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“[Y]ou can still perform.”

Some wisdom from world champion triathlete Gwen Jorgensen that’s useful not only for athletes:

“What are the chances that you go to the Olympics, it’s race morning, and you wake up feeling awesome? The likelihood of that is so low.
You have to realize that no matter how you feel, you can still perform.”

Dispirited but not defeated

I don’t know about you, fellow freelancers, but the past eight weeks have felt like “The Twilight Zone” when it comes to getting paid.

Only you know that the problem won’t end after a 30-minute episode.

At first, I chalked it up to The August Doldrums: you know, editors and publishers going on that elusive thing called “vacation” while you continue to sit, fingers to keyboard, filing assignments and checking accounts to see if those outstanding invoices have been paid.

Once the calendar flipped its page to September, I was ready to follow up. With nearly $9,000 of unpaid invoices, most of which represented work filed months ago, I set aside time in my hectic reporting and writing schedule marked “INVOICE F/U.”

That “F/U” is for “follow-up,” in case you were wondering. I know- the temptation to read a double entendre into that is real.

I always feel resentful about spending time chasing down money I’m owed. It’s time for which I’m not getting paid, spent on work for which I’m owed, taking time away from new work that could be getting done, asking for something I shouldn’t have to ask for because I’ve followed all the rules and have honored my end of contractual agreements. But I suck it up, send out inquiries, pull up and reattach invoices “for your quick reference and convenience,” and look at what kind of crazy mathematics I have to pull off to cover my own obligations while I wait to get paid.

But this September has, thus far, been particularly bad. A publisher who owed $3,200, separated into two invoices, paid one invoice but not the other. When I followed up, they were surprised. There was another invoice? Well, yes. Yes, there was. Another publisher lost my invoices: could I send them again? And a third promised, repeatedly, that “payment was being processed this week,” only this week turned into three weeks, and no, I still haven’t been paid.

The kicker came today, when, after filing an assignment for a reputable outlet for which I’ve written a couple times (and have two more commissions in the pipeline), I wrote accounts payable to check on the status of an invoice filed at the beginning of August. I double-checked our contract: net 30. They were past it. Where was my money? I wrote, politely, to inquire.

What ensued has been an exchange of emails that has left me dispirited and disgusted, but not at all defeated. Many freelancers don’t follow up on payments; others apologize for doing so (“Sorry to be a pest, but I just wanted to check on my invoice, dated months and months ago!”). After the series of exchanges below, I am, more than ever, determined to be both diligent and dogged in pursuit of compensation for my work.

I hope you will feel the same. I also hope you will share this widely. Don’t let others devalue your work. Don’t continue to contribute to a system that doesn’t compensate you for your product; I can think of no other profession that permits this. Feel free to lift any of the language of my own emails and edit them to fit your own situation as you seek the payment you are owed.
Email One: From Me to the Accounts Payable Department of the Publisher


My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo and I’m writing to check on the status of an invoice that was filed on or around August 5. The project was [description of project], which was assigned by [name of editor]. The total due was [$xxx.00]. I have not yet received payment for this project; could you please advise regarding the status and when payment can be expected?


Email Two: From Someone in Accounts Payable Who Did Not Indicate His Position/Title

“Hi Julie: We are currently have a backlog with our freelance payments, we will get payment out as soon as we can. Please be patient and we’ll get you paid. Thank you!”

Upon receiving this, I stepped away from the computer to think. Would I write a “Ok, thanks!” email or would I let him know that no, this wasn’t okay? I thought about it for about 20 minutes and then responded:

Email Three: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Hi, [name redacted]. Thank you for the update. Do you have an estimate of when the invoice will be paid?”

Email Four: From Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Not at this time. Sorry.”

Email Five: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Dear [name redacted]-

This is an utterly unacceptable response, and one that I find disrespectful and unprofessional. I am not writing for a hobby; this is my profession. Like [name of publisher], I have bills to pay and not a single one of the people or companies waiting for payments from me would accept this type of response.

According to the contract with [name of publisher], it is clearly articulated that your obligation is to pay within 30 days of receiving the invoice. Please see the contract here, if there is any doubt as to that fact.

[I inserted a link to the contract, signed by both parties.]

