Water On Stone: Journalism As A Slower, Communal Exercise

Water Melody
Image by steve_steady64 via Flickr

I was struck recently by a post by T/S contributor Maureen Henderson lamenting how quietly passive Generation Y is and wondering why they do not protest more or more loudly about a lousy economy and other issues.

Fellow T/ contributor Sara Libby there lamented a lack of Gen Y access to the biggest media outlets and another commenter pointed out that True/Slant, still, does not have that many readers for most of its individual writers.

In December, here, I hit a high of 7,562 unique visitors — which annually comes to only 90,744 readers. As the commenter fairly and accurately pointed out, that’s a mere fraction of the audience journalists can get — if we can get it — at The New York Times, or other major markets. I’ve been writing for a living for a while, and my work has already been seen and read by millions, so, much as I’m really enjoying my work here at True/Slant, it’s hardly the make-or-break moment of my career.

With the death of so many magazines, and the firing of 24,000 print journalists last year, there’s something of a panic about how any of us will continue to tell important stories and who, if anyone, will pay us properly to do so.

Let’s talk about this.

I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, with more than 100 stories published there, sold to ten different editors in a number of its sections. I have not, yet, scaled the true Everest of that paper in terms of pay, prestige and sheer clout — getting a story into the Times Magazine, the bulk of which is spoken for by writers its editors have already chosen and made commitments to. It’s next to impossible to sell a freelance story to the paper’s Metro and National and International sections, where, arguably, the most important and compelling news stories are run. As a rule, they simply don’t buy this material.

So, on many, many freelance stories, no matter how timely or compelling, you simply have to forget the Times.

In the past there were the Big Four, four print outlets where almost every ambitious journo hoping for a killer career had to get published: The Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s and The New Yorker. I wrote a piece, on assignment, for the New Yorker more than a decade ago; like 60 percent of freelance stories they assign, they killed it, which meant they only had to pay me half what we’d agreed. I had to pay my agent 15% for placing it with them.

So this great opportunity ended up costing me financially, earning a total fee of about $1,500.

These magazines, too, are extremely difficult to sell to. No matter how much you, or your sources, want that arguably prestigious, mass exposure, too bad.

The most elite media outlets, of the left, right or center, tend to hand-pick their writers from a small cabal. Even editors at “O” magazine are known not to answer their phones and only work with writers they select. Penetrating these cliques is close to impossible. Smithsonian is widely considered an impressive win and I was thrilled they ran my humor essay in December 2009 — it took time. I began courting one editor there a full six to eight months before I finally won an assignment from someone else there, and not for a feature as I’d hoped. One veteran writer I know pitched 12 times before winning his first assignment there.

So insisting upon access to these audiences is a real exercise in frustration. I would argue the same is true of any medium, anywhere: people choose those they like and trust — how subjective is that? — to carry their water.

If you are, consistently, shut out of these Big Name Markets, and their coveted millions of readers and listeners, what do you do instead?

Make multiple attempts. You blog, write FOBs (front-of-the-book, the little 200-word items no veteran writer wants to touch) for magazines, op-eds, essays, articles, letters to the editor. You do commentary for every program you can think of in every possible broadcast medium, regardless of pay. It’s said that any message needs something like 27 repetitions for people to even remember it.

What’s your goal? If you only want to be(come) famous and get a cool job and/or make a lot of money and/or sell a screenplay of your story, go home. Veterans know it, smell it and hate it. If you’re committed to the story and your sources and feel utterly compelled to tell this story, tell it. No one is stopping you but your ego.

There are many, many ways to get the word out. But….you won’t own it. It won’t be your story.

Few stories are.

Anyone who fantasizes that their work and their opinions will change the world without some grovelling to the powers-that-be — which may not work anyway — isn’t well acquainted with gatekeepers, whose job is still to ferociously guard access to their pages, airwaves or bandwith — and to their ideologies and to their advertisers, without whom none of us get paid anything.

It’s also a sobering thing to work your ass off on a story you’re convinced will, certainly, create a storm of interest and reaction and get…nothing. However ugly, it’s a useful reminder of our individual weakness and the folly of relying on a major outlet to make your story or your career or your ideas matter.

This happened to me most recently, and instructively, with an investigative medical story I did for Chatelaine — a Canadian version of a Washington Post story I’d read earlier. Chatelaine was then Canada’s largest women’s magazine, with about 1 million readers, and, in a smaller country, dominant in that market. The editors flew me to Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto from my home in New York, an unusually serious commitment for them financially, and a clear vote of confidence in my skills and in the piece.

I interviewed three women who had taken a drug, Mirapex, that had caused serious side effects, causing all of them to gamble uncontrollably. This was, in a long career with many tough stories, one of my hardest: all three women, and their families, were financially and emotionally devastated as a result. One woman shook like a leaf throughout our interview, her adult daughter beside her, because the stress of talking to me aggravated her Parkinson’s disease, for which she took the drug.

