Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Botched Scrooge Story by ABC News

This morning ABC News had a report about a so-called "Scrooge" in Ross Township, Pennsylvania. But if the reporters had done their jobs, they would have discovered that the real Scrooges were the people who were accusing this man of insanity.

For years, brothers Bob and Bill Ansell of Ross Township, PA, had an enormous holiday Christmas light display. This wasn't just any light show. We're talking 84,000 watts of twinkle lights. The brothers would work from Labor Day up until the Christmas season hit to assemble everything, sort of like their personal hobby. They'd put up lights on weekends and about five hours per night on weekdays after they'd finished their daily jobs as electrical contractors.

They weren't doing it just for sheer kicks, either.

These two guys had a donation box in front of their house, whereby anybody who came down the street to see the lights could leave a little something for charity. Old news articles indicate that they started accepting money in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a children's hospital and The Salvation Army.

What jerks, right? :-P

OK, so apparently, the neighbors didn't like the traffic on the street that this display generated.

One in particular, Vince Heck, started complaining to township officials. He fussed and fussed. That was in 2005. See these articles for the back story, and read it for yourself:

Let's fast-forward to this weekend now.

I learned about this story, but not because of the harassment that the two brothers endured, for what seems like a pretty long time.

I learned about it because ABC News had a story about Bill Ansell (which Yahoo News put up on its home page this morning). Here it is:

From this account, it appears that Bill is pretty crazy. The neighbors describe him as "an angry person that's very unstable." He has changed the display into a beheaded choir, a hanging Mickey Mouse and a urinating Santa, among other things.

Apparently, it changed after Vince Heck's wife, Pamela, called Bill one Thanksgiving to ask him to turn off the lights because they were bothering her dinner guests.

When you read the story, you're under the impression that's what kicked this six-year feud off. However, if you look at the archives from the local newspaper, you get a completely different picture.

When you read the history of how Vince and Pamela Heck harassed, cajoled, complained and fussed about ALL OF THE MONEY BEING COLLECTED FOR A CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL AND THE SALVATION ARMY, is it any wonder that this guy is pissed off?

I'm not going to defend his actions today. But I understand him. However, what I don't understand is how a national news organization -- which apparently aired this segment on 20/20, of all things -- covered this like an in-depth piece and didn't even get the other side of the story into it. The other side of this story is pretty significant, if you ask me. All they had to do was look at newspaper archives.

And what happened to Bob Ansell? Why isn't he even mentioned in the piece? That's another piece of the puzzle that may also shed some light on Bill's hostility.

I know people get tired of me Monday Morning Quarterbacking a lot of these news organizations. But come on. This type of sloppy reporting is something that J-school freshmen students do. The standards of journalism have been plummeting since the proliferation of bloggers that self-style themselves as "reporters" and news Internet sites that hand over the reporting reins to people without classical journalism training. But now when I see this type of reporting by a national outfit? I'm seriously concerned about the future of our industry in this country.

And I hope that Bill Ansell keeps putting up his beheaded choir year after year, because he was trying to do a good deed and has been brush-stroked as a crazy criminal.

I don't think he's crazy, for the record.

But I do think that you're crazy if you work for ABC News and are proud of the "work" that went into this piece.

Friday, December 12, 2014

How the CIA "Handled" a Roomful of Journalists

First of all, you're going to get offended, because I'm going to use some bad language and bad descriptions, and I'm not holding back. So if you're wearing your granny panties and can't take it, click the X button on the upper right portion of your screen. You have been duly advised.


Most people these days are fussing and fuming about the Torture Report on the CIA's antics, recently released by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

But today, I'd like to fuss and fume about the malleable idiot "journalists" who covered the press conference yesterday by CIA Director John O. Brennan.

I really have to hand it to Brennan and his PR team. They did a masterful job of stroking the press corps into post-blowjob submission. I watched with my jaw agape as Brennan deftly moved through softball questions and deliver his statement as if he was reading a page out of Webster's dictionary. In fact, watching him, I kept envisioning the goblin named Griphook from Harry Potter, standing behind a podium and asking for Harry's keys to the Gringotts vault with no-nonsense authority.

