Friday, August 23, 2013

The Real Faces of the Syrian Conflict

If you're a regular reader here, I'm sure you've heard me say it before. I'm not a big fan of rewriting or summarizing press releases to make a news story, even if the release is of a highly newsworthy event. I feel that it is incumbent upon the journalist to gather and add original content that enriches the story.

When I received an offer of support from the UN to publish around the milestone date that marks the passage of the one millionth child refugee crossing the border to escape from the Syrian conflict, I was eager to take on the task. I asked for access to a UN staffer who was local to the region and for the full story of at least one child or family who had been displaced by the conflict - one that would be exclusive to my article as opposed to those included in the media package made available to a broader selection of journalists and news agencies. The UNHCR was happy to provide those resources for which I asked. I also received an exclusive photograph of that child for use with the article.

The Real Faces of the Syrian Conflict: Today Marks 1 Millionth Child Refugee

The interview, due to the time differences and the short deadline that I had to get the story published in time for the milestone (August 23rd), meant that I had to stay up all night, conduct a telephone interview with a subject who was 7 hours removed from me in Amman, Jordan, and spend the morning writing and editing the piece.

I hope you find it as moving as I did.

UPDATE: The article has just been moved to the front page feature position on (in the photo scroll at the top of the page).


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Turn PR Releases into Original, Value-added Articles

Recently, I was approached by the Communications rep. from National Geographic Society with an offer to use original photos from the July issue if I were interested in talking about the upcoming article "Last Song for Migrating Birds." I read the article and found it quite interesting, but I generally don't like to do straight PR pieces unless I have something original to add above and beyond the article itself or material from a press release.

I told National Geographic that I'd be interested but I'd like to include an original interview. They offered David Guttenfelder who took the very compelling photos for the article. As it turns out, Guttenfelder is also the chief photographer for the Asian region for the Associated Press and has made a career of conflict photography, among other assignments, covering wars in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

I was curious how he might bring a unique photographic perspective to a story about birds and about his reaction to the avian casualties. An interview with that angle allowed me to add some quality original content to the discussion of the National Geographic article. It was also an angle that appealed to my editor at Y!CN who told me that it would be published at Yahoo! News ( ).

That generally translates into many more readers - a win for me and for National Geographic from a publicity viewpoint.

I ended up with three of Guttenfelder's images embedded in my article along with a video of him talking about his experience on this assignment, along with 2500 words of introduction and original interview material derived from a phone conversation.

Many freelance writers receive information from Public Relations representatives on a regular basis. If you simply summarize it and publish as a fluffy PR piece, you'll likely find that there are dozens of similar articles from other writers who received the same source material when you did. To make you article stand out and stand above the rest, always try to make the extra effort to add something original and of value to your readers. If the article is one of many, then it is a commodity and it doesn't matter which one the reader finds. If you add extra value then even readers who read one of the plain PR pieces will still enjoy and learn something by reading your article.

PR reps generally understand a writer's desire to stand out with original material and are often willing to help by providing direct access to original sources for interviews. It's their job to field and evaluate such requests so don't be shy about asking. It helps if you have a commitment for publication at a prominent site, but if the PR person didn't feel you were worth their time, they wouldn't have sent you the press release material in the first place.

If the end result turns out good, then you might have expanded access in the future. As a result of this particular endeavor, for example, National Geographic offered to send me contact information for interviews for articles from upcoming issues on a monthly basis. This doesn't commit me to writing anything, but allows me to pick and choose interviewees based on what I find interesting and newsworthy. As an additional benefit, I can add topic experts to my database of references should I ever have need of them again in the future. Access to a conflict photographer in Asia might be quite useful.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Good Lesson for High School Kids?

Shortly before the Content of the Year award was announced by Yahoo! Contributor Network, I was contacted by a member of the editorial staff at Pearson Publishing's Brazil office. Pearson wanted get permission to use an excerpt from one of my articles in a high school English textbook.

It was the same article that I had been told was about to be announced as the Content of the Year winner. The Pearson editor told me that they had sent the request to Yahoo!'s permissions office, but had not received a reply. Because the article was licensed exclusively to Yahoo! Contributor Network, only Y!CN can grant reprint or usage rights such as those requested by Pearson.

I replied to the editor letting them know the situation and also forwarded the request to a contact at Y!CN to try to make sure it was seen by the right department. A few days later, the editor from Pearson Brazil let me know that they had received approval from Yahoo!'s legal department to use the excerpt from my article.

So as of the release date of the next edition of 'Hyperlink' in Brazil, my work will appear in an English text book written for native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese. Remembering my own foreign language classes, I can picture a room full of high school kids debating the greater meaning of the article in accented English. "What was the author's opinion of Jake Reilly's experiment?" the teacher may ask, hoping that the students can infer from the subtleties of my specific word choice and phrasing whether I was sympathetic to Jake's self-imposed hardships.

Interview Finds Continued Popularity Through Social Media

This article remains one of my most viewed pieces at Yahoo! month after month, even a year after it was first published. It isn't a particularly popular search topic, and it isn't written with SEO in mind. The traffic it receives must, therefore, be based on the content and concept of the article itself. It appeals to the imagination and emotion of readers and makes them want to share it.

