The tribe meets — what journalism is really about

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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St. Mary’s Episcopal church, Arlington, Virginia, where the memorial service was held for Wallace McNamee, his childhood church.

Photo by Cathaleen Curtis, director of photography, the Buffalo News.

 

I’ve been a journalist since my first year at University of Toronto, and published in national magazines and newspapers since my third year there.

It’s my life — if you’re curious, here’s some of my work.

It’s a life that makes intellectual, physical and emotional demands specific to the business.

We, at our best, share a clear (rarely explicitly discussed) set of values that resonate for those working in nations with a free press — albeit also under the heavy hand of free-market capitalism that makes even the very best job temporary.

If you’ve worked in any form of hard news journalism especially, whether photo, video, digital, print, television or broadcast, you share with thousands of colleagues worldwide the same challenges and experiences:

— balancing the need for speed, to beat every possible competitor, with the need to be 100% accurate

— discerning the many lies and omissions and distortions fed to us by the powerful into a report that, we hope, will help our audiences better make sense of their world, whether climate change, new legislation, economic issues

— working with very few resources (low pay, no assistants or secretaries or researchers)

— entering a cut-throat world where there’s always someone younger and cheaper ready to grab our hard-won spot

— knowing your value is only as great as your last story, not the prizes, awards and fellowships you’ve also collected

— having to persuade scared, dubious, wary sources to share with us their data and images to help us tell our stories thoroughly

— sometimes working in conditions that are dangerous, or merely extremely uncomfortable (heat/rain/conflict zones/war zones/the aftermath of natural disasters)

It all creates a bond that runs deep and strong, knowing that everyone in the same room gets it.

 

We recognize it immediately in one another, members of a far-flung tribe. 

 

We tend to share characteristics: we’re self-reliant, funny, wary of draaaaaama, able to put strangers at ease quickly, brave, badasses, typically pretty humble, (because we all know someone who’s done similar work much better/sooner than we have!), willing to challenge any form of authority to get the story — and incessantly curious about the world, even after decades of examining it closely.

That can make meeting someone new, even one much younger or older, staff or freelance, editor or shooter or writer, as comfortable as meeting a familiar friend.

I’m the veteran of three major daily newspapers, the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national daily), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, and have written television news and thousands of articles for everyone from Reuters and bbc.com to Marie Claire.

And every day, like my colleagues, I now watch in dismay as our industry keeps firing people like me — people who know what we’re doing, people readers and viewers rely on.

In the past few weeks alone, Ontario towns lost 33 regional newspapers as they were closed down for good, and new owners fired the entire staff of the L.A. Weekly, a respected newspaper — instead asking its readers to offer unpaid work.

Seriously?

 

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Wallace McNamee; photo by David Hume Kennerly

 

Last weekend, more than 200 veterans of our business, many of them white-haired, gathered in a church in Arlington, Virginia, for a memorial service for Wallace McNamee, one of American photojournalism’s greats.

If you’ve been looking at news photos, in any medium, you’ve seen his work; his, like many of them, were the eyes recording history: elections, assassinations, pop culture, war.

My husband, a career photographer and photo editor at The New York Times for 31 years, knew and worked alongside McNamee in D.C., as did many of the men and women there — some editors, some competitors, all of us gathered to share their love and respect.

Colleagues and friends arrived, as we did, from far away, former awed interns now running the nation’s largest photo agencies and choosing images for its most influential publications.

Two photographers I’d never met both told me the same thing about Wally: “I was the new kid in town. I didn’t know anything and he showed me the ropes.”

Not the typical image of the sharp-elbowed, conscience-free “journalist” you may be more accustomed to.

If you maintain the skewed, ignorant and toxic notion that “all news is fake”, I wish you’d been there in that small white church, sharing the crowded pews, to witness what, at its best, our business really is about.

 

Why editors matter more than ever

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Although you might not assume so, this post has been multiply edited, if only by me — albeit a career journalist, writing teacher and writing coach. (Here’s my professional website, if of interest.)

The point of a real live human editor is to have someone smart do this to your copy as needed. 

