A week in the life of a freelance writer

By Caitlin Kelly

saying

It’s not what you might think, or expect.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006.  You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.

I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.

Errands

To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.

The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.

That’s a business deduction.

IMG_20150106_134932581_HDR
I write for money. Pleasure, too, but mostly for money.

Invoiced

I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.

20131114105242

I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s

Pitched

The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.

Total time-suck!

Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.

I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.

Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.

Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.

We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.

malled china cover
The Chinese edition of my 2011 book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Negotiated

Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.

Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.

Researched

Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.

I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.

Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.

I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.

Persisted

Hate this.

Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.

Coached

My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.

I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.

IMG_20150213_163711842_HDR
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Read

Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)

If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.

Wrote

The least of it!

Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.

Networked

Without which, nothing happens.

Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)

Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.

Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.

Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.

Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.

Scored!

Two new assignments from a new-to-me editor at The New York Times, a place for whom I’ve been freelancing steadily since 1990; here’s my most recent, about the odd things people find when they renovate a home.

What journalists see — and you don’t

By Caitlin Kelly

photo(34)
Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua — and back!

What a fun week it’s been!

Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”

So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.

If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.

Maybe you knew that.

But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.

It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.

It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:

Length and space

Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.

In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.

Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.

Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.

This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.

IMG_20150111_134324002_HDR
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015 (my photo)

Clarity

Short is often better — get to the point!

But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.

Graphic violence

Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.

The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.

Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.

I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.

By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.

Lies

This is a big one, especially now.

If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.

It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.

We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).

Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?

Self-immolation

Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.

It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.

We’re all human and we all mis-speak.

That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen  to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.

It’s our job to untangle it all.

Far too many press releases!

I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.

There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.

Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.

Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.

Documents, leaks and FOIAs

If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.

The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.

FOIAs (pronounced foy-ahs), are Freedom of Information Act requests, which winkle out crucial documents from the federal government. As the press withstands unprecedented attacks here in the U.S., journalists are creating secret and on-line national groups to plot strategy and one writer I know has switched to an encrypted email.

The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.

You need a free press more than ever now.

 Proximity/celebrity/recency

The big three of news determinants.

The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.

Which is crazy.

Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.

(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)

Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.

If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.

The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…

I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.

 

How crucial do you think a free press is?

 

Do you agree with Bannon?

Do you enjoy your work?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160801_091455254

Most people don’t.

It’s shocking, and sad, that so few Americans enjoy what they do for a living; every new Gallup poll finds a majority of them, two-thirds, “disengaged” — a state of affairs that leads to endless, tedious screeds on LinkedIn and Twitter about how to “engage” your staff.

If you hate what you do all day, you’re unlikely to do it well.

That photo above is of one of Jose’s credentials; he’s been working freelance with the United States Golf Association for a few years now.

He got the job thanks to a few introductions, (and his excellent skills!) The man loves golf. Now they fly him across the U.S. to photo edit their major tournaments.

I lost my fancy newspaper job in 2006 and freelancing was going poorly. So, in September 2007 I took a part-time job as a sales associate, for $11/hr and no commission, at a local mall.

Long past my teenage years, I was the oldest member of our 15-person team, including our manager and assistant manager.

Initially, I really liked the job.

And yet it’s a job everyone knows is nasty — crappy pay, no challenge, tedious and repetitive.

Any job, if you enjoy elements of it, can make you happy

My fancy newspaper job had actually been a year of misery, (details tedious), the most difficult experience of my career.

So being once more liked, accepted, even welcomed — albeit into a low-wage, low-status part-time job, healed me. No one was trying to force me out. No one refused to speak to me if I said “hello” to them.

malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

I was good at selling, able to relate easily to a wide range of customers, from the emissary for an Arabian prince to Finnish bankers to a Boy Scout. I loved the variety of people who shopped in our store, (The North Face), and being able to help them.

When you emerge from a job, no matter how prestigious or well paid, where nothing you ever do is deemed good enough, simply being able to please someone is a real solace.

It was for me.

Working retail also allowed me to use my French and Spanish skills occasionally, sharing travel tips with shoppers who were buying a backpack to train across Europe or a suitcase to go to Peru, places I’d been to and could discuss helpfully.

FullSizeRender(3)
One of my first national magazine stories, examining what happens in an animal testing lab.

