How do I have a "purpose" to do stories as an independent journalist?
November 29, 2009 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I am very interested in making photojournalism and radio documentaries. I'd like to approach these interests the way I usually do- jumping right in. However, I get nervous asking people to share their time and stories with me as I am not accredited to an organization. How do I get past this?

Often times already, even when I'm not interacting with people directly, I will get people asking me what organization I'm with when I am taking pictures or walking around with headphones and the field audio recorder.

I'm having trouble answering this in a way that is honest, that won't scare people a mile away. Initially I'd tell people I was a "freelance journalist" and that the material would be "published online", more recently I've been able to jot down the URL of my photoblog on a business card if they ask.

However, I've been interested in doing journalism where I'd need to ask people for their time, and I am curious how I would go about that as someone who can't say "I'm doing a story for ____." I feel like this sometimes leads people to follow a certain conduct of cooperation that I would find to be very useful.

Another issue for me is that I am young (17) and I feel like it would be easy to be seen as another brat taking up time for no good reason.

For example, if I wanted to do a story on a local shop owner, I'd like to approach them and say "Hi, my name is EJ. I want to do a story on you, do you think I could have some of your time to talk." or similar. I feel like the natural question after this is "A story for what? Where is it going to be published?" and the answer to this for me is really unclear because I am still in the elementary stages of knowing what I'm doing. Who knows if I will ever publish the completed project? Or where?

Any advice for how to deal with this situation would be greatly appreciated.
posted by ejfox to Human Relations (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Join an organization, get dat accreditation yo!
posted by Benzle at 8:29 AM on November 29, 2009

Initially I'd tell people I was a "freelance journalist" and that the material would be "published online"

Back in the days when I was doing radio production for the sheer love of it, while my life circumstances were forcing me to do other things with my daytime life, this is more or less exactly what I said to people. What I discovered is that people generally like the idea that they'll be heard and will be very accommodating to you - especially because you're young and enterprising.

Who knows if I will ever publish the completed project?

The general expectation if you're going to take people's time is that, of course, you will actually produce the piece in question (and, as a minor gesture of remuneration, send them a copy). While you could conceivably flake on doing this, it would not be good for you in terms of relationship-building, credibility, or simply getting more practice in the production process.

P.S.: A few years later, based on said "freelancing" and despite never having any "accreditation," I got hired as a producer on an NPR show. It can happen. Go for it.
posted by mykescipark at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I just feel like it's hard to join an organization without a body of work to show, and it's hard to get a body of work to show with an organization.
posted by ejfox at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2009

And as Benzie suggests, if you really want to get some notches on your belt, see Youth Radio and the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR). They have mentoring programs and resources you can use to help motivate and educate you through this whole process.
posted by mykescipark at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

IANAjournalist, this is just my perspective if some 'brat' came up to me and started asking questions.

Tell them that you are doing a story on local shopkeepers (artists, musicians, etc.) and ask if they would be willing to let you interview them. If they ask for what publication or when it will be published, tell them that you are working freelance and trying to build up your portfolio. Tell them that if you are able to get the piece published that you will contact them and let them know where they can read it. Tell them you'll have it on your blog if you can't get it published and then give them that address. Give them a timeline if they want it.

If you are taking pictures you could tell people that you're working on a book or photo blog. Get their information and tell them that you'll give them credit. I think most people are flattered to get their picture taken, and if they know they'll be credited then they'll be pretty okay with it. The big exception to this will be taking pictures of people's children. Most parents aren't going to want strangers taking pictures of their kids.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:37 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Pardon me, WITHOUT an organization.
posted by ejfox at 8:37 AM on November 29, 2009

Freelancing is fine. When I was young I felt like stuff had to have a "name" behind it to be legit, but the older I get the more I realize that the world turns based on people having an idea and "Just Do[ing] It." If it helps to feel like you have a goal, you can always say something like "I'm aiming to submit my work to Vogue/National Geographic/The OC Register" or whatever.

