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Bullet points from the NYU Journalism School’s “What in the World” Panel

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Last night, NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute hosted a panel titled, “What in the World Are BuzzFeed, Mashable, and VICE News up to As They Expand Their International Coverage?”. The panelists were Miriam Elder, foreign editor at BuzzFeed, Jason Mojica, EIC of VICE News, and Louise Roug, global news editor at Mashable.

The purpose of the panel was to learn more from the editors about why these three outlets have established and exponentially expanded their international coverage; how they staff their global news desks; how they manage the finances for their respective outlets and divisions; and what we can expect from them in the near future.

The theme was tantalizing, especially for those of us, including myself, who cover beats beyond the borders of the U.S., but I suspect many audience members walked away feeling as disappointed as I did. There was lots of talk, but little substance, lots of claims of “We’re transparent!” without actually being transparent in responses. There were lots of issues that weren’t addressed at all; one of the most troubling lacunae in the conversation was a discussion about fact-checking processes.

If you were following along on my twitter feed, you might have sensed my disgruntlement:

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If you are curious about what was said by the panelists themselves, read on for a few bullet points of the conversation. These are paraphrased remarks, as I did not record the panel.

-BuzzFeed is about to double its staff on global coverage, opening new international bureaus.
-VICE News’ focus now is on “sustaining coverage”
-General feeling among eds regarding hiring freelancers for international coverage is: proceed with caution. All three editors talked about the importance of having a solid, trusting relationship with a freelancer before even considering an international assignment. Mashable’s ed says, “Would I send a freelancer to Syria? No f&*(^#$ way.” There are issues of insurance, adequate salary, and more. BuzzFeed ed says, “We aren’t working with freelancers; we’re staffing desks.”
-Mashable isn’t growing at the same rate as BuzzFeed with respect to international expansion, but it IS opening Australian and London offices.
-VICE News’ strategy is “careful but rapid growth.”
-Average age of global news staff at BuzzFeed is 33.
-Elements of media: storytelling and distribution. What’s the best way to tell this story?
-Moderator raised issue of credibility and trust: How can your intent and execution of “serious journalism” actually be considered if it’s posted alongside dancing Russian cat videos and doctored Putin photos?
-BuzzFeed ed’s answer to that question: I view BuzzFeed like a TV channel. Running “The Simpsons” doesn’t call the credibility of the evening newscast into question.
BuzzFeed: Most of our traffic comes from social, not from landing on the home page. “There is no page 1.”
-Mashable’s global news coverage led the site’s traffic in July and August 2014.
-BuzzFeed has metrics that allow eds to see how much of an article a viewer has read.
-VICE provides insurance and hostile situation training for vetted reelancers.
-Mashable ed, who formerly worked for LA Times and spent nearly three years in its Iraq bureau, said that bureau cost the paper one million dollars annually… “and that wasn’t counting salaries.”
-VICE News: “Our approach is to immerse ourselves in a story without judgment.” (Referring, specifically, to an audience member’s criticism about recent ISIS video on the site).
-How do you keep overhead low without using freelancers? (Audience question): Stay lean. Cut overhead. “Don’t stay at the Ritz.” The old school model of the bureau chief and staffers living in a large flat in Paris with their two kids going to the local American school… yeah, that’s passé. Don’t spend money on that so you can spend money instead on what’s important: travel and reporting.

How to Ditch Your 9-to-5 Job

[Note: This piece was originally published on Matador, where I was managing editor and lead faculty member of the travel writing course. Over the next few months, I'll dust off some other articles from my Matador days that I'll be updating and republishing here.]

Since quitting my 9-to-5 job as the assistant director of a mental health agency in 2004 and becoming a full-time traveler and writer, many people have remarked that they envy my lifestyle. What they don’t recognize is that they can create the same kind of life for themselves by following a relatively simple set of steps, which I’ll share with you here. I didn’t plan the kind of life that I have now—in fact, I didn’t plan at all; I just quit my job without a Plan B, which is not the best idea for most people. My experiences of living on the edge, though, have helped me identify the top 10 tips for you to ditch your own 9-to-5 job and have a bit more security than I did.

