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Ethics, schmethics! (But, seriously…)

In behavior, blogging, business, culture, journalism, Media, travel, work on June 27, 2014 at 12:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust what you read, hear or see in the mass media?

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

Even blogs?

A Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans a few months back says no:

Their findings: just 21 percent of the people surveyed ranked newspaper reporters with high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Next came lawyers, tying with 21 percent, followed by TV reporters at 20 percent, then advertisers at a miserable 14 percent.

Just so we’re clear, here. I work as a journalist and often write for The New York Times, which sends out a long and detailed ethics code it expects all freelance contributors to adhere to. Interestingly, though, every freelancer — whether an artist, writer or photographer — is completely vulnerable to the whims of their individual editor, some of whom have been abusive indeed: abruptly killing stories, (which cuts our fees dramatically), or sitting on unpaid invoices for months.

One of the paper’s more challenging demands, for example, is that no freelance writer can ever accept a paid trip to write a travel story, (even for another publication or outlet)  — which leaves its travel section open only to people with deep-enough pockets to jet off to exotic destinations and pay all their food and lodging as well.

One writer, Mike Albo, lost a nice weekly column in the Times after he took a paid trip to Jamaica; he turned it into a very funny, and very accurate one-man show, The Junket, which I saw and admired.

Welcome to the economic costs of ethics!

Another issue the Times is fussy about, and which seems fair to me, is not interviewing friends, relatives or groups in which you have a financial interest — i.e. your brother-in-law’s fab new company.

On this blog, I occasionally mention companies, products and experiences I’ve enjoyed — none of whom pay me to do so. If and when I’m able to get sponsored posts, I’ll be very clear who’s paying me to say what.

So when I read or listen to “news” of any sort, I expect to be told of any potential conflict of interest, even though that’s unlikely.

If someone takes a freebie, then raves about said item or experience, they need to come clean to their audience.

I once attended BlogHer, an annual conference that attracts 5,000 bloggers. I didn’t much care for it, although it’s obviously hugely popular.

The reason I would not go back was the exhibition hall, where women thronged the booths to collect as much free loot as they could carry. That’s not why I write or blog.

It’s also not what journalists do.

trust-torn

Have you followed the excruciating behavior — and criminal trial it led to —  by UK editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson?

Here’s Ken Auletta in The New Yorker:

A British jury has declared Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and executive at News Corp., not guilty of criminal charges. She had been charged with participating in the paper’s phone-hacking practices, for covering up evidence, and for involvement in payoffs to silence the police or solicit their help in fetching fresh news stories. At the same time, they found Andrew Coulson, Brooks’s successor—who went on to serve as communications director for the Prime Minister—guilty on charges of conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Stuart Kuttner, the paper’s former managing editor, was also found not guilty; charges against some of the editors’ other colleagues have yet to be resolved. But a criminal case is not the final word on whether either editor, or News Corp., nor much of the British tabloid press, has betrayed the principles of journalism.

Ethical failures may not merit a jail term; they do merit a spotlight. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Sir Brian Leveson, a prominent judge, to call witnesses to inquire into the culture and ethics of the British press. A year later, Leveson issued a report than ran more than two thousand pages.

Other recent ethics scandals have depressed and dismayed many, like the discovery that Cambodian human rights advocate Somaly Mam had been less than truthful.

From TheAtlantic.com:

Now Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, is calling on Kristof to “give readers a full explanation” of his reporting on Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, according to a recent Newsweek expose, fabricated parts of her story and those of some of the alleged victims she advocated for. The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly, they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.

Kristof was hardly alone in promoting Mam and her initiatives. Several respected outlets, including Newsweek, have played handmaiden to her celebrity. Consider just a partial list of media-bestowed accolades: Mam was named a CNN Hero and Glamour’s Woman of the Year. She was included in the Time 100, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women—the list goes on. When stories like hers crumble, however, few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.

And this, from Salon, about non-profits who are also not revealing their own ethical bonsai:

Partnerships between NGOs and big-brand companies are developing even faster than those with energy and pharmaceutical corporations. Environmentalists have led the way, collaborating with, and accepting money from, big-box retailers and brand manufacturers. The Environmental Defense Fund blazed a trail in 1990 by partnering with McDonald’s to phase out the restaurant chain’s Styrofoam packaging. Today such partnerships are ubiquitous. IKEA works with WWF as a “marketing partner,” providing funding through the Global Forest and Trade Network to “create a new market for environmentally responsible forest products.” Conservation International works with Starbucks on sourcing coffee beans and with Walmart on tracking the sources of the company’s jewelry products. Monsanto and The Walt Disney Company are two other “featured” corporate partners of Conservation International (as of June 2013).