Today, there’s a widely-shared myth that writing means you simply bang out a bunch of words as they occur to you, hit “send” or “publish” and you’re done!

That intense feeling of Ihavetosaythisrightnow? Not your best product, most likely. You might feel done — but your public and permanent offering might also be misspelled, ungrammatical, incorrect, dull or confusing.

At worst, all of these.

We all need editors!

When I teach writing, and blogging, I emphasize how essential it is to re-read, revise,  and repeat the process, many times. Some of my blog posts have gone through 10 or 15 revisions before you see them — I change words, clarify my thoughts, delete or add.

Very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog post.

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

I was fortunate indeed to have a very tough editor on my most recent book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, which was published by Portfolio, a major New York City house focused on business. Next time you sneer: “It’s not rocket science!” remember that my editor had previously worked for NASA…

I turned in the manuscript, which was about 100,000 words and had taken me about nine months to produce, and got back what, in the industry, are known as “notes”.

There were a lot of them, including her approval of Chapters 11 and 12.

“What about Chapters One through 10?”! I wailed.

Revision city, kids.

 

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Every book goes through an editor — usually several!

 

Being a cynical sort, I sometimes wonder how many revisions a published story or book has been through — one best-seller, its editor told a writing conference, needed twelve.

A young journalist I know came within a hairs’ breadth of winning a very prestigious award and received huge accolades for her story; I saw its first draft and knew what a heavy lift it had been for her and various editors, including me, to get it to that point.

Nor did she ever bother to publicly thank me for my help, which rankled.

The New York Times, for which I write freelance, has recently cut its copy editing staff, preferring to hire more reporters. Now I’m seeing more errors in the paper — like the word “et” (albeit a French word, but that’s what editors are for!) instead of “est”.

And good editors do a lot more than correct spelling mistakes.

 

Can your writing or blogging use fresh eyes, or some sharpening?

I offer one-on-one coaching and individual webinars, in person (NYC-area), by phone and by Skype.

Details here and here.

 

 

The writer’s week — mine anyway

By Caitlin Kelly

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Asked by journalism students for writers I admire, I named this great book by a British Airways 747 pilot

 

WHEW!

 

So much for the Labor Day weekend; a client expected a full revision of a 3,000-word story due first thing Monday. Holiday? What holiday? Good thing I had no plans.

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One of my sales this summer was my first story for House Beautiful

 

Chased a story all week that I think could be a terrific one, but will also require an editor to pay some travel expenses, which many hate to do. It’s not, like most stories I work on now, something I can report by phone or email, and will be in a different U.S. city. The process of getting to a story is rarely linear; this one involves someone I know who made an introduction to the publicist for the event who will decide if I can have access to it. If she says yes, then I still have to write up a persuasive pitch and sell it to an editor who can pay me enough money to make the story even worth doing financially. It’s a fun story, but I have to make money at this.

Journalism is my business, not a hobby!

 

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

 

I was invited to address a room full of graduate journalism students at CUNY, in midtown Manhattan. I joined a sports reporter/editor and a radio news reporter whose voice I’ve heard on-air for many years. That was cool! The host of the event is a man who lives in D.C. who I “met” via Twitter and had only spoken to once by phone. So much of our industry is finding like-minded souls with solid credentials. He and I met for breakfast and had a great time getting to know one another.

I found it amusing and telling that — when he asked all three of us to offer three pieces of advice to new journalists  — we all agreed that get some sleep was key.

 

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My suburban New York train station, Tarrytown

 

I do a lot of this sort of thing — for no payment. My trainfare just to get into New York City was $31, plus cab fare plus lunch. The day was pretty much shot for getting any work done, but I really enjoy meeting new people and seeing my friends so it’s all a good investment of time and energy. I like working alone at home but it gets really lonely!

 

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Met a fellow journalist friend, (now job-hunting), for lunch, a late lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, Keen’s Chophouse, in business since 1885. I love its black and white tiled bar-room floor, the rows of 50,000 clay pipes wired to the ceiling, its frosted glass windows making the noisy, bustling city outside disappear. We each had a busy summer — she went to Israel and I went to Europe.

