Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to Work in the Mainstream Media—and Why You Want to

Ada Calhoun: editor-in-chief of Babble.com and freelance writer
Lynn Harris: journalist for Glamour, the New York Times, and other publications
Kara Jesella: writer and editor for NYT
Rebecca Traister: senior writer at Salon.com and writing a book about women and the 2008 elections.

Is it difficult to get a feminist story in the MSM?
Ada: I've had really good luck. The onus is on the writer to create a timely, relevant article that has a feminist angle. It can't be an evergreen article.

Rebecca: I started at the Observer in NY and that was a place that was not warm to feminism. It was a boy's newspaper at the time and if you proposed a story that in any way wreaked of earnest feminism, you were laughed at. Since then the changes I've seen in journalism have been tremendous. So many of the stories I was pitching had a feminist angle and I was able to create my own beat. And now even the Observer is publishing feminist articles. In my own career arc, I've seen a lot of opportunities open up.

Lynn: It's not an us-them thing. It's not all of us here trying to plot the overthrow of these other people. I think in the case of the Observer, it wasn't that they were anti-feminist, they just weren't earnest.

Kara: I have certainly found that it is easier to get these stories through if you are on staff or have a relationship with an editor. That's why it's harder for younger writers who are just starting out. I remember when I was at the Times filling in for someone in the Style section and had to come out as a feminist around a story on fat politics and it was helpful that I had already been there for months. I think the problem now is that so many people do want to write about these issues and now people think that one person at a newsroom or magazine writing about these issues is enough.

Surviving in Journalism
Rebecca: There were times early in my career that I had to take articles to pay my bills that I didn't necessarily agree with. I wrote an article on sex toys for a women's magazine to pay for a trip to a friend's wedding in Europe, but I wouldn't have taken some of the articles about body issues that I found offensive.

You do have to make some choices: finding the line between your principles / journalistic desires and the need to make a living.

Lynn: If you're a working journalist, your journalism is your work. It's important to remember that it's work. It's a fantasy to think you're only going to write things you care deeply about. If you think of your writing only as art, it allows people to pay you less. When you're a journalist, you're running a business. When you think of it as art, you're often willing to do it for less. Obviously, you don't want to write something you wouldn't put your name on. Dare I say, it's empowering to make a living as a journalist.

Ada: I was able to do a story on boxing in Texas that allowed me to learn about something I would have never known about without the job.

Rebecca: Some of my best experiences as a journalist was when I was learning and had nothing to do with personal interests whatsoever. Covering community board meetings, real estate transactions was a great way to learn journalism and reporting. In some ways, I think in a career arc sense it's really great to get the skills down in areas you don't feel passionate about. And then when you start to have a little more control over what you write about, you have the skills down and can write about you're passionate about well.

Kara: Have you had editors that have helped you move to the next level?
Lynn: I was an intern in 1987 for Ladies Home Journal and that was the job that launched a career. The executive editor groomed me and helped me go on to write for other magazines and for LHJ. To this day, we're in touch.

Rebecca: When I was at Talk, I wasn't a writer and I didn't think that was what I wanted to do. There was an editor who thought I could be a good reporter and got me the job at The Observer and now is my editor at Elle.

Do people what to write for glossy magazines?

Audience member: It seems like long-form articles can only be found in glossy magazines.

Lynn: the lipstick ads are funding the meaty articles.

Have you written for men's magazines?
Lynn: I wrote some profile articles for GQ and I had to salivate a little about how hot some celebrity (Jessica Biel) was but, that didn't bother me that much. You're right - GQ and Esquire have strong writing.

Rebecca: I was a beauty editor for years. I kinda didn't want the job, but I wanted to move from being an assistant. It was interesting in many ways, including being able to take private jets and going to Vegas and having Celine Dion put her arm around me, I was able to get some feminist messaging in there. The thing that I found most problematic was not actually the words, but the pictures. The stories were extremely feminist, if a bit consumerist. I struggled with the fact that most women would never look like the models and celebrities in the magazines.

Sue Katz, question from audience: It's easier to be on the staff than freelance, mostly with alternative, progressive media where the money has almost completely dried up. Is MSM money for freelancers drying up and is there a difference between online and print pay scale?

Rebecca: Money at Salon is tight. Money is tight at glossy magazines, though it is still paying better than online media or alternative media. The fact is, our industry is in serious trouble. There isn't a lot of money and there aren't a lot of jobs. It is hard to say I'm on staff because it is very rare.

Ada: Everything is being cut about 40%. Generally online is about half of what glossies pay. $400 in online media would compare to $2,000 from Glamour. If you want money, you still need to do print, mainstream.