Executives from these companies also sit on the boards of environmental NGOs. As of June 2013, the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s includes Robert J. Fisher, past Chairman of the Gap board of directors, and Alan F. Horn, current chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. Neville Isdell, former CEO of Coca-Cola, is chairman of the board of the U.S. branch of WWF (known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) (as of June 2013). Rob Walton, chair of Walmart, also chairs the executive committee of Conservation International’s board of directors, which, as of June 2013, includes Paul Polman of Unilever (current chief executive), Heidi Miller of JPMorgan Chase (retired former president), and Orin Smith of Starbucks (retired former CEO).

Social and human rights organizations have generally been less receptive to partnering with big-brand companies. But this is changing, too.

I tend to be a fairly trusting person — until I get burned — as I recently was by a fellow blogger who really should have known better than to try to screw me.

I’ve sent her several un-answered emails asking her to do the right thing.

Many of you already read her blog, filled with cute personal stories and a you-go-girl! flavor. She blogs about writing and how to become a better writer and is very popular; last time I looked, she had almost 30,000 followers.

I used to read her blog and enjoyed it.

Then she reached out to me, after months of my comments, and asked me to teach for one of her on-line conferences. I did, offering my time and talent to nine of her students — unpaid. In return, she said, I could  guest post and promote or link to my own classes.

I fulfilled my part of the deal.

She never did.

What ethical breaches have you recently faced?

Do you care if people behave ethically toward you or others?

 

 

From wife to widow

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, domestic life, family, journalism, life, love, men, women on June 25, 2014 at 12:30 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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There is a woman in our apartment building whose husband will soon die, at the absurd and frighteningly young age of 54. Maybe it’s 52.

All I can do is think of him, and pray for him and her and hope his death is as gentle as it can be.

He is not 16 or 25 or 40, true.

But he is young — and he is dying from a brain tumor and he was a lovely, smart, hard-working man who will soon leave behind a grieving younger wife and a teenage daughter from his first marriage.

We were not close friends, which is why I did not visit his bedside and got the news of his imminent demise from a neighbor.

He and I served on our co-op board together, a true test of character and grace under pressure!

And when my second book came out and I was struggling with some personal attacks, he explained to me — he, being a lawyer — what an ad hominem attack was and, more essentially, how to fight one effectively.

His compassion and wisdom touched me deeply.

And all I can think of is that — through nothing more than the shittiest fortune imaginable — his death soon transforms his wife into a widow.

Niva Dorell Smith, a fellow blogger, knows this nightmare as well, although she was younger, as was her husband Kaz, when he, too succumbed to a brain tumor.

She recently published her story about it on narrative.ly, married only 11 days before he died:

Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.

I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.

“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”

The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.

There is no good way I know of to lose the man (or woman) you adore. To whom you once said — praying it wouldn’t happen any time soon — “til death do us part.”

My handsome hubby, Jose

My handsome hubby, Jose, wearing seersucker (a NYT tradition) for June 21

Just cherish the hell out of them while you have them.

The elusive mother

In behavior, blogging, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, women on June 23, 2014 at 12:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent, powerful post by fellow journalist/blogger candidkay:

Those of you who told your mother all your secrets–and reveled in stories of her youthful escapades before you came along–will not understand what I’m about to write.

I didn’t really know my mother.

I was born to her and lived with her for many years but I was not privy to her essence. By the time I came along, I think it was long buried under disappointment, sadness and a sense of propriety.

I was born to her in her early forties, the last of six daughters. She was, by her own admission, more interested in her career by then than in birthing more children.

Of course she loved me. She loved all of us.

But I was always stymied by her lack of disclosure. I knew only about the “safe” stuff. Her parents losing their house during the Depression. Living on her grandparents’ farm. Editor of the school newspaper. Navy nurse during WWII.

I could piece together a patchwork quilt of her life but it was quite threadbare.

This rang so true for me.