Every job, even the most putatively glamorous you can think of, has elements you will probably never love — highly-paid actors often loathe the press junkets and conferences and interviews they have to do to promote their films. They just want to act!

So I appreciated this recent essay:

First, make sure you choose a career or project that you enjoy pursuing, one that offers present benefits for you. Keep in mind that unless you find small pleasures in your daily routine, you will not stick to it.

Second, add present benefits to your working hours. Listen to music, make friends and break the routine with social activities. Do whatever makes you happy at work; you can stick to your career goals longer if your work is enjoyable in the moment.

Third, bring to mind those present benefits that do exist at your work. Maybe you just have not been paying attention to them…You can similarly motivate yourself to engage in your work by directing attention to the positive aspects of your tasks.

As I write this, I’m wearing a sweatshirt and leggings, no make-up, hair unbrushed, listening to classical music on the radio aloud, (no need for headphones.)

I don’t have to get dressed or waste hours commuting, crammed into a crowded train or traffic or subway, leaping pools of icy water and slush.

I don’t have to pretend to like mean co-workers or a bullying boss.

I’ll go to the gym when it suits me, or go for a walk, or (rarely) even go to an afternoon movie. The freedom to set my schedule matters enormously to me.

I usually eat all three meals at home, saving time, money and calories. My husband is home today as well, sorting through a mountain of 2016 receipts to make sure we get every possible tax deduction from our combined freelance incomes.

Do I enjoy my work?

IMG_20160617_102113083 (2)

Yes, I do. But I also clearly enjoy the conditions in which I perform it.

What do I still love about writing, editing and teaching?

— Meeting and speaking with an amazing array of people, from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes.

— At best, working with smart, tough editors and clients who expect high levels of skill and emotional intelligence.

— Finding and sharing complex stories with millions of readers.

— Learning something new with every story I write, whether pension reform, utility deregulation, air turbulence, Broadway stagehand work or apotropaic traditions in house construction.

— Connecting worldwide with fellow writers, some of whom are generous enough to share referrals and clients with me (and vice versa.)

— Meeting smart younger writers through my blog and Twitter.

— Helping others think more clearly and communicate more effectively. Here’s my website, with my classes.

— Intellectual freedom.

That’s not even a complete list!

How about you?

Do you love your work?

If not, what’s your exit strategy?

It’s time for journalists to stand up

By Caitlin Kelly

20131206081013
Columbia Journalism School

Some of you are fellow journalists.

Some of you follow the news closely and know that President Elect Donald Trump makes a habit of naming, shaming and blaming reporters he thinks have somehow insulted him, often by merely challenging him on his ever-shifting statements and tweets.

At his first press conference in six months, which penned hundreds of journalists into the lobby of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, Trump was typically belligerent and bullying.

Here’s CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta threatened with expulsion from the conference.

Even worse — and frankly, this is so bizarre I’ve never seen it in  40 years of working in news journalism — his minions jeered at reporters.

From the Times:

A Greek chorus of sorts — mostly Trump supporters and aides, including Ms. Manigault — watched from the side, applauding Mr. Trump and jeering questions from reporters they deemed unpleasant.

Here’s the New York Times‘ media reporter:

“That” was Donald J. Trump’s inaugural news conference as a duly elected United States president-to-be, in which he called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage,” dismissed CNN as “fake news” and more or less told the whole lot of reporters at Trump Tower to stuff it when it comes to his unreleased tax returns because everyday Americans don’t care and, anyway, “I won.”

There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.

2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.

It better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.

The problem is multi-faceted.

Some of the issues journalists now face in covering Trump:

Many Americans don’t trust the MSM, mainstream media.

— Many Americans are gulping down “fake news” with no idea who’s lying to them and making bank from it.

—Many Americans loathe journalists and think that challenging those in authority — whether elected officials or the wealthy — is rude and disrespectful.

— In an era of a 24/7 news cycle, journalists are racing to be first, not always correct.

— In an era of unprecedented secrecy and obfuscation, (we have not yet seen Trump’s tax returns — and how long exactly does an audit take?), transparency and accountability are more essential than ever for voters to know what the hell is going on.

