Monday, July 13, 2009

Working Press


Anyone who has sent me an email knows that I always reply - I think that is just good manners - but every now and then I get asked similar questions and I am tempted to blog about it - then I answer the emails and forget about blogging about it!

Today I am blogging (though I did already answer the most recent email on the subject) because enough people have asked about this to convince me that it deserves a public post. The subject? A mixture of questions about working press.

Over the course of the past year I have received 20+ emails asking me about how I became a columnist and how they might do the same. Other emails of a similar line regarding journalism, working press, photography, and just getting published hikes the total above 50, which from where I sit is both a lot of interest and a reason to blog on it.

The following are my observations, answers, and opinions to each question I was asked:

(1) How did you become a columnist?

Pure dumb luck. Seriously, it was a right place, right time sort of deal. I had written a piece for a magazine that went out of business between when I proposed the piece and when I finished it, and at the suggestion of my wife, I sent a query to the Times.

I doubt anyone could have been more surprised than I was when they accepted it, and then printed it considering that it was a magazine-sized piece! I was asked for another piece, and then a third, after which I was asked if I would like to write a bi-monthly column on technology, and Digital Grind was born.

(2) How can I become a columnist/journalist?

First, there is a big difference between a columnist and a journalist.

A Columnist: Generally selects the subjects they write upon, and is responsible for all of the aspects of that process. If they are lucky they have a really great editor (I am and do) who they can call upon for guidance and an experienced eye. The biggest difference between a columnist and a journalist is that a columnist infuses their opinion into the pieces that they write, whereas a journalist should not be doing that.

A Journalist: Writes about things that happen and reports the news. Some (a rare few) work as investigative journalists, hunting for the untold and hidden, but most journalists are employed as Staff Writers and either cover an established beat or are assigned pieces by their editor.

Both Columnists and Journalists follow a well-established code of ethics and rules set by their paper - rules that are there to protect the integrity of the paper AND the writer. There are some obvious ones - like verifying facts and identifying yourself when interviewing people - and some not so obvious ones as well that I will cover in a question below...

To be a Columnist: Requires a solid grounding of knowledge in the area that you are writing about, and the ability to write. You know what you know, you know where your strengths are, and you should play to those strengths! If you think your skill set applies, contact the section editor of your paper and ask them if they would be interested in a column from you. Tell them about yourself, your experience, and your aims - write a sample column - and see where that takes you!

To be a Journalist: Is a bit more tricky, since there are specific skill sets you simply have to have. This career track usually begins with journalism as a major at university - though it does not have to - and requires you to be a very task-oriented and self-motivated person. You have X number of words (usually 600 to 900) to explain who, what, where, why, how, and when - and often only a few hours to make that happen. Talk about pressure! But if you think that is you, than educate yourself on the subject!

There are lots of books available and it would not hurt to start writing on your own - learn the style of the publication you want to write for, find a newsworthy topic or two, and write it up. Introduce yourself to the section editor, tell then about yourself and your goals, and include the sample piece you wrote. Yes, it can be that simple!

(3) How come you are identified in different ways in the paper? Sometimes you are a Contributing Writer, sometimes you are a Freelance Writer, and in your column you are just you?

In my by-line for the column I am identified by name - and as a columnist in the section - but you will notice that at the end of the piece, it always says that I am a Freelance Writer, and it gives you my email address. For non-column pieces - How it Works and news pieces - I am usually identified as a Contributing Writer.

The reason for this is actually pretty simple - and Jim, it is not a secret code... What it means in very basic terms is that I am not a Staff Writer - I write for the paper but I am not on staff there.

The term "Freelance" goes back to the age of knights and castles and kings - a "Free Lance" was a warrior who hired out his Lance to any Lord, Baron, or King who was willing to pay them. In its modern use, it means that the writer is working for the publication for a specific project, series, or in my case, column - though I can still contribute to the paper outside the column.

A "Contributing Writer" is widely viewed as a step-up from Freelance though I am not so sure that this is valid, considering that most newspapers use the title to denote a non-staff writer of straight news and feature pieces who has had more than three pieces published in that paper. Often a first time writer's piece is identified as "Analysis" though the usage varies by publication.

(4) It must be pretty cool to be able to wave your press pass and get into concerts and events / How many articles would I have to write for a paper to get a press pass? / You get a lot of free stuff as a newspaper writer?

