“If you buck the trend of writing fast articles for cheap and get trained on skills like research and interviewing, you’ll build a reputation as a journalist with good skills who’s worth paying more.”
Editor’s note: I had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Formichelli, a former journalist of 20 years who’s now the Inbound Content Manager at Commusoft. Linda’s written for well over 150 magazines, from Pizza Today to Redbook, and is the co-author of The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, From Pitch to Published, and other books for writers.
How did you get started in journalism?
I had recently gotten my graduate degree in Slavic Linguistics and realized I didn’t want to continue with the PhD program. I had always wanted to be a writer, so I got a copy of Queries & Submissions by Thomas Clark out of the library, sent off my very first pitch to a magazine — by mail — and it sold! It paid $500, which was a lot of money for a 26-year-old.
A few months later, I found a copy of a book on HTML that someone had left in a phone booth, and used it to create my first writer site. (It was purple! With frames!) This site attracted the attention of a website that needed regular content, and this was my first foray into web writing.
How has fake news impacted journalism in 2018? Has it changed your day-to-day process as you craft stories?
So, in April 2018 I started my first full-time job in 20 years — but I still have one assignment left for a former magazine client, so I can still truthfully speak as a working journalist.
Funnily enough, while the whole fake news thing may have impacted citizens’ trust in journalism, it’s actually been good for me. As an old-school journalist who does the legwork to find credible sources, records her interviews, fact checks her own work, and has a track record of solid work, I find that before I quit freelancing I was more in demand than ever. It hasn’t changed my day-to-day process because that process was already of the type that fostered trust and confidence in editors and readers.
Across nearly every topic, people are trusting the media less, according to a Gallup poll. As a journalist, what steps do you take to communicate trust and credibility in each story?
One big thing is to make sure you have different views represented in your articles or posts. You want to avoid writing a puff piece about how great something is, or a mere rant about how awful something is. Balance is key. If you can’t get the prime source with an opposing viewpoint to talk, you can at least state in your article that you reached out to them and they declined to comment.
Even with trade magazines or magazines published content marketing agencies, which are often beholden to the advertiser or the client, you can bring in different viewpoints; for example, I like to ask sources the pros and cons of X, or what the biggest challenges were to Y, the biggest mistakes they made with Z. That way it’s not all “Everything is awesome!” Readers want to see the real deal, not the airbrushed version of reality.
What projects have you worked on that were particularly challenging from the credibility perspective, and why?
I can’t think of a particular project, but I remember several cases where the editor had a very specific idea or point they wanted to push, and when I did the research it just didn’t pan out. It was tough because you don’t want to disappoint an editor, but you don’t want to write a piece on an angle that the expert sources are all telling you is B.S. Talk about risking your credibility as a journalist!
In those cases I had to let the editor know the angle wasn’t working out, and suggest different angles to the story that would work. There was only one case where the editor got angry about it — but oh well!
How do you ensure your sources contribute to the credibility of a story? What tools do you use to record in-person and phone interviews?
In general, it’s best to find sources who don’t have something to sell. Of course, everyone you talk to has something to sell, even if it’s just an idea or a position on a certain topic. However, if you’re writing a piece on, say, how to get the best sleep, you wouldn’t want to interview the CEO of a mattress company. You’d want to reach out to medical clinics, sleep researchers, and so on.
I think a big mistake journalists use is to rely solely on free source-finding services like Help a Reporter and SourceBottle. Those are great to supplement your own research, but the sources who use these services almost by definition have something to sell. The foremost experts in any topic are often too busy you know, doing their work to read and respond to these reporter queries; they may have PR reps scanning the requests but they’re so busy they have to be very choosy in who they do interviews with. (I know it’s ironic to say that since I responded to your Help a Reporter pitch; I subscribe to get press for my employer but couldn’t resist this one.)
Also, every piece I turn in has a source list at the end (which is for the editor’s or fact checker’s eyes only) with backup for every quote, fact, and assertion made in the story. It might include the contact information for my sources, links to studies, and even attached PDF files of book pages I’ve scanned. For some more complicated stories, for example health-related articles, my editors have asked for an annotated version. All of this helps the fact checker (or whoever they have who checks things) verify that everything’s correct and properly cited.
Many people question whether supporting facts and evidence are true. How do you present them as trustworthy in your work?
I like to attribute facts whenever I can; for example, I’ll say “According to Dr. Smith…” or “…notes a 2017 study from the Journal of Journalistic Awesomeness.” I also try to write in a way that comes across as balanced (without being boring). If you use lots of superlatives and sales-like language, people will be skeptical of your work.
Journalism is not an easy job. With pressure to hit deadlines while producing attention-grabbing stories, how does your process also build trustworthiness into your stories?
When I think about it, the entire process builds trustworthiness, from vetting sources and citing research to getting a variety of sources and including backup with the final draft.
When you’re used to it, the process can be very fast. Maybe not fast enough for those journalists who need to write 10 articles a week to make the rent — the markets that want that kind of turnaround don’t leave enough time for fact checking and so on — but fast enough for more traditional journalism.
For example, the articles I do, I usually have at least a month of lead time. Interviews are typically 20–30 minutes each (and I like to do one per 500 words plus one), research is a few hours, and if you hire out the transcription that takes no time at all. Some trade and content marketing editors like me to send the draft to my sources for their OK, which is not considered good journalism in a traditional sense but is the norm for these markets. I guess at least you know you got the details right! Anyway, when that’s the case I give myself an earlier deadline so I have time to send the article to the sources, get their responses, and incorporate any changes into the final piece.
