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.
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.
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 significantlyless 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.
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.
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?
The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.
I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.
It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.
These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.
You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.
Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.
There’s no other way to tell these stories well.
Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.
Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.
Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?
I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.
It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.
It’s called a press pack for a reason…
I hope, as you consume serious, smart journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.
Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.
As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.
It’s a real loss.
We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.
We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.
And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.
Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.
The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.
After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.
The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.
Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.
I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.
We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.
On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.
Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)
Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!
A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.
That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.
It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.
We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.
His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.
For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.
Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.
Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.
There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.
There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.
There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.
Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:
It takes talent
Yes, it does.
Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.
Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.
It takes training
You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.
They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.
They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.
The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.
It takes practice
I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.
They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.
We all crave success and admiration.
It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.
It takes social skills aka charm
Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.
Charm is an under-rated skill.
Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.
Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.
Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.
It takes skills
If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.
You are not An Artist here.
You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.
You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.
We’re hired help.
Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.
Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.
For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.
You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.
If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.
I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.
This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…
It takes studying the greats
“You can’t write without reading.”
If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.
Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.
It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source
It doesn’t matter what the work is.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.
J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.
If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.
Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.
It takes patience
No one writes a perfect first draft.
It means being edited
If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.
Just don’t even bother.
Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.
A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.
A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.
How badly do you want to improve?
It means being read
That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.
You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.
A thick skin is key.
It means being — publicly –critiqued
Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:
Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.
The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.
(Several other reviews were much kinder.)
It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair
Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.
It means being lucky — or not
This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.
It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.
Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.
It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.
(See a pattern here?)
It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.
Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.
The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.
Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.
Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.
The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.
I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.
The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.
Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.
And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.
By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.
Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:
Someone gets an idea
It happens in a variety of ways.
It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.
It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.
It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.
It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.
Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.
Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.
Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.
A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:
a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?
The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.
Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.
Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.
I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.
What’s the story — and who cares?
Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.
We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)
As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?
Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?
Does it reflect a trend?
What expertise or insight can you bring to it?
Is it even really worth doing?
Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.
We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client
Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.
But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?
If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.
What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.
Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.
What’s the best way to tell this story?
One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?
The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
How soon do we need to jump on it?
In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.
What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?
Who do we need to include to tell this story?
This is where so much journalism remains weak — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few women and/or people of color, as this story points out.
I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.
Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.
There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.
How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?
This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.
It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.
Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.
Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.
If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.
What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!
I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.
How much time before you’re done?
I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.
The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.
Does it make sense?
This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.
It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!
She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!
One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.
So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.
It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.
We’re still figuring it out.
When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.
How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?
How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?
Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?
That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.
I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.
I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.
Rejection is normal.
If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.
Figure out what didn’t work and move on.
Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.
We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!
Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.
Peace of mind.
I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.
I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.
Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.
Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.
That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.
In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.
One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.
The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.
My recent interview with this author, posted here, was conducted by email, a Q and A
For those of you who work in journalism, or need to interview someone.
For some people, the idea of actually having to question another human being is terrifying and which — to their professional detriment and the weakness of their stories — they try to avoid.
But very few pieces worth reading are constructed without interviews, whether they provide fantastic sound bites or simply (not simply!) the essential foundation for understanding a complex issue so you can explain it cogently to your readers.
I conduct many more interviews than may actually appear in my published stories; while I typically need three to four interviews per 1,000 words, that’s not a rule.
I’m writing a 900-word story this week and have already done more than 10 interviews, several of them 45 to 60 minutes each.
Why not use them all?
Sometimes the quotes are boring, but the information was important. Maybe what they said they sent me hurtling off in an unexpected, new direction.
Conducting an interview takes forethought, planning, skill and considerable emotional intelligence. You can’t just go down a laundry list of your questions and not, as it’s happening, respond and react to what you’re hearing.
These have included a female admiral, a Prime Minister, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, crime victims and victims of torture. It doesn’t matter who you’re interviewing — what matters most is how you approach them and your time with them.
Do your damn homework!
Read as many boring long detailed government, policy, non-profit scientific or academic reports as needed before you start asking silly, elementary questions.
Watch videos and listen to broadcasts and podcasts on your subject so you know what the hell they’re talking to you about. Get up to speed!
Because every interview you conduct is a potential and crucial link in your reporting chain; if you impress each subject with your preparation and ability to handle yourself well, they can lead you to the next one, and possibly with a key introduction.
I’ve won national exclusives this way. We are being evaluated every single time. Never forget that.
It means paying careful attention.
Who to speak to and why? What do you need from each person? How available are they — or will you get stuck with a spokesman from their PR department instead?
Will the interview be conducted by phone, email, Skype or in person?
In person is almost always the best, giving you a chance to closely observe their dress. grooming, demeanor, reactions, silences, body language and surroundings. If by phone, be sure neither of you will be interrupted by pets, children, co-workers, and block out at least 15 minutes or more — you’ll get very little of value in only five minutes.
Some interviews work well by email, especially if your subject is traveling and/or in a distant time zone; the risk is that their replies will feel stilted or, worse, be written by someone who’s not your subject. Skype can work well for subjects too far away to reach in person or by phone.
What do you want from this interview? Facts? A great anecdote? A terrific quote? Confirmation of others’ opinions — or denial? Analysis of a complex issue?
