Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Archive for the category “journalism”

30 Ways To Piss Off Reporters

Featured Image -- 2700Because it’s been a while since I posted anything writing-related … hell, it’s been a while since I posted anything, period. This is a nicely snarky perspective on the thorny relationship between PR and the media. My favourite is the press conference with no questions …

@conwayfraser

During media training sessions, I share examples of easy ways to completely piss off a reporter — not as a tutorial — but as a cheeky way to say DO NOT do these things ever if you want to maintain any kind of healthy relationship with media.

Below you will find the ones that bothered me when I worked as a journalist. There are definitely others so feel free to share in the comments section below. I had some help from some friends and former colleagues. So, please do add to the discussion.

Do any of these things, and you’re in for a world of fun. Trust me.

1. Tell a reporter how to do their job – They love that. Criticize the subjective tone or focus of a story while you’re at it. Bonus points if you can do this while never mentioning that the story was technically 100% accurate.

2…

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Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity.  This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground.  So much for home court advantage.

Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games.  Yup.  Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments.  The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process).  I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth.  Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible.  I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. OVERBLING:  The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women.  If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly.  From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling.  The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids.  In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours.  (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES:  I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”.  I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country.  Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.  

Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.

beavers-0694Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches.  From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome.  The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle.  It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara grizzly-0691Falls.  WTF? doesn’t really cover it …

And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it.  The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.

3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE:  One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie.  The Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them.  Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly the eight-foot kind.

4. FUGLY:  Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell?  Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.

Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys.  Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”?  I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities.  Seriously, who looks good in this fabric?  One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who.  And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe.  These girls were fugly dresses-9907putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these.  Hashtag fashion fugliness.

5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE:  By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country.  But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels.  In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto.  Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.

The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever.  (It’s a bit of a circular argument:  if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following?  Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal.  Ugh.)  So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events.  Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on.  There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.

There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games.  Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff.  The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones.  I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.

There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond.  But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work.  At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent.  Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party.  Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front.  But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in.  Note to the Pan Am organizers:  if it ain’t broke …

6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE:  How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions.  If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon.  (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever pachi-2033designed by humans.  They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.)  I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated.  I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely.  In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two?  No clue there either).  Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers.  (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)

7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY:  As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything).  Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it.  At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause.  The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact.  YouTube became the place to go …

Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website.  I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us?  They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

8. ALL THE FAKENESS:  These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the triffid-9051Caledon Equestrian Park.  They were at least five feet tall.  I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario.  (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)

Another headscratcher:  the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers.  And they looked really …. fake.  I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest waylon trilliums-1649farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?

9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE:  Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door?  As in, within driving distance for many?  At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming.  The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm.  Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)?  Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth fans in stands-0281noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood).  But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad.  They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.

10. KICKSTARTER?:  The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019.  Always wanted to go to Peru.  Send money, please?

(Please note:  pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. pachi finish-2288 Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant.  Thank you.)

Just Pay Them, Dammit!

More preaching to the choir (presumably) … Caitlin Kelly’s take on unpaid internships. The title sez it all.

Broadside

By Caitlin Kelly

So, imagine you finally get  a shot at the industry/job/company you’ve been dying to work for forever.

Imagine you have even spent the time, energy and hard work to acquire an MBA.

But, hey, sorry, we would love to have you come work for us, but we just don’t have a budget for interns.

As if.

A court decision made this week, I hope, will strike fear into the greedheads who keep offering work without payment:

A Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled on Tuesday that Fox
Searchlight Pictures had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws
by not paying production interns, a case that could upend the long-held
practice of the film industry and other businesses that rely heavily on
unpaid internships.

Should the government get tough to protect unpaid interns, or are internships a win-win?

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III…

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A Wynne Lose

Normally, I don’t use this blog to highlight local politics.  How relevant is it going to be, really, to a Gentle Reader in St. Vincent (I got two hits from the island a few days ago — hi guys!) or Croatia (where I seem to have a regular reader or two)?

Here’s why I’m making an exception.  I make at least a percentage of my living, writing for racing magazines.  I cover both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing (which is why I like the banner photo at the top of the blog — Standardbred racing under saddle, while only a novelty thing at present here in North America, strikes me as a fun hybrid that more-or-less sums up what I do.  Neither fish nor fowl, in other words).  I’ve even dabbled in Quarter Horse racing coverage, also a fringe activity here in Ontario, and Trottingbred pony racing in Bermuda (harness racing with the added benefit of cute ponies in lots of outrageous colours!).   I’ve worked at the track, done lots of exercise riding, and most of my own mounts are refugees from the racing industry.  All of which to say, I’m invested.

I’ll make the background to the following article as brief as I can manage.  Some of it you can glean from the article itself:  my home province of Ontario once had a sweetheart deal, a win-win-win, with the provincial government, in which its 17 racetracks accommodated rooms full of pinging, flashing, gurgling slot machines, in exchange for a percentage of the revenue, which they invested in purses for racing.  In exchange for hosting another gambling option which essentially cannibalized its betting revenue, the racetracks got fatter purses, which attracted better quality horses, made it possible to offer world-class stakes races … and the local municipalities which hosted each racetrack also got a share of the cut for infrastructure, road improvement, whatever.

