planning, and choosing, for 2012

December 29, 2011 1 comment

So if you have a few minutes to spare while you’re pitching like crazy this week*, this is generally a good time to take a look back over your hits and misses for 2011 and to outline your action plan for 2012.

(* If you’re not pitching like crazy this week, why not? These quiet weeks around the holidays are prime assignment time — because almost everyone else falls silent while taking some vacation days, and editors are looking to fill their editorial calendars for 2012. So get out there and pitch. I’m just saying.)

I’m not going to use this space — today, anyway — to go into a big long thing about mapping out realistic goals, assigning timelines and breaking it all down into specific action plans. Even though you should be doing that anyway.

Sprint006 plan

No, today I’m thinking about the bigger picture of what kind of writer I want to be, and what 2012 goals and milestones make the most sense toward achieving that end. Granted, we’re still in very tight economic times and writers of all stripes are dealing with even more than usual discomfort and uncertainty when it comes to the future of our profession. Plenty of us are taking work — any work — where we can get it and are keeping our heads down and plowing through without much thought to the larger shape and direction of our careers.

Nothing wrong with that, especially right now. It keeps money coming in, food on the table, a roof over our heads and the broadband connection going strong. But I also don’t want to arrive at the end of 2012, a full year from now, and find myself in pretty much the same situation that I’m in now.

This is why it’s not only okay to dream, but actually mandatory. Having an idea of where you want to be in a year — or in five or ten years — not only gives you something tangible to shoot for (because you’re setting goals and following action plans, right?), but also gives you a framework in which to make decisions in the meantime.

I know plenty of writers who got into this business to begin with because they were simply interested in everything, and writing offers the opportunity to research one topic after another, for pay! You get to learn and talk to people about all sorts of stuff, which definitely keeps dullness at bay. But sometimes, you have to choose.

For instance, there’s a really tempting fellowship opportunity that I could apply for. As soon as I heard about it — eight months of research and reporting on a specific topic — I knew exactly what I’d propose to work on, and knew instinctively that it would be compelling to boot. But… does eight months away, focusing solely (or largely) on this one subject area align with my career goals? Is it important enough that I should put aside what I’m already working on? Does this specific opportunity warrant delaying or even giving up other specific targets that I’ve set for myself?

This is something I’m still sitting with, and it’s an important consideration. There should absolutely be room in your “plan” for the unexpected, but you also don’t want to spend your career flitting from one new track to the next while your bigger goals and dreams sit waiting on the shelf, unrealized. Part of working and living smart comes not only from having the courage to say “yes,” but also in knowing which doors to close or to pass by.

(Creative Commons photo by J’Roo)

Categories: Thoughtful Thursdays

co-working around the world

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Ha! No, I’m actually not back quite yet. I’ve still got another two weeks in Washington, D.C., to round out this International Reporting Project fellowship before I return to Oregon. But I did have the opportunity to do some co-working while I was in Dublin, hence today’s blog post.

Traveling is a great time to investigate co-working opportunities, wherever you happen to land.

Finding my Dublin homestay less then ideal for real productivity, I looked around my neighborhood for cafés with WiFi access. That was pretty much useless. I then started searching for something close to the city center and nearly smacked my hand against my forehead when I realized that, of course, Dublin would probably have co-working facilities similar to Portland’s Collective Agency — where the Oregon News Incubator has weekly been hanging its hat of late.

Letting go of the idea of sitting in a coffee shop begging for wireless internet access, I did a Google search that resulted in two co-working locations and I settled on AMWorks. Since I was in town on a fellowship, I was offered a hot-desk at half-price (10 euros per day; about $14).

Word to the wise: don’t be afraid to explain your circumstances and to ask for a discount. Even if you’re not a student or on a stipend, you might still be able to work out a lower cost arrangement as a traveling businessperson, visiting novelist, or whatever your situation happens to be.

Frankly, I don’t know how I would have improved the AMWorks facility. The place was nicely laid out, very neat and clean, mostly quiet and convenient to public transportation. The people were friendly, engaging in conversation where appropriate and largely leaving each other alone to work.

