Judith's Archive

Q&A: Past vs. present — breaking into magazines

Friday, May 8, 2009 14:50 - by

As magazines continue to fold at an alarming rate, opportunities for new writers to find a stable job are becoming as slim as the remaining magazines themselves.

Online magazines were not the automatic answer to the industry’s woes either. As a result, everyone is searching for an edge, a way to stand out from the pack of other hungry writers. In searching for a way in, young journalists may find it useful to learn from veteran writers and editors.

Jennifer Owens, special projects editor at Working Mother magazine, is one such journalist. A writer and editor with more than a decade’s worth of experience, Owens knows what it takes to be successful. Here’s what she has to say about entering the magazine industry:

Q. When did you get your first job as a journalist?
A. I got my master’s degree from Medill [School of Journalism at Northwestern University] in 1990, during the recession, and my first job was at the Greenville News in South Carolina, my home state.

Q. How long did you work in newspapers?
A. I was there for about two years and worked at a few other places [The News-Herald and Women’s Wear Daily] before moving to Folio and then Adweek where I wrote for their Web sites.

Q. Did you find it difficult to adjust to writing online?
A. Not at all. To write for a Web site you need to be able to write quickly and concisely which I learned to do as a newspaper reporter.

Q. How did you get into the magazine industry?
A. When the dot-com companies started failing, I had to look for a new job. I became an editor at several trade publications – even one for knitting and crocheting. Eventually I moved to consumer magazines under Fairchild and Time Inc.

Q. What’s your specialty as a writer?
A. I like to explain things. I break down complicated topics and make them easier to understand.

Q. What would you say are some of the differences between entering the magazine industry now vs. the 1990s?
A. I’d say there were more big name magazines back then; that said, the start-ups keep coming! In the mid-90s, the dot-com boom meant there were a lot of jobs for a lot of people, and it was actually hard for employers to find enough candidates to fill openings. There also was a lot of jumping around from job to job as people quickly moved up. I’d say right now, everyone is staying put as long as they can.

Q. Has the way people find their first editorial/reporting jobs changed or is it still mainly by word of mouth?
A. I think it’s all about getting your foot in the door with an interview and then charming the socks off a potential employer. I didn’t get jobs by word of mouth until I was much farther along.

Q. As an editor, what do you look for in freelance writers? Is it helpful to have a blog?
A. It’s very hard to take a risk on a new writer. I want to know where you’ve been published. Are most of your clips from mom and pop publications or have you written for some major names? I’ll look at a blog to get a feel for the person’s writing ability. A lot of stories are heavily edited but on a blog, I can watch you as you write. How well can you turn a phrase? Can you accurately discuss a topic?

Q. Have you ever hired anyone who only had a blog?
A. No, but I did start following a Time reporter first through her blog and she might do a piece for us.

Q. Do you have a blog?
A. No, I don’t blog. I’m old fashioned that way. But I have been using Twitter for Working Mother.

Q. Do you have any final tips for new writers?
A. Develop a passion for something and write about it. That makes it much easier for editors to find you, say through a Google search, and decide if you’re someone who can contribute to their magazine.

True/Slant seeks to build a network of beatbloggers that pays

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 11:24 - by

There’s a new Web news and commentary site coming to town — and this one pays its contributors.

True/Slant seeks to provide a novel approach for bloggers to produce quality news in a way that is profitable, while also building a site that appeals to advertisers. True/Slant is especially relevant for beatbloggers who are weighing the pros and cons of being an independent journalist. True/Slant, in its early “alpha” stage, looks like a loosely aligned network of beatbloggers.

Journalists who are invited to contribute to the site will have the opportunity to operate independently while still remaining part of a network. For stand-alone beatbloggers who have struggled to find an audience while making a profit out of it, branding themselves as a True/Slant contributor may prove helpful.

So far, more than 65 journalists have accepted True/Slant’s invitation to join their network. As a contributor, you receive a page on which you can create your own blog, free of editorial control. The roster includes writers for publications such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Time magazine, as well as independent bloggers. The topics covered by contributors include money, politics, health, technology, sports and more.

Each page also contains “headline grabs,” links from other new sites that are compiled to by contributors. And in an effort to promote interaction between the contributors and readers, contributors are required to comment on each other’s posts and respond to readers’ comments.

Although the site will not be officially launched until May, curiosity seekers have been able to check out the site in its preliminary alpha stage. At first glance, the site looks like any other news site with dozens of headlines. However, like the site’s motto, “News is more than what happens,” the interesting stuff is taking place behind the reported stories.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walter S. Mossberg reported that in addition to receiving a small salary, contributors will also receive a share of the advertising and sponsorship revenues generated by their individual pages.

“The plan is to turn them into minipublishers under the True/Slant umbrella,” Mossberg noted.

One of True/Slant’s unusual business practices, Mossberg pointed out, is the decision to allow advertisers to create their own blogs to attract followers. The advertisers’ blogs will look similar to the blogs of journalists, but will be labeled as ad content.

