Me again, plowing ahead with this long and detailed account of what it was like to freelance some stories from Rio 2016. This whole weird project has been motivated by the fact that I’ve always been extremely curious about what other journalists’ working lives are like; doubly so since freelancing is an inherently isolated variety of journalism and, as detailed earlier this week, I personally came up in the journalistic sticks; and triply since I joined the far-thinner ranks of freelancers abroad a year ago and I would have loved to read something like this going in.
Yesterday I wrote about how my Rio assignment fell in place last-minute after I’d given up on the idea. I thought I’d focus today on the story planning that occurred in the three days between signing my contract and getting on the plane.
Early on in the email exchanges w/ Modern Farmer that preceded an editorial green light and signed contract, we’d agreed on getting three or four stories web stories out of the trip. One of the advantages of a long-running relationship with a publication, like I’ve had with Modern Farmer, is already having a good feel for what’s in play re: subject matter and tone and styles. Relative to other places I’ve written for, Modern Farmer tends to be refreshingly wide open. I once, for example, talked them into letting me write an extremely soft-hitting story from the perspective of a goat that I’m linking to here only because Sen. Tim Kaine makes a cameo that deserves renewed public attention now that he’s risen to presidential-ticket prominence. In our conversations about Rio, I was very glad when my editor specifically requested at least one of the stories be lighthearted or kooky or irreverent. I’ll get as self-righteous as the next journalist about truth to power and afflicting the comfortable and empowering the voiceless and shield laws and FOIA and all that other Fourth Estate stuff that gets bandied about at conferences as our industry withers around us. But may we never forget, meanwhile, to have fun along the way.
So: three or four stories, at least one of them with a goofball factor. My brainstorming began by Googling general Modern Farmer-ish terms like “urban farm” and “organic” paired with “Rio Olympics.” Yes, it’s a sixth-grade-research-paper level of sophistication, and yes, I do it a lot. Bush-league or no, this method quickly turned up the idea that became my first story, about a new Rio restaurant where celebrity chefs used surplus food to feed the homeless. Google coughed up a very short news item about it, basically a press release, in the English page of some Italian news source. I pitched Modern Farmer on going in person and writing a feature. They said yes.
My second pre-trip brainstorming strategy sounds a little more journalistically befitting: my “sources.” Quotes there because I’m not really a fan of the word – an obfuscation that creates an impression that journalists have these special, magical relationships with these special, magical creatures called sources, otherwise inaccessible to regular folks. “Sources” are just regular folks and journalists are regular folks who communicate with them – skillfully, to specific ends, and very, very, very rarely, in some covert manner for some highly sensitive reason.
Anyhow, I, regular old Andrew, sent an email to regular old Pietro, who is a chef in Porto Alegre whom I’d previously written about and who is originally from Rio. I told him about the upcoming trip and asked if any people/places/things worth checking out came to mind. He mentioned an organic-centric Rio chef named Rafa Costa e Silva who has a trendy new restaurant. I pitched Modern Farmer a Q&A. They said yes.
Regular old Andrew also sent a similar email to regular old André, an agronomist I’ve worked with on several projects over the past year who’s also from the Rio area. He passed along the name of an organic farmers’ association in Rio to check out. A bit of data from the group’s website ended up appearing in a third story I wrote about an organic farm, but I never interviewed or even exchanged emails with them because they didn’t respond to my initial emails and I didn’t have time to wait around on non-responders.
The final, kooky story I ended up writing emerged from a conversation with my wife, basically like this:
Me: “I was thinking of profiling a beach vendor.”
Rachel: “I think Americans would think its cool how Rio beach vendors bring stuff to you.”
M: “What if I I just sit there and buy everything that comes by and write about it?”
R: “That'd be cool!”
I’d sort of been joking, but emboldened by my wife’s endorsement, I pitched this idea. Modern Farmer was down, and that’s how I ended up, for the first time in my life, getting paid to spend a morning lounging on the beach. (Wait, full radical honesty: at this point I can only claim to have invoiced for that morning lounging on the beach.)
That organic farm story wasn’t nailed down before I left for Rio. Google brainstorming had turned up vague stuff about some special Olympics-related farmers’ markets that were planned, and upon departure for Rio, my editor and I had generally agreed that we’d try for a farmer’s market-related story, details TBD. Regular André’s recommendation to check out the farmers' association circled in loose orbit of this farmers' market idea. Online, I’d also found schedule and location info for all of Rio’s organic farmers' markets and figured I’d visit some early in my trip to sniff out specifics.
During those few days pre-departure, I’d also floated a few other story possibilities that went nowhere for various reasons. One involved cachaça, and was no better developed than “maybe we should do something about cachaça.” It was an extremely weak, F- story idea, clichéd and not even a really story at all, basically just a forgettable little journalist brain fart that, thankfully, soon dissipated.
Regular Pietro also had alerted me to a Brazilian actor who’s become a sort of gentleman farmer and food activist in Rio. There was talk of a Q&A with him, but Rafa the chef ended up getting back to me quickly and agreed to an interview, and since we didn’t want two Q&As, it was first-come, first-served. I never even lodged preliminary inquiry with the gentleman farmer.
Finally, during the pre-Olympics rush when I was discussing Rio ideas with a handful of publications, I had exchanged emails with a member of the US men’s marathon team about potentially profiling him. It’s tempting to let you think that my mystical source network gives me casual access to Olympians, but what actually happened was I thought it would be fun to write about a marathoner, and then I found this guy’s work email address online, and I sent him an awkward email that basically said “I’m a journalist, can I profile you if I can find a publication that’s interested?” I was surprised to get a response of any kind, and shocked, honestly, that the response was “sure.” A true dude, this marathoner was. Unfortunately, the conventional “profile an Olympic marathoner” pitches I beamed out to editorial inboxes far and wide came to naught.
After the Modern Farmer gig came together, I tried a food angle on this marathoner pitch, basically proposing to follow him through Rio and writing about what he ate while he was whiling away time before the race. My editor liked it, but the backwardness of my approach was a problem because I hadn’t actually yet run this specific food angle idea by the marathoner. When I did, he said that he was (understandably) being cautious about his eating prior to his Olympic competition, and wouldn’t probably make for a good subject for a profile exploring exotic Brazilian cuisine. Call it a swing and a miss. Happens all the time in this biz.
More tomorrow. Fiquem com Deus, gente.