The only thing I would have done differently? I would have investigated co-working options for myself before I arrived in Ireland so I had this option in my back pocket, rather than waiting until the last week when I was desperate for quiet, comfortable space to get some actual work done.

When you’ve got your next trip coming up — whether it’s on the other side of the globe or in a neighboring city — take some time to find out what co-working opportunities exist at your destination. You might not want to co-work every day, but travelers have just as much need for shared working space — for camaraderie, productivity, and just to get out of the hotel/homestay/guest quarters.

Categories: Tips and Tricks

Co-working at the Collective Agency

September 15, 2011 1 comment

Need a place to get your work done? Is that corner desk in your studio apartment not quite working out for you? Are your dogs not giving you the intellectual engagement you thought they might when you adopted them? Why not join the Oregon News Incubator as we bring our work parties to a new location, Portland’s Collective Agency.

Beginning now,  ONI members will be joining the other independent professionals at the Old Town home  of the Collective Agency, which occupies the space once known as Souk. Led by Alex Linsker, Summer Abbott and Ryland Fitzhugh, the Collective Agency welcomes up to 30 people from 9 to 5 in a lively, collegial co-working space. ONI members will often be there on Thursdays from 10 to 2, but expect to see some of us at other times.

Why the Collective Agency and not the other coffee shops and other spaces at which we’ve made our presence known? Three reasons stand out:

  • It’s FREE (though the Collective Agency offers additional amenities and 24/7 access to paid members). Everyone gets WiFi access, coffee, occasional pot luck food, and access to conference rooms up to two hours a day.
  • We’ve seen the Collective Agency in action, and we know the space can provide some of the impromptu collaboration and engagement we might have sacrificed when we decided to leave traditional workplaces to strike out on our own.
  • It’s central. The Collective Agency’s location at 322 NW Sixth Ave, Ste. 200, sits right by the MAX yellow and green lines and a host of Tri-Met bus lines. It’s also a short bike ride from much of Portland.

For many freelancers and independent journalists, the lack of a consistent workplace with a strong community can be a stumbling block to productivity. What’s more, think of the story ideas and sourcing that can come from working alongside professionals in a number of different fields. We’re looking forward to bringing our experiment in nurturing independent journalism to the Collective Agency’s experiment in co-working.

We’ll see you there at 10 on Thursdays (at least). In the meantime, check out some more about the Collective Agency’s policies.

drawing inspiration from those who have come before us

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

In the past week or so, one name keeps coming up: Nellie Bly.

Working under this pen name, Elizabeth Jane Cochran (1864-1922) pioneered investigative journalism. Feigning insanity, she had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island to write an exposé on the treatment of patients there.

Personally, I don’t think I could muster the same courage to place myself in such immediate danger and abuse. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be inspired by her example when pursuing my own professional passions. A certain upcoming adventure in religious diversity abroad comes to mind.

If there’s a story or query you’re working on, and you’re looking for an engaging new angle to try, why not delve into the origins of your subject material? If you’re writing about computer hacking, spend a few minutes imagining what Alan Turing might have thought about modern computing. If you’re working on a piece about electric cars, go back to the infancy of motorized vehicles and take a look at why gasoline was chosen as a primary fuel source to begin with.

I’ve long be fascinated by — and grateful to — the early and courageous people who experimented with various plants and fruits to find out what was edible and nutritious, and what was just plain lethal. I’m not sure what the process was, but I imagine some rather uncomfortable trial and error, over the course of generations, was involved.

So, if you need a new approach to reviewing food programs, imagine how the person who proclaimed spinach good for you — and asparagus berries not so much — would view a show like Iron Chef, where there’s only reputation (and not life) on the line.

In the meantime, I’ll keep Nellie Bly’s work and bravery in mind as I take off for my next adventure in journalism and storytelling.

Categories: Thoughtful Thursdays

burn out

August 18, 2011 Leave a comment

What do you do when you’re burnt out?

Both last night and this morning when I was considering what to write about for this week’s Thoughtful Thursday post, I was drawing a blank. It’s not so much that I have nothing to say, but that I’ve been running myself fairly well ragged this summer and it has absolutely caught up with me. I’m bloody exhausted. I’m burnt out, and there’s no chance for me to take a real break any time soon.

