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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]

» a filigree of stories from Crayons to Chaos
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

Without wanting to take part too vigorously in the group masturbation session

Why do people complain about group masturbation sessions? Aren't group masturbation sessions what the internet is all about?

Oh for the days of yore! Alas, Rob, the group masturbation sessions we all remember so fondly are now mostly a thing of the past thanks to the internet and its perfidious one-person-per-computer logistics. For shame.

I am so jealous of people that find a passion for what they want to do and follow it. Check out this interview with MacArthur grant winner Ted Ames:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4856425

He tells this old fisherman joke to explain how he will use the money he has been awarded to keep studying fish populations: An old fisherman with a clunky old boat wins the lottery. When asked what he'll do with his winnings he replies "Well, I think I'l keep on fishing just the same as I always have and when the money's all gone I'll find some other way to keep on fishing."

Wow. Congratulations! You certainly have the skills. I hope this works out great for you.

Ye Gods, if I were healthy enough I'd pack up and head out as well. All media are experiencing an epidemic of Dumbness, or were until Katrina ripped the painted carboard facade of Bush's Potemkin Administration down for them. I spent years studying journalism, then abandoned it to find a profession with more dignity. What I failed to realise then was that it wasn't the job that was lacking, it was me.

You can fight the Dumbness and bring honor to the idea of Journalism. It will be the hardest thing you have ever done. Keep a list of contacts, establish relationships with many outlets, and then write until your hands fall numb. Keep these and all other stories in our consciousness and out of the Memory Hole that has crippled us in this age.

And remember - Teneo Directus Sectae. Keep a simple way of life. Make the earth your home. Mobility is Key.

Good Luck.

"All media are experiencing an epidemic of Dumbness".

We are living at the most democratic moment in the history of media. Freedom of the press only ever meant freedom for those with the money to purchase the press; with the advent of the internet and the blogosphere, absolutely anyone with internet access can become part of the media.

If you think this has produced an "epidemic of dumbness", then you must not think much of the average punter who has compromized the Old Media dynamics you so pine for...these are the same people who represent the "reading public" Lindsay will write for as a journalist. If she shares your elitist condescension for her readership, Lindsay will make a pretty piss-poor journalist. Hopefully she won't.

Can anyone say "strawman"?

I wonder if creators.com would take you on... They syndicate Molly Ivins (among others, e.g., Novak, ugh!), and maybe Dan Gillmor would have some insights or contacts.

Pretty exciting times for your readers, most of whom (myself included) wish we were doing what you are planning to do.

Kumaro -
This is the last place on the Internets that anyone needs to use for a pissing contest. You assume Lindsay's future readership to be restricted to the bloggers you praise for breaking the Old Dynamic (if I've parsed that right). I hope for all our sakes that it is not.

BTW - "Elitist condescention" is a bit redundant. If you want to keep arguing, please have the decency to email me instead of using this comments section to posture:
bitemyshineemetalass@yahoo.com

Go for it. Congratulations on making a decision and acting on it. If it's the wrong choice you will find that out and make a correction. Not doing anything because you can't decide is the true mistake.

Katahdin Water Purifier is the best water purifer for the money if you don't want to use iodine or chlorine.

Pacsafe Security Web might be what your boss mentioned to protect your pack.

Pocketmail (http://www.pocketmail.com) might be useful as an inexpensive alternative to a Laptop/WiFi. It keeps you connected for email/blogging without the weight.

there's those moments in one's life when you realize your time has come.
this is one of yours!

salute

See if you can get a pass into the Scottie Maclellan Green Zone and actually get to ask a question!

Good for you Lindsay. You showed such an eye for visual composition in your Katrina reporting, keep an open mind to photos and video.

I was using "elitist" as a noun, rather than an adjective: as in, "the condescension of an elitist". However, since I wrote the note, the onus was on me to make that clear.

None of this would have been a problem if we still had clear parts of speech markers in English. Those infernal Danes, with their tasty fish!

I wasn't saying Lindsay's readership would be restricted to bloggers, but to the intelligent reading public from which most bloggers come.

Damn Danes!

Lindsay, you look impossibly like a girl I used to know named Lindsay Eichler. Are you by any chance Ms. Eichler with a new surname (perhaps her mother's maiden one)?

Nope, sorry. "Beyerstein" is the only surname I've ever had.

My best suggestion on getting stringing work (coming from someone on the inside) is to look around at the stories being written, find a few stories that have NOT been written, but that you think should be. Report and write those. Clean them up, checking for spelling and AP style, then start shopping them around to newspapers (or magazines, depending on how much you want to write.)

