Photographers Not Working as Photographers

I don’t like fall. To me, it means shorter days and colder temps, both of which I hate. But it’s diminishing daylight that really gets to me. As sunset creeps toward 5 PM, it’s like the whole world is coming to an end.

The season has one redeeming feature: changing leaves. In the mid-Atlantic, the green slowly fades into yellows, oranges and reds over the course of more than a month. The trees have just begun to change colors in downtown Silver Spring:

Changing seasons

I took this photo on my lunch hour, with my iPhone 5. But I thought the picture was too busy and didn’t like the trash can on the left. The branch extending across the top of the photograph was what interested me most. I thought it would make a good Instagram shot.

I cropped it in Instagram, then used the enhance button and applied the Walden filter to give it a desaturated look – like a faded photo found in an attic. I liked the creamy blankness of the sky. Lastly, I turned down the shadows to bring in a little more color in the leaves and to increase the contrast between the branch and the leaves. Here’s the final result:

Looking a little like fall in downtown Silver Spring #igdc #dtss

All this took about five minutes, back in my cubicle at work. I added it to a few Flickr groups and a couple days later I saw my photo on Capital Weather Gang, used to illustrate the arrival of fall in DC. And it was the second photo of mine that they used this week.

I work for a government agency but don’t shoot for them – they don’t have staff photographers, a photo library, a photo budget or photo editors despite the fact that we need photos all the time for web pages, brochures and social media. Instead, as a contractor, I write, edit, go to meetings and toil away in bureaucratic obscurity for the agency.

I’m far from alone in this situation. If you check out local blogs or art gallery shows, you will find the work of talented photographers, nearly all of whom have jobs with the federal government or corporate organizations. They’re photographers not employed as photographers. Instead, they’re system admins or technical editors or even senior management.

We live in a visual age but organizations large and small devote few resources to photography. Think what a company could do if it engaged, organized and compensated their own unofficial staff photographers. After all, who could tell the story of your business better than the people who work there?

Like the legions of photographers in other jobs, I’m going to continue to take photos, because I enjoy it. Photography gets me through the seasons, like the dying fall, and it might just deliver me to a future in which photography is recognized for its storytelling potential.

Sequestered and Feeling Fine

Due to a sequester-related contracting snafu, I get a spring break of an indeterminate length! Hopefully, I will be back to work at the National Weather Service in a week or two.

They call it a “gap” as they move people from one contract to another. I’ve got a job with the new company on a new contract. Who that company is, when the work starts and even how much I’m paid – all that is unknown.

Letting the contractors wander off and then hoping to sign them up with a new company is one of those “only in government” moments. It only makes sense if you work there. But if you think about it logically, and count up all the costs in managing people this way, it will drive you mad.

I was a Communications Manager for the Weather-Ready Nation initiative, which is about making communities more resilient in the face of extreme weather. In this role, I developed communication plans, managed web site content and coordinated social media efforts. We were making good progress too – see this presentation I gave to the Federal Communicators Network for more about my work.

DC is gorgeous this time of year. In addition to enjoying the delights of the city (food trucks, bike trails, museums), I have my own projects to work on:

  • Judging screenplays for the American University Visions contest
  • Blogging
  • And, of course, photography

I’ve got plenty to do.

Communicating Science: Make It Relevant

How do you communicate science to a general audience? That was the subject of a recent presentation I gave to the Federal Communicators Network. Based upon my experience as a science communicator for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy, I suggest that writers:

  • Use common terms
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Get out of your organizational bubble
  • Make it relevant to the reader
  • Stress benefits, not features

In the talk, I used case studies from my current job as a Communications Manager for The National Weather Service (NWS).  For example, NWS has a great new technology under development  – Wireless Emergency Alerts.  When talking about this new service, do you communicate the features (cell towers, polygons, alerting authorities) or the benefit (getting a text alert before a tornado hits your house)?

You stress the benefit, obviously. The benefit establishes relevancy in the mind of the reader. Grab the reader’s attention by leading with benefits and then you can explain the complicated details.

Five Things Reporters Want

reporter at OccupyDC rally“Reporters are lazy,” a PR director once told me. “They won’t do any work – they want everything explained to them.”

