What happens when the only pieces of writing editors want from you are about being at your most vulnerable? John Loeppky (a disabled freelance writer and theatre artist living in Canada) tells how marginalised writers can break out of writing only opinion pieces or personal essays.
Every time I talk to a marginalised journalist about shifting from writing op-eds to more reporting work, a song pops into my head.
I’m partial to Canadian band Walk Off the Earth’s version.
Little boxes on the hillside/
Little boxes made of ticky tacky/
Little boxes on the hillside/
Little boxes all the same
The song is aptly named “Little Boxes” and is about how society compartmentalises people.
Us writers would call it pigeonholing.
These limitations, for many marginalised freelancers, take the form of only being paid to write about their experiences with identity and trauma.
Now, this can be enlightening, affirming, and powerful, but it can also be limiting.
What happens when you are not trusted to report purely because you’re not pale, male, abled, straight, and stale?
Ingrid Cruz, an Argentina-based journalist who started writing opinion pieces as a university student, says that it’s something she’s faced. Ingrid says it’s because she was outspoken and didn’t prescribe to outdated journalist norms that you can’t bring yourself into your work.
“One big thing for me was that when people would Google my name, they would see that I have really strong opinions about certain topics. And a lot of, reporting involves being objective. So my first couple of assignments or pitches, I was told they didn’t trust I could be objective.”
On objectivity as a freelance writer
Cruz says that this was particularly frustrating when she was distrusted to write about her own homeland of El Salvador.
She even stopped reporting all together for four years as she focused on ghostwriting, SEO, web content, and research work that was journalism-adjacent.
She says she feels that those early op-eds made her “a target” for those in the industry who believe in false standards of objectivity.
“For people who come from marginalised communities, the reality is that some editors will see your name or look into your background and they do have biases, you know, and even if the editor might not, their publication might have some rule that you don’t know about.”
Cruz says that the bulk of her work still comes from income streams that aren’t straight journalism and that, if you’re going to enter into op-ed first, you should do it because you are passionate about it rather than just as a stepping stone to further work.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing op-eds if that’s what you want to do. I do think that if you think that this is what’s going to give you a byline, but you’re not happy to do it, or seems like a drain on you. Don’t do it. Just pitch right away, because it’s hard for all of us. Even people with experience get rejected all the time.”
How one freelance writer pushed back
For other freelancers, like American Lonnie Hood, starting their own media company–in their case, The Southern & Appalachian Co-op Press– was the only way to move away from feature and op-ed work that wasn’t having the impact that they wanted to. For them, the issue with the barriers created when op-eds are the only way into the industry is that it can easily become a form of tokenisation or exploitation.
“It feels like so often marginalised people are only allowed to talk about their marginalisation when it’s convenient, or when it looks progressive, for a publication.
And I would say to a certain extent, I know that that happens with LGBTQ journalists. But because a lot of us are also white, it comes with a certain amount of privilege that other marginalised people just aren’t afforded.”
Why Lonnie Hood created their own media company
Hood says that creating their own form of media means being able to prescribe their own version of journalistic ethics, one they feel comfortable with, rather than being at the whims of a large media brand or a rogue editor.
“[In those situations] You can’t pick the stories that you want to cover, you can’t write about it in a way that feels too attached. We’re supposed to be at arm’s length, even from our own trauma and experiences. Like, even when you’re writing an op ed, you have to have other sources, you have to put in other experts’ input. And that’s not a bad thing, because clearly, one person’s story does not a journalism make. But for me, the solution was starting my own publication where I can make my own ethical decisions that I feel really good about instead of being held to someone else’s idea of what an ethical reporter should be.”
How freelance writers can break out of just writing opinion pieces
Speaking to both Ingrid and Lonnie, both journalists I’ve known since early on in my freelancing career, was validating.
For me, breaking out of just writing op-eds and knowing when and how to share my experiences as a disabled person was a lengthy process.
My first pieces, written in the student newspaper that I would later become the editor-in-chief of, were distinctly about ableist discrimination. The lede on my first story involved a joke about a disabled elephant, a soapbox, and a journalist. I was anything but subtle. So I honed my reporting skills in that newsroom and chose not to go to J school.
What I decided to do, and where I’ve found success is to be very selective with where and when I pitch op-eds.
I have an ongoing series with the CBC and I pitch occasionally outside of that.
For me, a topic has to cross a really high threshold before I will consider it op-ed worthy.
Part of the way I’ve been able to expand my portfolio is to resist that first impulse and think about how I can report on a story. So, a frustration with the benefit system I saw other people struggle under the weight of in my province turned into a reported piece on pandemic barriers for disabled people. A past history in para-sport led to a number of articles with FiveThirtyEight and Defector about disabled sport. An interest in mental health has led to many articles in that niche.
How to break into writing reported, feature articles
When you’re writing an op-ed, you are proving that you know something about a subject. You’re doing the same thing as a traditional reporter, albeit with a different lens and voice. With that in mind, here are three ways you can break out of op-ed writing and into more reporting.
- List your expertise. Think of this as a beat or niche list. Be as specific or as broad as you want to be. These are the areas where you’re going to pitch stories. Start with topics you’ve written about with passion.
- Take a look at your back catalogue of op-ed’s and choose 1-3 that you know you can report on. For example, if you’ve written about the inaccessibility of transit, maybe you can report on the inaccessibility of transit in another area of the world, or about new innovations that could decrease that inaccessibility. Use the topic to remove yourself further from the story by a step rather than a mile
- Start to think about how you can meld opinion and reported work together in a half-personal, half-reported piece. Plenty of outlets want to know how you came to the story and then to step back.
John Loeppky is a disabled freelance writer and theatre artist currently living on Treaty Six territory in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. His work has been published by the CBC, FiveThirtyEight, Defector, Insider, and a host of others. He can be reached at John@Jloeppky.com. HIs goal in life is to have an entertaining obituary to read.