It's J-Day: Mentors, Money and Where to Find Them

A helping hand
Image by Eduardo Deboni via Flickr

For anyone still trying to make a living doing serious, thoughtful journalism, it’s crazy out there. Staff jobs are increasingly hard to get and keep. Freelance budgets have been slashed. Blogs pay poorly for all but the big stars. Whether you’re trying to fund a project, a book, a pitch, a series, a documentary — or the travel costs to get to a great story —  the bills keep showing up, no matter how frugal you are or, if you’re really lucky, how generous, patient and understanding your parent(s) or partner.

What happens if you just hit bottom? You’re about to become destitute, despite years of hard, recognized work? Contact the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, of which I’m a trustee. Our maximum first-time grant is $6,000 and those in desperate need can get a check within a week or two. We listen carefully, read all details of a request, check your credentials (we’ve had people try to scam us), confer, vote and respond quickly. Our trustees include magazine editors of national magazines, past and present, and several veteran freelancer writers. We don’t approve all applicants, so please read the details. But we’re here to help, and we’re able to do so as well as we can, recently, thanks to a fellow writer, Cecil Murphey, who has made several extremely generous donations. As many of us know, some writers make a lot of money, while others live check to check. Sometimes, the smartest work can’t find a ready audience.

I also want to talk about mentoring, a fancy word for help. I’ve gotten it throughout my career, and still do, as most of us will. I grew up in Canada, a small country compared to the U.S., with 10 percent of its population and less of a zero-sum mindset. I expected to give and get help along the way.

Now in my third year of a five-year commitment, I sit on the 15-member board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 61-year-old group that includes writers in Canada and overseas, whose office overlooks Times Square. We have 1,300 members, some of them New York Times best-sellers. On any given day, members are helping one another, sometimes someone we’ve never met — offering them a witty title for their book, a trusted agent, a helpful editor, some feedback or advice, a pat on the shoulder. We do it privately on-line in our member-only forum and face to face at events and our annual conference, held each spring in Manhattan.

One of the things we offer every year at our conference is one-on-one mentoring. Years ago, I sat down to mentor a bright young woman who hoped to break into national markets. She since has, has won awards and has become both highly accomplished and a terrific friend. We all need help. It’s finding it, and trusting it, that’s difficult.

I think you can still reach out to someone a little higher up the same ladder, even someone you don’t know at all. I’ve had many strangers ask me via email for writing help or career advice and I answer them all. Several have become good friends. But don’t just ask for a job, only for advice. Reach out intelligently and respectfully. Do not clutch ankles. Do not whine. Do not beg. Do not assume, just because you’re talented or went to college or a fancy school, you deserve help. Some do, some don’t. While so many of the very best journalists I know are struggling, desperate pleas are unattractive.

I recently received an email from a young man, 24, working as a waiter in NYC and living in Brooklyn to save money. He’s had a few small-ish jobs in print news journalism, wants to work as a photojournalist and asked, not for my help, but a meeting. I looked at his website (you do have a great-looking website, right?), read his emails and thought his photos were great. I connected him to a New York Times editor willing to talk to him. I hadn’t done that before and might not again. But he needed help and he looked like he can produce good work. I was struck by his work ethic, in addition to his talent.

As most of us know, it’s a continuum. I came to T/S thanks to meeting someone in a classroom of graduate journalism students where I’d been invited to give a lecture. What goes around, if you’re lucky and generous, comes around. It may not, however, come exactly when you need it. That’s the tough part.

My sweetie, a photo editor and former news photographer, was fortunate to find a skilled, wise, tough mentor as he was beginning his now long and successful career. Like all news photographers — and many reporters — he was thrown into many breaking stories that terrified him, from the nation’s worst prison riot, in New Mexico, that killed 33 inmates and injured 207, to a hostage-taking and shooting of the kidnaper to six weeks in Bosnia over Christmas. Badly shaken, a few days after that shooting by a police sniper, he called his mentor, Steve Northup, one of only two photographers, then, who had won a Nieman fellowship, and who spent years working during the Vietnam War. “This world has a lot of bad people in it and your job is going to bring you into contact with them. Get used to it or get out of this business,” Northup told him.

Since journalists usually work alone, they/we need as much help as they can find, before or after a tough assignment, since during it  — where you might be competing hard for the same story with those who can help — is usually not an option. A fantastic resource is the Dart Center, whose mission is to help all journalists, worldwide, cope with the trauma of covering the darkest stories.

If you’re in this business, you likely already know, and perhaps use,, which lists jobs, news and events and has a bulletin board whose usefulness waxes and wanes. Years ago, a stranger in D.C. who’d seen my posts there emailed me privately to ask me for advice. We’ve since become good friends and colleagues, trusted allies. I’ve had lunch in Toronto with another regular there. I’ve also occasionally gotten some smart advice from LinkedIn.

By now, if you’ve been in the game for a while, you also know the names of some of the fellowship and grant-making institutions, from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to the Neiman Foundation to the NEH, NEA, Guggenheim, Fulbright, and, for Canadians, the Canada Council. As I told a panel on this subject at the 2009 ASJA conference, you have to be in to win it. Apply, don’t win — and apply again, half a dozen times if necessary. Like the Olympics, you’ll be competing against the best and best-prepared. But if you win, you’ve got some income, and some gold dust on your resume. Once you’ve won one fellowship (and I’ve won five), it’s easier to get another. You’ve proven you’re worth the investment.

Who has mentored you? Who have you mentored?

Do mentors still matter?

Next week’s J-Day: Three veterans of daily newspaper journalism, Stephen Crowley, a D.C.-based New York Times photographer since 1993, a foreign correspondent based in Eastern Europe and a medical writer/author in Minneapolis talk about trusting their instincts.

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