1. Let go of your long-cherished vision of your professional self.
When I found myself unexpectedly answering my boss’s question, “How are we going to work together?” by answering, “We’re not, because I quit,” I didn’t realize that one of the biggest challenges ahead of me was letting go of the career trajectory I’d mapped for myself. By the age of 25, I’d been the first poetry therapist to work in two New York City social service agencies, I’d already reached the middle management rung on my profession’s ladder, and I’d simultaneously begun building my own counseling and consulting business with two colleagues. I was published in an academic journal and I was the director of a board. I was well on my way to fulfilling my high school yearbook’s prediction of “Most Likely to Succeed.” Dropping out of the profession meant I’d be disappointing a lot of people—my parents, who had paid for my Masters degree, my mentor, who had nurtured my learning and my career, and myself, as I’d planned big professional accomplishments by the age of 30. In order to ditch your 9-to-5, you’ll need to begin to let go of whatever conventional career plan you had for yourself and whatever expectations everyone has ever had for you.

Practice becoming comfortable with ambiguity and what others might consider to be aimlessness. Don’t underestimate the work this step takes. Our society is largely structured around the maintenance of the 9-to-5 life.

2. Perfect your pitch.
When you’ve made it through step 1 and you’re starting to become comfortable with the idea of the new professional you, one of the next challenges you’ll confront is explaining yourself and justifying your career and lifestyle change to almost everyone you know. Don’t be apologetic for your decision to forgo the traditional trajectory, but do take the time to develop a pitch or a story to tell when someone asks you why and how you’re forging a new path for yourself. A true and well-crafted narrative is compelling to most people—even those who’d like to see you conforming to social expectations—and it can often serve you well. When I explain how I was once a social worker who had her own business and worked as the assistant director of a New York City agency, then owned an art gallery, and then became a full-time writer, editor, and translator, it becomes a hook for continued conversation and often leads to offers of work and further exposure.

3. Make an inventory of your skills.
Whether you take the time to plan your transition or whether you jump into it headlong, as I did, it’s incredibly helpful to make a written inventory of the skills you possess that can bring you work and other opportunities. As I listed my competencies, I realized I had skills and knowledge that were so second nature to me that I hadn’t realized their potential value as sources of work. In this initial list, include everything that comes to mind—don’t censor yourself at all. If you can cook, clean, write, translate, organize, sing, type, take photos, transcribe, surf, do calligraphy, or make movies, write it down. If you’re short on ideas, ask a trusted friend to make a list with you.

4. Narrow the list.
Once you’ve made an inventory of your skills, review it and begin to narrow down your possibilities for independent work. Subject the items on our list to three criteria: (1) Which of the skills are portable? (meaning you can use them anywhere in the world); (2) Which of the skills are profitable? (meaning that they’ll generate income—not enough just to scrape by, but something to actually live on); and (3) Which of the skills have the lowest demand load? (meaning which will not require you to purchase special equipment, obtain employment authorization in another country, secure a work visa, or otherwise require negotiating red tape and the constant monitoring of bureaucratic requirements and deadlines).

5. Rework the list.
Now that you’ve determined which items on your list are most portable, most profitable, and lowest demand, begin to refine the list a bit more. What are the top five skills you could use to seek work that takes you outside of the 9-to-5 grind? Which skills might lead you to actual job leads? How can you generate work using these skills no matter where you go? Which skills will lead to work when you need it?

6. Plan with a partner.
If you’re in a serious long-term relationship, you need to discuss your ideas and plans with your partner. Ditching the security of the 9-to-5 life and trading it in for a life that is more independent and flexible is not for everyone and it requires risks that may not be acceptable for all people. When you are in a relationship, the needs and abilities of your partner with respect to adapting to your plans need to be discussed and agreed upon. What kinds of shifts may need to occur in your day-to-day life in order to make the transition realistic and to what degree is your partner willing and able to accommodate and support you?

7. Assess your security needs.
If you’re the type of person who needs medical and dental insurance, a 401(k), and a steady, predictable paycheck, then you will need to do some serious planning to fulfill these needs before ditching your full-time job. There are resources for meeting these needs off the regular workday clock (see Freelancers Union for some great ideas), but you’ll need to do most—if not all—of the legwork on your own. You’re now the chief, cook, bottle washer, and human resources director.