Is this interview on the record — i.e. will you be able to quote this person and use their full name, age, location and profession? If not, you need to negotiate — before they begin to speak! — if they are speaking not for attribution, on background or off the record. Only before someone speaks should this agreement be made, not afterward when they suddenly regret something they have told you. Be sure you both understand the terms of the interview before you begin.
Take notes or tape? Both? Use a laptop for note-taking or pen and paper? To me, these are highly individual choices, although some clients will insist, as part of your contract, that you not only tape record but provide them with a full transcript of your notes. I use pen and paper. I find laptop note-taking noisy and intrusive. It’s important to be able to look your interview subject in the eye! Don’t be a robot.
What’s the tone and mood of your interview? Confrontational? Insistent? Humorous and relaxed? Deferential? Just because your topic is serious doesn’t mean you have to be leaden and tedious. Think through the best way to make your interlocutor feel most comfortable and go from there.
Where will you conduct the interview, if meeting in person? Ideally, their home or office, as a space potentially filled with intriguing clues about their interests and passions. But if they’re traveling or a celebrity, you’ll likely be stuck in a hotel room or restaurant.
How much time will you spend with them? I rarely allow less than 30 minutes for my interviews. It takes time for your subject to feel at ease with you and for you to develop some rapport with them. If you’re writing a profile of them, be prepared to spend a lot of time around them to get a feel for their character and behavior patterns — I once spent eight hours (four two-hour sessions) with one woman I was profiling (plus many additional hours speaking to her family, colleagues and former colleagues.)
When will you ask the tough(est) and most challenging questions? You can’t just wimp out for fear they’ll get angry or yell at you (they might) or hang up or say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!” While working on a fantastic national piece for the New York Daily News, I knew I’d hit pay dirt when a Homeland Security flack sneered: “There’s no story here!”
Structure your interview time thoughtfully and be sure to get those harder questions asked, even if you have to repeat them multiple times and/or rephrase them. Yes, typically, we save them for close to the end.
The snowball effect, it’s called in sociology. Ask: “Who else should I be speaking to next about this issue?” If you’ve done your homework, conducted the interview sensitively and intelligently, they’ve enjoyed it, and you, and will send you on to your next great source.
Still need some help?
I coach individually at $225/hour, with a one-hour minimum, via phone or Skype, and also offer several terrific webinars, which we schedule at your convenience, at caitlinkelly.com/classes.
All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.
Their work takes months.
Why on earth would this make a compelling film?
I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.
The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.
The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.
The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure, (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.
The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.
But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.
It takes patience.
It takes persistence.
It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.
It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.
Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.
Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.
The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)
The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.
That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.
It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”
To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?
Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)
I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.
I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!
I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.
It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.
I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.
When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.
I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.
If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!
Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:
Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?
The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.
No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.
I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.
It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.
I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.
The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.
At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.
That no other reporter would have.
It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.
I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.
When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.
Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.
Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.
Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.
Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.
Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.
One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.
We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.
So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.
When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.
At our best, to speak truth to power.
That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.
Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.
I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.
But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.
I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.
I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”
I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.
Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:
— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.
Some of you are already writing non-fiction, memoir, journalism, essays.
Some of you would like to!
Some of you would like to find newer, larger, better-paying outlets for your work.
Some of you would like to publish for the first time.
Maybe you’d like to write a non-fiction book, but where to start?
I can help.
As the author of two well-reviewed works of nationally reported non-fiction, Blown Away: American Women and Guns and Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, winner of a Canadian National Magazine award and five fellowships, I bring decades of experience as a writer for the most demanding editors. I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 and for others like More, Glamour, Smithsonian and Readers Digest.
I’ve taught writing at Pace University, Pratt Institute, New York University, Concordia University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center — and have individually coached many writers, from New Zealand, Singapore and Australia to England and Germany.
My students’ work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan.com and others.
On Saturday October 17, and Sunday October 18, I’m holding a one-day writing workshop, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at my home in Tarrytown New York, a town named one of the U.S’s 10 prettiest.
It’s easily accessible from Grand Central Station, a 38 minute train ride north of Manhattan on Metro-North Railroad, (round trip ticket, $20.50), plus a five-minute $5 cab ride to my home — we have an elevator so there’s no issue with mobility or access.
Coming by car? Tarrytown is right at the Tappan Zee bridge, easy to reach from New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate.
Each workshop is practical, tips-filled, down-to-earth and allows plenty of time for your individual questions. The price includes lunch and non-alcoholic beverages.
$200.00; payable in advance via PayPal only.
Space is limited to only nine students. Sign up soon!
Freelance Boot Camp — October 16
What you’ll learn:
How to come up with salable, timely story ideas
How to decide the best outlets for your ideas: radio, digital, print, magazines (trade or consumer), newspapers, foreign press
How to pitch effectively
Setting fees and negotiating
When to accept a lower fee — or work without payment
Writing and Selling a Work of Non-Fiction — October 17
What you’ll learn:
Where to find ideas for a salable book
The question of timing
What’s a platform? Why you need one and how to develop it
The power of voice
Why a book proposal is essential and what it takes
Finding an agent
Writing, revising, promoting a published book
Questions or concerns? Email me soon at learntowritebetter@gmailcom.
You’ll find testimonials about my teaching here, as well as details on my individual coaching, (via phone or Skype), and webinars, (by phone or Skype), offered one-on-one at your convenience.
Want to register now?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you an invoice and share travel details.