Posts Tagged ‘journalism’


Active vs. passive in finding freelance work – a website isn’t enough

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, www.writerruth.com, “I can write about anything!”®

In a recent LinkedIn group post that had me shaking my head, someone recently said, “I found it very hard to get anyone to respond to my web site for editing. How do you all do it?”

That was it – the entire post. Not even a URL for her site so group members could take a look and offer advice based on how she presented herself, which might be a big piece of her problem.

My response was that a website by itself isn’t enough to find freelance work, whether it’s writing, editing, proofreading – or plumbing. I said: “I had a few years of in-house writing and editing jobs that gave me, in addition to skills and experience, an excellent networking base. Once I was freelancing full-time, I made a point of being active in professional organizations that provided job listings, among other services, and expanded my networking range. Most of my current projects come from people finding me, rather than my having to find them, but I still get new projects through listings from professional organizations. I also get some from being active in LinkedIn groups.

“The key is ‘active.’ A website is passive. You have to be active. You can’t sit there and wait for clients to find you. That means joining, and being visible in, professional organizations. Maybe joining a local writers’ group or writers’ center to meet potential clients, if you want to edit books. Sending cold queries to publishers and being willing to take their editing tests.

“You also have to tell prospective clients why they should hire you – what skills and experience you have, which style manuals you know, what your approach to projects and clients might be, etc.”

I also should have mentioned that, once you have a website, you have to make it as active as possible. That means refreshing, revising and adding information to it regularly – every time you do so, you improve its visibility in rankings. You have to learn a little about search engine optimization (SEO) so you can use language that will help the site do well in searches. You have to focus its content not just on how great a writer you are, but on what you can do for clients with that writing skill and experience. You have to take the lead in making the website work for you by doing something to drive people to it.

Readers of this blog, as members of SPJ, already have figured out the value of joining a professional association. Many of you also have figured out the value of not just being what I call a checkbook member, but of being active and visible. If you’re planning to freelance, you have to make sure that people know who you are and what you can do, and colleagues in SPJ are a good place to start. Just as you can’t just pay your dues and wait for SPJ to make you a better or more-successful freelance journalist, you can’t just sit there and wait for prospective clients to stumble over your website and hire you for freelance work.

It’s easier for freelance writers to find new business than it is for editors, in a way – it isn’t that hard to find publications to query with article ideas, while editors may have to be more creative in finding and connecting with prospective clients. Proving our experience may be easier for writers as well, because we can usually point to our published work, while editors and proofreaders often can’t display their projects – a lot of editing/proofreading work is proprietary, and a lot of clients don’t want the world to see how badly their projects needed our editing skills!

The key to getting more work is to be seen and heard. That means not just having a website, but being active in places like SPJ chapters and online groups, Twitter, LinkedIn and even Facebook – and not just with questions or requests for help, but with the occasional answer, tip and help for colleagues. You can’t always be taking; you have to give a little, too. In fact, SPJ itself is a good starting point – contributing to the Freelance Committee and its blog will help get your name out there as someone with a writing voice, style and substance that is worth recommending and hiring.

It also can’t hurt to let everyone you ever worked with, and even everyone you know in the personal realm, know that you’re freelancing and available for projects. Keep it low-key and professional, but you have to get the word out about your freelance business, at least initially. You can’t assume that people who might hire you, or know of potential clients and projects, will magically know that you’re available.

Getting the word about your business isn’t easy, but no one ever said freelancing would be easy. Having your own business never is – it’s fulfilling, rewarding and often exciting, but it isn’t easy.

For your website to be an active element in your freelance business, you have to promote it and use it; it can’t just sit there waiting for people to find it. Overall, for a freelance journalism business to gain traction and succeed, the freelancer has to move past the “Build it and they will come” mentality and move into one that’s more of “Here’s who I am and what I can do for you.” Don’t be afraid to make the first moves in getting the word out about your freelance business. Once you establish that groundwork or foundation, work will start coming to you by referral, word of mouth and other passive outlets, including that website, but you have to make those first moves.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has made presentations on freelancing, editing & proofreading, and websites for national SPJ conferences. In addition to her freelance writing, editing and proofreading business (www.writerruth.com), she is the owner of Communication Central, which presents an annual conference for freelancers. SPJ members are entitled to a colleague’s discount for the conference: http://www.communication-central.com/2013/events/2013-conference/

In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

In a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, they demand special consideration before displaying them in public. For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and thus preserve credibility.

