So I recently got back from Rio de Janeiro, where I spent five days on assignment with Modern Farmer, writing some stories (link, link, link, link) about Rio food and farming with some tie-in to the Olympics. Lining up some writing jobs from Rio 2016 was a goal of mine when I moved to Brazil a year ago, and it worked out about as well as I could have hoped – I feel good about the stories, got to sneak away to watch the women’s marathon, saw a lifer (Olivaceous woodcreeper) on the slopes of the Corcovado, got paid to sit on the beach for a few hours and got to spend a few more days in a city that I enjoy more with every visit.
Since my return, I’ve decided to write about the experience here to a fair degree of behind-the-scenes detail, but am going to start with an introductory digression. I’ve often felt like sort of an outsider journalist. It wasn’t my thing in undergrad; my (fantastic) first newspaper job was at a tiny weekly newspaper in a (fantastic) rural part of Virginia that’s the butt of jokes made in other marginally less-rural parts of Virginia and where I talked my way onto the staff on account of several attempts at the travel essay that I hope to God are no longer retrievable on the internet. My second and last newspaper job was brief and ended (my decision) soon after an editor spiked what I thought was a solid story about downtown ducks, on account of the semi-kinky sex scene it included. What was I supposed to do? During my reporting, a group of ducks began having violent, on-the-record sex right in front of me and I dutifully took note. We weren’t a long-term match, this job and I, and soon thereafter – seven years ago, now – I was a brand new freelancer who lived in one of those marginally less-rural rural parts of Virginia and had no real idea what I was getting into.
The relevant bit is that, career-wise, I’ve always felt a little backwoods and homespun and not hip to the ways of the big-metropolis media outlets that I now sometimes write for. I am proud of all this, I should emphasize. I wouldn’t change a single thing (not even the duck story debacle, which provided motivation onward and upward, and which eventually saw the light of publication anyway). But it also means that I’ve always been intensely curious about how better-pedigreed journalists function. What’s it like in a newsroom with more than a dozen people? What’s the day-to-day grind like at the headquarters of a magazine of national repute or a newspaper printing all news deemed fit? How do their stories come to be? Do sources just answer the phone and spill dirt? What’s the editor-writer relationship like? Etc. etc.
When I was getting ready to move overseas and hang out my own rough-hewn freelancer shingle in Brazil, this curiosity was only heightened, given foreign correspondents’ revered status as a special, pith-helmeted breed of journalist roaming the great beyond in search of their next great, sobering dispatch. Online, I found clips and websites and Twitter accounts, but they didn't do much to demystify their actual process. I’m not the only one who wonders about this stuff, am I? It’s the journalistic impulse turned inward, I suppose. Freelancing (and probably my own twangy, down-home brand, in particular) can get lonesome; maybe this whole thing is just a search for some professional companionship. Whatever. I want to know more.
And so I'm going to be the change I’d like to see in the world. I’m going to write about what the Rio expedition looked like up close – how the stories were chosen and reported and written, how I overcame some challenges and how some overcame me, what being a freelancer in another country actually looks like. Maybe, on the off chance that there’s someone out there with more of a back-holler professional background than me, this will all be informative and enlightening. Maybe the blue-blooded, well-credentialed members of the international press corps will be amused to learn how a Virginia hick now living in Porto Alegre nibbled around the edges of the Rio 2016 media feeding frenzy. And maybe, whoever you are and whatever you do, you’ll identify with feeling somewhat outside the loop, with wondering if everyone else knows things you don’t, with not being sure if you 100 percent belong – in which case, know that there’s someone else way down south, practically in Uruguay, seated at desk in a co-working space in a tall office building just off a major, traffic-choked Zona Leste thoroughfare on a sunny, chilly Tuesday morning, pecking at his keyboard in unwavering solidarity with you.