Last summer in L.A. I meet a great guy who was driving an Uber, a freelance photographer, Mallury Patrick Pollard — who has created this really interesting podcast about creativity and how creatives live.
The NYT’s columnist Maureen Dowd recently posted this lament for the good old days of newsrooms:
As Mayer recalled, when a big story broke at The Star: “You could see history happening. People would cluster over a reporter’s desk, pile into the boss’s office, and sometimes break into incredibly loud fights. There were weirdos in newsrooms, and fabulous role models occasionally, and the spirit of being part of a motley entourage. Now, it’s just you and the little cursor on your screen.”
If you have watched TV shows like Alaska Daily, about a small paper in Anchorage, or Borgen, or (a million years ago) Lou Grant or the Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Newsroom, or films like Spotlight (2015 Best Picture), All the President’s Men, Broadcast News, The Paper or The Verdict or….You might think you know what working in a newsroom is like.
Having survived three of them, The Toronto Globe and Mail for 2.5 years at age 26, the Montreal Gazette at 30 for 1.5 years and one brutal year decades later at the New York Daily News, lemme tell ya! My husband worked 31 years at The New York Times, in the main newsroom in New York City and, earlier, in its Washington bureau.
We know. Oh, we know. Jose worked many assignments with Dowd, including some huge front page stories.
I agree there are few places — maybe as an ER physician or nurse, or a firefighter — where adrenaline surges are a normal part of every working day. Whenever I walked up the rear ramp of the Globe’s parking lot, past the enormous satellite dish that would (!!) transmit all our words to printing plants across Canada later that day, my blood pressure always always rose.
It was exciting but terrifying.
What if the Toronto Star or CBC beat us? What if we got something wrong? Working in daily news always means the fear of someone else getting the “scoop” first.
Most newsrooms — whatever the medium — look the same. Rows of desks, some piled very very high with papers and magazines and documents. Few windows. Open plan so everyone can see if you’re there and working and an editor can (and does) yell at/for you from far away. Your co-workers work barely a few feet away from you, so forget any sort of personal or professional privacy. No smelly food! No loud conversations!
Managers get offices with glass walls so they can see what we’re up to.
Ideally, this fosters camaraderie and collaboration, and sometimes it does.
Despite the chaos of the industry — so many layoffs! — it retains a military hierarchy and chain of command, from interns to publisher. Mess with it at your peril.
The irony, of course, is that it’s called a newsroom when the news is never there.
It’s in Kyiv or Islamabad or Edmonton or Des Moines, and that’s the true strength and beauty of them — the immediate transfer of information, words and images that flow into and out of the editors’ desks in the newsroom. There’s often someone who does rewrite (I have!) which is wild…a reporter calls in with their story and reads it to you over the phone so you have to type really fast and accurately! I’ve also dictated my own stories by phone as well. Very 1940s!
A crucial — and unseen/unheralded — part of every functional newsroom are its editors, for copy, graphics, maps, illustrations and photos. There are also, depending on the size of the media outlet, lawyers who may review a story for accuracy and defense against a charge of libel.
I first worked in a time when our laptops were very slow, TRS-80s, with tiny screens and we had to transmit our stories to the newsroom using alligator clips you attached to the handset of a telephone. That’s if you could even find a phone on deadline! Research meant actually reading and speaking to sources as our only font of information — no Google!
Competing with a better-funded paper like the Toronto Star could be a nightmare, like the night there was a prison riot in a city 2.5 hours east of Toronto. The Star, of course, got reporters to the scene while I, sitting in the newsroom, had to update five editions with very very little material. We even had to ask a senior manager whenever we needed a new notebook.
But I really miss its wit and repartee….like the night I was banging away on deadline and an editor shouted down the room…”Where is it?!”
“Hey, you can’t rush perfection,” I replied. The Venus de Milo wasn’t made in a day!”
“Do you type like her?”
The Montreal Gazette was another world, with one key editor who was deeply Catholic so I was cautioned never to suggest a story about abortion. It was one-paper town (in English) — compared to three in Toronto. The metabolism was slower. It wasn’t a great fit for me.
The NY Daily News hired me without previous NYC paper experience nor work for a tabloid. At prior papers, 1,000 words was a warm-up; at the News, deemed a long feature. Its halls held enormous copies of legendary moments in history, their front pages, framed. No pressure!
It was a very male place, with a few star reporters who were women. The photo editor shouted at me, again in an open newsroom where everyone was his unwilling audience, when I dared to ask for some basic instructions. I explained to my boss — who told me the man had once thrown a radio at him.
I broke several national stories and learned how to write tighter. I reported on a very different — much less affluent, much more diverse — New York than I’d ever known. Our stories were in Harlem and Queens and the Bronx, not the Upper East Side.