Earlier this year, I pitched a story to a major women’s magazine about how women with distant or elusive mothers find other women, throughout our lives, who nurture us — whether friends, neighbors, a professor, a co-worker or boss — instead.

Then the editor asked me to write, instead, about my own relationship with my mother.

I couldn’t.

In some ways, I didn’t want to, as she is still alive and the story is complicated. I chose to leave her care at the age of 14 and moved in with my father; between the ages of eight and 13, I had only lived at home with her for two years, most of my time spent in boarding school and summer camp.

But also for the same reason as candidkay.

I just don’t know enough.

My mother and I — her only child — haven’t spoken in three years, nor have I seen her, as she lives in a city that takes me an entire day to fly there. We exchange no cards or flowers or emails.

She is in a nursing home, a sad ending for a woman with brains, beauty, a huge sense of adventure and the private means to enjoy all of these.

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of  a national magazine; me on the right

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of a national magazine; me on the right

But I know little of her life and she rarely offers details.

I keep putting off a trip out there, for several reasons. But I know one of them: my fantasy that we’ll suddenly get close, after all these years, is unlikely and quite sure to end in my disappointment.

Like candidkay I became a journalist, and, like her — like many journalists do — I have made my living for decades asking total strangers extremely detailed and intimate questions, about money and sex and death and struggle and family.

And they answer me.

So I finally realized, it’s her, not me.

Do you know your mother (well)?

Do your children know you?

Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, US, work on June 16, 2014 at 12:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly

malled cover HIGH

Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.

Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:

She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.

Having written two non-fiction books, one before the age of social media – “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, published in 2004 — and Malled, in 2011, I’ve been around that block.

He’s right.

People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.

If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.

If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.

And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.

Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching  your next attempt shrivel very quickly.

So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.

Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:

Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:

How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!

I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”

Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.

I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!

If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.

In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.

I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.

And then, suddenly, it gets real…

In behavior, blogging, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 11, 2014 at 3:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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It was a sad, sudden shock to read this from a fellow blogger recently:

It’s raining, and the sky is overcast.  I cried.

I woke up to an empty apartment.  The water leaking from the ceiling is hitting a tin bucket, sending out an echo.  I cried.

Today, I am not strong.  But I’m giving myself permission to feel it all.  And I’m not so sure that’s weak, either.

It turns out, losing what feels like home is much more difficult than I thought.  Buddy.  Georgia.  They were my home.

I respect him and what we had far too much to shell out details to a semi-faceless-web, but I feel that to move on, I have to say this “out loud”; Georgia and I have gone our separate ways.

The blog, Key and Arrow, written by a young schoolteacher in Austin, Texas, has been a source of pleasure for me for a while now. Every Monday, she posts “Seven Things”, a recap of seven pleasures from her past week, charming and inspiring, with lots of photos of meals, her man, her dog…

Now the man and dog are gone and I, too, feel a little bereft.

The Internet is odd that way, all this uninvited intimacy with strangers, people we will likely never meet in person, but whose children and pets and lives become a part of ours for a while, possibly for years.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Some people disclose a stunning amount in their blogs, as I have occasionally as well, including infidelity, mental illness, family strife and addiction. The Internet sometimes feels like a safe place to park difficult and complicated feelings, hoping against hope that someone else out there will read you and say:

“You, too? I thought that was only me!”

Admitting publicly, especially to strangers, that your life is actually complicated and difficult takes guts. We’re not all perky and shiny all the time, and blogs that reveal little of the writer behind it quickly lose me. There’s plenty of that faux fabulousness on Facebook already.

But doing so also means trusting that others will read you with compassion and empathy  — not schadenfreude and voyeurism. (It happens.)

It takes trust.

I like that it demands trust, as when intimacy is met with kindness, friendship blossoms.

In the past few years, I’ve become friends with several readers of Broadside and plan to finally meet and visit with two of them, both living in England, this winter; both moved from reader to new friend after I posted this very dark and personal piece about my mother.

I find these web-created friendships sustaining, as sometimes people thousands of miles away better comprehend us than our own families, colleagues or neighbors.

Do you feel close to anyone whose blog you read?

Or to your blog followers?

