“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.”
Confessions of a Web Publisher
I am the publisher of a community news website, which means outsiders understand pretty much zilch about what I do. That’s usually fine. As a writer who has done it all—from a book on climate change to lyrical poetry to websites for guitar makers and people with ADD—I’m used to being in foreign territory.
How do people not understand my job? Let me count the ways.
1. I write constantly, very fast, much of it stuff I don’t care a lot about and sometimes things very deeply felt.
2. I have strong opinions and strive for fair reporting, but I believe journalistic “objectivity” is a lie.
3. Writing has the rare distinction of being something most people think they can do. How many believe at some point they will write the great American novel or, these days, memoir? Perhaps I will take the summer off to become a surgeon.
4. Writing for a community news site is its own animal. People know you and hold you accountable in ways most journalists never experience. I am therefore less critical than I would normally be but also more personally invested. When someone gets hurt or an animal needs a home, I really give a damn. After I wrote an account of a woman who killed another woman on a wildly reckless drunken driving spree I got an email from the deceased woman’s daughter asking for a small correction to my story—the fact that her mother had been wearing her seatbelt, a detail the court report had gotten wrong. After a shoreline homeowner shot a mother otter leaving three tiny orphans, I interviewed the wildlife shelter specialist struggling to save their lives. I wanted to cry and scream and rant and seek revenge. I kept calling to check on them. One by one, they died.
5. Most people don’t read carefully. However, as soon as I think my readers are simple-minded fools, someone blows me down with their intelligent feedback.
6. The anonymity of the Internet makes people nasty. When our news partners, The Seattle Timesand King5.com, link to our stories is typically when we get rude comments—not often from regular readers. Once I wrote a personal essay about a dear friend who shot herself in a moment of despair in her chest wound after radiation treatments for breast cancer. She regretted it and begged paramedics to save her before she died. One unnamed commenter to my article wrote, “Who cares? It’s not the gun’s fault she did that.”
7. Contrary to the cutthroat reporter stereotype, when I do a personal feature about someone it is usually because I really like what they are up to, and I work to help them articulate and present their best self.
8. I am part confidant, part detective, part manic captain. The confidant encourages people to trust me and tell me their stories. I draw out personal details they may never have told anyone else. Much of what I hear from people is maddeningly off the record. After discussing an incident with drunk kayakers who required rescuing, one police officer said that his job is to “stand in the way of natural selection.” How I wanted to quote him! The detective part just figures stuff out because often there is no clear way to get a story. It is my job to find a way to become The Information Source. Many stories just take good old sleuthing—calling, showing up, asking questions, taking pictures, and thinking through things. And the manic captain? Much of the time I feel I’m at the helm steering the ship—following leads; choosing stories; finding images; editing contributor pieces; balancing “news” and “personal” articles; and monitoring Facebook, Twitter, comments, and a deluge of daily emails.
9. I hate my job. I hate being on call 24/7. I hate rewriting boring press releases (people hardly ever know how to compose a good one). I hate covering local politics. I hate leaving the house at night to cover fires and accidents, intruding on people’s tragedies and taking gruesome photos.
10. I love my job. I get to learn about people—their passions, families, losses, and achievements. I loved interviewing a blueberry farmer; a 100-year-old woman; a psychologist to traumatized emergency responders; a filmmaker who made a movie about homeless teens.
11. I write for a highly educated, upscale community of people who read my website by the thousands every day. I am shaping public opinion, with many of my articles going national. I am also going to our local food bank to feed my family because I don’t make enough money working 7 days a week. Every day I ask myself how and when I will become master of my fate, captain of my soul.