But the manager who hired me soon left, and my time there became extremely difficult. I won’t say more, but I’ve never worked in a newsroom since.
I miss them.
There is there, at its best, a tremendous sense of teamwork and accomplishment. For some.
There is, at its best, ready access to some of the smartest and most fun and boldest people you’re ever likely to meet — colleagues who’ve worked in places like Kabul and Kandahar, not just Kalamazoo.
I’ve been writing for The New York Times since the 1990s, when I started out writing 300-word book reviews on arcane topics like a history of the Kurds.
As a generalist, I’ve since written for almost every section of the paper: real estate, culture, business, Metropolitan, health, styles, essays, sports.
The one place you never ever want to be published in is their corrections box! Luckily it’s happened to me only three times, with more than 100 bylines there.
I know that being published there is a dream for some writers, so here’s a peek inside how I produced my latest for them, about prenuptial agreements.
I pitched two ideas to the editor (you need to know who exactly to pitch! I learned this by reading Twitter, where he announced his new position and shared his email address.)
He immediately wanted one of them.
We had a phone conversation Feb. 16 to discuss what he wanted from the story, angle and length. I was off!
Then…gulp…it was time to find sources, not so easy when getting people to discuss their finances in a global newspaper with millions of readers.
I found a lawyer in Iowa to get started, to get a general idea of the story’s parameters. Once grounded, I found a New York lawyer — through their PR gatekeeper — who led me to a local woman who became a key source, albeit a fearful one I tried to reassure. I have a lot of respect for anyone who agrees to speak on the record, especially to the Times, and how anxiety-provoking it can be. I explained carefully the goal of my story — to help others — and we negotiated what felt OK to print, and what did not.
The Times does not allow freelancers to use fake names or unnamed sources, nor for sources to read copy pre-publication.
One of the many moving parts — the hidden bit — of reporting any story is finding and persuading sources to even speak to a reporter. People can be really jumpy and sometimes I explain in detail how the process will go to alleviate their concerns.
I get it! I’ve been interviewed enough times I know how scary it is to lose control of your own story.
But the gatekeeper to the NYC lawyer was also initially quite resistant to a Times story, arguing that the paper only caters to the wealthy. Well, fair comment, but I told them my story was designed more to protect people, especially women, from getting screwed in a divorce, which I’ve seen plenty of, and it’s not pretty.
We went back and forth a bit, and she agreed to put me in touch with the lawyer she works with.
I interviewed the lawyer and her client (3 sources now) and through a pal in Los Angeles, found a lawyer there to add more insights and who connected me to a young gay Asian couple who were terrific to speak to; we did an hour Zoom.
Now we’re up to six sources…more to come!
The final one (in addition to me) was a financial writer, a woman.
Then it was time, finally, to write.
The actual writing, typically, is not difficult for me as, by then, I always have a clear idea what I want to say and in what order; my assigned word count was 1,500 to 2,000, enough real estate to tell this complicated story properly.
But I also know an editor will have, always, their own ideas and lots of questions.
I was a little nervous, as this was my first story for a new-to-me editor and I always hope to start off on the right foot.
For my first revision, I changed my lede (the first line, key to hooking the reader) and it stayed unchanged to publication; I choose them really carefully, and am fiercely protective of my ledes, relieved when the Times (and the FT) have liked them enough to keep them and praise them.
The editor immediately trimmed it a bit (no biggie) and had some smart questions I needed to answer to clarify and better explain some things. One real challenge of including your own story is that it’s obviously so familiar to you, but not to your editors and certainly not to your readers. It was also, to be honest, emotionally difficult for me to revisit a painful period of my life and a brief marriage.
The editor warned me the story would be read by several additional editors, (best to know this ahead of time) but each edit at the Times means you, the writer, get a “playback” which is our chance to make sure it still reads well, hasn’t been changed in a way that (unlikely!) is now inaccurate.
It’s very helpful to see, in every playback, what changes they make (with strikethroughs, etc) whether in sentence structure or wording; I don’t find it intrusive but see my copy getting tighter and stronger. The guts of the story, and my voice, remain, and that’s important to me as well.
Every new editor who reads the story can also make their own cuts or changes and adds their questions, then sends their version, so one can easily receive two or three or more different playbacks, each of which you need to read — and once a story is skedded for iminent publication, hang on!
My adrenaline is up.
You’re on a speeding train now, with the Times editorial machinery moving at its own internal pace, your copy moving from one editor to the next — so you need to be ready to give them whatever they need, asap. No pressure!
I always ask — what time do you need this back from me?
And why I always warn sources when I first interview them to be ready to reply very quickly to more questions once this process is in motion.
So by 4:30 Thursday afternoon I was reading the third playback — with 14 more questions; none overwhelming, with two needing my quick calls to sources for clarification.