But I digress.

Here's the most important part of what happened yesterday. The CIA got those reporters under control by doing one simple thing:

Sanitizing the events described in the report by changing the description from "torture" into a bureaucratic phrase:


Actually, the more I think about it, Brennan didn't even use that phrase very often.

What he said over and over was:


I came in at the middle of the press conference, and I'm listening to Brennan saying, "EITs," thinking, "What is an EIT? What is that?" Suddenly, ABC News put on the bottom of the screen the words, "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques."

I caught my breath.

Were the producers at the network actually going along with Brennan by substituting the word, "torture," which was the actual description of what happened in that report, with this bureaucratic bullshit?

Apparently, they were.

Then, I watched in further amazement as the REPORTERS started using the terminology!

In question after question, they stood up and assigned the acronym, "EIT" and occasionally the phrase, "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" in place of the word, "torture."

Question after question.

Sentence after sentence.

Enhanced Interrogation Technique.


And the producers at ABC kept putting it up on the screen.

OK, now I do know what those of you who are political reporters are going to say to me next, because I've been in your shoes: It was a very rare press conference, held by a very secretive organization, with a director who will rarely do exchanges with members of the press. Therefore, you might argue, it was incumbent on you to play along, be respectful, give him his due, give his phraseology a respectful nod.


Pardon me for regressing into my old infantile newsroom persona when I say this to you:



Do you realize that this is what the NAZIS did when they substituted the words, "mass murder" with "The Final Solution?"

Listen. I get it. I covered politics for The Associated Press in the Pennsylvania State Capitol from September 1995 to January 1999. I don't know if you've ever been in that grandiose building, but it's one of the most intimidating places on the planet, and I'm not even making this up. It is ornate and awe-inspiring and jaw dropping, with marble and stained glass and long corridors of power and all that we envision when we think of the seat of government.

And that's just one state Capitol in our grand nation.

I understand that if you're in Washington, D.C., and you've been summoned to a press conference by the CIA director over one of the most controversial stories in our history, of course you're going to be intimidated by the surroundings. Of course you're going to be acquiescent. Of course you're going to be respectful.

And that's exactly what the folks at the CIA were counting on.

But that doesn't mean you have to play along with their rules! Yes, you are on their turf, but you are a representative of the "freedom of the press" that we love to wear on our lapels like badges of honor. It is your God damn responsibility as a journalist to be in your face and be your no-nonsense self right back at them.

God damn it!!!!

I will tell you that more than once, I got into yelling matches with politicians and their PR flaks in the hallways of that Capitol building. In fact, I once screamed at the PR guy for former Gov. Tom Ridge, right outside Ridge's office, knowing Ridge was on the other side of the door and could hear every fucking word I said. I told him he had five minutes to get an answer for me, or I was putting my story on the wire. I marched down to my office and told my editor, who then told me to "GO BACK UPSTAIRS AND APOLOGIZE." I then had a yelling fight with the editor about why I would NOT do that, and he was about to fire me, when the phone rang. It was the PR guy. And he was calling to apologize to ME. And give me a statement. And tell me everything I wanted to know. I looked at my editor with one eyebrow raised, stuck my tongue out at him and started taking notes and filed my story in 15 minutes. Yes, I did.

And he didn't fucking fire me.

Don't for one second try to say to me with a straight face that you had to accept that bureaucratic terminology from the CIA for what can be described as nothing else but FUCKING. TORTURE.

You are representing the people of the United States of America. We have free rights here. We have a freedom of the press. You will NOT GET INTO TROUBLE FOR GETTING INTO THE BAD GUY'S FACE AND TELLING HIM THAT HE IS FULL OF SHIT.

Still on the fence about whether you should have complied with his usage of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques?"

OK, let's look at a few of those "techniques."

1. They kept human beings in pitch black rooms for days on end with blasting music and sleep deprivation and buckets for their waste. When they opened the doors, these people were crouched in corners "like kenneled dogs."