If I do not receive payment by the close of business on Monday, September 21, I will pursue legal action.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Six: From Untitled Guy #2 in Accounts Payable

“Hi Julie,

My apology for the delay in payment. Please understand that the AP team was in no way trying to be rude or disrespectful and we do appreciate the service you provide to our Company. I’d like to talk to you live if you are available this afternoon so we can discuss your invoice and payment. Please let me know if you are available after 2pm PST and if [my phone number, redacted] is still a valid number to reach you at.

[name of guy #2 from Accounts Payable, who also doesn’t indicate his title]”

Email Seven: From Me to Untitled Guy #2

“Dear [name redacted]-

Thank you for your prompt reply. I’d rather receive explanation and next steps/payment schedule via email so that we have mutual documentation.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Eight: From CFO of Publishing Company to Me


[Name redacted] forwarded your email to me. I’m happy to jump on a call to discuss, but we will not discuss via email. Sorry if that is an inconvenience for you, but I’ve found email insufficient to discuss payment matters. Please let me know a good day/time/number to call you.

[Name redacted]”

Email Nine: From Me to CFO

“Dear [Name redacted]-

I’m not sure why you find email ‘insufficient’ for discussing payment matters; as far as I’m concerned, I only want to know when you intend to process payment and whether this problem with paying freelancers will continue, as I have another invoice I’ll be submitting for a work filed yesterday and I have two more assignments pending. If you are insistent that you must call, please be aware that I will record the conversation, which is legal under New York State law.

You are welcome to call me at [number redacted] anytime after 8 AM tomorrow. After tomorrow, I will be out of the country on assignment and without phone and Internet for 10 days, so I ask that this issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Thank you.”

Email Ten: From CFO to Me


I’m sorry, we will not consent to being recorded. If you’d like to discuss payment without recording, please let me know; otherwise, we’ll tender payment when able.

[Name redacted]”

Email Eleven: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I’m not asking for your consent. New York law clearly indicates I’m within my rights to record a call, with or without your consent.

It’s clear to me that you and your colleagues don’t intend to act honorably; you’ve made a clear-cut situation far more complicated than necessary, and your contract is absolutely clear about the terms of payment. If I do not near from you by tomorrow, whether by email or phone, with a specific plan of action and timeline for payment, I will initiate legal action.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Twelve: From CFO to Me


I understand your frustration on payment (I would be frustrated if I were in your position). I would like to discuss it with you. Payment issues happen in business from time to time. When they occur, they are not necessarily (and absolutely not in this case) a function of dishonorable behavior or deceit. We had a significant partner file bankruptcy, which has created this issue. We are working through it. You will be paid in full. If you would like to discuss the timing of this, I am very happy to call you to do so. But, I am in California, which does not allow recording conversations without consent. I do not consent to being recorded. If you want to discuss your payment without recording, I am standing by to do so. If you do not want to do that, you will still be paid in full.”

Email Thirteen: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I certainly understand that ‘payment issues happen in business from time to time.’ I’ve been a business owner and, of course, as a freelancer, I’m frequently in the unfair position of being put at the mercy of a publisher’s ‘payment issues’… though I doubt you or others on staff absorb the similar–and very real– tangible, literal costs of such issues. Nor does your landlord, electric company, or Internet service provider, I’m sure, wait until issues resolve for you to pay them. Yet [name of publisher redacted], like too many publishers, expects freelancers to bear the brunt of the effects of problems they didn’t create. And, unfortunately, too many freelancers don’t assert themselves because they’re afraid they’ll never get paid, or that they’ll ‘burn bridges,’ a ridiculous notion, considering that they’re not the one who caused the problem.

It’s not unreasonable to want to be paid according to the contract we both signed. In addition, what continues to confound is: (1) why you would feel it is at all ethical to allow editors to continue commissioning freelance content in the midst of such problems (which clearly don’t have a resolution), and (2) why you wouldn’t inform freelancers who are due money what the generalities of the problem are, detail how it affects them, and present them with a reasonable resolution, one that has a timeframe attached to it. That’s fair and professional business.