I also had to make sure a few times the story’s photo caption was correct because one of the sources had changed her surname since I began work on the story, so I alerted a few editors to that. The photos also matter!
Accuracy in every syllable matters.
By 7:30 p.m. my story was in the hands of the final editor — who helped me finesse an attribution; if the source got back to me after 10:30 pm ET, I should (!) alert a Times editor in Seoul.
Talk about a global newsroom!
The piece went live yesterday at 5 a.m. Eastern and got nice “above the fold” placement on the Times’ homepage.
It will also appear in print tomorrow.
So, almost two months from pitch to publication, it also got a great illustration and photo, and some very nice feedback from editors and readers.
So many people want to be known as a writer, preferably one with multiple best-selling books, maybe a movie or TV deal on top of that.
Hope is charming.
But the reality of writing for income is simply not that, for the vast majority.
If you want to produce freelance journalism, you need a steady supply of sale-able ideas, smart editors ready to reply to you quickly, pay you well, edit you intelligently and promote the work. That’s a lot to hope for in one person!
Despite the lone-wolf perception of freelancers like me, having a wide and supportive network of smart, generous peers is essential — we steer one another away from lousy clients, share pay rates, send work to others when it’s not one of our specialties (and vice versa.) We meet at conferences, join online communities like ASJA and Study Hall.
Journalism pay rates have dropped enormously to a “competitive” $1/word — banal in the 80s when $2/word was standard at every glossy magazine. Today that’s a wildly elusive rate and we’re all struggling with inflation.
I still write occasionally for The New York Times, at a pay rate unchanged since the 90s. But if I can do the story efficiently and have an impact, there’s value in that for me.
I became an editor by volunteering for an Asian American magazine, a nonprofit mission-driven labor of love where no one drew a salary. Ten to fifteen hours of unpaid labor a week in exchange for the editorial experience I wanted was, to me, an acceptable trade—nearly all my labor then was unpaid. I cared for my infant and toddler during the day, then went to writing class at night. I spent every spare moment I had and some that I didn’t pitching freelance pieces and working on my first book proposal.
Then one of my favorite indie websites hired me to edit on a part-time basis. The job started at thirteen dollars an hour, twenty hours a week, and after a couple of months I was brought on full-time and granted a salary in the mid-30s. I loved that role, the tiny team I worked with, our community of readers. I was responsible for editing and publishing two to three freelance pieces a day, reading and responding to hundreds of pitches a week, and handling social media. I found my confidence as an editor, as the volume of work meant I had no time for imposter syndrome. By the time that website shuttered two years later, my salary had risen to the mid-40s. My agent and I had finally managed to sell my first book for a small advance. The independent publisher that acquired it later offered me a job as managing editor of its digital publications, starting at a few thousand more than I’d made in my previous role. Again, I felt lucky, working and collaborating with fellow writers every day—it felt like a dream job.
People who want to sell their books — certainly fiction — face multiple challenges, from finding an agent to represent their work (or self-publishing) to finding a reputable publisher. There are scammers out there preying on the naive.
Even those of us who have been multiply published may have to find a new agent — a slog — and a publisher, another slog. Obstacles appear you could only dream of, like a friend whose new book has not gotten the publicity boost she very much needs due to a strike by workers at that publishing company — this, after a decade of her hard work on the book.
Then you face another serious challenge — getting the word out as far and fast and wide as humanly possible — to boost your book sales. This is where a wide network with some serious social capital can offer a real help; I called the host of a TV show I appeared on many years before to tell them about a friend’s new book. It may now get a second look.
As I wrote here earlier, my husband and I co-authored a book proposal and found an agent, but 30 publishers rejected it. We offer tremendous credentials and a huge potential audience…but no luck. I may try again, but have been too discouraged since January by this failure.
An interesting recent story finds that later-life journalists in their 60s, 70s and beyond, are now working as mentors and editors, still passionate about the essential value of journalism.
From Neiman Reports:
These retirees include everyone from a onetime local sportswriter in Washington state to former top editors at The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters, a retired senior editorial director at CNN, familiar names from NPR, the ex-editors of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Miami Herald, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalists, a retired AP bureau chief and a former top executive at Hearst. Many are in their 70s or 80s.
Many also share a collective frustration with the decline of the profession in which they spent careers that date back to a time when media organizations were flush with resources and influence.
“If you can do something to help reverse that tide, you do it,” says Walter Robinson, the former editor of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, who has taken on a second career helping set up nonprofit community news sites, mentoring younger journalists, and serving on the board of a government accountability and First Amendment coalition.
“I had a great run and a lot of good fortune, and I just feel I have an obligation to give something back,” says Robinson, who is 77, of his continued involvement in the cause of journalism. “A lot of people I know who are my age have the same impulse.”
