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Aug 30 / King Kaufman

Do you have to be rich to get into the writing game?

An essay titled “How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford an Internship” has been getting some buzz in journalism nerd circles. The piece,  by Toronto writer Alexandra Kimball, follows that headline with a pithy subhead:

“Answer: Hope for an inheritance.”

Kimball tells her own story, how she wanted to be a writer but faced crushing student debt and high rents in her 20s, which rendered her unable to get her foot in the door of the industry, which, as one editor told her, has been “becoming something of a glamour industry”:

To be a writer in this market requires not only money, but a concept of “work” that is most easily gained from privilege. It requires a sense of entitlement, the ability to network and self-promote without seeing yourself as an arrogant, schmoozing blowhard. And it requires you to think of working for free—at an internship, say, or on one of those gratis assignments that seem to be everywhere now—as an opportunity rather than an insult or a scam.

I’m guessing that’s a provocative statement for a lot of Bleacher Report writers, many of whom aren’t paid—and many of whom have taken advantage of B/R’s meritocracy and worked their way up to paid positions.

Kimball, who writes that she comes from a working-class background, has some interesting things to say about class. She writes about a low-level, low-paid job she had editing free magazines for a telemarketing company.

“I met people who worked at good papers and magazines, in Xanadus walled off by internships and contacts,” she writes. “I wondered which of them had interned and how much start-up capital interning had required; what their parents or spouses did; who might have helped them and for how long. In their writing, I thought I caught traces of an easy ascent: the nostalgia for a middle-class childhood, the self-assured tone.”

What do you think? Is the world of journalism that Kimball describes the one you’ve encountered? Read the piece and leave your thoughts in the comments here.

  • Schottey

    When I started at B/R, I was in college. I had a wife and a child on the way. I worked FT at one job (social work) and PT at another (Cashier at a video store). My wife worked FT as a nurses aide. We had loads of student debt as neither of our parents were able to help us with school. We also had pretty crazy credit card debt after a few of life’s “surprises” caught us off-guard.

    Yet, my wife and I both got through that time and I (as you wrote in the post) found time to grind from unpaid contributor all the way to lead writer. All along the way, I shut out people who told me I should “get out while you still can!” and “there aren’t any jobs left!”

    • Tim Coughlin

      Yeah. I say this in a respectful way, but Kimball unintentionally comes off as lazy and entitled herself here. At best she’s let the whine of sour grapes cloud her vision. Most people have to exceed 40 hours per week to expect to work their way up.

      Paying the bills and working an unpaid internship are not mutually exclusive, and if you work hard, that unpaid internship will become (or at least help lead to) a paid job within a matter of months, which is not much time at all in the grand scheme of your life.

      Beyond that, you can easily view an internship (which is how most B/R paid writers and employees, including copy editors, got their start) as a—free!—extension to the education you just spent thousands on. Especially in journalism, where you’re also building a resume and portfolio in a meaningful way.

      I honestly view our copy editing internship as a better version of a $1,000-plus copy editing certificate program. I can’t think of one person, including those who did not earn paid work, who completed the program and said it was a waste of time.

    • Adam Biggers

      Schottey, you certainly used your ability to go places, man. I don’t buy into Kimball’s nonsense.

  • Jonathan McDanal

    I got picked up by B/R last October. When they offered me an (Alabama) FC trial position right off the bat, my wife and I talked about how much of a commitment it would take for no money.

    She was working PT and was a senior in college. I was working FT to pay our bills. We talked about the mutual sacrifice, and it raised some issues during the offseason. (She was getting agitated that I was working so hard for nothing.)

    We talked about financial freedom and how almost every opportunity that ends in true financial freedom starts with no pay. (Or worse in the case of opening a small business.)

    If you are diligent and consistently good, the paid opportunities come around even when the sports are on hiatus.

    If you want to go from nothing to famous in a matter of a couple of years, it would help to have a cash stash so you can devote 100 percent of your time to writing. However, If you’re willing to work your way up at your own pace, there’s no need to quit your day job to write.

    This is a field where you essentially turn TV-watching into money. There is a ridiculous amount of competition. It’s Capture the Flag, where the flag potentially changes hands with every article that’s published…anywhere (on B/R, ESPN, SI, SB Nation…yeah, it’s that competitive).

    The world of journalism/copywriting is up-front about what it takes. It’s not about having the time to succeed. It’s about making the time to succeed.

