Some of you might be readers of The New York Times, a newspaper some consider the best of the U.S. press, and my husband’s former employer of 31 years. I also write for them, freelance, several times a year.
The paper now has a new publisher, a member of the same family that bought it in 1896.
The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.
I’m not an apologist for the biases, errors and omissions made by thousands of fellow journalists. There’s much that still needs tremendous improvement, including hiring, training and retaining many more non-white and female voices and viewpoints.
But as someone who’s been chasing facts for decades — and reporting everything from 9/11 breaking news to investigative medical reporting to covering a Royal Tour — I believe deeply and passionately that smart, tough, responsible journalism is needed now more than ever.
Winner of a National Magazine Award in Canada, I’m immensely proud of the work many of us do and I know why many of us still do it, even in an industry roiled with change and uncertainty.
Within its ranks are new and impassioned calls for greater transparency about what we cover, when and why.
At its best, journalism’s role includes:
— Explaining a complex world to an audience who may lack the time, education, training, experience — or curiosity — to gasp the implications of public policies that affect them, whether a local school budget or commitment to billions of dollars in tax cuts.
— Explaining scientific advances, (and de-bunking falsehoods), that help audiences stay healthy, whether the environment, public health issues, (now that Trump has fired his entire HIV/AIDS council) or personal health.
— Holding the powerful accountable for their actions. In an era of stunning plutocracy and lax corporate governance, it’s essential for business journalists to uncover and explain to us all the implications of key business decisions, whether shutting a plant and throwing thousands out of work or striking a deal with local, regional or federal governments.
— Examining the actions of elected officials at every level and how they’re spending taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.
— Seeking out and telling the stories of the poor, marginalized and under-funded who lack ready access to the noisy and powerful machinery of public relations and lobbyists.
— Sharing the successes (and failures) of NGOs and social service groups as they work to relieve struggle, locally and globally.
— Reporting on every form of culture, from ‘zines to opera, because the arts remain an important part of life, and employ millions of creatives.
Yes, many journalists do see the world from a left-leaning lens, with the underlying belief that — in the industry cliche — it’s still, ideally, our essential role to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
If you’re firmly persuaded that we all wake up each morning determined to spread lies and create “fake news”, there’s likely little I could say to dissuade you.
I will say that most of the journalists I know, no matter their age or place of residence, are people whose primary goal is a shared one: to tell compelling stories to as many people as often as possible.
Ones backed by provable, checked facts.
And, if you want to better understand what we do and why we do it (and how much we think about trying to do it better! you might consider following news from the Neiman Lab, the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter, to name only three sites dedicated to smart coverage of the issues working journalists still care about.
And this very long, very detailed story by James Risen on The Intercept, about long and protracted battles between the White House and The New York Times, (and internal editorial battles most readers have no idea about) is an absolute must-read to understand the incredible pressures some reporters face to suppress the truth.
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!
Some of Broadside’s almost 16,000 followers are also writers.
Some wish they were.
(I used to offer here an irregular column, The Writer’s Week, but haven’t done it in a while.)
I’ve been working as a journalist for a few decades — sadly that now feels like being a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe, with fewer and fewer slabs of ice to hop onto.
Since 2008, 40 percent of us have lost our staff jobs and many will not find another, certainly those of us who are older than 40, let alone 50.
Some writers boast about their “six figure freelancing” — i.e. earning $100,000 a year. But virtually none of them are making that money from writing for journalism clients but from a mix of corporate, teaching, custom content and other much more lucrative but less glamorous or visible revenue streams.
I call it the Income Iceberg, the invisible work many of us never discuss publicly but which also buys our groceries and kids’ clothes and fills our gas tank and sustains us.
The dirty secret? The Big Name Outlets writers love to boast about writing for can take months to edit (and pay for) our work, sit on it until it becomes unusable and/or kill it outright, costing us thousands in anticipated and budgeted-for income.
And the Freelancer’s Union recently posted a lousy statistic — that the average freelance is stiffed out of $6,000 in payments a year, 13 percent of their income.
This is what my writing life looks like now…
In England, I spend a day reporting on a non-profit group in a small town about an hour outside London. The teens are welcoming and friendly, and I spend an hour in an unheated warehouse interviewing one of them. To maximize efficiency and lower food/hotel costs, I do all my interviews, about six of them, in one marathon day.
I stay overnight in a gorgeous small inn, 200 years old, and enjoy an excellent meal. Perk!
Back in London, I interview their major funder, sitting in the lobby of the Goring, the hotel where the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) slept the night before her wedding.