I recently signed up to become a mentor with Report for America and am very much heartened that others want to keep our industry thriving in whatever way we can.
Two lovely signs of ongoing life for my two books…524 libraries hold a copy of Blown Away, according to Worldcat., arguably the coolest website in the world for authors — as it lists every library in the world with a copy of your book, beginning with those physically closest.
I am so honored to see it in the libraries, and law libraries, of major American universities like Harvard, Yale, Brown, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins, and many smaller colleges, including community colleges. This, not making a best-seller list, was always my goal. I wanted my intensive national research to help inform and guide possible policy decisions.
It’s held by libraries in New Zealand, Germany, Viet Nam, the Philippines and the Netherlands, to name only a few.
The other joy, annually, is a small check I get thanks to Canada’s Public Lending Rights program — which pays authors for the public use of their books in libraries.
It means a great deal to me to know my hard work has had some lasting value.
I’ve been hanging out on Twitter for a few years, but have never had a tweet go viral — more than 11,000 likes!!
This one did:
I recently got a NYT call for pitches, none of which worked for me at all — but was perfect for a friend, and one with a new book on that topic, now both soon to appear. This is what we all should be doing. It is rarely as zero-sum as everyone assumes. #freelance
I didn’t think much of posting this, as it’s nothing I haven’t said there many times before.
Maybe it was the “ooooooh!” allure of an elusive New York Times byline that caught people’s attention?
Maybe it’s just the luck of that fickle algorithm?
But it’s been really gratifying and satisfying to see it retweeted and liked and bookmarked.
At its best, Twitter can offer a bully pulpit.
It was nice when that specific writer outed herself in reply and thanked me but I was just happy to make that introduction; I know her and I know her work and I trust her to do work of NYT quality. I don’t just do it for anyone; referrals can wildly backfire if the person you refer is less than completely professional.
I recently signed up to be a mentor with Report for America, a program designed to encourage younger/newer journalists as they start their careers, some in small towns, others in larger markets. It’s a joy to be helpful.
I’ve also been really busy this week emailing fellow alumni of our Toronto high school to create a new annual award for a graduating senior for creativity, named in honor of a fellow student who was funny as hell and much beloved and whose later life was very much marked by severe mental illness, a terrible loss.
Three fellow alumni from our year, so far, have agreed to share the cost with me.
Thanks to the school’s guidance counselor, we’re figuring it out quickly and I hope to be up in Toronto June 28th to present the award with a fellow student, a dear friend of that student.
Without kids of my own or nieces or nephews to encourage, I feel it’s really important to encourage the latest generation…already so plagued with so many challenges like COVID and climate change as it is.
Our high school is still pretty upper middle class, but now more diverse racially and ethnically, and has some lower-income students — the $1,000 we will offer is still a nice amount.
It’s an amazing story — and now a new book that took 14 years to produce: The Angel Makers tells the incredible and unlikely story of a tiny, remote Hungarian village where, in the early 1920s, a lot of men (and some babies) kept dying, even if previously young and healthy.
It was the work of Aunt Suzy, the village midwife, and her potion — arsenic derived from soaking flypaper — delivered to local women who wanted freedom from their drunk, abusive, unfaithful husbands or from trying to sustain an infant with no money to do so.
Patti, a much admired and highly adventurous friend of many years, and a career journalist, re-discovered the story and has written a terrific book.
“From seed to fruit, this book took 14 years,” she told me. “Eight of those years were full-on research and writing. It was just me and the story—just the two of us —and that was a somewhat lonely relationship. To finally have it completed and have others be able to read it is a thrill beyond measure.”
Tell us a bit about you and why/where/how you first became a journalist? What about it appealed to you?
I started at 19 as an obit writer at the St Pete Times (now Tampa Bay Times).
I got the bug much earlier than that, though. My older brother was an illustrator at the Virginian Pilot, and for my 13th birthday he gave me a tour of the paper— the newsroom, the pressroom—we went all over that building and I was enthralled with every square inch of it. I can still hear the teletype, the typewriters, the ringing telephones. I can still see the enormous vats of ink. From then on, I was hooked. When I think back, it really was life changing, even at such a young age. It had a profound effect on me. Thanks, Steve!
After working in the States, how and why did you end up living in an Austrian village?
A few years before I moved to Europe, I had gotten a Knight International Press Fellowship, which sends reporters to struggling or so-called emerging democracies to help fellow reporters improve their skills, working conditions, etc. It was like a journalism Peace Corps. My assignment was for Central and Eastern Europe. I loved the work and ended up moving abroad to do it full time in January 2000. I first lived in Bratislava, Slovakia, then moved across the border into Austria.
For how long?
I came back to the USA in 2016.
