Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Telling the Truth in a Trump World

Twenty-two hours ago (at the time of this writing), President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted something that has been nagging at me as a journalist with 27 years of experience in both newsrooms and the freelance magazine landscape:

"If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to 'tweet.' Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!"

Initially, I freely admit, I took offense. My knee-jerk emotional response was, "You are the President-Elect, and critical press coverage is part of the package."

I covered politics for The Associated Press in the Pennsylvania Statehouse from 1995 to early 1999, during the governorship of Tom Ridge, who eventually became known in the aftermath of 9/11 for heading up the Department of Homeland Security. And I should first say this about politicians, and it is meant as a sincere compliment: They have really thick skins. I can remember chasing stories that would have raised the ire of the gentlest of souls, and yet every politician with whom I ever came in contact always treated me with grace and respect. You have to understand that my office was right in the center of the Capitol, too -- right at the top of the sweeping marble staircase of the Rotunda. I was *in* and *among* these politicians, hour by hour, day after day. I saw them at committee meetings, at lunch counters, in hallways, even in my office. Regardless of the political party, regardless of the story I was writing, they were always courteous. Of course the things that I wrote made them angry, when I was revealing something they didn't want revealed. But they never complained about my objectivity and never gave me pause to think that they held personal ill will against me for just doing my job.

Now let's speed up to Trump's tweet yesterday. Given everything I've just told you, you might understand why I would initially feel that he needs to man up and learn his new role as Commander in Chief and how the press corps figures into that relationship.

But as I contemplated it some more, the fairness that dictated my life during those days at the AP also must apply to Trump.

So to be fair to him, you have to look at the history of what has happened in the past 12 months leading up to that tweet:

First of all, Trump needs to not be so disingenuous by ignoring the fact that he was given unprecedented favorable coverage for his rallies during the months leading up to the primaries. Anytime I turned on any news station, they were rolling those rallies in their entirety. I have never seen anything like it. While networks cut away from other candidates mid-speech, Trump commanded the air waves night and day, and many of the rallies were broadcast without interruption.

I also would point out that there were many times when Trump's surrogates were allowed to spew falsehoods -- sometimes unchallenged by the broadcasters who had them on their shows. And one network -- CNN -- even hired Trump's former campaign manager. Tell me that isn't favorable coverage.

However, we saw the tide start to turn when the Access Hollywood tapes emerged. By this time, even those who had been favorable to Trump changed their coverage approach.

What we saw in the few short weeks between the release of that tape and Election Day was definitely an all-out assault on Trump. Every news outlet, with the exception of Fox News, threw everything they had AGAINST him.

Regarding print media, the only outlets I saw that consistently were negative in their coverage were The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek.

I have to approach this topic with two personas: my journalist persona, and my "private American citizen" persona.

As a private American citizen, I was thrilled with the aggressiveness demonstrated by The New York Times, Washington Post and Newsweek. I follow their reporters on Twitter and heavily retweeted their stories, in the hopes that it would be enough to defeat Trump.

As a journalist, however, I have to admit to you that Trump is correct -- currently. In the beginning, he was treated as the golden boy, and now he is definitely being held up for as much public ridicule as the media can throw at him.

Now why should this matter to those of you in the profession? Just this thought: The overwhelming bias for Trump in the beginning of 2016 ... and the overwhelming bias AGAINST Trump at the end of 2016 has severely curtailed the trust the public now has in what you are reporting.

The problem now is ... even when Trump is engaging in terrible conflicts of interests, rocking the boat with China, appointing questionable mentally-balanced individuals to his Cabinet ... you as journalists have lost public trust to believe your stories, based on your performance in 2016.

And you may wonder, "Well where were YOU, Heidi Lynn Russell, in 2016, if you're such a great journalist?"

I was staying away from writing about politics. I knew I had zero objectivity to be able to cover anything fairly. So I stayed with my military stories and my business stories. As an American citizen, I was vocal against Trump. As a journalist, I didn't write one piece about anything he was doing on the campaign circuit. I didn't feel that with the training and experience I'd had, it was morally or ethically right for me to throw my hat into the ring on that front.

Going forward, I really don't know what the future of our profession will be. It seems that Trump is laying the groundwork to go after the First Amendment, and we already see disturbing actions and words concerning the press. However, to re-win the public's trust in your coverage, you're going to have to fairly cover ALL of Trump's actions -- both negative and positive. For example, I did see a couple of Cabinet appointments that aren't all bad. And despite that phone call with Taiwan, as a private citizen, I wondered if it wouldn't be so bad if China knew they couldn't push us around. But I didn't see any news coverage that looked at this angle -- rather, everything I saw bashed Trump. In every story we cover, there is always a nugget of the other side of the story, and in all of the coverage, I didn't see that "other side" reflected.

