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September 24, 2005

How do I become a stringer?

Katrina changed everything.

In the space of a few hours, I went from an anxious bystander to a journalist with support to cover the news. I quit my job. I quit with one day's notice. I just had to pack up and go.

My boss had been logging 18-hour days for as long as I could remember. On Labour Day, I emailed him to say that I might have to leave town on Wednesday. On Tuesday I was in the office by 7:45, but I already had a message on my voicemail. It was my boss. I had orders to be in his office at 11:00. I nearly threw up.

Honestly, shame is a pretty rare emotion for me. One of the best things about my life is that I go years without feeling ashamed of anything. Guilty, occaisionally. Disappointed, often. But not ashamed. If I have anything to be proud of, it's my solid track record of avoiding behavior I might end up ashamed of.

Yet, I was deeply ashamed of what I was about to do. I was going to walk off my job in the middle of a project. I was about to let my team down. I never let my team down. I'm the person stays until 5am to meet the deadline and goes back to Brooklyn, showers, changes, and comes back to Manhattan to meet the client. I smile the whole time.

I went to see my boss at the appointed time. It's a big buildingm, so I set aside some time to puke in the 7th floor washroom if I needed to. Instead, I showed up early, feeling like a psychopath.

I sat down.

My boss spoke before I could say anything. I couldn't believe what he was telling me. He said he'd been a stringer for Gulf War I. He said he understood that I needed to go. He said that if he was my age, he'd be doing the same thing.

My gratitude was a headrush. I just couldn't get the words out.

Luckily, he started talking about what it was like to be a stringer in a war zone. He told me about water purifiers, editors, oil rigs, and special metal cages you could get for your backpack.

I clenched the arms of the chair.

He told me that being a stringer was a hard life, that I'd be broke and miserable. That I'd be sorry that I'd ever left advertising, but that I'd have the time of my life.

"It's like a vacation to a war zone!" he said, "You'll love it."

I was flattered that he considered me the sort of person who'd like a vacation in a war zone. I might have blushed.

He went on, "But do you want this life?"

For a split second, I wasn't sure what to say. Then, I knew the answer.

"Yes," I said.

So, hivemind... How do I do it?

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» Miscellany from Political Animal
MISCELLANY....Lindsay Beyerstein, after spending a week covering Hurricane Katrina, wants to know how to become a stringer. She'd be good, so if anyone reading this has any work to offer her, head on over to her site and send her... [Read More]

» Miscellany from Political Animal
MISCELLANY....Lindsay Beyerstein, after spending a week covering Hurricane Katrina, wants to know how to become a stringer. She'd be good, so if anyone reading this has any work to offer her, head on over to her site and send her... [Read More]

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I'm supposed to have a draft tonight, of my second story on the Z Crew. But my brain is stuffed with too many stories competing for space - two of which are due next week, two of which need to [Read More]

» Being a Stringer from Crossroads
After my last (first) entry to this blog, I decided to find what I could on freelance journalism, ie. stringing. I found that there is precious little information out there on it. Most Google results on the subject point to [Read More]

Comments

I have no knowledge about stringers specifically, but I don't personally know any journalists who didn't get some kind of degree in it. It's not about learning how to write at all, it's about learning the conventions of the profession - both in terms of standards/content and in terms of professional expectations, structure, that kind of thing. And even if you don't need to go to school to get that knowledge - well, that's the case with a lot of degrees, but it's still often better to bite the bullet and get the letters beside your name.

That's not to say it's at all necessary, because I really have no specific idea. Good luck - it's a pretty bold decision, and the up-front investment costs alone would scare me out of it. Very impressive.


At the beginning you will probably be doing pretty routine on-the-spot stuff, but as you rise in the biz, the ability to research will give you a big advantage.

Most journalists are pretty thoughtless, so the ability to do a couple of days of library research before going somewhere would give you an advantage. (Hitchens would have been a very ordinary academic, but as a journalist he's a genius.)

Check out "A Reporter's Handbook" by Stephen Weinberg. It was used in journalism school here -- I looked through it and it looked good. Out of print, but can be found through bookfinder.com.

Brant Houston's "Investigative Reporter's Handbook" popped up during my searches. Don't know anything about it, but worth a look.


Dunno, but this book may be useful, too.

Try hooking up w/ Amy Goodman at DemocracyNow! or Free Speech Radio News.

Good luck.

as regards books by correspondents check out "dispatches" i can't recall the author's name but it is a stellar look at a writer's life from within the viet nam conflict. i'd love to know who "borrowed" my copy.

Lindsay,

I sincerely suggest you just change the focus of the blog and concentrate on breaking stories here. Don't loose your readership. Increase your ad rates (I told you before and I am going to tell you now, you are undercutting yourself and everybody else by offering ad space for so cheap on one of the most visited feminist blogs in the US).

Also, you have a lot of peope in the media blogosphere that can get you a serious heads up. Wolcott has you on his blogroll. Shoot him and email. I say do the same with Jay Rosen. And I would most certainly give a heads up to Rebecca MacKinnon.

Andrew Sullivan has an deal with the Washington Post now. I don't see why any other bloggers could work out deals like his with other publications.

We need to have coffee --or some seriously strong drinks-- real, real soon.

As to j-degree. NONONONONO. Unless the school is willing to snap you up with 150% scholarship, DONT DO IT. Nowadays those degrees are money down the drain.

Again, you have more contacts in the blogosphere than you think.

Mary Ellen Bates seems to be sharp about using the internet as a research tool. She updates every few years and the latest would be best.