What sort of work were you doing then?
It was a range of duties, and after the Fellowship it was mostly contracted assignments with non-profits. I worked inside newsrooms with journalists, I taught university courses, I lead workshops. I did a lot of visual journalism, which included a lot of newspaper and magazine redesigns. I worked on free press issues in places like Ukraine and Moldova, and on occasion, worked with ambassadors, as well (one such meeting was with the ambassador to Macedonia: “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how to repair the tv tower that has been shot out by Albanian rebels”).
When I wasn’t doing such media training work, I was freelancing.
Tell us how you stumbled across this amazing story in the first place.
I was bumbling down the backroads of the Internet one afternoon and bumped into a short piece about this strange village in Hungary…
Did you know right away this was a good book topic? Why? How?
I had no intention of writing a book about it. I thought it would just be an article and I’d move on to the next article. But something stayed with me. I kept bringing it up to friends, and in my spare time rooting around for ever more info. After a few years, I thought, hmmm, maybe there is a book here…
Tell us about finding your agent/selling the book
In my case, it all came down to kismet.
Out of the blue, I got an email from an old colleague from my Washingon, DC days. We hadn’t been in contact in at least a dozen years. I was delighted to hear from him. We chatted back and forth (email), catching up, and I told him about the book idea—at that point I was putting finishing touches on the proposal. He took a look at my website and came back to me to ask why, in God’s name, had I not included any info about the book! Seemed like a no brainer to him, and of course he was right. I went straight to the site and added it. Not four hours later, what popped into my Inbox? An email from an agent. It turns out, he had just read a piece I had written for the Smithsonian—my first for them—which had come out the day before. He had gone to my website to find out more about me and saw the info about the book. “I’d love to take a look at your proposal.”
He turned out to be absolutely the right agent for me.
That 24 hours—It was an inexplicable alignment of stars.
What was the first step in getting started on it?
There were many steps being taken at the same time, but the most critical was to find an assistant. I found a fantastic man—a historian specializing in the region who was fluent in English. There were a few fails before I found him.
What were the most difficult/challenging things about researching it?
This wasn’t challenging, per se, but it took some time and work to understand Hungary. To fully learn, for example, about Hungary’s part in WWI and the disastrous aftermath—the Communist takeover and the Romanian war. That’s not something that can be skimmed over. You have to dig deep. In the book, the war, et. al., are just a backdrop, but that doesn’t mean you can cheat and get by with the minimum. The story will suffer.
It also took time, and patience, and study, and feet on Magyar ground to really understand—as best I could—and appreciate—as best I could—the soul of the Hungarian people. At least to the extent that I could as a non-Hungarian, and as someone who does not speak the language. My historian assistant helped me tremendously. And I also moved to Szolnok, the town where the trials took place, for several months. Having lived for so long in a small Austrian village (not far from the Hungarian border), and having spent so much time in other East European villages, also helped, I think.
About writing it?
Independent journalists —particularly those who report from abroad–are paid very poorly, and we get a lot of deadbeat clients who try not to pay at all. That’s hard on a person. I’m single. There is no secondary income to rely on. So I’d say the hardest thing about writing it was to always be scrambling. Always counting pennies. It’s difficult to work under those conditions. And hard on your health.
That final Canadian angle is a hoot! How did you find it?
After the original article came out, the victim contacted me!
Was there any resistance among Hungarians or locals to your dredging up a story that is pretty horrific?
There was, understandably, some resistance. Many are descended from either a victim or a perpetrator—in many cases both—and they would prefer to leave the past in the past, as you might imagine. They are also very protective of the women, compassionate about the circumstances that drove them to do what they did.
How were you able to recreate such specific details — Aunt Suzy’s love of brandy or her pipe or hobnail boots?
The archive was a trove of information. And the events were widely covered, not just by the press at the time, but also by well-known Hungarian writers, who went into more detail than the average reporter. There were sociologists who had gone before me, village monographs, village elders. And of course my historian assistant was amazing.
What is Szolnok like these days? Is there anything anywhere that’s still reminiscent of the period you wrote about? Or the town where it happened?
Szolnok is a bustling town, and still quite pretty. Sadly, the Communists destroyed a lot of the fabulous architecture, but much still remains. The artist colony is still there, and there are a lot of delightful cafes and eateries. It has a nice vibe.
Nagyrev did pretty well under Communism, and has struggled ever since its collapse. It is a tight-knit community. They host things like yoga classes, and the like. In a certain sense, it is not unlike other villages in that region of the country–or even hamlets in neighboring countries–in that there is not a lot of opportunity for folks. The difference is its utter remoteness. It still takes nearly as long to get there from Szolnok—a distance of 25 miles—as it did a hundred years ago.
