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When most people say someone is from “inside the Beltway,” they don’t mean it as a compliment. This is doubly true if the speaker happens to be of the libertarian persuasion. But being a denizen of the District of Columbia—and a “Washington insider,” at least in some twisted sense—can be incredibly useful if you want to do what I do: write about politics and policy for opinion-oriented publications.
I have walked a narrow path into a specific niche in the journalism industry, snagging an internship and then a job at the conservative Weekly Standard right out of college, moving on to work as a researcher on the New York Times op-ed page, and finally landing as a writer and editor at Reason magazine. I freelance for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and a host of other publications. Sometimes, I get all spackled up with makeup and appear on cable news, or sit at home in my pajamas and do radio interviews.
As I have wended my way through full-time jobs and short gigs, my greatest career asset has often been my physical presence in Washington. This is not because I am some kind of pavement-pounding, Capitol cloakroom gotcha reporter. On the contrary, I spend virtually all my time with my behind firmly planted in an ergonomic chair, reading stuff on the Internet.
But if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to convince at least one editor that you’re up to snuff. Sending editors reams of well reported, peerless prose on timely topics is a good way to do that, but first you have to convince them to actually read your email.
DC editors are a desk-dwelling species, and on the rare occasions that they leave their native habitat, they are usually in search of food, drink, or the companionship of other people who can debate the finer points of the defense appropriations process but would rather talk about bad movies. These people are your prey, and ultimately—if all goes well—your friends and colleagues.
Much of the advice I have to offer is generalizable to other cities and other types of journalism, but below I mostly obey the timeless injunction to write what I know. Thus, some notes from a prematurely crusty editor about how to survive (and maybe even thrive) in the DC opinion journalism scene.
Disregard the well-meaning advice of grizzled elder reporters. They will tell you to move to an otherwise unappealing small town with a slightly better-than-average small town paper and get a job covering fires and cats in trees. They are wrong. This strategy may have worked decades ago. But virtually none of the gainfully employed writers and editors I know in Washington under the age of thirty-five got their start covering bake-offs or PTA meetings.
If you want my job, the quickest route is not through the Alexandria Gazette-Packet. Nor is it through journalism school. Instead—assuming politics and policy are your drugs of choice—you should move to Washington, get a cheap apartment, and get started.
I’m going to assume that you are a decent writer. Not because the odds are in your favor there—your writing probably needs work. But there’s not much I can do for you on that front during our brief acquaintance in these pages. Instead, my goal is to help you get noticed.
Editors, surprisingly, turn out to be human and therefore strongly prefer to assign stories to people they or their colleagues (a) know and (b) like. You can be one of these people. All you have to do is (a) get known and (b) be likeable. If the latter sounds like something that would be difficult for you to do in a crowded bar (as the kids in Delphi say, know thyself ), consider other venues in which you might come across as charming and intelligent. I have a few useful professional relationships that have been conducted entirely on Google chat, for instance.
But for most people, friendships are made and sustained face to face. DC cocktail parties and happy hours—the kind decried by “outside the Beltway” types of all stripes—have replaced the smoke-filled rooms of yore. Most drinking venues are not particularly fancy or full of star power. Especially if you are a recent college grad, at least part of this process will likely involve cheese fries. But going to happy hours hosted by institutions you know and respect—like the Institute for Humane Studies, for example, or Reason—is a good way to learn the lay of the land and make some contacts.
Now comes the hard part: Pitch stories. Get ignored by your new happy hour friends. Try again a month later. Let old pitches die, and send new ones. Every pitch is not sacred—don’t be afraid to let your pitches spill upon the ground. If you only have three good ideas and can’t stand to let one of them go unfertilized, you should consider another field.
A pitch for a magazine story should be about two hundred to three hundred words in the body of an email. It should include a thesis or an angle, not just a topic. It should mention at least one living, breathing source you plan to consult, or at least a book you’re going to read.
If at all possible, a pitch email should be a follow-up to a conversation you have already had in person about the article. But that’s not always an option. You should also introduce (or, depending on the BAC of your previous interactions, reintroduce) yourself very briefly and include two or three non-ancient links to articles you have written for someone else.
This sounds simple, but judging by the number of emails in my inbox containing three-thousand-word articles on Milton Friedman’s dog, with no other explanation or contact information, it is not.
If you try something and no one is digging it, try something else. Statistically speaking, most of your ideas aren’t very good. So launch a blog about how tax policy affects twenty-somethings. If no one reads it after a while, kill the blog and start another one about how federal food regulations impact slobs who love burgers. (You may notice a theme in my choice of topics here. I say again: write what you know.)
Only blog if you’re good at it. If you’re not, spend your energy writing actual articles for other people’s sites. While you may not get paid for these labors, try to write for outlets where some money somewhere is being spent on something. This fact should fill you with the semi-reasonable hope that it may someday be spent on you in the form of a salary or at least a check for the content you provide.
Cultivate a reputation as someone who files clean copy on time. That means no spelling errors, no factual errors, and no weird formatting. Try to adhere to the publication’s style guide and come close to the correct word count. Be an easygoing writer. Accept edits with grace and respond to queries succinctly and completely.
When I was beavering away in my first job as a fact checker at the Weekly Standard, Executive Editor Fred Barnes passed along some classic journalistic advice. He told me never to write anything unless I could write it three times. Write a blog post, turn it into an op-ed, use that as a springboard for a reported feature. Or report a feature, then blog follow-ups as new facts emerge. Seek TV and radio bookings in which you regurgitate the content of your articles. Cable news bookers are like editors on crack. They want all the same things—accuracy, promptness, a way with words—but they want everything faster! shorter! louder! And now! now! now! Just being in DC or New York City dramatically increases your chance of getting your face on the boob tube.
Of course, none of this is any use unless you actually like journalism. Do you relish reading good nonfiction or opinion writing? If not, you might want to consider another profession. Between utilitarian blog posts, read great journalists: H. L. Mencken or A. J. Liebling, perhaps. If you are a lady, add Dorothy Parker to the mix. Read the collection The New Kings of Nonfiction, which is edited by Ira Glass of This American Life. But do not (I repeat, do not) get confused and think that you are Hunter S. Thompson, or Tom Wolfe, or Michael Lewis. You are not. Let’s face it, you are not even Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe someday you will be. But if you are reading this essay, you aren’t yet.
A decade in DC—and in journalism—should make a person jaded. But my experience has done just the opposite. As far as I’m concerned, journalism is the best gig in the world. You get paid to talk to interesting people about interesting things all day and then share the best bits with your readers. Nice work if you can get it. So go get it.
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