 

 

Five reasons to freelance — and five reasons not to!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, photography, work on June 7, 2014 at 5:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I went freelance, for the third time, in 2006 after losing a staff job at the New York Daily News — but I also freelanced, by choice, full-time for four years right out of college, so it wasn’t a terrible shock to lose an office, colleagues and a paycheck.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, people who wrote for print and television and my father was a film director. No one had a steady paycheck or pension to look forward to and rely on. So it all felt normal to me.

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

Five reasons to go, or stay, freelance:

You’re very intrinsically motivated (i.e. you don’t need a whip over your head to get it done)

Autonomy ‘r us! Some people are just a whole lot happier not having a boss. And any organization, no matter how small, is going to impose policies and procedures, some of which are usually inane and some of which you might deeply disagree with.

All of which come with someone else’s paycheck.

You want more control of your work/life scheduling

Maybe you have children and/or pets and/or an ailing loved one who needs your attention as well. Maybe you prefer to work from 4pm to midnight or 2am to 8am…or whenever it suits you. Freelancing allows you tremendous freedom, within limits, to set your own hours and schedule.

I take a jazz dance class on Monday and/or Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 10:30 or 11:00 a.m — and no staff job I know of would allow for that. It’s fun and social and gives me tremendous pleasure and keeps me healthy. And I like knowing this is a bonus no job would offer.

I also take as much vacation, whenever possible; my husband, even after 30 years at the Times, must request his vacation time in early January and defer to those (!) with more seniority than he.

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

You can choose a wide variety of clients and projects

Staff jobs, de facto, have set roles and responsibilities they have hired you to perform. Freelancers can freely pick and choose our clients and types of work, from quick 300-word stories to 3,500 word features to 100,000 word books. We can fly to another country to do some reporting or spend a week at a conference meeting cool people who can help our careers.

If you’re getting bored or have a difficult client, switch it up!

Intellectual challenge is up to you

If your personal life is crazy and all you have energy for is lighter projects, that’s your call. That’s a huge benefit when our personal lives go haywire and we need to lighten our loads for a while. When you work for someone else, it’s all up to them. Plus, your professional opportunities for advancement and growth (and pay) are largely within their budget, schedule and control.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Your income is your choice

Key! If you want to double or triple your income — or even just boost it by 22.3% — that’s also within your control, not something at the pleasure of your boss or company CEO.

Freelancers see a very direct and satisfying correlation between our energy, stamina, skill and experience, and the zeros on our tax returns — with no office politics and no bullshit excuses why you still, somehow, don’t deserve — or just won’t get — a raise, commission or bonus.

Five reasons to stay on someone’s payroll

You’ve got huge overhead you can’t quickly and easily reduce

If you’ve got multiple children expecting you to pay for their educations, freelancing is going to be tough. If you’re crushed by student debt yourself already and/or credit card debt (especially with a high APR), freelancing — i.e. not having a reliable income each month — can be really stressful, certainly as you are just getting started and cannot command the highest fees.

And many clients pay late (45 to 60 days after invoice) while some try to screw us out of our fees.

I know some people earning $100,000 to 130,000 a year freelancing, but they are not, certainly as writers in journalism today, in the majority.

You need someone telling you what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it right

If you’re the sort of person who craves routine and a structure and people making sure you have done the work correctly, freelancing may feel too loosey-goosey. Every single day’s productivity is completely your own responsibility, so if you’re someone who likes to watch daytime TV or Candy Crush, good luck with that.

Your ability to make enough income to gas the car, feed your family and take your dog to the vet are often the primary or exclusive measure of your success. Your primary goal is to find, nurture and keep ongoing and profitable relationships — not please your superiors and colleagues.

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

You really need the company (and input) of other people

Working alone at home is lonely and isolating. If you treasure your office pals and going out for margaritas with them, freelancing all day by yourself may drive you nuts. Yes, you can rent a co-working space, but you’re still there to work and paying for additional space, and not necessarily surrounded by like-minded folk.

Hustling scares you (to death)

Freelancers eat only what we kill. No, not literally! But we start many weeks, or years, with no clear, definite idea what our income is actually going to be. Sure, we set income goals — but clients die, turn into insatiable monsters we have to fire, publications suddenly close or trim their budgets and mayhem just happens sometimes.

Yet those monthly bills keep coming! If the idea of constantly seeking out, and nurturing, new client relationships fills you with dread, keep the day job.

You crave the validation of “I work at…”

A phrase that drives me crazy is “Who’re you with?” I’m with myself, actually.

