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 CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi after seeing “graphic evidence” for the first time last Thursday that Ghomeshi had “caused physical injury to a woman,” the CBC said an internal memo sent out Friday.
“At no time prior to last week was the CBC aware that Jian had engaged in any activities which resulted in the physical injuries of another person,” the memo states.
After seeing this evidence, the public broadcaster took “immediate steps to remove Jian from the workplace and terminated his employment on October 26.”
“After viewing this graphic evidence we determined that Jian’s conduct was a fundamental breach of CBC’s standard of acceptable conduct for any employee,” the memo states. His conduct “was likely to bring the reputation of his fellow employees and CBC into disrepute and could not be defended by the CBC.”
Led by Toronto freelancer Jesse Brown, whose work is crowdfunded, the revelations that Ghomeshi, whose warm and gentle style brought many celebrities to his arts and culture show, “Q” is in fact — allegedly — a brute and a creep have stunned many. So far, nine women have now come forward to tell their tales of abuse at his hands.
Here, from Toronto Life magazine:
What were the roots of the Jian Ghomeshi story, and how did you become the first journalist to tackle it?
It started when I was approached by a young woman. I investigated independently for some time—a few months—and I found a number of other people making accusations. I put together the stories as best as I could, and I had extensive conversations—hours and hours—with these women, and I verified aspects of their stories.
What was it like for you when you started to realize that the story was getting so huge that you might not be able to do it by yourself?
I got advice from a number of libel and defamation attorneys. Originally, I was very eager to report the story myself. I have my own journalistic standards as to what would make this story newsworthy, and it met those standards completely. But I’m not a legal expert, so I wanted to know what could be done to make this bulletproof against a libel claim. What I was told, in no uncertain terms, is that there was absolutely nothing I could do. There were many things I could do to make the story stand up in court, but there’s nothing I could do in my journalism to stop me from getting sued. That’s why news organizations have this thing called libel insurance, which I didn’t even know about at that point. One of my attorneys suggested that I partner up with a newspaper. I’ve been very vocal about my opinion that the news media is not doing its job aggressively enough, but one news organization, if I had to pick one, that was very interested in investigation and breaking stories, and had shown some balls in recent years, was the Toronto Star.
Was it frustrating for you that you couldn’t break this story by yourself?
Once it crossed the threshold for me that this was absolutely a valid news story, it was frustrating for me not to be able to publish, yeah. But even though I had no concerns about the legitimacy of this as a news story, I had never reported a story like this. These allegations are very serious, and there’s a responsibility to do this exactly right. And there’s a responsibility for my sources, because if I had published this on Canadaland, it would have been very easy to tar me and smear me as some scurrilous independent blogger. When I took my ego out of it, I realized that the best thing I could do for this story and my sources was to work with an established brand and a trusted reporter like [Toronto Star investigative reporter] Kevin Donovan.
I worked for Mike Cooke, editor of the Toronto Star, at two other newspapers, and know his penchant for investigative work, so it’s not surprising that he took this on, with Brown — as Brown was terrified of the legal (i.e. a costly lawsuit against him) ramifications of going after so public and lauded a person on his own.
I grew up and started my journalism career in Toronto, so I am also especially interested in what happens there in journalism.
It’s extremely rare that I start a book, certainly non-fiction, never about science, and can’t put it down because it reads like a thriller. Maryn’s book, “Superbug”, published today, is an astonishing read — I gulped it down in one sitting.
It’s not an easy read but it’s essential: terrifying, sad, powerful, persuasive.
Tell us a little about yourself. Why journalism? Why science and/or medical journalism?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY; raised in England where my father was working on an engineering project; high school in Texas, college in Washington, DC. At Georgetown I took an English honors degree in 16th-c theatre and 20th-c poetry, which meant I was very well educated and completely unfit for the job market.
I looked around for a graduate program that would be quick but give me a credential to make me marketable, and went to Northwestern to study journalism. After I got my degree I started the painstaking climb up the ladder of newspaper circulation. My first job was in finance journalism, but after the market crash of 1987 I was a bit burned out, and my paper offered me an open job covering science and medicine and the environment, and it was a good fit.
A bit of career history: where you worked and why you chose those places.
I had internships at the American Banker and as Washington correspondent for the Oak Ridger of Oak Ridge (TN), home of the Manhattan Project. Full-time jobs at the Rockford (IL) Register-Star (3 years), Cincinnati Enquirer (2 years), Boston Herald (5 years) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10 years). For the first half of my newspaper years, I was mostly an investigative reporter focusing on public health, and for the second half, I was the only U.S. reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
I left my last newspaper job in mid-2006 when it became clear opportunities were contracting — I kept hearing, “We don’t see you doing any projects for us” — and went freelance.
