You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.
No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!
Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)
Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.
It can be something we overheard or saw.
Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.
I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.
I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.
The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.
Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.
What makes something a “story”?
— it’s new
— it’s making a ton of money for someone
— it’s the first time this event has ever happened
— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)
— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it
It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:
Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”
With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”
She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.
My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.
Key to this piece? Serendipity!
I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.
In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.
The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?
The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.
It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.
I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!
A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.
I had the oh, so snottily New York Timesian — “Oh, do people blog anymore?” asked of me at Jose’s going-away party last year (while snarfing the cake I paid for.)
I write for a living, and have been doing so for (gulp) 40 years, since I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto, utterly desperate to (as I did) become a journalist.
No Internet then.
People ask me: if you’re a professional writer, why on earth would you write unpaid, i.e. blog?
For exploring ideas.
For a place to muse aloud.
For a space in which to chew ideas.
For civil conversation with smart, interesting people across the globe.
For writing that isn’t, for once, tailored to someone else’s tone, length and subject matter.
That wasn’t, of course, the original plan.
But then Lorna and Sarge (now — yay! — her husband, and proud parents of the gorgeous girl Isla) came to New York, and I’d been reading her blog and she’d been reading mine and it was as if we’d been friends for years through our words flung out there so hopefully into the ether.
She in Scotland, I in suburban New York.
Like many of my new blog friends, we’re also decades apart in age, but perhaps not in sensibility — our shared love of books and travel and ideas and wonder at the world.
When I went back to Paris, in December 2015, I was thrilled to meet Mallory and Juliet and Catherine and others who were readers of my blog.
I met them in public places, thinking — This is nuts! What if she doesn’t show up? What if she’s an axe murderer?(Sadly, now, more of a worry than it was then.) No doubt, they, too had their fears.
Then off we went and, every time without fail, had a lovely face to face experience.
This week I met yet another smart, savvy, worldly young woman, the legendary X who’s the bestie of Cadence, the author of Small Dog Syndrome from London; she and I finally met face to face — after years of mutual admiration — in the train station after I got off the train from Paris in my brown vintage fedora.
We talked for so long her husband called to make sure we were OK.
X was everything you’d expect of a friend of Cadence and we sat at the bar and drank cold beer and shared notes on life in journalism in New York City. I would never have met her had I not read Cadence, nor emailed her privately, nor (!) stayed with her in their London flat (sleeping on an air mattress on the living room floor) and we all survived.
Unlike many of you, I had never wanted to blog and couldn’t imagine that anyone would hang around, read and comment, let alone return.
Happily, I was wrong, and Broadside continues to attract new followers every day, now more than 16,000 worldwide.
The blog now also has 1,845 published posts, on everything from travel to journalism to politics to decorating.
Yes, my interests are eclectic!
It’s also been very odd, and instructive, to see which posts — many years later — still attract the most views: my 30-hour train ride from New York to Minneapolis, meeting Queen Elizabeth, what going to boarding school very young does to your psyche…(I went age eight.)
That boarding school post has gotten more than (!) 11,000 views over the years and has elicited the most heartfelt, confessional replies, some so heartbreaking they were difficult to read.
One man — the only time that’s ever happened here — wrote to me the next day, apologetically, and asked me (which I did) to take down his comments, so personal had they been.
At their best, blogs link us, heart to heart.
Like every blogger, I never know what posts will resonate and which will sit there, largely unloved, unread and un-liked. I’m often surprised by what you like most, so that keeps me on my toes.
Since college, I’ve been paid to write for a living, with work published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, Smithsonian, Marie Claire and many more.
I sometimes feel like a cow attached to a milking machine, the computer extracting every possible idea for compensation.
So why write unpaid?
Seven years seems like a crazy-long time to keep banging out blog posts, but I still really enjoy it and, it seems (yay!) some of you do as well.
Broadside is a rare and special place for me as a writer — a public space where I muse, question, challenge, reflect, and can share more personal and intimate notions than any commercial outlet is likely to pay me for.