 

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Last year, a young friend of mine worked in Asia as a photographer and, in Thailand, met a young woman who read (!?) my blog. Unlikely, but true. This week, we spoke via Skype as we discussed a project she hopes to work on independently, now that she’s back in the U.S. and working at a newspaper in a western U.S. state. I love coaching other writers, so if you need help, check out my webinars and classes here.

 

Called the French farmer I’m going to interview, to confirm our meeting. I love being able to work in French but haven’t done it since I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. I normally don’t use a tape recorder but will take one this time for back-up.

 

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Spuyten Duyvil train station, as the commuter train heads north along the eastern shore of the Hudson River

 

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Took Amtrak from a station near our home to Montreal, a city I lived in in my late 20s and for a year when I was 12. It’s a fun city to visit, with great food and lots of charm. I went north to report a story, working in French, for an editor in Alabama. Met a new young friend for brunch at Beautys a classic Montreal diner, in business since 1942 — she’s someone I heard speaking at a conference in New York last spring and stayed in touch with. (FYI, Beauty’s should have an apostrophe — but Quebec language laws insist that all signage and names be in French.)

Found my little gray coin purse where I keep my Canadian money and my Canadian bank card; I grew up in Toronto and Montreal and we go back at least once or twice a year. I miss my home country, especially now when every day in the United States offers yet another political and/or environmental disaster.

 

Got an update regarding the late Kim Wall, a 30-year-old fellow freelance journalist, whose death I blogged about here:

The Kim Wall Memorial Fund was established by her family and friends to honor Kim’s spirit and legacy. The grant will fund a young female reporter to cover subculture, broadly defined, and what Kim liked to call “the undercurrents of rebellion.”

The funds collected will be directed to the International Women’s Media Foundation, a steadfast ally to women journalists, who have agreed to support and administer this grant

 

 

Think it’s all “fake news”? Try living without it

By Caitlin Kelly

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American journalists are now in a defensive crouch, thanks to a President who attacks us, our work, our ethics and our intent every single day.

I’ve been working as a journalist for more than 30 years, published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Irish Times, VSD, The New Zealand Herald, Sunday Telegraph and dozens of magazines.

I was a staff reporter at the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News.

I love what I do and I’m proud of (most of!) our work.

 

I’m sick of hearing my industry and my colleagues maligned!

 

From The New York Times, (to which I contribute freelance):

Yet there he was in Phoenix on Tuesday, telling a crowd of thousands of ardent supporters that journalists were “sick people” who he believes “don’t like our country,” and are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

 

Let’s review:

Most journalists make little money. Some, like the late Kim Wall, have attended some of the most rigorous colleges and universities to learn our craft. While a corporate attorney fresh from law school might expect to make $150,000 to start — and millions if they work as a lobbyist or make partner at a major firm — only the highest-paid journalists, (those in television, a few columnists), will ever become wealthy through our work, regardless of skill, talent, experience or awards.

Unlike people who get up every day driven by profit and money (hello, billionaires), we do this work because it matters to us and to our audience.

Our work is team-oriented, not all about Big Stars who preen and strut and insist on our constant fawning and genuflection. There are some in this stratosphere, but everything you read, hear and see is the result of intense and focused teamwork, egos be damned. Yes, we make mistakes, but not for lack of effort — my Times stories are read and reviewed by three editors, each of whom can grill me for further detail.

— Journalists who lie and make shit up are quickly found out, shamed and fired. In a private business, people can (and do) get away with many forms of chicanery, unnoticed. CEOs of public companies make out financially for years like bandits regardless of their personal ethics.

— We don’t have to carry or show a press pass to do our jobs. We don’t have to pledge allegiance to anyone, a fact that makes some people very angry. How dare we think independently!

Our job (at its best) is to challenge authority, to read the fine print in annual and corporate reports, to FOIA the hell out of reluctant government agencies. It pisses some people off that we don’t just lie down and give up. Too bad.

— How exactly does Trump, or anyone, know whether or not we “like our country?” As if being critical of liars and cheats, dismantling false promises and fact-checking endless assertions is…unpatriotic.

As if “unpatriotic” even matters to us.

That’s not why we do what we do.

