Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Be Wary of Intelius People Search

I've mentioned Intelius at times as one place to pay for more extensive information on people than you might get from free Internet-based services (though depending on what you need, spending any money at all is a waste). It's rarely needed, however there can be times in reporting when you could use more background. Only, it turns out that Intelius has a bad habit of deceptive marketing, as TechCrunch notes:
They are still selling people information that you can find on other sites like WhitePages.com for free. And during and immediately after the transaction, users are asked if they want $10 cash back. If they click yes, they are signed up for a $25/month credit card subscription.

Consumer complaints continue to flood the company. 1,159 consumer complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau in the last 36 months. There are another 214 complaints on RipoffReport. And they have had to deal with class action lawsuits in both Washington and California. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So if you need information that isn't readily available, find another source. Who needs this type of deceptive headache, or the people who would use such tactics?

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Checking Language at the Door to a Story

A colleague of mine, Laura Laing, who writes at times for the blog of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), posted yesterday regarding coverage of South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya being intersex -- that is, possesses both male and female reproductive organs. Laing's point was that the much of the press used the term hermaphrodite, "an outdated medical term that is no longer considered appropriate by U.S. journalistic standards."

An interesting discussion, as Laura's posts generally are. I found it raised a troublesome more general question. When language becomes obsolete but you don't regularly report on the topic, how do you know it? I've never even heard the term intersex before. That is unsurprising because I run into the topic about as often as discussions of lacrosse. (I'm fairly certain that I've even thought of curling, as in the team sport played on ice, more often.)

Just a moment's thought shows that the linguistic considerations go far beyond gender issues. Any time a journalist is in unfamiliar water, potential mines lie about. What if the topic is business? Technology? Art? Music? Construction? Cooking?

Curling?

Other than the transitory verbal fad -- whether groovy or rad -- language develops slowly enough that the changes come like a meandering tide. You look down and suddenly realize that the dry beach sand is covered with a thin sheet of sea water. However, if you're off in the mountains, you don't notice.

So how do journalists know that language has changed when they haven't paid attention? There's no office memo, particularly if, as is true of many of us, you don't work out of a news room. I don't have an answer, but then until this morning I didn't even realize that I had the question. Perhaps all journalists need to add one more type of fact-checking, taking a moment when using terms that we rarely employ to see whether they are still in play in their respective fields.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng user dewlittle.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Tool for Reporting on Politics and Money

The people at MAPLight.org have come up with yet another innovative reporting aid. The Committees Tool let's you look at key bills and see how much money different special interest groups have donated to committee members and who received the dough. Here's an example:
SPOTLIGHT on H.R. 5632, which would prohibit importation of radioactive waste, in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce
H.R. 5632 would effectively prohibit the importation of radioactive waste into the United States. Energy Solutions, a nuclear waste management company, is currently seeking a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to import 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from Italy. Currently the bill has been stuck in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and House Committee on Ways and Means since it was introduced on March 13, 2008. MAPLight.org's 'Committees Tool' reveals special interest money given to each member of these Committees. The nuclear plant construction, equipment & services industry, which is trying to block passage of the bill, has given John Dingell (D, MI-15), Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, $45,250. Environmental policy groups, which support passage of this bill, have given significantly less, just $3,760 to Dingell.
Pretty slick. Another benefit is that this isn't just for "political" reporters. I can think of a lot of reporting areas where this could help. For example, if you're covering an industry or specific company, or your beat is an area such as environmental, business, consumer, or the arts, the information here could be a great addition to a story on a topic or even provide a springboard for a story idea.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

More Copy Editing to India

Businessweek has a good story on an Indian copyediting and reporting outsource firm that is even doing work for the Miami Herald:
Mindworks has been handling outsourcing assignments from non-Indian publishers for four years. It expects plenty more business as the cost-cutting in U.S. and European print media grinds on. Some Western publishers do their outsourcing in-house—Thomson Reuters (TRI), for instance, has moved basic Wall Street reporting on U.S., European, and Gulf equities to a new bureau in Bangalore. But other media companies prefer to outsource to the Indians directly. On June 24, Mindworks made global headlines when the Associated Press reported that the company had taken on copyediting and layout work for a couple of publications owned by the California media publishing group Orange County Register Communications.
We're in a time where geographic situation means ever less when it comes to getting work. If you are not building expertise and abilities that are difficult to replicate, then you are facing a more uncertain professional future.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Work Listing: StorefrontBacktalk.com

I received the following from an editor I know, who asked if I could pass it on. Please, read the requirements carefully and only apply if it makes sense - he's a good guy (and client), and you really should have an aptitude for reporting about high tech and business:
Company: StorefrontBacktalk.com
Job Title: Reporter

Description: StorefrontBacktalk.com, a blog about retail technology and E-Commerce, is looking for some entry-level reporters. The positions will be telecommuting (which is a plus for most people, especially with today's gas prices) and will involve the standard reporting, writing and research.

Roughly 99.8 percent of the position will involve phone and online work, with a slight possibility of extremely minimal (and entirely optional) travel.
Ideal candidates will have some journalism experience (student newspapers can qualify) and a decent amount of interest in the topic. Salary based on experience. (Isn't it always?)

Contact:
Evan Schuman
Editor
StorefrontBacktalk.com
eschuman@storefrontbacktalk.com

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Multimedia and the Single Freelancer

A reader of this blog forwarded a link to a post on The Editors Weblog. The World Editors Forum, part of the World Association of Newspapers, publishes it. This post quotes Bas Broekhuizen, a television person from the Netherlands, who argues that the drive to turn journalists into multimedia people is a mistake. He led an effort at the leading Dutch broadsheet to train reporters as video journalists so that they could produce both written and video stories. The experience was less than stellar:
“In my opinion every journalist can learn to be a video journalist, as long as he or she is not afraid of the technical aspects (camera, computer, et cetera). Journalism is about telling good stories and in that regard there's no difference between writing and filming,” said Broekhuizen.

