Sunday, December 25, 2016

A review of my year 2016 professionally

In an attempt to step back and reflect, here's a look back at 2016 as a journalist, freelance blogger and writer for hire:

1. Richmond Style Weekly-My big pollution expose
By far, the most ambitious story I did was a nearly 2000-word expose on biosludge pollution in Louisa and Spotsylvania Counties in Virginia. This was a story that off-and-on took several months and involved pulling from nearly a dozen sources including a number of contrasting stakeholders: Representatives of the biosolid disposal industry, state legislators, people who had become personally ill from pollution, county government representatives, community activists, and special task force council members, This was all the more challenging when you consider I had no knowledge or experience writing on environmental issues and never planned for this story to involve more than a couple days of reporting.

How I Got It: The story came about when someone tweeted me about covering "biosludge."I had no idea what she was talking about or why she wanted me but because I had nothing to lose, I told her to send me an email with a press release. My mailbox was immediately flooded with passionate activists speaking in hyper-specific industry talk about an issue I had no knowledge of. The least that I could do for this person was to advise them to write a coherent press release that could be read by a layman and in return I told them I'd forward it to an editor. Apparently, the editor liked it and before I knew it, I was in the middle of a farm house in Louisa county next to a couple of goats and a group of citizens prepping for the fight of their lives against an industry of polluters.

Where to find this story: I still don't know when, where or how they will be publishing it, but my work is considered complete. When the writer gets the paycheck, he or she generally bows out.

2. Screenprism-Numerous essays on film
I was approached by Screen Prism to write a number of articles on film from an academic standpoint and I eventually published sixteen. A lot of my articles came from old term papers or blog ideas. The rate wasn't amazing because it was a start-up, but I do believe that I produced some of my best work here and I got to be a part of what I think is one of the cleverest film sites on the internet.

How I got it: I was a fan of the site and e-mailed them asking for opportunities

Where to find these pieces:

3.  Richmond Style Weekly and Gothamist: On-site coverage of the Mercy Street DC Premiere.

The creator, screenwriter, producer, director and principal cast of the PBS drama "Mercy Street" had a premiere in the Washington DC area just across the river from where the story was set in November of 2015 and I got to attend something that looked like the press junkets from the 2001 film "American Sweethearts" (and, I'm assuming real-life).

The experience was exciting and somewhat of a blur. I was shuffled into a room with the producer and screenwriter of the project and they couldn't have been more accommodating of the fact that while I did come prepared with questions, I didn't really watch the show beforehand. Then all of a sudden Mary Elizabeth Winstead entered the room dressed extremely casually and looking very much like a normal person came in and we mostly chatted about how I liked her in "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" sufficiently enough that I didn't even bother to see "Lincoln" that same year. Then I was (and I'm not making this up) left alone with Mary Elizabeth Winstead for about 5 minutes, which I found extremely surprising because I always expected some degree of security around movie stars. I spent most of these five minutes repeating my praise from the one or two movies I saw her in and we discussed her IMDB page (and no she does not check the comments section under her page). Then Lieutenant B'elanna Torres from "Star Trek: Voyager" came in (or as she is more commonly known Roxanne Dawson) which was a pretty mind-blowing experience and I had about five minutes to ask her questions, most of it which was used by things along the line of "hey, I watched that Star Trek show you were in!" By the time, I asked my first intelligent question, another person came to take her to the next interviewer.

In reality, most of these articles were written the same way I do most events, by taking notes about anything and everything in the environment during the actual event and interviewing key people afterwards. It was actually when I bumped into the screenwriter of Mercy Street in the lobby that I got a chance to ask him my better questions without the distraction of pesky movie stars making my mind go blank.

How I got this story: The story was handed to me by Gothamist after I pitched them some other TV-related stories they were not interested in. As far as I can tell, it was meant as a test to see if I would be a good fit for them. For a while, it led to some more work. In the future, we shall see.  Because, the story had a Richmond component, I "double-dipped" and pitched to RSW where I had done a few stories.

