1) How has your career as a journalist evolved? How did you get to features?
Even in grade school, writing was the way that I most comfortably expressed myself. I was the consummate journal-keeper. But I didn’t seriously consider journalism as a career until my early 20s. It was something that I’d done “for fun” through high school and college, just another extracurricular activity. Then, when I needed to pick a career path, it became clear to me that the work of journalists – talking to people, writing their stories, day in and day out – didn’t feel much like work at all.
I was trained by old-school, hard-boiled reporters. They taught me that a journalist builds her skills by covering the most basic news: crime, courts and municipal meetings. I did that for a few years before making a transition to the features department to write about popular culture and the arts.
Now, 15 years since my first internship, I’ve hung in through tremendous upheaval in the newspaper business, through an era of falling advertising and subscription revenue that’s resulted in industry-wide layoffs and closures. All media, including newspapers, must now cater to the demands of the digital world.
2) What is the biggest difference between creative writing and journalism in your opinion?
The biggest similarity is that both practices are rooted in storytelling, in the development of “characters” and the gathering of enough detail to weave together a story your readers will care about.
The difference between the two is that journalists operate in the real world. Our characters are real people, and our details are gleaned for concrete, verifiable sources, i.e. interviews and documents. The journalist’s job, regardless of what she covers, is two-pronged: The first part entails responsibly gathering information, or reporting. The second part of the job is writing up that reporting in a way that’s both efficient and engaging.
More so than other writing, there are guidelines to writing a piece of journalism. It can make the writing go more quickly than a strictly creative work, but a highly creative person also might find journalism to be constricting. There is simply no space in journalism for flowery language or semantic flexing. Although it does require a creative mind, the actual writing can be very quick-and-dirty.
3) What are some of the challenges you are facing with print going digital?
The biggest challenge is doing good journalism and maintaining high standards for one’s work given the newspaper industry’s shrinking resources. Good journalism, and most especially, investigative journalism, takes time. But now that journalists are working for the web, or as we call it, “the 24-hour news cycle,” as well as the actual paper, time is at a premium. There are fewer bodies to do the work, and more work to do than ever.
Classically-trained journalists like me thrive on getting out of the newsroom, running down leads and simply talking to people about their lives. But the addition of blogging and social media to the journalist’s job description means there is less time than ever to get up from one’s desk. Then again, thanks to smart phones, I basically have my desk with me at all times.
4) How do you work with freelancers? I'm sure you get a million hits, how do you sift through to gold? Do you have specific relationships and if so, how do you decide to choose someone new?
In addition to writing, I also edit and work closely with a handful of freelancers… Sure, there are people clamoring to get their names in print, but most of them lack the experience I’m looking for before giving out an assignment. First and foremost, if a writer sends me a pitch, let’s hope she’s current on what type of material I need, i.e., she reads the newspaper. Then, she needs to provide samples of her journalistic work, either in the form of photocopied “clips,” PDFs or links to published stories. And finally, if I’m considering taking on a new freelancer, it always helps when she has fresh ideas of her own. One of my former editors actually told me that the writers she hired were the ones who showed up to their interviews with a list of 20 or more story ideas that they could begin working on immediately.
New writers who need to develop their work before pitching a larger publication like The Denver Post should look around their communities for opportunity. As a young reporter, one of my first published newspaper stories (outside campus media) was for a neighborhood newspaper called The North Denver Tribune. I think I made $25 for the story, which was about weekend cruising and took me at least three days to fully report and write. But that was an invaluable clip that became part of my employment package for years.
5) What is your favorite part about writing for the Denver Post and how do you keep abreast of new developments in your field?
The best thing about working for The Denver Post, beyond the fact that it’s my hometown daily newspaper and affords me a deeper connection with the Mile High City, is that The Denver Post remains a leading example of quality American newspaper journalism. Despite the myriad challenges facing my field, which are very real and palpable each day that I go to work, there are extremely savvy people at the helm of The Denver Post. These people are devoted to using technology to enhance our work, not kill it. I was recently a fly-on-the-wall as the editor of The Denver Post responded to the very common question of whether or not newspapers will die, particularly in light of the fact that his staff now spends so much of their time blogging and doing social media and writing Internet updates. “We will not hasten the demise of newspapers!” he said. “We will just continue to do good work.”
Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a features writer and editor at The Denver Post. She has been with the newspaper for more than a decade. In addition to writing regularly about popular culture and design, Elana edits the paper's new consumer affairs features section. Prior to joining her hometown newspaper in Denver in 2000, Elana held positions at The Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.), The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.), and the Times-Herald Record (Middletown, New York.) Elana is a past winner of the Print Journalist of the Year award from the Colorado Association of Black Journalists, and a graduate of Georgetown and Columbia universities. To follow her on Twitter: @ElanaAshanti Also read her at the Mile High Style blog blogs.denverpost.com/style