Elizabeth, what are you going to do when you grow up?

Since I let it slip on the radio last week, I might as well go public. Shenanigans are afoot.

Recap for those playing along at home: I left daily journalism in 2018 to pursue my masters degree in media studies while launching a freelance career.

This turned out to be quite a few eggs in the baskets I was balancing on both arms, my head and the tip of my nose. I learned quickly why I got sad smiles and headshakes from fellow freelance journalists when I said I’d be launching while doing grad school. The freelance career definitely brings in what I put into it, which I can track on my bookkeeping sheet: when I was crunching hard at school, the balance fell to a minimum; in the summer, it was soaring. Well, soaring to “subsistence living,” at least.

This may or may not be an accurate depiction of my home office.

Still, as I’ve said several times, my worst day in Career 2.0 still has not involved calling the family of a dead child and asking for comment. My barometer for stress is scaled differently.

And to be honest, working freelance suits my personality much better than working in a newsroom ever did. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility and the right to choose my own projects, even if it isn’t as lucrative as a steady paycheck. I’m still doing some local reporting as well as magazine work on a more-or-less regular basis, and writing about the things that interest me. One week I might write about balancing motherhood and an MBA program; the next about camping options along the great river road. And let’s not forget how many stories I could write about legalization of pot here in sunny Illinois.

Now as I approach the end of my masters program, I have to figure out what I’m going to do next. Originally I wrote a long and really boring explanation of all the options I considered before settling on my next step, and I have deleted it because if it bores me, I can’t imagine how stultifying it would be for you, Gentle Reader.

But something else has happened while I’ve been trundling my way through cultivation theory and media content analysis and many cans of Starbucks TripleShot: I’ve been able to take some writing classes.

What are you talking about, Elizabeth? You’ve been a professional writer since the mid-nineties!

True, but with the exception of a poetry workshop in high school, I had never taken a creative writing class in my life.

I always meant to do so – I must have signed up for fiction workshops at the University of Memphis three times, and always had to drop it because it conflicted with some other requirement for my major.

I went to untold numbers of author panels at conventions, read writing books and memoirs obsessively… but never took a creative writing class. I have had plenty of training in newswriting: undergrad included classes in story structure and investigative and feature reporting, etc. But never fiction or creative writing.

Last spring, I took a class in creative nonfiction from the English department, figuring it would help with the essays and long-form journalism I was trying to develop for my freelance work. I found it immensely enjoyable, and more importantly, my writing improved significantly.

When this last semester began, I enrolled in a graduate-level fiction workshop as kind of a trial run: could my ghosties and creepies and long-leggedy beasties translate in a literary environment? I’ve always had a taste for things that go chomp in the night, but the key to those critters and their ability to scare lies in characterization: characters with whom we can identify and language that evokes emotion. At its fundamental basis, writing of any genre must meet those needs to be truly impactful. So far, the workshop has been going very well, and I find I am viewing my own work and works of others in a new light.

So after long discussion with Jim, and a lot of personal contemplation, I rolled the dice and filled out the applications over the winter break.

Thus I am pleased to announce that I have been accepted into the MFA program for creative writing at SIUE, and will begin in the fall. This program involves intensive fiction workshopping and classes in literature as well as craft, along with a mid-program project involving writing and literacy in the community.

In academia, the masters of fine arts is considered a terminal degree – which sounds frighteningly fatal – and thus is given equal weight to a doctorate in most situations.

I have also been offered another teaching assistantship, so I will learn how to teach English composition at the freshman level. While I expect this will be the biggest challenge of my immediate future, it will also give me a much wider area of experience as an instructor. After I finish, I will be qualified to teach English comp, creative writing or journalism at the collegiate level, and if I cannot land a full professorship right away, it will at least give me a much wider variety of adjunct opportunities than solely teaching newswriting.

So it’s practical, and practicality always has to come first in my head. As I told Jim, the worst possible outcome of this insanity is that I’ll come out the other side with enough material for 1-2 more story collections, and that works fine for me.

But I am also very excited about this new venture. I’ve been given a warm welcome by my fellows in the MFA program and in the English department, and my short stories have already gained a good bit of success in literary magazines and anthologies after a looong dry spell. It’s odd that although my primary work for the past two years has been research-based rather than creative, I feel more creatively inspired than I have in at least a decade.

And when I look at the array of classes I get to take, it feels like an amazing privilege to be allowed to study there. Buckle in for a lot of discussion on sociopolitical allegory in the writings of African-American women or comparing the works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson or comparing and contrasting dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Squee.

(Oh, like it’s a shock to you at this point that I’m a book nerd. I mean, have you SEEN my house? We need more walls.)

The funny part of this process has been explaining to my cohort in media studies that yes, I am voluntarily and enthusiastically signing up for three more years of grad school. They think I’ve lost my mind (they might not be wrong). Three more years of stress and term papers, of wrangling being a student and a fledgling teacher at the same time, of wacky hours and too much caffeine and poverty – don’t forget the poverty.

And that’s where I really need to throw the bouquet to Jim, who is not only supportive of my insanity, but strongly encouraged me to apply for the MFA in the first place. This is not going to be easy on him, folks. Teaching two classes and taking three means that my time for freelancing will be even more limited than it is now, and that means he has to keep his second job for the foreseeable future to keep our family in milk and toilet paper (hot commodities, man). He’s about to graduate with his bachelor’s degree, which was supposed to be the time that he gets to relax a bit.

I hear from so many women writers who have husbands or partners far less supportive of their work, who resent the time away, who make them justify the hours and expense of developing a writing career, who dismiss their work because it doesn’t bring in as much money as a “real job.” I have been there before, and it kills the creative spark to such an enormous degree when your partner isn’t committed to supporting your success, however you might define that. It fills me with gratitude to have a partner who so completely stands with me and cheers on my successes (and pours the drinks for my failures).

Perhaps he understands because he is a writer himself, or perhaps he’s just that wonderful. I haven’t dedicated a book to him yet. But really, they’re all dedicated to him. It’s pretty much a given that without Jim’s unwavering support, sounding board, sanity check and P.S. health insurance, I could not do any of the things I’ve done or will do.