This toggling between totally different worlds — the men around us whispering, wearing gold signet rings and bespoke suits — is typical of my work, and one reason I enjoy it, talking to the poorest and the wealthiest, speaking to both (or their rep’s) to tell my stories.
Journalism’s appeal for me, and for many others, is the entree it gives us into many lives we would never encounter any other way.
I learn something new almost every day.
I arrive home in New York, ready to start revising a major national women’s magazine profile, 3,500 words, of a local woman whose work I’ve long admired. I spent eight hours with her alone, taking notes, and spoke to a dozen others to learn more about her.
She spoke really quickly and, because I don’t use a tape recorder, I needed physical therapy for my right wrist from note-taking for hours on end at top speed; I use voice dictation of my notes for the first time.
Then I read a story in The New York Times that her organization is now embroiled in a scandal. My story is killed. (Luckily, I’m paid in full, a sum that will represent almost 25 percent of the year’s income.)
I turn in the British story to Reader’s Digest, excited to have my first story published with them. But my emails and calls to the group in England for fact-checking, (a standard part of the publishing process for major magazines), mysteriously go unreturned.
They’ve shut down — barely two months after we met.
Magazines pay what are called “kill fees”, a negotiated amount they offer when a story can’t be used. I lose $900 of anticipated income.
I’m teaching at a private college in Brooklyn, a writing class for freshmen and a blogging class of mixed-year students. Both classes are small, but they’re night and day in terms of the students’ enthusiasm and level of commitment to the work.
Like many adjuncts, I have no office or faculty connections, and no institutional support at all. When I encounter difficulty with several students, I have no one to turn to for advice or help; the dean has made clear we’re not to bother him.
And my commute means I leave home in the freezing dark at 7:00 am, drive 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic, then wait another 90 minutes for class to start. If I leave any later, traffic is so bad I’d be late for my own class.
Two of my fall students come to the cafeteria to hang out with me before their classes, I’m glad that at least a few of them enjoyed my teaching. I also visit before my first class with a new friend, a woman who teaches painting there.
I really enjoy one-on-one teaching and the variety of my adult students.
I teach a one-night class at the New York School of Interior Design to six designers, all women, a totally different experience teaching adults than undergrads. As a former NYSID student, it’s an honor to be invited back to teach there.
Jose and I take our longest vacation in a decade, three weeks in Ireland. I do a bit of research for possible stories, but mostly relax and recharge.
Thanks to some work I did for her at another publication, writing about watches, of all things, an editor contacts me with a huge project, 15 1,000-word profiles of non-profit leaders for the Case Foundation. The work will carry my byline, a long commitment to a project I find compelling.
Thanks to a friend’s generosity, we spend 10 days at his home in Maine and I conduct some of these interviews there from the dining table; as long as I have access to wifi and a telephone, I can work anywhere.
A story finally runs in The New York Times I’d written months earlier. Writers for the paper are only paid after the story is used, so any piece that sits unused equals (long) deferred income.
It’s a problem for many freelancers; like everyone else, our bills arrive monthly but our payments are routinely late, sometimes for months — a real, ongoing source of stress.
Sometimes the best story ideas show up in somewhere as banal as my Facebook feed.
One woman described a terrible day when her husband took their dog for a walk in broiling summer heat and the dog almost died of heatstroke — even though the car was air-conditioned and her husband stopped several times to give the dog water.
Now working on a book proposal, a process every non-fiction writer must go through. It’s an intellectual blueprint, a layout of what the book would be, why it matters, why now and to whom. It’s a shit-ton of unpaid spec work, in addition to my paid work.
I become co-chair of a volunteer board of 13 fellow writers. I have no training or experience running a board, although I’ve served on two of them for years.
The ongoing freelance challenge each of us faces, finding interesting, well-paid work you might even enjoy and can also do well and quickly enough to pull in significant income every single month.
People who want to write for a living fantasize that they’ll…write for a living. In reality, much of my time is spent marketing my skills and ideas to past and future clients. Some of those ideas never sell.
I write two brief stories for a personal finance website.
A friend I met a decade ago when she was a foreign correspondent for the Times invites me to lunch. She has a fantastic staff job doing investigative work. It’s comforting to talk to someone who really understands what producing high-quality journalism demands, with its joys and frustrations.
We both crave tough editors to keep up sharp and readers who respond to the finished work, some of which consumes months, even years.
I email my agent to ask how the proposal is going. He wants to strengthen it and says we need to hold off submitting it for a month or so. No book proposal gets read without an agent’s cover letter. He knows the current publishing market. I defer to his judgment.
I head north to Toronto by train — a 12-hour journey — to spend the holidays with family and friends.