The Ontario government made out like a bandit on this deal, too, to the tune of $1.1 billion a year — about a 70% return on what it gave the racing industry.  This was money which was available to be invested in health care, education, roads, parks, anything our little semi-socialist Canadian hearts desired.

The Slots At Racetracks program came about because most Ontario cities didn’t want slots parlours in their urban centres.  Racetracks, which tend to be located on the city fringes or in rural locales, were ideal — and they already had the electricity, the parking lots, the washrooms (and the property taxes) that the body which governs gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corp (OLG), didn’t want to invest in.  It was so wildly successful that in the 14 years since it was instituted, Ontario became one of the most envied racing jurisdictions in North America, particularly on the Standardbred side.  The Ontario Sires Stakes program was the envy of the continent, stallions were flocking in to stand at stud here, we had the richest harness race offered anywhere (the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, for three-year-old pacing colts), and basically the whole thing was bad-ass, apart from the fact that actual interest in live racing, from a spectator’s point of view, has been waning for a while.  Empty grandstands have been more the norm than the exception, and yes, that needed to be addressed … but in terms of the quality of the product, the contentment level of the horsepeople, and the health of the breeding industry, there was little to criticize about Ontario racing.

But we have a provincial government which has managed to bury itself in debt, with one snafu after another.  Obscenely expensive power plants which get half-built and abandoned — check.  An air ambulance service which purchases dizzyingly over-priced helicopters which don’t even allow EMTs enough room in which to perform CPR on the hapless passengers — check.  An eHealth system which gives its CEO an outrageous salary and Prince-Rainier-style perks, and delivers practically nothing — check.  I could go on.  So long story short, they’re buried in scandal and up to their yin-yang in deficit, so they have to be seen to be cutting something.  And DSC_4859 crowd4horseracing … well, it doesn’t have very good optics anyway, right?  It’s seedy and corrupt and they break down all the pretty horses, and no-one’s really going to miss it.

So without any consultation with the 55,000-odd people who make a living, either directly or indirectly, from racing in this province, nor with any of racing’s governing bodies, nor anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture who might have known squat about racing, they yanked the rug out from under the industry in February, 2012, by announcing they were cancelling the SARP program and instead would be investing in building huge, foreign-owned full-service casinos in urban locations across the province.  Never mind that the existing five or six casinos in Ontario all lose money.  It’s going to be a much better strategy, and we’re tired of “subsidizing” horseracing to the tune of $345 million a year which is taking money away from hospitals and all-day kindergarten for our wee ones.

It was a shameful degree of spin which elicited howls from the racing industry right from day one.  Suddenly discretionary spending on slots machines, a portion of which went to racing, had become the Ontario government propping up our game.  The word “subsidy” was gleefully seized upon by the mainstream media, and racing instantly became the bad guy, taking flu shots from the tender little arms of babes.  And never mind that by hosting slots parlours, racing contributed billions to exactly those programs, far more than was invested.

Not to mention never mind the grooms who are in the barn by 6 a.m. every day, shovelling shit and hosing down horses and cleaning harness, and then packing up the trailer most afternoons and driving for hours in order to race into the late hours of the night … all for staggeringly less than minimum wage.  Those are the real faces of racing, folks, not the Frank Stronachs of the world.

Anyway, you can imagine the fallout.  Basically, without the SARP, Ontario racing was a dead duck.  The fall yearling sales were a bloodbath.  Stallions who had barely set up shop, packed up and left again.  People started giving horses away right, left, and centre, or shipping the less productive ones for meat.  Cases of neglect multiplied as people ran out of money to feed their horses.  Drivers and jockeys headed south of the border where they could be better assured of making a living.  And Windsor Raceway, once one of the most vibrant harness racing ovals in North America — and a place where I worked as a groom, back in the day — locked its doors and became a ghost town, with others soon to follow.

Fast forward almost a year and the Liberal premier who wreaked all this havoc has resigned and slunk away.  The new leader of his party, Kathleen Wynne, has been in power a couple of weeks.  As she had also taken on the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario horsemen hoped against hope that she had some interest in rural Ontario and in the entirely avoidable plight of racing industry participants.

So when there was an eleventh-hour announcement late this week, of an “invited media only” press conference to be held at one of Ontario’s racetracks on Friday, with the shiny new premier …. well.

Below is my report of the gulf between dreams and reality.  The decent thing to do would have been to admit the whole plan had been ill-thought-out and a huge fucking mistake, but one can’t expect expressions of culpability from politicians, I guess.

I wrote this piece for the United States Trotting Association, for whom I crank out an irregular column on Canadian harness racing news.  (Search my name on the site if you’d like to read some of them.)  But the USTA preferred to go with the more diplomatically worded press release.  Hence, this article has no home.  Rather than have Friday be a completely wasted effort on my part, I present it here, for what it’s worth.

