Interview Transcripts

Mary Rosenblum:  Carmen Goldthwaite writes stories about Texas--history and travel-- for western magazines and anthologies and is a contributing writer for Latitudes & Attitudes on sailing topics. She writes a statewide column, “Texas Dames,” and strings for the New York Times.  Earlier, her investigative reporting led to syndication with Scripps-Howard News. 
Carmen, welcome, we're so pleased to have you here this week!  What an impressive bio you have.  So how did you get started?  Did you write for the papers first, and then get started with history and travel writing?  Or was it the other way around?  Do tell us a bit about how you got started.

Didou:  Hi Carmen,  Thanks for being here this week. I am curious to find out how you started in general (how you broke into print) and how you started your column in particular. Can you please explain more about the column you write: how the idea came, how you found your magazines, and what is your marketing strategy? Also, what can you advice us as far as proposing a column to a newspaper or magazine? How can we start? Where do we start?
Thank you so much!

Mary Rosenblum:  So, Carmen, so tell us about getting started in the newspapers.  If you're just starting out, how do you get the attention of an editor at your local paper?  Do you have to be employed by the paper, or do they take freelance submissions? 
Carmen Goldthwaite:  Hi, guys.  In the sense of breaking in to the newspaper columns, today is both the "best of times" and "worst of times."  The best because downsized staffs can no longer cover or feature all the news and topics of interest in their circulation area.  The worst because a lot of journalists no longer with a salary are beseeching the same editors for assignments and/or submissions.  However, of these, many will not have the fortitude to last more than one or two forays (rejections) in the freelance market.  That, then, makes room, particularly by now, for freelancers trained to submit, submit, submit instead of sulk to have an edge.That said, let's look at what needs covering in your community that may be neglected:  Youth Sports nearly always depends on non staff coverage.  In larger markets that could escalate to high school sports coverage.  While this may sound depressing, one of the areas that's growing in newspapers is the "obits" section, be they paid or free.  In large markets, this often means a full blown profile, a feature, on someone in the community who just died.  Not always the prominent or infamous, but the regular joe and jane who lived and contributed and because they did some segment of the community was better off.  Those "feature" obits are a good entree.  A good way to find them is to cozy up to the funeral director(s) in town, tell them you'd like to interview friends and family of those who would make a good story (and tell them what makes a good story--the Pee Wee League coach whose team members now serve in the military; the Girl Scout leader whose kids went to college on scholarships and credit her influence, etc.)

Mary Rosenblum:  Carmen, that's really interesting and insightful. I hadn't thought about the fact that salaried journalists haven't developed the tough 'rejection' skin of us freelancers.  See, folks, there's a reason to get used to those rejections!  
So the obits and youth sports are good entrees?  I would never have guessed that obits were something you could 'pitch' rather than get as an assignment only.    So how do you choose whom to contact if you want to pitch a story?  Where do you find the name? 

Carmen Goldthwaite:  If you're "pitching" an obit, you're pitching a feature story on a person who has just died.  The Funeral home directors will know who ramrods that "desk" in a newsroom.
For other stories--at this point in the game that's under significant change--look on the masthead of the newspaper (where publishers, editors, etc. are listed) and contact the editor in charge of sections such as:  business, home and family, features, sports, metro news, etc.  Then contact them directly.

Didou: What does it mean when newspapers have a link for sending newstips? Is that like reporting news and how do you qualify to write such a piece? For example, if I know a poet will be presenting at a local high school and the newspapers have not mentioned that yet, how can I send an informative piece?
Also, are newspapers open to freelancers as far as news and features? I have the impression that they assign that to staff only.

Carmen Goldthwaite:  Yes, newspapers are open, but more to features than news.  However, if you're in the vicinity where something's happening, i.e., breaking news,  text or email the appropriate editor.  That means plugging in their contact info ahead of time, just in case.  Or, there's always a phone call to assess interest in covering something.
For example, covering the poet I'd email what I know about the event and the poet and close with, "could I interest you in a story?"
Be prepared to support why you're the person to do the job whether it's on the scene at a news event or covering a planned event, i.e., you're there and/or you know something.  Probably at a news event you're going to be asked to feed in your info while you and it are being validated or verified.  Accuracy, credibility, that's going to count the most.
Getting lined up with any publication generally means starting small, gaining their confidence and then proceeding either with submittals or on assignment.  As mentioned, in today's market many freelancers are getting assignments--from an out of town paper/media outlet or to help expand local coverage during this shortened staff era.
A tip line is just that.  You've got a tip on a story, the paper will check out it and you.  Then build upon your credibility with them by accuracy of reporting.

Didou: Thank you Carmen; I appreciate the thorough explanation.

Newspapers, news media are changing.  Instead of the monolith print machine, they are becoming conveyors of the news in multimedia--social media, radio, tv as well as print.

Carmen Goldthwaite:  Catching their blogs, identifying who's the "go to" blogger (may not be an editor) but will be some reporter/writer live blogging from events to the newspaper's web page or to a "content" department that then turns it in to copy for these various formats.

