Above is a meme of John Krasinski in the Office pointing to a whiteboard that reads “We want diverse media workers” and then directly below that the whiteboard reads “But we’re in a recession and we just laid them all off”.
Recently a friend of a friend reached out to me and asked me some questions about journalism and how I started so I thought why not compile these answers into a blog post in the advice column? This is #1 in a new series called “You ask and I answer” where I’ll be responding to any and all questions you have for me about poetry, film, and journalism. Shoot me your questions at email@example.com and I’ll aim to answer them here.
Today’s questions I answer are all about the practical things you need to start reporting as a journalist. Now let’s get into it!
Questions from a friend of a friend.
How do you reach out for interviews? When you conduct interviews, do you do them in person or virtually?
Most of the time as a freelancer I pitch a story idea first before I do that groundwork of reporting. And then when I reach out to these sources I can say “I’m with this XYZ publication” and this is what I want to ask you about.
It’s relatively easy to get started when you are writing a piece that just requires you to talk to academics because they are always prepared to give comments on their area of expertise but it takes some time to figure out how to reach out to those folks who aren’t public figures to get their life experiences. It requires more than just an Instagram DM or email.
During the pandemic, a lot of our interviews had to be conducted online over zoom. It’s also common that we interview sources over the phone if we are geographically limited. But journalists have been doing this for hundreds of years, we know the best way is to show up in person. That’s how you can build trust with people like “Hey, I’m here to listen,” and that indirectly says you’re invested and part of the community.
For a recent food story, I just pulled up on a weekday evening to ask people some questions and I found some really great sources that helped me write with context and depth that I wouldn’t have found simply by just putting out a source call on Twitter.
And as you grow as a journalist and develop your network, you will find that it gets easier to find sources. Maybe you know someone who knows somebody, but also you know where to look to start.
How do you create a comfortable atmosphere for interviews?
I love the thoughtfulness of this question. I’m always trying to make sure that I am transparent about who I am, what I usually write about, and my personal life experiences. My website indexing my work is less for my employers and more so for my sources. I think consent is really important especially when you talk to people who aren’t used to talking to the media.
I write mainly about artists and spaces that center on people of color. I am often a guest invited into a room so I try to be mindful that I should be respectful. Sometimes sharing where I am coming from allows my interviewees to feel safer sharing their stories when they know that I’m accountable and transparent.
Being kind goes a long way. I try not to extract a story and disappear. I’m trying to build relationships as I do arts and culture coverage but that looks very different for hard news. I’m not always interviewing politicians and public officials trying to catch them in a lie or play a “gotcha game”. My role is to capture life and community in the features I write.
In your blog, you said that at the beginning of your career, you’re more of a generalist than a specialist. Does this remain true as you gain more experience, or are you able to cover a variety of topics?
I can only speak for myself, but I think that a lot of journalists start out at their campus student newspaper in college or write for another platform. You don’t know much of anything yet until you start to develop expertise. So you’re covering everything from politics to arts to sports.
But eventually, I think eventually most journalists figure out what they love and what makes them excited when they write. You eventually realize that you don’t have the desire to write about certain topics and that starts to narrow it down.
Start with what you know! What are your obsessions or weird niches that you have a lot of knowledge and background in? Or what stories do you see missing from the media? What if you are the one who can write them?
What are some tips you have for creating a strong portfolio?
A strong portfolio is going to demonstrate the breadth of your work. I think it requires you to constantly be putting 100% into all of your stories so that you can be proud of them to share on a website that shares your clips.
It’s good to get feedback on your website if you can ask a friend or a colleague to review it. I will occasionally stalk my favorite journalists’ websites to see how they show their clips and that’s been helpful to see how they craft their own portfolios.
What are some books or resources you recommend for people who want to improve their writing skills?
Oh gosh, this is a hard question because I didn’t learn in a book but I highly recommend reading NPR training’s blog site because they have a lot of resources that you can read up on that are super approachable and useful for journalists of all stages.
I’ve also heard that How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee is a great resource for anyone who’s learning to up their chops in the non-fiction writing world.
Another thing I’ve said before is read good writing. Subscribe to magazines or follow writers you admire and then study the writing for style. Learn what you like and don’t like and then ask yourself why. This will make you able to read your own work analytically and make you a stronger writer.
What kind of books do you like reading? Do you still like reading fantasy?
In middle school, I read A LOT of YA fantasy. Recently the second season of Shadow and Bone just came out on Netflix and I was reminded of how much I love the books it’s adapted from. Leigh Bardugo wrote the initial Grishaverse which the book is based on and it’s quite frankly a masterpiece. I think fantasy and fiction are so magical to me in how writers can create whole worlds from their imaginations.
Today I love to read a lot of poetry, but I’ll admit it’s been a struggle recently because I’m so busy I don’t have a lot of time to delve into books. Most of what I’m reading is book coverage for a production company and for research when I interview authors for the Los Angeles Times.
In other news…
This past week the WGA union began contract negotiations with the biggest Hollywood studios. The current contract is set to expire on May 1st and the biggest chip on the table? Royalties on streaming services. We’re looking at a potential strike industry-wide if the union isn’t able to reach and satisfactory agreement. This thread by Abbott Elementary writer Brittani Nichols explains the dire financial straits of entry-level writers on TV shows.
NPR just laid off the largest number of workers since the 2008 recession. Amongst those impacted is the podcast team that was producing Louder Than a Riot which explored the intersections of race and incarceration with the music of hip-hop and rap. It’s a sad week for public media workers impacted. Here’s a meme on the state of affairs.
Alright! That’s all from me this week folks. Keep an eye out as another “How I started in ___” post on film is coming through.
Happy creating from your favorite writing auntie
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