Lynn: Insofar as you can get MSM work that makes money that are dumb, it will allow you to take other gigs that don't pay as well.

Rebecca: 2 paths to getting into glossies. The first is taking an internship or assistant position - where you're literally getting coffee and doing nothing to do with putting words together. It makes such a different to make those connections and work hard at whatever you're getting paid to work hard at (e.g. get really good coffee). The other path is fact-checking. I did both - I was an assistant at Talk and was a fact-checking / reporter at the Observer. Even if you want to be an opinion writer for the rest of your life, I'm a huge supporter of learning how to be a reporter first. Because the reader is trusting you to bring them factual news.

Ada: I did internships at Spin and Esquire in high school and I still run into those people all the time. I started writing for an alt-weekly in college and they're much easier to get into. It's important to take whatever stories are available, especially early in your career. Do it really well and really fast. Eventually you'll be able to go look wherever you want. Be fun to work with and on time.

Lynn: Write to the exact length that they tell you.

audience: How has your experience changed with the growth of online media?

Ada: I've been working primarily online for the last 5 years. I run babble.com and it's an online magazine that's fairly successful.

Rebecca: When I went to Salon I had people ask don't you miss having your words on paper? I actually feel that the words I write on paper are much more ephemeral than what I write online because glossies don't have the deep back history on their websites. I have been able to insist on writing 4,000 word piece words on Salon. We post a lot of articles that are really long.

Lynn: Go talk to women's magazines about their websites. One of the reasons people don't know about the good journalism in glossy magazines is that they don't have good websites. I know they're trying to build up their web presences and know how to make things stick online, go work for a women's magazine website.

Kara: I probably write less for the web than anyone here. I agree with Rebecca - whenever I write for magazines now, it just disappeared. You get a broader audience with the web, since male editors are definitely not reading women's magazines.

Audience question: Do you think newcomers have a better chance pitching essays or reported pieces?

Ada: I would rather have established reporters do the reporting. So I think it would be better to do essays.

Lynn: Make sure that the magazine you're pitching actually runs an essay. Make sure they run things in the first-person. Make sure they didn't just run an article on your topic. It might work in almost the same form in more than one publication, but you have to really tailor it to the magazine.

Rebecca: Also make sure you get the name of the magazine right. I work at Salon and we get a lot of submissions for Slate.

Kara: First learn how to write a really excellent pitch letter.

Lynn: Media Bistro has a ton of resources for writing excellent pitch letters and if you become a member, you'll have access to articles on how to pitch to particular media outlets. I sold a story to Parade magazine about dating violence because I wrote a really good pitch and practically reported the whole story during the pitch. That story wanted to be in Parade because the week after it ran, calls to the National Domestic Violence hotline doubled. And that story made a big difference even if I had to soften the edges to get into a national magazine.

Rebecca: The labor on a reported story is much higher than essays. When we're talking about lower rates, it is much more daunting to report a story for low rates. Especially as things shake out in the next few years, I think skilled reporters will have more jobs than essayists.

Tips for building relationships with editors?
Ada: I get 10 pitches a day from a range of people. Who they are, what column they want to write for, what they want to write about. And about 5 of those pitches are rambling and don't even mention the name of the magazine.

Have a time tag - why is it now that it is relevant and that you really know the magazine.

Don't call and don't expect a critique of the pitch.

Lynn: getting rejected is an important part of the process. You'll probably sell 1 out of every 10 pitches. Follow up with editors, just don't be annoying.

How to write for news-weeklies?
Rebbeca: I know about them mostly as a reader and observer. For women who want to be political beat reporters, White House beat reporters, news-weeklies would be one of the hardest places to break into those areas.

There's still room in those magazines to write about feminism in a soft-focus way.

There is still a huge market for some kind of Sex in the City thing. There are these spaces that women are welcomed as commodities. I don't think it is any more difficult to pitch a story for a news-weekly as a woman than as a man.

The Times now has two female columnists instead of one. That's double.

Time magazine is interested in having more women write for them. It is a push if what you want to write about is not about your experience as a woman or other women's female experience.

Why are stories about sexuality or other women's subjects seen as fluff?
Kara: I encourage you to pitch for places you want to write for even if you don't have experience.

Rebecca: I think I was too bleak before. More women have to pitch whatever you're interested in writing about. It can only get better when more people are taking the chance and doing it.

Audience member referenced article by Rebecca, "Another pretty face of a generation: The question isn't why a blogger like Emily Gould has the spotlight -- it's why other women don't."


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