4. Gothamist: Review of Mustang and Interview with an Oscar-winning director
I got the chance to review one film for DCist but because Oscar season was nearly over by the time I reviewed it, and I wasn't ready to watch any 2016 films, I didn't really pursue any more assignments in terms of straight-up film reviews. I also got a chance to interview director Deniz Gamze  Erguven during the time period when she was nominated for an Oscar. These Hollywood phone interviews are generally done on a strict time limit with a watchful PR person on the phone. This was my second such experience in this format and the previous experience (interviewing the cast of "Archer") had gone extremely poorly, so I came more prepared with questions that were more neutral and disarming (stars have to be flattered a little more if you're a newbie on the interview scene) but it was still a very restricting experience because the 20-minute time limit and the presence of third party facilitating all your experiences gives you very little wiggle room to follow any sort of discussion if you have twenty minutes worth of questions. Still, a good experience and Deniz Gamze Erguven was game.

How I got this story: I asked to review films for DCist and was put in touch with the chief film critic for DCist. He assigned me one foreign film and I covered it well. The PR person at the screening mentioned that the director of the film was available for interviews so I took her up on the offer.


5. Cracked: 5 Real People Screwed Over by True Stories Based on Them
I co-wrote this which is a much more efficient way to author stories on Cracked. The editorial process is much harder to weather if you keep having to resubmit and resubmit pitches. The U-571 and Foxcatcher entries were my write-ups.

How I got this story: I was asked by the article's co-author for permission to do a sequel since I apparently co-wrote the original.

6. Gothamist: Interview with Members of the National Symphony Orchestra about "Mozart in the Jungle:

One of those experiences where you start to get butterflies (from excitement) in your stomach for weeks before the interview. I've long had a distant fascination with what it must be like to be a classical music, working tirelessly to improve your musicality by 0.002% to be able to edge out another similar sounding oboist in an audition to get that job security. The extremely exciting TV show "Mozart in the Jungle" and subsequent book awakened that interest and gave me an immediate idea.

Unlike the interviews I had with the cast of "Archer" and the director of "Mustang" the natural rapport between me and the two NSO musicians I interviewed became so well-established that any sense of constraint quickly evaporated. We soon became three people engaged in a casual but deeply informative conversation and when the time limit was up, no one really minded continuing.

This would have all been a great experience EXCEPT for one awful stroke of luck. My new recorder did not work. I generally take notes and record but I don't  write word-for-word when the recorder is on to preserve the flow of the conversation.

So leaving the interview, I was pretty screwed and at a position where both the editor and the orchestra's PR person had more power over my story than what was ideal. As a result, my interview got hacked from both ends as lines were cut by both parties and I watched some of the best lines in the interview get eliminated. If either of the two sides had a dispute or doubts, the editor played it safe because I couldn't prove the existence of these lines. I got positive comments and actually gained a fan in Blair Tindall herself who wrote the freaking book that "Mozart in the Jungle" is based on, as well as the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra but it took a while to look at the article and feel ok with it.

How I Got this Story: I pitched it and because the editor was a MitJ fan, she said yes right away

7. 10 Classical Musicians Who Lived Like Rock Stars
The show "Mozart in the Jungle" fascination prompted me to try reading another book on classical music book and the first chapter alone was filled with so many incredible stories of classical musicians who were either insane, ridiculously business-savvy or people who lived life on the edge. A lightbulb in my head went off that I should pitch this to Cracked. It got shot down. I picked myself up and pitched it to TopTenz where I did a lot of writing between 2011 and 2013. The editor closed the site off to outside submissions but because he was closing it off while I was in the middle of pitching, he made an exception for me and let me pitch again. This was originally going to piece on common town names but I pitched this Cracked rejected entry instead and with just a little bit of tweaking it was perfect for this publication. The upside about TopTenz was a lot more editorial freedom to craft the article as I wanted.

8. Skagit Valley Herald: 6th Grader Charity Jordan at the National Spelling Bee
Few articles have been as exciting to me as my reporting for the National Spelling Bee. I get to follow around a 6th-8th grade genius as they live through the excitement of being on the national stage and their family has the time of their life at a luxury hotel. On top of that, I'm reporting alongside representatives from every major media outlet in the country all rushing to hit deadline like a 1930's film. Everything from the catering to the press conference is ridiculously exciting and I've even gained an appreciation for the variety of words in the dictionary through this event.