The bottom line here is that if you got into this profession to tell the truth, then tell the truth. Cover every single story as if you're an insect on the wall, observing it impassively. That's what we're paid to do. Let the public draw their own conclusions.

Your job is to solely present the facts.

And if you do that, then Trump will not ever be able to tweet again that you're not playing by the rules.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why I Won't Write Political Stories Anytime Soon

Dial back in time to 1996.

Bill Clinton was running for his second term, and I ... I was second-guessing a decision I'd made as a cub reporter back in 1988.

So let's amend our little time capsule and dial back further ... to 1988.

I was one year out of college, still green and hungry to make a name for myself in the world of journalism. At age 23, I was working at a tiny little hole-in-the-wall paper called "The Coatesville Record" (now defunct) in south-central Pennsylvania. One day, Dave Lanute, one of my two editors called me over to his terminal.

"Are you registered to vote?"


"What party?"


"Change it."

I blanched. "Change it to what, Dave???"

"Change it to Independent. You don't ever want anyone knowing which way you lean politically. Ever. They will use it against you and claim that your news coverage is biased. You don't have to do it. It's not a prerequisite for working here. It's just some friendly advice. It will save you headaches down the road. OK, that's all I wanted to tell you," Dave said, and then turned back to his computer screen like we hadn't even been having a discussion.

I changed to Independent that same week.

But when 1996 rolled around, I was hankering to register Democrat so that I could vote for Bill in the primary.

By this time, I was a "newswoman" (yes, that was my actual job title) for The Associated Press, covering Pennsylvania politics in the state Capitol, Harrisburg. If you visited the Capitol, you'd go straight up the sweeping marble stairs in a blindingly beautiful Rotunda, then hang a left through the door at the top -- and you'd be in the AP Bureau. And you'd see me sitting at a desk in the left-hand corner, busily calling people for quotes and pounding at my keyboard.

It was mid-winter, so about three months before the primary election. Three Republican staffers, all young guys, came into our bureau. Simultaneously, all five of us looked up. One of the GOP staffers started laughing.

"What do you want?" my bureau chief asked.

"We don't want anything. We're here to tell you that all of you are going to love what's coming out soon," replied one.

"And that is?"

"That is ... We have gone through voting records of every reporter who works in the statehouse and are listing their political affiliations so that lawmakers will know how biased they are when they report on their bills."

The room was silent.

"Good luck with that, jackass."

(Yes, that comment came from me ... sitting over in the left-hand corner.)

They all looked at me, and one raised his eyebrow, smirking. "Oh we don't need luck, we already did it."

"Then if that's the case, you'll find that those of us with two brain cells ARE REGISTERED AS INDEPENDENTS. Now go away, I have a story to write, and my deadline was five minutes ago."

They stood in the doorway with their jaws agape. I looked up from my keyboard. "Go bother someone else, I said! We're busy! Get out of here!"

I had a lot of fun that day, throwing that in their faces. I thanked my old editor at the Coatesville Record with every breath as I smiled to myself while they slunk away.

But now let's speed up in time ... to 2016.

I have been a full-time freelance journalist since I left the newspaper industry 15 years ago.This morning, I was on Twitter, bouncing private messages with a friend who had known me during the time I worked for the AP. He brought up an important question:

"You are so biased! Reporters need to be neutral, right?"

See, he was referring to my penchant for tweeting heavily about my views against Donald Trump. Today, not only am I registered Democrat, but I hold nothing back in my political viewpoints on social media.

So this needs to be addressed, both for anyone who wonders about it and for those of you who are just starting out in your professional careers as journalists:

Yes, I'm a reporter. Yes, I have covered politics in the past.

But you will not see me writing political stories anytime soon. In fact, if you dig through my social media posts, you will not see me posting any opinions about any of the topics on which I write.

I refuse to take political assignments. I am at a point in life where I can pick and choose the types of clients for whom to work. My clients are either military magazines or business magazines. I stay away from reporting on daily news -- and I definitely stay away from politics. I'm a political junkie at heart, and I loved (loved!) covering politics 20 years ago for the AP. But that was a different lifetime. And I've decided that it's more important to me personally to be able to present my views and objections to political happenings that I feel are putting the country at peril.

In my former life, I was required by my employers -- news organizations -- to shelve my views in order to try to give each story as much objectivity as I humanly could. Does it mean that reporters are objective? Of course not. Notice I said, "humanly." We're all humans, and if someone tries to tell you that they're an "objective journalist," never read anything they write again, because they're a big liar.

However, we are to maintain the appearance of propriety as journalists, and as much as it depends on us, report stories with as much fairness as we can muster.