It was shared tens of thousands of times through Twitter, Facebook, email and other social media, and I'm assuming that the continued traffic comes through blog links and social media mentions. It can be found on search engines, highly placed, but only for very rare search terms that one might use if they had heard about the topic previously and were actually looking for the article.

At some point, it came to the attention of the editorial staff of a textbook company in Brazil who thought, for those same reasons that it would capture the imagination or at least hold the attention of high school students learning English.

Payment for Textbook Usage?

For those who maybe curious, I am not getting paid by Pearson for the use of my material in their text. While I generally (always) insist on being paid for my work, I chalk this one up to good will, despite the fact that Pearson does sell its texts for profit. My work will be helping kids learn. It's my first appearance in a textbook or any printed book, to my knowledge. I'll use the credit in my writing bio. This particular article is already my highest paid writing effort to date, having earned me thousands of dollars in royalties (with more coming in each month) plus another thousand for winning Content of the Year at Y!CN.

Writing for Free?

As a general rule, when asked to write something in return for the exposure and without other cash compensation, I decline and have even been known to ask the person who proposed it if they would like to wash my car in exchange for me touting their car washing skill to my friends. So far, none of the people asking me to work for free have been willing to work for free. Go figure.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Interview Wins Content of the Year Award

The Yahoo! Contributor Network has announced today that one of my interviews was selected as the winner of one of five Content of the Year awarded for 2012. The article in question, my interview with Jake Reilly, was published by Yahoo! News and was selected as a feature to appear on the front landing page at

One day Jake was visiting friends and looked up from his cell phone long enough to notice that all the friends were spending the entire visit texting people who weren't there. The sudden realization that he and his friends seemed more connected to their electronics and social media apps than they were to each other caused him to swear off using his cell phone, email, and social media for 90 days in favor of in-person conversations and good old-fashioned letter writing.

The experience, he says, changed his life and the way he views his friends. Without the crutch of IM and social media messaging, some 'friends' just faded out of his life, others became closer than ever. He even managed to recapture the heart of a former girlfriend.

When I initially heard of the story and decided to interview Jake about his experience, I expected it to be a quirky, almost glib article that was mildly interesting. Instead, as I talked to Jake and dug into his experience, the depth of the emotions he experienced during what he termed his 'Amish' experiment began to come through. I was moved, and I hope that I was able to convey some of that emotion to readers.

Ironically, when it was first published the article went viral with tens of thousands of social media shares and readers measured in the millions. Even before the $1000 bonus for the Content of the Year award from Y!CN, this article was my single highest paid article for any publishing platform. To date, this article has earned a little over $3,300 and it continues to earn royalties every month. That's for about six or seven hours of work.

Most articles don't earn nearly that much, but Y!CN articles which are chosen for features on can earn thousands of dollars since payment is based on readership statistics. Articles must be entertaining and unique to get such prominent placement. Think about the kind of articles that you can't resist clicking to read more. That's what web publishers want, and most of them are willing to pay well for them. Sometimes, you guess wrong and end up with a dud. At other times, you might write something for the upfront fee with little expectation for future royalties and wind up amazed at its popularity.

What advice do I have for anyone who wants to be a successful web content writer? Write what you'd like to read, but can't find anywhere else. Write often. Be yourself. When you're finished with each article, ask yourself if you would have been disappointed if you had clicked an eye-catching headline to read that article. If the answer is yes, then no matter how many popular search terms or celebrity names you've included, it probably shouldn't be published. Don't use cheap tricks to attract readers who will only end up disappointed. Strive for quality. Learn from your successes and your mistakes. Listen to your editor(s).

More than any paycheck, I am rewarded by overhearing strangers or my son's friends talking about something they read online and realizing that I wrote it. That's happened to me several times, and it's as satisfying as having the referee raise your hand in the middle of the ring after a fight. Getting paid to do what I love to is great, but it's those little moments of vindication, the praise of a stranger, an editor's choice to feature something you've written, or an award like Y!CN's Content of the Year that are my most prized compensation.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Publishing for Just One Reader

Of all the interviews that I have published, I think I am most proud of this one: "Mother Seeks Kidney, Lifesaving Hero Through Facebook." It tells the story of one brave woman who is facing some some serious health issues. Even with dialysis treatments, the prognosis is bleak, and she expects she might have five years left, during which time she will become sicker and sicker.

The thing is, though, her condition can be not just more effectively treated, but virtually cured with a tested, approved, and proven medical technique. Despite this, 4500 people each year die while waiting their chance to undergo that "cure." Granted, the cure is ot permanent, but it does grant a reprieve of 10-30 years or so. That treatment is a kidney transplant.

Unfortunately, too few donors step forward to meet the needs of patients who have experienced kidney failure. The interview with Maria gives an emotional account of what it's like to sit on a transplant waiting list for years, knowing that it only takes one person, one hero, to step forward and offer to help. In Maria's case, she has turned to Facebook to try to locate a suitable donor.