The constant status-check of ascribing your value and prestige to your Big Name Employer seems, to me, sadly antiquated now that 30 percent of Americans work for themselves, or as temps or contract workers only.

But if you really like saying “I work for BNE”, then get and keep a job there.

The downside? If or when you’re laid off from a staff job, your identity — and your income, of course — may take a serious and unexpected whack.

How about you?

Which lifestyle suits you best?

12 things you should never say to a writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on May 29, 2014 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I know that many Broadside readers work in education — have you seen The 12 Things You Should Never Say to Teachers?

Here are 12 things you should never say to a writer:

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How much money do you make?

I get it — you want to be a published writer, too — and are naturally curious about the rewards. But  most book advances are now paid out over as long as four years — minus 15 percent to our agent — and the average book advance is pitifully small to start with, far less than $50,000. Do the math, and weep.

And because journalism pays so badly you just can’t believe anyone would actually work for those wages. But we do.

There is also so little direct correlation between work we may value intellectually — and what the market rewards most handsomely. (See: the best-seller list.)

Wow, that’s not very much, is it?

See above. While a few fortunates are pulling in mega-bucks, the highest-paid print journalists usually earn less than a fresh graduate working for a major corporate law firm. Sad but true.

malled cover HIGH

Are your books best-sellers?

Long bitter laugh. Only a minute percentage of books, on any subject, will ever hit the best-seller list.

Can you introduce me to your agent?

No. Maybe. Probably not. The agent-author relationship is intimate and fraught with multiple perils. It’s also a question of chemistry — the person who’s a great fit for me may be a lousy choice for you.

I’ve never heard of you

Here’s a sad little essay by Roger Rosenblatt on how un-famous he feels, even after publishing a few books. (You’re thinking: Who’s that guy?) The only way to survive the publishing world is to assume that your book(s), even after all your years of hard work and promotion, will largely be ignored by the public and bookstore buyers. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Will you read my manuscript?

What’s your budget? Assuming we want to read your work, unpaid, is naive.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Can I see the article you’re writing before it’s published?

Nope. Journalists get asked this all the time and the only correct answer is “No.” If you’re in doubt about the accuracy of a quote or some data, call your source(s) back. But allowing someone to review your copy opens the door to their desire to rewrite it to their tastes.

If I don’t like what you’ve written, I can ask you to remove my quotes, right?

See: on the record.

When I stop (doing whatever you do professionally), I’m going to take up writing

Awesome. Now go away! No, further.

Nothing is more irritating (OK, deadbeat publishers are more irritating) than having people treat our profession as an amusing hobby, something you can pick up and put down at leisure, like macrame or scrapbooking. It looks soooooooooo easy, right?

Wrong.

Writing well is bloody hard work. It’s not something you just “pick up.”

Journalism is a dying industry.

Indeed. Imagine how I feel after 30 years in it…

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I hate journalists! They never get anything right

Same with doctors, lawyers, teachers…fill in the blank.  It’s a big industry with some bad apples and some good ones. Don’t assume I’m unethical or inaccurate just because you’ve been burned by someone else.

You can’t make a living as a writer!

Define “living.” Your assumptions or prejudices may be inaccurate. Or your idea of “a living” means $300,000 a year before bonus. In which case, you’re right!

But what if they don’t “like” it?

In aging, behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, US, work on May 19, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin KellyBETTER BLOGGING

From The New York Times about our addiction to being “liked” on social media:

Walking through an airport newsstand this year, I noticed a novelty. The covers of Inc., Fast Company and Time all had female executives on the covers: Sara Blakely, Angela Ahrendts and Janet L. Yellen. I quickly snapped a photo and sent out a tweet to my modest list of followers: “Women on the cover. Not just for girlie magazines anymore.”

Then I waited for the love. I checked the response before passing through security. Nothing. I glanced again while waiting for the plane. Still nothing. I looked again before we took off. Nobody cared. My little attempt to pass a lonely hour in an airport with some friendly interaction had turned into the opposite: a brutal cold shower of social isolation.

A few days later, I mentioned this story to my wife. “What a great tweet!” she said. She then retweeted it to her larger list of followers. Within seconds, it scored. Some Twitter bigwigs picked it up, and soon hundreds of people had passed it along, added their approval and otherwise joined in a virtual bra burning. Though I should be above such things, my wisp of loneliness was soon replaced with a gust of self-satisfaction. Look, I started a meme!