****************************************************************

FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH:  SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO

big-revealWith the surprise announcement on Thursday afternoon (March 7, 2013) of a press conference to be held the following day at Elora, Ontario’s Grand River Raceway, with new provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, the hearts of Ontario horsemen got an unexpected jolt.

Within hours, the rumour mill was hinting that perhaps the ruling Liberals had finally crunched the numbers, and realized that their decision, a year ago, to summarily cancel the wildly successful Slots At Racetracks program (SARP) which had pumped $345 million per year into the racing industry and $1.1 billion into provincial coffers, had been … well, stupid.

Local news outlets reported that SARP was about to be restored, ending 12 months of anxiety, uncertainty, and anger for some 55,000 people whose livelihoods hung in the balance.

Alas, wishful thinking couldn’t make it so.  The news delivered from the well-lit podium on the second floor of the Grand River grandstand, did almost nothing to dispel that uncertainty.

Premier Wynne, who took over the Liberal leadership from the retreating Dalton McGuinty a month ago, also took on the portfolio of the Minister of Agriculture … so the concerns of rural Ontario have clearly been on her mind to some degree.

But she continues to buy into the essential fallacy created by her predecessor, and perpetuated by the three-member “Transition Board” appointed to assess the state of Ontario horseracing after the decision had been made to pull the plug, that racing was not sustainable in this province as it stood, that it was in need of shrinkage, and that the revenue-sharing agreement which was carved out 14 years ago to compensate racetracks for hosting slots parlours, was a “subsidy”.

In fact, Ontario stood until a year ago as one of the most successful racing jurisdictions in North America, if not the most successful.  With an exemplary Sires Stakes program and 17 tracks, many of which operated year-round, Ontario was a racing destination that was the envy of many.

The Liberals have apparently never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And a year later, the damage has been done.

Wynne’s speech on Friday, March 8 to the media offered little more than a photo op of her cuddling with two ‘ambassador’ horses from the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society.  In terms of substance, there was little.  She assured her audience that Ontario racing will survive, but will have to become smaller, delivered some platitudes about how rental agreements (to keep the doors of the existing slots parlours open) have been reached with most of the surviving 14 tracks, and that “transition agreements” had been reached with five of them – six, if you count Woodbine and Mohawk as separate ovals (they are both owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group).

Some of the other Ontario racetracks are still in negotiations, with Rideau Carleton (in Ottawa) and the now-shuttered Windsor Raceway refusing to play ball.

Wynne steadfastly refused to talk money, deflecting repeatedly when asked by the media whether the transitional funding – now truly a government subsidy – would approach previous levels provided by the revenue-sharing agreement.  And the timeframe of three years she provided for these transitional agreements, does nothing for Ontario breeders, who work on a five-year cycle and have been perhaps the hardest hit of all the industry segments.

“We are continuing to work with the transition panel, to integrate racing with the provincial gaming strategy,” she reiterated, to the dismay of most of the racing media who understand that the ill-informed transition panel is a big part of the problem.

“And we want to ensure racetracks have access to revenues from new gaming applications.

“We want to make sure that there aren’t enormous unintended consequences as the industry evolves,” she concluded.

While it’s of some small comfort that the government now recognizes there might be consequences, one can’t help but feel as if they pulled the plug and only now are making a half-hearted effort to save the baby who is circling the drain with the bathwater.  The consequences are here, unintended or not, and Friday’s non-announcement, unfortunately, will do virtually nothing to change that.

Professional Development: Welcome to the Dark Side

Somehow I forgot that I was going to regale y’all* with a synopsis of the latest PWAC take-your-writing-on-a-completely-different-tangent seminar.  Last month’s edition focused on public relations writing…. a.k.a. Welcome to the Dark Side.

If you come from a journalistic background, resisting the Dark Side is ingrained. See, while journalism attempts to present all sides of an issue or story without bias, public relations writing is all about putting the most advantageous spin on something.  In other words, anathema to dyed-in-the-wool journos …

But here’s the rub:  the public relations writers of this world are currently making a far more reliable living than those of us who cling irrationally to our principles.  Which has prompted more than a few to examine their, um, moral flexibility.

Truth be told, the two worlds need not be mutually exclusive.  If one can compartmentalize a bit, one can easily crank out magazine articles in journalistic style, and public relations copy as … okay, a well-paid flak.  Different hats, different jobs.

So you burn for all eternity in the ninth circle of hell…. that was probably gonna happen anyway.

And the stupid thing is, in the eyes of Bay Street traders and waste management technicians and day-care workers and teenage lifeguards and producers of reality TV …. public relations pros get a whole lot more respect than the journos do.

So it was with an open mind and a continuing thirst for re-invention that I scribbled down the thoughts of three esteemed PR pros:  Alix Edmiston, Virve Tremblay, and Susan Crossman.  (Here are their bios.)

From Edmiston:  “The future is bright for those who want to embrace change.  PR writing is moving towards digital media and tablet apps, and away from physical products.  And social media is the ultimate game-changer, encouraging companies now to be completely transparent.

“PR writing is about enhancing and/or protecting a company’s image, and often includes crisis management.  A PR person’s skills can make or break an organization in a crisis situation.”