This article hopes to reach that one single individual willing to give the gift of life for Maria. In order to reach that one reader, however, it's important to put the article in front of as many people as possible and get them to share it as broadly as they can to aid the search. Of course, all of them will also learn about the effects of kidney failure and dialysis, as well as the importance of organ donation.

Those who donate kidneys are thoroughly screened to make sure they are healthy and have no significant risk factors that would reduce the function of their remaining kidney should they donate one. So effective is this screening that kidney donors have identical life expectancies as those with two functioning kidneys.

To hear Maria's story in her own words and learn more about kidney donation, click the interview link.

Finding the Story

As for the interview itself, I first learned of Maria and her situation when a former colleague of mine contacted me and mentioned that it might make a good story and, of course, help to publicize Maria's search for a donor. Personal contacts can be an important source of potential news stories and newsworthy interview subjects.

Editorial Requests

I thought the emotion of the story made it very compelling, but my editor suggested that the Facebook search made it more unique and asked me to revise it to focus a bit more on that angle. Unusual and emotional stories are more likely to be prominently featured and reach a larger audience. Since that is the goal of the piece, I was happy to oblige.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Print Publisher Discusses E-books, Social Media

Will print books go the way of the dinosaur?
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2011. All rights reserved.
Working in the consumer electronics industry for a company concerned with music, I watched as digitally downloaded music became the standard, displacing Cds as the focus of music publishing. Now that I'm more involved with the written word, I see some interesting similarities and differences between the music industry's approach to advancing technology and the way that at least some print publishers are adapting to the growing popularity of digital content.

I recently spoke with Rob Tempio, Executive Editor, and Leslie Nangle, Associate Marketing Director, bot from Princeton University Press about the challenges and opportunities presented to their industry by digital content. I found the discussion quite interesting and if you are interested in online content creation, digital downloads, books, technology, or Princeton University, you might enjoy it as well.

Here is my interview with Tempio and Nangle of Princeton Universtiy Press as published at Yahoo! News.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Anti-social media message goes viral

On Saturday, I conducted an interview with Jake Reilly, a young copywriting student from the Chicago Portfolio School. He had just finished a self-imposed exile from all social media, email, cell phone, texting and television which he referred to as "going Amish." He felt that these things were too much of a distraction from actual real-life personal interactions and that the superficial types of communication that can occur through texting, tweeting or Facebook messaging were crutches that interfered with real relationships.

I finished the article Sunday evening and it was posted first to the news page at Yahoo! ( as many of my interviews are. Later it was added to the text list of news articles on the front page at It was moderately popular there, and so it was elevated by Yahoo! to the featured article scroll at the top of the page, added to Editor's Picks and Today on Yahoo! The latter two appear at the bottom of every news page on Yahoo!

The short story is that the article was very visible on a very popular web property for a little more than 36 hours. For a while, it was the number one most popular article at What is interesting though, is that this article was also the most shared on In other words, this story about a young man who felt he was overdependent on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, was shared more than 8000 times on Facebook, well over 1000 times on Twitter, and generated at least 32,000 page views coming directly in from links sent out on Twitter.

The article talking about one man's struggle with social media addiction went viral. In total it racked up more than one million readers in the first 24 hours that it was up. I don't yet have totals beyond that as my reporting is delayed. During the 36 hours that it was being heavily featured on Yahoo! it reached a peak of 750 visits per hour from Twitter alone (a small percentage of the overall traffic total). However, the day after it was removed from the Yahoo! front page, it was still drawing Twitter traffic and reached a new peak of more than 1000 visits per hour from Twitter links. The article has social media inertia.

As I conducted the interview, I found myself quite interested in what Jake had to say. Clearly, many people his age use social media, cell phones and texting in a much different way than people my age do, and people a generation older than I am use it differently still. The comments on the article also show that the readers view texting and social media differently as well. Older folks say things like "I never use that stuff, but I can barely get my grandchildren to look up from their cellphones. Congratulations to Jake for breaking free from it all."

Those Jake's age who are heavy users of Twitter and smart phones make comments like "I could never do that" or "I want to try that." Those his age who did not develop the texting habit, and many my age who use social media applications, but not heavily say things like "That's stupid. Anybody could go without. I do it all the time."

The range of the comments themselves help to underscore the point that I tried to make int he article. Technology isn't evil or something to be avoided, using 140 character texts as proxies for real human interaction is the problem. Real communication involves depth of feeling and emotion that simply can't be conveyed in a text message that takes 12 seconds to write. When the majority of our communication is filtered through this insufficient medium, we lose the very connection that defines real human interaction. For some, it's not a problem, but for a whole generation, it is becoming increasingly common.

Whatever one's perspective on the issue, the article struck a chord with a wide variety of readers. When all the updates are in, I expect something like two million readers will have read the article and roughly 1 in 40 of them will have shared it with their circle of virtual friends through social media, making this my most widely read news article to date.

It was not about a celebrity, or someone expounding on some popular news item, but simply a story about one young man who decided to step outside his comfort zone to reassert his humanity.