It’s a place to collect and hear your thoughts and ideas, and sometimes listen to/enjoy several of you conversing.
It’s a very small — albeit global — cocktail party!
Here’s a selection from the archives I hope you’ll enjoy:
The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.
I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.
It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.
These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.
You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.
Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.
There’s no other way to tell these stories well.
Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.
Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.
Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?
I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.
It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.
It’s called a press pack for a reason…
I hope, as you consume serious, smart journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.
Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.
As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.
It’s a real loss.
We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.
We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.
And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.
Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.
The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.
After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.
The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.
Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.
I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.
We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.
On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.
Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)
Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!
A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.
That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.
It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.
We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.
His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.
For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.
Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.
Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.
There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.
There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.
There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.
Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:
It takes talent
Yes, it does.
Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.
Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.
It takes training
You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.
They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.
They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.
The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.
It takes practice
I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.
They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.
We all crave success and admiration.
It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.
It takes social skills aka charm
Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.
Charm is an under-rated skill.
Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.
Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.
Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.
It takes skills
If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.
You are not An Artist here.
You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.
You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.
We’re hired help.
Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.
Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.
For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.
You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.
If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.
I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.
This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…
It takes studying the greats
“You can’t write without reading.”
If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.
Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.
It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source
It doesn’t matter what the work is.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.
J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.
If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.
Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.
It takes patience
No one writes a perfect first draft.
It means being edited
If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.
Just don’t even bother.
Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.
A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.
A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.
How badly do you want to improve?
It means being read
That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.
You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.
A thick skin is key.
It means being — publicly –critiqued
Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:
Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.
The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.
(Several other reviews were much kinder.)
It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair
Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.
It means being lucky — or not
This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.
It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.
Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.
It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.
(See a pattern here?)
It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.
Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.
The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.
Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.
We’re all so time-starved, between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.
Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!
In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.
Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.
As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”
I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.
I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!
My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.
In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from PeriodHome (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)
I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)
I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.
And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)
And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.
I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.
These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.
Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.
Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.
Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.
On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.
Some of the reasons I read:
What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?
Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?
Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)
Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.
Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me? Yes, please!
Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.
Great writing takes us there.
It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.
Where were you? Where are you now?
Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers
As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.
It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.
Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.
Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.
On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.
Depending on genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.
Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.
The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.
I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.
The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.
Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.
And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.
By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.
Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:
Someone gets an idea
It happens in a variety of ways.
It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.
It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.
It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.
It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.
Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.
Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.
Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.
A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:
a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?
The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.
Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.
Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.
I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.
What’s the story — and who cares?
Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.
We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)
As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?
Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?
Does it reflect a trend?
What expertise or insight can you bring to it?
Is it even really worth doing?
Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.
We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client
Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.
But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?
If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.
What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.
Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.
What’s the best way to tell this story?
One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?
The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
How soon do we need to jump on it?
In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.
What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?
Who do we need to include to tell this story?
This is where so much journalism remains weak — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few women and/or people of color, as this story points out.
I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.
Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.
There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.
How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?
This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.
It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.
Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.
Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.
If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.
What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!
I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.
How much time before you’re done?
I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.
The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.
Does it make sense?
This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.
It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!
My recent interview with this author, posted here, was conducted by email, a Q and A
For those of you who work in journalism, or need to interview someone.
For some people, the idea of actually having to question another human being is terrifying and which — to their professional detriment and the weakness of their stories — they try to avoid.
But very few pieces worth reading are constructed without interviews, whether they provide fantastic sound bites or simply (not simply!) the essential foundation for understanding a complex issue so you can explain it cogently to your readers.
I conduct many more interviews than may actually appear in my published stories; while I typically need three to four interviews per 1,000 words, that’s not a rule.
I’m writing a 900-word story this week and have already done more than 10 interviews, several of them 45 to 60 minutes each.
Why not use them all?
Sometimes the quotes are boring, but the information was important. Maybe what they said they sent me hurtling off in an unexpected, new direction.
Conducting an interview takes forethought, planning, skill and considerable emotional intelligence. You can’t just go down a laundry list of your questions and not, as it’s happening, respond and react to what you’re hearing.
