In recent weeks, a couple of writers I admire offered some high-minded advice to student journalists. I want to respond here:
Rick Reilly, ESPN.com columnist and ESPN personality, told graduates of the University of Colorado journalism school this:
“When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of the people don’t have. If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!”
It’s fashionable in my profession to dislike Reilly. That usually happens when a guy gets really famous and really rich. I’m a great admirer of his early work (which is not a back-handed way of saying his current work stinks), and he remains the kind of writer who can draw non-sports fans to sports subjects (though I’m not sure he’s in the right forum to do that). To be sure, his job had to be somewhat easier before he became Rick Reilly.
Regardless, I found myself reading his advice, thinking, “Preach, brother.” One of my big concerns with journalism is that every year journalists are asked to produce more words, particularly in the form of blogs and multimedia, without a corresponding increase in pay. Professional writers and reporters should be paid to write and report. Free labor is nice, but usually doesn’t work out so well for the labor. I’m a word guy, not a math guy. But the math isn’t good.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said the great Samuel Johnson, quoted often by the great Mike Royko.
But it’s a whole lot easier to say that from the other side of fame. From Reilly’s side, the gozillionaire side.
The fact is, writing for free is very much a part of establishing yourself these days — and really always has been, in all forms of writing. Not everyone has to do it. But in a climate where words are cheap and publications are struggling, writing for free for some is the only way. In fact, even for journalists who are employed, a certain amount of it is done — less as a way to help out the team than as an attempt to build one’s own daily web audience lest you have to carry it elsewhere with you someday. To borrow from Thoreau, the mass of media lead lives of quiet desperation.
Emily Dickinson wrote for free (though I’m fairly certain she didn’t have a blog). Bill Simmons wrote for free. Matt Drudge wrote for free. Will Leitch. I’m writing this for free. And if you can find another blog entry that mentions those names in the same sequence, click on it!
I agree with Reilly in principle. But I’d tell those J-school students he was talking to that day, if there’s something they’re passionate about and the only way they can write about it is for free — write it. Post it. Submit it. Do something with it. Waiting for the check, while required in restaurants, is not in writing.
But that brings up a second piece of advice, from no less than Gene Weingarten, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning feature writer and humor columnist from The Washington Post, who unquestionably is one of the finest newspaper writers in the nation. His book on shelves now, “The Fiddler in the Subway,” a collection of his best columns from The Post, should be mandatory journalism school reading.
Weingarten got a question from a college student with the assignment of asking how he built his “personal brand,” and answered with this column, headlined “How ‘branding’ is ruining journalism,” which advised:
The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.
These are financially troubled times for our profession, Leslie — times that test our character — and it is disheartening to learn that journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles.
He went on to explain that her focus and the focus of journalists should be on doing great work, not on building a brand, that the brand comes later. Again, my response initially was, “Right on!” It sounds correct. Sure, he’s right. You build with substance, and style comes from that.
Then again, Weingarten writes a column that is named, “Below the Beltway.” That’s a brand. And frankly, the more I thought about writers, the more I realized that more of them than not absolutely were conscious of brand — regardless of what they would admit. I grew up the son of a columnist who wound up in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. In his early years on television and in the newspaper his trademark was an old camouflage hat that he wore on the air during his stories from the back roads of the region. He even wore it in his first newspaper column photo.
Wherever we went, people asked about that hat. In speeches, toward the end he’d whip that hat out and the crowds would applaud. Now, there was substance to the work he was doing. If there hadn’t been, he’d have been just some guy in a hat. Charles Kuralt,who was doing the same kind of stories at the network level, once called him, “The best storyteller in Kentucky, if you count only the ones who tell the truth.”
And later in his career at the newspaper, he ditched the hat. But by then his “brand” was established.
But I needn’t resort to such a local example.
Few writers of the past century are more notable than Vladimir Nobokov. Last week a friend sent to me a Paris Review piece that, among other things about the author noted how much he worked to craft his image, going so far as to write entire interviews ahead of time. See the post, and video, here.
I think what I’d have told the student (who didn’t ask me, and why would she?) was that rather than crafting an image, to try to develop a style that distinguishes itself somehow from the voices around it, while managing to maintain in that voice something that is distinctly you.
Then, of course, hope like hell it sells.