So this is what I’m doing for the next three years, and I thank all of you for your continued support, Gentle Readers – with extra-special thanks to my Patreon subscribers, who help make all this craziness possible by funding the water bill each month. Of course, if anyone’s about to reap the benefits of my new venture, it’s going to be them! You can feel free to join them, by the way, and get first looks at the stories I’ll be creating in my journey through the MFA. I might also share more writing craft essays, on Patreon and on Medium, and don’t forget the photos.

It’s going to be a grand new adventure.

As to what I’m going to be when I grow up? Who says I have to?

One year later

It’s been a year, and coincidentally I was back in the newsroom for a few minutes.

One year ago today was my last day at the newspaper, capping 18 years in one newsroom and 21 years in daily news. It was chaos, of course: the paper in the middle of another round of layoffs, and the president was in town, which meant a number of our people were out of the office being jeered by the public so they could cover his speech.

It was bittersweet and strange, a bit like that dream when you’re falling slowly down a flight of stairs and you wake up before you land.

It was nostalgic, with a lot of memories from nearly half my life bound up in the place and in the people, enough that I needed to encapsulate those memories in a photo essay and, eventually, in writing. 

There’s a better analogy than the falling dream. It’s like jumping off the high dive without being able to tell if the pool below you is full of water, and you’ve got your family handcuffed to you. It might be easier to make that jump when you’re only responsible for yourself and maybe a cat, but when you have other humans depending on you, it’s frankly terrifying.

Could I manage to earn a masters degree in two years while freelancing? Could I gain enough skills and academic credentials to land a full-time teaching position and continue to be of service to my profession? Could I juggle all of these responsibilities while not starving to death or starving my family?

I spent the first few weeks of grad school convinced I had made the second-worst mistake of my life. I didn’t fit in, I was too old, my writing style was entirely contrary to academic expectations, the theoretical and philosophical aspects of research and analysis were… daunting. We’ll go with that. 

But somehow I passed, re-learned academic style (still a work in progress), and began research projects that reflect my passions and aspirations. 

I am officially halfway through my masters degree in media studies, and no one has yet chased me off the campus shouting, “Heretic!”

And I love teaching.

I’m not good at it yet. I’m capable, and I’m learning. My students seem to appreciate me, though I don’t think they appreciate the unannounced news quizzes that pepper the semester’s fun. (Too bad, kids. That’s what you get for drawing me as a professor.) More importantly, their writing seems to improve from the beginning of the semester to the end. 

It’s quite clear to me how much I have to learn in this new profession, but I really love it. I don’t know if I’ve yet converted any students to leap into news reporting as a profession, but they seem to gain a greater appreciation for journalism, at any rate. If I can train them to evaluate good, balanced, smart reporting, to follow the news from multiple outlets and figure out the real from the fake, if I can open their eyes just a bit to the importance of journalism, then I’ve succeeded in my mission, whether or not I get them to become reporters.

The freelancing has been a slower launch, partly because I had no idea what I was doing. If there is a craft to cold-pitching stories to editors, I have yet to master it. But thanks to a number of contacts in the industry, I’ve started to develop some regular recurring gigs, working with local news organizations and some magazines, as well as my fiction editing work. 

The photography has mostly been going to the Patreon, which has been an utter delight. It launched shortly before I left Ye Olde Newspaper, and I’ve experimented with a lot of different content. I’ve tried fiction excerpts, nonfiction essays/rants, photo essays, travelogues, even a recipe or two. The Patreon has become an absolutely essential part of my family’s income, but I have also found it wonderfully stimulating in a creative sense. I’m always thinking of new ideas to share with the Patrons, of places I can go and photos to shoot that might interest them. 

All through the spring semester, I ran the Door Project: I covered my office door at the campus with Magnetic Poetry words, and photographed the fascinating (and occasionally silly) poems left by anonymous passers-by. All of it was chronicled on the Patreon, with a summary on Donald Media.

The last few weeks have been consumed with compiling a promised ebook for the Patrons, for those who joined the Patreon during my birthday week and my original audience members. We’re minutes away, she said as she took a hammer to the algorithm that keeps deleting her footnotes. Another thing I’d never done before: Self-publishing. I’m not sure if it counts, since it won’t be available to the wider public. But it’s definitely on my horizon.

Today was the anniversary, and it was actually a quiet day. The Boy was off to a ballgame with his father, who is in town for the weekend. The Man had to work. So I decided on a whim to drive down to Eckert’s Farm in southern Illinois, because they had created a maze of giant sunflowers. It’s like a corn maze, but all sunflowers, and those things get crazy tall. I thought it would make for some fun pictures for the Patreon, and I was able to pick up some fresh peaches and other tasty items.

And on my way back, I stopped by Ye Olde Newspaper.

It wasn’t actually out of nostalgia. My former work twin* messaged me earlier in the week that a package had arrived for me. I was not sure who had missed the memo after a year that I was no longer employed there, but after she ascertained that the package wasn’t ticking, I promised I’d drop by the next time I was in town. It so happened that the newspaper is only a few minutes away from the farm.

Fortunately there were folks I knew on duty, and we chatted for a few minutes as I collected my package (a book for review). It was good to see the newsroom again, so familiar it might as well be an old apartment where I once lived. It helps that newsrooms never change; they switch out the posters or the computer screens once in a while, but fundamentally, they never change. I promised not to steal anything on my way out the door. 

It felt like full circle. I left a year ago not knowing if there was anything else I could do in this world that would be worth anything to anyone, much less could feed my family. I left in a bittersweet tang that I once described as eerily similar to the emotions of my divorce: regret, sadness, firm resolve that it was the right choice while coated in fear that it might be a terrible mistake. 

It’s a frightening thing to imagine that you can have a different life, but it’s also a freeing moment, what my good friend Frank Fradella might call the Possibility Sense. (You should totally check out Frank’s new book.)