These have included a female admiral, a Prime Minister, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, crime victims and victims of torture. It doesn’t matter who you’re interviewing — what matters most is how you approach them and your time with them.
Do your damn homework!
Read as many boring long detailed government, policy, non-profit scientific or academic reports as needed before you start asking silly, elementary questions.
Watch videos and listen to broadcasts and podcasts on your subject so you know what the hell they’re talking to you about. Get up to speed!
Because every interview you conduct is a potential and crucial link in your reporting chain; if you impress each subject with your preparation and ability to handle yourself well, they can lead you to the next one, and possibly with a key introduction.
I’ve won national exclusives this way. We are being evaluated every single time. Never forget that.
It means paying careful attention.
Who to speak to and why? What do you need from each person? How available are they — or will you get stuck with a spokesman from their PR department instead?
Will the interview be conducted by phone, email, Skype or in person?
In person is almost always the best, giving you a chance to closely observe their dress. grooming, demeanor, reactions, silences, body language and surroundings. If by phone, be sure neither of you will be interrupted by pets, children, co-workers, and block out at least 15 minutes or more — you’ll get very little of value in only five minutes.
Some interviews work well by email, especially if your subject is traveling and/or in a distant time zone; the risk is that their replies will feel stilted or, worse, be written by someone who’s not your subject. Skype can work well for subjects too far away to reach in person or by phone.
What do you want from this interview? Facts? A great anecdote? A terrific quote? Confirmation of others’ opinions — or denial? Analysis of a complex issue?
Is this interview on the record — i.e. will you be able to quote this person and use their full name, age, location and profession? If not, you need to negotiate — before they begin to speak! — if they are speaking not for attribution, on background or off the record. Only before someone speaks should this agreement be made, not afterward when they suddenly regret something they have told you. Be sure you both understand the terms of the interview before you begin.
Take notes or tape? Both? Use a laptop for note-taking or pen and paper? To me, these are highly individual choices, although some clients will insist, as part of your contract, that you not only tape record but provide them with a full transcript of your notes. I use pen and paper. I find laptop note-taking noisy and intrusive. It’s important to be able to look your interview subject in the eye! Don’t be a robot.
What’s the tone and mood of your interview? Confrontational? Insistent? Humorous and relaxed? Deferential? Just because your topic is serious doesn’t mean you have to be leaden and tedious. Think through the best way to make your interlocutor feel most comfortable and go from there.
Where will you conduct the interview, if meeting in person? Ideally, their home or office, as a space potentially filled with intriguing clues about their interests and passions. But if they’re traveling or a celebrity, you’ll likely be stuck in a hotel room or restaurant.
How much time will you spend with them? I rarely allow less than 30 minutes for my interviews. It takes time for your subject to feel at ease with you and for you to develop some rapport with them. If you’re writing a profile of them, be prepared to spend a lot of time around them to get a feel for their character and behavior patterns — I once spent eight hours (four two-hour sessions) with one woman I was profiling (plus many additional hours speaking to her family, colleagues and former colleagues.)
When will you ask the tough(est) and most challenging questions? You can’t just wimp out for fear they’ll get angry or yell at you (they might) or hang up or say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!” While working on a fantastic national piece for the New York Daily News, I knew I’d hit pay dirt when a Homeland Security flack sneered: “There’s no story here!”
Structure your interview time thoughtfully and be sure to get those harder questions asked, even if you have to repeat them multiple times and/or rephrase them. Yes, typically, we save them for close to the end.
The snowball effect, it’s called in sociology. Ask: “Who else should I be speaking to next about this issue?” If you’ve done your homework, conducted the interview sensitively and intelligently, they’ve enjoyed it, and you, and will send you on to your next great source.
Still need some help?
I coach individually at $225/hour, with a one-hour minimum, via phone or Skype, and also offer several terrific webinars, which we schedule at your convenience, at caitlinkelly.com/classes.