— The President-elect is hiring his own family as senior advisors, none of whom, like him, have any prior political experience. Also unpredecented. And why should any of us trust them? We didn’t vote for them, nor do they need to be confirmed through Senate hearings.

— Journalists have traditionally been respectful of the office of the President, but never before in recent history has there been a President who attacks the media almost daily, often singling out specific reporters, (like NBC’s Katy Tur) by name. That can lead to social media death threats and doxing.

— Journalists are working in an industry in deep turmoil financially, feeling economically vulnerable at the very moment we need them to be utterly fierce in their reporting.

— Without determined, consistent, aggressive reporting on every conceivable conflict of interest, voters, no matter who they chose (or didn’t vote at all), will have no idea what Trump and his kakistocracy are up to. Trying to intimidate us only invites doubling down.

img_20160928_183329860

Count on that!

The writer’s life, these days

By Caitlin Kelly

saying

As some of you know, I write for a living, and have done so since my undergrad years at U of Toronto.

As some of you know, the industry of journalism is in deep, widespread and massive disruption; The New York Times is about to get rid of 200 more of its staff and is making other significant internal changes to cut costs and boost revenue. I write freelance for the Times, producing three stories in 2016 for them, one on turbulence, one on a Broadway stagehand and one on real estate, which I’m researching this week.

But the life of a freelance writer is now, more than ever, like that of a polar bear on a small, melting ice floe. One of the most successful freelance writers I know sends out 10 to 25 marketing pieces every single week. Out of sight means out of mind — and broke.

Most of my colleagues are either clinging to staff jobs, working now in public relations, teaching or producing “branded content”, i.e. writing copy for corporate clients.

Here’s some of what this year brought:


BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Working on two book ideas, both non-fiction

People think. “How hard can it be? Look at all the books in bookstores.” Yeah, well…It really depends on a variety of issues. How much money do you want or need to earn from researching, writing and revising a book? (It can take years.) How large a potential audience can you offer a publisher? How timely is your idea? How well-covered is the subject? What credentials have you already established?


Realizing how essential a strong network is

Two of my very best gigs came from people I know through an blogging project we all worked in in 2009. I haven’t even met one of them, although we’ve also both freelanced for the Times as business writers. Both contacted me with lucrative, ongoing work, and I’m so glad they did! Both know the quality of my work and chose to offer opportunities to me, not to any one of the 100’s, let alone 1000’s, of my competitors.

Some very slow and frightening months 

That’s unusual for me, and was crazy stressful, as our monthly health insurance costs are now an insane $1,800. Our fixed costs don’t suddenly shrink or disappear if I or Jose are having a slow month, or few months. Thankfully, my husband, also now full-time freelance after 31 years at the Times, has three steady anchor clients.

A stiffer spine

As I mentioned here in an earlier post on fleeing toxicity, I finally dropped an ongoing project that was making me really unhappy. I usually find it difficult to quit working on something I’ve committed to but this one, from the very start, was far too much work for far too little income. The way I was spoken to, consistently, felt rude and dismissive, on top of that. And (of course!), days after I finally said “enough!”, several much better-paid projects showed up to replace that lost income.

carr service01
The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

Loving being a generalist

I’m really proud of writing for the Times, (100+ stories since 1990), but also for three different sections this year on three utterly different topics, all of which I pitched. Most freelancers (and, yes, this costs me lost income), specialize narrowly on medicine or parenting or personal finance. I have so many interests and experiences, I’m much happier roaming around intellectually. As long as I can find a decent price for my idea, I’m cool with that.

IMG_20160616_133549584_HDR

Part of The library of Congress — spectacular!


Tossing my hat into competitive rings

I won a fellowship in June in D.C. to study retirement and its various challenges. That gave me three intense days listening to 19 speakers, introduced me to more smart writers in the group, (one of whom became a very good friend) and allowed me a brief vacation. I later applied for another fellowship, on the same subject, that would allow me the income and time to do a deep dive into a specific aspect of the issue.

IMG_20160617_102113083 (2)

Meeting a few editors face to face.

They’re sort of like unicorns now, out there somewhere but elusive. I met with several, including one at National Geographic Traveler and one from Elle. Neither has resulted in an assignment, but it was a thrill anyway.

