Archive for August, 2012


Editors are not the enemy

Believe it or not, editors are not the red-pen-wielding ogres we imagine them to be. In fact, many of them are just like us. They have a penchant for writing and editing, they believe in reporting the truth, and they want to do it as succinctly as possible. They want readers and viewers, just like we do.

I’ll go one step further and say that editors can be our best allies when trying to make our stories the very best they can be. They see the heart of the story that we can’t see, and they show us how to polish it up and make it shine. They check our facts and fix our mistakes, without credit or even a byline. They are the silent, steadfast professionals that push us harder.

Sure, there are a few I’d prefer not to work with again (and vice versa), but I encourage you to make peace with your editors and accept their revisions and advice graciously. For those who need more tangible reasons to peacefully co-exist with editors, consider these:

1.  They control the editorial calendar, assignments and budget.

2.  It’s a small world. Editors sometimes move around a lot, and they talk to each other, just like we do. If you have a good relationship, their future jobs could benefit you. If not, you may miss some opportunities.

3.  We can learn from the advice and experience of our editors.

4.  We can depend on them to be our internal advocate when we want to try a different type of story, have not been paid on time or need an introduction to a fellow editor.

5.  They can be the voice of reason when it is too painful to “kill our darlings.”

[This blog is dedicated to a few of my favorite editors:  Becca, Bill, Chris, Randy and Lisa. My writing and reporting is better because of you.]

 

Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of iLoveKent.net and iLoveWashington.net. An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).

 

 

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Plagiarism is a choice, not a mistake

(Reprinted with permission from dksheets’s posterous blog.)

Sorry, Steve, but I disagree.

Most journalists don’t lie on purpose.

But I can see why the former Kansas City Star newspaper columnist would think that, and thanks to the slow bleeding of the newspaper industry I predict the number of accusations will increase.

Steve Penn’s case may put a magnifying glass to the problem. About a month ago, Penn, who had written for the Star since 1980, lost his job due to alleged chronic lifting of content from news releases and passing off that content as original writing. At least two examples were caught by editors and were cited by the Star when it announced his firing, though the newspaper says it found “more than a dozen” violations going back to 2008.

You’d think Penn would be contrite and apologetic, as expected when one’s professional credibility is questioned. (After all, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria was, after admitting to plagiarizing from another writer for a magazine column, but then undermined his sincerity by saying the infraction was a “mistake” and a “lapse,” as if briefly forgetting that plagiarism was wrong.)

And plagiarism is a harsh charge — among the worst in Penn’s profession; the stigma attached usually hangs on into a subsequent career. Instead, the veteran writer has sued his former employer’s owner, McClatchy Newspapers, for punitive damages totaling a minimum of $25,000, claiming his reputation was harmed because he was held out as an example to account for behavior considered acceptable to Star staffers and condoned by its supervisors.

His rationale, as stated in the lawsuit, is that lifting content word for word from news releases has become “widespread practice in journalism,” because public relations pros craft the releases with that in mind, carefully considering even the tone and theme of their pieces when writing for media outlets.

If journalists copy and paste, all the better for public relations, the theory goes, because it shows the PR folks that they have delivered their messages effectively.

This theory is persuasive, and pervasive. A writer for the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher, Allan Wolper, who interviewed me last week about Penn’s case, even chuffed a little when I dismissed Penn’s rationale as selfish.

I accept Wolper’s thinly veiled doubt that Penn’s was unique behavior. Print journalists — still the primary sources of the credible news circulated on the Web — endure withering pressure to produce more and better news stories despite diminishing newspaper staffs and resources. And with the flurry of news releases falling daily amid compounded print and electronic deadlines, the allure of lifting a sentence here or a paragraph there to save time can be irresistible.

Because nobody’s going to notice, right?

But what separates professional journalists from wannabes, poseurs and pundits in large part is a willpower forged by the urge to do what’s correct and proper by their publications, their profession, and their communities. This willpower finds support in ethical principles adapted to protect all journalists and advanced by the Society of Professional Journalists, and in Penn’s case the policy elucidated by the Star’s Code of Ethics, which states rather clearly that plagiarism “includes the wholesale lifting of someone else’s writing, research or original concepts without attribution.”

(As an aside, at every newspaper I’ve worked, I’ve had to sign a form saying I had read and understood the company’s list of behavioral policies before they agreed to employ me. The form was among the sheaf of papers the personnel office insisted I fill out before they put me on the payroll. I’m guessing the Star has similar forms — and one of them has Penn’s name on it.)

Of course, in the broader communications world, upstart media, strenuously attuned to Web metrics for validation, may lack a list of policies, let alone the circumspection professional journalism demands, so they feel free to replicate pre-packaged material without compunction, or revise it out of context, unfettered by editors back-checking their work. At some point though, their credibility, and maybe their careers, will hinge on whether they borrow or create. Penn and Zakaria are learning that now.