Are there any local memorials, plaques, public formal recognition of this event?
A couple of years ago, the Szolnok newspaper ran a feature/commemoration of Kronberg on the 90th anniversary of “The Arsenic Trials.” But to my knowledge, there is no formal recognition.
Tell us/me anything you want to….
Finally, I’ll add that although this is a true crime story, there’s much more to it than that. That the Angel Makers happened at all has everything to do with women’s place in society. These were not deranged, bloodthirsty women out for the kill. In most cases, they were desperate to escape tortorous situations. They did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do.
In the hundred years since these crimes occurred, not a lot has changed for women. Sorry to say, but it’s true.
Typical of such summits, the people speaking were largely white, upper middle class and already perched high in the industry…not necessarily the best place from which to enact meaningful change. By the time you’ve hit the heights, so to speak — like any industry, really — you’ve climbed the greasy pole and know how many ways you can slip back to the bottom: pissing off your advertisers or publisher, to start with. I’ve been working in journalism since I was 19, freelance and staff — a senior editor at three national magazines and a reporter and feature writer for three big dailies. I enjoyed my career, but I’m mostly out of it now, and not subject to the exhausting chase for clicks and views. The Washington Post recently hired a social media coach (!) to work with their reporters. This is, for me, a fresh hell. Not enough any longer to produce terrific stories…
An excerpt from that conference, as reported by The New York Times:
“The media” pops up on your smartphone and is thrown onto your front porch. It is transmitted on television sets and is featured in glossy magazines. It’s so varied in so many ways but is similar in one respect: Many Americans don’t trust it.
According to a recent Gallup poll, trust in mass media has hit a near record low: Only 34 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media, while 38 percent of Americans have none at all...
“We do need some level of news, but there are so many people that just need basic information,” argued Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, a news organization focused on low-income Detroiters.…
“You can’t do a big investigation if you are not covering the city council every day,” said Sara Just of “PBS NewsHour.” You can’t find out who the corrupt mayor is if you are not there every day.” The disappearance of that kind of local journalism, she said, is what “worries me the most. That’s not going to be the for-profit center, but it is how we find out what’s going on.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, whose publication, The Atlantic, put up a paywall shortly before the pandemic, argued for a subscriber-funded model: “Our industry made a mistake 20 years ago by giving away quality journalism for free — we trained readers to expect something that took work, time and energy and funding and we gave it away. And we have to stop doing that.”
As some of you may know, George Santos — a lying sack of garbage — not only recently got elected as a Republican Congressman from Long Island, despite a barrage of lies about his work, education, life and but now sits on two committees.
Only one small local newspaper noticed what a grifter he is but there was no other media interest in following up.
We live in a golden age of national media startups. Every week another group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed media personalities launches another cleverly branded news site to solve all of American journalism’s problems.
So why do all these sites sound the same?
Why do political news sites, begun with lots of fanfare about how different and innovative and disruptive they plan to be, end up covering the same stories covered by every other established media source?
Why are they all obsessed with whatever Donald Trump spews onto his private social accounts? Why do they listen every time GQP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks? Why do they report on what senators say on Tucker Carlson’s show, on each other’s podcasts, on Chuck Todd’s Status Quo Fetish Hour?
Why do they all move in a pack, chasing the same ball, like 5-year-olds playing soccer for the first time?
Because — as any honest journalist knows — the few who rise to a position of any power or influence, let alone a job with a liveable salary – has already been co-opted. When a year at one of the fancy journalism schools will cost more than a year’s salary and the industry is already highly insecure, only a brave (or trust-funded few) can even still afford to buy entree to the industry or stick around very long.
So those who become staff journalists can start to look and sound the same….as does their reporting.
Pack journalism dominates — one person chasing all the others to match a story (no matter how tedious!) for fear their managers (as as they will) ask why they aren’t covering it?
Not IF they should at all!
It’s lazy and easy to sneer “fake news” when you dislike what you hear or see.
I rarely see anyone ask…what’s the upside for this worldview?
It’s also pretty obvious that those sneering “fake news” have rarely, if ever, even met or spoken to anyone, anywhere, who actually works in journalism — bringing any genuine curiosity about what it’s like to produce news or features.
We all have some idea what doctors or lawyers or cops or teachers do all day but few of journalism’s most toxic and virulent critics really have a clue about the ecosystem of news production — which is why such attacks leave me unmoved.
I agree that mainstream American journalism needs to be a lot better, but few wake up in the morning determined to print or broadcast something they know to be false.
Believe it or not, like many journalists, I’m disappointed by too much of it every day.
Not because it’s “fake news” but because it’s:
overly focused on crime, violence, sentimentality and military
ignores most of the world beyond the U.S.
rarely addresses the roots of complex issues like poverty and homelessness
doing a lousy job covering and explaining the urgency of climate change
sucking up to corporate interests
I have no illusion all journalists are good guys! Some are inevitably lazy, unethical, rushed, underfunded, poorly trained and edited.