If you celebrate holidays during this season, I hope you enjoy them!
Thanks for making the time to visit, read and comment here on Broadside.
Some of you want to become journalists or non-fiction authors.
Some of you have just graduated from college or university, wondering when your career will begin.
I recently found a piece of my early career that I’m so glad I still have, as so many of my other clips have been thrown away by accident or deliberately as I’ve moved around.
Today, with everything available on-line, it’s hard to recall a time when print was it and paper clips — (pun intended!) — were crucial to getting more work, carried around physically in a large, heavy portfolio case.
Here it is.
The reason this clip matters so much to me?
I was three years out of university, with no journalism training, but ferociously ambitious and already writing for national magazines before I graduated.
Without editors willing to take a chance on a writer in her early 20s, I’d never have gotten started, or so young. That trust meant everything!
I was lucky on a few counts:
I already lived in Toronto, Canada’s media capital; there were then many such magazines, several of them well-respected weekly supplements to newspapers, and they paid well; editors were willing to give me assignments, and more assignments.
And I had the cojones to walk into those glossy offices and make my pitches, sometimes even overcoming their doubts.
I wrote about the (then!) new fashion of wearing running shoes as casual wear, and the warring German brothers Adi Dassler (Adidas) and his brother, Rudolf, who founded Pumas. I also learned to pronounce the name of their town, and never forgot it — Herzogenaurach.
I got to watch a lady parachutist, hoping like hell not to fall out of the open aircraft door myself.
I got sent to Flint, Michigan to watch teen girls play a form of hockey called ringette.
More than anything, I was paid to learn my craft from some of the best, people old enough to have been my parents or professors.
The testing story came to me via a local activist, a woman I still run into when I go back to Toronto and visit the flea market, where she sells terrific jewelry. She was then a passionate advocate for animal rights and told me about the testing, some of which I saw done on cats in a downtown hospital.
It was pretty soul-searing.
But it also set the tone for much of the work I would later tackle as a journalist, whether visiting a cancer hospice in Quebec or writing a book, decades later, about women and guns.
I wanted serious intellectual and emotional challenge from my work and I still do.
This story appeared in March 1982 — the year my career took off after I won, in June 1982, an eight-month fellowship in Paris. I would spend Sept. 1982 to June 1983 in a group of 28 journalists from 19 nations, including Togo, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Italy and, of course, the U.S. and Canada, with eight of us from North America.
The year was astounding. We traveled as a group to Germany and Italy. We also took off on solo ten-day reporting trips. I went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet; to Comiso, Sicily to write about Cruise missiles, (speaking not a word of Italian!); to London and Amsterdam to write about squatters and an eight-day trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French truck-driver who spoke not a word of English.
I’m still friends with several of these fellow journalists, looking forward soon to seeing my Irish friend and meeting her two daughters, one of whom is now also a serious and ambitious journalist.
When I came back to Toronto, with the glittering dust of a recent fellowship gilding my resume, I got my first staff job at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. I had never written to a daily deadline in my life.
I stayed there 2.5 years then went to the Montreal Gazette, to work in French and enjoy Montreal. There I met my first husband, an American medical student finishing up at McGill, and followed him to New Hampshire, then to New York, where I’ve stayed ever since.
I hope to retire within the next few years and for now would like to focus all my energy, ideally, on writing non-fiction books, long-form stories and teaching. I love telling stories but also want to travel longer and further away than a deadline-driven life allows.
Journalism is an industry in a state of upheaval — usually politely termed disruption — and I’m grateful beyond words, (ironic for a writer!), that I was able to find staff work at three major dailies (my last staff job was at the NY Daily News, then the sixth-largest in the U.S.) along the way.
If there’s a more fun way to see the world and learn about it and tell others about it — and talk to everyone from Admirals and Prime Ministers to convicted felons and Olympic athletes — I’ve yet to discover it.
As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.
The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.
While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.
This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.
The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.
Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.
I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.
They had shut down.
That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.
The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.
Boom! That story?
Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.
I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.
But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?
Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.
For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.
I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.
People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.
I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.
The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.
So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.
Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.
That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.
Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.
You have to laugh, really.
Then move on.
One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.
When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.
Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.
When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.
Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.
— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are
— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.
It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.
In addition to the broader survey data, researchers did deeper interviews with 23 millennials in three different locations around the country. Those interviews revealed a reluctance among some interviewees to pay for news online.
“I don’t think you should pay for news,” Eric, a 22-year-old Chicagoan, said. “That’s something everybody should be informed in. Like, you’re going to charge me for information that’s going on around the world?” And then there’s 19-year-old Sam from San Francisco: “I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news.”