When and where did this idea for a book come to you?
About a month before I left my last job, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Sara Austin, news and health features director of Self magazine, at a conference. My first story for her, published in Feb 2007, was the genesis for “Superbug”. I’ve since done two other major features for her and am lined up to do several more. I’ve also written for Health, More, Heart-Healthy Living, and am a regular contributor to the Annals of Emergency Medicine. My first stories as a freelancer were for Susan Percy at Georgia Trend, for which I will always be grateful.
That first story for Self was on the unappreciated threat that community-strain MRSA posed to women and children — because, even in 2007, people were still talking about MRSA in the context of prisoners and athletes, groups that were mostly male. The story was published; it was picked up by the TODAY show and by Montel, which suggested it had broad demographic appeal; and my in-box exploded with notes from dozens of women and some men wanting to tell me how MRSA had changed their lives. It was clear there was a larger story there.
Where and how did you find your agent?
I’ve heard other authors describe how difficult it can be to find an agent, and every time it makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been. In the summer of 1998, I was taking a year off from my newspaper job to do a year-long fellowship at the University of Michigan, in the Knight-Wallace program (which is amazing and refreshing; I can’t recommend it enough).
A colleague, Gary Pomerantz, had been to the same program shortly before, and had come out with a book. I wanted to do a book too, and he introduced me to his agent, David Black of the David Black Literary Agency, who pointed me toward Susan Raihofer there. The book I had in mind didn’t come together, and so for the first three years of our acquaintance I didn’t have anything for her to agent.
But during the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks, I embedded with a CDC investigative team working on Capitol Hill, and that gave me the idea for my first book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL, a narrative and history of the CDC’s “disease detectives,” the Epidemic Intelligence Service. We sold that in 2002 and it came out in 2004.
Describe selling the book.
It went very quickly. I did a 20-page proposal in about a week, and then reworked it with Susan’s guidance over a very long weekend. She sent it out to a selected group. There were some expressions of interest and then couple of bids, but the high bidder was Free Press, [an imprint of Simon and Schuster] who had published my first book. From start to sale, it was very quick, probably less than a month.
How long did it take you, start to finish?
It depends on when you start counting! Three years from the time the contract was signed; 3.5 from when I started work on that Self story, a tiny portion of which appears in the book. But I first got interested in MRSA during research for my first book in 2003, when I shadowed CDC disease detectives in Los Angeles through an investigation of MRSA infections monitoring gay men who visited sex clubs.
So it may have been gestating for twice as long as I thought.
You name so many people in your acknowledgments — tell us about building so wide a set of sources and why that mattered to you — and to other ambitious writers tackling complicated topics.
The horror of doing a book like this is that, to make the problem real to an average reader, you have to find victims who are like average readers themselves. The benefit of doing a project like this now is that, thanks to social media, you can tap networks much more reliably and reach further than I think you ever could before. I was offered a lot of contacts thanks to that Self story, and to one I did for Health magazine a year later — but still, I worked my networks relentlessly. For every victim in the book, I probably have 10 others whose stories were moving, but not exactly what I wanted.
Overall, between victims and scientists, I did about 200 interviews.
Tell us about the Dart and Kaiser fellowships and how they helped you.
I’m a big believer in fellowships, which I think are the best way — maybe the only way, in the current environment — for journalists to study up on any particular topic. I got a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship for “bridge funding” when I left newspapers; the idea was to spend a year of overnight shifts in ERs to see what the overcrowding was like. I thought I would do a book on ERs but saw so much MRSA that it fueled “Superbug” instead.
Then in 2009, I went after a fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, at Columbia, because I had collected so many stories of awful things happening to people as a result of MRSA that I realized I needed some help in processing them. I wanted to find a way to tell them that preserved the victim’s dignity and autonomy and wasn’t just disease-porn.
The Dart fellowships are a week-long immersion in both learning about the effects of trauma, and being helped through whatever processing you need to do for any traumatic events you have witnessed as a journalist. After 20 years as Scary Disease Girl, I had seen a lot of trauma, and the fellowship helped me get some distance on those events.
What did you enjoy most about writing the book?
I think people whose work has been newspaper or long-form magazine stories, but who haven’t written a book, tend to think, “Ooooh, a book, that will give me all the space I ever wanted to tell a story.” Well, no. You are still, always, making decisions about what to leave out. This book is about 85,000 words, but it could have been twice as long, and deciding what to cut was very painful — because I’m extremely detail-oriented and like to describe the smallest granular aspects of events. At the same time, I loved having that length in which to tell a braided, complex narrative.
