By Caitlin Kelly
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.