Thursday, May 5, 2016

Confessions of a Newspaper Writer

Last year I began a new adventure. I was hired as a freelance writer by The Dayton City Paper, an alternative weekly tabloid. I’ve been reading this publication for years and had previously responded to their calls for writers, with no success. When I saw the ad last summer I almost ignored it. As I recall, it sat on my desk for a week before I finally had one of my “What the hell” moments. I figured the worst they could do was say “no” so I submitted a few writing samples.

Imagine my surprise when the editor called me the following day and wanted to talk seriously about my coming to work for them. I was given a test story, what they call an evergreen piece, meaning that it had no publication date but would be kept in reserve for when they needed to fill space. Apparently she liked it, because I was immediately put on the general assignment list. I made it clear that I didn’t want to specialize in any one subject, to avoid typecasting.

To date, I’ve written features about everything from concerts and festivals to art gallery exhibits and stage plays. It’s been fun and I’ve learned a lot. Whenever I get an assignment I research it very carefully before submitting my questions. Years of being interviewed for my books has come in handy, because there are some questions I hate answering, so I don’t impose them on someone else. I’ve never been a fan of cookie-cutter inquiries and I tailor my interviews, going so far as to find some trivial fact then working it into the article.

Overall it’s gone well, but there have been a few stumbling blocks.

I recently scored an interview with the legendary saxophonist Kenny G. This man has had an incredible career spanning forty-plus years and I dug up a lot of things that I was eager to ask him about.

I’m sorry to say that for all his talent, he is one boring interview subject. I posed some very specific questions that required more than “yes or no” responses, but what did I get? Basically one-line answers. I felt like I was dying a slow death.

Another time, I was assigned to write a piece about a local historical society lecture on Native American ceramics. When I received the answers to my questions, I thought that the lecturer had provided me with her entire presentation. I joked with friends that if they could stay focused reading that article they were more attentive than I was, because I nearly dozed off writing it.

Another profile focused on the southern rock group Kentucky Headhunters. I enjoyed a lively phone interview with one of the founding members, complete with tons of funny anecdotes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use most of them in a family publication, but the article still turned out well. I even wrangled a backstage pass for their upcoming concert.

I wrote a feature about a museum in a nearby town, and it was the oddest assignment I’ve had so far. The curator doesn’t do e-mail, but he invited me for a private guided tour before he would answer my questions. The paper requires digital photos to accompany each story but he didn’t know how to do that, so I took my own. It turned out to be informative and fun because I learned a lot about a piece of local history from someone who was very well versed on the subject.

I’ve discovered that people who write for publications seldom get feedback, unless it’s from friends or family. One of my cousins commented that my interviews read like I’m talking with the person over coffee and she’s eavesdropping. Praise, indeed.

Of course, there are always those who don’t care for what you write and express their opinions in a letter to the editor. One such letter was so poorly written it was funny. My editor said that was why she printed it, because everyone in the office had a good laugh about it. I told her this didn’t bother me because I’ve received bad reviews before and I just shrug them off. I also pointed out that most of those people knew how to spell.

We do everything via e-mail so I don’t get to the office very often. I recently had to make a trek to headquarters to sign some papers. On that particular day the owner/publisher happened to be there. We hadn’t met but when we were introduced, he gave me a smile of recognition, mentioned some of the pieces I had written then told me how much he liked what I was doing.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.


jean hart stewart said...

Good for you, Tim. My father was a reporter so that added to my interest.. Keep writing your good stuff....

Fiona McGier said...

How wonderful that you found a paying outlet for your writing skills! Most authors will never get rich from their books, so the fact that you can get more experience, plus earn some money, is a remarkable thing indeed. Keep at it. Hopefully you're enjoying yourself also.

Can you provide links to any of your articles?