I am not willing to have an off-the-record phone conversation. You can expect to hear from my lawyer.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

and his final reply, which will not be met with a response from me, other than the one I’ve clearly indicated is my recourse:

“Understood. Please put him or her in touch with me. Happy to discuss with them.

[Name redacted]”

Book Fests & Bookstores: September Appearances

Yes, yes, I know: Pope Francis in His Own Words was published two years ago.

So why am I starting a book tour of sorts right now?

Well, as you’re probably aware, Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba and the United States next month, and it seems like a prime time to reintroduce the book to English- and Spanish-speaking audiences (did you know the book has been translated into about 15 languages?). Plus, I received a few lovely invitations to do so, and I couldn’t turn them down.

If you’re in one of the cities below, I hope you’ll spread the word and join me at one (or more!) of these events:

Decatur Book Festival: Decatur, Georgia, USA
I’m grateful to my alma mater, Emory University, for inviting me to participate in this beloved book festival. I’ll be signing books in the Emory tent from 3-4 pm on Saturday, September 5.

Brooklyn Book Festival, Bookend Event Series: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Before I head out of the country to cover Pope Francis’s visit in Cuba, I’ll be talking about the book and signing copies as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival. My generous host is the delightful Hullabaloo Books, and I couldn’t think of a better bookstore to have a conversation about Pope Francis. This is an Official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event.

This event will take place at 8 pm on Tuesday, September 15.

Cuba Libro Bookstore: Havana, Cuba
I’m so excited that I’ll have the chance to talk about the book the day before Pope Francis will be giving his mass at Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

This event will take place at 5 pm on Saturday, September 19.

Would you like to add Pope Francis in His Own Words to your bookshelf or inventory? Need a speaker or expert to interview about the Pope? Get in touch by emailing me: writingjulie[at]gmail[dot]com!

How to Sell a “Cold Case” Article

“What do you do,” a colleague asked recently, “when you have a piece you just can’t seem to sell?”

It happens. It’s frustrating when an idea or article you’ve worked on so hard becomes the journalistic equivalent of a cold case, but that doesn’t mean all the work you’ve put into an assignment is for naught. Here are a few strategies worth trying before giving up on a piece.

1. Use your running pitch list to your advantage.
If you don’t know what I mean by running pitch list, read this post and take a close look at the visual. A running pitch list allows you to track the progress of a piece continually, and if you get in the habit of scheduling one day a week on which you dedicate an hour or two to pitch follow ups, you’ll whittle away at your cold case rate.

Every time you pitch an article, be sure to fill out the field on your pitch list that indicates the other outlets and editors you’ll try if your Plan A publication doesn’t pan out. I put that information in the “Other” field. If you haven’t heard from Plan A, move on and pitch the back-up publication. Exhaust all possibilities.

2. Turn to colleagues.
Tell your colleagues where you’ve pitched and ask for other suggestions. They may have outlets you haven’t considered or ones you don’t even know.

3. Call in a favor.
Ask a trusted colleague to read a pitch that’s gotten nowhere and request her input. Is there something you’re missing that a second set of eyes might help identify and correct to strengthen the idea that hasn’t yet found a home?

4. Take feedback to heart.
Sometimes we’re too close to our ideas and stories to understand what may be missing for a more general audience. If your trusted colleague gives feedback, take it into consideration and rework your pitch accordingly.

5. Relax– sometimes it’s all about the timing.
You may have an incredible article idea, but if no editor’s picking it up, consider the possibility that the timing just isn’t good for some reason… and there can be lots of reasons why it might not be. That doesn’t mean the idea or the resulting story will never sell; it may just mean that you need to sit with it for a while and wait for the timing to be better. For an example of this, check out my guest post on Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog; it’s about a story idea I sat with for seven years.

Hold it until it’s sellable and peg it, if you can, to a timely event or news.

6. Rework the angle.
Let’s say the story idea you’ve been sitting on has suddenly been done to death. Maybe you had a story about the famous chef Rene Redzepi, but it feels like you’ve been seeing stories about him everywhere and maybe your idea has been played out.

In these situations, see if you can tweak your angle. The question to always ask yourself about a person, place, or phenomenon that’s been hyped ad infinitum is this: What’s the story that hasn’t been told? How can you offer a fresh take? In our Redzepi example, can you focus less on the food and more on his family? Some new entrepreneurial venture that’s underreported? His right-hand man (or woman)? Tell the story no one else is telling.