My second year covering the event was entirely different from the first event because last year, I got more assignments (and more pay) based on how well my speller did, turning me into her biggest cheerleader as the rounds progressed. This year, I had an international flight booked on the evening of the second day and I got a fixed fee to cover both events, so on the off-chance that my speller was made it to the finals, I'd have to get a substitute, which wouldn't have been great. But my speller this year, Charity Jordan, was such an excellent character that it was hard to root against her anyway.

How I got this story: Good question! I was very clever here. I attended the spelling bee out of  a complete "what the hell, why not do something new?" mood with the secretive goal of networking with the Scripp's people. I ended up being offered a media pass without even asking for one. I even explicitly stated that I didn't have an outlet and was just stopping by and they gave me one anyway. I ended up falling in love with the event and resolved that the next year I would cover it. I grabbed a copy of the program and cold-called every newspaper sponsor representing a small city (so they wouldn't have the budget for a DC correspondent) west of the Mississippi (so the budget to cover DC would be extra long) and was independently owned (if owned by a large newspaper chain, they'd already have a DC correspondent) and got a couple offers. I weighed the best price and have enjoyed a multi-year relationship with Washington's Skagit Valley

9. Arlington Film Festival-Judge
I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at elementary, middle and high school short films and making notes and judging them. It was an interesting experience trying to apply the same methodology of film criticism to 16-second videos of a guy skate boarding, an animation short of the moon eating a glass of milk, or a guy waiting for a train (surprisingly, one of the better ones), but I adapted to the challenge. The general idea was to simply recommend how to improve.

How I got this gig: I wrote an article on an improv festival held by an Arlington County middle and high school and the guy managing it asked me if I'd be interested in judging


10. Nostalgia Digest Magazine: Otto Preminger
I previously wrote on the Mankiewicz Dynasty (see #7) and the Deeds-Smith-Doe trilogy and expanded an article I wrote on ScreenPrism ( into a full-fledged submission for Nostalgia Digest.

How I got this gig: I liked the newspaper and cold-called the office. Because they didn't guarantee submission, I was a little nervous, but just went for it anyway.

10. Worcester Journal: David's Gardens
If I remember correctly, this would count as my only work in memoir writing. The piece is about my grandfather who immigrated from present-day Iran to Israel to Germany during the Cold War and then the US (my family history is kind of like a "Where in the World is Matt" if Matt only went to hotly contested geopolitical zones) and gardened throughout. I interviewed members of my family and pieced together bits of his life. There's a certain cliche to linking his story to the motif of gardening, but it was actually originally submitted to a gardening magazine called "Green Prints" around 2011 (it was turned down three times after two different revisions). I hung onto it and used the improved copy to literary journals and I got paid a decent amount to publish it here.

I have a lot of pride in my mother's side of the family. They are immigrants many times over and have lived on several different continents and this was a nice way to explore that backstory more.

How I got this gig: The International Association of Professional Writers and Editors has a journal that I subscribed to and this was one of the articles at the top of my list for great stuff


11. Gothamist: LGBT Rally
I dropped everything one Thursday to head to the Capital Grounds on Washington and do a story on spec which means if the editor doesn't like it, I don't get paid and my work doesn't get published. So lots of risk considering news coverage isn't like creating fiction: If you show up and put effort towards covering something that isn't newsworthy, you can't suddenly re-engineer what's in front of you to make it so. Fortunately, things worked out pretty well. A queer (this was the way he described his own form of activism) activist invited people to dance in front of the capitol to reduce gun violence and gay discrimination. It was bizarre, beautiful, photo-friendly, and ultimately fun thing to be a bystander of? Were these guys effective at making changes? Probably no more or no less than anyone else who tried to do anything in this crazy political year.

This was the second photo essay I've done for Gothamist and considering that my last photo essay got erased from the internet when went under, I'm kind of happy.

How I got this gig: A friend of mine on facebook had an event they were going to that caught my attention. I configure my facebook feed to notify me of announcements by certain active friends and certain arts institutions in the area.