If blogging is an interest as an avenue to newspaper writing, then start following a newspaper's web page...or twitter account...many are moving to tweets for the "person on the scene" accounts then verifying later.  Check out what your local publication is doing and who that is, either blogging or tweeting and make a connection.  New Media is opening up a large landscape for journalists; we just need to be nimble to craft our stories for the specific platform (in what form the news/feature will be delivered)

Mary Rosenblum:  Carmen, you write for the papers, and you write travel and historical pieces.  Can you speak to the difference between journalism -- writing for the newspapers-- and writing an historical or travel piece?  What exactly is the dividing line here? 

In one sense, they are the same for journalism is nonfiction.  That means it's true.  So journalism resides beneath the umbrella of nonfiction.
Carmen Goldthwaite:  Journalism, as most readers and many writers see it, is the reporting of what's happened, where and when, with the how and why of lesser interest.  This form of journalism is seen in breaking news media--radio, tv and Internet.  Yet, a broader function of journalism can be called, today, "narrative or creative nonfiction."  In this uubform of journalism the questions of how did this happen, who is affected, and the inevitable "why? take precedence because the news facts are already known.  Therefore telling this true story with the techniques of storytelling--a beginning, middle, end as opposed to the inverted pyramid; a main character who faces crises, and a more fleshed out setting of time and place--provides the reader a greater understanding of the original news event.
Often this is revealed in the newspaper as an indepth feature story, as investigative reporting.  But just as often, this longer form of storywriting--particularly today in the ad-shortened news columns--finds a home in magazines and books.  However, the aim is still to provide greater understanding.  In addition to the storytelling components, there must be an emphasis on true facts--people, quotes, place, events, etc.  As my "silent mentor," Gay Talese calls it, narrative nonfiction is the "literature of reality."  This field is growing, yet as with newer fields and news today, it's home sometimes seems to be on shifting sand so the writer needs to be nimble in developing slants and angles for this exciting storytelling venue.

Thanks for continuing on with me to address the "historical and travel" aspects of the question.  When I write a newspaper column on one of my "Texas Dames," I apply all the elements of storytelling to the column that I can find with research--libraries, courthouses, archives and interviews.  Context is important with these because the community newspapers that run the columns want to "see" the terrain, "hear," the person, know what life was like in this woman's era as well as a comparison with today, sometimes implied rather than stated.  When I write about an historical event or institution, or "icon" such as the SteamBoat Yellowstone, that feature becomes the subject and I craft the facts of that boat's adventures in the context of time and place, the steamship being the character.  
Depending on the magazine that's assigned the travel piece--what they want as opposed to what I might prefer--I will write a story on a place, an icon, an event usually in this narrative nonfiction style (my preference) or a more chatty, conversational, essay style to invite readers to pinpoint the "place" on an upcoming trip.  Again, though, that's the editorial choice that I determine by asking (because editors change) and by reading past issues.

Mary Rosenblum:  So, Carmen, can you speak a bit more about the 'narrative nonfiction' versus 'essay' style?  In essay style you're essentially speaking directly to the readers?  

Carmen Goldthwaite:  Sure.  Let's address the differences of essay and narrative nonfiction.
That's a matter of topic and message.  Essay generally is an expression of one person's experience, opinion, etc.  The writer wants to convey an idea, an experience.
Narrative nonfiction, particularly in journalism, but rather universally does not dwell in opinion and except in memoir in personal experience.  In narrative nonfiction a writer is digging out a story--researching, interviewing, etc.--then pulling the story together in storytelling form.
Some memoir may qualify, if written in story form, but it's less opinion and more of the writer examining a sliver of his or her life for some greater understanding.

Let me add a bit about journalism vs. nonfiction and their differences.  Writers may author pieces of varying degrees of opinion and fact and that is nonfiction.  Narrative nonfiction or as Gay Talese calls it, the "literature of reality," will take this blend of fact, observation, opinion, etc. and write a long story--memoir, history, biography, travel, etc.
Journalists subscribe to a code of ethics that requires seeking the truth, verifying the truth, causing no undue harm, accountability, etc.  That's the job of the journalist.  And then the storytelling journalist, operating on that code of ethics takes the information gathered by him or herself, or others, and writes the long story exploring the how and the why and that's narrative journalism.

Mary Rosenblum:  So, Carmen, this is the difference between nonfiction and journalism that I grew up with, but what I hear today from people in the journalism field is that it's more about the 'personal angle'  and I do seem to see that more often in the 'news' stories.  Do you feel that the line between objective journalism and narrative nonfiction is blurring? 

Carmen Goldthwaite:  No, I don't see a blurring.  In fact, when I speak with editors--in a conference with several the last couple of days--there may even be a sharper delineation today than there has been for a number of years.  
Yes, there's the new media or social media and blogs part of the journalism horizon that did not exist very long ago.  Much of that is written in first person, present tense instead of third person past tense of most journalism stories.  If that's what you mean by personal, I guess so.
But the editors I've spoken with believe that there is a strong place for the objective, news now type of story and that storytelling or narrative nonfiction portrayal of news stories also has a distinctive place, yet for newspapers must strive to remain objective.