Also from the Times:

An element of presidential leadership that we are all taught in grammar school: its broad influence — how it can set a tone for others to follow.

Yes, mistrust of the media was growing even before Mr. Trump emerged on the political scene. But this much is unmistakable: The president is significantly adding to what is, without question, the worst anti-press atmosphere I’ve seen in 25 years in journalism, and real, chilling consequences have surfaced, not just in the United States, but around the world.

We do this work:

— to help audiences better understand a complex world, whether business, science medicine, politics, technology, environment.

— to hold the wealthy accountable to the remaining 99% of us. In an era of income inequality unprecedented in a century, it’s our job to question those grabbing the levers of political and economic power.

— to correct injustices: corruption, false arrests, police brutality, sexism, racism.

— to explain disparate groups to one another, presenting as many perspectives on an issue as possible. (Yes, many outlets skew hard right or hard left.)

— to connect the global economy to audience’s personal experience.

Yes, some of what we do is awful.

Some of it is wrong.

Some of it is poorly reported, poorly edited, poorly written.

It’s gotten so bad that a major women’s journalism group, The International Women’s Media Foundation,  issued a statement in reply to Trump:

“Journalists take incredible risks to bring us the truth.”

GLOBE

 

Would you really be better off with no news at all?

 

 

 

 

 

A freelance journalist’s week

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom

If you’ve never tried working freelance — i.e. no job, no salary, no paid sick or vacation days — it can look cool.

Freedom!

I’ve been doing it since 2006 (and for periods before then as well), and enjoy it.

It’s rarely dull.

 

Here’s some of what this week has been like:

 

I pitched a story to The New York Times, realizing, two weeks after returning from an overheated, often non air conditioned Europe, that it’s an uncomfortable, even dangerous, situation for travelers and hotel owners.

And one only likely to worsen with climate change.

I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, and had previously written for that specific editor, so he quickly replied to my emailed pitch — but I had barely four days in which to find all my sources, interview them and write the story.

Thanks to my active life on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, I soon found what I needed.

Here’s the story.

I’m working on a big (3,000 words) story for a local university about their school. Have been doing interviews for weeks, some by phone, some in person. It’s a challenging assignment and one I’m enjoying, but it has a lot of moving parts. Did seven interviews, in person, in one day on campus — pooped! Slept 10 hours and took the next day off entirely to recover.

During one of the interviews, heard a deeply distressing story of murder in someone’s life. I didn’t react much, which — to those who don’t know any journalists personally — can make us look cold and unfeeling. Not so! One of the keys to success as a journalist is being able to manage and control the most powerful of emotions, even in the moment, and stay focused on your goal — reporting the story. It can, and does, lead to some trauma later as you process it eventually, or don’t.

 

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I speak fluent French,  so I was asked to interpret between an editor in Alabama and a French-speaking farmer in Quebec to determine if there was enough to produce a story. There is, so I’ll be heading north to Quebec soon to report and write it.

A former client in Chicago sent me an assignment they needed done right away —- and had to turn it down because they needed it fast and, for once, I’m too busy at the moment.

I emailed editors in New York City and London to follow up on personal meetings to see if there’s work I can produce for them — no answer, so far. It’s normal for even people who know me and my work to take a while to respond. You can’t freak out or take it personally.

Pitched another idea to a new client who loved it — have to constantly be pitching ideas or the income stream dries up fast! Bills never stop arriving, funny thing.

Jose and I took a day off to explore the North Shore of Long Island, about a 2.5 hour drive from our home. In our years together, we’ve been to Paris together a few times — but never there.

Found this astonishing Spanish chest — 17th century? — in a local antique shop.

 

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This area is gorgeous and we loved it, including this amazing general store, built in 1857, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

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This is journalism, not that

By Caitlin Kelly

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I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.

This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.

Guess which got the most attention?

To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.

Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.

I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.

What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.

All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.

If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!

Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.

In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”

In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.

In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.

Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 50 stories for them

It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his meticulous accounting of every dollar President Trump’s foundation made to charity. Very few, it turned out.

Here’s a story with an image of his notebooks. Pretty old-school stuff. But it did the job.