Do we even treat our dogs like this?

2. They dragged a guy naked from the waist down around and left him in sub-zero temps so that he and his penis froze to death.

If you're a man, just let that sink in for a few seconds.

3. They waterboarded three people. Well, they say there were three. But you and I know that people in the CIA like to brag that they tell lies for a living, so if you want to believe there are only three of them, then I have a wonderful bridge in Brooklyn for sale. And it's super cheap! Contact me for details!

4. And oh! This one is my FAVORITE:

They took hummus, raisins, nuts ... I think there was a fourth ingredient, but I lost count after reading those first three ... and they put them in a plunger thing and shoved it up a man's ass to "feed" him.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.


If you want to keep using that description for what would make a Quentin Tarantino film look like a Disney's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse TV show, then be my guest.

But just be aware that John O. Brennan and his team at the CIA are giving you your own hummus-raisin-nut enema and laughing at you while they shove those words up your ass.

Do your fucking jobs or go work for the CIA's public relations team, because that's exactly what you did yesterday.

I'm done here.

Post critical comments at your peril.

--Heidi Lynn Russell

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing on Deadline with a Yoga Mindset

During the past 18 months, I have become more and more entrenched in a yoga lifestyle.

Notice I didn't say yoga "workouts," but a yoga "lifestyle."

What I mean by that is, when you regularly practice yoga as a physical exercise, soon other things follow ... Your taste for food changes so that you crave healthier options. You sleep better. And you actually start to take different approaches to your way of thinking and solving problems.

I'm not sure why all of this happens, but I apply the way I think about conquering certain yoga poses to the way I am tackling the challenges in my day.

This is especially true when I am on deadline.

During a yoga class, you move from pose to pose, and your body has to adjust to new ways of bending and stretching. Some poses come to you more easily than others. For example, I've gotten to the point where I could move through Warrior poses and Triangle poses in my sleep. In fact, usually during yoga class, I move through those poses with my eyes closed and almost go into a dream-like-state while I do it.

Then there are other poses that don't come so easily for me. With those, I have to learn how to transition my body with an intermediate pose before I can actually move into the actual pose full-throttle. And there are still others that I can't master at all, even with the transitions. For those, I have to revert to Child's Pose while I catch my breath.

Now what does this have to do with writing on deadline? Everything.

There are some days where I feel the world is crashing on my head -- in short, a series of difficult yoga poses.

Today is one such day.

I have two magazine assignments due on Friday. Two days ago, the foundational source for one of my pieces suddenly flaked out and said she wouldn't be interviewed. (Another blog entry, but I digress.) I had to rebuild the framework for that story and find replacement sources. The other story was ready to write, but I have tons of notes and a word count ceiling of 600.

In the middle of that, my child got sick and is home from school with his third virus in the past two months.

On top of that, yesterday morning I stepped on a shard of glass (dropped the night before by the same child ... and I thought I'd swept all of it up, but I guess NOT) ... and have a nice slice into my right foot -- which is either here nor there when it comes to time management, but I think I've replaced bandages about 12 times since then and fussed with some Epsom salts -- anyway, it's been another distraction.

I would call this the equivalent of moving from one difficult yoga pose to another.

Today I am completing two more magazine interviews for one of the stories, outlining and writing the second one and .... oh yeah .... simultaneously communicating with a second client, for whom I am ghost-writing a book about a chapter that we are tackling this week.

Sooooooooooooooo .... This is where a yoga "lifestyle" comes in:

First, in yoga, with a difficult pose, you learn to master the intermediate pose.

In this case, to jump start my writing cylinders, which completely feel zapped, I am tackling an intermediate pose: I am writing this blog entry. You might think that this postpones the magazine article, but it doesn't. For me, when I'm writing something that has nothing to do with the immediate deadline assignment, I kick-start my brain into the required action of concentrated word gathering and organization.

Next in yoga, as you move to the more difficult pose, you learn to breathe through the discomfort.