7. Put it into a package.
If you’re having a hard time selling a piece as a stand-alone, figure out a way to put it into a bigger package. Using our Redzepi example again, turn what you intended to be a profile of him (done. tired.) into a package. This isn’t always ideal, of course– none of us wants to kill off our darlings, the original ideas we had about how we wanted to frame a story–but if your goal is to sell, then you have to consider this as an option.

How do you do it? Consider all the material you have and pull out pieces that can be rolled up into another package. It may be a single sentence or idea that then gets pulled into a round-up style piece. You may need to do a little more reporting to fill out the new article.

Have some other tips about how to give new life to cold cases? Please share them in the comments.

Fact-checking workshop at CUNY on August 2

Just announced!

I’ll be teaching a class about fact-checking at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on August 2. More information and registration are here.

Resources: Digital Archives

American Prison Witness Archive: Spearheaded by Dr. Doran Larson of Hamilton College in New York, the APW is the first known online archive to feature the writing of incarcerated people and “contributions by correctional officers, prison staff, and prison administrators, thus creating a true meeting place and venue for comparative expression by and study of all of those who live and work inside American prisons.”

Darwin Manuscripts Project of the American Museum of Natural History:
“On this site, you will find the world’s first & only large collection of full colour, high-resolution images of faithfully transcribed Darwin manuscripts,” writes David Kohn of The American Museum of Natural History. The “DARBASE,” as it’s called, “catalogues some 96,000 pages of Darwin scientific manuscripts… currently represented by 16,094 high resolution digital images. Thus far 9,871 manuscript pages have been transcribed to exacting standards and all are presented in easy to read format.” The database is a work in progress.

Freedmen’s Bureau Project: This just-launched archive promises to be an incredible, crowdsourced/crowd-built archive of African-American history. From the website: “To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum. Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.”

Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera Archive of Princeton University: Latin Americanists will particularly enjoy this trove, which is described by the university as follows: “The bulk of the ephemera currently found in the Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera was originally created around the turn of the 20th century and after, with some originating as recently as within the last year. The formats or genre most commonly included are pamphlets, flyers, leaflets, brochures, posters, stickers, and postcards. These items were originally created by a wide array of social activists, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, political parties, public policy think tanks, and other types of organizations in order to publicize their views, positions, agendas, policies, events, and activities. The vast majority are rare, hard-to-find primary sources unavailable elsewhere.”

Library of Congress: Looking for archival material on practically any topic? This should be one of your initial points of departure. There are photos, letters and other documents, sound files, and much much more in this extensive online archive.

Mexican Digital Library: Like most, if not all, of the online archives listed here, the Mexican Digital Library is an ever-evolving online repository of materials that, in some cases, are centuries old.

New York Public Library’s Digital Projects: From the literary to the ultra-niche (theatrical lighting; historical menu collection), the NYPL’s digital project archives are a treasure that can generate dozens of story ideas and serve as a research resource for many others.

Flickr’s The Commons: The online photo sharing/storage service, Flickr, has an ever-growing Commons that is not only useful for journalists and editors sourcing images, but also for research purposes. The Commons includes some impressive national and international partners, including Smithsonian and Cornell University Library, as well as some more obscure and unexpected members, including state and federal governments of Latin American and European countries.

This list is by no means comprehensive. If you have a suggestion to add, please leave a comment below so I can update this post. Thanks!

Typical Days? A Look at My Busiest Week Ever: Monday

People often ask, when I’m sitting on panels or giving workshops or talks, what a “typical” day is like as a freelancer. The great thing–for me, at least; for some people, it can be maddening–is that there’s no consistent structure. There’s always researching, writing, reading, taking care of my kids, and, hopefully, taking a shower, but outside of that, all bets are off and the ratios of some of these things against others shift from one day to the next.

A few weeks ago, some friends said they’d like a peek at my daily schedule, such as it is. I decided, what better time to indulge them than during the busiest week of my life?