It wasn't always easy for me. I can remember one specific story in Elkton, Maryland, when I sat across the table from the Grand Dragon of that state's Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was passing around leaflets near public schools, to recruit teenagers. I can tell you that I honestly wanted to lunge myself across the table and choke the smile off of that monster's face. But I wrote a story from the interview -- an objective story -- that laid out the facts about what the Klan was doing and how school district officials were combating it.

No, the Grand Dragon did not like that story at all -- and it's because he thought it would be a puff piece. That's how well I masked my feelings.

But back to politics. I think that in this era of social media, it's very important for young journalists to realize this:

If you're going to be on social media, keep your political views to yourselves. Register as Independent. Go after every story as if you were covering a nebulous PTA meeting. And you already know this, but it bears repeating: Do not allow your views to taint your coverage.

When I know that my views on an issue or a subject are so strong that it prevents me from doing my job, I back off. I refuse the assignment.

Now there is an exception here. There are times when your past experiences or who you are as a person will contribute to the story. For example, I am a former Army wife, and my ex-husband went through three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving me home with a newborn infant, three weeks after this child was born.

Obviously, I am going to have strong views about the war.

However, I do have the perspective about how military life affects military families. So my stories will focus on how to help your child cope with deployments. How to reconnect after you're reunited. How to deal with PTSD.

What you will NOT see me write about, however, are stories about the political decisions shaping our troops. I do believe that the war was an illegal war. As a result, I would not write stories about pending legislation on war efforts, for example. You would not see me doing a profile story on a Congressman with a Hawkish view.

Here's another example: I'm a single mom, and as a self-employed writer, I pay for my own health care insurance policy. You would not see me write stories about Obamacare, however. You would not see me write stories about the insurance industry.

But you might see me write stories about how to shop for insurance plans ... or how to cut your home budget to make room for health care expenses.

Do you see the difference?


Back to my friend's original question about my political tweets and my anti-Donald-Trump stance:

I would never take an assignment that would involve Donald Trump or his shenanigans. I would never accept a story about a political rally, an anti-immigrant campaign or even on the plights of immigrants.

However, you will definitely see me tweeting about it. You will definitely see me exercising my free speech right as an American to vociferously shout down hatred and bigotry.

And as for the rest of the stories out there ... oh, there are so many stories! ... You will see my silence on issues where there is a chance that my byline may be linked to them.

There are plenty of stories from which to choose. So choose wisely ... and wisely conduct yourself so that no one can say you acted with impropriety.

And when in doubt ... register Independent. And keep your big mouth shut about it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Troubling Development in the Lewandowski-Fields Fiasco

I usually feel like I have lived two lifetimes. The first was that of a news reporter, chasing stories on deadline and crashing into whichever politician, law enforcement authority or shady business that got in my way. The second is my current life, that of a freelancer and single mom to a boy on the autistic spectrum. My current life is not at all like the former, as you can see. So when a story like the Corey Lewandowski-Michelle Fields fracas hits, I'm intensely curious about what happened, given that previously, I found myself rubbing elbows frequently with people like Lewandowski.

Until this morning, I was firmly in the Fields camp. And anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I am hugely outspoken against Trump. (How can a "journalist" spout their personal views? That's a topic for another blog, but the short answer is that I no longer cover politics as a beat, therefore I am speaking out as a private citizen. But let's get back to this matter at hand -- the night in question.)

You can hit this link and read Lewandowski's words for yourself (http://www.politico.com/blogs/2016-gop-primary-live-updates-and-results/2016/04/corey-lewandowski-michelle-fields-222005), but in the meantime, let me shed some perspective:

When I was in Fields' shoes, I was about her age, covering politics for AP in the Pennsylvania statehouse. Before that, I also covered court trials for a tiny newspaper in a little-known town, Elkton, Maryland. I also covered local school districts for a mid-sized newspaper in York, Pennsylvania at another paper. In all three assignments, I dealt with characters who seemed to stop at nothing to prevent me from getting the information I needed for a story. And I was not at all shy about standing up for myself and demanding answers. There were several times when I got into shouting matches with these people, and as unprofessional as it sounds, for me, it was effective. That's because, like Fields, I looked on the outside like a female who could be pushed around. However, I used this to my advantage. I allowed people to think that I was unobtrusive and easily cowed. When they put a toe over the line, I'd drop the hammer. And they never forgot it, either -- and I always got my story.

Now here's the thing about the Lewandowski interview that bugs me:

He claims that he called Fields that night to discuss the matter AND that he has cell phone records to prove that he placed that call.

We already know that he lied about grabbing her. That much has been established with the video tape and the photos of the bruises on her arms, and I am not excusing that at all. And because he lied, we might say that he is probably lying about calling her.


