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Expectations & Etiquette for Interviewees

If you’re reading this post, I probably sent you a link because I want to ask you some questions for an article. The interviewing process can be weird if you’re not used to it, so this is intended as a straightforward guide. Don’t worry, it’s short!

  1. Instead of relying on the various definitions of terms like “off the record” and “on background”, I prefer to define how I’m allowed to quote you in concrete terms. Can I use your name? Mention where you work? Etc. Tell me what you’re comfortable with! If you don’t specify that you want to stay anonymous, I will assume that your comments are fully public.
  2. I may ask about subjects that don’t usually come up in polite conversation. For example: “How much money do you make?” Some questions might even feel adversarial. For example: “People have accused you of XYZ. What is your response?” You are free to refuse to answer any questions, or to answer partially. It doesn’t mean that I won’t bring up those issues in whatever I write, but it’s totally fine for you to set limits on what you will talk about.
  3. I encourage you to make your own recording of any verbal conversation we have, and to keep transcripts of our textual communications. (This is a good interviewee habit in general! Archive those emails!)
  4. You can’t approve the final article before it’s published. However, if I edit your quotes for readability, I may ask you to approve the revised text, to make sure I’ve preserved your meaning. Those edits will always be disclosed to the readers.

The four items above are based on the industry’s standards. If there’s anything else I should add to this post, email and let me know. Thanks!

Saying Goodbye Was A Good Introduction: David Carr & Media Twitter

We’re approaching the first anniversary of David Carr’s death. Carr was the New York Times media critic, a former drug addict and newspaper editor who was adored by most (possibly all) reporters and media pundits. I have never seen anyone say a bad word about him. Considering how much time his cohort spends on Twitter, a platform not known for its users’ niceness or ubiquity of opinion, that’s impressive.

When Carr died I had just started becoming interested in journalism as a discipline and economic phenomenon. I had no idea who he was. It was bizarre to see, as Ben Thompson put it, “a nearly unending stream of expressions of grief mixed with personal anecdotes of a figure so clearly beloved.” Bizarre not because I found the outpouring unbelievable — I didn’t — but because I had just started following a bunch of tech and media analysts. It was the first topic that I watched everyone converge upon. The next was probably some Gawker-related scandal.

In a way, although it was tragic, David Carr’s passing was a wonderful introduction to a normally contentious community. I got to see everybody at their best, united in affection and gratitude for someone’s ideas and mentorship. Admittedly I enjoy the everyday arguments about ethics and money, which involve no shortage of sniping and ad hominems, but I’m glad that I know all these @handles can be kind too.

The Economics of Writing Online

“Failures in Self-Publishing” just went up on The Digital Reader, so now feels like a good time to post an elaboration on how to actually make money by writing online. (Scroll to the bottom for the other reason I’m putting this up now.)

As a person with many opinions but only moderate hustle, I’ve ended up writing for free a lot. Not just writing for free, but being published for free. I’m okay with that — I have a day job. I also understand supply and demand: personal essays aren’t scarce, so they’re not particularly remunerative. When I have been paid, the check was usually a pittance that amounted to minimum wage (and that’s before self-employment taxes!). I resented this when I was freelancing professionally, but now that I do it as a hobby, I shrug and tell myself, “This is what the market dictates.”

Price, after all — especially average price — is a number synthesized from the desires of the various players in a commercial endeavor. Customers want to pay less and merchants want to charge more. They agree somewhere in the middle, depending on which side has more leverage. Who is willing to walk away? Who is anxious to make a deal? If customers have many other merchants to choose from, the price is low. If merchants face a deluge of eager buyers, the price is high (*cough* iPhone 6s *cough*).

It’s not a new observation that this problem plagues digital media. Readers can easily jump from website to website without sacrificing anything. Publishers, on the other hand, need as many eyeballs as possible and therefore must be flashy and attractive, as well as careful not to alienate their audiences. Most website-owners are stuck in this game, straining to make a couple of advertising cents per reader. You can’t convince people to pay money for a subscription unless you offer unique, high-quality content, which is extremely hard to produce.

Writers have the same relationship to publishers that publishers do to readers — there are plenty of other fish in the sea, so unless you offer something very compelling that can’t be obtained elsewhere, you’re probably shit outta luck. Don’t get me wrong — there is money to be made in writing to entertain a general audience, but not enough for the amount of people who are trying to make a living at it. Incumbent media outlets and winning internet-age startups like Vox Media have flooded this territory.

There are several ways to deal with the evident economics of writing online. One is to be a typical professional from nine to five — in fact, being a smart and prolific blogger will get you a better job and a better salary than you would earn otherwise. It will also bring you surprising opportunities — I landed a copy-writing gig via Twitter recently. Good writing demonstrates key communication and analytical abilities, which are important to every kind of skilled labor. Does having a day job mean that you can’t devote most of your time and intellectual energy to writing? Yes. Such is reality. The other options are to 1) work for peanuts and write thousands of words per day or 2) develop expertise in a particular niche where there is a market for quality.

In closing, I would like to note that I owe a majority of the ideas in this piece to Ben Thompson of Stratechery. I highly recommend his blog and newsletter.

Additional note: I originally wrote this in late September and it was published on Samantha Bielefeld’s blog. I asked her to take it down because of this drama. Summaries of the situation can be found on Building Twenty and Analog Senses. I resent being duped and exploited, and I don’t want my name associated with someone who is essentially a fraudster. If you want to explore the whole brouhaha, you can read everything I’ve said about SB on Twitter (scroll down to September 25th and read upward) as an introduction.

The Entrepreneur’s Enemy Is Indifference

“Particularly when you’re early stage, your biggest enemy is indifference. You put a product out in the world and it’s not that people hate it, it’s like they don’t even notice, they don’t even care. And one thing that we are generally good at is making people care.”

Matt Lieber, co-founder of Gimlet Media
Via Gimlet.

Matt Lieber of Gimlet Media on starting a company and recording the process (in conversation with Alex Blumberg and Lisa Pollak). This, my friends, is why you need marketing! And access to that interview is part of why buying a Gimlet membership was worth it — I love discussions of the “new media” biz.

One Millennial Spends This Much On Journalism

pile of newspapers
Photo by Jon S.

Writing “Case Study Of A Magazine Purchase” made me consider the amount of money I spend on media every month. I suspect that I’m more extravagant than most people, but I’ve never added up the $$$. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

This is all for digital material. $36.17 per month; debatably actually $26.17 because The Marshall Project is a nonprofit and the donation comes off my taxes. Either way, it’s really not much. I could easily drop $36.17 on dinner or drinks.

I also periodically buy books and I benefit from my parents’ subscriptions to The New York Times, the New YorkerThe Sun (print), and Funny Times (print). I suppose you could include Netflix, but that erodes the focus on journalism.

weathered stack of newspapers
Photo by Dave Crosby.

Currently I’m considering a subscription to The Economist. Their one-year bundle would run me $13.33 per month, whereas the two-year option comes out to $11.63 per month. Either package includes Espresso, their “daily briefing” app, which I really want (Nieman Lab did a fascinating interview with Tom Standage re: digital strategy). I’ll pull the trigger if I get a raise.

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