8. Be for real.
Before you ditch your 9-to-5, do a searching inventory of yourself. The main criterion? Be for real. Are you a person who needs structure? Do you work best with others? Do you have a hard time scheduling, organizing, or delegating your time well? Do you need the praise of a superior or the affirmation of colleagues? Are you envisioning life off the 9-to-5 grid as one long adventurous, romantic narrative? If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” it’s likely that you’ll find life off the time clock to be a serious challenge. Among the many people who have commented that they’re envious of what they view as my freestyle life, there are a couple who have acknowledged that they’d never be able to follow in my footsteps because they need a boss, they need the predictability of a regular paycheck, or they need someone to assign tasks to them. I admire these people because they know themselves and make their career and lifestyle decisions realistically according to their own personal and professional needs.

9. Create community.
Working off the clock has many advantages, but it can get lonely at times, especially after the initial thrill of working on your own wears off. Be sure that you’ve made plans for connecting with other people no matter what you’re doing or where you are.

10. Assess your progress.
Every once in awhile, take some time to assess your progress. When I stop to think about how my life has unfolded since turning in my resignation and never turning back, I recognize that I work more now than I ever did, but that I’m also happier than I ever was. I also realize, though, that I need to continue refining my short-and long-term plans in order to maintain my current lifestyle. Since I don’t have a boss to sit down and do an annual performance evaluation with me, I need to do constant evaluation myself and so will you.

5 Common Mistakes Editors Make

[Note: This piece was originally published on Matador, where I was managing editor and lead faculty member of the travel writing course. Over the next few months, I'll dust off some other articles from my Matador days that I'll be updating and republishing here.]

A FEW WEEKS back, I was reading the latest issue of Oxford American, which excerpted this badass letter writer Eudora Welty sent to the editors of The New Yorker.

Welty wanted a job at The New Yorker and she didn’t seem the least bit reluctant to pull out all the stops to get the editors’ attention.

There aren’t a whole lot of writers–then or now–who could pull off that type of letter, much less use it to develop a long and satisfying personal and professional relationship with an editor.

If you’re as much of a self-possessed badass as Welty, then you won’t need these tips. But if you’re confused by some of the dynamics of the writer-editor relationship (especially those dynamics characterized by the editor dropping the ball), then this one’s for you.

1. They don’t respond to your pitch or query.

How to respond

Don’t take an editor’s lack of response personally, and don’t take it as an indication that your idea has been rejected. Email gets stuck in spam folders. Messages read quickly don’t get revisited and fall to the bottom of the inbox. A busy editor is vaguely–or even very– interested in your query, but gets distracted by events and pitches that are more timely.

Follow up with a polite email asking the editor if he/she had a chance to read your query. Include the date you sent the original message and paste in the query again so the editor doesn’t have to look for it. Don’t do any of this, though, until you’ve given the editor sufficient time to reply to your original message. Most publications specify typical response times in their contributor guidelines; when they don’t, anywhere from four to eight weeks is a standard time frame for print publications. Online publications vary considerably.

2. They make decisions based on emotions or without sufficient facts.

How to respond

Accept that editors make decisions based on a variety of subjective factors, many of which have nothing at all to do with you. Rather than fight this fact, the best way to handle this situation is usually to just move on. If an editorial relationship is contentious from the beginning, it’s not likely to improve.

3. They change words in your story- or even reshape it entirely.

How to respond

Try to react to this situation with as little ego investment as possible. These types of decisions aren’t intended to cramp your style-– otherwise the editor wouldn’t have worked with you in the first place. Understand that editorial decisions reflect a complex algebra of factors, including the editor’s understanding of the publication’s goals, audience, and even finances; many of these variables won’t be clear to you at all. If something really rubs you the wrong way, ask the editor to explain the choice that was made. And if a detail that has been changed results in a factual distortion, then bring that to the editor’s attention before publication if possible.

4. They assign a story and set a deadline, then leave your draft in limbo.

How to respond

One of the things you can do to prevent this from happening is to establish in your contract or in your early email exchanges what, exactly, you can expect once you file your article. Is there an anticipated date of publication? What will the editorial review and revision process likely consist of?

Still, it’s not uncommon for drafts to occupy placeholder space on an editor’s to-do list for weeks.

