Archive for January, 2012


The keys to good journalism

The moment I thought “journalism” had died and I missed it came before speaking to a college class.

“Oh no, this isn’t a journalism class,” the professor told me moments before I stepped into the lecture hall. “This is media communications.”

“Not the same thing?” I asked. “I thought I was here to address journalism students.”

“Well, yes,” the professor said. “And no. Which is why I invited you.”

Confused, I asked for clarification, which she gave: “Journalism is incorporated in all we do; it’s an element in all we teach. But journalism by itself, we don’t do that anymore.”

And my job here this day?

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” the professor said, sounding apologetic. “I was hoping you could explain what journalists like yourself do in your day-to-day routine — tell them how the theory comes into practice.”

This sounded simple enough. Problem was, the majority of the 45 students awaiting my sage instruction were seniors about a month away from sporting mortarboards. In my own college time, the “theory” we were supposed to learn came into practice almost immediately after freshman orientation. We all knew going in how to type on IBM Selectrics and use notepads, the professors presumed back then. Thus, their chief task was showing us how make something of the space between our ears, the most valuable news-gathering tool we had.

I doubted that anything I had to say to those 45 students would help them get a foot in a door at that point. Yes, they were savvy with networking and gadgetry. And yes, they probably knew how to knead an idea in as many ways as the prefix “multi” in multimedia allowed. But how much theory can anyone reasonably grasp when their eyes are focused on the space below the exit sign?

The key then, I believed, was offering the students less theory and more practicality. I didn’t know how much of the latter their in-class lessons provided. From my experience, the lessons I learned outside class were the ones still rooted in my mind. So, I opted to pass along some of the same tried and tested tips that no text or learned lecturer had awarded me at their age. If even a few students caught a clue, I figured, they’d be better prepared than a lot of their peers.

Among my hard-earned pearls of experience:

Read. Everything — We tend to reach first for whatever we like to read, not what we ought to read. Delving into assorted writing styles expands one’s mind for using words. It’s said that the best way to become a good writer is to first become a good reader, because you have to know and understand how words work before trying to make use of them.

Research. Everything — The habit today is to sift Wikipedia or the first couple of pages of a Google search for key sources, when the truth is that both of those venues are suspect. Wikipedia is vulnerable to prejudiced editing, while Google permits paid placement to influence its search listings. Real research — probing everything from pamphlets to databases and interviewing assorted subjects — takes time and effort, and is perhaps the hardest thing about being a credible journalist. Get comfortable with such sites as PACER and Pipl and Portico, and learn how to conduct advanced searches on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Listen. To everything — Rare is the interview when the subject gets to the point right away. Journalists may have to sit through speeches, musings, even homespun tales before the golden detail they seek rings clear. That’s fine — just listen. Chances are that other important information can be culled from what sources are trying to say.

Develop a strategy — Don’t go blindly into a topic hoping a story will somehow magically appear in completed form on your computer or tablet screen. In advance of pursuing a story idea, figure out how best to go about that pursuit. In other words, have a plan of action before taking the first note or conducting the first interview.

Develop living, breathing sources — The trend toward news aggregation is fine for those happy with merely repeating other people’s ideas. But for the rest of us intent on generating original content, it pays to talk with reliable experts, witnesses and trained observers to discover first-hand information, no matter who they are. And after that, it pays dividends to stay in touch and keep abreast of what they’re doing, find out what they’re seeing. Who knows: these once-used sources could provide insight to other story ideas later.

Ignore titles — Along this line, avoid depending too much on people with big or impressive titles. I struggled mightily in my first weeks of reporting by thinking the titled types possessed all the salient details when it was everyone below them — administrative assistants, clerks, servants, etc. — who had this information. I realized then that executives only make decisions; subordinates are the ones who make those decisions happen, and by extension know where all the signed documents are stashed.

Be skeptical — The saying among my college professors was, “If your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.” The point: Never take others’ word as gospel, for they may have less information than you. Furthermore, there are people out there whose job it is to mislead journalists. Don’t make it easier for them to do their job by trusting what they say.

Be compassionate, to a point — Understand that everyone has an opinion and the interview may be where the subject feels a need to express it. Let people vent, if it puts them at ease, but avoid getting drawn into an agenda.

Talk it over — It helps to talk about your stories with colleagues to get their input, though the solitary nature of freelancing can make that difficult. For journalists going it alone, professional organizations such as SPJ, the Online News Association and the American Copy Editors Society offer venues for discussion, as do the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Freelance Success and Freelancers Union.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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What running taught me about writing

Thirty years I ran, in competition and at leisure, for my main source of exercise, pounding pavement and trails, hills and dales, until my body said, “Stop. Sit down. Take it easy now.” The pernicious announcement was broadcast through my feet, knees and heels. Nevertheless, I hobbled on until exactly the day 30 years after I started running, then shelved my 278th and apparently final pair of training shoes.

