" but "I wrote this article for you, do you want it?" Since it was an NBA player, of course the answer was yes.

It was always pretty cool to me that I interviewed an NBA player on draft night but this wasn't as impressive for the first six years of his career when he was never better than the 8th man on many of his teams. Then he somehow caught the eye of Kim Khardashian and went so far as to get married to her for 72 hours which turned him into a tabloid sensation. I really felt like I made it as a journalist when my mom said to me "did you know Kim Khardashian got married to this nobody from the New Jersey Nets?" and I replied "oh yes, I interviewed him."

It's worth pointing out that the way I interviewed Humphries (not clearing it with a newspaper) is generally not advisable because it could be a bad investment of your time and it's hard to get access to subjects if you aren't yet commissioned to write the story. In the limited experiences I've had interviewing someone famous or highly important, I generally have a process of contacting the subject to see if he's amenable to an interview and getting some preliminary information from him or his press agent. I then use that preliminary information to form a pitch letter (convincing an editor to commission me the story) with the addendum that the subject has agreed to an interview. Limiting the initial interview to just preliminary information reassures the subject that I value his or her time.

That being said, journalists do pride themselves on ability to get access and I've heard stories of journalists going to extremes to get that access.

I also am now established enough that I can show someone my publication history or connections and they'll give me an interview.

3. Writing for the school newspaper at James Madison University
That fall, I came from the University of Minnesota to JMU because in-state tuition was cheaper. I wanted to pick up a minor in journalism but the journalism minor was abolished in the exact same year that I arrived.

However, I soon became a de facto member of the journalist department by joining the school newspaper.
I had been an avid track runner in high school and to keep close to the sport in my freshman year of college, I regularly checked a website on Virginia running to keep tabs on how runners from my county and area were doing in state competition. Going back to my old team's meets and watching them as a spectator for the first time opened me up to the possibility that track meets can be exciting to watch.

It's also worth noting that while running was my main extracurricular activity in high school, I was the 7th fastest runner on the team my senior year and 27th in my 7-school district but our district was largely relegated to the B-division in big meets. I remember watching an Oakton high school runner named Matt Maline break a course record in the A-section and wondering exactly what it would be like to run that fast. After all, I spent all my time running and couldn't even get to the top of my school's ranks and no one in my school or county was even allowed to compete against the best.

At JMU, I was reading the newspaper and noticed there were no stories on the cross-country team and the team sports being covered were less interesting to read about. I emailed the sports department and asked why they didn't cover them. They responded that they don't have anyone on staff who likes writing about track but I was welcome to write it myself. So I agreed and went to the cross-country championships about 20 miles away.

When I wrote the story on my own and it more or less looked like a news story was supposed to look like, they asked if I wanted to cover them for the whole season.

I decided "why not?" and jumped on board. At first, it was a relatively simple and stress-free activity but then I started covering track season and found things increasingly more difficult and I started hitting writers block. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect and when I wrote a state meet preview for Run Washington Magazine a couple years ago, it was a ridiculously easy 90-minute jaunt. To write a great sports story should take some effort but to spew out 600 words for a sports story to meet a deadline, should never be overly hard: The storyline's written for you (someone wins and someone loses) and supporting evidence is there in very quantifiable stats.

But if there is one storyline that is particularly messy, track and field is at the top of the list. You have to sort through over twenty events (many of them unrelated to each other) and pull out highlights and, if you can, try to string together some sort of narrative. And the whole winning or losing thing? In some invitationals, they don't even keep score.

I'm not suggesting this as an excuse because one can still write a comprehensible 600-word article just by paraphrasing the results, but I was an artist, damnit! No, I'm making that up, I just really sucked at writing up track meets with any degree of efficiency in my first year. I was overwhelmed by the large amount of information I had to keep track of. I had all these little details like runner's personal bests, qualifying standards, meet records and times and I was constantly scrounging around to find these details. I remember calling up a female runner on the team and asking her "hey, last Saturday that time you had, was that a PR?" which must have been a really wierd phone call for her. I also remember how I was bugging a friend on the team, Allen, at a movie screening an hour before deadline because I needed to double check his times and splits at the previous meet.

I also was visibly frustrated at the mandate to get quotes from three sources per story (trained newswriters ordinarily use their discretion) because as anyone who's watched a post-game press conference can tell you, most questions you ask in sports journalism are questions you already know the answer to. If I asked you how you felt about a race, the answer is going to be some variation of "good": The results clearly show you had a good race and if you did poorly, I wouldn't be interviewing you. If I asked you about a teammate's performance (a roundabout way to getting your quote quota), you're obviously going to say positive things unless you want to sour your relationship with your teammates. Rather than try to raise my game, I just sleptwalk through the process and it showed.

I also remember having an odd social relationship with the team that year. I was used to having a subject-reporter relationship with sources that lasted less then an hour. In this case, it's hard to know how to maintain that veneer when you're spending a lot of time with these people and are occasionally having a good time in their company. This likely was not that big of a deal but I felt overly defensive and tried unnecessarily hard to hammer in the point to everyone around me that I was there in a "professional capacity" which likely had the opposite effect. Ironically, I became great friends with a few of them in the years that followed.

I've since learned that beat reporting is an entirely different beast but it has its advantages. You can become an expert very quickly if you repeatedly cover something, it increases your desire to learn (I soon knew the names of nearly every top runner on the Eastern seaboard), and it makes you highly valuable. For instance, I wrote a story about a cross-country runner from Dartmouth some six years later. In a supporting interview, the coach told me that his team was one spot away from running for nationals to which I responded "wait a minute, isn't the field for the national cross-country championships determined by a closed door selection committee?" which caused the coach to retract his boastful statement.

This was a very small deal, but if my beat was something like nuclear proliferation, my depth of knowledge from covering the same thing over and over might have had the effect of keeping some Iranian diplomat honest about whether or not he intended to start World War III.

More to come............

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