These questions caught me by surprise the first few times I received them, and I have to admit that I am still surprised when someone asks me this - and it is not just by email, I get this in person too. The reason that I am surprised is that my mindset on the issue is the diametric opposite of the person asking it!

First I should point out that a "Press Pass" is not something that you receive from the publication you write for - it is an ID or pass that is provided to you, by the venue operator, at an event, after you have established your credentials as news media.

How you establish your credentials can be simple enough - you contact the venue in advance to register as press and they verify you. Ah but that is the point, isn't it? They VERIFY you. You do not just show up at an event and wave a media ID and waltz in - that is not how it usually works. You apply in advance, and the PR person for the event either verifies you by doing a web search or checking your paper's web site, or they call your editor.

As for your media credentials - I should point out that I am very reluctant to use them and I only do so when it is necessary - and I have good reasons for this!

First, the ID I was given by the Editor of the Times is a company ID - which means ANY time I use it, I am representing the paper. That is fine if I am working a story and I need to establish that I am in fact working press - and it is incredibly valuable for that purpose because it has the all important contact information on it so that the person or agency I am presenting it to can simply dial up the paper and verify that I am who I say I am, and more to the point - I am supposed to be asking the questions I am asking. That last bit is rather important, and I will explain why.

Somehow an opportunistic notion has been attached to media ID - it is almost as if the public thinks of it as a free pass, or the golden ticket for freebies. I would be a fool if I did not admit that there ARE some members of the press who have, at times, used it in that way, but you may be surprised to learn that that sort of use very often leads to an abrupt change in the users status - to unemployed (and in extreme cases, unemployable).

Remember the rules that working press follow that I mentioned earlier? One of the major rules is that any time you are using your status as press to access an event or to interview someone, it must relate to a piece you are actually writing. Let me rephrase that: I may really like the Blue Man Group, but I cannot use my ID to get a backstage pass and interview them unless I am actually writing a piece ON them - and since I am a technology writer that is not very likely is it?

It is true that as a tech writer, I am offered free stuff all the time. Companies email me offering to send me a gadget or software, and I get invited to industry events. Rarely do I ever accept any of these items or invitations, because if I did, I would have to write about them! I only have 1400 words twice a month and believe me when I say that there is no shortage of topics to write about.

(5) What is the best way for me to get published? / If I write for an online site that does not pay, will that help me get work for sites that do pay?

I am not being sarcastic when I say this - but knowing when to write is probably the best way for you to get published. What do I mean by that? Simply this: writing a piece and then trying to get it published is not the way to go, and is probably the most common mistake in freelance writing.

Learn how to write a good query - and research the publication you want to write for first! There is nothing more painful for a writer than to have to rip apart a piece that they have already written in order to meet the requirements received from a query - it is much easier to query, than write, than the other way around. And your pieces are always better that way.

I honestly cannot say one way or the other if writing for an online site is going to help you get work - a lot of those sites make a big deal out of the fact that you will be getting "published" and that writing for them will "help establish you as a writer" but whenever I see that sort of thing, I have to wonder why they need to tell me that?

I should mention that there are exceptions to this - years ago I actually sold a piece that I originally wrote as a review for the Lincoln Aviator to a magazine that found the piece online, so my qualified answer is yes - and no.

(6) I found a site that sells Freelance Press ID, is that helpful to getting started? / Are you a member of the IPA?

If you are working on a piece that has already been accepted or has been requested by a paper or magazine, providing the contact information for your editor should be sufficient to gain access to whatever venue it is that you are trying to cover. Having a laminated piece of paper with your photo on it issues by anyone other than the publication you are writing for is not just a bad idea, it could get you frozen out of the venue you are trying to access!

I do not claim to be an expert in this area - but common sense tells me that the PR people who handle vetting the press are very familiar with what legitimate credentials look like, and besides that they rarely every accept them on site unless they have established your credentials prior to the event, so I would have to say save your money.

No I am not a member of the IPA. I do not recommend the IPA. I know very little about the IPA other than that they have a very fancy web site and they provide "ID" services for a fee to people who want to be freelancers. Save your money?


Well this turned into a wall of text - sorry about that. Still those are the six most frequent topics, and I hope that I made sense to you :)

Be well!


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