12. and RunBlogRun: Rio Olympic Coveage
I wrote three Olympic-themed articles for the Rio Olympics which is a tradition for me since track and field and the Olympics are a beat of me, so my work load and demand spikes every two years. In fact, I got contacted through LinkedIn to contribute to a radio station in Saint Louis this past July that never panned out. One article was about the quest for the four-minute mile which was meant to span the entirety of mile records through recorded time, but ended up being edited by the people above to focus on the quest to break the four-minute mile. The second was about the first American Olympic team to the Athens Olympics and I got to the Library of Congress to research this. The last one was just some feelings I had after watching a week of watching Americans dominate in track and field. I was extremely lucky to sell that the next day for RunBlogRun.

How I got the Link: During the 2012 Olympics, I tweeted out to Mental Floss on Twitter (after applying) that I never heard back from him, and he was looking for Olympic coverage right then and there, so I got into Mental Floss Magazine. Four years later, they redirected me to TodayIFoundOut.


13. RunBlogRun: Interview with the World's Foremost Olympic Historian
In the run-up to the Sochi Games, I decided I was going to interview David Wallechinsky who had written the definitive and most-quoted historical reference texts to the Olympic Games. As an Olympic junkee, I owned both his complete history of the Summer and the Winter Olympics and decided it must be easier to track down an Olympic historian than, say, Michael Phelps. The first time I talked to him, I found him not just amenable to speaking, but I also found his story behind the story (how exactly he got around to writing these books) more interesting than the story itself which is the jackpot. I pitched this around in 2014 and it wasn't until 2016 that I actually got around to getting someone on board this story after making contact with Run Blog Run. I interviewed Wallechinsky in a shopping mall with a tape recorder pressed against the receiver on speakerphone and the volume turned on max so his voice could carry through the mall muzak, and it worked.

Link: This was turned in pretty recently and hasn't made it up yet

14. Northern Virginia Magazine: Arlington's Other Cemetery
Arlington is famous for Arlington National Cemetery, but there is also another cemetery in Arlington with an interesting history. Columbia Gardens Cemetery was initially founded in 1917 to receive the overfill of Arlington Cemetery, but that plan never came to fruition. Instead, the cemetery remained in private hands with one family continuously serving as the caretaker for four generations. This particularly family goes back nine generations in Arlington County and has a history that is even intertwined with Robert E Lee.

This was another article that took several years to realize. The article was originally researched in 2013 and pulled because the original subject of the article was nearing retirement and didn't want the status of the cemetery publicized. When I called a couple years later, the new cemetery caretaker was actually welcoming of publicity as she was planning for the 100 year anniversary. I also got an assist from a local cemetery historian who gave me a tour.

How I got the gig: The story came about with a suggestion from a job counselor and the fact that the cemetery's 2013 caretaker lived next door to my parents (and the house that I used to live in), and I was vaguely aware that he had a strong local connection.

Link: Gotta buy the magazine. I'm on page 10 of the January Issue

15. Washington Post: Street Scene of Bolivian Food
Bolivian food has had an uphill battle marketing itself to Northern Virginia residents because their food is so different to American palates. In contrast, Peruvian food sells very well despite their being fewer Peruvians in the area. I decided to pursue this in an article around 2015 for Northern Virginia Magazine and found some interesting conclusions when I went to a particular restaurant owned by an extended Bolivian family and learned their story.
The story never materialized because of the lack of a newsworthy angle and NVM was looking for more of a trend beyond a single restaurant. A year later, Washington Post was looking for stories for a feature called "Street Scene" that was more about a scene piece than a newsworthy peg. My story fit in here better.
Unfortunately, my story is currently in flux as any conflicts of interest are being vetted out (I did work for a real estate firm that has a connection to someone at the restaurant).

How I got the gig: I attended a dinner with a couple of Washington Post editors and we all went around the room and talked about story ideas at which point I had some stuff that was pretty fully formed. I also bought some pitches along on paper that I handed to an editor.

16. DiMaVi Realty. Black Acre & Jobin Realty: Real Estate Writing and Research
#15 seems like a good segue to bring me to some of the commercial work that I've done. I did real estate work for three different firms this year, doing a lot of research, biography writing or property listings and blog work and the like.

One of the links:


No comments: