In the meantime, we’re doing fine here at Donald Media HQ. The university around which our family life is centered is closed through next week, and then will begin online-only instruction for the foreseeable future. Never before have I been so glad to have my lovely big iMac in my home office… except that now people will see the rest of the office, and Jimmy Hoffa is probably buried under some of that crap. I was going to clean it this summer, I swear!
We’re also catching up on our Netflix – why did no one warn me that Season 3 of Daredevil was hot garbage? – and I think Amazon has just delivered our DVDs of Outbreak and The Stand. Has no one made a movie of Mira Grant’s Feed yet?
In all seriousness, much of the world is shut down. My son’s job at a local restaurant continues for now, though customers are few. My husband’s job as a university janitor also continues, and more vital than ever as they disinfect flat surfaces everywhere.
As for me, I’m going through a crash course in “how to teach online courses” that will honestly be a helpful work skill, though not one I’d ordinarily undertake while finishing the bloody thesis. I’m staying isolated as much as possible, given my compromised immune system, and we are well-stocked for the siege. We have food, coffee and bourbon, and yes, even toilet paper. We’ll be fine.
I hope all of you are safe and well and that you stay that way. For those who must venture out, be as careful as you can.
One of the major issues being discussed in my little corner of the world is a horrific sewer problem in Centreville, Illinois: a low-income town largely populated by black residents. It is literally the poorest town in the United States, and it has problems. Flooding isn’t just a wet basement for these folks; it’s open sewage pumping into a front yard, water literally spewing up from manholes.
It’s being investigated by local newspapers – you know, those “dying” institutions that the Facebook commentators love to mock and refuse to pay. Insert rant here.
Reporter Michele Munz with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has taken an interesting approach: she wrote a first-person narrative of her efforts to get information from the Centreville leaders.
A month of phone calls and emails.
Ducked by council members.
A mayor who would only take questions in writing and then never answered them.
Contradictory information given out at town halls.
Munz’s column, “Crickets and unanswered questions from metro-east government,” is an unusual choice in that it is a first-person account of shoe-leather journalism. It is, of course, a common – almost mundane – tale for those of us who have worked in local journalism. Nobody wants to answer the questions when the answers aren’t pretty, so they hide.
But it’s not so uncommon anymore. Munz writes “On the Beat” regularly, detailing what goes into her reporting. More and more local journalism is pulling back the curtain, following up major stories with detailed “how we investigated this” and “why we did that” pieces.
It’s part of the push for transparency in reporting, intended to create a greater trust in news media among the readers. Of course, if you just read the Facebook commentators, it doesn’t matter how many lengthy hours we put in trying to find people and get your public officials to explain why they let sewage flow into people’s homes. They just complain about the paywall.
This new trend goes beyond the traditional role of the ombudsman, to examine and sometimes criticize the newspaper’s decisions, independent of editorial control. This is news literacy, explaining what we do in the hopes that they will understand how very hard it is. This gets even harder as newspaper after newspaper cuts staff and retasks their few remaining employees to run after car crashes and murders because that’s what you click and they’re desperate to pay the bills.
And no one else is doing it, folks. Unless someone has accused the mayor of burning down City Hall, I don’t see television cameras in city council meetings. Nobody is watching your local school board or library trustees… or sewer district. Nobody except newspaper reporters, the ones you’re not paying when you growl at the paywall.
Munz is keeping after the Centreville officials. Who’s keeping after the officials in your town?
I stood outside the Newseum once, but I didn’t go in.
It was May 2015, and my niece had just graduated from high school. My son and I road-tripped across the country to watch her walk across the stage, and for a little mother-son bonding time. We explored Baltimore, which is a city always dear to my heart after living there for a few years as a teenager. I introduced him to Berger cookies (“too chocolatey” – it’s like I barely know him) and the historic sailing ships in the Inner Harbor.
One day, we took the train into Washington D.C. We had just the one day to fit it all in, and we had prioritized. He wanted to see the real Declaration of Independence – one of his favorite movies as a child was National Treasure, and while he was maturely confident that there was no buried treasure map on the back of the Declaration…. well. He wanted to see it.
So we did the National Archives first, and the Museum of American History. We skipped Natural History because the dinosaur exhibit was shut down (and really, to a teenage boy… it’s all about the dinosaurs) and I sadly skipped Air and Space because the U.S.S. Enterprise was in refurbishment. Priorities, man.