There are poses that I want to get out of as soon as I've entered them. I close my eyes and practice the art of the "breath." When you focus on your breathing, the physical discomfort begins to vanish, and you start to relax into the pose.

In the same way, as I work my way through endless interview notes and organize them into a coherent story format, I "breathe." The "breath" for me looks like this: I put on music that I know will motivate me. The music relaxes me, I start literally breathing deeper, and I automatically sink into organizing and writing.

Finally, you master the difficult pose. You are able to hold the pose and allow your mind to travel to the state of relaxation.

Once I have the notes and outline and lead of the story conquered, I master the story in much the same way. The words flow like water. The "pose" is no longer an issue.

Then it's time to move to the next "pose" ... and by then, you're home free, because if you find it's difficult, you just put the same plan into motion again -- hit a transitional activity to jump start the mind or body and then breathe into it.

And now that I've successfully blown through my transitional time, i.e. writing this for you, I'm off to plugging in some music, breathing deeply and starting the difficult work of the day.

The next time you hit a tight deadline and face challenges that may circumvent you from reaching it, try this. Even if you don't practice yoga as a physical exercise, learning to move from one activity to the next with a sequence of transitional activity and relaxation will free your mind from stress. Creativity then takes over, and before you know it, your work will be done.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Freelancing, Time Management & the Single Mom

For the past three weeks, I've been on a tear, racing from one activity to the next.

Here's what I had on docket professionally: 
1) A book ghost-writing project
2) A Web site writing project, with 10 pages of Web site copy to churn out
3) An annual project in which I write up 40 bios of top military members
4) A major feature story for my top magazine client
5) Two short stories for my top magazine client and one short story for yet another magazine

Here's what I had on docket personally:
1) Doctor appointments for my child, who has a form of high-functioning autism
2) Schoolwork for my child, which takes on average 2 hours per night to complete (including two major school projects)
3) Not one, but two viruses that my child brought home from school (which sidelined both of us)
4) Two ongoing personal crises that have absorbed countless hours


This is where the beauty of a freelance lifestyle comes in.

I am a single mom. The challenge here, of course, is continuing to generate top-quality writing product, on time, while also balancing the needs of my child.

If you've ever wondered about whether you can adequately manage your time on a freelance lifestyle, then take it from me ... I've had every conceivable hurdle and challenge known to womankind thrown in my pathway for the past 4 1/2 years. During the past three weeks, all of those professional obligations I listed had the same deadline priority. Every. Single. One. None could be sidelined while I worked on others. And all of the personal obligations had an equal or higher priority. You can't shelve a child, can you?

So how do I do it?

I learned long ago that to conquer the clock, you have to be willing to work in the nooks and crannies of your days and nights.

This is what a typical day looks like for me:

6:30-8:30 a.m.: Rise and shine, walk the dog, make the school lunch, get the child ready & take to school.
Morning and Early Afternoon: Write or do magazine interviews. Three times a week, I go to a yoga class. Walk the dog a second time.
2:45 p.m.: Pick up child from school ... walk the dog for the third time ... Talk to the child about his socialization challenges at school, which are connected to his autism and must be addressed before homework can be started.
5-5:30 p.m.: Make dinner and feed child.
5:30-8 p.m.: Homework.
8 p.m.-9:30 p.m.: Walk dog for the 4th time of the day, get child showered and start bedtime routine.
9:30 p.m.: If I'm on a tight deadline, I return to writing and usually write until midnight.
Midnight-6:45 a.m.: Sleep.

I didn't really come up with this schedule as a hard-and-fast routine, but it just sort of fell into that automatically. Things are adjusted, depending on deadlines, but each minute of each day must be carefully scrutinized and treated as a highly-valued commodity. There is no room for much else.

If you throw in a pediatrician's appointment, a crisis at school that necessitates a visit to the principal's office or a teacher conference, a stomach virus, a dog's mishap that requires an unexpected trip to the groomer ... and the regular daily activities like grocery shopping, bill paying, laundry .... You can see where freelancing for me is a lifestyle that I can't afford to lose.

