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Posts Tagged ‘freelancers’

Letter to a young journalist

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, education, journalism, Media, work on December 10, 2013 at 12:07 am
This is what we do.

This is what we do.

By Caitlin Kelly

Inspired by a post on Small Dog Syndrome; a great anonymous letter from a nurse with 12 years’ experience to one studying for the exam to nursing school.

Here — H/T to Amber Hargroder — is a terrific 8:45 video of artist Marina Abramovic with her advice to young artists, much of which can equally apply to any ambitious writer.

The original is a series of letters between a young military student, Franz Kappus and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke between 1902 and 1908, when Kappus was deciding whether or not to become a poet.

I’ve been writing journalism and non-fiction books for a living since my third year of university, when I began selling stories to national newspapers and magazines in my native Canada. I’ve since written for dozens of publications in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, with staff reporting jobs at three major dailies. Freelance, I write frequently for The New York Times.

I’ve never studied journalism, but have taught it at several colleges; my class, “Legal and Ethical Issues in Journalism”, which I created in 1995, is still being offered by New York University to its adult students.

Here’s what I think every young/new journalist really needs to know as they enter this chaotic industry:

Dear YJ:

You’ve decided to enter a profession that actually isn’t one — we like to think of ourselves as professionals, but we have no licensing exams or board certifications or CEU credits.

Today, thanks to the Internet, anyone, anywhere, can call themselves a “journalist” and hit publish.

This is both a great equalizer and a dangerous challenge. It’s great that anyone with ideas and passion and access to the Internet can share them with the world, allowing people with minimal political or economic power to tell their stories directly. It’s a dangerous challenge because the fundamental essentials of journalism, however naive and idealistic they sound, are accuracy and trust. Trust that the information being shared is accurate, has been checked and vetted and is not just some sexy promo for a new product or service disguised as “news.”

Don’t work without getting paid for it. Just don’t — unless it’s your choice, done for strategic reasons and/or a cause you deeply believe in. People still value most what they have to pay for.

There’s no clear career path anymore. Be fun under stress, optimistic, well-groomed, 150 percent reliable, polite and super-helpful. Your emotional inteligence will go a lot further in creating and sustaining the essential professional contacts you’ll need for decades to come than the fanciest degree from the fanciest school(s.) Very few people you’ll work with care much where you went to school. We care what you can do (really well) for us today.

Ask so many questions you risk being annoying. Your job is not to be liked or admired or welcomed at the dinner parties of the powerful but to hold them to account. Your readers expect and deserve it. Journalists, however badly paid and professionally insecure, still hold tremendous power to shape public opinion, a responsibility to take seriously.

Don’t be seduced by your job title or that of your employer. You can lose both tomorrow — 24,000 journalists were canned in 2008. Never assume it makes you better than anyone without it, since you have no idea where they’ve been or what they’ve accomplished.

This is a team sport. You’ll be working with fellow journo’s and editors, some decades older, who bring tremendous knowledge of this game and how it’s played. Don’t dismiss those with gray hair, assuming we have no clue about technology or how to communicate stories effectively in the 21st century. It’s called experience.

Don’t be a diva. See above.

Don’t privilege one medium (OK, on-line/digital) over another (snoozy old print.) The point of what we all do is finding and telling compelling stories, regardless of the way they’re offered to readers. Freelancers who still focus primarily on print are focused on earning a living, something digital journalism has yet to offer anyone without a salary within its ranks.

Break social rules and ignore polite expectations. Women are often socialized to be nice, to get along, to make everyone feel happy and welcome. That’s not your job! Many of the questions you’ll need to ask are going to piss someone off. You’ll get yelled at, thrown out of meetings, receive angry phone calls and emails. People might call you names. None of this matters. It’s part of the territory. Your job is to tell a story well.

And yet, your job is not to be a robotic bulldozer. Interviewing well demands the kind of combined listening skills, empathy, sensitivity and compassion of the best nurse/minister/teacher/bartender. It’s one of our greatest challenges — knowing (and no one teaches you this; it’s an instinct) — when to be ruthlessly tough and when to be gentle and present as someone shares the brutal facts of their story, a rape or their child’s murder or their loss of employment.

You are not the story. Your subject is. Let them tell it in their words, at their speed. Whenever necessary, find a translator or interpreter to make sure you are able to get that story accurately.