He has cell phone records that he placed the call.

Now this is why this is important:

Even though I had no problems going head to head with someone who tried to run roughshod over me like Lewandowski did Fields, I can ALSO tell you that in each and every case, the person ALWAYS called me to apologize.

This is why I believe Lewandowski, because this happened with me as a reporter countless times.

Maybe Fields didn't get the call. Maybe she was in the bathroom taking the photos of her arm when her cell phone chimed, and she was too upset to talk. Maybe she wanted to run the situation by her editors before talking to Lewandowski, because they of course would have to collaborate about an approach to a subsequent story.

But even if that was the case, when someone calls you, you know they've called. As a reporter who is covering a news event, it's incumbent on you to pick up the phone, even if you don't want to talk to them, and have it out.

And you know what?

If they apologize, you accept their apology, and you move forward.

In each and every case when someone apologized to me, I said, "Thank you. I accept your apology." And then even if I felt like they were 100 percent in the wrong, I still always added, "You know, few people realize I have an Irish temper and am a hot head. So I'm sorry for my part in this."

I'm not saying Fields would have had to apologize for anything, because truthfully, she didn't do anything wrong here. She was a reporter out to get a quote, and she was probably on deadline, and any reporter worth their salt is going to chase down the source and get that needed quote. Absolutely, I would have done what she did, and I did on countless occasions.

However, if Lewandowski called her afterwards, that was her opportunity to say, "Dude, do you realize how hard you grabbed me? I lost my balance. I have bruises on my arm! I just needed a quote, and this is why I went after your candidate."

That would have opened up the opportunity for her to then forge a valuable source relationship with Lewandowski, because at that point, he is beholden to her. She's in the driver's seat going forward.

And yes, I can say this definitively, because this happened to me personally. I always established a positive relationship going forward, and if they tried to block me from getting information, I always found a way around them. I always chased the story as if it were a game to me. The "Lewandowskis" were just pawns standing in front of the queen on the chess board.

We don't know what Lewandowski's motives were that night, and of course, everything out of his mouth is highly suspect going forward. We're not in his head.

But if he has cell phone records, proving that he made that call, it was incumbent on Fields at that point to accept the call, accept the apology, discuss things like a grownup, pursue an exclusive interview with Donald Trump (that's how I handled similar situations, and I always got those interviews) ... and let this guy know going forward that she was not to be treated like a Barbie doll.

That's it.

If you find yourself in a situation like Fields, first fight for that story. That's your job, and she did so valiantly. But if the person comes back later to apologize, you stand to lose everything if you refuse to pick up the phone -- and you stand to gain a lot personally, professionally and ethically by talking to the person who wronged you.

And in the process, you will earn their respect, whether they admit it or not.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Blueberry, a Wildcat & a Chocolate Donut Walked into a Coffee Shop ...

So there's this coffee shop down the street from my kid's school bus stop, and the outside is about as non-descript as you can get, with a giant grey and black sign that simply says, "Coffee & Donuts."

I've driven by this place without notice. Even though it's in my "neighborhood shopping center," I have also walked by it numerous times in favor of a Chinese restaurant next door, my hair salon across the parking lot and a pharmacy that I hit for my sundries. 

But last week, I was hard up for something hot after waiting for that school bus with my child, and I decided that rather than drive about 10 minutes to the nearest Starbucks, I'd give this place a shot.

I was not prepared for the glory inside.

It turns out the sad little "Coffee & Donuts" grey sign was camouflage for a place filled with hipsters and urban professionals alike, crouched over Apple laptops and chatting in business suits against a backdrop of sleek tables, a corrugated steel counter, blackboard menus with colorful chalk drawings, mood-boosting music, local beekeeper offerings of products like "Bourbon honey" and even cool T-shirts.

I didn't even mention the coffee, did I?

By the time all was said and done, I'd walked out of that place about $20 poorer, having spent it on the aforementioned Bourbon honey, a giant Chocolate-glazed donut and the only thing I can describe as nectar of the gods -- a "Blueberry Wildcat" -- which was a latte infused with blueberry syrup, espresso, milk -- and melted white chocolate.

OK, so what does this have to do with your freelance writing business? 

Let's break this down:

My discovery of the coffee shop from Nirvana occurred last week.

All weekend, I was being a good girl with my yoga workouts, but I kept thinking about that chocolate-glazed donut and that Blueberry Wildcat thing. (I'm not sure what's in that chocolate glaze, but I think they're putting sour cream in it to give it a good bite. Anyway, I digress ...)