But it doesn’t mean journalism is unimportant to democracy, regardless of its flaws. If you can’t access basic, verifiable, mulitply sourced facts about corrupt politicians or dangerous medical issues, to name only two key issues affecting us all — good luck!
Untrue assertions make their way to mainstream news consumers in several ways. Common tactics sources use include false equivalence, whataboutism, bothsidesism and good old-fashioned lying. Well-meaning journalists play a role by allowing sources to give “their side” of an argument — true or not — out of a belief that fair, ethical journalism requires them to do so.
False equivalence refers broadly to situations where a source makes an assertion that two things that share some similarities are equal despite significant differences between them. Comparing Trump supporters’ Jan. 6, 2021, protest in Washington, D.C., to protests following the death of George Floyd is an example. The Floyd protests didn’t turn into a deadly riot that overtook the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.
Whataboutism is a form of false equivalence in which a source responds to an allegation by claiming that someone else did something similar or worse without addressing the substance of the allegation.
Two journalism films are worth your time no matter how much you want to dismiss my defense and protestations, the 2015 film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, about an investigation by the Boston Globe investigative team of three reporters that uncovered 249 abusive Catholic priests and 1,000 victims….many more exist worldwide, as evidenced by the long list in the film’s final credits, from Igloolik, Canada to Argentina.
At its best, this is what journalists do.
Also, the 2022 film She Said, about two New York Times journalists who uncovered decades of abuse by former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — now in prison for those crimes.
Both are slow moving and procedural but also show the internal hierarchies of power at each paper and how they impeded or helped the reporters and the emotional and physical toll that such reporting on difficult issues affects us.
Because it does.
How cynically — if you even consume news or journalism — do you view the industry?
In late May I flew to Toronto, my hometown, for the first visit in 2.5 years, catching up with dear friends there; even though I moved away permanently decades ago, I stay in close touch with about half a dozen of them. I was invited to a cottage on Georgian Bay only reachable by boat…six adults, a cat and a dog and all our supplies! It was very beautiful and quite cold! The cabin I slept in had no heat so I wore a wool hat and a very heavy wool blanket.
Big Sur, CA
My tiny perfect room at Deetjen’s, Big Sur
In June, my birthday month, I finally spent a solo month driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles — a lifelong dream only made possible thanks to a wholly unexpected inheritance from my late mother. Along the way, I stayed with a pal in a town near SF, with another in Santa Rosa, had meals with nine other pals, some I had never before met — but have known for years only through social media. It was a real joy, after so much social isolation and loneliness trying to avoid COVID, to sit and chat for hours. I reconnected with two dear friends, both former colleagues of my husband Jose at The New York Times. I had lunch with a woman who became a friend after we cooperated on an exclusive story for the Times…with 150 emails between us by the time the paper flew me from NY to San Francisco to write about Google. I hadn’t been back to that city in a decade, or L.A. in 20 years. I fell very hard to California — such beauty! I cried on the way to the airport the day I left. What a joy it all was!
A great visit with Jose in November to Montreal and a hotel four hour drives’ northeast of the city on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We live within a mile of the Hudson River — but this was a whole other sort of river! I loved speaking and hearing French again; I lived in Montreal as a Gazette reporter, in Paris at 25 and have been back to both places many times since.
A few days upstate in Saratoga Springs visiting very good friends, former Times colleagues. The hot springs did seem to help my arthritic hip!
I enjoyed some well-paid and really interesting work writing for a non-profit foundation that gives money for academic research. It allowed me to interview three brilliant, passionate and accomplished researchers. Loved it.
Jose continues to enjoy good health and has plenty of steady well-paid work, which has lightened my workload. I’m so grateful! I started writing and selling my photos at 19, hustling hard for decades. It is a great gift to just do a lot less.
Three dear friends each came to visit. We love our pals who live far away — one in Portland, Oregon, one in Milwaukee (both former students of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute) and my pal Scott, who lives in Pennsylvania. It was great to finally catch up with them, even though one of them fell desperately ill for about 24 hours — and so did we! With one very small bathroom, it was a bit of a horror movie. It wasn’t COVID or flu. Maybe norovirus.
Completely new, a much stronger relationship with one of my two half-brothers, 10 years younger, who fought stage 4 cancer and looks likely to be OK. We met when I was 15 and he was 5 but spent very little time together, even though we lived in the same city for decades; we had different mothers and never lived together. I had very early stage breast cancer (no chemo) in June 2018 so I have some idea what he’s been through and made sure to call and text him often. I’m surprised and glad (however a terrible way to get there) we have a deeper friendship now.