Here’s how Monday went down:

7:00 AM:
Wake up. Make oatmeal for oldest child, pack her lunch, and help her get ready for school. Take a quick shower, dress, pack my own backpack (laptop, agenda, book to read on train, journal, pens, press card, business cards, wallet, iPhone).

7:40 AM: Leave home and walk to school.

7:53 AM: Arrive at school, drop daughter off, make a donation of books to school’s used book drive. Walk to neighborhood coffee shop to work until it’s time to leave for a meeting in Manhattan.

8:05-10:32 AM: Work at coffee shop. Check bank accounts and note paid invoices. Send outstanding April invoices to five clients. Check and respond to email. Send an email to an editor with a list of upcoming articles. Check Facebook and Twitter for my own accounts and for Cultures & Cuisines, a website I’m launching with Christine Gilbert on Friday. Prep rest of the day’s to-do list and make note (mental and otherwise) of article deadlines this week. Read Mexican and Puerto Rican newspapers online. Download most recent version of the outline for the workshop I’m teaching with Conner Gorry at CUNY School of Journalism on Friday and save it on laptop for our 11:30 meeting. (Tickets are still available, by the way!)

10:32 AM: Leave coffee shop and get on subway. Head to Manhattan. Read Chester Himes interviews on the train and marvel how much and yet how little the publishing industry has changed since the 1940s, especially for people of color.

10:49 AM: Get off train in Times Square. Walk to bank to get replacement bank card for Girl Scout account and make a deposit for cookie money!

11:30 AM: Walk to NYPL. Meet Conner. Decide that we should change venues and work in a cafe across the street. Work on refining the outline for our How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly) workshop. Make a list of action items for each of us to follow up on before Friday.

1:15 PM: Leave Manhattan and head home. As I walk home from train, Francisco calls to say that we’re having an unexpected guest coming over for a light lunch at 3 PM. The apartment, he says, is a mess.

1:40 PM: Home. Francisco gets ready to go pick Mariel up from school. I put water on to boil–pasta’s always an easy lunch!–and start straightening up. We change the other kids’ diapers, get them dressed, and I vacuum.

2:00 PM: Francisco straps on his rollerblades and zips off to pick up Mariel. I add the pasta to the water and prep toppings.

2:37 PM: Francisco and Mariel arrive home. Orion falls asleep. I call a PR person to request photos for an article for The Latin Kitchen.

3:00 PM: Guest arrives. Lunch is served.

4:00 PM: Guest leaves. Francisco takes Orion and Mariel to the playground. Olivia naps. I work on action items for the Cuba workshop: finding and sending some photos to Conner; cleaning up our list of resources so that the formatting is consistent; pulling the email list for the participants to send them an update message about materials they should bring. I also draw up an evite for the May 24 dinner for Cultures & Cuisines and start working on the guest list. I follow up on a last-minute article opportunity, sending materials an editor has requested for a time-sensitive piece.

6:00 PM: Francisco and kids return home. Two oldest kids go into bathtub; Francisco starts cooking dinner. Mariel gets out of bath and we start homework. She goes to visit a neighbor. I play with “the littles,” submit the Girl Scout cookie order, and plan pick up with the troop co-leader.

7:10PM: I feed the littles.

7:30 PM: Mariel comes home and eats dinner. I make a cocktail and, of course, drink it.

8:00 PM: Start to get kids ready for bed, helping them brush teeth, choosing books to read, and getting them into bed. Read books. Talk. Do a last round of milk for the two youngest. Lights out by 9:00 PM.

8:20 PM: Francisco leaves to do some errands: grocery store, post office, pick up keys for a friend who needs him to let in guests while she’s out of town.

9:00-10:20 PM: Wait for Orion to fall asleep. I fall asleep in the process, waking up when I hear the wind blowing over a container in the kitchen.

10:20 PM: Wake up. Kids all asleep. I wash bottles and prep them anew, wash dishes, put away food, make Mariel’s lunch for tomorrow, and set out breakfast items for the morning.

10:30 PM: Francisco comes home. We talk and catch up and plan how we’re managing the rest of the week.

11:00 PM- 1:30 AM: I continue working on the Cuba workshop materials. Orion wakes up and has a stuffy nose so fusses. I bring him out to the living room to sleep and fall asleep with him around 2:00 AM.


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