As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.

That’s real journalism.

Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

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“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”

— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)

Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.

If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.

If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.

If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.

If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.

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There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”

Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)

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

I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.

I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”

Yes, a hugely lucky break.

But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.

The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.

That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.

I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.

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My second book, published in 2011

So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.

I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.

Bullshit!

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If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:

Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.

You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.

You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)

You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)

You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..

You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.

You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.

You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.

You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content. 

You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.

You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste  time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Why Pulitzer Prizes still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

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This week the most coveted awards in journalism were given out, the prizes named for Joseph Pulitzer, a man born in Hungary in 1847 and who became a legendary publisher of major American newspapers; (pronounced Pull-itzer.)

It is a very big deal to win a Pulitzer Prize, both for the writers and photographers who win it for their individual, often team, efforts, but also for their editors and publishers.

It can take decades to win one, or, for the fortunate few, it arrives early in their careers. The photographer who’s won the most ever in journalism, four, is Carol Guzy, of The Washington Post — who began her career as a nurse.

In a time when our industry is struggling mightily — tens of thousands of us having been laid off in recent years — this sort of accolade is still something many of us strive for.

If you stay in journalism a few decades, you come to know, and sometimes work with, and possibly deeply admire, many colleagues, sometimes scattered globally. When they win, we’re also cheering for our tribe.

Here’s the list of all the 2017 winners, including history, poetry, drama and music.

One of my favorite stories of 2016, a stunning 18,102 word account of a young combat veteran, was written by The New York Times’ staff writer C.J. Chivers, himself a former Marine. He won the 2017 Pulitzer for feature writing.

His award is one of three Pulitzers awarded to the Times this year. Another went to Australian-born, New Delhi-based freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak for breaking news covering the drug war in the Philippines being waged by President Duterte. He also won the award in 2015 for feature photography for documenting the Ebola outbreak.

From his website:

Their Ukrainian practicality did not consider photography to be a viable trade to pursue so at an early age Daniel worked on the farm and at his father’s refrigeration company.

Not so surprising — journalism is still considered a terrible career choice by many parents: it’s professionally insecure, badly paid and sometimes dangerous.

It’s one of the many reasons we, (I’ve been a journalist for decades), are so proud of our colleagues who persist and succeed. It’s damn hard!

In an era of “fake news” and endless claims to the “truth”, we need media literate readers/listeners and viewers more than ever.

And we need smart, tough, determined reporters, whether visual or word-focused, and their editors and their publishers, to stay committed to strong, intelligent work of lasting value —- not just chase clicks and views.

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David Farenthhold — we all knew he had this one in the bag — took the prize for National Reporting, on Trump, for The Washington Post.

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer’s death aboard his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate. Pulitzer envisioned an advisory board composed principally of newspaper publishers. Others would include the president of Columbia University and scholars, and “persons of distinction who are not journalists or editors.” Today, the 19-member board is composed mainly of leading editors or news executives. Four academics also serve, including the president of Columbia University and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Also from the Pulitzer website:

What do Pulitzer Prize winners get when they win?

There are 21 Pulitzer categories. In 20 of those categories the winners receive a $10,000 cash award and a certificate. Only the winner in the Public Service category of the Journalism competition is awarded a gold medal. The Public Service prize is always awarded to a news organization, not an individual, although an individual may be named in the citation.

Selfishly, I have a deeply vested interest in the Pulitzers — as we have one in the family. It belongs to my husband, Jose R. Lopez, whose blog is here.

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On 9/11, as fighter jets screamed over Manhattan and the Twin Towers fell, Jose was a team member of talented, fast-thinking, quick-acting New York Times photographers and photo editors covering it.

They won the Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography.

Jose, then a photo editor, (and former news photographer), literally turned his basement Brooklyn apartment, (the very day he was to move in with me and everything was already packed!) into a local Times bureau — scanning and transmitting images from his computer as photographers delivered their film to him.

There was no way to physically get into Manhattan from Brooklyn in time, to reach the Times‘ building that day.

On a day of confusion and terror and trauma, the Times team stayed calm and organized. Their job — our job — always, is to witness, testify, explain, share.

