Getting the story is a story in itself

By Caitlin Kelly

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The NYC food bank — which I saw last year while working on a story about it

I’ve been working as a journalist since my sophomore year of university; clips and details, here, at my website.

Decades later, despite the brutal disruption of our industry, I still write for a living.

Here’s a brand-new 36-minute podcast in which I describe how I conceive of, report and think through my stories and non-fiction books.

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.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed.

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 here’s an interview with Joshua Hammer, whose story about Ebola for the digital site Matter, a piece of 9,000 words, won him a 2016 National Magazine Award.

If you, or anyone you know is considering working as a journalist — or you’re just curious about the process — this film is truly a must-see.

It’s the only movie I know of that shows the daily minutiae of reporting and how long, slow and sometimes tedious it can be to get to the point of proof and publication.

One of the things I still admire about journalism, at its well-funded serious best, is its larger goal of public service; here are the recent winners of the George Polk Award, given each year to American journalists in all media for their investigative reporting.

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.

Here’s a New York Times front page story about the death of one of them, a Syrian soldier who helped the Times tell the story of the mayhem happening in his country.

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.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

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.

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My desk — no news there!

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.

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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.

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Time to make some money with your writing?

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?

This BBC video — of a former concentration camp in Germany — is astounding. The images were shot using a drone.

There are so many ways to present information.

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?

These New York City brothers were the subjects of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

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.

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Do we need to travel to do the best reporting possible? By helicopter? Bus? Military aircraft?

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.

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A village in Nicaragua I visited for a story for WaterAid…no running water and no electricity

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!

 

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On assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

 

Here’s how to sell your writing (and stay sane in the process)

Here’s an interesting post, recently featured on Freshly Pressed, about the importance of luck to a writer’s success:

I don’t mean to sound defeatist or to say it’s all about chance. This isn’t sour grapes (I don’t have a bestseller because I never got lucky, etc.). No, talent and marketing and skill and savvy all help put the writer in a position where the odds are better. But it really does seem to me that, at least in some cases, luck is as much a factor as talent.

And in some cases, more.

No one seems to talk about it, though. Maybe because it’s something that can’t be taught–or sold–on a website.

I’ve been writing for a living — my sole income — since my second year of university. I was an undergrad studying English literature at the University of Toronto and all I wanted to do was become a journalist. I decided not to study journalism because I knew I needed a broader education and wanted that instead. (I’ve never formally studied journalism or writing.)

Victoria University at University of Toronto
Victoria University at University of Toronto (Photo credit: MKImagery (Toronto))

Here are some of the ways, since 1978, that I have found editors and agents to whom I’ve sold my work, and/or gotten staff writing jobs:

— While at college I worked at the weekly college newspaper. I wrote long, complex features so I would have clips (samples) to show to paying editors of what I could produce. Moral: What’s your goal? Start accumulating the skills you need and the visible proof you have them.

— I cold-called editors at every major magazine and asked for meetings. I got them. Moral: Be bold! No one is going to hand you your success.

— When I had the meeting, I went in with a multi-page list of story ideas and would not leave the office until I had sold one of them and had a firm, paid assignment. Moral: Be prepared. Be way over-prepared.

— After I had amassed a larger pile of clips, I began aiming higher, for more prestigious or better-paying markets. Moral: Never stop moving. What’s your next step and what will get you there?

— I talked myself into a meeting with the editor of a local weekly section of our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I got a column to write about shopping, for anything, that paid me, then, $125 a week, $600 a month. (My annual tuition was $660. No, that’s not missing a zero.) Moral: Try for a regular gig.

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France,...
Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1900 (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

— I won a journalism fellowship, at 25, for eight months in Europe, based in Paris, traveling on four 10-day reporting trips alone. It changed me, and my work, forever. Moral: Aim high. Start applying for rocket-boosting opportunities once you have the skills and resume to compete for them.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...
English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. It looked a little different by the time I worked there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I got my job at the Globe and Mail six months after returning from the fellowship. Moral: strike while the iron is hot and you have a significant point of difference from your many competitors.

— I got my job there after hearing that the sports editor was soon to become the managing editor; i.e. he was the one to impress, now. I knew nothing about sports! He sent me to cover several huge, high-profile sports stories, knowing that. I rocked it. Moral: Follow your targets closely to know when an opportunity exists. Then impress the hell out of the person with the budget and authority to hire you.