We walked the entire length of the mall, past the Museum of African-American History that was still under construction and even then was an amazing sight. We visited the Washington Monument and spied both the Capitol Dome behind its scaffolding and, itty bitty from several blocks away, the White House. He had expressed a desire to visit, but it seems you needed to make reservations through the office of your local Congresscritter, and we had not thought to do so.
Then we walked the rest of the way to the Lincoln Memorial, which was second on his list only to the Declaration of Independence (which was much more faded than the one in the movie, he was sad to note). It was raining by then, and we ended up trapped by Abe’s big foot for a while as the storm drenched the area.
We visited some war memorials, including the Wall. Then we had the long walk back to the train station through the rain, which drenched us enough that it killed his cell phone and my umbrella. It was a very long, exhausting day, but one of the all-time heights of our travels.
The only regret we had was that we didn’t have time to do more museums and historic sites. Washington is lousy with them, it’s true. You could kill a week there and not see everything. But one day was absolutely not enough.
I lingered outside the Newseum for more than a hot minute. I knew there was no way we could add it to our schedule. It was an enormous draw for me, of course, but unlike many of the other sites, it was not free. It would have added $50 to our costs to go in, and money was very tight that year. We wouldn’t have time for more than a short walk around, and really, I was prioritizing his interests.
After all, I’d been to D.C. a few times before when I lived in Baltimore, and he had never been. Also, he is smarter than I am, and has no intention of going into the news business. He wants to make movies and theater. He certainly has absorbed an appreciation for journalism – you can’t be raised by a single mom reporter and not understand the news. But it’s not his thing.
It’s okay, I told myself. We will come to D.C. another time, maybe when my husband can join us, and we’ll see the Newseum then. I’ll drag them both kicking and screaming if I have to, but I’ll see it next time.
Then came the announcement last month, breaking the hearts of thousands of newsnerds. The writing had been on the wall for some time, as the Freedom Forum has struggled to make ends meet at the Newseum’s costly location on Pennsylvania Avenue. Just like me, tourists passed on paying $25 to visit a museum of journalism when there were so many free or nearly-free options around them.
But for me, the announcement was a stab to the heart, especially since so many cretins thought it was hilarious to tie the death of the Newseum to the supposed death of newspapers. I suppose there are actual parallels – people who refuse to pay for something eventually lose it, but a museum is one thing; the loss to the American public as they lose journalists and newspapers is incalculable, and they don’t even realize it.
I kept thinking of that moment, standing outside the Newseum in the rain and wishing for more time, more money. What if I had known it was my only chance, that within a few short years it would be shut down, passed on to Johns Hopkins, and its collection shunted to some warehouse where it will be loaned out to temporary exhibits?
Is this really necessary? I thought. Can’t some billionaire buy them a building somewhere? (Paging Jeff Bezos.) It doesn’t have to be on the mall, it doesn’t have to be a stone’s throw from the White House. I wouldn’t care if it was in Scranton, Pennsylvania or Fresno, California or right here in St. Louis (which, by the way, would be fantastic).
There should be a Newseum, always. There should be a place where we go to remember how important journalism is to our democracy. If news is the first rough draft of history, then can there be anything more important to preserve for our understanding of our own national story?
I found myself moved almost to tears, and finally, I could not stand it any longer.
My semester ends next week. Thanks to the internet, I can work from anywhere with wifi.
I have family in York, Pennsylvania, which is not close to Washington D.C…. but it’s in shouting distance.
Happy to report that this month saw my first piece with a new client, Current Magazine. I’ll be following up with the ongoing controversy between NPR Illinois and the University of Illinois, which appears to have repercussions for most of public radio, so stay tuned! (so to speak)
You know how every year I say, “Man, the fall tour is killing me. I’m not doing this to myself next year.” And then I do it anyway? Yeah, that’s what September and October have been like. I have not had a quiet weekend at home since Labor Day, and I won’t for several more weeks. I’m not complaining (much), because it’s an incredible privilege to be in high demand, for conventions and book fairs and other groups to seek me out and ask me to attend.
But holy Hera, am I tired.
