This is a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to see more in the series.
Status: medium-high / 1st tier
Reach: CNN, short for the Cable News Network, was the first 24-hour cable news network and the first all-news TV channel in the US. It launched its online counterpart CNN.com in 1995. Since then the website has grown into one of the most widely read news publications worldwide. It has numerous bureau across the globe and international channels such as CNN Espanol and CNN Philippines.
For an idea of reach, one of my stories for CNN.com scored over two million page views.
Accessibility: CNN.com’s China section is well developed with broadcasting staff based in Beijing, and editors in Hong Kong. Its China coverage is excellent, even if their TV broadcasts still tend toward the bombastic, with deeply reported online articles and news features that are often informative as well as entertaining. They have a good stable of Chinese news assistants who help in producing short-form video, and in Will Ripley they have a video correspondent who makes use of innovative reporting techniques.
My contributions to CNN.com have been in news features covering cultural trends in China. I made contact with their China editor via Twitter — I found her Twitter account, Tweeted a message to the effect of, “Hey, do you take freelance pitches?”, and she replied in the affirmative. She then sent me her email address via private message on Twitter.
I’ve published two articles about China for CNN, and a travel story for CNN’s online travel section. The pitch for the travel story was forwarded on to their travel editor by my China editor.
I’ve also had a story killed by CNN (my first kill and for which I did not receive a kill fee). The story had been commissioned, but then subsequently killed by someone who had been standing in for the editor who originally commissioned it.
CNN has a roster of staffers who report breaking news and generate stories. For a freelancer, you will have to pitch original ideas; ideas that a freelancer would have the time and flexibility to cover. For instance, these could be stories from China’s rural areas or under reported regions and industries, which staffers may not have time to get to. Their email format is: firstname dot lastname @ CNN dot com.
Writing style: CNN.com has a quite distinctive writing style. They tend to use short paragraphs — one sentence or two sentence paragraphs are not at all uncommon. What this means in practice for the journalist is less writing, and more reporting. Both of the articles I’ve had published took months before they were finally published as numerous rounds of back-and-forth took place. My editor would often ask additional questions and for information to be added, all of which meant additional reporting.
Each paragraph in their articles contain important items of information. This does not mean their articles are not stories. CNN.com articles often contain narrative, but they will be truncated and will fulfill a purpose. Numerous angles will need to be covered and reporting will need to be deep and varied. The prose style is snappy and chatty but authoritative.
For a story about how Buddhism is once again colonizing the hearts of Chinese people, I used an interview with a young man who wanted to become a monk. The interview transcript ran to several pages, and was immensely useful, but his story was condensed into a much shorter version in the final piece. It nevertheless formed a vital part of the article, and demonstrates how a journalist needs to filter information in order to master the narrative.
Payment: CNN have paid me $300 for 1000 words, for articles. This is not bad, but, considering the amount of work involved, not great either. They will pay more for photos to go along with a story (ie a photo gallery) but only if you agree to relinquish copyright of your photos to CNN.
My Redwing boots. They are comfortable, weather resistant, and look great.
My Accurist watch. They’re a British brand producing watches that are tough and reliable, with a strong sense of style and identity. I’ve had this one since my student days. I’m very attached to it. It cost me £35.
My Canon camera. It’s kind of a perfect camera, for me. It won’t produce as immediately impressive photos as a Sony RX100 or a DSLR. But the S120’s combination of size, speed, and technical ability makes it super easy to take good, usable photos. As a tool, I’ve sold photos from this camera to Al Jazeera and CNN, more than making back what it cost to buy.
Perhaps the nicest was the summer job I had picking apples. I was 19 at the time. The farm manager would pick us up in the morning in a tractor, and drop us off to where we’d be working that day, on a row of apple trees ripe for picking. We’d work until dusk, taking breaks whenever we wanted.
It was 2008. I’d returned from ten months teaching English in China and I was looking to earn some money, ready for another stint abroad. I’d start university the following year, where I’d read multimedia journalism.
We were paid 80 pence a box. We each had a black marker we used to initial every box we filled, leaving them out in a row for the farmhand to pick up later in his tractor. The boxes were not large, but the apples were not big either. The old ladies who owned the farm always gave us tips and covered our transportation costs; train fare in my case. But we did not make much.
Alongside me were a bunch of geezers who for whatever reason chose to work this late summer job. For lunch we’d eat our sandwiches and crisps and whatever else we’d packed. And of course we ate apples. Lots of apples. When it was time to take a break, I’d pick an apple from a tree, sit myself down, and eat an apple. Among our heads, there were apples ripening in the sun. We’d hear apples falling on the ground. Sometimes they’d fall on your head, and it hurt a little bit.
As the summer wore on, I’d have dreams of apples. They’d be yellow and red and warm. And I would dream the sound of apples falling to the ground, a sound I can hear still. A low thud, a compact thud, that often came one thud after the other, like a weighty round earth striking a far larger earth, and gravity would ring out the little’s earth slight hollowness.