Edmiston said she hates the term “spin”, because PR writers (at least the good ones) function by a code of ethics, just as do journalists.

One good thing about PR writing?  The “content beast”, as Edmiston called it, needs constant feeding.  In all sorts of formats, from white papers to 140 character tweets. “I don’t see that diminishing,” she emphasized.  “When you create a community through social media, you then have to keep that community informed, and that content can’t be generated by machine.  It requires good writers.”

As for finding opportunities?  “Look at corporate websites and discern their needs.  Then figure out how you can fill them.”

She added, “You have to take the objectivity hat off and grasp the company message.  It’s not very different from altering your journalistic style to suit different magazine markets.”

Tremblay identified 14 trends for freelancers.  And you KNOW how I love a list.

Based on research from the Communications Executive Council (an organization I didn’t know existed, which represents several hundred international corporations):

1. Budgets are recovering.

2. Budgets have grown in 2012 vs. 2011.

3. The increase, if you will, is increasing.

4. Communicators (of the PR variety, presumably) are feeling optimistic about the future.  (Um, less so in Europe, where things are still pretty grim, career-wise.  See, it could be worse, I could live in Greece.)

5. In a business-to-business setting, corporations tend to have 1.2 communications staff people per 1000 employees.  In B2C (business-to-consumer) settings, it’s 3.8 communications staff per 1000 employees.  Larger revenue companies tend to have larger communications departments.  Hence, the best opportunities are in large, B2C companies.  Start-ups generally don’t have the budget to hire writers (nor understand their usefulness, though maybe that’s me, editorializing).

6. 25% of money spent on communications is devoted to freelancers, 25% for materials and commercial vehicles (like videos, newsletters, and so forth), and 50% of the budget tends to be spent on in-house staff.  That’s a fair bit of freelance opportunity.

7. Vendor budgets are expected to increase in 2013, with an average expected increase of 12%.

8. Responsibilities for communications professionals over the past five years have shifted dramatically towards social media.  SM can account for up to 80% of a communications pro’s time and energy in 2012, vs. 0% in 2007.  The #2 priority?  Analytics (measuring and monitoring the impact of those SM efforts).

9.  (Still with me?)  Communications departments are becoming less integrated.  There’s a trend towards separating marketing budgets from communications budgets.

10.  There’s an increasing focus on corporate social responsibility, as opposed to companies just making charitable donations to worthy causes.  “Giving for a reason” is the emphasis that needs to be played up.

11.  Companies are devoting more and more of their communications budgets to social media and analytics.

12.  It pays to know what the shifting priorities might be in the industry you’re targeting.  For example, in the health/pharma field, Tremblay said community relations is the #1 priority.

13.  There’s an increased emphasis on employee engagement — ie. getting your staff to “live the brand”.  And some of the advice on how to do that, is best delivered by an outside contractor.  IOW, a freelancer.

14.  Improved partnerships are a priority for almost all businesses.  Again, this is a result of social media:  interactions with clients/customers are now two-way instead of one-way.

Now here’s the kicker:  according to Tremblay, PR agencies can charge anywhere from about $100 an hour, at the lower levels, up to $360 an hour for a consultation from an agency CEO.  Gulp.  “That’s a huge opportunity for freelancers, because many companies would rather go with a freelancer than a big agency with big overhead.  You can charge what the market will bear.”

Crossman broke down PR writing into four sectors:  internal communications, consumer communications, government communications, and crisis control.  And she offered five important lessons for would-be PR peeps.  (Be still my heart, another list!)

1. Not every client is a good fit, and that’s okay.  It’s good to play to your strengths.  But sometimes you have to get outside your comfort zone and take a chance.

2. Be the best version of yourself for every job, every time.  Preserve, protect, and enhance your reputation.

3.  PR writing is not journalism.  There are certain conventions you need to understand, so get some training or find a mentor.  That said, journalists are often well-suited to doing PR writing, because they know what makes a story.  The trick is to understand which facts you emphasize in a PR piece.

4. Acquiring your first clients is about marketing yourself.  Network, network, network.  Be prepared for any conversation, any time — you never know where work might come from.

5.  Your on-line reputation will precede you.  Manage your social media footprint very carefully.  (Read:  don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your mother to see.  Question:  does this blog cross that line?)

And most importantly, don’t forget to ask for the business.  Every time someone connects with you, whether it be through LinkedIn, Twitter, or a Fetish Night party, thank him or her, and mention that if he or she ever needs a writer you’d be glad to help.

“There’s plenty of business out there,” Crossman said.  She suggested that $80 an hour is an average freelance rate for PR writing.  “Break it down for the client so they see real value for money, and place parameters on things like revisions to protect yourself.  Send out a confirmation note or contract, and make sure the client has communicated what they want.”

Some recommended resources from the speakers:  International Association of Business Communicators including PIC (for independents); the Canadian Public Relations Society; marketing webinars from HubSpot; articles from Ragan Communications; and Public Relations for Dummies.

* Canadians never say y’all.  Sorry.  Don’t know what I was thinking.

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This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing …

Back in February of this year, I blogged about a PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada), Toronto chapter, seminar I’d attended, about journalistic opportunities in “new media“.

