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. Continue reading