Some of you follow the news closely and know that President Elect Donald Trump makes a habit of naming, shaming and blaming reporters he thinks have somehow insulted him, often by merely challenging him on his ever-shifting statements and tweets.
“That” was Donald J. Trump’s inaugural news conference as a duly elected United States president-to-be, in which he called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage,” dismissed CNN as “fake news” and more or less told the whole lot of reporters at Trump Tower to stuff it when it comes to his unreleased tax returns because everyday Americans don’t care and, anyway, “I won.”
There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.
1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.
2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.
It better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.
The problem is multi-faceted.
Some of the issues journalists now face in covering Trump:
— Many Americans don’t trust the MSM, mainstream media.
— Many Americans are gulping down “fake news” with no idea who’s lying to them and making bank from it.
—Many Americans loathe journalists and think that challenging those in authority — whether elected officials or the wealthy — is rude and disrespectful.
— In an era of a 24/7 news cycle, journalists are racing to be first, not always correct.
— In an era of unprecedented secrecy and obfuscation, (we have not yet seen Trump’s tax returns — and how long exactly does an audit take?), transparency and accountability are more essential than ever for voters to know what the hell is going on.
— The President-elect is hiring his own family as senior advisors, none of whom, like him, have any prior political experience. Also unpredecented. And why should any of us trust them? We didn’t vote for them, nor do they need to be confirmed through Senate hearings.
— Journalists have traditionally been respectful of the office of the President, but never before in recent history has there been a President who attacks the media almost daily, often singling out specific reporters, (like NBC’s Katy Tur) by name. That can lead to social media death threats and doxing.
— Journalists are working in an industry in deep turmoil financially, feeling economically vulnerable at the very moment we need them to be utterly fierce in their reporting.
— Without determined, consistent, aggressive reporting on every conceivable conflict of interest, voters, no matter who they chose (or didn’t vote at all), will have no idea what Trump and his kakistocracy are up to. Trying to intimidate us only invites doubling down.
That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.
Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.
To speak truth to power.
One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…
In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.
You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.
I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.
Seven ways to consume media critically:
1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.
If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.
2. Get off social media!
If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.
That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”
4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.
Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?
Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.
Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.
5. Assume nothing.
Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?
6. Talk back to the media!
Not simply on a comments page.
Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.
When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.
It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.
Some of its most basic tenets:
You talk to real people — and verify their identities.
You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.
You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.
Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.
Back to fake news for a moment.
Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.
Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.
Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.
I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.
But the bottom line of journalism is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.
You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.
If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.
Maybe it affected your vote.
Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.
Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.
Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.
This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.
In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.
The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.
Are they accurate?
Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.
The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.
The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.
If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.
The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.
You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.
No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!
Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)
Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.
It can be something we overheard or saw.
Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.
I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.
I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.
The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.
Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.
What makes something a “story”?
— it’s new
— it’s making a ton of money for someone
— it’s the first time this event has ever happened
— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)
— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it
It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:
Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”
With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”
She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.
My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.
Key to this piece? Serendipity!
I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.
In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.
The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?
The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.
It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.
I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!
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.