Fast forward to this morning. I take my kid to the school bus stop, and I know I have a couple of errands to run after he's safely on his way ... and I'm thinking about breakfast. I'd just thrown on my jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. No makeup. The hair ... well, if you're a woman, you know how important it is to attend to the hair. I hadn't yet. And I was wearing a pair of scuffed up shoes because of mud left behind by a couple of snow storms. 

In short, I was in no condition to walk into that coffee shop to scratch that Blueberry Wildcat itch.

I did my errands and as I was considering going through a drive-thru for a Starbucks, I thought to myself, "No. NO! I am going to get that Blueberry Wildcat, dammit! I want that chocolate donut, dammit! I want to walk into a place with those cool people, makeup or no makeup, dammit!"

And I did. Despite the ease of a drive-thru window, despite the comparable taste of a Starbucks coffee, despite any embarrassment that might hinder my walking into a place without lipstick on my face ... I went BACK to THAT coffee shop.

And yes, this has everything to do with your freelance writing business.

Are you giving your clients the same craving for your writing services that this coffee shop jarred in me for its coffee and donuts? 

If you're not sure, let's check off a few boxes. Ready?

1. When you do your interviews, do you encourage people to send you their own typed answers in an email, or do you take the time to talk to them on the phone, encourage their verbal responses, push them to open up and work out extra gems of information they might otherwise hold back, even though it might add an hour or two to the time to complete the project?

2. When you write up your story lead, do you go for the path of least resistance and regurgitate your story pitch -- or regurgitate the lead the editor gave you on the assignment form? Or do you go through your story notes and ferret out that perfect quote or anecdote to lure the reader into the rest of the copy?

3. When you have a question about your notes, do you take time to contact your source again and ask if they meant to say things the way you are interpreting what they said? Do you go the extra step to ensure that you are accurately quoting them or representing their thoughts?

4. When you have a pile of statistics in front of you, are you diligent to interpret those and present those numbers in the context in which they were collected?

5. When an editor gives you a deadline, do you meet it?

6. When an editor gives you a word count limit, do you work hard to edit down your prose so that you will pack in as much meaning into a tightly-knit sentence? 

7. When an editor has questions, how do you respond?

8. Are you professional when dealing with your sources? Do you answer all of their questions, even after the story has been turned in? Do you respond to every PR professional who contacts you, even if you've already completed the assignment? (For the record, I do. That's another blog entry, but suffice it to say, keep your eye on the big picture for future stories. Kindness and courtesy never hurt anyone.)

9. Do you look beyond the short-term goal of making money and seeing your byline, attacking each story as if it's a service to the public or your audience? 


10. Do you see your writing profession and skill as a way to make the world a better place?

How many of those did you check off?

If you got through the list and hit most (if not all) ... then congratulations. You're the coffee shop with the Blueberry Wildcat and Chocolate Glazed Donut and Bourbon Honey.

And guess what ... if you're offering that level of service, even if you're not great at advertising yourself (guess what, my website hasn't been updated in 3 years, but I've been so busy with work, I haven't had time to do it) .... your clients will go out of their way to hit you for work ... each and every time.

Next time you consider taking a shortcut with your writing services, just remember me -- walking into a place without lipstick, hair askew, scuffed shoes and a pale make-up-less face, just so that I could get my fix for perfect food, perfect service ... and a perfect way to start the day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Why 9/11 Set The Tempo For My Freelance Writing Business

September 11, 2001.

I was three months into my freelance writing business, having left a solid job as the Business Editor at The Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, NC. I had just netted my first three regular paying clients and was settling into a routine of reporting and writing stories from home.

And we all know what happened that day -- the Towers fell.

But this was the irony for me personally:

I also happened to be newly married to an Army sergeant who was on his way to Manhattan to help with rescue efforts. And as I was sorting through the chaos of my own personal life and trying to make sense of what that would mean to my new marriage, my phone rang.

It was one of my former colleagues from the Observer, and she wanted to let me know that people at the paper were talking about me. At first, I thought she might be calling because they were concerned about the welfare of my groom. But my stomach plunged as she revealed that, in fact, I had become the butt of a newsroom joke.

She named names. She gave specific words and listed the digs.

See, the fellow reporters (and editors) were feeling a little gleeful -- and smug -- that while I'd left them in the dust for a freelance lifestyle ... apparently my timing for starting a business was terrible. The Towers had fallen. The world as we knew it was in shambles. The economy would tank. And they were having a wonderful laugh at the idea that within a few months of my exit from the paper, I would fall flat on my face in my solo venture.

They weren't concerned about my Army husband's welfare at all. They were laughing at us.

I hung up the phone, and I could feel my face burning. And in that one moment, I made a decision:

No matter what was happening in the world, no matter what was happening around me, no matter who was affected in my personal life ... I would always generate stories. I would always look forward. I would never (never!) allow circumstance to dictate my work output, unless I was comatose in a hospital or six feet under.