It was 2011, and I’d sit alone in my room in a house full of people. Six people and three floors. I was in my second year of university. I’d travel to London every week, spending two nights, attending a free journalism course where I’d hone my pitching skills. This was on top of my journalism degree. I did not work especially hard in my second year. Not on my journalism degree work anyway.
In my second year, I wrote music reviews for a website who would send me CDs in the post. I kept a film blog and I’d go watch movies at the movie theatre alone, keeping notes in the dark, and then write about the film for my blog. I’d submit these reviews to another website which paid me on the basis of view counts.
In that year, I accumulated Microsoft Word files. I accrued more and more sentences and paragraphs. I did not do much reporting in my second year of uni. You might think that strange, but a journalism degree doesn’t actually provide much reporting practice or training. But what I did do was write a lot. It was what you would call a formative year.
I’m sitting in a Costa Coffee in Beijing, and it’s 2015. I’ve accumulated lots of bylines. But in the past few months I’ve felt little progress. I’ve achieved a few things, in my freelance journalism career. But I am looking forward to going home. For Christmas. I look forward to maybe going to Scotland, to hike in mountains of snow. I look forward to this as much as I worry that I’ll squander away the time leading up to December.
Amid all this, for whatever reason, the memory of that summer, where I picked apples for a living, arrives abruptly in my head, a thud on my consciousness.
I’ve been pondering something. The connection or correlation between how prestigious a publication is and how much that publication pays. When I first had the idea for this blog post, I had an alternate title:
“The Correlation Between a Publication’s Prestige and How Much It Pays”.
Journalists often develop an understanding of where publications stand in the hierarchy of prestige. That hierarchy may have individual quirks, dependent on your beat, but there will be some commonly held tacit acknowledgements.
That, for example, The New York Times is right up there, significantly above USA Today — even though USA Today has a higher circulation — and that “The Gray Lady”, on an international level at least, probably sits above The Wall Street Journal in terms of byline prestige.
Magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Esquire are many writers’ dream destinations in which to be published. They form the Royalty.
Next come the venerable Dukes of Journalism: The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Times (of London). Adjacent to these are The International Names of Standing — The BBC, CNN.com, Al Jazeera, The Economist, Time.
And there are now digital titans who, like Knight errants, have a glamour of their own: VICE; BuzzFeed, disrupting things.
And yet, often, when I tell people about some of the publications I’ve been published in, they expect an amount of money I should have been paid commensurate to that publication’s prestige.
When I tell them the amount that I am actually paid, they are shocked.
So why do it?
I have not really traveled in China. The kind of travel where I’d leave my “home” of Beijing, jump on a train and end up somewhere. And then I’d need to figure out where my next stop would be.
That, to me, is travel.
You might not see places that are listed on the “Top 10 Amazing Landscapes You Have To See Before You Die“, but in its place are irrevocable insights and experiences.
It is also the hardest logistically, emotionally and physically. But that is why it is the most rewarding.
What most of us do is buy a plane ticket, head to a large city, and go to a booked hotel, or stay with a friend. That’s something we’ve all done, and we call it travel. But how often do we travel in the manner of not knowing our destination?
A big part of my reluctance to travel in China is the uncertainty, laziness and fear that traps me in safe, secure routine. It’s a box I need to forcibly break out of.
China is huge. Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Qinghai are, in descending order, its four most massive provinces, each a world in themselves.
I want to see them. But of course, life might get in the way…
I’ve been busy these past weeks. I finished up my teaching job. I was hired to teach journalism and writing to Chinese employees of a multinational company. Designing the course was a full-time consideration, and delivering it was a lesson in teaching effectiveness.
I enjoyed the challenge though. And the fee from the project will help me to travel the remainder of this year.
I’ve decided to abandon my rented accommodation in Beijing. I would have had to shell out for three months’ rent money at the end of September (a lot of rents are paid in this way here), meaning the money I earned from the teaching would have simply evaporated, all for the privilege of residing in Beijing for another three months.
Instead I will take that money and travel. I have destinations in mind. One option is to make my way around the country and check in with various friends. I am also hoping to go to Taiwan, a place I first visited in 2009 and which I enjoyed. I will continue freelancing as I move. And opportunities to do so are not unencouraging.
Another milestone occurred recently too (the first is the journalism teaching which I had not done before), and that is I got my first ever lead story for a national newspaper, their website showing a story I’d written up top.
Apologies for the crowing, but in a year that’s had some troubled times for me, I think I’ll take a celebratory moment. These kind of milestones are what journalists live for.
It’s still hot, but I can feel the summer’s wane. The days now are just slightly less sultry than before. Not that I can complain, the weather now is great: blue skies and sunny; as the government issued orders to close surrounding factories, all for a parade to come the beginning of September.
Money is still very tight, as I await a whole bunch of freelancing money to come in. Bottlenecks such as these are something a freelancer has to do their best to eliminate.
But all in all, it’s a fairly satisfying end to an otherwise mediocre summer. But I’m taking the long view.