Policies and codes aside, journalists are responsible as writers and authors to be true to their audiences and themselves. Sure, PR people may not mind seeing their words copied without attribution, but journalists are not supposed to let someone else’s voice supplant their own. The sure course away from journalistic credibility lies in ignoring that.

So, to anyone who choses to plagiarize another’s work, then gets caught, understand this: Nobody made you do it.

David Sheets is a former content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a candidate for Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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Are You Ready to Start Freelancing Full-Time?

Are you thinking about making the leap into freelancing … but you’re not sure if you’re ready to leave the security of a full-time job?

Here’s a true story of a woman who transitioned from her 9-to-5 into a freelance life at the same time that she became pregnant and her husband lost his job. Perhaps her story will help you decide whether or not you’re ready.

Juliana Builds a Nest Egg

Juliana Weiss-Roessler started writing freelance stories because she was “bored” at her day job.

“I had a lot of down time on my hands,” she said.

She didn’t expect it to become a significant source of income, so she felt surprised when she saw how much money she was beginning to make.

“I was sometimes earning more (freelancing) … than I was in my full-time position,” she said.

Before long, she began to wonder: could she do this full-time?

Before Weiss-Roessler felt ready to take the leap, though, she wanted some security. So she started shoveling money into a savings account.

Saving felt easy: since the freelance income she was making on the side wasn’t money that she ever “counted” on having, she simply directed it into savings. Within months, she had a large enough nest egg to support herself and her husband for six months.

She didn’t realize how quickly she’d have to tap that nest egg. Shortly after she quit her 9-to-5, her husband learned he was laid off. To complicate matters, she also discovered that she was pregnant.

Fortunately, they had six months of savings to rely on. The couple also realized that if they trimmed some of the “extras” out of their life, they could stretch that money into seven or eight months.

Weiss-Roessler doubled her dedication to freelance writing, hunting for opportunities and sending well-crafted pitches. Her efforts paid off.

“Within a few months, business was booming,” she said.

Her advice to people who are considering making the freelance switch? “Do the math,” she said. “(Build) your safety net.”

But don’t over-think it, she said.

“You just have to … take the leap,” she said.

Read more about Juliana’s story here.

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My Favorite Freelance Resources

Without an in house editor, newsroom historian or a librarian at our fingertips to help us navigate the freelance life, it is necessary to cull our own resources. While everyone’s list will vary, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite freelance resources.

Books:

Associated Press Guide to Punctuation

Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)

The Courage to Write (Ralph Keyes)

Get a Freelance Life (Media Bistro, Margit Feury Ragland)

My So-Called Freelance Life (Michelle Goodman)

The Subversive Copyeditor (Carol Fisher Saller)


Online Resources:

Christina Katz ~ The Prosperous Writer

Dr. Grammar

Media Bistro

Reynolds Center for Business Journalism

JimRomenesko.com


Organizations:

Editorial Freelancers Association

Freelancers Union

Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS)

SPJ, Freelance Resources

 

What are some of your favorite freelance resources? Please post them in the comments to share them with us. Thank you!

 

Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of iLoveKent.net and iLoveWashington.net. An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).

 

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Freelance frustration: same as it ever was

Freelancer Ben Adler has penned a lament on the field in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Piecemeal Existence.

The article spells out how bleak it is for many freelancers. Sites offer pittances for blog posts, sometimes based on the number of views a freelancer gets. He might be asked to just plain write for free. One editor, Choire Sicha at The Awl, defends the practice:

“I think working for free was always the case in journalism,” says Sicha. “You had to pay for graduate school, know the right people, or hustle your way up. There were slightly more paid newspaper internships, but they always went to a certain kind of student.”

I freelanced in the 1980s in Chicago. I didn’t do it for the right papers. I sometimes made $20 an article. I wrote regularly for a place that paid $100 an article, and some of my articles ran more than 2,000 words (that works out to 5 cents a word). But my rent at the time was $280 a month. I remember an ad for a writer that promised $500 for 10,000 words of supposedly simple prose. Even for me, that was a bit much (probably because I hadn’t done the math on those 2,000 word, $100 stories).

What I did not do was write for free. It took a while to make a living without having to supplement my writing income by waiting tables and working as a legal proofreader. Yes, there were unpaid internships that went primarily to trust fund babies. But the world today looks grimmer than the one I started in, the recession-plagued 80s.

The real challenge to the profession is that “free” does not create incentive to do actual reporting, as Adler notes. He also questions whether people who write will be able to sustain their current pace for the next 40 years, or when they have kids. He profiles three people piecing together a living of sorts by writing, none of them doing much more than surviving. This kind of subsistence journalism did exist 30 years ago, and I recognize the world Adler writes about. In some ways, things aren’t that different.

But where Adler strikes a hopeful note, looking at the evolution of Gawker from sweat shop to a place that offers salaries, it’s clear he isn’t confident about it. He fears the collapse of the path that leads away from subsistence journalism. It’s a fear shared by many, and his article is worth a read for anyone thinking about or currently freelancing.

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