Freelancing guidelines, aka finding the only landline in Brooklyn

The following represents my very first encounter with New York City journalism, from nearly a year ago. It was late November, I was sleeping on a couch in Park Slope, guarding the precious few dollars in my bank account with a flaming sword of optimism and seeking employment, any employment, of any kind, writing or otherwise, immediately, and I mean, like, I’ll start in 30 minutes if you need me.

In a bout of hopeful — but predictably fruitless — effort, I was cold calling various publications around the city to try the stab-in-the-dark attempt at seeing if they were desperate for staff. I placed a call to the related publication below and reached the editor on the first try. I said: “I know this is a crazy question, but do you need any reporters right now?”

His response, not unkindly, was: “Well, you’ve obviously read our paper, so you know. Do we need any reporters? Yes. Can I afford any reporters? No.”

We then talked a little bit about the kind of freelance work he had available. Best case scenario, he said, if you take your own pics and write a decent story, you can get in the low three figures. Standard below that was $80 or so.

I was, as I said, madly desperate for work, and the prospect of making any headway was intriguing. We agreed he’d send me his freelance guidelines and I’d consider some stuff to pitch for the pub, which I’m not going to name here (but is probably pretty obvious to anyone who knows the market, and I’ll gladly entertain guesses on it).

My expectation of the guidelines: a list of common topics the paper covers, issues to avoid, in-house style guides, maybe some niche ethics considerations, etc.

What I got instead was the following. It reads less like freelance guidelines and more like a high school journalism teacher’s first-day syllabus, with basic, 101 rules about AP Style and punctuation.

I decided to post it here after a suggestion from a colleague in the field last week, but mostly because it’s illustrative of the face-palming, anachronistic attitude that has been holding down print. I recounted my favorite parts of this to a reporter friend and he chuckled wildly. “Good luck finding the only land line in Brooklyn to call this guy on,” he said.

Also, it’s been a year and it’s clear I’m not going to write for him any time soon. If nothing else, I do like his understanding that the pub is competing for eyeballs, and some of the advice and comments in here are based in good journalistic sense, of course. But I’ve highlighted my favorites of the rest in bold:

So, you want to write for me?

A primer on how to write for (Editor’s Name)

Most editors are vile, misanthropic, implacable sons of bitches. But at least one editor, (Editor’s Name), tells you that up front. And, better still, (Editor) gives you the tools to write better for him and future editors. The following pages have been compiled over many years — and in no particular order, so it may appear to jump around a bit). So herewith, The Rules:

FIRST AND FOREMOST: Do not call me on a CELLPHONE to pitch a story or ask for a job. It’s rude and, worse, inefficient. Most of the time, I can’t hear a word you’re saying. The only time you should use a cellphone when talking to an editor is a) when the editor calls you on it or b) when there is breaking news that absolutely requires the convenience of a mobile telecommunications device.

Similarly, if you’re pitching me a story and want to show me what you’ve done in the past, don’t send me links to your prior work. First of all, many Internet links are dead. But more important, many old, stodgy editors don’t interact with technology the way you do. If you send me a link, chances are, the web page that comes up will be filled with ads and videos and search bars, etc, that are getting in my way. In the end, I’m going to have to print out the story, so I can read it at a calm moment. Believe me, you don’t WANT an editor to be reading your best work sitting at his computer, where the phone will ring and his other work demands will distract him.

NOW, THE IMPORTANT STUFF: Do not hand in dirty copy. Every word in your story should be spelled correctly. If you spell “fluorescent” incorrectly, it not only means that you were lazy, but it also means that I now have to check every other complicated word, and names, in your story. At the very least, run the spell-check.

Follow the basic rules of punctuation in Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook. I like lots of commas (such as after “In the end, the budget passed…”) and hyphens in such phrases as “a 10-year lease” or “a $40-million contract.” But punctuation is not a luxury. It’s a requirement. Don’t invent punctuation, either. There is no such thing as a single quote mark — except when you are doing a quote within a quote. And please get “it’s” and “its” and “your” and “you’re” and “there” and “their” correct.

And here’s something that has become an epidemic in our society: the misuse of the word “their” when you really mean “his” or “hers.” A sentence like this —  “Someone forced their way into a locked building” — is WRONG! The correct sentence is “Someone forced his way into a building.” Be careful when writing because everyone makes this mistake. Re-write the sentence to avoid such clunkiness. Instead of saying, “Everyone says he likes to dance,” which is correct, write instead, “Everyone likes to dance.” It avoids the need for the “he.”