The story isn’t only what the PR people tell you it is. Their job is to put their clients in the very best light, whether they’re a PIO for a government agency, head of corporate communications for a Fortune 500 multinational or the spokesman for an NGO. They’ll sit beside you and tape you and limit how much time you get. They might ask to see your story before it appears. Never allow their agenda to intimidate you.

Some assignments will make you cry.  Don’t let your emotions rule you on the job or during the interview, but never be ashamed of your feelings. Some assignments will provoke powerful emotions. If they don’t, take a vacation or get a different job. The day you fail to feel compassion for those who struggle is the day you’re headed for burnout.

It’s not “just a story” — often we are hearing and then publicly sharing the most intimate and unforgettable (to them) details of someone’s life. This is a privilege and an honor. Never forget that.

Pulitzer

Pulitzer

You may experience “secondary trauma” if you do a lot of this kind of work; listening to and witnessing traumatic material can cause a sort of PTSD that is very real. Check into the programs of the Dart Center for help and guidance.

Run away from the pack whenever possible. This is much easier if you’re freelance and not facing hourly or daily deadline pressure to match whatever’s on Twitter. But pack journalism will easily consume your days, and your life, until or unless you can carve out a beat or a way to work that allows you the freedom to (also) pursue deeper, more thoughtful stories.

You will probably burn out. The pace, the stress, the competition, the crummy pay, the job insecurity. It adds up. There are six major components to burnout: work overload; lack of control over the work; insufficient rewards; rude or unhelpful co-workers; unfair treatment and a conflict between your values and the job requirements.

Which is why veterans keep a f**k-you fund, enough savings to allow you to quit a position that’s toxic and unworkable, take a breath and take some time to find a better fit somewhere else.

Will these doors still lead you into a long or lucrative career?

Will these doors still lead you into a long or lucrative career?

You may choose instead to freelance, for a while or forever. If you’re in a position to assign them work, treat freelancers as the hard-working small business-owners (and colleagues) they are. Don’t abuse them with no/low pay or endless rewrites or delayed or “forgotten” invoices. It may well be your turn one day.

A few of the challenges you may face along the way, (from an earlier post of mine):

Missing a deadline, getting someone’s name wrong (or several), getting the name of the company you’re covering wrong, losing your press credential, “forgetting” to turn in your official credential(s) after you’re canned or quit because you can’t bear to lose it, missing the bus or train or plane that will get you to the place you need(ed) to be to cover the story, not having enough money to get the next one.

Misunderstanding a foreign-language word or phrase, translating it, and mis-quoting. Having 10 minutes to file. Doing a stakeout, being scared to pee for hours — and being scared to drink anything because then you”ll really have to pee — and possibly missing the exact moment you’ve been waiting 15 hours for.

Have fun!

Fight for the weak and challenge the powerful.

Eschew dogma, (and remember karma).

Find and tell the truth.

Make us proud.

THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE 8-PART SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)

I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

Freelancers don’t want to be “paid” in exposure!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Money, news, photography, US, work on March 6, 2013 at 2:59 pm
If you’re a freelancer in any field, chances are that you’re being asked, more and more, to work without pay for the “exposure” to millions of potential buyers for your work.
Just say no.
Nate Thayer discussing Pol Pot's trial, July 1997

Nate Thayer discussing Pol Pot’s trial, July 1997 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a link to his site, and some of his email with The Atlantic.com:

After a brief phone call where no specifics were really discussed, and she requested I email her:

Hi Olga: What did you have in mind for length, storyline, deadline, and fees for the basketball  diplomacy piece. Or any other specifics. I think we can work something out, but I want to make sure I have the time to do it properly to meet your deadline, so give me a shout back when you have the earliest chance.

best,

Nate Thayer

From the Atlantic:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free.

If there is a phrase that causes apoplexy among veteran freelancers, it’s the increasing fantasy that “exposure” — i.e. having millions of people see our stuff, without pay — is worthwhile. Editors now routinely offer freelancers in many fields exposure to their audiences, none of whom are guaranteed to offer us paid work.
I can’t buy groceries or gas with “exposure”, nor get my hair cut or see a dentist. None of them work for “exposure.”
Very few freelancers have the cojones to tell editors offering us this insult to just piss off. Nor do they ever make public that they actually took a stand — what if no one else has? In a crappy economy, everyone’s afraid to lose a client or get a rep for being a diva.
Thayer is right.
Enough already!