That moment set the tone for my entire business ethic.

Let's fast forward.

I'm approaching my 15-year anniversary of leaving that newspaper, in June 2016.

Throughout the years, I've stuck to my pledge.

And this is how, and I'm going to share this secret with you:

Whatever is happening in your circle is NOT necessarily happening to a prospective or current client. They are moving through their business day, expecting you to make their deadline and turn in a quality writing project, regardless of what is happening in your neck of the woods.

Today is a perfect example.

I woke to a pea soup foggy morning -- 6 a.m. -- and icy roads -- and closed schools. My child is playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game as we speak, still clad in his Star Wars PJs. Normally, of course, he'd be in a classroom while I work on my stories.

I'm doing three interviews for a story due on Thursday, setting up interviews for three other stories for two other clients ... and I'm also working on some marketing for new clients.

One client is on the other side of the state, and although she has a child the same age as mine and similar weather, they're at the office today. One client is in New Jersey. One client is in Georgia. Obviously, they don't have the same weather that I do. And obviously, they're not single moms, balancing the entertainment of a kid home from school with a day of reporting and writing.

Work does not stop just because we have an icy morning and a school closing.

A few months ago, work didn't stop just because there were terrorist attacks in Paris. I remember that weekend well -- do you? That weekend, it seemed like the world stood still as people followed the events in France much the same way they did after 9/11. But I didn't stop. I was on deadline, writing a story that was due that Monday. I kept an ear to the newscasts, but all the while, I was writing my piece.

Work does not stop for holidays, either.

During New Year's Eve this year, I was calling sources for a story that was due shortly after the holiday. Most people were getting ready for parties, but I have a child to feed, clothe and shelter. When the work comes in, I take the work and do the work by the deadline.

Work does not stop for illness.

In September, I was down for 30 days with pneumonia. I worked on five stories, interviewing people propped up on my pillows and writing through fever and weakness.

Work does not stop for a freelancer, if you mean business. This business isn't for the faint of heart. You are making your salary on 100 percent commission. It's incumbent on you to make deadlines, regardless of what is going on.

When I look back on 9/11, of course I remember the tragedy. But I also remember the valuable business lesson. I remember the words that were parroted to me -- words of others that might have meant discouragement or that would have psychologically derailed anyone less determined. But for me, those words proved to be the catalyst that drove my work ethic for nearly 15 years.

Those words set the entire tempo for my freelance business.

If you mean business about freelancing, then conduct business.

Work does not stop for everyone, just because your world stopped spinning. As long as you remember that, you'll make it as a freelancer.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Demystifying Military Ranks: A Primer for PR Pros

I was a war bride, married to an Army sergeant in 2001, and the only word to describe the first year of my former marriage was chaotic. My then-husband was at the scene of the WTC three days after the Towers fell and shortly after that, deployed to Afghanistan.

So I was thrust headlong into a military culture along with the rest of Fort Bragg, NC. I had to learn very quickly about the rank and file as I navigated how to get information about my spouse's welfare in the war against the Taliban.

I tell you this so you'll understand that I fully sympathize (and empathize), if you are  intimidated by representing a military outfit or service person to the media. Today, I am a freelance journalist for three military magazines, and the terminology, acronyms and the military's way of doing things are like breathing for me.

But it wasn't always that way.

In fact, I can remember one instance when I had to call my then-husband's unit one day when he was in Bagram. A gruff voice picked up the phone and shouted into my ear, "Hello-Sir-or-Ma'am-First-Sergeant-Smith-249th-Engineer-Battalion-Fort-Bragg-How-Can-I-Help-You!" The words tumbled from his mouth like the staccato machine gun blast.

I took a breath, "Hello Sergeant. This is Sergeant Rafferty's wife."


I paused. "No, I don't think you understand. He's not the first sergeant on duty today. He's in Afghanistan."

He groaned. Then he said again, "FIRST SERGEANT! I AM A FIRST SERGEANT!"

"Oh! I see, I'm sorry, you're the first sergeant there today, thank you. OK, Sergeant, I am looking for information for my --"

He interrupted again, "NO! I AM A FIRST SERGEANT!"

Now I was really confused, because I honestly had no idea why this person was yelling at me and how I could stop him from yelling at me, I just wanted to find out if he had word about my husband's whereabouts.

"Thank you," I continued, ignoring the loud angry breathing in the earpiece. I told him what I wanted to know, he gave me the information, and then as I hung up, I said, "You have been so helpful, Sergeant. Thank you."

I heard a growl, a loud click, and the line went dead.