As I write this, I have articles in editorial limbo at The Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, and Money. I’ve already invested double digit hours of research and writing on each of these articles and have sources who are anxious to see their names in print. I generally take my cues from the editor. When I send in my drafts, I mention that I’m looking forward to feedback and hope to hear from the editor soon. A reply will often include a time frame when the editor expects to be in touch with feedback. That time frame is rarely honored– not for lack of good intentions, but because of time constraints or other editorial priorities that have emerged (the earthquake in Japan earthquake, for instance). In any event, when I don’t hear from an editor within two weeks, I send a follow up email to ask if they’ve had a chance to review the draft and whether they have feedback and/or revision requests. [2014 update: It's worth mentioning that two of the three articles mentioned above never made it into print.]

5. They don’t close the circle.

How to respond

By “closing the circle,” I mean this: They don’t let you know when the article is published. They don’t give you invoice paperwork or directions for submitting your bill. Or they do both of these things and then let the invoice sit on their desks for weeks. Or they change offices and your invoice gets lost in a moving box. (Hey, these aren’t fictional examples I pulled out of the air). Again, the more legwork you do upfront, the less you’ll have to do afterwards. But don’t be embarrassed by or reluctant to ask an editor to check on the status of a payment or any other post-publication logistics. If they don’t close the circle, don’t be afraid to help them do it.

What challenges have you experienced with editors and how have you negotiated them successfully? Share your experiences in the comments.

5 Common Mistakes of Beginning Travel Writers

[Note: This piece was originally published on Matador, where I was managing editor and lead faculty member of the travel writing course. Over the next few months, I'll dust off some other articles from my Matador days that I'll be updating and republishing here.]
As an editor and travel writing instructor, I have worked with people from all sorts of backgrounds to help them achieve their goals as travel writers.

Here are five common mistakes I see in their writing (and which are all too common in mainstream travel writing as well):

1. They craft their stories like their experiences: linearly.

I call this the “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” style of travel writing.

When I was in elementary school, the first assignment of each new school year inevitably involved writing an essay about what I did on my summer vacation. Whether it was Mrs. Lemon, Ms. Moore, Mrs. Cannon, or Mrs. McKinney (3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teachers, respectively) who tasked students with this writing project, the directives were always the same, their instructions about logical, ordinal beginnings, middles, and ends chalked neatly on the blackboard.

I distinctly recall that these essays were painfully boring. “My dad packed the car. We drove to Myrtle Beach. We stopped to eat sandwiches. We stayed at a nice hotel. We went to a good restaurant. During the day, I made sand castles on the beach with my brother and then we played mini-golf. It was a good summer vacation.”

As a travel writer, you have to learn to separate details which were only relevant to you from the details which will be relevant to the reader. At the same time you need to learn that narratives, unlike real life, do not always have to occur linearly. One of the earliest lessons students learn when working with me is that the art of a compelling story does lie in developing details, but not every detail of an experience is important to the story.

2. They use flat adjectives or value judgments.

Many travel writers’ first pieces are characterized by the use of flat adjectives or value judgments: “good,” “great,” “amazing,” “incredible,” and “awesome,” to name a few of the most common ones.

Subjective judgments of something’s “value” often mean little or nothing to a reader. They do nothing to put a reader in the place the writer wants to tell them about. What’s the difference between a “great” meal in Mexico and a “great” meal in Botswana?

It takes time to learn how to develop the right words to convey our experiences of a place in a voice that’s both faithful to our experience and true to our own voices. Taking that time, though, is critical to developing your craft as a travel writer and avoiding these common mistakes.

3. They make everything superlative.

This mistake is as common among travel writers and editors with impressive publication credits as it is with beginning writers, and is perpetuated by the belief that a reader won’t be interested in a place if it’s not the “best” or “most” or “biggest” this or that.

As one of my former students said, though, there’s a significant audience of readers who aren’t interested in superlatives; rather, they’re interested in what he calls “quiet stories” about people and places who are allowed to be exactly what they are: both fascinating and flawed.

4. They force comparisons.

“Bahía Bustamante: Argentina’s Secret (and Private) Answer to the Galapagos”
–headline in recent New York Times travel article

Another of these common mistakes is forcing comparisons between things that may or may not be related or comparable at all.