The downside was divorcing myself from a diversion that had become second nature. The upside was finding more time to write, my other favorite thing to do. So I jumped into blogs and social media with the same vigor as running, even finished that first book I always promised myself and started tapping out a second. I didn’t give up exercise, just reassigned it on my list of priorities.

Soon, however, I remembered that every leap has a fall, and mine came when the words suddenly didn’t. Writer’s block, a problem foreign to me until then, choked my confidence, turned sitting at a keyboard into physical agony, and made me wonder whether my decades-long love of words had waned. After all, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing …

I puzzled over this alarming change. I went on book-reading binges and to coffee-house poetry readings to try shaking my creativity loose. I tried even staring down my computer, hoping for the moment the screen was less blank than the look on my face.

It was during one of these stare-downs that I realized the problem: I hadn’t prepared myself properly to write so much.

As with running, writing requires a “training” method of sorts. Just lacing up the shoes and hitting the road without proper preparation invites injury and aggravation for runners; it makes sense then that sitting down to write without a plan can cause comparable aggravation.

So, before you type, think.

Have a plan — Blogs and books, tweets and treatises, they all require distinct writing styles, with the format for one unlikely to fit another. Settle on a style to suit the need. Be true to your voice. But do the research, determine word counts and writing time … in other words, have a plan before starting to type. Knowing parameters can help keep a project under control and palpitations to a minimum.

Have good equipment — In running, comfort is king. Shoes and togs that satisfy this royal priority reduce injury, frustration and boredom. For writers, comfortable equipment, and a dependably cozy, ergonomically suitable place to lay down ideas address those same issues. The key is to eliminate physical distractions that may hinder the creative process.

Have a goal or routine — At my peak, I ran 10 to 15 miles daily, regardless of speed, to satisfy my training expectations. As a writer, I aim for a minimum of 1,000 good words at each sitting, regardless of topic. Goals and routines serve as rulers; they help us see how far we’ve come and how much further we must yet travel. Of course, nobody starts running 10 miles their first day; one works up to that. The same with writing. Start small, then expand the goal as time and tolerance permit.

Have accountability — Did you miss your goal for the day? Mark it on a calendar as a reminder. Did you exceed your goal? Reward yourself in some way. The final arbiter is the person you see in the mirror. Be able to stare back at that person without the least twinge of regret.

Have some variety — For a while in my running routine, I chose the same route  because that one more than others gave me what I felt was the best workout. But opting for sameness invited a lameness to my training that curtailed my development. Writing the same way every day can be just as limiting. If prose is your forte, dabble with poetry. If long-form writing is de rigueur, break out with short stories once in a while. To help, keep a writing journal — a paper or electronic place to experiment with other styles and discuss progress with yourself.

Have a partner — Running, like writing, is an intensely solitary exercise, and solitude can be confining. Through partners, runners find motivation and challenge, especially if the partner is a somewhat better runner. Writers, meanwhile, benefit from partners who discuss ideas, edit their output, even nudge them along on daunting projects. Partners provide a perspective on writing that solitude may not permit.

Have healthy habits — To run or write, you need fuel. Lacking that, runners hit a wall and writers hit a blank. But not just any fuel works. The term “garbage in, garbage out” may be chiefly a computer programming term but suits writers well, too. You eat junk food, you’re going to have junk writing, because the mind is more efficient with a healthy diet. Additionally, a sedentary lifestyle has been found to diminish brain function. Get up and out on a regular basis if only to increase blood flow to the brain. Walk, run, bike, bend, stretch — whatever it takes. Writers will find the words come easier when there’s less garbage in their way.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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How to get a newspaper editor’s attention

The calls, emails and tweets started flowing in around during the holidays, coming across my desk at a rate of about half a dozen daily. Many more landed among my colleagues. They usually say something like this:

“I wrote this piece and thought you might like it,” says the introduction to one email.

“Sure, it’s a blog post, but it’s a subject that interests everyone,” says another.

“I’d love to write about sports. I’m a big fan,” says one caller.

This time of year, aspiring writers drop hints, notes and whole unsolicited stories on newspapers like new snow with the intention of publishing those stories and getting paid for them. I think of it as a different kind of holiday tradition: as Christmas-related bills mount, these optimistic writers try to salve their financial wounds by banging out what they consider “news” and expecting a newspaper editor to read it as such, thus publishing it in the next day’s paper and paying generously for the writers’ work by week’s end, or at least before the next credit card statement arrives.

But most of these gratuitous pitches and contributions wind up deleted, erased, ignored, because their writers failed at good reporting.

Sure, newspapers long have relied on contributing writers or freelancers to report news particularly when their full-time staffs were swamped with other work. The need for freelancers is acute now since newspapers nationwide have cut about one-third of their staffs over the past decade.