Put your name, phone number and email address somewhere on the story. Your name is vital because if it’s not on the story, you are risking that I’m going to spell it wrong when I type your byline (which I might do out of spite). Also, I’m sometimes editing 10 stories at a time. If your name isn’t on it, how will I know it’s yours? Your phone number and email address are vital because editors these days sometimes edit copy in their office, sometimes at home, and sometimes at a Yuppie coffee shop in Park Slope, thanks to wireless broadband. But if your phone number or email address aren’t on the copy, they may be back at my office, making it impossible to reach you when I actually NEED to reach you. So, please, tell me who you are and how I can reach you. Remember: old school editors do NOT interact with modern technology the way you do; we don’t always have everyone’s phone number or email address on us and we are NOT always online.

And here’s a word or two about me needing you: The production schedule of a newspaper sometimes means that I will need to reach you immediately, even if I edited a story with you days earlier. Sometimes there are last-minute questions as the paper is being shipped. Sometimes we get a late call related to your story and want to make a fast, but accurate, change. As such, I need to always be able to get to you, so don’t flake out by simply being out of touch. There are, of course, many ways that we can communicate (I’m not so old that I don’t do text messaging, which, IMHO, is actually quite efficient), but if you want to be an active player in this newspaper, you will respond quickly to messages and also be in touch with me regularly. And if I email you with an assignment, email me back with updates or questions. Don’t observe radio silence under the misguided notion that you don’t want to disturb me. I need to know what is going on so that I can direct you, correct you, mentor you.

Mentoring is important — and you should be open to the full definition of the word. Your job is not just to write stories for me, but to listen to the feedback I provide and think about why I’m providing it. I love an open dialogue, so come to me with lots of ideas and enthusiasm so we can really hash it out and make sure we’re on the same page. But after the discussion — enough! I don’t want to hear your complaints about some minor change in the story that you think ruined everything or some major thing I did that somehow “cheapened” everything on which you worked so long and hard. There are two reasons that I don’t want to hear your complaints: 1. I’ve actually done this stuff for a long time and if you pay attention, you may learn why editors do things the way they do them. We don’t always do things for Pulitzer-worthy reasons. Sometimes, we’ll take the last line of your great story and make it the first line simply because we have a great picture that we want to run on the front page. Is it frustrating to get re-written? Yes. But if I do my job correctly, your story will get read by thousands of people instead of just a few.

Do not criticize editors for sensationalizing your stories. We are in an age with limited attention spans and intense competition for eyeballs. Are all editors’ choices, photo instincts or play decisions correct? Of course not, but that brings me to part 2 of this lengthy discourse: 2. Say (hypothetically, of course) that I made the wrong decisions with your story, edited it badly or played it in the wrong place with a bad picture. Say I’m the worst editor you ever worked with. Good! Not every editor you’re ever going to work with is going to be good. So you win either way: If I do a good job dressing up and editing your stories, you get the experience of working with a great editor; if I do a bad job, you get the experience of working with a jerk who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Believe me, it won’t be the last time that happens, so you might as well be prepared.

That said, all of this is a two-way street. I don’t expect you to know everything when you start working on a story. USE ME to help you get started or for advice on people to call, streets to walk down, background to review. There is no such thing as a dumb question — but there are dumb reporters who think it looks weak to ask a question. I want to hear your questions early and often, so that inaccuracies or misdirected energy can be avoided from the start.

Now, onto the most important stuff: tone, style and content.

Tone: I don’t do earnest. If you want to write for NPR, fine. That’s very noble and respectable work, but you’re not going to do it in my paper. My newspaper is not a public trust; it is a source of entertainment and information. It needs to engage, yes, but not sit there on the page and take for granted that the reader will read it simply because it is on the page. You need to entertain the reader and coax him into continuing reading every step of the way. A reader will take the first exit ramp you give him, so don’t. Make the copy interesting. And if you have to, use every trick in the book to keep the reader on the page.

Approach: Get to the freakin’ point. I don’t mind a multi-sentence lede — but only if it’s taking me somewhere. The reader needs to know where he’s going. He’ll give you a little slack if the writing is good enough, yes, but don’t abuse the privilege. Get to the freakin’ point. Don’t leave me adrift wondering where you are going, like what I call “the NPR lede” (in other words, this kind of opening:

“[Sound effect of bird squawking] Manual Tejada wakes early in the morning. It is still dark as he pulls on the worn out shoes that cost him a week’s salary at the market outside Cocuouttejas, where, during the rainy season, Tejada finds itinerant work as a bandelajo. But on this day [sound of bird squawking], Tejada will walk the seven miles from his home to the parched, sun-drenched fields of Manouecas, where humiliation mixes with sweat into a stew of human debasement. …”

What is this story about? I don’t care anymore. And neither will your reader.