In the meantime, I did some stuff. Here’s the collection of links from the last two months. Keep in mind that I post the best of my work on Contently, and I try to keep it at the top 100 pieces of the last five years, so if you want to read the collected works of one Elizabeth Donald, that’s a good place to go. In the meantime, here’s some of the work of the last two months:
Do keep in mind that Medium has a paywall after the first few reads, and Patreon requires a subscription. I would absolutely love it if you subscribed to my Patreon – starting at $1 a month – and I do my best to give my Patrons first crack at my work and plenty of freebies – like this month, when my Patrons got a free copy of the new anthology! (See more below.)
How to survive a horror movie: 2019 edition (Medium, essay)
Jumping off the high dive: Freelancing the first year(Medium, essay)
La Gloria and five hours at the airport (Patreon, essay)
It’s a little too cute – I can’t quite get behind giving myself a speech or a team-bonding activity with just me. But I can definitely get behind the happy hour.
In all seriousness, somehow the one-year anniversary of Donald Media kind of slipped my attention. July 27, 2018 was the day I departed the world of daily news, but this site launched more than a month beforehand: June 11, when I announced my impending departure and launched the Patreon, which was my first freelance endeavor.
It’s funny – a lot of the things they tell you to do when you go freelance were impossible for me. I could not begin freelancing on the side to build up a client base while I was still at the newspaper, because it would have been a violation of my terms of employment to write for competitor papers while I was on staff. Other than my fiction work , I had to wait until I was actually gone before I could query potential clients.
It’s kind of like jumping off the high dive and waiting until you’re in midair before you see if there’s water in the pool.
I didn’t go splat. I didn’t immediately start making six figures, either. I started in what I knew – local news – and that continues to be a major income stream for me. I branched out into magazines and find that they really suit me well. I used to joke at the newspaper that I was built for magazines, because I was famous for writing too long. It turns out that wasn’t a joke.
I did stumble quite a bit that first six months, because I realized why the experienced freelancers shook their heads sadly when I shared my exciting plans to freelance full-time while going to grad school. That first semester nearly killed me and I was only taking two classes and teaching one. This semester is actually easier with three classes as student and one as teacher, because two of them are independent studies. And by “easier” I mean that I’m not staring at myself in the mirror and chanting “you have not made the biggest mistake of your life” and “yes, you are smart enough for this.” They shook their heads because they knew that “full time” for a freelancer is a hell of a lot more than 40 hours a week punching a clock at a desk.
It did get disheartening sometimes, especially in those early months when I only had one or two clients and my Contently portfolio was thin. There’s also the matter of my family: I have a husband and son who are also in college, and sometimes we are up to our eyeballs all at the same time. I have an obligation to my family for my time, support, food and finance, and that requires diligent effort.
Then my work took another side turn when I took a class in creative nonfiction. It was just supposed to be an elective to supplement media studies, but it turns out I absolutely love it. I was always writing creative nonfiction in the form of personal essays and the occasional rant, but I didn’t know there was a form to it or that I’d be really good at it. Or that people would pay me for it.
In many ways, the practice I got in that class has reformed my image of what Donald Media can be – and really, Donald Media is the term for all my freelance work under one umbrella:
Local news reporting (including the student newspaper)
Volunteer work with SPJ and public speaking advocacy for the profession.
Editing and writing coaching in fiction and nonfiction.
All of that is partnered with my fiction work (albeit only short stories until I finish the bloody masters), my teaching, and of course school. I need to pass this semester and two more classes next semester, finish and defend Ye Olde Thesis, and I’m done. I will have the masters, which makes me eligible to teach.
It looks like a lot. It IS a lot. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and with that I include the 65-hour weeks constantly on call at my first full-time reporting job with a baby at home.
And yet. It’s stressful and difficult and the money is what it is and sometimes I have to chase it. But I have the great privilege of doing the work I love and being my own master, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
So, happy year one to the troops, congrats on all we’ve done, and here’s to that happy hour.
Every year, I tell myself I’m not going to do it this year. I’m not going to schedule myself into a pretzel every fall and say “yes” to everyone. And then I look at my profit-loss sheet and remember that rent is a thing, and if you write horror and you’re not out and about in the fall, you ain’t workin’.