Among the speakers was Wilf Dinnick, who presented to a room full of freelancers in various stages of bewilderment, desperation, and angst about the state of their careers, a strong and irrepressibly optimistic case for embracing markets such as OpenFile, which he founded and edited.

In late September, OpenFile ceased publication.  (If you click the above link, you’ll see the most recent stories were posted September 28, at least as of the moment I posted this.)

And guess what?  A whole bunch of freelancers haven’t been paid, and Wilf has stopped communicating with them.

I wonder if it’s too late to apprentice as a ditch-digger or something.

Here are the gory details, including  the open letter written to OpenFile by six Montreal-based contributors who would really like some answers, please:

http://www.thestoryboard.ca/openfile-freelancers-post-open-letter-to-wilf-dinnick/

http://journomel.com/2012/11/12/freelancers-write-open-letter-to-openfile-for-payment-dinnick-responds/

http://reopenfile.tumblr.com/

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Mushroom Farm

Tonight I am keeping company with an exceedingly geriatric and wheezy pair of dogs, as the writing career continues to stutter and stall.

There’s a magazine to which I used to contribute on a pretty regular basis.  I believe it still ranks as the highest-circulation horse magazine in the United States.  It’s aimed at amateur horse owners and beginner riders, so the content is generally pretty basic, but the production values are high and the pay, okay (as in, I haven’t been offered a raise in about 10 years but its rates are pretty much par for the course for ‘nag mags’).

One thing I always found irksome, however, was their Pay on Publication policy.  Not that this is a rare thing in my little lagoon (though apparently outside of niche markets, it is the exception rather than the rule and makes mainstream magazine writers scrunch up their faces at me in various versions of being appalled).  But given that their editorial calendar is decided a year in advance, and the gap between my deadline and the magazine landing on newsstands can be four to six months, with payment 30 to 60 days after THAT … well, that was getting a little old for me, so a few years ago I reduced my commitment to them to one or two articles a year.  Cuz, to my intense bewilderment and frustration, I still have not been able to get Rogers to put my cel phone bill on hold for half a year at a time …

This year, I had only a single assignment lined up for them.  I proposed the topic back in May of 2011.  They assigned it to me in June of that year.  They wanted the article at the end of August.  In 2012.  For publication in December.

Seriously.  I have magazines who expect a 48 hour turnaround on six-interview, 3000 word magnum opera, and then I have this.

I neglected to enter it on my phone’s daytimer (actually I’m not sure I could, it was that far ahead) and thus it completely dropped off my radar.

Luckily, I did at least put it in my mostly-useless Outlook reminder thingy.  Can’t imagine why; I never do that.  So a week before the deadline, my computer made a disconcerting chimey noise it almost never makes, and I was alerted to the imminent requirement to toss together yet another witty, insightful, gripping, yet approachable essay on how to dote on your senior horse (who may or may not be as wheezy and infirm as the canines with whom I am currently cohabitating).

Disaster averted.  And yet, another loomed on the horizon.  While I had been compliantly lining up interviews and compiling background info, rumblings began.  Rumblings from fellow contributors to this same magazine.  Most of whom contributed more frequently than I do, and thus had their ears to the train tracks, or something.

Hey, doesn’t really matter whether it’s a storm or an oncoming train you’re hearing.  Either way, not exactly inspiring news.

Turns out my fellow contributors have not been getting paid.  Not even on the usual ‘four-to-six-months after you send in the completed article’ schedule.  Just, you know, not.

Turns out, the parent company of this magazine has put itself … well, how can I put this delicately.  Up shit creek without a paddle?

Said parent company owns a whole (if you’ll pardon the expression) stable of magazines, in addition to a book publishing division.  If it trots, crawls, slithers, flutters, undulates, swims, or sheds, they probably have a magazine about it.  Or did.  Cuz some of these titles are starting to disappear.  It’s kind of a weird parallel universe extinction thing.

Meanwhile editors are promising the non-payment thing is all just a temporary glitch. Don’t worry, be happy.  Keep writing for us, you promised you would, we’ve got a magazine to put out.  And we were gonna pay you last week, honest we were, but it was a payroll week and you should be just so very, very glad and relieved that all the editors here are still able to make their car payments.  Hang in there.

It’s hard, sometimes, to remind yourself that the editors are not the Snidely Whiplashes in this scenario.  They have undoubtedly been given directions from On High, as to what they can and cannot disclose to their freelance contributors.  Heavy on the cannot.  And as tiny shreds of info do come to us, it has begun to look more and more as if the editors are currently existing, against their will, on a mushroom farm.  There is definitely fungus among us, as they say.

Especially spore-rific was the announcement early this week that one of the parent company’s other horse-related titles had declared bankruptcy and locked its doors.  All staff caught completely by surprise and unable to retrieve their favourite coffee mugs.   Picture puff-ball mushroom being stomped by shod Thoroughbred hoof.  Ouch.

So my dilemma is this:  do I bust my chops to fulfill my obligation to this magazine?  Factors in favour:  loyalty, tendency to want to meet my commitments, possibility that all this will sort itself out and that there will be more business for me down the road and a gold star on my forehead for having kept the faith.