A sample of 23 is small and not, per se, worth commenting on, but the larger report is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in the current production and consumption of news; as a career journalist, I am!
It’s no secret that journalism is in deep trouble a period of disruption as digital media have claimed readers and advertising dollars from print, whether newspapers or magazines.
In the year 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, (I lost mine in 2006), and many of them left the industry for good, fleeing to new careers if they could find one.
In nine days, my husband leaves his workplace of 30 years, The New York Times. He has loved it and is leaving by choice, having accepted a buyout package that will never again be as generous, and one we need to secure our retirement.
He’s had an amazing run — including photographing two Olympics, (Atlanta and Calgary), three Presidents, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war before working another 15 years as a picture editor inside the newsroom.
While he is retiring from the Times, he’s now seeking a new full-time position as it’s another decade before full-time retirement is an affordable option for us.
As two journos who’ve been doing this work since we were undergrads at college, (he in New Mexico, I in Toronto), we know what it still takes to produce quality journalism:
Software developers and designers
Time (to find and develop deeply reported stories)
A skilled team of tough editors — copy editors, section editors, masthead editors, photo editors
Madness. (Cheap, affordable, looks great to the bean-counters.)
One of the sad truths about technology is that it offers the misleading illusion of ease — i.e. ready access = skill.
Thousands of people now style themselves as writers and photographers simply because they can hit “publish” on their home keyboard or snap some cellphone pix and upload them to Instagram.
It’s a fallacy, and one that journalism doesn’t help by keeping its production line, and the costs of hiring and retaining quality, essentially invisible to its consumers.
I think most of us realize that the steak we eat or the car we drive or the table we sit at are all products of a long production line of design, growth, production, manufacturing and distribution. We know they are businesses whose role is to earn profit.
Not so much for the naive/ignorant who think “news” is something that magically just appears on their Twitter feed or Facebook pages.
This is why news organizations should shift to a mobile-first approach immediately. This doesn’t mean we ignore the desktop, but prioritize mobile over it — make mobile the default everything. When brainstorming a new product, start with a phone or tablet design and work backwards to the desktop. Set performance goals based on mobile performance over desktop. Conduct research that emphasizes mobile over desktop behavior. Put mobile numbers at the top of analytics reports. Compare competitive performance on mobile numbers first, desktop second. We need to immerse ourselves in devices and become a student of the industry…
Above all, we need to invest and experiment like never before. Whatever you’re spending now, triple it.
“When the Web was new, many of us went online with creativity and energy,” says Regina McCombs, who teaches mobile at Poynter. “Now, faced with even bigger potential and pitfalls for developing — or losing — our audience, most of us are getting by with as little investment as we can. That’s scary.”
Voters, readers, viewers, listeners, the curious and engaged — in order to learn what’s happening in the world, whether in our town or 12 times zones distant — still need smart, tough, skilled, disengaged, (i.e. as objective as possible), trained and ethical reporters with boots on the ground.
The sourcing requirements for print outlets can be so stringent that I often joke a print writer must quote a professional astronomer before claiming that the sun will rise in the morning. Yet online, authors are commonly allowed—and even expected—to exert their own authority. And even when they cannot claim to be experts, many bloggers use their inexperience as a way to write from the perspective of a novice.
Again, this comes down to speed. Online writing has such different sourcing standards than print because it’s much easier to hyperlink to source material instead of explicitly attributing and fact-checking information.
The bold face above is mine — this is exactly my point.
I have zero interest in the “perspective of a novice”, for fucks’ sake.
On Isis? On the economy? On climate change?
And fact-checking? Yes, I want that, too. (Many of my magazine pieces are still subject to independent fact-checking.)
“Free” or cheap news doesn’t mean, or guarantee, excellent.
A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.
Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.
The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.
This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.
Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.
Then the dominos started tumbling…
Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.
Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational conglomerate, this is typically how it works:
— A source decides to share their story
Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?
— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.
Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?
— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.
They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?
— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.
They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.
— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.
They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?
— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.
Every month, Elle Decor magazine asks a designer about his or her must-haves. For some, it’s a name-brand pen or vehicle, or a luxury brand.
Here are (some of!) mine:
Newspapers and magazines, in print
Every weekend, I read four newspapers, all in print: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. I love taking an afternoon on the sofa to leaf through them, clipping books I want to read or shows I want to see. (I also look at the Guardian and Globe and Mail online.) By subscription, we receive about 20 magazines, from Wired and BloombergBusinesweek and Foreign Policy to lighter fare like Monocle, House Beautiful and Vogue. Yes, there are stacks everywhere. Otherwise, I’d never remember to read them!