There was no way I could have managed this far without my terrific fans who keep buying my work, clicking the links and supporting me, particularly my wonderful Patrons. Special thanks and a round of applause should go to my beloved menfolk. My husband Jim is carrying more than his fair share of keeping the roof on while I go through this crazy balancing act, and has never wavered in his support. My son Ian has been wonderfully supportive, as well as quite sanguine about going to college with BOTH parents. We’re a team, helping each other through one of the hardest times in our family life, and I couldn’t be more blessed with their love and support as I wade into the final rounds.

We’re still waiting to see if the landing is a splash or a thud. Ask me in another year.

* Her name is Elizabeth O’Donnell. When she was hired, I introduced myself as “Elizabeth Donald, and we are so going to be getting each other’s phone calls.” I was not wrong. 

Oooooooklahoma and AEJMC

I am happy to report that my sort-of first academic conference went well, in that I completed my presentation and no one threw anything at me or shouted “Heretic!” and tried to chase me from the building. My barometer for “went well” might be a little low, but remember, I work in the news business.

Technically my first academic conference was the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity, where I spoke about the 2014 project to rewrite and update the SPJ Code of Ethics a couple of years ago. I was a bundle of nerves there as well, but I was not presenting original research; merely reporting on a process in which I was part, and with extensive assistance from then-chairman Andrew Seaman and former chairman Kevin Smith. 

The conference took place the first weekend of March at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., which is just south of Oklahoma City. I flew down on Feb. 28 and took the afternoon to look around Oklahoma City before settling in to be all academic and stuff.

This is me landing in Oklahoma. Another state checked off the life to-do list.

This is the first academic conference where I was presenting my own research, and as my friends and colleagues know, my research last semester was wrought with blood and tears, so I was more than a little uneasy about the presentation.

But no moreso than my traveling companions, both of whom are my fellow first-year masters students and at least twenty years younger than I, the younglings.

Meet Rahul Menon and Jonathan Johnson, two of my fellow grad students and Power Rangers. They call me GradMom. This picture lives in proof that Jonathan can exist without his Alienware baseball cap.

I’m glad to report that AEJMC is a fairly low-key and welcoming conference, with three or four presentations per hour in small rooms with receptive audiences. Following the presentations, there is a respondent (who apparently was tasked with reading all the papers) who gives initial feedback, then questions and comments from the audience.

The respondent for my session could not make it, which was both a disappointment and a relief – I hope for real feedback, but I’d be just as happy not to get it in front of a live studio audience. I’m shy. 

I attended many other sessions as well, and got a sense of what kind of research is taking place on the academic side of the field. This is different than the usual trade conferences I attend (and certainly different than the pop culture cons). 

The trade conferences tend to be focused on practical applications, career advice, recounting of methods and approaches, and other how-to’s for performing and promoting journalism.

At the pop culture cons, there’s usually people in costume. This was not present at AEJMC.

The Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at OU was amazing. I wanted to steal their building and bring it back home. Their newsroom was bigger than some newspapers I’ve worked, I’m just saying.

Here are some of the research projects I heard presented:

• A game-based intervention on adults for media literacy did not yield the expected results, but showed promise for refinement in helping to promote the ability to discern fact from fiction in news content. 

Note: The more education one has, the more one interacts with text and the more time you spend on content, the more likely you are to be able to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation. Yet another nail in the coffin of “not everyone needs an education,” in my opinion. 

As one person in the audience suggested, it is high time universities considered mothballing the old-fashioned “speech” class requirement in favor of intro to media or media literacy for all undergrads. Not every professional adult is going to give speeches in their work life, but everyone will need media literacy going forward. Food for thought. 

• Along that line of thought, West Texas A&M University developed a service learning model for media literacy. Freshman students went through a five-week training course in media literacy, then went into the area high schools and taught the principles of media literacy to high-schoolers. The high schools want to incorporate it into their curriculum, but are swamped with mandates and limited on time and resources. 

The program emphasized the importance of balance and fairness, evaluating sources, internet censorship, citizen journalism around the world, the impact of social media, and more. Then by teaching it to younger kids, the students learn better themselves.

Note: The program focused on finding a middle ground between championing journalism’s goals and successes, and dwelling endlessly on our errors and doom-and-gloom challenges. Teaching young people that all media is suspect, that journalism is dead and everyone online is awful does not help foster the next generation’s ability to navigate the media landscape or build a better one.

Or, as one speaker put it, a critical look at mass media should not turn into a conspiracy-theory cynicism that serves only to further tear down the profession and the industry.

• An examination of automated journalism in China. There have been previous studies of this, but focused only on such news in English. What is automated journalism? Apparently, news stories that are aggregated by algorithm, with no humans involved.

This is a beast heretofore unknown to me. The creation of aggregate stories alone was a bit of a shock to me a few years ago, when it tore down the age-old prohibitions on citing and linking our competitors’ work by compiling “stories” with links and citations to other news organizations. But at least those stories still have a living, trained journalist doing the compiling and evaluating the sources’ veracity. This is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to replacing journalists with robots. 

It’s safe to say I’m not a fan.

Fortunately, the study found that readability and expertise rated higher for human-written news than automated, although for some reason readers rated credibility marginally lower for humans than machines. If you want to read more about Robby the Robot Journalist, Emerj did a piece on news by A.I. in January. 

• Research on health podcasts found that doctors and people who have been personally diagnosed with an illness carried much higher credibility with podcast listeners than hearing the same information from a podcast host who did not have medical credentials. It also had a higher impact on health behaviors, and a higher interest in downloading and following the podcast in the future.

Another podcast study focused on commercials: the average is 5.1 commercials per podcast in the top 100 iTunes-distributed podcasts, up from 2.4 a decade ago. About 31 percent were sponsorships, and 87 percent directly or indirectly related to the subject of the podcast. 

• This one will not please my teenage son: While 71 percent of Americans age 18-24 are habitual Instagram users, as much as 25 percent would qualify as “problematic users.” Social media addiction is a real, trackable thing, folks. 