Basic information: If you are taking an assignment from me, I certainly understand that you might not be an expert on that given topic. That said, it is your job, not mine, to become an expert on that topic. That means understanding not only the issue at hand, but also the background of that issue. A simple search of our Web site can give you some knowledge, of course, but you need to know a lot more before you start asking questions and doing your interviewing. Also, basic information includes neighborhood names (we don’t merely write “Brooklyn”; that would be like the New York Daily News calling Tom Wolfe a “North American writer”), addresses (if applicable), actual titles of people you’re quoting (not just “Kenneth Adams, the head of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce,” but “Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kenneth Adams), etc. Basic information is the building block of a story — and the place where mistakes frequently get made if the information is missing. Don’t make editors do you work for you — they’re too busy and will get it wrong.

We are local: Never forget that however quirky and atypical my newspaper is, it is still a LOCAL paper. That means I need to see local people in your stories. I need to know their names. I need to know where the meeting was or what block it was on. And I need you to understand the slightly different spirits and populations in the various neighborhoods we cover. This newspaper — indeed, all newspapers! — lives and dies on its ability to feel extremely local. The reader must leave EVERY story thinking, “Wow, those people really know my neighborhood.” We can do it, of course, through detailed reporting and getting the facts straight, but we also do it by being OF the community. We can walk the walk because we talk the talk.

Command: Remember, you are in command of the story, not the people you are writing about or the quotes you are trying to include. You run the show. Take me where you will. Grab the reader by the collar and drag him somewhere.

One way of doing this is to avoid ledes that don’t take control. One of my pet peeves is what I call a “statement of fact” lede. This type of lede signals to the reader that the writer hasn’t focused the story. For example, consider this lede: “Councilmembers Joe Smith (D-Park Slope) and Frida Tompkins (D-Sunset Park) faced a group of 20 fed-up parents on Tuesday afternoon in Slope Park, a schoolyard and playground at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue, in Windsor Terrace.”

Why would I keep reading? The lede has not told me where we’re going. And, in fact, it actually alienates the casual reader (as all newspaper readers are, by the way) by naming two unknown people and an unknown location in the lede.

A better lede would have been, “Twenty angry parents let two City Councilmembers have it on Tuesday afternoon, accusing the lawmakers of breaking their promise to renovate an outdated, unattractive and unsafe Windsor Terrace playground.”

Do you see the difference? One meanders and doesn’t even suggest that something is amiss in the community. The other takes charge and gets to the point.

Look, we live in an ADD-afflicted society — and we’re not going to change that, so you’d better keep the reader’s attention or he’s gone. We can sit around complaining about all the reasons our society is messed up, but the fact is, everyone has ADD nowadays. Write for them, not for yourself. Use your power for good or for evil, but get to the freakin’ point. Also, consider this: No matter how long or how short a story is, it has to be ABOUT something. When I finish a story that I’ve written, I re-read it simply asking myself, “What is this story about? What is the why of this story? Why did we assign this piece? Did I lose that thread somewhere along the way?” Even stories that are about something that happened aren’t stories about the thing that happened. The event is what happened; but our stories are what it all means. Let the boring, unimaginative papers cover “events.” We try to explain what is going on.

The single most important thing is something I place under this rubric: “Conflict and context.” Every story, whether it is a simple feature about a new business opening up or a larger analysis of Atlantic Yards is about conflict. It can be a simple conflict (i.e. neighbors are hopping mad over a plan for a new skyscraper on their street) or a complex conflict (i.e. a councilman wants to save the cargo port on the Red Hook waterfront, but doing so would cause a community group to lose the site where it hoped to build affordable housing). Everything is conflict. But no matter how much conflict your story has, it is useless without the larger context. In the case with the upset neighbors, that context can be as simple as telling the reader about three or four prior cases of tall buildings and what impact those buildings had in those cases. In the case of the councilman and the waterfront plan, without context, the reader has no way to figure out whose vision is better. Let me give you another example: Suppose I send you to cover a full-day conference called “The Roots of Modern Brooklyn.” How can you cover such a conflict-filled topic without knowing — and then providing the reader with — the context? “Conflict and context” are words you will hear come from my mouth every day.

Editing: Cut out lots and lots of extra words. If you hand in a story at 1,000 words, it can easily be 800 words and you wouldn’t miss a thing. If you have a lot of prepositional phrases, that’s an indication that whole segments of the sentence could be excised painlessly. I don’t want to hurt your “style,” per se, but sentences can’t get flabby.