I found the story harrowing to report and write, so for that reason, as well as its intrinsic importance in warning other readers about this drug’s side effects I hoped it would be well-read and valued. The editing process was insane, with so many editors coming and going, I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia from overwork.

We didn’t get one single email or call or letter on that piece. Not one. The editors promised they’d nominate it for a National Magazine Award, but didn’t, and no one bothered to tell me in time to submit it myself.

Was it still an important story? One worth doing? One worth the costs to me, and the magazine and the women who spoke to me? Yes.

I later received an astonishing email from a medical student who had taken the drug, told her physicians she was having terrible side effects, and no one believed her until her mother showed them my article. There’s no award worth more.

Did its publication achieve my more selfish personal goals? No.

Here remains the fundamental problem and it isn’t changinging anytime soon. Very, very few journalists, anywhere, has the power — individually — to break and run with a major story of national or international import.

Very few journalists, still, alone, have:

1) the financial resources to do nothing but one story day after day for weeks or months; 2) the financial resources to travel to a breaking story, whether in the Mideast or Latin America or Asia; it costs money to travel, eat, stay somewhere, hire translators or interpreters and fixers; 3) the knowledge, understanding, experience, language or cultural skills to truly penetrate a story and tell it effectively 4) the physical, emotional and mental stamina it can require to report the toughest stories, whether of war, poverty, brutality, violence or corruption; 6) the balls, you should pardon the expresson, to do so.

The most crucial, still, is your outlet. Who is going to run it? Who will listen, heed, act? If you focus all your energies and resources on only one or two Big Name Outlets, and fail, then what?

So this fantasy that one journalist or blogger or freelancer can, and should, change the world through the sheer force of their will, intellect or opinions is madness. There are few better ways to make your head explode with frustration.

In my mid-20s, as a deeply ambitious freelancer then a staffer at the demanding, ferociously competitive Globe and Mail, I wanted every story to matter, a lot. (This drove my poor editors nuts.)

Changing the world seemed of huge importance. It still is.

But a wiser and slightly older friend pointed out that not any single one of my stories was likely to do so. These stories were still well worth doing — as part of a larger effort.

I believe in the principle of water on stone.

You can wear away the largest rock, over time, by the continual pressure of water. It may not happen this year, or this decade or even within your lifetime. What my friend, a former journalist, meant was that I could keep returning to the story, year after year, in different versions for different markets. Or, even more shocking to my young ego, I could also count on several, maybe many, other journalists to also work on the story, expanding and deepening it, adding to a wider body of knowledge, context and understanding.

Then, as now, great stories do not have to be mine, all mine.

Nor do they have to be yours. They do need, somehow, somewhere — in service to the readers, viewers and listeners for whom they are produced — to become ours.

9 thoughts on “Water On Stone: Journalism As A Slower, Communal Exercise

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Water On Stone: Journalism As A Slower, Communal Exercise - Caitlin Kelly - Broadside - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. rayschmitz

    Will the profession of journalism contract substantially in the coming decades as more and more traditional publications fail to adapt and close forever? That’s an interesting story for the profession to share.

    What makes your personal version outstanding is your passion and your determination. Simply tell a story? No, change the world! Spoken like a true entrepreneur.

    The demand for your talents isn’t declining, merely shifting. Yes, fewer magazines and newspapers means fewer jobs for journalists, but less big platforms also means less need for PR firms. Why should an innovator hire a PR firm when a dedicated journalist can help tell the story of the firm and its customers?

    My humble suggestion: call your favorite local venture capitalist, call the Founder Institute, call anybody who can tell you where to find an innovator with comparable passion and determination. Find a story you feel strongly enough about to make it yours, too. Get on board and help tell it week after week, year after year, again and again – and help change the world.

  3. vivhatahway

    I’m very glad you brought this topic up since I think journalists talk about it enough with their readers. Jay Rosen (of NYU Journalism) writes about the journalism business on a regular basis.

    I need a bit of time to gather my thoughts and write a worthwhile opinion on this, so I hope you don’t mind if I comment on this again in a couple of days.

    “Why should an innovator hire a PR firm when a dedicated journalist can help tell the story of the firm and its customers?”

    Are you seriously asking this question, rayschmitz?! PR firms are paid to omit the truth or spin it, since their obligation is to their customer, the firm.

    Journalists are paid to tell the truth – all of the truth not just the Disney parts – since their obligation, at least in theory, is to the reader, for the public good.

    1. rayschmitz

      Yes, I mean it. The truth, and “not just the Disney parts.” Sure, the corporate incumbent might *need* PR spin to defend the status quo. But for the innovator determined to bring change for the public good to market, what could possibly accelerate needed creative destruction faster than the truth?

      Should a company’s decision makers know the truth? Yes. Should its customers? Again, yes. That’s probably too idealistic for most firms, and most people. Too bad.

      A lot of us realize the need for the corporate citizen of the future to behave better, and hence maybe the era of my hypothetical unvarnished truth-telling “corporate journalist” as an essential member of the organization is arriving. (To better understand where I am coming from, please read HBR’s “Moon Shots for Management” from February, 2009.)