Coaching and teaching


I love it! Clients included a tech PR writer from San Francisco and a local film theatre. Happy to help you as well; here’s a list of my one-on-one webinars.

Today being “a writer” means a lot more than writing, at least if you hope to earn a living doing it. It means being flexible, learning new skills, constantly marketing yourself, paying attention to industry shifts, happening daily.

Knowing, more than ever, how much real journalism — fact-based, deeply reported on firsthand knowledge — matters now

Stop consuming fake news! It is a disgusting disaster, enriching liars and cheats.

Read this great piece about why copy editing matters so much, still. It’s true. When “the desk” has a question, your heart stops.

 

Here’s to a great writing year for those of you who do it as well!

7 ways to consume media critically

By Caitlin Kelly

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”

That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.

Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.

To speak truth to power.

IMG_20160616_134341728 (3)

One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…

In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.

You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.

I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.

Seven ways to consume media critically:

1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.

If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.

2. Get off social media!

If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.

th
The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

3. Think like a reporter (and take my webinar to help you do so!)

That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”

4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.

Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?

Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.

Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.

IMG_20150210_102311450(1)
We’re not robots. Use your brain!

5. Assume nothing.

Question everything.

Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?

6. Talk back to the media!

Not simply on a comments page.

Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.

IMG_20150111_134324002_HDR
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

7. Know what’s happening in the media industry.

There are many places to follow news of what’s happening in the media world, from Columbia Journalism Review, Poynter Institute and Neiman Reports to Media Industry News; (did you know that Time magazine is in terrible trouble?)

When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.

Truth matters more than ever now

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160616_134045187_HDR (5)

It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

IMG_20160213_081402949

Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.

Why don’t women speak up?

By Caitlin Kelly

photo
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. Legendary for her ferocious biographies, she was so much fun!

Fascinating, depressing, unsurprising read in The New York Times this week:

Women’s voices are often missing and discounted in public affairs, even when they have seats at the tables of power. They speak less, make fewer motions and are more often subject to negative interruptions. Similar patterns prevail online.

If they feel at a disadvantage speaking as women, it’s because they are. In settings as varied as school boards, Vermont town meetings, community meetings in rural Indian villages and online news sites worldwide, researchers have quantified how women’s voices are underrepresented.

Women take up just a quarter to a third of discussion time where policy is discussed and decisions made, except when they are in the majority.

As someone — clearly! — unafraid to speak up publicly, whether in a blog post, letter to the editor, (with my letters published in the Times and in Newsweek), essays or op-eds — I’m not someone scared of being heard.

But so many women are!

I was raised this way, and many girls aren’t: I attended a single-sex school ages 8 to 13 and single-sex camps ages 8 to 16, where women led and their competence simply assumed as normal and expected.

I was raised by my father after I turned 14, and he never discouraged me from speaking out, (even if he should have!)

If you’ve ever attended a town meeting or a conference or a public panel discussion, especially when there is a microphone one must speak into, where you’re being recorded on video and audio, it’s an intimidating moment to speak out loud in front of strangers.

They might laugh. They might jeer. They might boo.

Or — they might listen attentively.

I see a similar pattern, and one that disturbs me, everywhere. If you read Twitter, and comments during Twitterchats; if you read letters to the editor in print; if you read on-line comments, you, too, will have noticed the paucity of women’s voices and opinions.

Only one woman’s name stands out as being an extremely vocal letter-writer to the Times, a professor at Brown named Felicia Nimue Ackerman. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen her published comments many, many times.

In one of the many writing classes I’ve taught, I urged my students to start writing letters to the editor, to add more female voices to the overwhelmingly male cacophony. I was thrilled to see one of their letters recently in The Economist.

A random survey this week showed three letters to the October 31 issue of the New Yorker (all women); 11 letters to the Financial Times (no women!); nine letters to the FT (one woman) and eight letters to the FT (no women’s name I recognized; couldn’t tell the gender of three of them.)

Our voices need to be heard!

We vote. We pay taxes. We employ millions of workers. We serve our country in the police force, fire houses and the military.

Why don’t more women speak up?

Frustration at being ignored, talked over or consistently interrupted by men. Responding can make us look bitchy, when it’s they who are being rude.