I’ve been on both sides of the table, as a freelance writer and as a communications manager. It’s not that reporters are lazy. They just have different objectives than PR reps. The job of a reporter is to find news and report it back to an audience. If you’re in public relations, your task is to get favorable media coverage for your organization.

What looks like journalistic laziness is in fact a relentless search for news. Reporters don’t have time to unpack the complexities of your press release. Don’t ask them to parse a technical document. They won’t sit through a press conference unless you have something really special to announce.

If your communication is not clear to them, they move on. If you can’t explain the story in a sentence, then they’re going to find something else to report on.

So, what do reporters want?

  1. They want news. News is, above all, new. It just happened or (even better) is about to happen. It is new – not something repackaged from six months ago. It is different, special and unique. Publishing an annual report is not news – everyone does that. Publishing your annual report as a series of tweets – that would be news.
  2. Benefits, not features. XYZ Company announcing a new widget is not news – the fact that the widget cures cancer, that would be news. Would you describe an iPhone by the kind of chip it uses or all the things you can do with it? Promote benefits to users, not a laundry list of features.
  3. Relevancy. Why do my readers care? A blog post from your CEO is not news. Bring me something that my audience wants to read about. Give me something that informs, scandalizes or improves them.
  4. A good elevator speech. You only have a few seconds to pitch your cause. What do you say? How do you summarize your story? Reporters are drowning in press releases – they’re not going to read more than a sentence or two in your release before they hit the delete button. Put the value up front, in the first sentence of your pitch.
  5. Speak like a human. Do you want to sound important or do you want to be understood? Think simple. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Take out the run-on sentences. Instead, explain your point so clearly that your grandmother would understand.

Reporters want interesting stories that audiences will read. Help them out by producing news and not news releases.

And check out these tips on pitching from editors and reporters. Note how publications have very different and unique requirements.

How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing

Lawless poster with Tom HardyThe more interesting the work, the less it pays – that’s the rule I uncovered in 2012. It’s the reason why technical writers are paid well (you want to write a help guide for Sharepoint?) while film reviewers are paid poorly (you get to see movies!).

However, it was a great learning experience to meet so many creative folks. Truly inspiring to meet people who had written books, made movies and created web sites.

The highlight of the year was the work I did for On Tap, the free monthly entertainment magazine in DC. There’s still a special thrill to see your name in print that no digital facsimile can replace. I wrote about Lawless, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Dark Knight Rises, V/H/S, Mansome and The Sessions. Continue reading “How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing”

Give Me Pizza, I Will Give You a Quote

No one can resist free pizza. That was the idea behind a novel recruitment effort by Vocus, a public relations software company out of Beltsville, MD. They sponsored a food truck on the streets of DC and gave out pizza in return for a resume or card.

Not only did I drop off a card, I got my name in a Washington Post article on the effort with a quote on how this tactic was good at reaching passive job seekers.

I’ve been quoted in articles before. My secret? Pithy ten-word statements of opinion that reporters can easily copy and paste into an article. Being a writer myself, I know what I like in a quote – something clear, direct and short – so I try to do the same when I’m asked for a comment. And bribing me with pizza doesn’t hurt 😉

The $100 Startup – Chapter Three: Follow Your Passion… Maybe

screenplay

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Follow along as I delve into the book, chapter by chapter. I’ll breakdown each chapter, providing a sort of Cliff Notes summary. And I’ll include what you can’t find in the book, such as links to the businesses he discusses, ideas for additional reading and my own thoughts.

I’ll post my breakdown of each chapter every couple days. Get the book and follow me on Twitter at @joeflood as we read The $100 Startup.

I’m a writer. I’ve written screenplays, short stories and even two novels. Writing and (more recently) photography are my passions. I’ve followed my muse, as much as I could afford to.

But make a living at my passions? I had the dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter until I actually visited LA. And I’d love a book deal but the publishing world is in disarray these days. And the dream of being a professional photographer is undermined by countless photographers (including, at times, me) willing to work for free.

Besides, I really do like working on web sites. I love the immediacy and creativity of web publishing.