So, at a time we’re still weighing New Year’s resolutions, or wondering whether to uphold the ones we’ve made, consider putting patience high on the list. Armed with it, writers and editors more easily catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding patience where none existed. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help then to install social media speed bumps of a sort — a set of objectives that forces introspection. For this, we could adapt journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Though social media networks permit users to group their followers, most users don’t, and their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The result: just one post intended for a small group of followers could send others packing. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly, and whether you’re doing the same and not relying on conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume the faster we post, the more certain we are to ride the leading edge of news. Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” on breaking news were just as important as the information itself. In truth, no newspaper shut down and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we consider Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others to possess the same reach and intent. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles though with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, 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.

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.

 

Widbook: A tool for collaborative journalism

As the market for freelance journalism grows, so too has interest in the evolving tools for that job.

That interest is acute where collaborative journalism is concerned, because simply pitching PDFs of Word documents back and forth via email tends to be a clunky way of doing business in this demanding age of digital interactivity. Now, no matter the distance or purpose, teams of people with shared goals all want to work together as if sitting in the same room.

A relatively new website called Widbook tries to provide that goal-oriented environment and foster a social network to supplement it. Widbook is a writing and editing space that lets people alone or in groups craft book-length projects and shorter stories; insert resources such as photos, videos and animations; and add to or augment contributions by other writers.

Widbook also invites writers and readers to share and tweak favorite developing works, and create libraries of published works whether self-written or from other authors.

Early reports on Widbook, still in beta, call it a “YouTube for books” because of its heavy emphasis on interactivity. The central theme and interface are better suited for collaboration on projects. Writers who prefer to work alone can use Widbook as well, but they’ll miss out on many of its features.

And Widbook is free of charge to register for and use — surely the most attractive feature to freelance writers and hopeful novelists working with meager budgets. The only things that first-time visitors to Widbook need to get started is to create a user name and password. Options include creating a personal profile, linking with Facebook, and selecting favorite literary genres from which to build a library. Members also can send messages and “follow” one another through the site.

Because it’s in beta, Widbook has limitations and quirks. For one thing, it’s not possible to export a finished project to another platform, though that’s expected to come later as the site matures, and it’s not obvious to early users how the social media aspect will supplement the collaboration tools. The interface is also a tad balky with projects of more than a few chapters.

Still, for collaborative writers and editors, Widbook presents an intriguing new way for journalists to exchange ideas and bring far-flung talent together in the same room.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and past-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.

 

Balancing family and freelance journalism

I type this on a gorgeous sunny day in the middle of a period when personal and family matters did their best to interfere with my freelance work, at a level even I – after a good 30 years of freelancing – have never experienced before. Not only lots of heavy deadlines to juggle between, but deaths of three friends with corresponding funerals and visitations to attend (as well as notifying my network of friends, family and classmates about them), prescription-service headaches to cope with, an unexpected visit from a childhood friend, my mom’s 88th birthday to celebrate, volunteer commitments to honor …  And here it is, Mother’s Day, when I should be hanging out with my mom, and I’m sitting in my home office writing a column about balancing work and family (an assignment I almost forgot about, in all honesty, thanks to everything else on my plate lately and to, um, not putting this deadline on my calendar).

These are good things to include in our lives, but they do conflict with getting work done, and freelancers have the added burden of friends and family not always understanding what we do and why we need time to do it – if we aren’t leaving home for the office at regular hours, how can it be an imposition to manage personal and family stuff whenever it crops up?

And it’s even more challenging for freelancers with children; one demand on my time and energy that I don’t have, but that is part of the life of almost every freelancer I know.

How do we do it all?

The first and most important aspect of balancing work and family is to acknowledge that we need to create that balance. It doesn’t just happen serendipitously.