— I got my job at the Montreal Gazette when a Globe colleague who once worked there tipped them off I might be looking for a new opportunity. Moral: Find and make allies.

— I fell in love with an American who was moving to (!) a small, remote town in New Hampshire for the next four years. Because I had been stringing for Time for a few years already, while working in full-time jobs, I asked my Time editor if he knew of any jobs there. I got a well-paid contract job there — which is insanely improbable — through one of his former New York magazine colleagues. Moral: If you don’t ask for help, you never know what might happen.

— I found every agent I’ve had through personal contacts. The first came to me through one of my NYU journalism students, who knew someone at William Morris who knew three new agents hungry for clients. Moral: Put the word out and take the chance.

— I started writing for The New York Times in 1990 after I called someone from my Paris fellowship (eight years earlier), living in New Orleans. I called an editor at the Times Book Review who began giving me 300-word reviews to produce on topics that were really difficult and often boring. I did them, gratefully. It gave me a Times byline. Moral: Start wherever you have to. But be strategic.

The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I won a National Magazine Award in Canada, for humor, for an essay about surviving my divorce. It’s a topic many would avoid writing about: painful, private, cliched. Instead, I turned it into something (darkly) funny. I tried to sell it to an American women’s magazine who quickly rejected it. I sold it to a Canadian women’s magazine, who submitted it for the award. Moral: Rejection is normal. Get over it! Move on. Find another market. Or ten.

— Once you find an editor who likes your work, hang on tight! Repeat business will save you a ton of wasted time and energy. Moral: Remember the 80/20 rule of business; 80 percent of your business likely comes from 20 percent of your clients.

— But, think like Caesar and keep on conquering. Never rest on your laurels, as editors can lose a job with scary speed and you can very quickly lose a nice little sinecure. Moral: ABC, Always Be Closing (i.e. making sales.)

— Last week I got an email from someone I have never met, a man who lives in Beirut, who is married to an NPR correspondent. He and I were both bloggers for True/Slant, in 2009. He asked me for a valuable editorial contact — while offering me one of his. Win-win! Moral: If you’re going to ask for help, offer something of value upfront in return. No one likes a taker.

— Remember that publishing remains a team sport. If you’re selling to print publications, think about the art or photos to go with your story. If you’re working on books, be polite and kind to everyone as no one is likely getting rich and most of them love this work as much as you do. Moral: If you plan to stay in this game, keep your nose clean.

Selling your writing is hard!

It’s tiring.

It can take a much longer time to “succeed” than you thought possible.

You may have to re-define what “success” looks like: Tons of money? Huge readership? A TV show or movie based on your work? Or…some appreciative readers and some people who will pay for your skills?

Sell, Sell, Sell
Sell, Sell, Sell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seeding the Clouds: When One Passionate Writer Begets Another

Frank McCourt
Image by Irish Philadelphia Photo Essays via Flickr

Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize winning best-selling memoirist who died two days ago, taught at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan for 15 years. Today’s New York Times has a nice piece about the many successful writers he taught and how he inspired them.

“Frank had us sing salacious folk songs, he had us write courtroom defenses of inanimate objects and recite recipes as poetry,” said Susan Jane Gilman, a former student who has published two memoirs. She describes his English class as “intellectual freefall.”

Fortunate indeed are students who find a teacher, of English (or history or math or computer science) who so inspires them, opens their eye and may start them on a career path they might never otherwise have considered. For many of us, high school wasn’t a hotbed of innovative thinking. Kwana Jackson, who now writes romance novels, wrote on her blog that his class “was where I really started to love the written word and started to crave the writer’s life.”

Other students of his quoted in this piece, now successful non-fiction authors, include Alissa Quart and National Magazine Award winner David Lipsky, whose book about West Point, “Absolutely American,” captured the Holy Grail of criticism, a rave front page review in The New York Times Book Review. It’s a terrific book, and it took enormous talent and hard work to achieve that; a few years ago, his editor told a room full of writers attending the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors it still required multiple, detailed revisions to get it to where he, the editor, wanted it. For a would-be writer, a wild-eyed, passionate, cage-rattling kind of teacher can be your dreams’ launching pad. A great editor, or several, your booster rocket.

Who inspired your young dreams? How did they turn out?