Factors against:  It’s looking pretty fucking likely that I will never see any money for this article.

I’m grateful that I am not quite as screwed here as some of my colleagues, who are owed four- and five-digit amounts at present.  I’m grateful I’ve been so determined not to put all the proverbial eggs in one basket that I’m only fringe-angsting over this.  But at a time when more and more titles seem to be dissolving, evaporating, or imploding, it’s scary.  Between this, and the markets which still exist but for which I will no longer write because they’ve been total asshats to me, I find myself now babysitting pleasant but neolithic dogs in order to not-quite survive.

More on other weird and occasionally degrading odd jobs in a future rant.

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Mud, Mosquitoes, and Mayhem

I promised I was going to usher you into the mysterious unseen world of the horse show press tent, right?

That’s assuming, of course, that there actually is one.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced many levels of media preparedness on the part of horse shows.  Rarely sublime, often ridiculous.  Of course, the general level of making-life-easy-for-journalists has improved vastly with the advent of wi-fi.  (Look, contact with the outside world — oh, bliss!)

But given that horse shows are generally situated somewhere out in a muddy field, it’s little wonder that what most journos might consider the basic basics — stuff like phone lines, electricity, and chairs — are often in short supply, and were even more so 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started trekking to these festivities.

There’s a three-star three-day event called the Fair Hill International, which occurs every October in Elkton, Maryland.  (For the uninitiated, equestrian sports, and especially eventing, are ranked in difficulty by the number of stars, ranging from one to four.  There are only six four-star three-day events in the world and they are seriously, seriously badass.  A three-star event is one level below that, but just to put it in perspective, the three-day eventing competition at the Olympics is at the three-star level.)

Fair Hill is a gorgeous place, but given the time of year when the event is held, it’s almost invariably a mudpit.  And the first year that I arrived there to cover it for the British eventing monthly confusingly called “Eventing“, I sunk my rental car to the axles in the parking lot, schlepped through a sea of goo to the centre of activity, and failed to locate anything in the way of a structure that was designated for weary journalistic travellers such as myself.  After a good deal of feckless squishing around the trade fair, I finally located someone with a walkie-talkie, who looked me up and down with wonder and said something along the lines of, “Wow, we have PRESS!”

Okay, so safe to assume there’s no internet access, then …

The 1999 Pan Am Games, in Winnipeg, wasn’t much better.  While most of the competitions were very well-organized, the equestrian events were orphaned out in Bird’s Hill Park, some considerable distance from the rest of the venues and completely off the organizing committee’s radar.  Once we had visited the main press outlet in a huge urban convention centre, and claimed our oversized plastic press passes on lanyards, we were on our own.  We soon discovered that, in all the excitement of erecting dressage rings and building cross-country courses and battling the world’s largest and most aggressive squadrons of mosquitoes, that no-one had really factored in the presence of press out at Bird’s Hill.

Not only was there no press tent, there was no food.  The only fast-food truck was back in the stabling area, where we lowly journos were forbidden to venture.  (I nearly got my foot run over by an overly-aggressive security person in a Gator, when I suggested that it might be nice if someone brought all of us out some peameal sandwiches.  Sheesh.  Give some people a badge and a radio, and they become megalomaniacs.)

By day two, we were all doing rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock as to who got to do the Tim Horton’s runs (about 30 km from the park), and by day three, the delightful woman who had been organizing the feeding of the many, many volunteers it takes to run equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, started making all of the journalists and photographers extra sandwiches in brown bags.

Honestly, it was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.  And she got us Pan Am shirts and hats too.  I still have the hat somewhere.

At the other end of the press tent spectrum is Spruce Meadows, the showjumping Mecca in Calgary.  I haven’t had the pleasure of covering all that many tournaments at Spruce Meadows, but they can invite me back anytime.  Not only is there a climate-controlled press centre with every desired amenity from closed-circuit tv (should you not desire to look out the picture windows at the ring) to a scrum area, printers, and (gasp) flushies … but for the journalists covering the big weekend classes with the million-dollar sponsorships, they actually wheel in steam tables laden with prime rib, shrimp, three veg, and desserts.  Plus china plates, linen napkins, and cutlery.

I’m gonna say it again.  Cutlery.  Still makes my toes curl with sheer glee.

For journalists habituated to subsisting on potato chips, purchased three days earlier at a gas station and crushed into powder in one’s backpack, this isn’t just a pleasant meal, it’s an absolute revelation.

And by now, you’re probably coming to one very important and correct conclusion:  a fed journalist is a happy journalist.

It’s true.  We are simple, simple creatures, easy to lull into a state of contentment.  Again, it’s possible that this is all standard practice in other arenas of sports journalism, but I, for one, never ever take it for granted.  Mostly because it’s far more the exception than the rule, and one can’t even really assume that because it was offered one year, it will be offered another.

Take another three-star three-day event, called the Foxhall CCI***.  It required a flight to Atlanta to get to this one, but when it was launched, with much fanfare, by a local polo guy with deep pockets who committed to a 20-year run and huge (for eventing) prize money, we footloose freelancers were all intrigued.

