Channel Surfing

Writers today have so many choices of where to publish their work. It can be a blessing and a curse. But especially important to new writers are traditional channels, such as magazines and newspapers. These carry with them great prestige because of the established brands and quality writing. They and their experienced writers and journalists have very valuable lessons on what constitutes great writing.

Although many print publications may be causing headlines of their own with their financial struggles and reorganization efforts, writers need to reconsider these strong players. We will be able to bank on them for quite some time. Better get a foot in the door early.

As proof that print is here to stay, take the recent NYTimes coverage of three leading newspapers in Palo Alto, California. Not only did these three papers cover the Tesla executive plane crash while tying it into the repercussions for the local community, but by doing so, revealed a strong and very competitive journalism network that contradicts the current economic climate.

What makes the three competing newspapers interesting is that:

  • they do not typically feature news content on their websites, it’s all paid and in print
  • they cover mostly technology and related developments, because they know what’s relevant for their local market
  • they’re quick reads (but not superficial) because they understand their busy audience’s attention span

The lessons for writers and publishers are very important. Ted Glasser, a professor of communications at Stanford, was quoted by the NYTimes article: “these are manageable newspapers. You can read them in 15 to 20 minutes.” This is also why the Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye is so popular with students and commuters: it’s a quick read and scans a variety of local and general topics.

Lessons to the writer? Study the best print sources around you. Know the community and audience you are writing for. Write about what your audience cares about in an accessible way.

Learn the Ropes Kid!

There are some simple steps a new writer can take to learn from and even approach these top print media players. To begin with, new writers should get acquainted with the publications by researching them, their style, and their audiences.

A writer needs to do some channel surfing before being able to settle on the right publication for them. By first identifying these publications, and by getting in the habit of reading them periodically, writers will not only begin to notice the qualities and writers behind the great writing, but will also understand how topics and information are being presented to particular audiences.

A writer could even narrow down their reading and research to a particular columnist or writer at one of the publications. Reading their columns and stories day in and day out can help a new writer to develop a particular mentorship relationship either from afar or even directly. Many columnists now also provide online content to go along with their columns and articles–online blogs are an open invitation to reach out to these writers and participate in the discussion.

Once a newbie writer is familiarized with a publication and the type of writing and topics it features, he or she can consider submitting something they wrote or propose developing a story from scratch—and apply the lessons learned via observation. It’s important to really examine the high quality writing already in these publications to understand the tone and caliber of the writing. A sort of learning by keen observation and osmosis.

Of Mentorship and Osmosis

But what about stopping the stalking and actually reaching out to these excellent writers? A journalist such as Ira Berkow, a former sports columnist at the New York Times and now a successful book writer, reaches out to new writers through a variety of ways: seminars and workshops at universities, book signings, etc. New writers can bank on experienced journalists like Berkow to teach them about investigative and tight writing by observing their own work and asking questions directly during these opportunities when he makes himself available to the public.

Ira Berkow had a writing mentor himself in college: Red Smith, at the New York Times. The relationship brought so much knowledge and inspiration to Berkow, that besides an enriching relationship through the years, Berkow recognizes Red’s influence in helping his writing reach the level that earned him a place at the New York Times and later a Pulitzer. Berkow ended up writing his friend and mentor’s biography in 2007, Red: A Biography of Red Smith. Berkow outlines the mentorship relationship in his own autobiographical book, Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer’s Life.

What Else is A-Brewing?

From the publishing perspective, we have major players like the NYTimes struggle to develop a profitable online content policy. I’ve noticed an increase in posting on the various NYTimes blogs. One of my favorites is The Lede, a blog focused solely on developing an interactive conversation between NYTimes reporters and the readers, via hot topics and current events postings/articles.

In regards to social media, have you noticed news organizations retweeting and remarking on each other’s content in the social media realm? That’s another way to get recognition and build relationships. Relationships that translate to great opportunities for smart writers. Writers have now more access than the typical six degrees of separation with some of the world’s best writers. Look up your favorite columnist or book author.

Now speaking of journalism online…how does the funding come in to support this brood of writers? Advertisements are visible on the tops and sides of newspaper sites and their blogs. That’s definitely one way to gain revenue. But then, this is where the long-discussed paywall concept comes in.  Paywalls are ways in which news organizations are developing a revenue stream—a teaser to the article is available to the public, but then you are asked to pay to read the entire piece, and therefore get through the paywall to read the content that interests you. These paywalls could help pay us budding writers in view of the current  drastic reduction in advertising dollars.

The Wall Street Journal has been working with a paywall concept rather successfully according to most reports. Its decision to charge for access to content on its website has created a lift in advertising and profit margins with its million subscribers. The WSJ now also started charging for access to content via smartphones, as part of the pay-per-access rollout Rupert Murdoch announced last year.Talk about enhancing the reach of a writers’ work, now, your article fits in everyone’s pocket.

Although the paywall concept emerging in print media annoys me as a consumer, as a writer…this is probably going to translate into a more solid revenue stream for newspapers. In turn, this could result in more stable work opportunities for talented writers, and hopefully, a more solid pay structure. How about that? A stable paycheck for doing what you love, even as a newbie entering the market.

As a writer, you need to look for and study these types of successful print media case studies—develop your own little body of knowledge about local newspapers, magazines, and other relevant publishing success stories—like the Palo Alto newspapers. These lessons help writers better understand the newspapers’ techniques, and find out how to get a foot in the door. After all, just personalizing your resume to a position is half the battle, personalize your writing to the audience and the channels available, and you’ll impress your future editor at your local newspaper—or even at a national magazine.

Self publishing provides a great way to showcase some of these great writing pieces to your future boss. I’ll cover this area in more detail in my next post.


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