Comparisons can be facile ways of creating senses of scale or place, however they are often artificial and untrue. Very few things — whether people, places, or experiences — are actually like anything else (or in the example above, “answers to” anything else.) Allow things to be what they are, and push yourself to master your craft so skillfully that you can do this without a forced comparison.

5. They don’t tell the truth.

I mean this in a couple ways, though I don’t mean to say that travel writers are lying — not consciously or intentionally, anyway.

A disappointing amount of travel writing tries to “sell” the reader on a place or experience, insinuating that you, too, can have the same experience that the travel writer enjoyed. There’s something about this that’s both absurdly insulting and, quite simply, false.

There’s another type of lying, too, the kind in which a thought or experience is played up to heighten the dramatic or narrative effect of a piece to the extent that it obscures or denies another part of the experience. It’s not necessarily “wrong” to construct a narrative with this kind of lie (the kind of lie that Catholics would call a sin of omission– not an active lie, but one that doesn’t acknowledge the full truth). What’s important, though, is knowing why you’re doing it and to what effect, as well as knowing the implications of playing with the truth in this way.

What problems do you see in travel writing and how can writers avoid them? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Worth Watching: “Freelance Strategy Hacks”

There’s a lot of material here that will be old hat for long-time freelancers, but I learned a few useful tips in Shane Snow’s video “Freelance Strategy Hacks,” and I think this is especially exceptional advice for folks new to freelancing.

Worth Reading: “I’m Ira Glass and This is How I Work”

It may surprise you to learn that I’m not really a fan of “This American Life.” I’ve never been able to explain why, exactly, but there’s something about the show that turns me off.

Still, when Keph Senett forwarded this Ira Glass “How I Work” piece to a group of writer friends, I found plenty of interest. I love reading process/how people work pieces, especially when they’re honest and interesting, as this one is.

Choice outtakes:

“When I come out of an interview, I jot down the things I remember as being my favorite moments. For an hour-long interview usually it’s just four or five moments, but if out I’m reporting all day, I’ll spend over an hour at night typing out every favorite thing that happened. This is handier than you might think. Often this short list of favorite things will provide the backbone to the structure to my story.”

“I am a noisy introvert. My sister Randi made up that phrase and it describes lots of people I know. Lots of writers seem to be introverts who love to now and then be on stage. Lots of radio people too. I covet large amounts of time alone, and I’m most comfortable and very happy when I’m alone, but obviously there’s another side to me because true introverts don’t end up with their own national radio shows.”

“I’d just say to aspiring journalists or writers—who I meet a lot of—do it now. Don’t wait for permission to make something that’s interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don’t wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who’ll give you notes to make it better. Don’t wait till you’re older, or in some better job than you have now. Don’t wait for anything. Don’t wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That’s not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it’ll show up. Begin now. Be a fucking soldier about it and be tough.”

Worth Reading: “The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City”

Ask me if I enjoy sports writing, and I’ll probably tell you “No.”

Unless, that is, you happened to catch me the day before yesterday, when I read Kathy Dobie’s exceptional article, “The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City,” published by GQ in May.

Dobie’s article is remarkable for a few reasons, but one I particularly wanted to comment on here is the way she expertly avoids a common problem in writing about urban issues, and that’s the problem of identifying people by race. Often, writers seem to have a reflex that compels them to mention the race of a subject they’re profiling when, in fact, that subject’s race isn’t necessarily germane to the story or the particular experience being recounted. It’s information that many writers seem to feel is important as long as the subject isn’t white. White, of course, is the default race, so if the subject is white, there’s no need to mention it.

If race isn’t identified, then there’s often the even more troubling tendency to attempt to let diction and slang serve as racial cues. In most writers’ hands, the effect is as grating and reductive and unconvincing as the exaggerated drawls of actors in TV shows and movies who are supposedly portraying Southern (US) characters.

Dobie avoids all that– the naming and the appropriation of a voice that isn’t hers– and at the same time still manages to channel voices that are authentic, not stilted. If you’ve ever tried to do this yourself, you know it’s not an easy task, and that’s why I’m sharing this piece. Read it. Study it. I’m willing to bet you’ll learn a lot.


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