Photos/Illustrations: I don’t care if you’re freakin’ Walt Whitman, I need a photo or an illustration or a graphic idea in order to get your article read by the largest number of people (no one reads anymore, didn’t you hear that?). Anyway, too many reporters think, “Oh, photos — not my job, man.” Well, it is your job to inform your editor (again, whether it’s me or someone else for whom you hope to someday work) of the names, phone numbers and availability of anyone who — or anything that — would help us play your story the best way possible. And you must do this EARLY in the process. If you need examples of this, just pick up the NY Post. When they have a good photo, the story plays on page 3 and everyone in the world reads it. When they don’t have the right art, it runs on page 72 underneath the classified ads for trusses and hat blocking. We’ll do all the work on this end, but you have to meet us halfway by a) thinking of good ideas for photos and illustrations and b) providing us with the information to make it happen. It is your job — especially in a highly competitive, blogospheric, Flickr-filled culture.

Jargon: Do not use jargon. It is our job as journalists to write clearly, not fill our copy with insurance-industry jargon, medical terminology, sports clichés. We’re supposed to explain that stuff to people. I hate to see things like, “Experts said a Category 4 or 5 hurricane is inevitable.” What is a Category 4 hurricane? It’s jargon, that’s what. But if you write, “…a hurricane with winds exceeding 140 miles per hour,” that means something. You can’t write things like, “Educators favor the whole-language approach…” What is the “whole language approach”? It’s just jargon that means nothing.

We also have some style quirks at (The Publication), but just because they are quirks does not abrogate your responsibility to observe them:

1. All numbers below 10 are spelled out — except (and only except) in the case of ages (“He’s a 3-year-old boy”) and dollar amounts. This rule applies to addresses (“The murder was at the corner of Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue”), objects (“He carried with him 16 beers and five bags of chips”), and even temperature (“Global warming?! It’s freakin’ six degrees below zero!”)

2. Addresses represent another quirk: At (The Publication), if we write the ACTUAL address, it is abbreviated, as in “He lives at 102 Clinton St.” If we are only referring to the street, it is not abbreviated (“He lives on Clinton Street”).

3. A similar rule applies to dates. We only abbreviate if we are printing the actual date (“The crime occurred on Feb. 12, 1991”). If we are referring to a month, it is not abbreviated (“I really like September”).

4. Politicians always have their party affiliation and neighborhood right after their name (though there are quirks to this, of course): Here is how it’s done:

CONGRESSMEN: “He voted for Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Bay Ridge).”

U.S. SENATORS: “He voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton.” If the senator is from New York, the parenthetical is not necessary.

STATE SENATORS: “He voted for state Sen. Marty Golden (R-Bay Ridge).”

ASSEMBLYMEMBERS: “He voted for Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Prospect Heights).”

CITY COUNCILMEMBERS: “He voted for Councilman Vince Gentile (D-Bay Ridge).”

IF THE LAWMAKER IS FROM MANHATTAN OR ANY OTHER BOROUGH, WE DO NOT PRINT NEIGHBORHOOD NAMES, JUST THE BOROUGH.

5. We’ve seen an epidemic of non-sensical abbreviations of city agencies. On first reference, of course, every agency should be ID’d by its actual name (“Officials at the Parks Department said…” or “A spokesman from the Department of Transportation did not return a call”). But second references have become tricky, so let’s go over some reasonable suggestions:

A) The Department of Sanitation is NEVER “DOS” on second reference. People never call Sanitation, “DOS.” Use “Sanitation” instead, as in “A Sanitation spokesman said…” or “Sanitation inspectors were out in force a day later…”

B) The Department of Transportation CAN BE “DOT” on second reference. People talk like that.

Fire Department: ONLY FDNY

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. We NEVER use the full name of the department even in first reference. On second, it is NEVER “DOH” (that’s Homer Simpson’s line). It is “the Health Department”

Mostly, just use “the department said” or “an agency spokesman said…” or something more creative. Anything to avoid the alphabet soup, please.

FORMATTING NOTES:

1) Do not format any type in any style other than normal (italics, underline or bold are OUT!). When I send it over to our layout people, the formatting is lost anyway. Plus, italics are very hard to read.

a) Book, movie, TV show and play titles are formatted as “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “Superbad.”

The pub’s web site today, btw, has no dominant art above the scroll. The first things to draw your eye are an ad for Atlantic City and a refer to a parenting section. But last I heard, they’re still doing moderately financially well. Takes all kinds, I guess.

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5 responses to “Freelancing guidelines, aka finding the only landline in Brooklyn

  1. Geez, what a douche.

  2. great article. In high school, I was in Journalism for 3 years (a long time ago). I was thinking of freelancing to bring in some extra money.

    I haven’t written/published anything since high school. Would it be inappropriate to have my high school work as my portfolio?

  3. I’ve actually given that same spiel about jargon almost verbatim. But it had to do with various categories of felonies vs. the fine and time associated with them.

  4. Uh, nice to meet you, Lisa.

    I’m sure your high school clips are perfectly fine.

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