Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fired New Yorker writer Dan Baum's Twitter story in full

Ex-New-Yorker writer, Dan Baum twit his hiring and firing story on a 140-character medium. It's ingenious, but also very hard to read if you didn't follow the story from the start. Without further a due, here's the entire story:

RT @Dan Baum (danielsbaum)

First, a little about the job of New Yorker staff writer. “Staff writer” is a bit of a misnomer, as you’re not an employee. But rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year.

My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet. Just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return. It gets away with it, because writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I Loved it. More later.

It took me seventeen years to break into the New Yorker. I’d been a freelance journalist that long, and had sent in Proposals from time to time. I never even got rejections. The New Yorker doesn’t send them. If they don’t want the Story, they simply don’t respond, so filing to the New Yorker is like filing to the dump. You send in a proposal, and If you’re smart, you forget all about it.

In May 2002 I sent in a proposal for a profile of a particularly interesting Mexican government official. That proposal, if you’re interested, is at http://bit.ly/B9sP5. In fact, I’ve posted a lot our successful magazine proposals there. In any case, I mailed in the proposal and promptly Put it out of my mind, as always. Four months later, I got a call from John Bennet, who had been an editor Longer than just about anybody. He loved the proposal. In fact, he was teaching a magazine-writing class at Columbia University at the time, and he told me he was sharing the proposal with his students because he thought It was one of the best he’d ever read. What took so long to respond, he said, was clearing the assignment Alma Guillermoprieto, who had been covering Mexico for the New Yorker for years. John didn’t think he could assign A piece about Mexico without checking with her first. That was courteous of him. And of her, to give the green light. He assigned me the story – my first ever for the New Yorker! – and to celebrate I took the rest of the day off to Bike into downtown Watsonville, buy the New York Times, and spend the afternoon reading leisurely. There on page A-something was a little article about the Mexican official I was about to profile for the New Yorker. He’d been Fired, and his office abolished. As Boris Badenov used to say: I drop bomb on moose, and who gets blown up? Me.

John was gracious. What else would you like to write? he asked. I remembered a story I’d tried for years To interest my agent in: An epidemic of paralysis in 1930 caused by Prohibition, and which spawned an entire Sub-genre of the blues. John gave me the assignment, which became “Jake Leg,” my first New Yorker piece, Which can be read here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU.

I was paid $7,750 for “Jake Leg,” which ran 5,000 words. Dollars-per-word isn’t a very good measure of pay. Because writing short can take more work than writing long, but either way, this was good pay but not terrific. At the time, I was writing just about full time for Rolling Stone, which was paying me $3.40 a word.

Still, the New Yorker is the New Yorker, and my next question to John was, “What can I do next?”

As any writer knows, editors almost never suggest stories. Generating story ideas is the real work; researching and Writing them is the easy part. In one of our conversations, though, John let drop a real jewel: “We have this sense that we should be paying more attention to the military,” he said. (This was now early 2003, as the country was getting ready for war in Iraq. “Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here knows anything about the military.” Well, I certainly didn’t know anything about the military but I did find it interesting, so I piped up, “I can do that!” I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience or knowledge in the field of arms.

Tom Wolfe is right, I think, when admonishes young writers to ignore the old advice about “writing what you know,” and instead write about what you don’t know. If you have to learn about something from scratch, he argues, you don’t bring any lazy preconceptions. John said I was welcome to give it a try. “Think about trying a process story,” he said, using a term I’d never heard. “It’s a New Yorker standard,” he went on. “You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure.”

By that time the improvised explosive device was the weapon of choice in Iraq, and limb loss was the signature Wound of the Iraq war. So I followed one soldier from the moment he left his job at Wal-Mart in rural Wisconsin To join the Army to the day he returned to speak to his high school without his leg. John Bennet gave me another Great piece of New Yorker advice: “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,” he said. “Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: “Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think Is particularly fine, strike it out.”

My wounded-soldier story ran as “The Casualty” and can be found here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU.