Many people look at my job and say, "You have my dream job. I wish I could do that." Well, I'm here to tell you that you CAN do it -- but you also have to realize that you have to be a master at juggling multiple tasks. Editors do not care about the extra hurdles that may prevent you from finishing a story. If you accept a deadline, turn the story in on time. And to do that, you have to carefully plot each hour (sometimes each minute) of your day.

Freelancing offers me a lot of freedom. When I complete projects, like this week, I'm able to spend more time on things like ... blog writing. And this summer, my child and I spent 10 wonderful days in central Florida, unencumbered by work. I also took a few days to travel solo to Denver for some needed R&R and to sink into more in-depth yoga instruction. When I'm home, I can dash off to a yoga studio and plan my writing around my need to stretch, without worrying about an employer wondering where I am. But at the same time, I DO make my deadlines. I DO turn in a quality product. I DO remain accountable and available for editing and follow-up work to what I have already turned in.

My secret is to analyze the scheduling requirements of each day ... then each week .... then each month ... and what it will take for me to meet those requirements.

Freelancing does mean freedom. But it also means being responsible to your editors, your family ... and yourself ... with smart time management.

Oh .... did I mention time at the hair salon?

Don't forget to do that, either!

When you're dashing around as a freelancer, it always helps when you're exhausted to look in the mirror and see a rested and well-styled reflection staring back at you. :-)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Ghostwriting: Getting Into "Character" with help from Richard Armitage

"I think I'm a concentrating actor. So in order to do my work in the course of a day, particularly with a character like this I have to concentrate. So it's about staying in the scene, staying with my head in the scene and attempting to keep the character with me. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation or go and make a cup of coffee. But I actually stay with the character for 18 months." ~ British actor Richard Armitage, star of "The Hobbit" film series

As a writer, I love reading quotes by other famous writers (Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis, in particular) for inspiration when delving into a project.

However, during the past six weeks, I've had to turn to a completely different type of "artist" -- an actor -- to light a spark for a new project.

I've just signed on to ghost write a book. I can't divulge details yet. But right at the outset of this project, I hit a major snag:

I was ghost writing in my own voice.

I had worked on my introductory chapter and was really pleased with myself! I have to say ... I felt smug. I just knew my client would be effusive! I'd worked for about two days on this chapter. I was certain that I'd covered everything she wanted to convey, in a manner that would capture the reader's fancy and drive them further into the book.

The morning after I sent it off, I sat down with my steaming mug of French-pressed coffee and a gorgeous Southern biscuit slathered in honey. I gleefully opened my computer, expecting to see an email that said, "You're brilliant! Thank you! I love this!"


No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Yes, that's what she said.


My ego hit the floor like a a guy taking a knock-out punch from Floyd Mayweather.

"How in the world could she NOT like this?"  I thought.

To assuage my angst (if you're a writer, you know how you have to recover after your material is rejected), I took a mental break and pulled up some Youtube interviews with a favorite actor, Richard Armitage. You may know him for his role in "The Hobbit." On this particular morning, I pulled up an interview that he did to promote his current theatrical performance in London on "The Crucible." As I listened to how he traveled to Massachusetts to wrap his brain around the Puritanical community and the character he would be playing ... suddenly it hit me.

Ghost writing really is nothing more than acting on a page, rather than on a stage.

I pulled up more interviews by Armitage to see how he gets himself into character. One of his more fascinating exercises is that he writes his own fiction, creating "character diaries" for each person he is portraying.

"I kind of do stay with the character, yeah. He's always there. It's like marinating something – you're sitting in a marinade the whole time," he told one interviewer.

What I was missing was my client's voice. In short, I needed to "sit in marinade" in her character.

Part of her book is about her strong passion for her vegan lifestyle. So this week, believe it or not, I have eschewed MEAT. I have watched every link she's sent (Netflix documentaries and Youtube videos alike) about the evils of the agricultural industry.

And today, I hit the supermarket and picked up vegan butter, vegan sour cream, soy milk ... and looked into how to prepare vegan meals ... and have prepared a fully vegan diet to follow while I write this book.