The first round for the Fall Deathmarch was, of course, Excellence in Journalism. There’s a summary of that excellence conference pending for St. Louis SPJ, but believe me, it was a terrific week and absolutely the first place I’d go if I were job-hunting in media today. Also, San Antonio is a nifty city and I’d love to go back with the family someday.
• Breakfastival of Hope, Glen Carbon, Ill., Sept. 14. Okay, so technically this isn’t a public appearance: I won’t be speaking or signing anything. But those of you who have followed me for a while know that I have lost an inordinate number of friends to cancer, and I am sick of it. I have been a team captain for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life for more than 10 years, and this year the local Relay has opted to do a daytime food festival instead of the traditional all-night walk. So look for me and the St. Andrew’s team at the photo booth, where you’ll be able to ham it up as a superhero or Disney character.
• SPJ Student Journalist Boot Camp, SIUE, Sept. 21. This is one of the best programs we do at St. Louis SPJ: we put together a small group of student journalists with working professionals in the area and help them learn a bit about how the job is done today. I’ll be conducting the session on ethics and generally herding the cats.
• Writers of the Riverbend, Alton, Ill., Sept. 27. This is at Maeva’s coffeehouse in Alton, and I’ve been attending as long as they’ve been running it. Books will be on hand; I may or may not bring art to this one depending on space. But if you’re planning to attend and would like a specific piece, please let me know and I’ll be sure to have it on hand!
• Archon, Collinsville, Ill., Oct. 4-6. Always a highlight of the year, Archon is our hometown convention and we will be there in force! The Literary Underworld will have its usual table just outside the dealer’s room, and we will bring the Traveling Bar to the Doubletree, so be sure to come by and say hello!
• Imaginarium, Louisville, Ky., Oct. 11-12. Who tries to do two major cons back to back? Crazy people who don’t sleep. Imaginarium is a terrific convention, more of a writers’ workshop crossed with a film festival and a ton of fun. Literary Underworld will once again have a table in the dealer’s room and run the Traveling Bar, and I’ll be presenting on a number of topics, including a two-hour workshop on the business of writing.
• Leclaire Parkfest, Edwardsville, Ill., Oct. 20. This is another fundraiser I run for the American Cancer Society: Used books for sale during Leclaire Parkfest, which is a nifty little festival celebrating the history and culture of the Leclaire village. Don’t look for it on a map: it was annexed into the city of Edwardsville many decades ago, but I’ve lived here since 2012 and I absolutely adore Parkfest. Look for us under the pavilion on the far side of the lake, and pick up some books while you’re there!
• Grownup Book Fair, St. James, Mo., Oct. 26. I’ve never been to this one, so I can’t say how it goes! But I’ll be there with books and art.
• St. Andrew’s Book Sale, Edwardsville, Ill., Nov. 1-3. No signing or speaking, just volunteering … but if you love books, you should check out this sale. Books start at 50c, and cover all topics imaginable. It’s a terrific way to get a jump on your holiday shopping.
• ContraKC, Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 8-10. This is a small, adults-only convention in KC, and I’m happy to be back after having to miss it for several years up to last year.
And… then I get a break! Whee! Until, of course, the holiday markets start up. And we won’t talk about research and term papers and my students and Ye Olde Thesis. (Send chocolate and booze, please.)
So I hope to see you characters while I’m out on the road (which is, y’know, pretty much the only way anyone’s going to get to see me!) Who needs sleep?
First, I’m delighted to report that one of my images will be on permanent display in the Ellisville (Mo.) City Hall. It’s “Pigeon of New York,” found here (second photo from the top). It was in their temporary Behind the Lens photography show, and apparently they really liked it!
The annual ebook for my lovely Patrons was finally completed and emailed to all current Patreon subscribers, and I thank you for your patience. Anyone who subscribes to the Patreon this month is also going to get the ebook as a welcome gift. I remain exceedingly grateful for the Patrons, whose generosity allows me to rely on steady income through the sleighride of these two years in school.
The fall semester kicked off in August, and heaven knows that’s going to swallow my life! One of my classes is on anti-media rhetoric, so that should be an interesting theme to my blogging this fall. I’m doing an independent study on the philosophical aspects of media ethics, and of course, I begin work on Ye Olde Thesis. Thoughts and prayers.