The idea that there must be some way to combine my writing, photography and web skills into some sort of coherent business is why I bought The $100 Startup.

In chapter three, Guillebeau addresses the artist within all of us, the countless people who have wanted to turn their hobbies into money-making operations.

$100 Dollar StartupThe key is to find the overlap between your passion and the what people will pay for. He puts it in this somewhat clunky formula:

(Passion + skill) -> (problem + marketplace) = opportunity.

The best example comes from Guillebeau’s own life. I first started reading his blog during his quest to visit every country in the world. Did he get paid for this? No. He gets paid through related services, like his books and guides. As Guillebeau expains:

…you don’t get paid for your hobby itself; you get paid for helping other people pursue the hobby or something indirectly related to it.

Another example is Benny Lewis. He loved learning new languages and discovered that total immersion was key to picking up a new tongue. He learned seven languages in just two years. Pushed by his friends, he developed Speak from Day One (check out the insane video).

But how do you determine what the market will pay for? A tough question, but Guillebeau offers a checklist. You need a hobby that you’re passionate about. And have other people asked you for help with this hobby? Are they willing to pay for your expertise? These questions will be explored in greater detail in chapter six.

Remember, too, the admonition from chapter two that business success comes from helping people. So, how do you use your skills in a way that helps people?

art jamzThis chapter has a lot of relevance for artists and other creative types. Not everyone wants to turn their art into a business, however. It’s one thing to take photos that you enjoy; quite another to try to sell them at a farmer’s market. Guillebeau underestimates the difficulties people may have in exposing their art to the cruelties of the marketplace.

If you decide to turn your passion into a business, choose wisely and have a thick skin.

Local Examples

I have a couple of inspiring examples of my own, people I know in Washington who have turned their passion into businesses.

  • Jon Gann created the DC Shorts Film Festival, with a desire to put on a show. Now in its ninth year, it was named as “one of 25 festivals worth an entry fee” by Moviemaker Magazine. Jon created DC Shorts because he believed that filmmakers deserved to be treated better.
  • Everyone loves stories about ex-lawyers doing something other than law, like Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, a local web site covering the arts.
  • Julianne Brienza has the occasionally impossible task of running the Capital Fringe Festival every year. This Montanan has successfully brought oddball theater to serious Washington.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with all of these people and they’re all awesome.

Bonus

Artists are at war with themselves. Creating art is making something imperfect, that’s not going to match the perfect vision in your head. On Writer’s Block is an excellent little book on overcoming this hurdle as is Do The Work.

Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow. Sounds like flippant advice in these dour economic times but the book’s message is that what you’re passionate about, you will do better than anyone else.

A nice companion to this chapter would be The Art of Possibility. It’s a beautiful little book about envisioning your future.

Next: Chapter Four – The Rise of the Roaming Entrepreneur

The Movie That Gets Washington: Broadcast News

broadcast newsThe Washington Post recently had an article about DC in the movies, highlighting director James L. Brooks for really getting Washington. From All the President’s Men to his latest, How Do You Know?, he displays an excellent understanding of the culture of the city.

We’re not like Chicago or LA or New York. The people here are different, with their own unique challenges and motivations. New Yorkers may think that, just like there are no good bagels in DC, there’s no real “there” in Washington. It’s a transient city, with no realness about it. (Or, as a friend of mine from NYC once said, there’s no “bounty” to it.)

There’s a grain of truth to that assessment – it is a transient city, drawing in and expelling different political classes with each election. But most DC residents don’t work on Capitol Hill. They somehow manage to function without being part of the political class. Continue reading “The Movie That Gets Washington: Broadcast News”

2009 Highlights

steps

It’s the end of the year, and the end of a decade. What were my favorite projects of 2009? What did I have the most fun working on?

Murder in Ocean Hall

I can’t help myself, I like to write fiction. People have asked me how I could leave my job and then spend countless hours alone, in a coffee shop, writing a novel. I’ve offered advice on setting a schedule and being committed, but the truth is that writing a book is a huge sacrifice and something that you must really, really want to do. And something that you must enjoy doing more then anything else. Continue reading “2009 Highlights”