The thing that was most challenging, though, was how time-consuming it was. I worked, without exaggeration, 12 hours most days, 6 days most weeks, for 3 years. I felt that this was a story that needed to be out soon, and that I couldn’t take the time to explore it over 5 years or more — someone else would beat me to some part of it. And to tell it with credibility, I needed to be immersed in the subject. But I made a lot of personal sacrifices to do it.
Are you now scared of doctors or hospitals? How — seriously — do you think most of us will ever challenge a doctor (if we are scared of MRSA) when we are scared or in pain or facing surgery? How scared should we be?
It is not my intention to make people paranoid, really. I don’t want to frighten people away from hospitals. But I do hold hospitals responsible for not doing better, and because they do not, I do think we have to defend ourselves.
What that means is doing due diligence before going into the hospital — if you are in a state where there is a mandatory-reporting law for hospital infections or MRSA, look up the institution’s metrics. And when you are in the hospital, try to find the courage to ask health care workers if they have washed their hands. It’s an easy thing to recommend, a very difficult thing to do, because it challenges the power differential in the relationship between health care worker and patient. But I think it’s necessary.
Next book? current projects?
One of my favorite parts of the book is tracing the detective story of the “third epidemic” of MRSA in food animals, It got me thinking about how complex and multi-national our food system is now. So I think my next project will turn in that direction, probably toward the difficulty of making food safe.
I was struck recently by a post by T/S contributor Maureen Henderson lamenting how quietly passive Generation Y is and wondering why they do not protest more or more loudly about a lousy economy and other issues.
Fellow T/ contributor Sara Libby there lamented a lack of Gen Y access to the biggest media outlets and another commenter pointed out that True/Slant, still, does not have that many readers for most of its individual writers.
In December, here, I hit a high of 7,562 unique visitors — which annually comes to only 90,744 readers. As the commenter fairly and accurately pointed out, that’s a mere fraction of the audience journalists can get — if we can get it — at The New York Times, or other major markets. I’ve been writing for a living for a while, and my work has already been seen and read by millions, so, much as I’m really enjoying my work here at True/Slant, it’s hardly the make-or-break moment of my career.
With the death of so many magazines, and the firing of 24,000 print journalists last year, there’s something of a panic about how any of us will continue to tell important stories and who, if anyone, will pay us properly to do so.
Let’s talk about this.
I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, with more than 100 stories published there, sold to ten different editors in a number of its sections. I have not, yet, scaled the true Everest of that paper in terms of pay, prestige and sheer clout — getting a story into the Times Magazine, the bulk of which is spoken for by writers its editors have already chosen and made commitments to. It’s next to impossible to sell a freelance story to the paper’s Metro and National and International sections, where, arguably, the most important and compelling news stories are run. As a rule, they simply don’t buy this material.
So, on many, many freelance stories, no matter how timely or compelling, you simply have to forget the Times.
In the past there were the Big Four, four print outlets where almost every ambitious journo hoping for a killer career had to get published: The Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s and The New Yorker. I wrote a piece, on assignment, for the New Yorker more than a decade ago; like 60 percent of freelance stories they assign, they killed it, which meant they only had to pay me half what we’d agreed. I had to pay my agent 15% for placing it with them.
So this great opportunity ended up costing me financially, earning a total fee of about $1,500.
These magazines, too, are extremely difficult to sell to. No matter how much you, or your sources, want that arguably prestigious, mass exposure, too bad.
The most elite media outlets, of the left, right or center, tend to hand-pick their writers from a small cabal. Even editors at “O” magazine are known not to answer their phones and only work with writers they select. Penetrating these cliques is close to impossible. Smithsonian is widely considered an impressive win and I was thrilled they ran my humor essay in December 2009 — it took time. I began courting one editor there a full six to eight months before I finally won an assignment from someone else there, and not for a feature as I’d hoped. One veteran writer I know pitched 12 times before winning his first assignment there.
So insisting upon access to these audiences is a real exercise in frustration. I would argue the same is true of any medium, anywhere: people choose those they like and trust — how subjective is that? — to carry their water.
If you are, consistently, shut out of these Big Name Markets, and their coveted millions of readers and listeners, what do you do instead?
Make multiple attempts. You blog, write FOBs (front-of-the-book, the little 200-word items no veteran writer wants to touch) for magazines, op-eds, essays, articles, letters to the editor. You do commentary for every program you can think of in every possible broadcast medium, regardless of pay. It’s said that any message needs something like 27 repetitions for people to even remember it.
