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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

“Hello-

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?

Thanks,
Julie”

**
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.

Sincerely,
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.

Thanks,
[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.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Eight: From CFO of Publishing Company to Me

“Julie,

[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.

Best,
[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

“Julie,

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.

Best,
[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.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Twelve: From CFO to Me

“Julie,

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.

Sincerely,
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.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

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.

Last Call! Tickets for “How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly)” Available til Thursday

This Friday, Havana-based journalist Conner Gorry and I will be co-facilitating “How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly)” at CUNY’s School of Journalism. You can register for the full-day workshop here.

NewsroomNotinChina

Online Professional Development Resources for Writers & Journalists

I love school.

I have always been a sit-at-the-front-of-the-room kind of student, thanks, no doubt, to my parents, who were the first in their respective families to go to college. They always impressed the importance of education upon my brother and me, and did everything within their power to provide us with the best educational opportunities possible.

As an adult, I’ve missed classroom learning. I earned my MSW at NYU more than a decade ago and started a PhD in Spanish when we lived in Puerto Rico. I did not finish it because we moved and because, on a deeper level, I was frustrated with the disconnects between academe and “the real world” and wasn’t sure how to resolve those tensions.

I’ve never stopped learning, of course, but when I say I’ve missed learning, I mean I’ve missed the structured guidance of a professor and the collegiality of a classroom of learners with a purpose. It was for this reason that I enrolled in two short courses through edX, both of which I’ve just finished, and one of them for credit.

edX, as you probably already know, is a platform for “MOOCs,” massive open online courses, in which student enrollment is unlimited, all teaching is conducted online, and students do coursework on their own time, rather than a prescribed meeting hour, with a new unit of information delivered each week. Some courses are for credit, others for audit. edX MOOCs cover a vast range of topics–from marketing to DNA methylation data analysis (no, I don’t really know what that means)–and are offered by instructors from a number of different institutions, from the small New York private college, Hamilton, to large universities like UC-Berkeley. There are also courses offered in other languages, with instructors representing a variety of colleges and universities around the world.

The pros and cons of MOOCs are parsed endlessly in think-piece articles, but as Doran Larson, the instructor of “Incarceration’s Witness,” one of the courses I just completed, wrote, “One great advantage of a MOOC is that it can operate like a small, living gallery with an open running time: people can enter and visit, take the time to explore and read and view, and wander back to things they want to study more closely….” I found his course, as well as “Journalism for Social Change,” offered for credit through UC-Berkeley, worth the time I invested in them, and saw right away how they could be valuable continued learning resources for writers and journalists who can’t/don’t want to/aren’t able to take a course in a bricks-and-mortar classroom.

In addition to edX and similar MOOC platforms, there are numerous resources you can access–many of them for free–for the benefit of professional development. The list below is short, but each offers a breadth and depth of online learning opportunities (as well as some offline opportunities, too) that I think you’ll find useful:

Poynter: An institute that describes itself as the “world’s leading instructor, innovator, convener and resource for anyone who aspires to engage and inform citizens in 21st Century democracies,” Poynter has more than 250 free or low-cost courses to sharpen students’ journalism skills. Formats include self-directed study, group seminars, and webinars, and topics include everything from how to conduct interviews to how to use Snapchat. You can review the full list of courses here.

Reynolds Journalism Institute: Hosted by the Missouri School of Journalism, the Reynolds Journalism Institute hosts webinars and other events that are open to registrants not affiliated with the school. Past events have included how to report on science beats more responsibly and effectively and free speech. A list of upcoming events can be found here.

PBS MediaShift: Dubbing itself as “media training for the digital age,” MediaShift, a project of PBS, hosts “series of live online media trainings… in partnership with top journalism and communication schools.” Most of the trainings emphasize digital reporting skills, and cover such topics as iPhone audio reporting. Unlike many of the other resources listed here, these courses, most of which are just one hour in duration, are not free.

Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma: A project of Columbia University’s Journalism School, Dart is an invaluable resource, especially for journalists working in/covering conflict zone issues and other trauma-oriented beats. Though Columbia and Dart are based in New York City, Dart often holds events in other locations, as well as online webinars. A list of upcoming trainings and events is here. Under its “Resources” section, journalists can also find a wealth of self-directed courses on the subjects related to trauma reporting. These can be found here.