The addictive gratifications of compulsive Instagram use rival those obtained by food, sleep and sex, though they do not have a classification as a mental disorder (yet). They defined it as a state of unconscious activity, of compulsive use with multiple gratifications. I am probably mangling this definition, but it was an interesting study. 

• In popular culture, there were examinations of Mad Men as a paradoxical feminist text, the portrayal of bisexuality on CW shows, the representation of Asian Indians in American film over the last 10 years, and the Kardashians’ impact on awareness of the Armenian genocide.

Don’t laugh. I didn’t know either, but they’re an Armenian episode and have apparently made a significant impact in advocacy for genocide victims and awareness of Armenian culture in exile. Who knew?

Also, the average CW viewer watches eight hours of TV a day. When do they work or sleep? 

My colleague Rahul Menon did the Indian film study, and found an increasing number of positive portrayals of Asian Indians as hardworking, funny and helpful, though still fewer than half are actually portrayed by Indian actors. 

Finally, there was a study on the impact that popular culture can have on people’s perceptions of mental illness. Specifically, they studied Batman and Beyonce, focusing on an article about Beyonce’s struggle with depression and Batman knocking the hell out of someone who said bad things about someone with mental illness. I’m paraphrasing, because this is already a long blog post, but it was an interesting study from the University of Missouri. 

The answer is: yes, it makes a difference – but the study itself didn’t quite bear that out. Popular culture changes opinions, which sounds like a DUH, but in academia you need research and statistics to back up the things that should seem obvious, because sometimes it’s not. The “parasocial relationship,” which is academic-speak for our ability to identify with a fictional character, is key to whether the popular culture icon can shift personal opinion in real life. In short, mental health stigma can be reduced if it is responsibly discussed in media, but the message and the media matter.

Also: More than 80 percent of the audience was familiar with Beyonce. Only 69 percent were familiar with Batman. What?

This is a quick-and-dirty rundown on two days of research discussion, and apologies if I have mangled anyone’s research. I was honored to be there with my little study on journalists’ portrayal in film, and gained some ideas and feedback for my continuing research as I proceed into … wait for it … my thesis. But more on that next year!

We did find time to hit the local bar. We’re college students, after all.

Note: I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial while I was in town. A narration and photo array will be pending on the Patreon.

Authentic social media marketing without losing your mind

I had the pleasure of visiting with the Midwest Editorial Freelancers Association this week, to hear expert Solange Deschatres of SCORCH talk about social media branding.

SCORCH is right here in St. Louis, but it has a very high-level profile among social media management. Clients include Microsoft, LinkedIn, GE, Annuitas and more. Since my social media strategy has basically been “yell at people on Facebook, retweet on my two Twitter accounts, forget that I have an Instagram, and check into LinkedIn once a month or so,” I clearly need some help.

Deschatres says the main thing is “really putting yourself out there and being authentic, being true to you.” That may sound simple, but it’s not. A lot of people, including weirdo creatives like me, will chase trends and try to do the New Thing because they think it will catapult them to immediate success. But it comes off as stiff, trying to hard, the message hidden under layers of shellac, Deschatres said.

Videos are intensely popular on social media, Deschatres said, so even if your video is just a few minutes of you talking into the camera, go on and post that video. I can personally affirm this from the last few years at the newspaper; even if my news video was thirty seconds of the police chief repeating the basic facts that are already in the story, people would click it.

It’s counter-intuitive to me, since I’m very words-focused; I am the person who scrolls past the news video in favor of text even on broadcast news sites; who can’t stand audiobooks and gets annoyed when people read the text at me. Oh, just give it here and let me read already.

But video is the thing. Wait, didn’t we just tell you not to chase trends? Yes, but instead of chasing the trend, try to find a piece of the trend that fits what you do and run with that, Deschatres said.

Another huge key is consistency. Post often, and post regularly. “You are not going to become an overnight internet sensation,” Deschatres said. “People build their audiences over years and years… It’s the consistency that matters.”

We talked for a good bit about the different kinds of social media and their focus. Writers are on LinkedIn and Twitter; Instagram trends young while Facebook trends middle-aged and older; and of course Google Plus is dead.

That’s demographics, though; think about what you’re marketing before deciding which medium to use. My photography, for example, should probably go up on Instagram rather than Facebook, where it’ll get traded around like a meme. (Naturally, much of my work is going first on the Patreon, but hey, a woman’s gotta make a living until she wins the Powerball.)

And please, give up the whole “I don’t ‘get’ Twitter” or whatever excuse you’re using for not stepping out of your comfort zone. A creative who is actively trying to sell and make money at art needs to be present online to be present at all, and that means spending time in social media that you may not prefer. Curate your feed, protect yourself, but don’t be silent. None of us can afford silence.

Some Facebook groups are still useful despite the ever-changing and annoying algorithm – that might be just my own opinion, but Facebook’s algorithm has generally made marketing on the behemoth site a nightmare and a half. But niche groups can provide connections and keep you aware of opportunities, Deschatres said.

Did you know that LinkedIn has a Facebook-like feed where you can post content and follow or unfollow other feeds? Did you know LinkedIn has its own news service posting original content? Many of us (myself included) tend to think of LinkedIn as a place to post your resume and job-hunt. But Deschatres says the content has shifted to become a little more personal, not just buttoned-up business press releases.

In part, she says, that’s because the nature of business has shifted. “People can smell BS a mile away,” she said. “Business decisions are also emotional decisions… they’re making it about choice.”

So while you can’t be everything to everyone – and if you try you’ll muddle your message to the nth degree – you can target your appeal to the right audience. Even big companies like Microsoft are looking for small, local companies like SCORCH, seeking nimble and creative workers they can work with from anywhere, she said.

While you’re figuring out where to be and how often to be there, also consider your content. How-to’s and a look inside your creative process are wildly popular, rather than sharing the content itself, Deschatres said. “There’s lots of content out there, but there’s only one you,” she said. “It’s not so much about promoting the work, it’s about promoting you and your expertise, what you bring to the table.”