That said, remember to always be polite, respectful, and interested. For a lot of people, having somebody who is genuinely interested in their story and what they have to say can be cathartic and they will actually feel like you are doing them a favor by recording them. I always enjoy being interviewed by skilled professional journalists because I always feel like I get just as much out of the conversation as they do. Also, I suspect that the fraction of people you will meet that demand to see the product ("where will this be published?") will be minimal; most people should understand that in the course of making a documentary much of the raw footage will end up on the cutting room floor.
posted by msittig at 8:37 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two magic words for you, especially for radio work: You're an "independent producer."
posted by Miko at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

yo's almost 2010. Use the internets.

Couple of things:
1) If you really want to do this you need to be multimedia savvy. Which is awesome, because you are your own organization. For now that means that you can start with your blogger blog and some audio hosting. With proper keywording, you can compete with anyone, particularly if your stories are unique. Super easy, super legit. So you are an independent journalist, and you can show people where your stories go.

This means that a) you will have to finish the stories you start and b) you will have to make them good. Both of which are really good things to be doing.

2) I'd check out, it's a fabulous resource for this kind of stuff.

3) I'd seriously consider investing in a decent SLR that also does video. Again, if you are serious about doing this in the long-term, the more you know about multimedia, the better off you are. A Canon T1i is pretty amazing for the money, also the Panasonic micro 4/3 cameras, like the GF1 (of which I covet) are really video and stills better than still and video cameras from 7 years ago did either.

A very effective and maybe easier medium than video is a combination of stills and audio (a slide show) put together with Soundslides. Again, stupid easy, totally legit. Exactly what the big boys are doing for the NY Times and things like that.

Just remember: it's a wild world out there. You can kind of do whatever you want and legitimize it. Getting paid for it is another story entirely, sadly.

This is not radio, but check out the awesomeness 2 guys and a camera can do.

There's a festival in Chicago every year for independent radio producers...I forget the name but you'll find out about it on Transom. Also there are a lot of great resources via TAL. Some videos of Ira Glass on Youtube talking shop are awesome.
posted by sully75 at 9:04 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

PS the thing too is that if you don't feel comfortable interviewing strangers yet, interview people you know. You know any interesting people? Do a story about your dad or someone you love. or hate. Or whatever. That shit is way more interesting than bland beginner stories about people you are too shy to relate to. So find something you can dig deep into. And when you are good at that, and know what a story is, then you will feel a lot better about interviewing a stranger and digging out his story.

Really, you should be looking up everything Ira Glass ever said about anything, and then committing it to memory. And find the This American Life comic book much good information in there.
posted by sully75 at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2009

Sully is referring to Third Coast.
posted by mykescipark at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2009

You can join the Public Radio Exchange in order to have a target for sharing the results of your work. You upload your work and it is available for licensing and broadcast by other media outlets. Many public radio outlets pick up segments from PRX, including This American Life.
posted by Miko at 1:05 PM on November 29, 2009

I so want to give you some great advice but I am starting a new job tomorrow and don't have all the pieces in place to give you great advice. I will favorite this and come back or e-mail me and we can talk.
posted by parmanparman at 9:17 PM on November 29, 2009

Your profile says your in Hudson Valley. That is also home to WDFH, an all volunteer community radio station. Have you been in contact with them? I volunteer at a similar station (KBOO) in Portland, mostly doing radio journalism. We always, but always need more volunteer journalists.
posted by tallus at 2:31 AM on November 30, 2009

At 17, I would say that I was a student interested in radio journalism, etc.

a: just ask, and see what happens.
b: offer to pay some nominal fee for an hour or so of their time.
c. solicit people with stories of a particular kind via the internet and / or newspaper.
posted by xammerboy at 7:18 AM on November 30, 2009

b: offer to pay some nominal fee for an hour or so of their time.

Just want to note that as a journalistic practice, this isn't recommended. It can leave you open to accusations of bias and unethical activity. Be careful about that.
posted by Miko at 7:23 AM on November 30, 2009

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