So I land at the Atlanta airport, walk about 30 miles from concourse to concourse, claim my little rental car and navigate my way to the showgrounds, which is out in a communications dead zone where no cel phone comes out alive, about half an hour from Atlanta.  I am weary, I am grumpy, and I drag my laptop and cameras to a tent labelled “press” …. where I am immediately handed a huge plate of fried chicken and biscuits, and asked, “Red or white?”

Well.

Unfortunately, the exceptional hospitality at Foxhall didn’t last.  By year three, someone in accounting had cancelled just about all of the perks first showered upon the journalists, and had instituted box lunches that we could purchase for $8 apiece.  (And they were egg salad.  Yecch.  If egg salad were the last food on Earth, I would starve to death rather than consume it.  It’s just revolting.)

By year five, there was no press tent at all … just a power outlet that myself and the one other remaining freelancer who turned up, located up by the stables and took turns using to keep our laptops going when the batteries started to run low. The tycoon had apparently made some unfortunate business deals and was flat outta money.  The show lost its sponsorship and was unable to secure another one.  Needless to say, that 20-year deal failed to be honoured.

I don’t miss schlepping all the way to Atlanta, but man, that fried chicken was exceptional.

Truth is, however, we don’t attend horse shows for the food.  (Well, except for Fair Hill, which features amazing crab chowder in styrofoam bowls.)  We just want to write a good story about the action, and we’re prepared to make some sacrifices to do so.   My expectation, these days, is for a wobbly table and a plastic chair set under a leaky, drafty tent. If there’s a power outlet and internet access, all else is gravy.  And let’s face it, wi-fi, phone lines, and hydro are all fairly recent expectations.   Horse show grounds, historically, have not been the easiest places with which to provide these luxuries.  I get that.

Even Bromont, another three-day event site which once hosted the equestrian events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and thus boasts a large, permanent grandstand, had zero in the way of power outlets or wi-fi available to the press last time I was there.  I had to beg a corner of the scorer’s trailer because I was filing daily reports for a website … where I was relentlessly entertained by an Equine Canada official who was drunk as a skunk, and getting increasingly belligerent, as she added up the scores.  Incorrectly.  Par-tay.

I know I’m not the only intrepid girl reporter who remembers huddling in a leaky tent at Rolex, the feet of my plastic chair sinking into the wet grass, clutching the edges of the garbage bag protecting my laptop from the elements, mentally begging the dial-up to work, and never once thinking, “I could have been a civil servant and worked in a nice, beige, upholstered cube farm somewhere.”

Thankfully, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, so its press tent set-up received gradual upgrades in the lead-up years, culminating in the whole business being moved indoors (indoors!) to a roomy space overlooking one of the indoor arenas.  With plumbing and all.  Now, all I have to kvetch about is that the windows give a tormenting view of the trade fair below, which I have neither the time nor the cash to peruse.

Many of my colleagues have trekked around the world to cover Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and are more familiar with the scale of the press centres attached to these events than I; again, alas, not having a surfeit of Air Miles at my disposal, I have had to sit most of those out.  But the Kentucky WEG did give me a taste of the possibilities, without the associated hassles of passport-carrying.  (Though I did get various versions of pat-downs every dim early morning as I entered the park with my gear.)  Yes, it was a tent, but it was a tent designed for 1200 people, with an attached interview tent and a designated cafeteria just fer little ‘ol us.  (Overpriced, to be sure, but handy nonetheless.)  We had flatscreen TVs so we could watch the action in multiple arenas, we had Canon set up on-site with its IT guys, and my particular circle of acquaintances seemed to have a knack for winning the Rolex door prizes of bottles of champagne, by correctly guessing the nightly leaders on the scoreboards of the eight different equestrian disciplines we were all trying to cover.

I think champagne tastes particularly festive when sipped from a paper cup.

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Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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Professional Development, Part Two

I’m still a professional guest at PWAC (Professional Writers’ Association of Canada) Toronto’s evening seminar series — I approach foxhunting the same way — but fortunately neither organization seems to mind as long as I cough up my cap fee outsider’s seminar fee.

Last Wednesday night, the topic was “Getting Started in Health and Science Writing”.  Which is something I’ve been trying to do, in fits and starts, for the past two or three years.  So colour me interested enough to drive an hour south on Hwy 400, park at an overcrowded mall, get on the subway, and haul my little rural hayseed tush downtown to Church and Bloor.

Speakers Carolyn Abraham, Mark Witten, and Stephen Strauss all have credentials up the wazoo, with dailies like the venerable Globe and Mail as well as mainstream mags such as Canadian Living, Today’s Parent, and Toronto Life.  (Full bios here.)  And all three emphasized that they fell into science and/or health writing quite by accident, having no educational background in science past high school.

In fact, they just about implied that it’s to your advantage not to have a science background if you write about it.  I guess this means I’m fucked, given that I have a B.Sc. in biology.  Bugger.

Still, I might persevere, if only because it does sound like there might be some decent mainstream markets for well-written science and health content.  There, I said it … a rare ray of sunshine in the deep, dark doldrums of freelance writing.