“But to become a real good video journalist, you need talent and time. A lot of time.”

“That's why I do not believe in the so called multi skilled journalist, or in ‘convergence by hardware’. Just handing out cameras to newspaper reporters will – in my opinion – not bring you video reports with the quality you want.”
Broekhuizen thinks that the answer is working with specialist teams, not reporters who do it all. Those who follow my blog might be surprised to hear that I agree, because I've often stated that reporters need to learn additional skills - video and audio and some HTML coding - to deal with the web.

The best approach would be to have separate people doing these jobs, for the same reason that the actors in a professionally-produced play aren't also directing, designing sets and lights, building costumes, and running operations back stage. Specializing does give you the chance to learn something well.

That's the theory, at least. Unfortunately, practice doesn't always follow smoothly. A team is great if someone is willing to pay for it. This Dutch newspaper went that route, and obviously had the money to do so. But publishers keep tightening the financial reins, and it's tough enough these days to get them to send both a writer and a photographer. Can you imagine most of them actually paying for a video crew to join the happy reporting band? Neither can I. And yet, as YouTube shows us, video can become insanely popular on the Internet.

When a publisher looks more and more to the web and sees that video might draw the younger demographics that advertisers, either rightly or wrongly, so passionately seek, what are they going to do? Keep funding long-form articles? Or will they say, the hell with writers, let's get some video on the site? My bet is on human nature, cheapness, and the desire for audience.

Let me be clear: it's not easy to do multiple media at the same time. I've gone into stories both taking notes and photos. When doing one, you can't do the other. Adding video or audio only complicates things. But even my myopia can make out the tall letters on the side of the building. When publishers move to multimedia, you'd better be there if you want to keep clients. So now's the time to start learning, so as the publishers experiment, you'll be there with them, and they'll develop the habit of calling you for the complex assignments.

As for the corporate world, I expect it will do as it has in the past - assume that video or audio is a separate undertaking and pay for specialized crews to do the work. Having mixed skills could offer a competitive advantage (lower costs), but only if the video and lighting and audio come out as well as the writing.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Writers Must Be Reporters

Over time, some colleagues and I have noticed how many freelance writers, who have never worked in more traditional forms of journalism, don't think of themselves as reporters, and that's a pity. In my view, at least, there is an obligation for writers, whose work will appear in newspapers, magazines, and books, to focus on more than just the cleverness of their prose, or the invoice that accompanies it. The heart of any writing is its subject: the story. To get the story right means getting the details right. Not that I'm of the school cheering for mindless piles of verified detail as a form of story in itself. But if someone is going to make claims, then the writer has the obligation to do at least a little verification and apply a modicum of skepticism. When there is a mistake in a story, the writer should take it seriously, and, if the source of the error as gatekeeper, feel he or she let the reader down.

I've recently had the experience of some sources responding to Profnet queries and touting themselves as experts, citing their books. A little investigation showed two being self-published and another the client of a service that helps public speakers produce books to extend their platform. In principle, I have nothing against self-published authors. Many wonderful books had their start that way, and I've seen useful work from people who were truly experts in their fields come out of such production. But that is the exception these days, when people want instant credibility to further their careers. If someone cannot get a traditional publisher to take on a title, you should at least ask why. If not, you act as a PR outlet for the person.

When you blindly note every claim someone makes and one turns out to be wrong, you have two problems. One is that you've shirked your professional duty, and may have ruined your credibility with that publication. The other, as I've seen by friend and colleague Randy Hecht point out, is that you continue developing habits that will keep you from reaching the professional heights you otherwise might.

Debra Cash, a colleague and reader of this blog, had sent me a link about how the contracts for reality television shows can read. The author of the post, Joey Skaggs, is known as a media prankster, undertaking political and social commentary by making reporters look like fools. In his case, at least, he says that every communication he has with reporters contains at least one clue that they are being hoaxed. However, the vast majority of people who want to use you - whether would-be expert or corporation trying to burnish its market image - won't be so intentionally kind. That is why vigilance is the first step toward superior writing. As any chef knows, when the ingredients are good, you're 80 percent of the way to a good meal.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

New Radio Frontier

According to ReclaimtheMedia (and thanks to Slashdot.org for pointing this out), low power FM stations might get a chance to break current radio interests to limit their existence:
The Local Community Radio Act of 2007 would remove the artificial restrictions imposed on LPFM by a 2000 law passed at the urging of corporate radio giants and NPR, claiming that small community stations would interfere with the signals of larger stations. While these claims were debunked by a taxpayer-funded study in 2002, Congress has not yet acted on those results - denying many communities the opportunity to apply for LPFM stations.
If this passes, what it means for writers is an experimental medium to try new forms of reporting and telling stories. Non-profits, schools, unions, advocacy groups, and other community groups, will be able to set up lower powered FM stations to broadcast alternative content. In the same vein as my post about blogs being a way of practicing writing, you could look for such opportunities to expand your reporting repertoire. If you want to continue writing over the long run, you need to break out of old concepts of publishing. This could be an opportunity to learn how to handle a mic and to edit sound - giving you the experience to produce audiocasts and part of the multimedia packages that, I think, will ultimately drive the industry. The more you can offer your client, the more value you bring, which means more money and greater security in the market.

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