A few key points:

Think about your reposts. Remember that a retweet may or may not be considered endorsement, but it can reflect that way no matter how many disclaimers you put on your profile that no one read.

• Beware of politics. No one says you can’t say what you think (unless you’re doing news, in which case you should already know the inherent ethical problems with wading into politics while reporting.) But keep in mind that clients and customers will be reading it, and it can cost you dearly. That also goes for authors fighting with reviewers; really, guys, nobody wins that fight. Have a drink and move on.

• There’s no such thing as posting too often. This flies in the face of what I’d heard before, but that was in the early days of stone knives-and-bearskins internet, and now Deschatres said you have to speak often to be heard. “The biggest detriment to your brand is not posting too much, it’s posting too little,” she said.

You can manage this in part by scheduling your posts. Set aside some time to come up with posts and schedule them at the times when people are most often online. Tweetdeck is free and fairly simple to use for managing multiple Twitter accounts (I have five, because I’m insane). I was using HootSuite to manage Facebook, but when I tried to go to the paid version they made me mad with billing problems and borked-up service. You can look into Later or buffer, which have free or low-cost options; if you’re a company willing to spend some money, Sprout Social seems to be very popular, but it’s $99 a month, so that’s pretty much out of the reach of most freelancers, I would think.

While social media can therefore become your part-time job – and don’t we all have awesome things we’d rather be doing? – you can manage it with an editorial calendar. I did this myself when I decided to go freelance. It’s separate from my usual “where do I need to be and when is that doctor’s appointment” family calendar, which is color-coded and coordinated with husband and son for our collective sanity.

My editorial calendar, however, has set deadlines for my freelance projects and research projects, as well as recurring deadlines for blog posts, newsletters and social media. Of course, sticking to those deadlines is always the challenge, which is why I know there will be two more essays written this weekend, along with two freelance news articles, a newsletter, and more literature review for the grad-school research. This is while I’m selling and signing at the Dupo Art Fair and running a charity book sale at Leclaire Parkfest, so keep your life in mind when you set up this calendar. Let it fit into your life, not the other way around.

But don’t ignore it. Whether we like it or not, social media is the future, and while it will change and evolve over the years as it has since it was bulletin boards and AOL chatrooms, it is where people are finding their business partners, clients and contractors. If you’re living the freelance life, you need to be out there.

“Think in advance about what you’re going to do, but as long as you get something out there… Social media presence is by definition about being present,” Deschatres said.

To that end, if you want to find me on social media, here are my various locales:

Facebook: Personal and journalism

Facebook: Author page

Twitter: Personal and author

Twitter: Journalism and grad school

Twitter: SPJ

LinkedIn

Instagram (But please don’t check this yet. I need to get my teenage son to help me figure out how to use it…)

And, of course… THE PATREON.

August Linkspam and Future Musings

It was a quiet month here at Donald Media, largely in transition between the daily news beat and the brave new world of freelancing. I imagine bylines will be much rarer, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing.

My official last byline for the News-Democrat centered on the turbulent history of the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses of Southern Illinois University, as another president is forced to resign. I was a bit nervous writing this story right before I switched gears, but since both sides seemed to feel it was fair, I breathed easier. If both sides are happy or both sides are mad, you’ve done your job. It ran a week after I left.

On CultureGeek: a review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  and Christopher Robin.

On the Patreon:

• A essay titled “First Rough Draft of History” musing on departure from daily news, available to subscribers $5 and up.

• Blog posts on “Freelance Folderol, Part 1,” and on grad school: “First Class” and “Paradigm Shifts,” available to all subscribers.

• A photo essay from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Chinese Festival, available to subscribers $3 and up.

• A fiction excerpt from Banshee’s Run, the work currently in progress, available to subscribers $10 and up.

On the home front, we spent much of August in a mad frenzy of mucking out the house (which got about 75 percent done) and setting up my office again. It had devolved into a dumping ground of storage, and still is only halfway mucked out. But I have shiny new computers in the Tower now, which should greatly expand my capability to make art and words to entertain you endlessly. Now all I need is time…

Buckle in, because I imagine the movie reviews over on CultureGeek are going to largely center on journalism movies for a while, since that’s what my grad school research will focus on. I’ve had to (at least temporarily) discontinue the Linkspam posts and the Fake News Roundups here on Donald Media, because honestly, there’s only X amount of me to go around. Those are fun features, but time-consuming, and frankly the hit counts don’t justify continuing them until or unless I acquire more hours in the day.

I’ve been asked if I intend to write political essays now that I am no longer working for the newspaper. It is very tempting, and Zod above knows there’s plenty of material these days. Here’s the thing: I don’t know what form my freelancing will take. Most freelancers I know develop a niche and specialize in a particular kind of content. I haven’t done that – if anything, I’ve been a generalist my entire career, hopping from subject to subject from day to day. In short, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I will still be called upon to write politics, and thus it would still be inappropriate to opine about the issues of the day.

But yes, it is tempting.

Coming up this month: lots and lots of school, more Patreon work as the membership grows, the Student Boot Camp for SPJ, and the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference in Baltimore, which I will be attending to represent St. Louis SPJ. Watch my @edonaldmedia Twitter for the journalism-related material, and @edonald for personal and photographic evidence. As you might know, I lived in Baltimore for a time as a teenager, and I have fond memories of Charm City. I am really looking forward to five days staying right at the Inner Harbor, and will be shooting photos of anything that will stand still. If only I ate seafood.

In the meantime, the freelance folderol continues, the photo backlog is piling up, and the Patreon is (understandably) getting a large amount of my attention. You might consider subscribing

Flashback: Workaversary

This post was originally published on June 19, 2017.

A random thought occurred to me tonight: This month marks 17 years with the News-Democrat, and simultaneously marks 20 years in journalism.

I suppose I could count my career from my occasional dabblings in junior high or high school newspapers, or from the point where I switched majors to news editorial and started working for the University of Tennessee student paper. But for my own purposes, I count from my internship at the Union City (Tenn.) Daily Messenger, which began this month in the sunny year of 1997.

