Freelance Writing and Journalism, Rebecca Morris

my name is buddy Todd and I am the marketing manager for community
education at Edmonds Community College and I have here with me one of our
instructors Rebecca Morris who teaches a freelance writing and journalism class
so thank you so much for coming in. thanks for having me here buddy
let’s talk about your class first of all what is the class that you’re going to
be teaching for our program well the class is freelance journalism and
writing as you said one night a week starting in April through your program
and as we all know journalism is changing a lot you know I heard this
week that the New York Times estimates it probably has a ten years left of
actually publishing a paper and then it will be all digital so I’m a little
depressed about that but we know it’s changing and there are lots of good
things about digital journalism but you know my purpose is that no matter what
kind of writing you do there’s there’s a real need for good writing and that
people who are out of school or still in school
can’t learn how to be a better writer and could also explore ideas of how to
what is in the community they can write for whether it’s newsletters or
community you know information or if they want to freelance for a newspaper
or a magazine and try getting into the larger freelance world of national
publications it’s it’s extremely doable that’s great well tell me about your
history with writing well I started when I was a child I remember writing stories
in plays when I was seven or eight years old and my father would type them up and
I’d send them to Jack and Jill Magazine or whatever and I had a play done when I
was about eleven in my grade school so and then worked on school newspapers and
eventually studied broadcasting at Oregon State University and was one of
the first women in television news in Oregon because that’s when the doors
were opening up in the 1970s for women and minorities so I worked in TV and
worked in radio also worked here in Seattle in broadcast media and then did
a master’s degree in playwriting and because I was always interested in
the theater and I ended up becoming a critic which makes sense because it’s a
journalist who writes in an area of expertise theater so I was in New York
for many years covering theater and other entertainment and then I always
went back to my roots which were in broadcast journalism so I also worked in
New York and TV and radio and started writing for national magazines came back
to Seattle I’m from Oregon originally but came back here where I’d lived some
in the 70s and 80s and in 2005 I wrote for the Seattle Times as a freelancer
and did an article that led to my first book and I always knew I wanted to write
books but I didn’t know quite what direction I would go in and it turns out
I’ve gone in a true-crime direction nonfiction and that’s what I’m doing now
oh very cool well what what brought you over to teaching well finally you know
when you have a master’s degree you can teach at any college and New York in New
York it was one of my other kind of backups in addition to doing some work
at NPR in New York I started teaching at a couple of colleges universities in New
York and then when I came back out here because of family reasons in Seattle I
taught it at Bellevue college for six years
journalism English 101 technical writing sort of a little bit of everything and
then I even until a few years ago was writing the news at q13 Fox so keeping
my hand in TV news and so I like teaching college I especially like
evening classes and evening students returning students who you know want to
revisit a passion perhaps or an interest that they’ve never been able to
particularly you know spend time on like freelance writing
and those students sorry no returning students evening students are just the
best because they’re there they’re really they have a different motivation
than a young person you know attending a college right they’re there because they
want to be not because they’re trying to their think it’s just the natural next
step they don’t need the credit for right something they are really
interested in it and although I you know I like young people too but I think a
lot of teachers would say it’s the the people who make time for evening classes
that really really have a purpose yeah what is your favorite thing about
teaching this about teaching these kind of classes well I think the adult
students or our young people are you know they’re there because they want to
be they I like to help well I like to share my experience and
that’s one of the things it’s a little bit selfish but I like that about
teaching that I can share what I’ve learned and and my experiences and guide
them and I love helping people who like to write or want to want to write more
because I think it’s the most creative thing in life and I can’t imagine you
know a day without writing you know everybody has their better passion but I
I like to encourage it because it you know it changes us I really think it’s
you know it takes us on a journey and we don’t really know where that’s going I
mean I now have oh six or eight books that I’ve written the last few years and
I often ask myself what would I write tomorrow would the idea occur to me
tomorrow that occurred to me today I don’t know it’s just every day is such a
creative journey right well how has the journey of being a writer changed
especially in the last few years how has it changed for any writer yes okay well
you know that thing called Amazon and self-publishing which
is a you know double-edged sword even those of us who you know right for
traditional publishers as I do have also dabbled in self-publishing and what my
very first book the one that the Seattle Times article led to which I spent four
years on talking to a family with a mother whose daughter had been missing
more than fifty years in Tacoma Washington and there was always this
myth that maybe she was Ted Bundy’s first victim mm-hmm when she was 11 when
I’m sorry when she was 8 so I spent four years on that and I knew I wasn’t you
know I I wrote to a couple of agents but you have to have you know something to
show them and some experience and it wasn’t enough that I’d you know worked
in New York and broadcasting or anything so I self-published it and ebook
paperback and audiobook and it still it still brings me you know some money
every month and the most important thing for me is that through that I met a
writer who lives on the Kitsap Peninsula who is much better known than I am who
writes both fiction and true crime and I contacted him for a blurb for my book
and then he said we should meet and he was you know kind of not able to do true
crime anymore because it’s that’s the genre that takes so much time