— Lack of practice: the less often you speak out, the more scary it seems.

— Lack of time. Too busy working/commuting/caring for others’ needs.

— Lack of interest in the subject at hand.

— Lack of self-confidence. “Who’d want to hear my voice anyway?”

— Fear of being trolled, getting rape or death threats. That has happened to women online, certainly.

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of saying the “wrong thing”, whatever that is.

— Fear of losing professional status, especially in a male-dominated industry or field. 

From Guts, a Canadian feminist magazine, written by a woman who fought against workplace bullying:

The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.

Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.

Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.

 

Do you speak up?

When, where and why?

You gotta have a posse!

By Caitlin Kelly

MSDBRCL EC016
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.

Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.

In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.

I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!

There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!

Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!

They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.

They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.

Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.

I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.

 

My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.

 

But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.

Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.

When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.

 

When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.

 

When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.

Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.

Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.

I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.

Do you have a posse?

Does it help?

Do you prefer journalism or “content”?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160315_164101907_HDR

Ooooooh, content! Aka books.

 

Good old English.

Content, with the emphasis on the second syllable, is what I used to be to work in journalism.

See also: happy, pleased, satisfied.

Today it’s about content — i.e. kawhn-tent — with the emphasis on the first syllable.

This is where I thump my cane and start shouting “Kids, get off my lawn!”

Or some similar shriek of frustration.

Truth is, of course I’m a “content provider”, in that I write words on demand to specific lengths that I sell to others for their use.

I guess it’s a nice little catch-all. Sadly, though, there’s nothing in that phrase to connote, oh you know, history, ethics, values, quality.

It’s like calling the sun a “light provider” or the ocean a “fish (and many other creatures) provider,” reducing what journalists once offered to a pile ‘o words, delivered as fast and cheaply as humanly possible.

photo(51)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

I can, after decades in this field, legitimately call myself a journalist, author, writer – having worked as a staff reporter and feature writer for three major daily newspapers and on staff for several national magazines as an editor.

That, plus hundreds of freelance pieces.

But the irony of an industry in disruption is that there are now many more people working in public relations — trying to sell stuff — than there are journalists. I get pitches every single day for things I couldn’t care less about from people who clearly couldn’t care less that they’re wasting my time deleting them.

Here’s a post about the rise of “content marketing”:

Content marketing is currently “in,” and brands are finding it’s surprisingly difficult to create compelling content that actually draws in readers. So they’re opening their pocketbooks and are willing to pay for content creation, and if you’re well-positioned with some decent writing credits, you’ll find that there’s plenty of work to go around. There are several freelancer job sites popping up where brands can advertise for these positions.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely noticed the news industry has struggled in recent years. Newspapers and magazines have endured thousands of layoffs and freelancers have found, in addition to facing shrinking budgets, news organizations are paying significantly less for digital stories compared to what they paid for print.

And a cheerful piece about why journalism students don’t even want to consider a job doing what the job used to mean — actual reporting.

I have several friends who teach journalism, both undergrad and graduate level, and find a scary trend — students who sit at their desks, Google and think that’s journalism. My friends have to shove them out of the building to actually look at stuff and talk to strangers, some of whom are intimidating as hell and two to three times their age.

Yes, really!

It could be funny, perhaps, if all those PR people weren’t being paid to make everything look and sound shiny.

It could be funny if the people being hired to pump this stuff out weren’t really young and utterly inexperienced, like the editor who sent me an email I literally could not understand.

This is the person being paid to edit me, two years after leaving college.

 

IMG_20150111_133928885
Did you read my coverage of the Paris Unity March? I blogged it here. That’s journalism

Which is why places like ProPublica, (where another friend is still doing dangerous and complex international reporting work), and The Washington Post are needed more than ever — if you haven’t been reading David Farenthold’s reporting on Donald Trump’s many misuses of his charity, you need to do so before the Presidential election.

Journalists get paid, (less and less and less), to tell real stories about real people — about crime and poverty and graft and corruption and politics and the environment. The stories are often dark and depressing and often crazy-complicated and have multiple furious gatekeepers insisting: “There’s no story here!”

Which always means there’s a hell of a story to be told — if there’s a place to publish it and someone to pay us to do that.

 

Are you content being offered a steady diet of content?