One more thought on this.  In terms of the personal angle, that's been a part of journalism since the Thirties at least:  "don't tell a story about man...tell a story about one man." 
In fact, as one metro Executive Editor explained that in today's shrunken budgets, he and his fellow editors will pool research for in depth stories, say for all their company's papers in the state.  Then each editor's "team" will seek out an individual whose story reflects the case that's being built and then each paper's team or storytelling writer will write the local, in depth story, i.e., narrative nonfiction.

Mary Rosenblum:  Lots of Long Ridge students and novice writers in general want to break in to the nonfiction world.  So what do you see as the critical writing skills that an editor looks for when he/she gets a query or submission from a new writer?  What is going to help you?  What is going to earn you a quick rejection?  

Carmen Goldthwaite:  Of primary importance for newspapers and magazines is accuracy of facts, names (spelling and titles).  Any question of accuracy equals a "black ball" for now and next.  Next is appropriateness for the newspaper or magazine, i.e., know their wants and don't wants (the latter, if ignored, equals a "no".)  Targeting the publication's audience with slant and angle is key in this consideration.  And then, of course, a fascinating story, one that's been untold, little told or you have an angle not previously explored.
Then, hook them with a strong lead.  As one of my editor says, "get my attention in the first six seconds or I don't read further," i.e., a rejection.
"Write in strong active voice with few adjectives and no adverbs," says another editor of mine and "I'll read further because I know I'm dealing with a writer."
Follow with strong and clear writing, smoothly transitioned to a strong ending.  The least editing a publication has to do, the more readily will your story be accepted.
Mary Rosenblum:  In order for a new writer to really understand what an editor is looking for and might have already featured, that writer should study some previous issues of the magazine, I would  assume.  What do you suggest?  Reading a few back issues? A year's worth?  Any tips for how to research a new market effectively? 

Carmen Goldthwaite:  Here's what I do.  Find out how long the editor's been there 3 months or 13 years.  (If a quick call to the publication doesn't result in that info, then scan back year by year or month by month.  The reason is that when a new editor comes in, he or she will be brought in to make some changes, large or small.  Seeing the difference from editor to editor helps me slot my story for the current editorial thinking and practice.  
Other than that, I usually read the last three months of a publication.  The exception would be if I'm pitching or writing a holiday story (any holiday), I'll want to read two or three issues (therefore years) of that particular holiday message.
'If a magazine doesn't list how often they'll run a treatment of a certain subject, then I go to the library or periodical's index and see when they last ran a story on "sailing in the San Juans" for example.  Then the time before.  Often magazines have a 3-5 year limit on time to pass before they're open to that subject again.

Another critical skill, akin to gathering facts accurately is verifying them.  Being able to attribute cause and effect to someone who is in a position to know.  For example if you're writing a story about a major ice storm and you're quoting the historic severity of it.  GO beyond the accident investigator on the highway to the U. S. weather bureau where reports are listed and either research the date or ask someone who compiles the report, "which is the worst?"  "How do/did you determine?  As in "inches of glaze ice?" "duration of ice?" "wind" "fog" etc.  Then cite the U. S. Weather bureau (report or personnel) and you have gathered more of the facts, verified them or chased down inaccuracies or discrepancies and found out more about the story, therefore producing a better story.
So...gathering and verifying require curiosity and diligence, a great combination to show a prospective newspaper editor.

Mary Rosenblum:  Good researching tips on back issues, Carmen.  They're a lot more specific than the 'read an entire year's worth of issues' that I've heard before.  And the hard research is indeed impressive and should impress an editor . Doesn't the internet make that much easier?  I remember driving to the local medical school to go searching through their private data base to find scientific stuff I needed.  Any tips for people on how to use the internet well?  

Carmen Goldthwaite:  Yes, the Internet makes finding the info easier, but eliminates that wonderful filter, the Librarian, who's a terrific guide, making short work of tons of material.  But, at 3 a.m., the Internet works best.  I'm still a Google first fan or Metacrawler, even though Bing's coming on.  the Reader's Periodical's Index, World Cat, Books in Print are good guides.  
For just general info and getting started, the U. S. census bureau, www.census. gov and the U.S. Weather burea are great sites for everything from stats to determining the weather you need for tension in a story.  
Media sites I use a good bit are newslink.org and journaliststoolbox.com.
The 3 a.m. library is the internet Public Library--www.ipl.org 
Or, the Librarian's Index:  http:/lii.org & Internet Public Library (http://ipl.org).
Hope that helps with the research question.
Mary Rosenblum:  Carmen, thanks!  You have been a great guest, and I…all of us…really appreciate your time and expertise here.  Thank you so much for joining us!

 

 

 

 

 

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