It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago, and sometimes I feel like I catch glimpses of the greenest cub reporter to step into an old-fashioned newsroom. Many of the tales I could tell from those days belong over drinks in a bar, not in this blog. But I can tell this one: I learned more from the editor of the Daily Messenger in six months than I could have learned in years of study.

His name was David Critchlow, and last I heard, he’s still running the show. They had never had an intern before, and they had no desk for me, so they set up a work station in the corner of the conference room. Full of the confidence borne of two whole semesters of journalism school [insert laugh track], I dutifully typed up obituaries and weddings (loooooooong weddings; in the deep south, wedding announcements are not three lines and a picture, folks) until I started getting assignments.

After I turned in my stories, Critchlow walked into the conference room, read my lead back to me, and snored.

The number of snores reflected how boring, basic and summary my leads were, and I learned how to improve them. By the end of the summer, I had my own city beat, gotten Critchlow down to one snore per lead, covered Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr. (sort of) and had a part-time stringer job as I finished my last semester of school. I graduated in December 1997, got married (the first time) a week later in Memphis, and five days after the wedding, I reported to my first newsroom job in La Salle, Ill.

Two and a half years later, I was hired by the News-Democrat, reporting to work in June 2000. The Boy was all of 18 months old; his father left in 2003. I was a single mom while chasing stories all over the metro-east until Jim and I moved in together in 2012, and married two years later.

Now the Boy is graduated and college-bound, Jim is halfway through his own degree, my resume is up to six pages long (which is really egregious), and I’m still downing the coffee with one hand and typing with the other every day. Standoffs and fires, murder trials and city council meetings, marching union workers and political protests and school test score analyses. I’ve interviewed presidents future and past, politicians without number, young kids and visiting celebrities.

I’ve interviewed a bookstore owner who couldn’t read until he was nearly 20 years old, and seen crime photos that made a juror faint. I’ve stood beneath a glass dome representing science and religion together, in a boat with volunteers testing for illegal dumping on the river, and by the side of the road watching them pull the pieces of the bodies out of cars.

I’ve frozen my tail off in an observatory with Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about communing with the stars through science, stood watch behind the yellow tape at a collapsed culvert that killed a child, and watched an unassuming, ordinary man who just won a gold medal in karate kick the everloving hell out of a practice dummy. I’ve played good cop and bad cop, taken verbal abuse without counting and been happy never to duck bullets. (Except that once sort of but it doesn’t count.)

I’ve met the most amazing journalists the profession has ever known, learned from them and been proud to stand with them. I’ve done the best I could for my fellow journalists here in St. Louis through SPJ, and been honored to work with some of the top ethicists in the nation to rewrite the Code of Ethics in the hopes that our “ethics evangelism” will help us all remember our calling when the heat is on.

It’s one hell of a privilege, this life.

Was the summer of 1997 really 20 years ago? I already have socks older than some of my co-workers; soon my career will be older than some of my fellow journalists. Eh, what’s that, sonny? I can’t hear ye…

I wish I had something more profound to say about this milestone than, “Holy Walter Cronkite, I’m old.” Maybe that will come, as I work on my Occasional Research Project of Doom (on the fictional portrayal of journalists) and I am asked to speak more and more often to new journalists and budding writers about the work that I do.

For now, I’m proud to be doing a job I believe in, that I know makes a difference in the world, and a job that needs doing, whatever the costs may be.

But I think Critchlow would probably make me restructure that sentence.

One small step for me.

This has proven much more difficult to write than I anticipated, probably because this is the hardest decision I have ever had to make. 

Harder than the decision to leave Memphis and my career in the arts in order to pursue a career in journalism. Harder than the decision to divorce my first husband. And I’m not one to take a leap without considering all the options, so you’d best believe that I have discussed this with Jim, with my parents, with close friends, with mentors. Probably until they were tired of talking about it with me.

I have dithered and stalled, because once I post this, it’s final. It’s real.

I’m leaving the newspaper.

With that decision ends 21 years in daily journalism.

Wow, that was hard to type. And I haven’t even done it yet.

If you know me at all, you know how much my work means to me. I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to journalism, ever since I made that decision to quit my artistic career and pursue a different kind of storytelling, the kind that can change the world. I always knew I wanted to tell stories and be in public service, and in journalism I found a way I could do both. 

I believed it then and I believe it now, and the only difference between my passion for news in 1997 and my passion now is the amount of grey in my hair. For 18 of those 21 years, I’ve reported for the Belleville News-Democrat. I was and am proud to part of this team. The people I work with are some of the finest journalists I have ever known, with a dedication and steadfast perseverance that would stun the readers if they could only glimpse behind the scenes. 

And I have been proud to serve the people of Madison County for 17 of those years, through good times and bad. It has been my privilege to chronicle the life of my adopted home.

I’ve said often in my speeches that this is the best time in history to be a journalist, and I meant it. Still do. Ask me about it sometime, and buckle in for an essay.

Now I have a wonderful new opportunity.

Beginning in August, I will be a teaching assistant at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I’ll be teaching newswriting, and the assistantship will allow me to pursue my masters degree. I was actually accepted last November to begin in January, but it took a while for the financing to come through, and they were kind enough to allow me to defer my acceptance to fall.

For those keeping score, my whole family will be in college together. It’s like a sitcom, only we provide our own laugh track.

With a masters, I can pursue a full-time teaching position. I can pass on to beginning journalists all that I learned in 21 years of shoveling coal into the furnace, along with the things they won’t find in their textbooks. I can focus their attention on the Code of Ethics and the ongoing debates that too often get shoved into ivory-tower hypotheticals. I can be useful to my profession, and continue my career in a new phase.

I’m really excited about this. I always intended to move into teaching when I was finished reporting, a second career in the sunset of the first. This is a little earlier than I planned, but you know what they say – life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

However.

There’s one to two years of grad school ahead of me. A teaching assistantship does not equal the salary of a full-time reporter (low bar, but still). I am blessed that Jim has a good solid job with health insurance. But we were largely reliant on my income for our family, and that means I don’t get to sit around and wax philosophical in coffeehouses while I’m in school. (What? I was in college once upon a time.)