Next I pitched a story about what killing does to soldiers, psychologically, and how the Army is ill-equipped to deal With the damage that killing does. That proposal can be read here: http://bit.ly/B9sP5. That piece, “The Price of Valor,” won the Medill School of Journalism's 2004 John Bartlow Martin Award, and can be read here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU

Now I was three stories in to the New Yorker, but I wasn’t about to let die my relationships with other magazines. After All, I was a freelancer with no other income, and relationships with editors and their magazines is the currency of the Trade. While writing the pieces for the New Yorker, I also wrote two for Playboy, about genetically modified crops and about The perils of electronic voting. The proposals for both of those articles can be seen here: http://bit.ly/B9sP5, and the Playboy stories themselves can be seen here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU.

Then, out of the blue, Rolling Stone called with a jaw-dropping over-the-transom assignment: 30,000 words on missile defense, to run over several issues, and paying $90,000. I was floored. I got the call while I was in San Francisco working On yet another New Yorker assignment about geneticists trying to make people live forever. Right after I hung up with Rolling Stone, John Bennet, my New Yorker editor, called for some reason. In an act of inadvertant brilliance, I mentioned To him my new Rolling Stone assignment. Forty minutes later, David Remnick rang my phone. “Don’t do that Rolling Stone piece, he said. “Come to work for me instead, on staff.” The heavenly angels burst into song. I’d made it to the Staff of the New Yorker.

To be continued on Monday.

Quick note, since there seems to be some confusion: I was fired in 2007, and just telling the story now because people on my book tour ask. Will resume my story about getting hired and fired at the New Yorker in five minutes.

Remnick asked, “What do you want to write?” We bandied some ideas.

I told him that two years down the road, my wife, daughter, and I were planning to move abroad. We didn’t know where, but Rosa would be in eighth grade and we wanted a family adventure.

Remnick said, “As long as you’re writing 30,000 words I want to publish, I don’t care where you live.”

I was beside myself with glee. Remnick’s deputy, Pam McCarthy, called with the details. The magazine would pay me $75,000 a year for 30,000 published words. In return, I’d agree not to write for The Atlantic, The NY Times Magazine, Harper’s, RS, and a few others. Hell, I’d be giving up a $90k Rolling Stone assignment to earn $75k at the New Yorker. And what about Playboy? Playboy wasn’t on McCarthy’s list, and I’d made a pretty good living from Playboy. Could I still write for Playboy? McCarthy said, “How about we increase you to $90,000 and you don’t write for Playboy either?” I said fine.

It’s much more pleasant to write for one magazine’s sensibilities than many. Especially if that one is the New Yorker. The editing is as superb as you’d imagine. And it’s lovely to have all the time and resources you need. I particularly liked the fact-checkers, who go way beyond getting names spelled right and actually do a lot of reporting. More than once, the fact-checkers uncovered information I hadn’t had, found crucial sources I hadn’t interviewed. It’s like having a team of back-up reporters. They work like soldier ants, and are invariably cheerful. Their boss, Peter Canby, is a calm and competent gentleman.

I must say, though, the office itself is a little creepy. I didn’t work there. I live in Colorado. But I’d visit 3-4X a year. Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles. And from around the stacks of review copies that lie everywhere like a graveyard of writers’ aspirations. It always seemed strange.

Making it to the New Yorker is an acheivement. It is vastly prestigious, of course. And the work is truly satisfying. Imagine putting out that magazine every week! Yet nobody at the office seems very happy. The atmosphere is vastly strained. I’d get back on the Times Square sidewalk after a visit and feel I needed to flap my arms. Get some air into my lungs, maybe jog half a block. And I came to realize I had a really good job. I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker. Therein lies the reason I’m no longer there.

Still, the work was great. After seventeen years of freelancing, it was quite a thing to get a check every month. If I had a productive month, I’d get a check. If I had an unproductive month, I’d get a check. It was dreamy. Not that being on staff means not having to write full story proposals. Some successful ones can be read at http://bit.ly/ck4Em Some unsuccessful ones can be read at http://bit.ly/i4zWD

Only occasionally would I get a verbal go-ahead to write a story, such as when the tsunami happened. The story I wrote about that – and all my stories – can be seen here: http://bit.ly/TQfOk

All the work that goes out under my byline is at least half the work of my wife, Margaret Knox. Details about how that works can be found here: http://bit.ly/15kjtV And here: http://bit.ly/WB3Vp Margaret doesn’t care about getting credit and we knew that double bylines would never work. But I was surprised that Remnick would never allow, on the Contributors page, something like: “Dan Baum is a staff writer who works with his wife, Margaret Knox.” Margaret hated that I’d even ask. “What’s the difference?” she’d say. She was right, of course. We both enjoyed the work, and both benefitted from the income. “Dan Baum” was just the name of the brand.