Extreme, you may say?

Well, all I can tell you is that when I turned in the re-write of that chapter, the client came back to me and said one of her best friends remarked, "It sounds just like you." She's pleased with the changes.

I've been writing newspaper, wire service and now magazine articles for 25 years. I've never had to write in someone else's voice until now. But I am having so much fun "marinating" in my "character."

And, thanks to a fellow creative artist/soul, I think I've found the answer to successfully segueing into a new writing venture.

I'll keep you posted to let you know how the rest of the project goes.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When Something Smells Rotten in Denmark

So you want to be an "investigative journalist."

Let's make one thing clear: If you're a reporter, it doesn't matter what beat you are working --  you could be covering the local PTA and school board meeting, the municipal sewage/water authority, cops and robbers or the sports desk. There is always an opportunity to be an investigative journalist. The problem is that most "journalists" think that they have to be assigned to a political desk to do any meaningful work. But oftentimes, the stories of corruption are sitting right in front of you. You just aren't being observant enough -- or your antenna may be so tuned in to one direction of the wind, that you may be missing the storm brewing behind you.

I started thinking about this because of a personal circumstance, ironically, which has nothing to do with my freelance writing job. Human nature is human nature. And eventually, someone's dark side will surface if it's something they are trying to hide. It's just a matter of time before you put the pieces together.

Here are a few tale-tell signs that I've learned along the way:

1. The person that people trust the most is the person you should suspect the most. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. But ironically, the most trusted person in the room usually is the person hiding something. Think about it -- pedophiles aren't usually creeps hanging out in dark corners. They're Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders, classroom teachers. Ever hear of Jerry Sandusky? Google him if you haven't.

Did you know that Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, was the treasurer for the group of disciples and embezzled their money? Anyone who handles money for someone else is highly trusted. Always look in that direction for clues.

I had a case when I was working at The York Dispatch ... we were a union shop, and the reporters had to pay union dues every month. Ours were $40 per reporter. I was 27-29 while I was there, and I was making a paltry $27,000 per year. So $40 per month was a lot of money for me.

I asked the union treasurer -- who was the newspaper's retired librarian -- to bring in the union accounting books so that I could see how the money was being spent. It just didn't seem very logical to me. Where was the money going? She was about 75 years old and very beloved in this newsroom. She refused to bring in the books. So I refused to give her my dues. Things came to a head. People who loved this little old lady told me I was a big meanie (well, they used OTHER words, but use your imagination, and you've got it ...) and that I should just pay the dues. I said the little old lady should bring in the books if there was nothing to hide.

To make a long story short, after a big brew-ha-ha, the union treasurer confessed that she had been embezzling the funds. It gets better. She had a gambling addiction and had taken the money to Atlantic City, NJ, on weekends, and lost thousands of dollars. She had been maintaining two sets of books to hide it.

So if you're covering a local municipality, school district, whatever ... that leads us to point number 2:

2. Always ask for budgets. Don't say to me, "But Heidi, I only scored C-minus in math, my entire time in school. I'm a gifted writer, but I'm not an accountant."


You want to be an investigative reporter? Get a calculator.

Ask for budgets. Ask questions about the budgets. If you don't know how to add and subtract, get a tutor. You will never uncover anything unless you're willing to go into the world of numbers.

3. The people who are pointing fingers are usually the people hiding something. I'm not talking about whistle-blowers here. I'm talking about people who are in a collective huff -- the people who want to see another person or another group of people fall. These are the people who are so busy pointing out the faults of others that they can't see their own faults. Usually, this type of story is the easiest one to cover. The only thing you have to do is let them hang themselves with their words. The minute you get an invitation to cover a big "event" where a group of people is "exposing" the wrong-doings of someone else, bring your tape recorder and transcribe EVERYTHING that is said. You can probably get the other side of the story very easily just by the way Group A portrays Group B. Usually you can anticipate what Group B's response will be, because the things Group A throws around will start to sound so ridiculous that their credibility will dissolve like vapor.