This week, the memory of that happy conversation came tumbling back after I put out a query on Profnet, seeking military officers to interview for an upcoming feature story.

I became very exasperated (and sent out a snarky tweet, I admit it), when one PR person after another replied to the query with, "I have a great Sergeant!" or, "I have an Airman First Class!" or, "I have a Chief Petty Officer!" or, "I have a Green Beret!"

"Didn't these people read my query specs??? I said, 'Officer!'" I huffed to myself.

Then I started getting phone calls, and everyone was saying the same thing:

" I have a wonderful non-commissioned officer. Does a non-commissioned officer count as an officer?"

Suddenly the light dawned. Bless their hearts, they were as ignorant as I had been back in 2001.

So here is a little primer, for the uninitiated to the military, about how to understand the ranking system, and it won't take long for me to break this down for you. I'm focusing this blog entry primarily on Army ranks, because I'm most familiar with them and also because I write for a publication for the Army National Guard.

But bear with me while I walk you through this:


The military members (and this pertains to all branches) are divided into two tiers: Enlisted and Officers.

The enlisted people sign up for duty, or, "enlist." These are your lower ranks. Everyone in an enlisted rank reports to an officer.

To be an officer, you either have to complete ROTC in college or graduate from a military academy with a bachelor's degree. There is a second way to become an officer, too. An enlisted person can enter an officers' training school and earn the rank -- or become a "commissioned officer."


Most people get very confused about the term, "non-commissioned officer," or NCO.

Basically, these are the higher-enlisted ranks. Think of them in civilian terms as an employee that oversees a team of employees. They report to a manager in the management ranks. Does that make sense? So in the military world, you'd have an NCO over a team on a mission, and he or she would report to a lieutenant or a captain (a junior officer).

If you look at charts of military ranks, you will see these ranks divided by "E" and "O" (Enlisted and Officer) ... and you will also see numbers, from 1 to 9.

Everyone who is numbers 1-4 is of the lower rank, reporting to leaders. So E-1 to E-4, across all the branches, reports to non-commissioned officers, which are E-5 to E-9.

If you flip over to the Officer side, O-1 to O-4 are your junior officers, reporting to the officers that make the top decisions and are the top ranks -- O-5 to O-9. (We also have an O-10, but I'll explain that one later.)

The best way to sort this out is to take a look at one of my pins on Pinterest. You will see all of the branches listed. Each rank corresponds to the number. For example, an E-5 in the Army is a Sergeant, or the lowest of the non-commissioned officer ranks. An E-1 in the Army is a Private, the lowest of the ranks. An O-1 in the Army is a lieutenant, the lowest of the officer ranks, and an O-9 in the Army is a Five-Star General.

Are you confused yet? Don't worry ... It takes time. Just take a look at this Pinterest board, and take a deep breath:



Now I'm really going to throw a monkey wrench into this, because we also have "Chief Warrant Officers." I still get confused about these guys, to be honest, because they are a category all by themselves.

The best way to explain it is to quote the U.S. Army's definition:

"Warrant Officers are the technical experts in the Army. They have specific technical or tactical specialties (e.g., helicopter pilots), and manage and maintain many of the Army’s combat systems, vehicles and networks. Once they reach the rank of Chief Warrant Officer Two (CW2), the President of the United States gives them the same status as a Commissioned Officer."


Here's a little trick to remember the differences between General that my ex-husband taught me, and it's this.

Ready? You'll love it. It's so easy:


That's all you have to remember.

Now let's break this down:

B = Brigadier General (O-7)

M = Major General (O-8)

L= Lieutenant General (O-9)

G= General (O-10)

And then you have a "General of the Army," which is a Five-Star General. Think of Eisenhower. Top of the heap, and by the time you hit that rank, your next step is probably the White House.

I hope I didn't mangle these ranks too badly for you.

Don't feel intimidated by the military ranks. It takes a long time to understand them, but if you keep these basic guidelines in mind, you'll be able to weather any conversation with a journalist who covers the Pentagon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Warning for New Freelancers on Making Fast Cash

I'm "one of those people" who gives Twitter a whirl before I move from my pillow, just after the alarm clock starts singing my playlist of the morning. Normally I wouldn't blog about one singular tweet. But this one caught my eye and deserved more than a 140-character response, because I think those of you who are new to freelancing really need to understand this:


Let me repeat that in case you didn't get it the first time:


Basically, the person on Twitter proclaimed that she would show you how to make money within two weeks. The tweet contained a link to her book on Amazon, bearing the same words.

Intrigued -- because quite frankly, if this woman had discovered this "secret," maybe she had also discovered the cure for cancer -- I flipped to the "preview" section to scan her introduction. She discussed how she'd show you how to set up your business and move right into making fast cash.