Whether or not True/Slant’s unusual mix of journalistic entrepreneurship and advertising will work remains to be seen. Although readers have started to trickle in, it is still unclear how the majority of readers will react to a site that offers a multiplicity of voices and styles as opposed to a single style of writing.

Readers may also object to some aspects of the site’s layout. It is impossible, for instance, to find a complete list of topics covered by contributors. Instead, there is a list of “hot topics” that changes weekly.

There is also the possibility that readers will not be interested in the content of True/Slant’s contributors.

“The hype around True/Slant…comes entirely from journalists intrigued by True/Slant’s pay-per-pageview scheme, plus its plan to let advertisers have blogs on the site,” writes Paul Boutin in The Industry Standard. “For those of us who don’t care about these machinations and just want something to read, the site fails to ignite.”

Love it or hate it, as Mossberg points out, True/Slant is another example of the way the Web is changing traditional media.

Mortgage blogger Tanta, who saw (and wrote) it all, passed away but legend grows

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 17:49 - by

tanta21Last year, in a sad twist of fate, readers finally learned the identity of a well-respected blogger who had spurned all interviews. Known simply by her childhood nickname “Tanta,” Doris Dungey, 47, was a blogger for the finance and economics blog, Calculated Risk and whose death ignited a hailstorm of blog posts.

When she succumbed to ovarian cancer in Nov. 2008, the The New York Times and The Washington Post both published obituaries honoring her work as a blogger. Through obituaries, blog posts and readers’ comments, a portrait of Tanta has taken shape, cementing her legacy as an exceptional mortgage expert and blogger.

Readers were able to put a face to Tanta’s words when her family allowed her photos to be posted on news publications. A pretty blonde with blue eyes, Tanta did not let readers identify her by her looks; instead they knew her through her knowledgeable and often acerbic analyses of the mortgage industry.

“She was a rare voice,” noted Noah Rosenblatt, vice president of Halstead Properties and the publisher of UrbanDigs.com. “Tanta discussed the inner workings of the mortgage market and the dangers that were lurking behind the scenes that no other analyst, economist or CEO would dare to discuss openly.”

Much of Tanta’s knowledge of the mortgage industry came from her experiences working as a mortgage banker for twenty years. Although she was merciless in criticizing the errors of financial experts and journalists alike, she did so under a pseudonym since she hoped one day to return to work for the mortgage industry, the Times reported.

Since her first CR blog post, back in 2006, Tanta was one of the few people who had sounded an alarm on the growing dangers behind the lending industry. In her post she criticized a report from Citigroup that predicted the mortgage industry would “rationalize” by 2007 as a warning that larger issues were looming.

“I bring all this up not just to stick it to Citicorp, but because we’ve all been asking the question lately of who will be the bagholder when the exotic/subprime mortgage problem finds a home,” wrote Dungey.

Tanta had many fans, including Federal Reserve analysts, who cited one of her posts, “Mortgage Servicing for Ubernerds,” in their report, “Understanding the Securitization of Subprime Mortgage Credit” and Paul Krugman, a Times columnist who included her quotes in his blog.

Alex Blumberg, a contributing editor for NPR’s Planet Money and a producer for the public radio program This American Life, credits Tanta for helping him understand the mortgage industry.

Blumberg and NPR’s international business and economics correspondent, Alex Davidson produced “The Giant Pool of Money,” a widely-acclaimed episode on This American Life which gave a clear explanation of the housing crisis and the factors that led to it. The episode won numerous awards, including the venerable Peabody Award.

“I didn’t know anything about mortgages or what underwriting was,” explained Blumberg. “Tanta wrote this thing called ‘The Compleat Ubernerd’ (Thirteen posts that explain the mechanisms behind mortgages) which was great for getting up to speed.”

Although Blumberg did not receive a response from Tanta when he tried to contact her, she later congratulated him after the episode aired.

“She sent me an email saying ‘good job,’ which made me really happy,” recalled Blumberg. “When I heard she had passed away, I was much sadder than I thought I would be for someone I had never spoken to and didn’t know at all. Even though she was an anonymous blogger writing under a pseudonym, there was an authenticity to what she wrote that was different.”

Not everything about Tanta was business, however. Hints about her personal taste and preferences occasionally appeared in her posts, which attentive readers eagerly picked up as clues to Tanta’s personality. In a memoriam page dedicated to Tanta created by Bill McBride, the owner of Calculated Risk, an anonymous commenter wrote:

And really, if she had a blind spot, it was she had no idea of the tremendous impact she had on her readers. Any casual mention of her likes and dislikes was seared into my memory, Van Morrison? Check. Jackson Browne? Check. ABBA? Check. ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?’ Check. Marianne Moore? Check. Ann Taylor Stores? Ha! For someone who engaged in as many and extended wide-ranging conversations with us all as she did, how could we not know her?