4. If people start acting defensive when you ask questions, you're on to something.

People with nothing to hide will be forthright. They may seem taken aback by questions, but they will always be eager to show you that they have done nothing wrong.

On the other hand, people with something to hide will immediately put up their defenses. They'll do everything conceivable to avoid answering questions, will cast blame elsewhere ... and may even accuse you of being a hack journalist.

Don't let that throw you.

Just stay with your line of questioning, which will lead to point number 5:

5. Somewhere in the group that is hiding something, there is a person who wants the truth to be told. I have lost count of the number of times during my newspaper and AP wire service careers when I would get an anonymous note or phone call. The person on the other end would say something like, "I was in the room when you were asking questions of So-and-So, and they weren't telling you everything. I can tell you the truth, but you have to keep my name out of it."

Sometimes these notes would be sandwiched between my wiper blades and car windshield. (When that happens, it's not only freaky to know that people know your car, but also your schedule. And it also means you've nailed the story.)

Once you get to that point in your information gathering, go to your editor for next steps. Proceeding ahead on a story of this nature requires the backing of your publication. Do not do this alone in a vacuum. You'll want everybody on board --  including the publisher, who may have personal community ties that could threaten the story's publishing. You need the publisher in your corner especially.

This was a quick primer, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section. This can be a complicated issue for anyone covering news, but with practice in studying human behavior, you may be winning your investigative trophy in no time.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Vanity Fair's Lost Opportunity with Scarlett Johansson

Vanity Fair, for me, usually gets the gold star when it comes to jaw-dropping-no-stone-uncovered research that reveals savory details to set a foundation for lusciously written prose.

So I was pretty excited to see that the magazine had a feature spread on Scarlett Johansson, who I consider to be our generation's Marilyn Monroe on steroids. If anybody could do Johansson justice -- if anybody could give this starlet depth of respectful journalistic coverage like a down white blanket over the glittery sex kitten persona -- Vanity Fair could.



I was hugely let down by this story, and I felt it deserved a blog entry, because it's the epitome of the mistake that every single person who claims to be a "journalist" should avoid at all costs:

Inserting yourself into the story.

Right out of the gate, we weren't reading about Scarlett, but about this writer's penchant for playing it cool with celebrities and then being awestruck by her dazzling photo shoot in a posh hotel.

We get a play-by-play of lustful thoughts, as the writer struggles to regain composure and concentration for the interview.

Then, we see the writer's feelings hurt, as Scarlett "firmly" (the word used in the article) refuses a glass of wine before the interview begins.


The writer then veers off course to give us background of the actress's career, which, under normal article-writing standards would be just fine, except that we're still waiting for the "main event," as it were -- the actual INTERVIEW.

Finally (finally!), the writer allows Scarlett to speak.

But by the time we get to her thoughts, we basically are reading a shallow discussion, as the writer continues to wrestle with thoughts about how Scarlett now resembles more of a graduate student than a glittery icon. The depth of content is as scanty as the negligee this writer has been conjuring since setting eyes on her.

I put the magazine down feeling like I'd just picked up a wanna-be-Playboy-article -- but definitely not something worthy of the prestige of Vanity Fair -- and definitely not something that could have given this bright young talent the respectful narrative she deserved.

And it got me thinking about people who call themselves journalists but are more like voyeurs who happen to have a gift with words.

See .... once you put yourself and your feelings and your thoughts in a personal profile piece, you've lost the entire game. Your job is to give the reader an opportunity to live vicariously through you. They should be the one sitting in your interview seat, hearing the words through your ears, seeing the subject through your eyes, but not seeing you.

That's where we have to strike the balance as journalists. We bring the person to life on a page -- magicians who are unseen, conjuring the images and emotions with a masterful pen stroke that gives the reader the intimacy they crave without knowledge that we were even in the room.

Have you ever gotten in the way of a story?

I know we're all tempted to do it, and I'm sure that when faced with a larger-than-life persona, our own egos fight to let the world know that we were there with them.

But if the reader gives you enough respect to take a few moments to read words you have written, at least give them the respect they're due. Get your arrogant ass out of the way, and let the interviewee step to the forefront.