Now maybe there is a new market out there that will pay people quickly, and I just haven't discovered it. Or maybe my circle of clients are the type that stick to the 30-day payment turnaround time. So I offer this caveat before I dive in. Full disclosure. I may not fully know of all of the clients out there, those of whom will pay you within 14 days.

That said .... For the uninitiated, let me explain how this works:

First you have to find someone to pay you to write an article for them.

Next, you have to do the research. And then write the article. If you're a crack journalist who has experience turning copy within 2 hours on deadline from assignment to press, that's doable. Actually, it's very easy. But let's face it -- most people do not have daily newspaper or daily wire service experience.

OK. So suppose you are like I was when I first started and you DO have that experience. That's the best-case scenario, right?

You show this editor your advanced reporting and writing techniques, and you flip a story in an astounding 24 hours (for the sake of argument, that would be what it would take to do it quickly, for a major magazine article, and that's pushing it).

You turn in the article .... and your invoice ..... but then it doesn't stop there.

The editor has to go through your copy, which in magazine parlance may not be that very day. They ask you questions about anything that needs clarification. Then they go to production.

Now. This is where the tricky part comes in.

Unless you have done due diligence by RESEARCHING the publication's payment cycle on writersmarket.com, you have no clue as to WHEN you will be paid.

Writersmarket.com is a treasure trove of information for a publication's payment cycle. Every person that I contact for work has already been thoroughly vetted via this website. I have used this site now for 15 years as a freelancer, and this is how it works: It contains an enormous database of practically every publication in the United States and Canada. Those publications list entries about their writers' guidelines, their payment scale AND their payment SCHEDULE.

Although payment amount is important, the thing that will sink or float your freelance business is the rate at which they will turn your invoice.

I refuse to work for anyone who will not pay me in 30 days or less. I have only made one exception to that rule, and that's because I know the editor personally, and her company was just bought out by a larger conglomerate that changed their pay schedule. Based on my long history with her as a writer, I give that publication a pass. But as for new clients, I will not work for them if they say anything like, "Payment on publication."

Let that sink in for a minute.

"Payment on publication."

Suppose you write a story in November. You turn it in within 24 hours and think, "Oh goody. Look how fast I churned that copy. I can make thousands of dollars this year if I keep up this level of productivity!"

Well yes, you will make a lot of money.

The problem is ... when will the money hit your mailbox?


See, as much as this author on Twitter would like to assert that she can teach you to make money in 14 days, what she's NOT saying is that it takes two to tango. You're out there on the dance floor, making killer moves. But your partner is standing on the sidelines wolfing down shots of Bourbon and chatting up that girl with-legs-up-to-here.

And besides the publication's payment schedule, there are other variables.

There have been literally dozens of times when a frenzied editor has either lost my invoice or has been so busy that she has completely forgotten about sending it over to accounting.

There have also been times when accounting will say, "Oh. We lost it because it came in two days before Christmas, and we were at the company party that day."

And there was one time when a publication that normally paid me on time suddenly said, "We changed our policy, and now we're only paying on publication," I said, "When are you going to publish it?" The editor said, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe in six or nine months."


You are RUNNING A BUSINESS. You have to pay your bills, put food on your child's table and clothes on your child's back, and someone says, "We'll pay you when we get around to it?"


(Can you tell I feel strongly about this?)

Anyone -- ANYONE -- who tells you that they can teach you to get paid in 14 days probably also has a wonderful bridge for sale in Brooklyn, super cheap.

There's one other thing I need to say about this, and then I'm off to make my own money:

When I started freelancing in 2001, I already had 12 years of newsroom and AP wire service experience and newspaper editing experience under my belt. I already had interviewed crooked politicians, wise-ass cops, angry housewives at PTA meetings, bank robbers and murderers and even a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

I already had a resume replete with proof that I was able to do the job.

And it has been 15 years since then that I have been working for magazines ranging from jobs for engineers and information technology professionals, to military magazines, to entrepreneurial magazines, to real estate magazines.

Do you understand?

If someone like me still has to hound editors for payment within the U.S.-business-accepted policy of 30 days, a new freelancer cannot expect to push for payment within 14 days.

Maybe it can be done. Maybe I'm too nice. Maybe I've been asking for my honestly hard-earned wage in the wrong way. And if I'm wrong, please feel free to correct me and impart your wisdom as to how to cajole people into quick and easy payment.

But if you go on Twitter and someone says, "I can show you how to make fast cash as a freelance writer!" and you're new to freelancing, please consider my warning.

It is unrealistic.

I guess anything is possible, and again, I may need to re-evaluate my payment policies, but I truly believe it is unrealistic.

You can take that to the bank.