We are deep enough into the social-media era to begin to recognize certain patterns among its users. Foremost among them is a mass anxiety of approval seeking and popularity tracking that seems far more suited to a high school prom than a high-functioning society.

It’s interesting where this stuff ends up — one talented young photographer, a friend of ours working in Chicago (who has not even finished college) — was recently offered a full-time staff job by a major newspaper after editors kept seeing his excellent work on Instagram.

Here is his astonishing collection of photos of a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans in a recent New York Times travel section. Go, Alex!

Do you care if people “like” your posts on Instagram or Reddit or Facebook or Pinterest?

Do you get re-tweeted?

Or does “real life” still matter more (or as much) as approval on social media?

Anxiety is toxic and contagious — chill out!

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, urban life, US, work on May 5, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You have no excuse to bully others. None.

You have no excuse to bully others. None.

 

Last week brought two unprecedented experiences in my 30 years as a freelance journalist.

Two editors each apologized to me by email. One had driven me nuts with micro-managing while the other snapped my head off verbally and hung up on me for daring to (politely) argue my point.

Yes,  I could have shrugged it off. But I didn’t.

Being repeatedly subjected to others’ anxiety and unmoderated rage leaves me shaking head to toe.

When I told a third editor — also a veteran of our industry — her reaction shocked me a little, because such incivility is something we’re all just supposed to ignore and shrug off.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “Many people would not have apologized.”

Why is it our job to absorb, ignore or deflect your toxic anxiety?

People in my industry, and in many others, are running so scared that many are behaving like terrified toddlers lost in a sea of unfamiliar knees at Disneyworld.

The sexy new word for this latest debacle of American employment-at-will — (i.e. they can fire you anytime, anywhere for any reason at all. No reason, even! And the law makes it impossible for you to sue or claim redress. Yay capitalism!)precariat.

From The New York Times:

Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.

These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to the British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.

The American Precariat seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities.

Here’s a link to Standing’s 2011 book, which I want to read.

In my industry one-third have lost our jobs since 2008, most of which are not coming back. So those left employed are clutching their staff positions like a drowning man with a life-vest. They’re freaked out by anything or anyone that threatens their hold — literally — on the upper middle class.

I get it! A midlife, mid-career drop in income is deeply unpleasant.

But this widespread free-floating work-related anxiety feels toxic, whether coming from other freelancers — some of whom seem to tremble in the corner most of the time, persuaded they have zero bargaining power, too terrified to negotiate better rates or contracts — or bad-tempered staff editors.

My recent eight-day working trip to Nicaragua, even working long days in 95 degree heat, was totally different. We were treated with kindness, respect and welcome.

It made me viscerally understand that many journalists (many workers!) are becoming accustomed to being treated rudely and roughly.

That’s crazy. And I came home with a much clearer sense of this.

So people, it’s time to get a grip on your anxiety:

Meditate. Move to a cheaper place. Do whatever it takes to lower your living expenses. Work three jobs if necessary, and bulk up your savings so if you get canned or face a dry spell, you’re able to manage.

It’s time to stop flinging your anxiety (aka shit) at those around you, in some desperate attempt to offload it onto those in even more precarious situations — like unpaid interns and your army of freelancers, none of whom can even collect sick pay or unemployment benefits.

We’re already stressed, too!

images-1

 

We are not monkeys in the monkey house.

The writer’s week: 131-yr-old magazine killed and a last-minute TV gig

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, work on April 27, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunday

Into Manhattan to see a fantastic play, The Junket, written by Mike Albo, a fellow freelance journalist who used to write a popular shopping column in The New York Times Styles section — earning him $1,800 a month — until he went to Jamaica on an ill-advised press trip. The Times fired him for a breach of its ethics code, (which is a long, detailed and fairly intrusive document for people not on their staff), and Albo wrote a funny, tart one-man show about it.

I meet an editor from a local paper, who comes out for dinner with us after the show; she mentions, halfway through the meal, she has a story to assign and needs a writer. I mention I’m available and win an assignment in the middle of our meal.

Monday

I have to find sources for a story so I turn to my two usual places: HARO, which stands for Help A Reporter Out, and my large network on LinkedIn.