nonfiction you know it’s really years on a book much much more time-consuming
than than writing fiction so he and I began to work together we did a lot of
self-publishing and then his agent represents me now so
we still do some work together and then you know then we also do work separately
but I it’s not saying too much to say it actually changed my life yeah but also
because you know it’s up to us it’s I I work very very hard and took advantage
of opportunities I reached out to people to to meet them
and so I made it happen but it’s it’s there and other people do it and can do
it to them right so when it comes to the this
particular class the freelance and journalist or journalism how much time
do you really focus on that sort of business side of things versus the
research side of things I would say the business side of it is at least a third
or a quarter of the class I think we begin with you know how do you get an
idea what is a good idea I think people coming to a freelance
writing class probably have something in mind and I will talk about how you know
what is a good idea and what isn’t and what do you do with it then how do you
make it translate into something you’ve written an exploring research and and
interview skills and what needs to be done how do you know when you’re done
and ready to write how do you know you’re done with your research and
interviews and and ready to compose something and you know I I encourage
people freelance writing is usually you know it’s nonfiction in nature so is
there something timely that they want to write about you know do they have an
angle on a school shooting or gun control or something on politics that
would and how do they make that good for a wider audience right without you know
I don’t want to teach people to write rants write a rant is different right
but thoughtful piece on a timely topic you know could could really could sell
yeah and so freelance pieces and other kinds of writing you know what is good
writing I think good writing is very simple writing you know it’s not there
are no flourishes it’s – its direct another thing I believe in there
much in the prop it’s a process writing as a process and you know I think it’s a
good idea to kind of have a you know even a simple outline or to plan to plan
before you write so that you know where you’re going right is that is that your
particular process as a writer is to just kind of pull sort of ideas of maybe
what you’ve seen in the news and find takes I mean how do you how do you kind
of approach this kind of a it’s kind of an abyss in terms of how to approach
such a wide art form because it is an away in art form because you’d say
you’re neat voice so how do you particularly approach that well I think
reading is extremely important you can’t be a good writer if you don’t read and I
still I read you know several newspapers a day a lot of websites a lot of books I
probably take 15 books a week out of the Public Library in Seattle and look at
all of them read half of them you know a book a day I just I think it helps teach
us what what is good writing for one thing but I like to explore a wide
variety of ideas I think that to the the most important thing to sort of share
with students is that how to narrow an idea because you know we we don’t need a
necessarily history of school shootings we need something something narrower you
know an idea a plan an angle that nobody else has has written about perhaps and
maybe there’s a first-person piece so I think just being curious is a very
important trait for writers yeah to be interested curious about a lot of things
and to know when our own ego kind of might get in the way and to decide you
know what is what it’s a good idea and can I can I do that am i up to that
or maybe that’s not you know maybe I can go a different a different way but I
often well I just finished a book about a high school classmate of mine when we
were seniors in Corvallis Oregon he was murdered and it was never solved and
we’re coming up on a major reunion this summer so three years ago I don’t know
why it came into my head I remembered his dying his death and that was a year
when there was a lot going on in America with Vietnam and war protests and and
Bobby Kennedy campaigning and for the primary and a very monumental year in
America and it coincided with my senior year in high school in a town that was a
bit of a bubble a college town bubble right and so I spent the last three
years you know I had to find out who who was still alive from then and found that
the two original detectives in the district attorney we’re still living and
in their late 80s you know living in my hometown getting the police report you
know what I always say and I say to students is you don’t know
what you don’t know right so you just keep going down the road and keep
talking to people and ask them who else you should talk to and gathering
information and it’s it’s a huge process so I ended up doing this book about this
unsolved case and also telling the story of a few of his friends lives and also
what was going on in America at that time and in my town because a lot of the
best non-fiction books juggle a couple of different things the books that about
you know the serial killer enduring the Chicago World’s Fair but it’s also the
story of building the Chicago World’s Fair so you have a backdrop and then a
central story going on so it’s it’s a lot of work and but I
love I hope to teach book writing to sometime so it’s a you just have to be
open to following the information not follow the money follow relevant
information leads right and be honest about where it’s leading because I may
not necessarily lead where you think it may not it may not and it may be that
your idea you know is a bust or it may be somebody else you know well they’re
always booked some on other subjects that come along there’s something in the
ether that you know there’ll be a number of books on a same topic at a similar
time right that that happens but you know every writer is different and will
approach it slightly differently and I had the experience these last three
years of finding out that you know my hometown had been you know a key KKK
town in the 1920s and 30s in Oregon and that Oregon has a very racist history
and my hometown did and I I didn’t know that right I didn’t know that I knew
there were no black kids in my schools but so that history became part you know
you just don’t know what you don’t know right well and in some ways that becomes
Kevin awakening too in terms of you know something that you thought you were so
familiar your whole life yes and then one fact comes out and then it turns out
what you need to be true really really wasn’t yes it’s very interesting and I
think also that happens you know not just with books but with with magazine
and newspaper articles to write is that just it’s such an interesting process