To shop them around, call the media organizations (don't e-mail. I get so many e-mails a day with unsolicited story ideas that I can't count them and I am small time) that you are interested in, ask for who is editing the appropriate beat or who overseas freelancers and pitch your story. Explain why it is different than everything else they are printing, explaining what an exquisite human angle it has to it, or how it puts a local angle on the far-away story.

A few other suggestions:
1) Style, style, style. Master AP style, write with it, live it. The AP stylebook is the starting level for any newspaper's in-house style. Editors will forgive many things, but the writer who doesn't know how to write a street address in AP style will grow frustrating quickly. If possible, get the internal stylebook for the organization you are pitching to, and write with their style in mind.

2) People, people, people. Get lots of good ol' folks quotes in your stories. Editors love that down in the dirt, homespun voice that having real people gives a story. If they want the official version or the numbers-and-details story, they can get that from their staff that attends the official press conference. People stories are harder to get, which is why they are valuable. And the newspaper staff is going to grab the low-hanging fruit.

3) Local, local, local. Find a way to bring the big, national story to the readers in a far-away market. Unless you are selling to a nationwide outlet, editors are going to want to know how it affects their readers. And for most newspapers, that is a defined geographic area.

4) Going back to the "people" section above, recognize that editors are a skittish lot these days. Almost no one is going to take at face value something an unknown stringer sends in. They will want names, and places and ways to get ahold of the people you talked to. Take detailed notes on names, addresses and phone numbers. Your editor will want that information. And don't get offended that they want to doublecheck your work. Any editor who doesn't doublecheck these days is a moron.

5) Recognize the way the system works and your role in the hierarchy. Just sending in or e-mailing unsolicited copy is not going to get you anywhere. You are selling yourself as someone who can fill a need that an editor has. That need is for objective, timely, well-written, local, accurate and clean copy.

Some may sneer that most newspaper stories don't meet many of these criteria. Which may be true, but knowing that truth does not help you sell your story. To get a sale, you are going to have to provide copy that is frankly better than whatever the staff writers are churning out.

Your goal is to find an editor who will eventually throw regular work your way. To think of you when they say "Hey, I'd like to get a story out of Disaster X about ABC subject. Who can I get to write that?"

It would be an added bonus if your journalism career incorporated or accomodated the blog thing. Great if you can support yourself as a stringer, better yet if you can stake out some new ground for real blog-journalism (i.e., real, self-edited, readership-supported reporting, not that crap Jeff Jarvis is talking about).

Thanks so much for all the detailed advice and encouragement. I'm also wondering whether a one-year j-school program would make sense at this stage. Any thoughts?

Lindsay,

is that you who post here? I can not believe how work conditions are in the US (I guess quitting your job was part of what your post, if it is from you, was about); over here in "Old Europe" leaving for some time is not a problem, logging 18 h is not a valid option and vomitting from work stress is unheard of. Perhaps you think of picking up this?
What happens in your country, what happens to you?

Best

M.

I've been keeping a database of Katrina stories over at KatrinaCoverage.com and I wouldn't mind visiting the Gulf Coast to do some blog reporting there. If you find a way to do that that would then get printed somewhere other than just my blog, please leave a comment at my site.

Best of luck to you. Brave and bold, as always.

Lindsey ---School is good for certain things. I wouldn't want to have brain surgery, for example, by someone who barely got their G.E.D.

For writing, though? Not so much. In fact, it's my experience (please don't hate me, academics!) that nothing will ruin a good writer faster than a mean spirited teacher. And there's a lot of those in writing.

I can also tell you I have experience with someone who was trying to go for the unusual story --- had a job with a major international newspaper and was trying to finish the Masters and get a book under the belt --- and blew it so completely, violated so many people's privacy and ethics, caused actual harm to the reputations of some, etc.

IOW, school is no guarantee and may actually be a liability.

Now for video editing, maybe. For writing, though? Eh.

Whoops --- there's a lot of mean spirited teachers in academia, particularly for writing.

< /slowly backing away from the computer, looking for dinner>

Apart from all the good advice you've been given already - Network, which is sort of what you're doing in this post. I'll talk to my friends in the media and see if they have any leads on potential work. Are you interested in radio and TV as well as the Internets and print?

best,
togolosh

I have absolutely no personal experience relevant to this question, but here's an idea. Get a job working for Halliburton. Looking at their jobs website (http://www.halliburton.com/careers/index.jsp), it seems as though they've got openings at all levels in places like Kuwait, Iraq, Nigeria, etc. Working for a company like that, in a place like that, I bet you'd see all sorts of things worth writing about. And I bet they'd pay for your ticket there, too.

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