We have to start by educating everyone we know and interact with on the validity of what we do and how we do it. We have to take our work seriously, or no one else will. Then we have to figure out what comes first and when, because that will fluctuate. And we have to be conscious of the fact that the best-organized to-do list is going to blow up when something unexpected happens, such as illness, equipment malfunctions, death. The occasional reminder that “life happens” can help head off panic when it does.

Don’t let family and friends talk you into being the neighborhood or family patsy – sorry; errand-runner, helper, do-gooder – just because you’re working from home and perhaps at unpredictable hours. If you don’t mind dog-watching, cat-sitting, picking up kids from school and taking them to extra-curricular activities, accepting packages, doing airport runs – fine; if doing all that for everyone interferes with finding freelance projects and getting your work done – not fine. Learn to say no: “Sorry, I’d be glad to help out, but I’m on deadline today and not available. Maybe next time.” “I’d love to chair that event, but I’m neck-deep in work, so I just can’t take on that much responsibility. Is there something else I can do instead that takes less time?” “I’ll play catch with you in an hour; I have to finish this interview first.”

Some freelance journalists set regular work hours – even posting signs on their office doors and websites, so family and friends know when not to disturb them and clients know when not to try to contact them.

It helps to have a separate work space and your own computer that no one else in the family is allowed to use, so you can’t be bounced off it while the kids do their homework or your partner takes care of his or her personal business. Having your own work space and equipment is not only one mark of the professional, but an invaluable way of marking the boundaries between work and family.

The best tool for balancing work and family is to put everything in writing. Treat family matters and volunteer projects in the same way as paid assignments: Put them on your calendar with their dates or deadlines and even the odd “tickler”: a calendar reminder that such-and-such a commitment, event or responsibility is coming up a week later. Once you see all these things on paper (or in an onscreen Word or Excel document; whatever works best for you), it’s a lot easier to organize the time to handle all of them without going bonkers – and to know when to turn something down or hand it off because it’s just not going to be possible to do everything.

Be prepared to delegate or refer. Build up a network of reliable colleagues to turn to when you’re overloaded and must choose between a family event and a new assignment, or a crisis occurs, or a new project is in the offing that your common sense says you really shouldn’t accept at that particular time, or a worthy charity event arises that you don’t want to turn down flat.

Try to stay ahead of deadlines – don’t just meet them, but sometimes beat them, so it’s easier to respond if a family matter comes up unexpectedly. It’s hard enough to cope with a personal emergency when the decks are clear, but ulcer-generating when you have to fit it in around work deadlines. Most clients will be sympathetic to what they see as genuine emergencies, but your and their definitions of “genuine” may be worlds apart, and even the most dire issue won’t compensate for leaving a client with empty column inches or pages to fill at the last second.

Expect to burn the occasional late-night oil. Sometimes the only way to meet work deadlines while fulfilling family commitments is to put in the occasional all-nighter.

Try to maintain a savings cushion. It’s a lot easier to turn down an assignment because a family event needs your time and attention when you aren’t desperate for every incoming penny.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t put family first, because we (usually) should. Family and family moments are irreplaceable. But we have to get our work done, and sometimes family and other non-work demands get in the way. Only the individual freelance journalist can know when one should trump the other. The best way to create an enjoyable balance between the two is to acknowledge that they might interfere with each other on occasion, be as prepared as possible, and cultivate enough flexibility and backbone to direct that traffic in the directions you need them to take to handle both.

Now I’m off to spend some quality time with my mom; I’ll be working into the wee hours of the night to meet a couple of urgent deadlines, but some things come first.

Additional tips on better self-editing

Ignorance is one of those things that doesn’t improve with practice. Yet a lot of writers in all corners of the craft insist their prime obligation is committing ideas to words, and whether it’s the right word is not always their concern.

“The first draft, I’m just trying to get everything down,” a book author told me. “After that, I leave it up to my editor most times to clean it up.”