One of the best things about working for the New Yorker is that sources call you back. Though maybe not with the alacrity that people return a call from Rolling Stone. I’d worked for The Wall Street Journal, and found that people were way more eager to return calls from Rolling Stone. A friend explained it this way: “If you get quoted in The Wall Street Journal, you might get rich. If you get quoted in Rolling Stone, you might get laid.”

Still, leaving a message from the New Yorker, you’re pretty sure get called back. That may not sound like much. But for a reporter on deadline, it’s everything. I was on staff for three years, and six of my stories were killed – five long ones and one Talk of the Town. All of them can be read here, at the bottom of the page: http://bit.ly/TQfOk. Atop each is a paragraph explaining, from my point of view, why the story died. It seemed to me that in each case, the reason for the story being spiked had nothing to do with the quality of the work. But maybe I’m wrong. That’s why I put them on the website, to let others decide. Maybe they really were stinkers.

These killed stories were the reason Remnick gave when he called in early 2007 to say he wouldn’t renew my contract. But from the high hill of my old age, the real reason seems a little more complicated. The big difference between being freelance and on staff – besides the irregular pay and the lack of benefits – Is you’re not part of an institution. And every institution has its own character, its own emotional temperature. Freelancing for so long, I’d forgotten that. (If I ever knew it; I never held a job very long, either.) I’d come to believe that all that matters is the quality of the work on the page. That’s what set the writing life apart, I thought. And journalism folklore is replete with impossible personalities tolerated – yea, venerated – because their writing was so good. Hunter Thompson. Thomas Wolfe. William Faulkner. And on and on.

Now, I’d always tried to make myself very easy to work with. Never, ever missed a deadline. Footnoted all stories. Didn’t write too long or too short. Delivered clean copy. Called to talk at the right time of day on the right day of the week. Turns out, though, magazines have personalities – especially a magazine like the New Yorker, with such a long history. Had I been working in the New York office, I might have picked up on this, and adapted to it. But living in Colorado, and flying in for a one-day visit every three or four months, I had no idea. And being out of the institutional-man mindset for so long, I simply didn’t have the antenna. Or maybe I was too arrogant to care enough to take the time to figure the place out. Either way, I blew it.

Here were the guideposts along the way: A year before Rosa reached eighth grade, I emailed Remnick and said, “Remember our deal?” “Remember when you hired me I said my family and I wanted to live abroad for Rosa’s eighth grade year? “And you said, ‘I don’t care where you live as long as you’re producing your word count for the magazine’? “Well, we’d like to do that a year from now.”

David replied that he really needed me to stay put in the middle of the country, to balance the magazine’s focus on the coasts.

Like a dope, I fought back.

I said, “Jon Lee Anderson covers Latin America and lives in London.” Remnick said he didn’t want to tell me and my family how to live, and that if we went abroad, he’d still look at proposals. He just couldn’t keep me on contract if we moved abroad. “I know that,” I told him. “I know that if I quit my job I can do anything I want. But I want to stay on staff and do what I want.”

There’s a fine line between standing up for the deal one has and being a dilletante. I seem to have crossed it. We didn’t go abroad. Remnick kept me on staff. But I’m sure I did not endear myself to him. (Rosa, though, said, “I don’t work for Remnick. I still want to go.” She ended up living in Costa Rica without us. Spent second semester of eighth grade living with a Costa Rican family. But that’s another story.) Her blog from Costa Rica – which we haven’t finished posting – is here: http://bit.ly/9T1V1.

Let's all take a break and get some work done. I'll finish this tomorrow

So far, that's all of it, if you want to read the rest of the story (frankly it would triumph any New Yorker article if it's published), FOLLOW Dan Baum.

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