A lovely surprise — a C1 rating after my written and oral tests from Alliance Francaise (C2 is the highest), i.e. expert.
As you can tell, renewed and strengthened friendship remains my life’s greatest gift (beyond Jose and good health!)
For 2023 I hope:
For good health for me and Jose — and you!
Continued freelance opportunities
The health and income to allow me to travel more
To study and practice my French and Spanish
Mentoring journalists working at Report for America
A publisher for our book proposal (20 rejections so far, 16 more to go…)
One of my best memories of 2022…Pete’s Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest. I sat at the bar and had a long conversation in Frenchwith a visiting historic costume designer. She bought my beer!
By Caitlin Kelly
I’m writing less now than I used to…in some ways, this is good because at higher pay rates I can afford to produce less.
These were three challenging and interesting assignments speaking to academic researchers on health policy for a grant-making foundation; the communications director and I have never spoken or met but she knows me and my work through Facebook. I loved speaking to such smart, passionate people. It’s a real privilege and their work can be somewhat complex to explain.
My favorite story of the year was my first ever for the Financial Times, a global business paper in London I read every day. The quality is amazing so it was a real thrill to sell a story to them, about women ironworkers in New York City. Here’s the link. The pay rate was half what The New York Times pays — barely $500. I had to drive an hour each way to Queens, spend an hour or so speaking to the women there, then do additional phone interviews, so it wasn’t lucrative. But it was a lot of fun and a real accomplishment to break into the FT, so I’m proud of that.
I had two unpleasant experiences with New York Times editors, which effectively shut off any chance of writing for those two sections. I hate any sort of professional conflict because you can’t make a freelance living without ongoing relationships! I also lost $3,000 from the shady crew at ZZDriggs, a furniture sales website, who had committed to $6,000 worth of blog posts from me in a year — and abruptly, and without any warning at all, dumped me in July and gave no explanation. My attempts to recoup that lost income from a CEO who lives in a multi-million-dollar brownstone (of course) were fruitless. Not cool.
Also my basic mistake of not having a much tougher and clearer contract. Beware of twinkly charm!
Jose and I spent a lot of time and energy producing a 20,000 word book proposal for fellow freelancers which, so far, has failed to find any publisher, much to our annoyance and frustration — OK, mine. There are still more than a dozen looking at it…
One win was getting my rating from Alliance Francaise after taking their written and oral tests — C1 (expert!) Only one category is higher. Those bloody subjunctives!
The work I most enjoy — and I really love it — is coaching other writers. I admit it, it’s money I make with the least friction or drama as clients seem to find me, mostly through Twitter. I don’t market myself heavily as such. My greatest weakness is my laziness when it comes to endlessly marketing myself to new clients and editors.
Usually when people come to me for coaching, they already have a defined need or problem they hope I can help them with. Sometimes it’s an essay they’re working on or a book proposal or a need to just brainstorm new markets for their work. I charge $250/hour (with a one hour minimum, paid in advance.) No one has asked for a refund!
My goals for 2023 are less about writing than reading and traveling more, working on my French and Spanish skills. I have a few potential clients lined up, but just won’t chase work hard at this point. I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 and I’m pooped!
Last spring, Jose and I were chatting about doing a possible book, a sort of guide for fellow freelancers, as millions of people are now eager to try this way of living and working.
Over July and August we worked really hard and, writing it together, produced a full book proposal which we shared with a pal in Toronto who worked for years in book publishing and now teaches it. She liked it a lot but made some very specific suggestions to improve it.
We did that and started submitting it to agents, with a few rejections.
Then — yay! — we found an agent quickly, also in Toronto, my hometown I left decades ago. So we are now officially represented and very excited. She won’t be submitting it to editors until early November after we take a badly needed break, (Jose’s first for 2022), to Quebec and upstate NY.
Then, all digits will be crossed!
It’s a wild notion to be co-authors after 22 years together, and Jose is a photographer and photo editor and photo archivist — not a writer! But he writes very well and has been a good soldier with all my demands for revisions.
I haven’t sold a new book since September 2009, when I sold Malled, so am eager to rejoin the fray. The industry has changed a lot since then, and getting tougher, of course. There’s been a lot of consolidation so fewer places to submit to. Then the nasty fact of payments in 25% increments…the first payment (- 15% to the agent, standard every time) upon signing the deal; the second upon acceptance of the manuscript; the third upon publication — up to a year later then the final one (!) a year after that. Unless you get a huge advance, which few do, it’s not a way to make a lot of money!
But we know for sure there’s a global market for this subject and we’ve read some of the “comps” — comparable books, a must for every non-fiction book proposal. I won’t get specific yet, but ours has at least six very distinctive features that competing books just don’t offer.