This approach is fine for getting ideas down as fast as they come to mind; in fact, I endorse it. Lately though, I’ve seen more blogs, short stories, novels and non-fiction works come out in final form that suggest the commitment to clean-up was abbreviated or lacking altogether. What these shoddy pieces portend is embarrassment for the author, the publisher, and potentially the readers who expected professional work in the first place.

Blame this boom in boo-boos on the ease of electronic publishing, which has reduced the gap between writing and marketing to a barely perceptible slit and goads us into stream-of-consciousness creativity. We are all just a keystroke away from fame and fortune, we’d like to think. Thus, we’re inclined to rush the process.

In a previous post I broached a few basic tips for freelancers to improve their editing. Here, I offer more to consider, such as:

Creating a “mission statement” — Have reason and focus when writing. Don’t hang the hope that “something will come to me” on protracted banging of the keyboard. A goal can guide thinking, and clear thinking guides creativity. Establish goals at the beginning so that your purpose is obvious at the end.

Thinking about brevity when writing briefly — Writing space always is at a premium, even online. So, too, is the readers’ attention. Research has shown that readers flip through Web pages faster than printed ones, which means writers have less time than ever to make a good impression online. Short, punchy words tend to help in this regard. Long words can trip up readers and force them to stumble through one’s prose, if they bother staying around long enough to finish.

Using active verbs — And speaking of brevity, active verbs take up less space than passive ones, because the passive ones are bigger and heavier and need modifiers to carry them along. Active verbs can stand alone and bear their own weight. Sure, passive verbs have a place in English — wherever slow, ponderous writing is a premium.

Avoiding redundancies — There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once in writing. Let me repeat: There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once. Unless you’re doing it for effect.

Trimming fat — Closely related to redundancy is excess verbiage — usually, the adjectives, adverbs and prepositions that pad our speech. Though it seems when first written that they help drive home a particular point, they in fact delay gratification or they overstate an idea. Use adjectives sparingly, limit adverbs to those times when it’s absolutely necessary to alter the verb’s definition, and make sure prepositions are always in their place, which is very close to, if not next to, the object they’re supposed to modify.

Doing the math — Just about all the journalists I know drifted into writing as a career in part because they were poor mathematicians, or had a natural aversion to numbers. Words were their passion. The thing is, good reporting often relies on making sure things add up the way they should, whether the scale of measure is math or logic. Take time to check the math. Or get someone else who’s good with numbers to do it for you.

Paying attention to personal quirks — This speaks broadly to everything said above. Our shortcomings are characteristic of our personalities. Detail-oriented people may miss seeing the big picture, while big-picture people may gloss over subtle distinctions. Still others have trouble in general with spelling or grammar or word usage. Subdue your ego long enough to gain perspective of personal writing or reporting flaws, even if it means asking other people about them, because those flaws could be the first things readers see in your writing.

Pacing yourself — Speed is essential in typing tests but not in thoughtful writing. Sure, deadlines constrain our penchant for doing things in free-form ways, but taking care to prepare for a writing or editing project can eliminate scheduling and organizational obstacles that slow us down. With careful preparation comes time to think clearly and carefully about what we’re writing, and given adequate time we can pace our production.

Editing more than once — In my line of work, however, speed counts. Newspapers never are casual places, and the closer to deadline my colleagues and I get the more prone we are to hurrying through our edits to news copy. This is not acceptable behavior, mind you, just one of the vagaries of deadline journalism. Freelancers, on the other hand, have rather more control over their schedules, and fortunately, more control over the editing process. They should understand that one re-read does not constitute a good edit; two, three, even four re-reads is much better. Because our minds slip into comfort zones as our bodies do, we’ll easily read past some errors while we’re keyed in to finding others.

If it helps, edit a piece at least three times taking three approaches: first, editing for story structure and clarity; second, for spelling; and third, for grammar. Dividing your focus on purpose improves the chances you’ll catch more errors and heighten your credibility.

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.

 

Be sensitive when conducting interviews

The toughest task in good journalism no doubt is staying true to the facts.

The next toughest: getting them.

Whether coming from paper or people, information-gathering affords certain challenges not apparent on its face. Myriad nuances present both opportunity and obstacles; the clinching detail may drop easily within a journalist’s grasp, only to become suddenly unreachable due to a computer glitch or an administrative oversight. Or, maybe, the people holding that key detail in their heads decide at the most inopportune moment to keep it to themselves.

