By Caitlin Kelly
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!