And now, to this month’s work! Or at least that which was published this month…
I’m off to San Antonio later this week for the annual Excellence in Journalism conference, where I am honored to represent St. Louis Pro to the important business of the Society of Professional Journalists. I will be meeting with my colleagues on the national ethics committee, and skulking about the panels on issues ranging from freelance survival to the ethics of covering suicide. I hope to get free long enough to get some nifty photos and possibly develop a travelogue on San Antonio, which is a new city for me.
I’ll be live-tweeting the conference at @edonaldmedia, so if you do the Twitter, feel free to follow me there if you really want to hear all about the things we journalists do when we’re away from adult supervision. It’s going to be 101 in the shade while I’m there, so whatever’s left of me will be reporting back next week!
Today begins the fall semester, and I am not ready.
I don’t have the sheer terror of my first semester, with attendant imposter syndrome: how in heaven’s name do I teach what I was doing for 21 years? It’s like trying to help my kid with his math homework: I can do it, but I can’t show him how to do it.
Well, I’m learning. My first two semesters were a crazed melee of trial and error – I learned a lot about what doesn’t work (hour-long lectures) and what does (PowerPoint). Some things the students liked (video examples) and some things they hated (pop quizzes on current events, and I’m not changing that). Some things really didn’t work all that well, and I changed them, and they worked better.
A friend of mine who is a high school teacher said she had fifteen years’ of “things that didn’t work” in her filing cabinets. I’m starting my own file.
As you know if you follow me on social media, Jim received the Degree Completion Award, which means he doesn’t have to work his night shifts at the university for the fall semester and only half-time the spring semester. He gets to focus on being a student, and that’s pretty nifty. Ian is back at SIUE after a brief stint in community college to save some cash, and very excited to be rejoining us on campus.
As for me, this semester means an independent study on the philosophical and moral aspects of journalism ethics. I am very well-versed in the practical applications; through my work with the SPJ Ethics Committee, I have been the soapbox evangelist of establishing ethics codes and applying them in daily news. The philosophy will be an interesting exploration, so buckle in, because I think we’ll be getting deep in the weeds.
I’m also taking a class in the English department about anti-media rhetoric and the “deconstruction of common sense.” No, I don’t know what that means either, but given that much of my research has focused on the anti-media sentiment growing (and in some cases intentionally fanned) on social media, I’m looking forward to the analysis.
And finally, this semester begins Ye Olde Thesis, which I may begin referring to as “The Beast.” It is daunting – terrifying? – to look at how much work must take place in the 36 weeks between now and graduation, but it will be interesting work, and maybe even a little fun.
It’s been a crazy busy month, though one of the weirdnesses of freelance magazine writing in particular is that you’ll do a pile of work in July, but it doesn’t appear until September or November. Still, by my standards, July was a bear of a month.
This month I celebrated my one-year anniversary of full-time freelancing, and we haven’t been evicted yet! I go into greater detail in “One Year Later” as listed below, but suffice to say it’s been an interesting, rewarding and ultimately positive experience, and I have a lot more to learn.
Also, this month I launched on Medium, which allows me to share essays and get paid by the click. I’m still figuring out exactly how it works, but a lot of good writers seem to be making money there, and what I’ve read so far is good quality. Please feel free to check out my page, and if you are so moved to click and “clap” for my work, it is deeply appreciated.
As it discloses, I am personally affiliated with The Alestle at SIUE, having served on its board for years and worked with the students this summer in an editing and advisory capacity; and my SPJ vice president is the Alestle program director. However, I believe this gives our opinions greater weight, not lesser: we know for a fact that this “student journalist” does not exist, and our responsibility to call out unethical behavior per the SPJ Code of Ethics is not lessened by our connections to the student newspaper.
Finally… I didn’t write this one. But the local newsmagazine, Edge of the Weekend, featured my family in an in-depth profile for their back-to-school edition. The weirdness of three family members all going to college together finally made print. The photos used are mine, because my menfolk are my favorite photographic subject. Many thanks to Jill Moon, magazine editor for Hearst Illinois, for thinking of us.
We’ve gotten a lot of attention on this story, and it’s been really sweet to see how many people are cheering us on and supporting us as we enter our second year of family-wide higher education and abject poverty. Six jobs, three tuition bills, two impending graduations and one car. It’s been… interesting.
And in three weeks…. here comes the fall semester!