Burn out happens in any professional’s life, regardless of your field. You’ve been pushing too hard for too long, and you’re long past even running on fumes.

Burnt out

If I can’t truly step away from my work for a meaningful period of time, this is when I look at a couple of key areas to try to bring some semblance of revitalization back into my life.

  • Sleep: Am I getting enough rest? When I’m on multiple big deadlines, it’s easy to let my sleep schedule slip, going to bed later and later at night, and getting up earlier to squeeze in a few extra hours of work. But pretty soon, my productivity begins to slip, and the extra time really isn’t all that helpful. Getting enough rest isn’t only about setting aside enough time for sleep, but also ensuring that I’m not hopped up on caffeine or otherwise distracted when I’m trying to rest. Thought-provoking reading and movies right before bedtime aren’t a great idea.
  • Fuel: What am I eating and drinking to help me get through each day? I’m pretty good about not letting my diet degrade to junk when I’m super-busy, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to keep a look out as to what I’m fueling myself with. When I’m “feeling the work burn,” it’s a good idea for me to drink more water and eat lighter foods like fruits and vegetables rather than heavier fare that can leave me feeling sluggish.
  • Om: It may seem counter-intuitive, but the busier you are, the more meditation time you need. These mental time-outs give my brain an opportunity to let go and idle for a bit, plus it’s nice to have some peace and quiet in the midst of a crazy-busy day/week/life. Even if you don’t have time to meditate for 30 minutes twice daily, just two minutes of meditation (in my opinion) is better than none at all.
  • Sweat: A huge help for me in dealing with stress and overwork is maintaining a regular and challenging exercise program. Like sleep, it’s all too easy to let physical activity slide in favor of more time at my desk when I’m under the gun. Getting up and getting moving insures not only that my muscles don’t atrophy, but it also removes me from my work for a while. My morning hikes — about 2.5 miles with the husky — are pretty much sacred, and sometimes I’ll also take a break in the middle of the day to ride the bike or even do some disco dancing if I find my concentration and my patience have gone MIA.

As I’m counting down to my IRP fellowship — which begins two weeks from today! — and am scrambling to meet my newspaper deadlines, make arrangements for my travel and work overseas and wrap up all manner of personal and professional loose ends before I take off for 9.5 weeks, I’m definitely feeling more burnt out by the day. But by sticking to healthy habits (well, healthier, anyway), I know I can get through this.

What are your anti-burn out strategies?

(Creative Commons photo by Santosh Chandrasekaran)

Categories: Thoughtful Thursdays

ready or not

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

I had an experience recently which, at the time, was pretty frustrating.

Staff writers have the opportunity to develop working relationships with staff photographers. They can brainstorm story ideas and angles together, share resources, even ride to shoots/interviews together. As a freelancer, I generally don’t know which photographer is assigned to the story I’m working on until I show up to do the interview — sometimes not even then.

Earlier in the summer, I had a spectacular string of bad luck when it came to photography. On a last-minute assignment, I got myself out the door to the event on time, but there was no photographer to meet me there. Of course, I’d also neglected to bring my own camera — something I frequently carry with me “just in case” — and had to rely on event organizers to provide photos to accompany the story. (It unraveled from there, as the admin’s computer later blew up, destroying all the photos in the process…)

The following week, I drove down to Albany, Oregon, on an assignment to interview a couple for the series on long marriages I’ve been writing for The Oregonian. I brought both video and (crappy/old) still cameras with me that time. It was a good thing, too, because again, no photographer. I still don’t know exactly what the mix-up was, but I pulled out my cameras all the same and took some “just in case” footage; I still fully expected the photographer to show up at any time, or even five minutes after I finished up and left. As it turned out, my footage was all there was.


I’d wanted to do more professional photography and start doing video, too, but I was always waiting to get a better camera and associated gear, or to carve out time to compose some “test movies” for practice. But that kept getting put off, until this happened. This was my trial by fire, and it was easier than I’d expected. I quickly got up to speed with an HD movie editor, slapped together the tiny bit of video and the few stills I’d captured, and sent everything — along with the text of my story — to my editor.