The development of The Plan has taken up much of the winter, and if this blog has been quieter than usual, that’s why. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

• Freelance writing. I’ll be knocking on a hell of a lot of doors, and I hope my esteemed colleagues in other publications will remember me when they need someone who can turn around a story quickly and well. In part, I’ll be doing this because rent is a thing, and in part it’s because I cannot bear to give up journalism entirely. It’s been my daily life for half of the time I’ve been breathing, and I find it hard to even say my name without adding my newspaper onto the end of it, as though it is another last name. I love the work, and I intend to keep doing it as long as I am able.

• Fiction. I’m still working out how my fiction work will change. To be frank, the novels have never paid off as much as I had hoped financially. While I would dearly love to write the next Nocturnal Urges book and finish the Blackfire zombie trilogy and a half-dozen other books sitting around on their outlines, it may be that novellas and shorts will be my necessary focus in the next two years. It really depends what the market will bear: just like in journalism, you get more of whatever you click. If I see more interest in my fiction, I’ll create more fiction.

• Photography. I’ve already expanded the photography site with its own online shop, and am pursuing more local art and craft shows with an eye to moving into higher-end art shows when I can afford the fees. I’ve also opened a shop on FineArtAmerica, so if you ever wanted my creepy angels on a tote bag or greeting card, now’s your chance.

• Editing. I’ve been doing side-gig work as an editor and writing coach for many years, working with new writers and small press publishers to help them shape and grow their work. I will be taking on more clients, and hopefully with a faster turnaround now that it will be part of my “day job.”

• Patreon. Yes, I’m joining the marching legions. Frankly, this is going to be the most important part of our survival. And I’ll sing for my supper: essays, short stories, musings on grad school, on journalism and the news of the day, photography, live chats, and much more are layered in the rewards for those kind enough to support me in this new venture. 

If you’ve ever wondered, “How can I help?” – this is how.

Please subscribe to my Patreon, and share it around with others.

 

What’s not changing: Literary Underworld will continue to operate. The store remains open. The newsletter, the website and the author features will continue. 

What may change: Cons. It will basically come down to hard cash: a con may cost us $300-500 to attend, and people aren’t buying books at cons like they once were. Jim and I are always there for a con willing to pay our way, but that isn’t common anymore. So we may have some hard choices to make, and we hope our friends on the circuit will understand if we have to regretfully decline.

What’s not changing: My volunteer work. I will not have to step down as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists or give up my seat on the Ethics Committee, because I’ll still be earning the bulk of my living from journalism. I will also continue to run Relay for Life, because cancer doesn’t take a vacation while I go back to school. 

What may change: Little things. Donations. Birthday gifts. Dinners out. Our trips to Memphis. I think it’ll basically depend on how many gigs I get each month, and our standard of living will have to adjust. 

A more flexible schedule may mean I’m free to do things I was never able to do before, like a cup of coffee on a weekday afternoon with a friend in the city, or a daytime photo shoot before the garden closes at dusk. I’m rather looking forward to remaking my life.

But this is scary. I’ve been mugged three times and won each fight, and I wasn’t as scared then as I am now. I’ve had two heart surgeries and an emergency c-section and wasn’t as scared as I am now. When I divorced my first husband, it was terrifying to think about being on my own again with a four-year-old hostage to fortune, but I wasn’t as scared as I am now.

I’m not afraid of the work load or the hustle of a freelancer. I’m not afraid of being back in the classroom after more than two decades. I’m nervous but not afraid of teaching, a whole new profession for which I am prepared only on the sense of knowing the subject matter thoroughly, and having guest lectured many times for various colleges. I imagine there’s a learning curve in front of me, but that’s exciting, too.

No, I’m afraid of the money, of not being able to support my family. I spent a long time as a working single mother. I did the poverty rounds of choosing whether to stiff the electric bill or the water bill (electric, they can’t shut you off in winter); of eating peanut butter so Ian could have a good meal; of finding non-exterminator ways to fight roaches in the apartment; of begging friends to watch my son when I had to work a Saturday shift because I couldn’t afford ten hours of babysitting.

I know poor, and I don’t want to be there again, not when Jim and I have worked our tails off to reach a point where all the bills are paid and up to date and we have a little in savings and almost no debt besides the student loan I’ll never escape. Do we really want to go back to peanut butter and cutting the milk with water to make it last longer?

I’ve had multiple panics where I call Jim and tell him I’ve lost my mind, we’re going to starve and be homeless. He always talks me down out of my tree, and tells me that he believes in me and in my ability, and we are going to be okay. Ian and Jim are both my biggest supporters, and we are all in this together as a team.

It’s not an easy thing to change your life, but who’s going to do it for you?

 

There will be a live chat TONIGHT at 8 p.m. CST in the Literary Underworld Tavern chatroom. Join me!

 

Don’t call it a gig economy

If the latest research is to be believed, freelancers will be the majority of the workplace within a decade.

The study showing this trend was co-sponsored by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, so we might take the results with the proverbial grain of salt. But it’s backed up by much of the buzz I’ve heard, from students and younger workers and new moms – if they’re right, 47 percent of millennials are freelancing, and they’re the ones rising up in the workplace.

Freelancing in America” projects freelancers will be the majority of the workforce by 2027, and the freelance workforce grew three times faster than the overall workforce since 2014.

The top concern among freelancers is income predictability, which is (ironically) predictable considering the variable nature of a freelancer’s work. More than 60 percent of full-time freelancers dip into savings on a regular basis, compared to 20 percent of non-freelancers.

Take note, politicians: 72 percent of freelancers would cross political party lines if a candidate supported their interests.

What are those interests?

Health insurance is key. The Affordable Care Act arguably spurred a large number of people to launch into freelancing who could not manage it before, and it is largely supported by freelancers. Like non-freelancers, they are concerned about paying off debt, including student loans, and saving for retirement. They are entrepreneurs, and have many of the same concerns as those creating brick-and-mortar businesses. But they’re more concerned about income predictability and health care than taxes.