Finally, I think the delineation between “attention grabbing” and “carefully researched” is a false one. You can certainly have both.
What tools help do you use that help make life as a credible journalist easier?
For my interviews, I either use a conference service like GoToWebinar that lets you record calls, use Skype and a Skype Recorder from Ecamm, or have the source on speakerphone and use a digital recorder. I then upload my interview recordings to TranscribeMe, which usually turns the transcripts around in a day or two at a good price.
I also use Trello to make sure I check all the boxes I need to when I write anything, from an article to a blog post.
As an experienced journalist, what advice would you give to young journalists who are building a reputation?
If you buck the trend of writing fast articles for cheap and get trained on skills like research and interviewing, you’ll build a reputation as a journalist with good skills who’s worth paying more. More and more publishers and businesses are (re-)recognizing the value of great content and storytelling; they’re bringing back longform journalism and print formats, and they’re looking for writers with those old-school skills of generating great ideas, doing research, going beyond the usual, and doing solid reporting. It may sound like a slog compared to the thrill of churning out a post a day, but it will not only build your bank account — it will help rebuild readers’ trust in journalism.
What are 5 ways journalists can win back trust and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I have 6!
- Work for better outlets. The trust problem I see isn’t the fault of the journalists, it’s the fault of the media outlets. Many of them now pay so little that journalists have to crank out many articles very quickly in order to pay the rent. I used to earn $2,000-$3,000 to write, say, a health article for a newsstand women’s magazine (and I’d get a month to do it) — and now journalists are earning $50 to write an article in a few days. They couldn’t possibly adhere to solid journalism standards with those constraints!
- Vet everything. And I mean everything. I once had a transcript come back for a beauty article I was writing for a newsstand magazine, and as I was pulling quotes from it I noticed that the source recommended some weird-sounding acid as a face wash ingredient. I looked it up, and it was a highly corrosive acid that you would not want to put on your face — if you still wanted to have a face. I listened to the interview recording and the source clearly said “salicylic acid,” which is an ingredient in skincare products. I’m not sure what was up with that transcriptionist — maybe they hated their job and wanted to sabotage their employer? — but I’m sure glad I checked.
- Check out your sources. I still remember years ago interviewing a respected nutritionist about what to eat to avoid getting sick during the winter, and I quoted her as recommending that readers drink lots of vitamin C-packed OJ. A few years later there was a news story about media sources who were in the pocket of certain brands, and this nutritionist was specifically mentioned as being on the take from some orange juice company. I sure felt like a jerk, and was very careful after that to check for conflicts of interest as much as I could. This also means researching and reaching out to the very best sources you can find. How fast a source responds to your Help a Reporter request or your tweet should not be your main criterion in the source selection process.
- Interview in person. By which I mean face to face or by phone. If you interview over email, you’re likely to end up with quotes that have been massaged by (or written by!) the source’s PR rep, communications officer, and legal department. Remember, we’re talking about trust here. You want real quotes from real people.
- Stand up for what’s right. Sometimes an editor will ask you to do something you don’t feel is right, and it’s up to you to say no. I was once working on an article about tactics retail stores use to get you to buy more, and the editor said, “Go back to the source and get him to say X” — because the original quotes weren’t sensational enough! I told her no way. This was so long ago I can’t remember if the article ever ran, but I certainly didn’t ever write for that pub again/
- If you don’t have to get the source’s OK, don’t. Some magazines, like trade publications and magazines published by content marketing agencies, require the writer to run their final draft by the sources for their OK. But if you’re writing for a pub that does not require this, don’t do it! Letting sources look at the draft can result in sanitized quotes and lots of additions along the lines of “Please add that we’re the world’s premiere provider of cardboard boxes.” Not to mention, sources may want to respond to quotes from other sources they don’t agree with , and change the whole angle of the piece if it doesn’t make them look like paragons of perfection. Readers can tell when sources have had their hands on your article, and it can erode trust. When a source asks if they can see a draft, I tell them I’ll ask my editor. If she says no, then I can blame her when I go back to the source. And if they do recommend I honor the request, I send only the source’s quotes with the surrounding context…not the entire draft.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’m so all over the place; when I have an idea, my first thought is to start a group around it. Years ago I created a website called BadAds whose mission was to put a stop to intrusive advertising — we blogged (this was before blogs…it was called a “weblog”), we gave away stickers that people would plaster over intrusive ads, and we actually got some press. Then I started creativePAW (Creative Professionals for Animal Welfare) that had 1,000 volunteers offering their creative services for free to animal shelters and animal welfare nonprofits. Then, earlier this year I started a website to help people who want to quit freelancing and get a 9–5 job, which is actually pretty controversial these days — some people actually feel shamed about “going to work for The Man” — but then I got too busy with my 9–5 job to keep it up!
Did I mention I have ADHD? Not joking.
So what movement would I start that might actually last? I’d go for an anti-lawn movement. Grass lawns are stupid, and a huge waste of resources.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote and how that was relevant to you in your life?
“This too shall pass.” This quote has helped whenever there’s been some setback in my writing life (or personal life); yes, this assignment may be horrible or this piece of writing may not be working out, but a year from now I probably won’t even remember it.
That was very inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
This interview is part of an interview series by TapeACall, the original iPhone call recording app. You can check it out at tapeacall.com.
Originally published at medium.com