What’s your goal? If you only want to be(come) famous and get a cool job and/or make a lot of money and/or sell a screenplay of your story, go home. Veterans know it, smell it and hate it. If you’re committed to the story and your sources and feel utterly compelled to tell this story, tell it. No one is stopping you but your ego.
There are many, many ways to get the word out. But….you won’t own it. It won’t be your story.
Few stories are.
Anyone who fantasizes that their work and their opinions will change the world without some grovelling to the powers-that-be — which may not work anyway — isn’t well acquainted with gatekeepers, whose job is still to ferociously guard access to their pages, airwaves or bandwith — and to their ideologies and to their advertisers, without whom none of us get paid anything.
It’s also a sobering thing to work your ass off on a story you’re convinced will, certainly, create a storm of interest and reaction and get…nothing. However ugly, it’s a useful reminder of our individual weaknessand the folly of relying on a major outlet to make your story or your career or your ideas matter.
This happened to me most recently, and instructively, with an investigative medical story I did for Chatelaine— a Canadian version of a Washington Post story I’d read earlier. Chatelaine was then Canada’s largest women’s magazine, with about 1 million readers, and, in a smaller country, dominant in that market. The editors flew me to Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto from my home in New York, an unusually serious commitment for them financially, and a clear vote of confidence in my skills and in the piece.
I interviewed three women who had taken a drug, Mirapex, that had caused serious side effects, causing all of them to gamble uncontrollably. This was, in a long career with many tough stories, one of my hardest: all three women, and their families, were financially and emotionally devastated as a result. One woman shook like a leaf throughout our interview, her adult daughter beside her, because the stress of talking to me aggravated her Parkinson’s disease, for which she took the drug.
I found the story harrowing to report and write, so for that reason, as well as its intrinsic importance in warning other readers about this drug’s side effects I hoped it would be well-read and valued. The editing process was insane, with so many editors coming and going, I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia from overwork.
We didn’t get one single email or call or letter on that piece. Not one. The editors promised they’d nominate it for a National Magazine Award, but didn’t, and no one bothered to tell me in time to submit it myself.
Was it still an important story? One worth doing? One worth the costs to me, and the magazine and the women who spoke to me? Yes.
I later received an astonishing email from a medical student who had taken the drug, told her physicians she was having terrible side effects, and no one believed her until her mother showed them my article. There’s no award worth more.
Did its publication achieve my more selfish personal goals? No.
Here remains the fundamental problem and it isn’t changinging anytime soon. Very, very few journalists, anywhere, has the power — individually — to break and run with a major story of national or international import.
Very few journalists, still, alone, have:
1) the financial resources to do nothing but one story day after day for weeks or months; 2) the financial resources to travel to a breaking story, whether in the Mideast or Latin America or Asia; it costs money to travel, eat, stay somewhere, hire translators or interpreters and fixers; 3) the knowledge, understanding, experience, language or cultural skills to truly penetrate a story and tell it effectively 4) the physical, emotional and mental stamina it can require to report the toughest stories, whether of war, poverty, brutality, violence or corruption; 6) the balls, you should pardon the expresson, to do so.
The most crucial, still, is your outlet. Who is going to run it? Who will listen, heed, act? If you focus all your energies and resources on only one or two Big Name Outlets, and fail, then what?
So this fantasy that one journalist or blogger or freelancer can, and should, change the world through the sheer force of their will, intellect or opinions is madness. There are few better ways to make your head explode with frustration.
In my mid-20s, as a deeply ambitious freelancer then a staffer at the demanding, ferociously competitive Globe and Mail, I wanted every story to matter, a lot. (This drove my poor editors nuts.)
Changing the world seemed of huge importance. It still is.
But a wiser and slightly older friend pointed out that not any single one of my stories was likely to do so. These stories were still well worth doing — as part of a larger effort.
I believe in the principle of water on stone.
You can wear away the largest rock, over time, by the continual pressure of water. It may not happen this year, or this decade or even within your lifetime. What my friend, a former journalist, meant was that I could keep returning to the story, year after year, in different versions for different markets. Or, even more shocking to my young ego, I could also count on several, maybe many, other journalists to also work on the story, expanding and deepening it, adding to a wider body of knowledge, context and understanding.
Then, as now, great stories do not have to be mine, all mine.
Nor do they have to be yours. They do need, somehow, somewhere — in service to the readers, viewers and listeners for whom they are produced — to become ours.