  • Gary Davenport

    I agree with Mr. Coughlin. In honesty this comes off more as griping by Ms. Kimball that her writing “career” hasn’t proceeded to her liking than anything, and the reason for that likely lies in her mirror.

    Is it easy to work your way up the proverbial ladder (At B/R or anywhere else)? No. But most things worth doing aren’t, and the opportunity to do so absolutely exists at Bleacher Report.

    You just have to go and get it, and that takes hard work.

    An inheritance would be nice though.

  • Mick

    I have had more then a handful of great opportunities come my way over the last year, year-and-a-half and have been lucky enough to be paid for a few of those as well (including from B/R).

    If you put yourself out there, have a good attitude and work hard, good things will come your way.

    Kimball seems to have the attitude that everything should be handed to her, instead of one making her go out and work her ass off for opportunities, paid or unpaid.

  • Rich L.

    The beauty of BR is that, if you are a fan, you can say your piece. I have found it to be addicting and therapeutic at the same time. Having made my living as a writer in the distant past, I understand what it takes to earn one’s keep at the trade. It always means writing for nothing or for very little so that you can ultimately show your work to those who may pay you down the road. Interning or apprenticeships have been a part of journalism since day one. The irony is that you have to write in order to write for a living but how do you write for free or how can you write for free when you have to work, etc., etc. Not unlike trying to become an actor or musician. The big, big, BIG difference today is the internet and thus the accessibility and hence the idea that everyone and anyone can be a “writer”. This makes the pool of wannabes that much great, the supply much greater than the demand and, the worst part, the fact that there is little need to pay for writers when there are just so many out there. Even as a young writer at my first professional job, the publisher walked into our “pool” and said, “I can throw a nickel out the window and hit 10 of you guys.” Today, he wouldn’t have to throw a penny. My only advice to those who want to write for money is to keep on writing and try to write about what you know, then write and write and write.

    • King_Kaufman

      I think I worked for your publisher, Rich. By that time, he wasn’t such a sweetheart.

  • Scott Carasik

    I work a full time job that pays the bills. and every day on my lunch break I write an article. Then I get home at night and do nothing but write. It’s got nothing to do with the work and everything to do with how much we love what we do as writers and reporters.

  • RamblingBeachCat

    I have a full time and part time job. Writing is my hobby because I absolutely love it, so the time spent doing it isn’t really “work” from a stress standpoint.

  • Adam Biggers

    I come from a working-class background, messed around freelancing a bit before joining B/R in 2009 and always thought being a sports writer was a pipe dream. B/R made me a better writer, gave me confidence, and then I landed a job at The Flint Journal, where I became even better and gained a reputation for being a knowledgeable, hard-working writer.

    Now I’m back at B/R; something I thought would never happen. I’m grateful that the site thought enough of me and made me a UM football writer (used to blog about MSU, go figure). That being said, I think Kimball’s piece is most definitely based on what she knows. But that’s not what I know. You can be a nobody (like me), earn opportunities and really work for what you want if you try. I wasn’t handed anything but, today, I have the privilege of not only writing for B/R, but also being former Detroit Lions receiver Herman Moore’s right-hand man.

    All I needed was a foot in the door — and B/R showed me the door. Being at The Journal allowed me to cross that threshold, and I haven’t looked back since.

    Buying into the “other people have it better or cheat their way to success” mind set is a cop-out, if you ask me. I’m sure there are others who agree with me.

  • Jude Park

    Interesting how everyone who critics Kimball’s article as pretentious and whiny are all writers/journalists in the field who are currently receiving their monthly pay checks from their respective employers.
    You have all lost what Kimball was talking about in the article: the edge.
    The edge that the 20 something year old like me have struggling to get into the business. You’ve lost the edge because you all believe you deserve to be where you are right now. when in fact, if your privileged minds can wrap around the idea that if your life had failed, you wouldn’t be where you are, you will take caution in calling another writer pretentious when you yourself come from the same boat.

    Well, I am in that desperate black hole right now. And I appreciate Kimball’s article, at the very least for transcribing my life back to me on the computer screen.
    I hope to one day become comfortable too like you. But before that happens, I just wish there was a sense of community among editors/journalists/writers out there who will remember what it took them to get to where they are and can sympathize with their interns. Or internship seekers like me.

    I frankly don’t care if you got an inheritance, if you were rich or poor, or if you worked your ass off for your job. In the end we were all just going after our dreams.