Other admirers have paid tribute to Dungey’s work by contributing donations on her behalf to various charities and a scholarship fund at her alma mater, Illinois State University. Dungey received a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from ISU and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Doris Dungey Endowed Scholarship Fund was created for ISU students with financial needs who are interested in journalism and was fully endowed within 60 days for $26,000. In addition, a bench was dedicated to Tanta and placed by the Milner Library where she often liked to read.

Usually bloggers who stop writing fade into obscurity. It is unlikely that Tanta’s reputation as a knowledgeable and well-respected blogger will follow the same fate anytime soon. In response to Krugman’s announcement that Tanta had passed away, a commenter named Paula wrote:

I discovered Tanta’s work for the CR blog last night when I was directed to it by reading her obit in the Times. I’m finding her ‘UberNerd’ series of writings on mortgage securities enormously valuable this morning. I can therefore attest that Tanta’s legacy will remain vibrant and essential even to those of us who only just met her ideas.

Photo: Courtesy of family

Mommy bloggers, a new kind of beatbloggers

Friday, March 13, 2009 14:04 - by

There’s something going on in the world of mommy bloggers: Instead of just writing about the joys and trials of motherhood, moms are branching out into other areas.

They’re discussing politics, writing about technology, telling travel stories, discussing ways to start their own business – all from a parent’s perspective. So what, you ask? By reporting on specific topics, moms are joining the ranks of beatbloggers, a group that is quickly gaining attention as bloggers who cover developments in specific areas . To get an idea of what mommy beatbloggers are doing, (in no specific order) here’s a sample of some really cool beatblogs:

1. Momocrats

In 2007, three mommy bloggers with an interest in politics — Stefania Pomponi Butler, Beth Blecherman, and Glennia Campbell — realized they had a shared goal in improving the future as Democrats and helping women to learn and write more about politics. They came from different professions, educational backgrounds, age groups and cultural traditions. Despite these differences, these three women banded together and created Momocrats.com. As beatbloggers, they report on progressive issues including tracking legislation that protects the environment, promotes equality, supports working families and improves the lives of women and children.

It is a blog where progressive, Democratic women can learn about political issues and express their views. Momocrat’s circle now includes 22 mommy bloggers who provide readers with information on policies that affect families and a platform to discuss their concerns. What makes Momocrats even cooler: It provides a lists of recent posts and comments, making it easy to catch up on the latest news.

2. Net Family News

As a journalist who specializes in writing about technology, Anne Collier knew that the importance of being tech savvy would only continue to increase. As a mother of two boys, she also knew that parents need to be aware of what the latest developments are in technology and how it applies to them and their kids. In 1999, Collier created NetFamilyNews.org as an online “community newspaper” in which she covers issues like cyberbullying, social networking, online predators and how to supervise kids’ use of the Internet.

What makes NetFamilyNews.org even cooler: It is the only high-frequency news service of its kind in the English-speaking world, serving readers in more than 50 countries.

3. Mombian

Mombian.com, a lifestyle blog for lesbian moms and other LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) parents grew out of founder, Dana Rudolph’s frustration in not finding useful parenting information that she and her partner could relate to. Founded in 2005, Mombian.com provides parenting tips, children’s activities, book reviews for parents and children and political news and commentary from the perspective of a lesbian mom. It also includes information on lesbian culture and entertainment.

Rudolph writes all her posts and is a work-at-home mom who raises her young son with her partner of a dozen years.

What makes Mombian.com even cooler: It includes a Resource Directory that provides links to other sites and blogs that offer general LGBT parenting info as well as legal information and how to find community support.

4. Delicious Baby

Debbie Dubrow, a freelance writer and mother of two young girls, founded DeliciousBaby.com in 2005. Her blog is for parents who want tips on how to make traveling with children as enjoyable and stress-free as possible. Based on her own extensive travels, Dubrow provides advice for visiting cities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. She shares tips such as what to pack when traveling with kids and how to keep kids busy on a plane.

What makes DeliciousBaby.com even cooler: Dubrow provides product reviews of child-friendly travel gear and holds giveaway contests for many of the products that were approved.

5. Sparkplugging

What started as a hobby blog quickly turned into a blog described by the media as a trusted source of information on work-at-home resources. Wendy Piersall, founder and CEO of Sparkplugging.com, created her first blog, eMoms, to share advice on how moms can run a business from home. Her blog attracted the attention of moms as well as dads who loved the idea of a blog offering information about the latest work-at-home resources.

To acknowledge the variety of readers, Piersall replaced eMoms with her current blog, Sparkplugging.com. To help her cover her beat, Piersall recruited nine women whose expertise ranges from career coaching and office organization to creative design and Internet marketing.

What makes Sparkplugging.com even cooler: It includes Editor’s Pick of the Day articles and a list of Sparkplugging.com’s Top 10 articles for busy readers.

About BeatBlogging.Org

BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.