And they need ongoing education. More than half the U.S. workforce is not confident the work they do today will exist in 20 years. But freelancers are far more likely to be prepared for automation or technology to take over their jobs; more than half of the freelancers had undergone re-skilling training in the last six months, compared to less than one-third of non-freelancers.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel said freelancers will play more of a key role than people realize in the future, calling it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

From what I’ve seen among the students I’ve met so far? They aren’t necessarily looking for That First Job anymore. They want to work for themselves. They want to make a living and support their families, but they are increasingly unwilling to give up their autonomy for it.

In journalism, it’s a tough sell to get them interested in applying for a newspaper. There’s one small-town paper I know that is paying $10 an hour. Another pays $12 – to its long-term veterans. Try selling that to an upcoming grad with $30,000 in student loans. They literally cannot take these jobs. If the workforce doesn’t keep up with the needs of the workers, the workers will go out on their own.

A few other statistics:

• Freelancers contribute $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy per year – a staggering 30 percent increase over last year.

• Freelancers average 4.5 clients per month, and 63 percent believe a diverse portfolio of clients is preferable to one employer – a 10-point increase since last year.

• To the shock of no one, most work is found online – 71 percent.

• More and more of them are going full-time, with dropping rates of part-time and “moonlight” freelancers as the numbers of full-timers grow.

• Two-thirds of freelancers began freelancing by choice, not by a necessity such as being laid off.

And that bit about calling it a “gig economy”? I remember when I first began working by remote for a newspaper, and this was a brand new idea: a reporter who operated in the field! No newsroom, just laptop and cell phone! They called us “backpack journalists,” which I really hated. It felt infantilizing, like we were kids play-acting at being journalists. I haven’t carried a backpack since college. I used the term “remote reporter,” which wasn’t great, but was a better description than “backpack.” Words matter, names matter, and we who make our living with words should know that better than anyone.

Freelancers prefer the phrase “freelance economy” five times over those who didn’t mind “gig economy.” Gigs are for garage bands. Freelancers are at work.

The full results deck is available here.

Flashback: Workaversary

Reposted from Scarlet Letters , June 19, 2017

A random thought occurred to me tonight: This month marks 17 years with the News-Democrat, and simultaneously marks 20 years in journalism.

I suppose I could count my career from my occasional dabblings in junior high or high school newspapers, or from the point where I switched majors to news editorial and started working for the University of Tennessee student paper. But for my own purposes, I count from my internship at the Union City (Tenn.) Daily Messenger, which began this month in the sunny year of 1997.

It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago, and sometimes I feel like I catch glimpses of the greenest cub reporter to step into an old-fashioned newsroom. Many of the tales I could tell from those days belong over drinks in a bar, not in this blog. But I can tell this one: I learned more from the editor of the Daily Messenger in six months than I could have learned in years of study.

His name was David Critchlow, and last I heard, he’s still running the show. They had never had an intern before, and they had no desk for me, so they set up a work station in the corner of the conference room. Full of the confidence borne of two whole semesters of journalism school [insert laugh track], I dutifully typed up obituaries and weddings (loooooooong weddings; in the deep south, wedding announcements are not three lines and a picture, folks) until I started getting assignments.

After I turned in my stories, Critchlow walked into the conference room, read my lead back to me, and snored.

The number of snores reflected how boring, basic and summary my leads were, and I learned how to improve them. By the end of the summer, I had my own city beat, gotten Critchlow down to one snore per lead, covered Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr. (sort of) and had a part-time stringer job as I finished my last semester of school. I graduated in December 1997, got married (the first time) a week later in Memphis, and five days after the wedding, I reported to my first newsroom job in La Salle, Ill.

Two and a half years later, I was hired by the News-Democrat, reporting to work in June 2000. The Boy was all of 18 months old; his father left in 2003. I was a single mom while chasing stories all over the metro-east until Jim and I moved in together in 2012, and married two years later.

Now the Boy is graduated and college-bound, Jim is halfway through his own degree, my resume is up to six pages long (which is really egregious), and I’m still downing the coffee with one hand and typing with the other every day. Standoffs and fires, murder trials and city council meetings, marching union workers and political protests and school test score analyses. I’ve interviewed presidents future and past, politicians without number, young kids and visiting celebrities.

I’ve interviewed a bookstore owner who couldn’t read until he was nearly 20 years old, and seen crime photos that made a juror faint. I’ve stood beneath a glass dome representing science and religion together, in a boat with volunteers testing for illegal dumping on the river, and by the side of the road watching them pull the pieces of the bodies out of cars.

I’ve frozen my tail off in an observatory with Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about communing with the stars through science, stood watch behind the yellow tape at a collapsed culvert that killed a child, and watched an unassuming, ordinary man who just won a gold medal in karate kick the everloving hell out of a practice dummy. I’ve played good cop and bad cop, taken verbal abuse without counting and been happy never to duck bullets. (Except that once but it doesn’t count.)

I’ve met the most amazing journalists the profession has ever known, learned from them and been proud to stand with them. I’ve done the best I could for my fellow journalists here in St. Louis through SPJ, and been honored to work with some of the top ethicists in the nation to rewrite the Code of Ethics in the hopes that our “ethics evangelism” will help us all remember our calling when the heat is on.

It’s one hell of a privilege, this life.

Was the summer of 1997 really 20 years ago? I already have socks older than some of my co-workers; soon my career will be older than some of my fellow journalists. Eh, what’s that, sonny? I can’t hear ye…

I wish I had something more profound to say about this milestone than, “Holy Walter Cronkite, I’m old.” Maybe that will come, as I work on my Occasional Research Project of Doom (on the fictional portrayal of journalists) and I am asked to speak more and more often to new journalists and budding writers about the work that I do.

For now, I’m proud to be doing a job I believe in, that I know makes a difference in the world, and a job that needs doing, whatever the costs may be.

But I think Critchlow would probably make me restructure that sentence.