No matter what the season, our apartment always has fresh flowers. For about $20 a week, I get enough beauty to make multiple arrangements for the living room, bedroom, dining room — even a few blooms in the bathroom! As we head into cold, dreary winter, even more essential.
A mixture of scents, including L’eau de l”Artisan, Bulgari’s The Vert, Opium and Prada Iris.
My 21-inch-deep bathtub
Bliss! With scented bubble bath (love Algemarin!) or oils, no better place to relax in solitude.
8-10+ hours’ sleep every night
Can’t run at my usual pace without it. If I skimp, it’s naptime.
My passport (and green card)
I treasure my Canadian citizenship, but am grateful for the legal right to live and work in the U.S.
The view from our top-floor apartment of the Hudson River
It hasn’t changed in decades. On July 4, we can even enjoy fireworks from five towns at once!
A ready stash of quality stationery
Nothing nicer than a thick, heavy piece of elegance with which to write a thank-you or condolence note; personalized is even better.
Earl Grey tea, poured into a bone-china cup with a saucer
Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.
But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.
Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.
Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.
Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.
A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)
Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)
The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)
There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)
What do editors do?
— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book
— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it
— Offer some helpful sources
— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject
— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers
— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic
— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions
— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership
— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print
— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct
— Question your logic and story structure
— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish
It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.
But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”
At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.
A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.
I had an interesting conversation recently with another journalist, who writes columns and features. She wondered if some people see what she and I do for a living as impossibly difficult, something you just have a talent for, or you don’t.
Here’s an image that may, or may not, comfort or surprise you:
It’s what fiction writers love to call their WIP — a work in progress. This is one page of a story, a narrative memoir, I was recently commissioned to produce by a major American women’s magazine.
This is the revision I was asked for by the first, of several, editors. I’ve never met her or spoken to her beyond a brief conversation about this piece. That’s typical, these days. At my level of experience, I’m expected to know exactly what’s expected of a “narrative memoir” and how to produce it to deadline. Which, of course, I did, as I did with this revision.
Which was still deemed “not there yet.”
Magazine journalism — especially some genres — is a team sport. I have to be ready for even more editors’ questions and comments.
What I’ve shown here is my own second or third revision of the second version, before I cleaned it up and sent it in.
You’ll notice a few things:
— I tightened and shortened a few sentences, cutting every possible excess word. I worked for a year as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper here in New York, 2005-2006, and it changed my writing for the better, forever. I try to use as few words as possible to convey my ideas. I also have a tight word limit for this piece, 1,700 words, encompassing my life from age 14 to today, multiple decades. Stuff has to go!
— I joined two sentences into a paragraph. Sometimes they just flow better. Or not.
— At the start of one sentence, I cut a word and inserted one later there.
— That crossed-out sentence at the bottom of the page, an after-thought, clearly, felt like a great metaphor — until I double-checked the meaning of the word I thought I wanted and I was wrong. Then I re-thought the whole idea and discarded it as intrusive and distracting, no matter how lovely a phrase it was. And it was; had I more room, I might have included it. But I don’t. This is called “killing your darlings. ” You get really good at lexical assassination if you stay in this game a while.
The reason I’m sharing this is to show the process, which no one ever sees.
By the time we read anyone’s work — no matter the medium — it’s been polished, revised, edited and re-edited.
So the final product, for most writers, is that of a tremendous amount of prior conceptualizing, framing, thinking, reporting, researching, interviewing, analyzing, re-thinking, writing — (look how far down in the list this is!) — re-writing, editing, re-editing, revising, revising again.
(This post, by the way, went through six revisions before I hit “publish” — the last one, about New York, went through 15.)
Even when I edit myself, I’m always applying three filters, three editing styles, all at once and unconsciously:
— Structural.Does this piece flow? Does it have rhythm? Does the beginning pull you in and keep you? How do I feel about the ending? Should some sections (as my editor suggested, and I did) be moved much higher in the story?
— Line-editing. How does this sentence sound? Is it too short? Too long? Does one paragraph transition smoothly into the next? When and where am I choosing to use a line space? (Helpful for marking transitions in time or place within a narrative. I learned this on some of my very first paid stories, while in college.) Am I repeating words, phrases or ideas — and to what effect?
— Copy-editing.(Should that word have a hyphen?) Looking for spelling and grammatical errors and making sure I have names and numbers correct.
Great writing — (even crappy writing, after it’s finally published) is an iceberg — you’re only seeing the final, visible 10 percent of it!