Having gone to J-school for two years (and two years of community college journalism before that ::shudders::) I can say confidently that it would frustrate you more than help you, and it would impress editors not one bit. The smart ones look at yr. work and yr. writing, not the degrees hanging in the hallway.

Spend time and money getting published - anywhere will do - and then haul that stack of clippings with you whenever you pitch a story. The DemocracyNow! angle is a good one, they are respected and smart enough to recognise your ability.

And in re: equipment, a laptop would be necessary. Anything smaller is too small to use for real writing, plus you'll need full 'net and multimedia access, as well as lots of storage. Something compact and tough - a new iBook, or Vaio. Military Surplus stores can be yr. friend for tough, practical camp gear, although you don't plan on an entire career spent in tents, eh?

Are you thinking of covering the war? If so, this guy whose over in Bagdad that I read frequently just put up a lengthy post saying that maybe Darfur or somewhere simlar would be a better place for someone w/o security.

Read it here:

http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/journalism/

Collect the stuff you've written, go to the AP, local papers and the like.

Take good prints (and large, say 8x10) of the pictures you think best.

Go to them and say you want to string.

AP used to pay $50 a day per story or picture they picked up.

The local papers may not have space, but will still probably be willing to pick you up for evening meetings.

What you really want, and it's harder, and easier, is to be a freelance writer, and get stuff run in magazines. I pondered doing this, decades ago. It helps to have a published list of feature clips. Find a story, find an outlet, pitch the story, get a committment, write the story; send it in, wait for the check.

By an AP style guide, and make it your friend.

TK

re: J-school. I'm not sure a knee-jerk yes or no answers that question - it's undeniable that j-school is not the pass to the newsroom job it used to be, but it's not yet just an MFA for politics junkies. Check out some programs and ask a lot of questions about what their job placement office and externship opportunities are like - if nothing else, j-school may be a shorthand way to meet some folks - starting a freelance career with nothing but the Writer's Marketplace can be a lot like cold-calling to sell penny stocks. Not that your articles are penny stocks, but you get the picture. A one-year program might help you learn a lot of nuts and bolts stuff and build a rolodex. On the other hand, school may just be an excuse to put off your new career. I dunno. Worth a couple of phone calls, anyway.

As to j-degree. NONONONONO. Unless the school is willing to snap you up with 150% scholarship, DONT DO IT. Nowadays those degrees are money down the drain.

This is absolutely correct. I have a steady stream of unpaid interns working for me at my paid job, many of them j-school students or recent graduates, and I've had to spend time teaching each one how to perform basic tasks such as writing a pitch that will catch an editor's attention. I am not the only editor I know of who has been similarly disimpressed over the last decade.

Listen to Chris Clarke. And email me.

Regarding J-school, I am convinced that some of the anti-intellectual and politically unaware stupidity we see in the media are actually taught in J-school, and thought of by the perps as a form of wise professionalism that laymen don't understand.

Since management (Murdoch, Moon, Welch, Graham, Sulzberger et al) rewards that kind of thing, they're only half wrong.

Regarding journlism schools.

They vary, a lot. What is needed in a good one is independence from administrative oversight, and a need to write to pass.

The work done must be graded with an eye to style (not as a way of writing, but a guide to consitency, see above about the AP Style Guide), grammar, punctuation and rules of the trade (inverting the pyramid, finding the local angle, using the smaller to make the greater comprehensible, keeping the reporter out of the story, etc.). There are good one's out there, many at the junior college level (some of thoes are good entry level jumping-off places to local papers. A few can even get one a job at a larger paper, though unless they publish daily it may be hard to get work at anything faster paced than a weekly, no matter what school you go to, nor how solid your clips).

The print industry, for news, is hurting. The markets are shrinking, and the outlets consolidating. It makes it hard.

TK

No expert here, but i've heard nothing about jschool programs except they're useless if you actually want to be a journalist. if you do go back to school, it should be to study something to report on. american studies/history/english/economics are pretty popular from what i understand. I had the pleasure of speaking to Sam Roberts from the NY Times a few months ago at a conference, and his advice for aspiring journalists is to just focus on writing as much as possible.

This might be off-point, but the american prospect has a fellowship program that might be a good fit for you.

would a one-year j-school program would make sense at this stage?

it seems it may be too late for that. ...
i don't think it neccessarily a bad thing at all, but it seems
you've already begun a little marathon. do you really want
to stop now to learn how to prepare to run?

jump in. the freshness will do everyone good.

Um, Chris, do we work at the same place?

Just chiming in with everyone else regarding J-school. Other than the contacts, it won't help. Even with the contacts, you won't benefit much.

I work in Internet, um, "stuff." We had a weekend part-time position. Pay, not so hot. Chance of getting a gig from it, not so hot. But we had a flood of applicants nonetheless, many of them with J-school degrees. I was floored.

I actually snuck in to my writing/code jockey gig through the back door, as a copy editor. If you memorize the AP style guide and pass a few tests for papers/employers, you can get a good look at the newsroom process as well. It won't lead to major bylines, but you'll get a strong sense of the day-to-day operations.

I work as a writer in a different country and different field... but the old adage about who you know is certainly very true. Having contacts is very, very important.

Gaining contacts is easier said than done, of course, but that's why internships and volunteer positions can be so useful if you can cope with having no money at all.

Good luck.

I would echo the sentiment that the blog might be/ought to be a way to do at least part of what you want to do.

Also--though this isn't exactly a long-term solution--how about pointing everybody who reads this over to the Pay Pal button once in a while; maybe we could do a Help Lindsay Transition to Stringer fund drive, to get you started?

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