But today as decades before, newspapers do not accept anything and everything submitted to them for publication as “news.” The stories appearing in today’s print pages or online are products of careful planning, research and attention to detail. Even breaking news coverage requires rapid incisive analysis by teams of reporters and editors — freelancers sometimes among them — to determine how and why something happened and why it’s what journalists like to call “newsworthy.”

So, before you ship that free-form story to the nearest newspaper, stop for moment to understand first what it takes to attract a newspaper editor’s attention:

First, you have to read the newspaper — This sounds pitifully obvious. In reality, it’s pitiful how many solicitations that come to newspapers are ignorant on their face, as the writers are blind to the newspaper’s greater purpose. Each paper serves as a kind of window onto the community, and the communities themselves are distinct. Thus, what interests readers or is newsworthy in St. Louis may not warrant similar attention in Sheboygan, Wis., or Syracuse, N.Y. Reading the newspaper carefully every day reveals the distinction. Consider how a newspaper is organized and edited, and where certain topics routinely appear. In other words, study the newspaper before trying to write for it.

Sell the story, not yourself — Prospective freelancers often try to tell their life stories when all an editor wants to know is whether the writer’s idea is worth attention. Concentrate on explaining the story’s importance in one or two short sentences, focusing on the key questions all news stories try to answer: who what, when, where, why and how.

Remember, there is no “I” in news — What you think, feel or believe about the news is not important; don’t try passing off a recent blog post or journal entry as a news story. Cite only the facts in a story pitch; leave out your opinion. Because everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has the facts.

Provide verifiable sources — Newspapers aim to steer clear of bias in its news, leaving that instead to the commentary pages, thus some editors may want to check the validity of a freelancer’s idea before committing to it. Providing at least three independent sources that editors can contact if they wish will sell a story pitch better than if there are none.

Send your pitch to the proper place — Story ideas relating to sports should not go to the news or features editors. Find out who the editors are that work with freelancers and accept story ideas, and craft pitches and queries to them specifically.

Pay attention to quality, quantity — Besides determining the proper editor for submissions, make sure to spell the editor’s name correctly. For that matter, pay careful attention to fixing spelling and grammar errors before sending any correspondence. Most newspapers also adhere to “style” guidelines outlined by The Associated Press. Furthermore, if a story calls for a specific length, say 500 words, avoid writing even one word more than that. Not following such a simple direction may prompt time-challenged editors to hit the “delete” key.

Keep an open mind about being edited — Even the world’s best journalists need editors, so don’t think your work is much better. But don’t take editing personally. Accept that stories may be trimmed or adjusted for length before publication. Tight, precise writing and rigid adherence to a prearranged story length go a long way toward preventing this.

Small potatoes are better than no potatoes — It used to be that newspapers paid well for freelance work. These days, big paychecks are rare, $25 to $50 per published story being typical and non-negotiable.

Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be a pest, either — Upon making a pitch, if a newspaper editor has not yet responded, wait three or four days before following up politely, professionally. It may be that the editor has been busy, or is keeping an eye open for other ideas.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.


 

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Which Style Guide Do I Use?

With so many style guides to choose from, a writer needs to know what guides are available and when to use each. For those of us who focus on writing as journalists, we typically defer to the Associated Press Stylebook. Book authors, on the other hand, often use the Chicago Manual of Style (aka CMOS). But then there is MLA and APA.So many choices!

In this Q&A post about CMOS, The Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, gives a brief explanation of what style guide to use and when. [Scroll down to "Different Style Guides Have Different Uses."]

 

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Seven Steps to Streamline Your Bookkeeping

A fellow freelancer posted this on Facebook a few weeks ago:  “Note to self:  Do NOT wait until the last two weeks of the year to enter/organize/categorize all of your expenses for your business. I am an idiot.”

Sorry for outing you, Ms. P., but you brought up a point that a lot of freelancers have to deal with. We’re business owners so, in addition to doing the work we love, we also have to do administrative tasks for which we don’t get paid. This includes paying bills, recording mileage and bookkeeping. Some freelancers avoid these tasks like the plague, while others hire someone to help.

I’ve tried both approaches – ignoring the paperwork until it threatened to take over my office and hiring a bookkeeper to help. I’ve finally settled on an affordable, relatively painless system to handle these annoying but necessary tasks. Here’s how I do it:

1.       I have separate bank accounts for business and personal expenses.

2.       I make deposits to my business account no more than once a week. This streamlines bookkeeping when it is time to reconcile my account.

3.       I pay bills once a month through QuickBooks so all of my business expenses are automatically categorized when I make the entries.

4.       Once a week, I record my work-related mileage in an Excel spreadsheet, using my Google calendar as a diary of where I went and why.  [Sample entry:  12/23/11, Met with editor at South Sound magazine in Tacoma, 42 miles]

5.       Once a week, I record all of my business-related expenses for the week in QuickBooks, and marking the hard copy as “posted” with a stamp and then filing them by month.