In this case, the writer for Vanity Fair basically shoved Scarlett to the wings of the stage and took its center. Her spotlight receded, while this person's waking wet dream jumped up and down and screamed for attention.


It got my attention.

But this story's writer -- and whoever edited this drivel -- didn't win what they were seeking:

A reader's respect.

And I have to wonder if Scarlett Johansson cast the piece aside, thinking much the same thing.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ideas, Ideas, Ideas!

People ask me all the time:

"How do you come up with your ideas as a freelancer? Do editors assign you stories, or do you have to come up with things by yourself?"

Both. I do get assignments from editors. But before that can happen for any freelancer, you have to establish a rapport with those editors to receive unsolicited work.

And how do you go about doing that?

Send them a list of ideas that will appeal to their readers.

Believe it or not, it's not as difficult as it sounds. Here are a few things I do regularly online to come up with no-fail pitches:

1. A simple Google search: I know you're going to laugh and say, "It can't be that easy," but here we go: Go to the Google search box and type the type of market you are pitching along with the word, "issue." For example, I write for military magazines. Yesterday, I needed to come up with pitches for a publication that is read by members of the U.S. National Guard. So I went to Google and typed in, "National Guard issues." Voila, up came lists of news stories that affect my readers. I drilled into those to advance them into timeless ideas. You can do this with any market. One of my other magazines reaches pizza restaurant owners throughout the United States and Canada. I do the same thing: "waitress issues," "front of the house issues," "back office issues," "entrepreneur issues" ... you get the idea. I know, I know, I know, it sounds too simple to be effective, but you'll be amazed at how many things you can find that can be expanded upon into great feature stores.

2. Subscribe to blogs and e-letters focusing on your personal interests: I have varying interests and hobbies that are separate from the types of trade magazines for whom I write. I practice yoga. I'm a single mom. I'm dating. I'm an antique lover. I dig British history, everything from Richard III to the Regency era. And I love experimenting in the kitchen. Attached to all of these interests are blogs that I hit periodically. "Well," you might say, "what do any of those things have to do with a military magazine? Or an entrepreneur magazine? Or a Realtor magazine?" Sometimes nothing. But sometimes I'll hit a blog entry pertaining to single parenting that can also be applied to military spouses whose husbands or wives are deployed. I might read a blog about the history of a battle in the Middle Ages or weaponry and spin that into an article about how ancient warfare tactics apply today. Or I might hit a yoga blog about building a yoga teaching business -- and the concepts are similar to what a Realtor can do to advance his or her operation. Or I might see something about Victorian architecture, which can also be applied to home sale stories for Realtors. Last year, I saw a blog about recipes for people with allergies, and that led to a story about marketing to people with allergies for pizza restaurant owners at my pizza magazine. Basically, it's taking your personal interests and thinking outside that box to see how those interests might dovetail into your niche readership. Yes, it requires a bit of brain pretzel twisting, but it's worth your time and effort. And, frankly, it's fun!

3. Keep an eye on trends in social media. I have about 4,200 followers on Twitter and 300-some on Facebook. Besides my addiction to Candy Crush (it's pretty bad, but I digress), I use social media to chat and keep my radar up for issues that concern my friends, which always translates into something that concerns my readers. On Twitter, I follow a lot of parents who have children with Asperger's Syndrome, which my child also has. Again, that leads to story ideas. I also have met great PR professionals on Twitter, who tag me when their clients have stories that may interest my readers. Facebook is another treasure trove, because my inner circle friends will discuss things that I may not otherwise hear on the more public Twitter forum. This week, we were talking about the differences between Internet Service Providers, because I'm moving to a new house and am shopping. The discussion led to an idea about customer service and marketing tactics for people moving into new homes, which I will pitch to my Realtor magazine.

The bottom line is, if you have a computer, tablet or phone, you can find ideas. The trick is using the tools online effectively to constantly think creatively and intuitively. Your editors will thank you, and your bank statement will balloon in no time.