That’s what we do.

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Columbia Journalism School

The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

The pleasures of writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been slinging words for a living, since my sophomore year of university.

I’ve never formally studied writing, except for a degree from a demanding faculty in English lit.

I originally wanted to be a radio DJ, but knew I wanted to write for a living from a very early age, maybe 12 or so. Over my career, I’ve worked as an editor for three magazines and a reporter for three major daily newspapers, all of which has helped me think more clearly and write (I hope!) better; my website, if you’re interested, has some of my work.

In 1998, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for a humor essay about, (what else?) my divorce.

I’ve derived so many pleasures from writing, for decades, including:

You!

As Broadside heads into its eighth year, I’m grateful for everyone who makes the time to come by, to read, to comment, and to return, some year after year. I know you’ve got many other ways to spend your time and attention, so thank you!

I first posted here on July 1, 2009, terrified. I write for a living, but thought no one would ever bother to read my own private thoughts. But we’re now at 16,635 followers.

Broadside has also been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, a real honor.

Civil, lively conversation

One of the main reasons I write this blog, and continue to enjoy producing it. While I do wish more people “liked” and commented, I really value those who make time to speak up.

The Internet is so full of verbal violence. Not here!

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions
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My second book, published in 2011

Ongoing readership for my two books

I grew up in Canada, which runs something called the Public Lending Rights program, essentially royalty payments made by Canadian libraries to books registered through their program. Every year they send me a check, usually about $450, based on how often my books are borrowed and read, which tells me readers are still reaching for my work and still finding value in it.

That’s why writers write: to find readers!

Here’s a link to Blown Away; and one to Malled if you have a book club that would like to read and discuss either of them (i.e. buying at least a dozen), I’ll Skype in for a Q and A.

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Friendships

I recently went out for lunch in Manhattan with a friend who’s 20 years my junior, a woman who now lives in London but who was working in Bahrain when I first spoke to her, as a source for a New York Times business story.

She seems to live in an airplane, but we share unlikely passions, like fragrance. It’s a rare thing, but sometimes a source becomes a pal, as have some fellow bloggers, as have many of my colleagues throughout the years, whether staff or freelance.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015.

Learning about the world

I get paid to learn.

It’s a real privilege to meet or speak to such a range of people, from a British female bank CEO to a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons to a Prime Minister to a neurosurgeon to an FBI firearms instructor.

Journalism is no way to become wealthy, but the joy of encountering so many different people and hearing and sharing their stories is worth a lot to me.

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Me, a cover girl?!

Being of service

It’s not waitressing or working retail, but journalism really is in many ways a service industry — if what we produce isn’t useful or meaningful to our readers, viewers and listeners, it’s time to hang up those skates!

I’m delighted when I hear from readers that they’ve learned something new and useful from my work; one Canadian woman said a story of mine had saved her life, as I covered a weird side effect of a medication that doctors kept dismissing when patients complained. Her mother read my story and shared it with her daughter who pushed back harder on her physician.

Telling great stories

The world is simply brimming with hundreds of amazing, untold stories.

Some are deeply unsettling, and it’s our role as reporters to bear fearless and intimate witness to war, crime, natural disaster, social injustice, racism.

Others are lying inside people who have simply never before been asked to talk to a reporter. Their untold tales are powerful, bursting with the energy of something finally unleashed.

It’s a huge responsibility to try to carve story from the raw material of reality — choosing the right characters, setting scenes, evoking emotion, choosing just the right words, in the right order, at the right length.

It is never easy.

It never should be.

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Malled’s Chinese edition

Adventure!

Not every journalist can count on a life of adventure, but it’s there for the taking if you choose your jobs and assignments carefully.

For work, I’ve been to the Arctic circle, to visit a tiny Inuit village, spent eight days in a truck with a French trucker going from Perpignan to Istanbul, taken class with the Royal Danish Ballet, have climbed the rigging 100 feet up and worked on a foot-rope aboard a Tall Ship, taken the helm of a multi-million America’s Cup contender.

I’m grateful for all these paid adventures and hope to have a few more before I’m done.