IJNet.org: International Journalists’ Network is another useful resource (in full disclosure, I write for the site), particularly for those writers and journalists interested in and/or covering international beats. While the site itself does not host courses or trainings, many of its articles fall under the heading “journalism education” and include announcements about and links to other training opportunities.

LEARNO: The European Journalism Center is responsible for this series of courses, which include fact-checking and data-based reporting, among other topics. Courses are free.

[UPDATES]
Science journalist Kat Friedrich shared the following resources:

Women’s Coding Collective
Codecademy
Lynda.com
Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at The University of Texas, Austin

Have any other resources I’ve missed that you’d like to recommend? Please mention them in the comments and I’ll add them to this list.

How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly)

Tickets are now on sale for the workshop “How to Report on Cuba (Responsibly),” which I’ll be co-faciltiating with Havana-based journalist Conner Gorry at the Cuban Art Space in New York City on April 27. You can learn more about the workshop, which is intended for professional journalists and journalism students, and buy tickets here.

Register Now

We are also working with Tracie Powell of All Digitocracy to make the workshop available via webinar for those who are not in New York City. Details will be posted about the webinar soon.

Cuba Reporting Workshop: Save the Date

What started as Facebook venting about my frustration with the majority of reporting on/about Cuba has turned into what’s going to be a powerhouse workshop offered live in NYC on April 27 with my friend and colleague, Conner Gorry, who has lived in Cuba for more than a decade.

More details coming soon (we’ll post them all here), but for now, mark your calendars and spread the word. Space is going to be limited!

Save the Date

Resources for Experts and Sources

“How do I find sources?”

It’s a common question.

“How do I find diverse sources?” is one that is, thankfully, increasingly more common, as journalists and other writers strive to ensure that they’re not just talking to white guys as subject matter experts.

Earlier this week, I participated in a spontaneous effort to gather a group of Latinos and Latinas who identify as experts, adding them to a list that will ultimately live on the website LatinoRebels, where it can be accessed by any writer looking for a source to speak about topics as diverse as physics and punk rock. For now, you can see that list here.

In response to that list, which evolved on twitter and is not comprised of experts who went through any sort of screening process, several people tipped me off to other useful resources, which include:

National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Experts and Spokespeople List, which includes TV- and radio-ready experts in approximately a dozen subject matter areas.

Source of the Week, a project spearheaded by NPR and described as “a resource for journalists who believe in the value of diversity and share in our goal to make public radio look and sound like America [with a] growing list of radio-ready subject experts….”

There are many other such resources, too. A sampling of them includes: The AAJA maintains a list of Asian American, Pacific Islander experts.

Asian American Journalists Association:

SheSource: a clearinghouse of women who are subject matter experts

Swarthmore College’s Sources and Experts List: a roster of academics who can speak to topics as diverse as the traditional dances of Ghana and transnational feminist studies.

CDC Newsroom’s Expert List: A list of health experts.

Centers for Disease Control’s African-American Media Resources List: A list of doctors, researchers, and other health experts. There’s a contact person listed for journalists who need to speak with someone about a subject that is not included on the list. [June 2015 update- It seems that this resource is no longer being maintained by the CDC. The link above generates a 404 error and the link has also been removed from the CDC’s own website. If any readers discover this list restored, please let me know in the comments.]

South Asian Journalists Association: This professional organization can put journalists in touch with geographical and topical experts

Union of Concerned Scientists: According to this group, “Through our Science Network, we collaborate with nearly 17,000 scientists and technical experts across the country, including: physicists, ecologists, engineers, public health professionals, economists, and energy analysts. We are also a leader in science communication, helping experts explain their research more effectively and working to improve the public’s understanding of science.”

Vera Institute of Justice: “Vera’s experts conduct research and analysis and develop policies and programs in a variety of criminal and social justice fields. Their varied knowledge, background, and experience enable Vera to address the full spectrum of national and local justice issues.” A list of its experts can be found here.

Obviously, this is NOT a comprehensive list. If you have a favorite, please add it in the comments below and I’ll add it to the post, which will be a regularly updated resource.