For the first two problems, calling a tech-support specialist or a knowledgeable and sympathetic administrative staff subordinate may shake the facts loose. For the third, a finely tuned sensitivity in conducting interviews tends to do the same.

That sensitivity is not an emotional one; it’s rooted in preparation and in paying keen attention to the interview subject, two things that require time and commitment in advance of the interview. So, before sitting down to question anyone at length for a story or news report, take care to prepare:

Do research — This, more than anything, makes a good interview. How much you know about the person you’re interviewing and their expertise will be reflected not only in the questions asked, but also your attitude. There’s a saying that goes, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge also evokes confidence, and a confident interviewer is a disarming one. Besides, doing the research also is a show of respect to the interviewee, and a little respect can leverage a lot of information.

List discussion points — Subsequent to the research, the pertinent questions become clear. But to be sure that clarity carries through to the interview, take along a list of discussion points or questions, if for no other reason than to help maintain the interview’s focus should digressions or distractions crop up.

Put people at ease — A comfortable interviewee is an open one. So, if time permits, start off by explaining how the interview should proceed and encourage the interviewee to ask questions about it. Another good ice-breaker: mining one’s natural self-absorption. Typically, our favorite discussion topic is the person we see in the mirror. If that isn’t already the interview’s central theme, start there to show you’re interested in more than just the reason for the interview.

Once they’re at ease, let them talk — Along that line, interviewees may wish to unburden themselves of pre-interview stress or whatever else they have pent up that makes them tense. This could require letting interviewees ramble until their defenses come down. Again, if time is short, the easing period will hinge on one or two key questions designed to hasten relief. Good research will determine what kinds of questions these ought to be.

Don’t finish sentences — Patience is a virtue, and it’s best to appear virtuous when plumbing for personal or sensitive information. Let people avail themselves of silence between questions to organize their thoughts and cultivate answers to questions. Filling in blanks for them only fosters ill will and frustration, and may close people up after you’ve worked hard to get them open.

Record the interview – Another distraction is note-taking, for both the interviewer and the interviewee. Scribbling forces interviewers to try doing two things at once. The interviewee, meanwhile, sits waiting for the pen to stop scratching before finishing their thought, during which they may forget what that thought was. Moreover, note-taking reduces eye-to-eye contact. Give the interviewee all your attention, the better to also stay tuned to changes in facial expression that clue you in to answers possibly going deeper than words. However, feel free to jot down occasional details you’ll want to revisit in the interview or make special mention of while writing the story later.

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.

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.

 

Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Thanks to the economy — or maybe no thanks to it — the market for freelance writers has grown exponentially this past year. America spent much of 2010 pulling itself out of recession, and though that offered hope for a broad rebound entering 2011 publications and corporations that once had large writing staffs still opted to downsize and turn to contract work to save money.

What many freelancers may not realize is that newspapers are among the top enterprises making this turn. Newspapers, of course, suffered through substantial layoffs in 2010 and may yet in the new year. Still, they have print and electronic pages to fill and the pressure is great on the few people remaining in the industry to continue doing that job. What’s more, veteran print journalists are under other pressure from non-profit and “hyper local” journalism models to remain relevant, vibrant and competitive despite diminishing resources.

So, while looking around for new markets, consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, do a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors determine a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Believe me, not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, but being amenable is key to getting more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small, if at all
— Typical pay ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Keep in mind that assignments may not be frequent or fulsome enough to constitute steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are a fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that do not suffer people who miss deadlines. If an editor says a story has to be completed and on his desk or in his e-mail inbox by a certain time, get it in well before that time if possible. And if that’s not possible, stay in touch with the editor to explain the situation and ask for guidance; they can be understanding when the situation calls for it. But missing a deadline — just one, even — can undermine a writer’s credibility and make it that much harder to receive additional assignments.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local story peg, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Take time to carefully read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; know what these are to have intelligent conversations with assignment editors.

David Sheets is a sports 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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