The Cost Of Candor — $3,150

In behavior, business, Media, Money, news, politics, religion, science, sports, Technology, work on October 26, 2010 at 10:33 pm
Albion Press printing press

Image via Wikipedia

That’s the quote I received this week for the liability insurance I plan to buy. It covers my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Penguin/Portfolio, April 14, 2011) and freelancing for print and blogging for this site. It carries a $5,000 deductible.

While three grand is a petty sum to many people, it is not to me. It is a bloody fortune. But the drama and stress of being sued is so not worth it to me.

The fear of being sued is why most blogs are all about puppies and kittens and sex and recipes — safe stuff no one will come after you for.

Which is why most blogs have this effect on anyone hungry for serious, in-depth news, analysis or reporting: zzzzzzzzzzzzz. No one in their right mind is itching for a lawsuit and Americans are deeply addicted to the lottery ticket of a big fat win.

Not to mention the fear of SLAPP suits. These are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, aka muzzles. If you piss off just about anyone, they can come after you and sue you to shut you right back up. Freedom of what?

In an era of staggering, growing income inequality, you can rest assured that anyone eager to rake muck is making a whole lot less money — maybe 1 percent? — of the people they might want to write about critically. This is, hmmm, how you say, de-motivating in the extreme. Do readers even know this?

Do they — you — even care?

Very few writers of any ambition want to keep biting their tongue, self-censoring, sitting on what they know to be a potentially explosive story. But, why bother? What’s the upside of being the writer or blogger best-known for becoming a cautionary tale? Oooops, s/he took a risk. Look what happened!

The irony is that everyone now thinks that being able to blog at will means being able to say anything you want. Mwahahahahahaha.

As if.

It really means you have all the freedom in the world, certainly if you have little to no understanding of media law, to get your ass sued.

It used to be said that freedom of the press belonged to those who owned one. Now that freedom only truly resides in the deep(er) pockets of those who can afford to get sued and defend themselves — people who work on staff for major news organizations with in-house counsel. More importantly, their copy is “lawyered”, vetted carefully before print or broadcast to avoid such debacles, a luxury — when top New York attorneys can command $700+/hour — most bloggers and freelancers can only dream of.

So, instead of muckraking and investigative work, the sort of thing you’d expect from someone independent, free of corporate ties, most freelancers are stuck cranking out polite, celebratory crap.

This is progress?

Why Crap Gets Read And Real News Doesn't: The Inherent Dilemma Of Writing For Page Views

In business, Media on May 25, 2010 at 9:38 am
Lady GaGa concert

No, this woman is not newsworthy. Image via Wikipedia

Why producing serious journalism and writing for the Web are contradictory impulses.

An intelligent — and deeply depressing to old-school journos like me — analysis from Silicon Valley Watcher:

Sam Whitmore reports:

It’s now a luxury for a reporter to write a story about an obscure but important topic. That used to be a job requirement. Now it’s a career risk.

Example: let’s say an interesting startup has a new and different idea. Many reporters now won’t touch it because (a) the story won’t generate page views, and (b) few people search on terms germane to that startup. Potential SEO performance is now a key factor in what gets assigned.

Two reporters from two different publications this month both told us the same thing: if you want to write a story on an interesting but obscure topic, you had better feed the beast by writing a second story about the iPad or Facebook or something else that delivers page views and good SEO.

Page view journalism will make our society poorer because less popular but important topics will be crowded out.

The new head of Bloomberg Business Week magazine Josh Tyrangiel, formerly at Time, agrees, telling FishbowlNY:

“Just because you have a witty tweet…that’s not journalism,” he said. “I don’t want to reward people who go out of their way to make a scene…for [Gawker Media chief executive Nick] Denton and some other properties, it may make some sense, but for us it doesn’t.”

I started blogging here in July 2009 and now receive about 12,000 unique visitors a month; this month I might hit a high of 15,000.

But only if I write something really sexy.

Yesterday set a new record for me of more than 1,000 pageviews in a day, when I wrote about the ‘Lost’ finale. I wanted to write on it and I thought the show smart and worth discussing. Cynically, sure, I also knew it was the pop culture topic of the day. It’s like driving with the handbrake on if you ignore the essential reality that popular topics rule this space.