Though my editor called the video both “good” and “sweet” and chose a couple of my photos to use, I know I could have done better. It’s easy now to construct a mental checklist of the photos I should have taken, or to kick myself for remembering the cameras but forgetting the tripod (all the video was hand-held). But I still have to be grateful that this happened at all. If I hadn’t been forced to play photographer/videographer in addition to reporter, when would I have gotten another opportunity to provide footage to this publication? And then if I hadn’t taken the initiative to at least try to edit together the video myself, rather than just turning over the raw material to my editor, when would I have found or even made the time to do those practice movies?

This experience ended up being fortuitous. When I go to Ireland — very soon! — as a fellow with the International Reporting Project*, I’m expected to provide not only text content, but also multimedia reporting as well. Given how long it’s been since I last seriously worked with anything other than the written word, I was both excited and nervous about being pushed in this direction. Yet I still had been waiting for the right equipment or a sufficient gap in my schedule to work with practice material. Getting caught by a communications snafu while 100 miles away from the office turned out to be a real blessing.

I’m no longer feeling so intimidated by being thrown head-first into international multimedia reporting. Yes, I do still need to build up my skills set and get some more experience under my belt, but I can absolutely do this. It was also a good reminder to me that waiting around until I feel like I’m “ready” to take something on can often, unintentionally, be a really effective way to make sure it never happens at all.

There haven’t been any more instances of AWOL photographers since then, but… Note to self: Now that you’ve figured out how easy it is to carry three cameras (two video and one still) in your purse along with your audio gear and notepad for conducting interviews, it might be a good idea to have the tripod live in the car. Just in case.

(* I know I keep going on and on about the International Reporting Project. Honestly, I’m not trying to be obnoxious or toot my own horn. Rather, I’m still getting used to the idea that this is actually happening, after so much time waiting — there’s that word again — for the next big thing to break.)

(Creative Commons photo by Silveira Neto / José Maria Silveira Neto)

Categories: Thoughtful Thursdays

when in doubt, ask your editor

August 4, 2011 2 comments

We recently had a question on the ONI email list about using a friend as an interview source for a newspaper column. The easy advice? Ask your editor.

Whether you’re freelance or staff, a good relationship with your editor is worth more than gold. Too many writers I know have a stand-offish or even a fear-based approach to communicating with their editors, as though the editor is a tyrannical task-master or hanging judge just waiting to swoop in and find fault. (To be fair, there are some people who are going to be like this, whether they’re editors, garbage collectors or bead shop owners.)

The editor and a Reporter

But in an ideal world — and I’ve seen this happen more often than not — your editor is there not only to revise and approve your content for publication but to offer support and advice, as needed, as you’re working on your story.

So if you’re wondering about interviewing someone you already know as a source for a story, ask your editor. Be upfront about the nature of your relationship with the proposed source — e.g., you met at a party once, you’re occasional tennis buddies, you’re BFFs — and explain why this person is perfect for the story and how you can’t find anyone else. Your editor might know another source who would be an even better fit, or s/he might simply request that you disclose the relationship in the text.

I’ve had to do this perhaps twice in the time that I’ve been freelancing. I explained the situation to my editor, and it was fine.

I doubt, however, that the editors would appreciate being informed of your relationship to the subject after the article came out, particularly if it’s a disgruntled reader calling attention to it.

Help your editor help you. If a source is blowing you off or being difficult, ask for assistance. The editor might be able to intervene on your behalf or recommend another source instead. If you’ve hit a snag and need more time, call your editor immediately! Don’t assume that taking an extra day or two is fine, because editors have deadlines, too, and if content they were counting on is not going to be available, they need to know. Similarly, talk to your editor about possibly running a story early if you uncover a new time constraint or other event that will affect your piece’s timeliness.

And if your research turns up new information that may dramatically alter the course of your story, definitely get in touch with your editor. You might put your heads together to rework the current assignment into something even more interesting and relevant, or you could end up scoring an additional assignment or two to delve into the new angle.

To paraphrase an editor I once interviewed for an article on telephone anxiety (The Writer, March 2009), editors are not dark overlords sent by the evil empire to plague your working life. When you’ve got a question or a problem on a story, your editor can be your best friend.

(Creative Commons photo by Vin Crosbie)

Categories: Thoughtful Thursdays