One insight I took away from the evening was that I really need to be marketing myself as a “health writer” rather than a “medical writer”.  Having done as much writing on veterinary topics as I have over the years, I figured it would be an easy segue into medical writing…. a mammal is a mammal, right?  But it turns out that “medical writer” is a very specific critter with its own specific industry.  It usually has either a Ph.D. or an MD, and it exists in a very structured and demanding little niche in the environment, where it is well-paid but probably bored out of its mind.

A “health writer”, on the other hand, is one of those people with no science background, who’s good at explaining the finer points of thrombosis and hip replacement surgery to the masses.  Fuckin’ A.

So.  A few key points from the seminar, for those living vicariously through me (you know who you are):

Carolyn Abraham:  A good science or health story distinguishes itself by five core elements — news (what’s the hook?), scope (how many people are affected?), impact (what does it mean?), context/history (what makes this important?), and edge (where is this gonna lead in the future?).  All of these elements need to be considered when you’re debating whether a story is worth pursuing.

But from the editor’s perspective, she said, it’s also important that the story is fresh and original, and satisfies at least one of these categories:  it’s a breakthrough (the biggest, the oldest, the weirdest), it’s a hazard (Seventeen Ways Air Can Kill You), or it titillates (not just in the obvious way, but also in the way a bizarre but compelling disease does  — think Elephant Man), or it is a how-to (How Raisins Changed My Life).  Stories concerning conflict or moral values (such as the now-mercifully-defunct debate over embryonic stem cells) also fall into the titillation category.

Abraham saw growth areas in the how-to neck of the woods, in particular, and in writing about ageing (naturally, since few of us are headed in the other direction).

“One great thing about science writing is that the topics are enormous and endlessly interesting,” she said.

Mark Witten:  “I think the most important thing about getting into health writing is that you have to love writing about things you know nothing about.  You have to find the research process more stimulating than intimidating.”

Witten also noted that for mainstream markets, one’s storytelling skills are at least as important as getting the facts straight.  Editors, he said, need to be shown how your story is going to be relevant to readers.  So don’t just talk about the heartbreak of psoriasis; get a first-hand account from someone who’s heartbroken.

“The best stories are the ones which combine strong science with a human interest angle,” said Witten.

Health and science writing are about knowledge translation, he added, and the possibilities extend beyond magazines.  “Think about corporate markets and non-profits, too.”

Stephen Strauss:  Referencing Ed Yong’s rather famous blog post about the origins of science writers, Strauss remarked that a large percentage of now-successful science writers “got into it after they had failed at something else”.  (Gosh, another checkmark for me!)

“The great thing about science is that you can write about it for more than a couple of years without getting bored.  It’s the rarest of work experiences:  one where you keep on learning.”  Try that with writing about RRSPs or insurance.

Strauss pointed out that one of the major changes in science journalism, since the advent of the Interwebz, is that all of the cool stories which were once hidden away in academic journals on the desolate top shelves of the third floor of the west wing of some university library (and which made you look like a total genius when you unearthed them as if from some archaeological dig), are now out there in plain sight and easily accessible.  That forces science writers to be that much more original (or at least fast off the mark).  In order to sell a story, you have to come up with an angle no-one else has thought of.

One painless place to experiment with that, and with the style and voice that will eventually have editors falling on their knees and begging you to consider taking $3 a word to grace their pages, is by launching a science blog.  Consider blogging a “loss leader”, sayeth Strauss.  (What?  It’s difficult to monetize a blog, you say?)  His theory:  if you can establish yourself as an authority in a niche area, you can demonstrate to editors that you can master a technical subject or two … and you also tend to produce some of your best writing when you’re scribbling about something you actually care about.

All sage advice, but can you good people stomach another blog from me?  Or might the universe’s intestines just leap up through its neck and prophylactically throttle its brain to keep it all from happening?  (With apologies to Douglas Adams, who phrased it ever so much better.)

Incidentally, if anyone has become frothingly keen on the science blog notion after reading this, the Canadian Science Writers Association (of which Strauss is, coincidentally, president) is launching a mentorship program which hooks up veteran bloggers with newbies looking for guidance and the afore-mentioned voice.  (No details on the website yet, but I’m sure it’s Coming Soon.)

Strauss and Witten both called science and health writing the business of “knowledge translation”.  And one of the best ways to get scientists and researchers — who, on the whole, are uncommonly cooperative interview sources — to express their findings and ideas in a way that a lay audience (not to mention a journalist) can grasp, is to ask for metaphors.  “Some researchers are really flummoxed by having to couch their work in plain language, but you can coax it out of them by paraphrasing the concept back to them and asking if you have it correct,” said Strauss.  (My own frame of reference:  listen to Bob McDonald interview researchers on the CBC radio show, Quirks and Quarks.  He’s the master of paraphrase.)

Take-home message from the evening:  a good fit for me, and a direction worth further exploration because there’s the actual prospect of paying markets out there.  Now I just have to find 30 seconds of down-time in which to ponder the perfect query.  Which might just be the most unrealistic thing I’ve said in this whole post.

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