Tuesday

Chasing down pitches made to a few editors, invoicing for work completed last week, getting ready to two days at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I’m really looking forward to seeing dear old friends from all across the country and from my own country, Canada.

Freelancing is lonely and isolating, working alone at home all day every day, and while writers talk often by Facebook, Twitter and private listservs, there’s nothing better than a huge hug and a chance to cheer each other face to face.

Jose’s 30-year-old duffel bag, which I took with me to Nicaragua and shredded by dragging it on the ground, comes back freshly repaired by manufacturer Mountainsmith, in Boulder, Colorado. Between us, as two travel-hungry journo’s, Jose and I have a lot of luggage!

photo(46)

 

Wednesday

I head into Manhattan to meet Linda Marsa, an award-winning science writer whose latest book” Fevered” is amazing. I have no specific interest in climate change, (other than trying to adapt to it), so I agreed to review and write about her book as a gesture of friendship. But it’s so well-written, deeply-reported and compelling that I couldn’t put it down — and when the NYT finally reviewed it, was thrilled for her.

I just returned a few weeks ago from Nicaragua and she had just returned from Belize, so — even though we’d only met once before, at last year’s conference — we had plenty in common to talk about.

It’s comforting and fun to talk to a woman as passionate and driven as I am, even after decades in this crazy business. I tell her I hope to retire in a decade and she laughs, kindly.

“You love this business,” she says. “I do?”

“You just have to get rid of the bullshit.”

And she’s right.

We go to a trendy West Village Italian restaurant for lunch and order the chicken — JW chicken. Who the hell is JW? The waiter points proudly to a man sitting two tables away; the chicken is named for him. It’s delicious and juicy, but it’s just chicken! We order a side order of potatoes for $9. Nine bucks! They’re delicious and crunchy but it’s a small portion of…potatoes.

New York sometimes feels like a wallet-thinning machine.

Thursday

Day one of the conference and I’m on the 7:22 train from our suburban town. I normally don’t even get out of bed before 8:00! But it’s good to get dressed up and meet my peers.

The very first person I see — of the hundreds who have arrived — is an old friend who is another science writer, Dan Drollette, who’s had a terrific career, winning a Fulbright and then working for four years in Geneva at CERN. I tell him I’m eager for more international assignments and he offers a fantastic lead.

Like every conference, some panels are better than others. Linda’s, on long-form narrative journalism, assembled three extraordinary writers who talk about the many challenges of reporting their books, including fear of personal injury, even death. It’s exciting to sit a few feet away from some of the best in our business and hear them speak.

Huge news — the death of Ladies Home Journal, a 131-year-old women’s magazine, one of the “seven sisters” of American mass-market women’s magazines, costing 32 editorial jobs — people who will now enter a crummy job market for journalists and/or compete for freelance work.

My husband, photo editor for The New York Times business section, runs photos with a fun story about companies whose products have sassy names, like this cereal, made in the same small British Columbia town where my mother lived for years.

photo(47)

Friday

At the conference, I run into a writer from Montreal I met there in February 2013 who introduces me to a blogger from North Carolina I’ve been following for months, who offers to help me with some questions. The Montreal writer also mentions a potentially useful conference in Toronto in June — it’s $1,300 though, a fairly huge sum for me.

The two days here cost me $358; unlike others, all I have to do is take the commuter train in ($20) and walk two blocks, saving me probably $1,000 in additional airfare, meals and hotel costs.

Saturday

Having a horrible time lining up a final source for another story due two days after that one. I keep finding people and they keep refusing to participate. That’s unusual and stressful. I can’t write without sources!

At 11:15 a.m. — I’m fried from a busy week and ready to chill out — the phone rings.

It’s Al Jazeera America, doing a segment on American gun culture, seeking an expert to speak on television today at 4:00 p.m.  We arrange for car service to come and get me, (normal when TV needs you, and it’s an hour’s drive door to door from my home), and discuss their questions in advance.

I rush to a local hair salon to get my hair looking TV-ready; they will do my make-up. Good thing I have a few clean dresses always ready to go.

I’m given 3:30 to speak — a long time in television — but the host of the show asks me none of the questions I’ve discussed with the producer. I give it my best anyway, buy a bag of sugared peanuts from a street vendor, then slip back into the waiting car.

Time to go home and eat Jose’s fried chicken.

 

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