      I’d like to hear from anyone who wants to change the world.
      Ray (dot) Schmitz (at) gmail (dot) com

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for your thoughts, rayschmitz and vivhatahway.

    ray, with all due respect to PR, this is a challenge for many journo’s, whose passion is to seek out and tell “real” stories about real people. Not that corporate PR is not real nor extremely lucrative for some of its practitioners. The more comfortable segue, for me, perhaps, would be non-profit PR or work focused in some way on social justice. In a world where CEOs now earn 275 times their lowest-paid employees, I find that appalling and would feel extremely uncomfortable supporting that behavior.

    viv, I wish there were more places for journalists to talk about what’s happening. So many of us are angry, scared, feeling paralyzed by the major changes going on all around us. It’s painful to watch, and to feel one can only watch passively while trying to determine if there’s even a place for us in whatever comes next.

    1. jcalton

      Is the pen mightier than the sword? The problem in the new millennium is that everyone has a pen and–unlike swords–pens reach a threshold whereupon quantity dilutes their power rather than reinforcing it. We have now reached that tipping point, and it shows.

      Time unwittingly foretold its own doom in 2006 when it proclaimed “YOU” as the person of the year. The interconnected “we” of 2006 are the ones killing journalism.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the occupational growth/outlook of “Reporters and Correspondents” at -7.6% in 2008, and that pace can only have accelerated in the months since then. I wonder what it was 25 years ago and what it will be 25 years from now? Probably the BEST the field of journalism can hope for is that number one day to stabilize at zero. A positive numerical outlook would be hard for even the most optimistic reader or contributor to rationalize.

      As the population ages and brand loyalists die off, it will be almost impossible for newspapers and magazines to keep their footing. My prediction is that when equilibrium is reached, there will be a handful of newspapers who will take on local coverage from remote offices, and local papers will be reborn as local franchises, more or less. The cost to print news and magazine articles already far outweighs the cost of electronic printing. Some day, we will be reading what remains of them on our smart phones-slash-Kindles and wonder why we ever thought paper was a good idea in the first place.

      Everything else (which is almost everything) will have dissolved entirely or else crumbled into niche markets where you get paid to say ONLY what people want to hear (or hear about). Broadcasting will be replaced by narrowcasting.
      The narrower the niche, the narrower the definition of journalism…and it will soon be defined by the market, not professionals.

      We are already halfway there now, as the response of the mainstream media to the present administration’s (accurate) calling out of Fox News as non-journalism attests. That was their chance to stand on principles and denounce the new journalism; instead they embraced and defended it as the new paradigm.

      The pen is mightier than the sword…but remember that both may be purchased with the almighty dollar.

    2. torontolou

      I have Parkinson’s, have been treated with these drugs, and so have a vested interest in this issue. The bellweather Mirapex trial was held last year as part of a Federal multi-district litigation, with hundreds of claims, assigned to the court in Minnesota. It was decided in favor of the plaintiff, Gary Charbonneau; he was awarded compensation for gambling losses AND $8 million in punitive damages because(from my layman’s reading of the decision)the drug companies involved had not fully disclosed relevant data early on and were not responsive to later FDA requests for additional data/studies. I searched online but have found spare mention of this ruling and then only in smaller newspapers’ sites … and the other hundreds of claims were settled out of court and the rest is imposed silence. But silence in the press too? Seems we have a problem with even basic coverage of this story, as an example at least, never mind in-depth investigation and reporting. Are we such small potatoes?

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    jcalton, the larger question is whether any readers will value others’ thinking and writing as equal or or even superior to their own. There will always be people who care about news beyond their school district, zip code or area code — and “hyperlocal” can’t cover business news from China or India. I don’t own a newspaper or magazine, so am in no position to say what will happen next but the trend toward people listening to or reading only those whose opinions please them is a lousy one. It leads to questions like “Why do they hate us?” when there’s another terrorist attack when, if you read a variety of viewpoints, it might be pretty clear.

    torontolou, great question. You’re hardly small potatoes. Did the local Minnesota paper/TV/radio cover it at all?

    I’ll tell you what happened to me when, a few years ago, I tried to write about this story, and I did try pretty hard. The one attorney who spoke to me said he knew there was a great story but would never allow me to interview his clients before a decision was made as B-I was punishing plaintiffs who did speak out. No one — reasonably — wanted to take that chance before a decision. After a decision, then, we don’t know who got paid to stay quiet. I found one man who’d suffered this side effect who had gotten a fair bit of press attention and, from a very brief conversation it was clear he was extremely depressed and did not wish to discuss it.

    I still think it’s a story.

    This is why newspapers are slitting their own throats by firing many of their most experienced (i.e. expensive) reporters — the ones who know how to seek out and sniff out great stories and don’t just re-write press releases and call it news. When your newsroom is filled with newbie, affordable, malleable 25-year-olds, you get what you pay for.

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