But this means that thoughtful, serious, ambitious writers whose work appears only on-line, and whose only putative value is calculated in pageviews or unique visitors, are toast. Which is how our worth, here, is measured.

If I’m paid $1,500 or $3,000 or $5,000+ for a story that demands multiple interviews, research, reading and revisions, as most newspaper and magazine stories do, and it appears on-line later (as it will, without further compensation — nice), you, the reader have the choice to ignore it or, if you’re willing to dive deep(er) know you’re getting something solid.

It works for both of us. If you’re bored, just turn the page — you’ve already paid for the publication. In print, I get paid enough to make my time worthwhile and can still, occasionally, place a long, thoughtful piece on a tough issue before the eyes of millions of readers.

This volume-vs.-quality metric is applied in lousy newsrooms, where reporters are subjected to managers who count the number of their by-lines in the paper and the number of column inches they have filled with their words. Are the reporters producing smart stuff? Interesting? Breaking important stories?

Who cares? It’s content. It’s being read.

As someone who has become increasingly aware of on-line work and how to grease and speed the machinery, it’s pretty clear that if every piece I posted had a headline or early mention of Lady Gaga or Sarah Palin or the oil spill, I’d be golden.

And if I have nothing new to add on any particular topic, knowing it’s the topic of the day, or am merely shilling for eyeballs (and getting them), does it matter? If I deliberately choose to write about something obscure (educating my readers) or less popular (niche) or investigative (quite possibly depressing and complicated), I’m kissing my bonus goodbye.

Integrity versus bonus. Dark, smart, tough stuff versus lite/happy/cute videos. It’s not a divide I want to straddle, but some of us do. Feeding the beast doesn’t always mean producing my best work, stories and ideas that I — and some of the clients I hope with to work in the future — deeply value.

I find it depressing, but instructive, that my top five best-read (of more than 700 posts) stories here are on pop culture. Sigh. I don’t even care much about pop culture, so it’s a fairly rare event when I care enough and know enough to think I might have something worthwhile to add to that particular chorus.

Professional writers write for money. A very rare, and very fortunate, few freelancers are making serious coin writing only serious material.

Dedicated and amateur bloggers can become financially wildly successful if they persist and draw enormous audiences.

But who, beyond the elite troops of paid on-line journalism veterans like ProPublica, (and the on-line versions of old-school newspapers and newsmagazines) will actually cover anything serious?

Do you care?

How Much Is This Story Worth To You? The New Checkbook Journalism

In business, Media on July 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm
Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...

Image via Wikipedia

Gathering information firsthand, at least anywhere beyond a few convenient blocks of your office, costs money. Today’s New York Times announces a $30,000 stipend for a semester at Harvard, where one lucky journo — and 12,000 of us have been canned in the past two years, so plenty of us might be very interested — can work on a project and teach.

It can cost millions a year if you try to maintain a consistent presence in a dangerous and complicated place like Iran or Afghanistan, where costs, beyond paying your staffers and stringers, include fixers, translators, drivers, medical care, security and international airfares. Reporters end up sitting around their offices or newsrooms, literally begging for cabfare from their bosses. It’s a lot cheaper than say…shoe-leather reporting.

Freelancers — many of whom, like me, used to have well-paid staff jobs that would pay to send us places — face a whole other set of challenges. You hear about a fantastic story and you want to report it. I’ve got a few in mind right now, one in New Mexico, one in Ghana. Who’s going to pay for it? If a major magazine is willing to pay $6,000-10,000 (and that’s rare, and certainly on the high end of the freelance pay scale these days) for a feature story that might exclusively demand two or three weeks of your time, sometimes months, how many writers can snag another $3-5,000 or more in expenses?

Two years ago, I broke a terrific medical investigative story for Chatelaine, a national Canadian women’s magazine. To sit face to face with the women, and their traumatized families,  who’d become victims of a life-altering and vicious drug side effect, meant sending me to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto from New York where I live. Costs included hotel, cabs, meals, airfare, car rental, gas. Even spending only a day in each place, which is tiring when you’re working on a complicated and emotionally draining story like that one, costs money.

Newspapers, including The New York Times, are wondering if they should get foundation money to help pay for reporting. Read the rest of this entry »

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