6.       At the end of each quarter, a bookkeeper reconciles my accounts and double-checks my bookkeeping and estimated tax payments.

7.       At the end of the year, my bookkeeper finalizes my accounting and prepares 1099s for subcontractors, when applicable. From there, I can prepare my own tax return or submit them to an accountant for handling.

This system takes me less than two hours a month of my own time and eight or so hours a year for my bookkeeper. If you can’t afford a bookkeeper, you can do those steps yourself. I prefer not to. I’d rather do a little extra work to pay her, freeing up my time to work on things I’m good at while avoiding stuff I’d rather not do.

With a New Year upon us, this is a great time to make changes in your recordkeeping. Try these seven steps to lighten your work load and free your mind for more creative pursuits. Good luck!

 

Dana Neuts is a freelance writer, editor and marketing professional based in the Seattle area. She serves as the regional director for Region 10 of SPJ and is the chairman of the national SPJ freelance committee. In addition, she is the owner and publisher of iLoveKent.net and iLoveCovington.com, hyperlocal blogs focused on cities in South King County, Washington. For more information about Dana, visit VirtuallyYourz.com.

 

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I Hereby Resolve…

Contributed by freelance writer Eric Francis

Okay, we all know this one. It’s a gimmick, right? This is The Dead Week – no news but space to fill, so hey! I know! Let’s just rehash last year’s list of New Year’s Resolutions then head for the watering hole….

Fine. Be that way. But before you relegate this one to the (virtual) circular file, let’s go over a few things that every freelancer needs to be keeping in mind as they practice writing 2012 instead of 2011.

First off, how many full-time journalists do you know who lost their job last year? Close friends, former colleagues, bare acquaintances. A handful? Maybe a dozen? Now think about all the layoffs you heard about, not just in your market but your entire state, even your region. Scores? Hundreds?

Ladies and gentlemen, what are the odds that most of those folks are going to become freelancers, whether it’s for the long haul or only until they land another full-time gig? Pretty darn good, I can tell you from experience.

As freshly minted unemployed journalists, they have something you might be missing right now: Motivation. There’s nothing like losing a paycheck to make one desperate to find its replacement. Which means they’re going to be calling every potential client in your stomping grounds to see what assignments are available.

And every assignment they get is one you won’t.

That’s a conundrum. You don’t want to wish ill upon your unfortunate fellow journo, naturally, but you also don’t want anyone taking bread from your children’s mouths.  And that is why you need to be making some resolutions for this year.

For starters, forget your current definition of what your market is. If you’ve got a cell phone and an internet connection, the world is your beat. Check your current client list and see how far away, in miles, you are from the most distant publication you’ve written for. Then either take that number and double it and find a new client to pitch at the far end of the ruler, or (if you’re already selling stories coast to coast) orient your compass in a direction you haven’t looked before. Someone in one of those locales needs your work, and it behooves you to find them.

Here’s a variation on that theme: What’s the circulation of your largest client? Double it and find a new client in that range.  Pick one located in a place you used to live, or where you’ve visited, so you can demonstrate more than Wikipedia-level knowledge about the locale.  You might be surprised that new client is right in your backyard, or your favorite family vacation spot.

You can also go small. This country is full of little publications – local weekly papers, small-city websites, special-interest magazines. And yes, most of them won’t pay much. But if you own the rights to your past work and have a diverse collection of evergreen or easily updated stories,  you might be able to pick up some small checks with little or no new effort required on your part. Plus, you could earn the gratitude of an editor or publisher who will pass your name around their circle of friends, or up the command structure if they’re owned by a chain, which could lead to more lucrative work later on.

Finally, go for the Hail Mary pass. You know there’s a publication out there you’ve always wanted to see your byline in, yet you’ve never tested those waters. Make this the year you go all out to get in their pages. True, it might mean devoting a lot of time and effort to a project that may not see print if you can’t convince your dream date to take you to the prom, but odds are you’ll still be able to shop it around – or put it on your website to show what you can do.

Actually, there’s one more thing – track down one of the journalists you know who was laid off and offer to buy them lunch. Tell them what it takes to be a freelancer these days. Offer to help them shore up a weak spot in their skill set, or to pay their SPJ membership fee. Because this profession is going to be in turmoil for some years yet, and if we haven’t been in their shoes yet we might find ourselves there down the road. They may be in a position to return the favor one day, so there’s no harm in building a little good karma today.

After all, they may technically be a competitor, but they’re always going to be another journalist. And journalists look after their own.

Eric Francis is a freelance writer based in North Little Rock, Ark. His resolutions for this year include learning to build and manage a website, finding new clients in at least two other states, and teaching the cat not to sit in front of the keyboard.

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