all right where it takes you right well this particular class obviously it’s
gonna probably primarily focus on nonfiction work and how to approach the
that work and it’s freelance writing and journalism so it’s looking like like
articles and submitting to are you know different publications kind of on the
shorter well shorter realm but if somebody wanted to take something and
expand it on a book oh my gosh of course and I’d be happy to to also contribute
information about that along the way and you know essays are nonfiction there’s
quite a call right now for essays and for blogs and of course pop podcasts and
all of that is you know pretty much related in the same camp and I I think
it’s really exceeding exciting that people are discovering you know audio
and I’m discovering blogs again and and websites and all of that I consider you
know freelance writing right as well as something that you might try to sell or
get published right well what exactly is the difference between an essay and an
article well an essay is usually first person in some way it might not be about
your direct experience but it’s something that you have an opinion on if
you think about the op-ed pages of the Seattle Times or the New York Times or
or almost or any newspaper like we’d see in the last couple of weeks we would see
well I think one of the young people from the Florida shooting in this last
week already wrote a piece for the Seattle Times an essay about you know
her experience being there that day right and so the New York Times also on
Sundays have has a very well-known column called modern love that writers
all over the world submit to it’s about ten years old now I
think but it’s usually about how the author the first person how the author
and their loved one met or intersected and there’s some dramatic arc you know
they’re something has to happen right yeah okay and an essay like that there’s
you know something happens people change there’s some event so but
an essay is usually an you know contains an opinion mm-hmm as opposed to an
article which is more focused on the research yes
yeah if you were writing about about gun control for the Seattle Times you know
it might be a freelance article about what what what are the laws now in
Washington State let’s let’s say The Times hasn’t done that yet and I’m not
sure if it has or housing so you want to do a piece about what are the laws here
and how has the legislature tried or not trying to change them you’d stick to the
facts and but that’s definitely you know freelance reporting and you know your
own opinion there are things that are more important than your own opinion and
that is facts right yeah so it might just be completely fact-based
and not contain your opinion at all however if you’ve been I wrote a
something for a self-published book a few years ago about the shooting that
not many people remember but in Moses Lake Washington and it was pre Columbine
and I wanted to interview the now he’s a man in prison he was 14 at the time and
he’s one of the two thousand young people around the country who just got a
new sentence because he was a child when he was sentenced to life without parole
so there was a Supreme Court decision on that a few years ago and a couple of
thousand people in their 30s and 40s or getting new sentences but I saw today
that the teacher and who I’d interviewed the teacher who saved the day at the
Moses Lake School ran into the classroom stopped Barry Luke itís from continuing
to fire the shotgun tackled him two people were killed in that room and a
third one was injured that teacher and who I interviewed
probably about five or six years ago so this happened in the 90s right he has an
essay out today about you know prompted by the Florida shooting about his
experience and his thoughts on this so you know that’s a case where somebody
who isn’t doesn’t pretend to be a professional writer has written an essay
right that’s going to be you know circulated and published and I don’t
know the original I might be in the Spokane paper today but I saw it on a
Google Alert because I have I’m I’m alerted every day by what a number of
people if they’re in the news one is Barry Alec itis who was the Moses like
shooter right right well when it comes to to journalism you know there’s kind
of that sort of I like sort of figure of like the Lois Lane you know getting the
scoop and and and things like that how how realistic is that sort of life and
now with the internet and with things gone digital and New York Times is you
know got ten years left to the publication what is the life of a writer
how is it really evolved since kind of that sort of 1940s when I love those
movies I have Nancy Drew movies from the night right 30s and 40s and and of
course loved Lois Lane well it’s still it’s really changed it’s it’s still a
lot of work and I know that when I was last you know my last gig was you know
writing TV news and so you know you don’t go outside or anything and it’s
all you know it’s all done with a computer and everything but a friend of
mine is still in the business in New York at the New York Daily News and she
you know has a lot of young people who are runners who go out there and they
still go they still go to the scene and you still gather information you have to
pretty much have to be at the seem to be you know news agencies
pick up other stories all the time yes you know I mean in the Seattle Times
will see New York Times stories or Associated Press stories but you know
somebody has gone to the scene in fact I read that the day after the shoot within
a few hours after the Florida shooting there were 25 New York Times reporters
there are reporters and editors because of course there are all kinds of angles
and sidebars and you know a lot of a lot of different it
becomes a lot of different stories right a story like that right you know who was
the shooter what about his you know the family he’s living with and the of
course the stories of the 17 victims so it takes a lot of people still to do
that and I can’t see that that will change that’s not going to change if
there’s no published paper you’ll still need people you know with the boots on
the ground right at the scene together to gather the information but I will say
for the most part a lot of reporters and editors or you know do it from inside
there’s a lot of coordination you know and actually a lot of newspapers like my
friend of the New York Daily News you know they’re they’re looking for clicks
on the website right and that’s a important but closely heart guarded
secret inside the paper is what is getting clicked on and you know that
celebrity news gets clicked on and they you know ostensibly rewrite some of what
they get off the wire but not very much so clicks are driving right a lot of
journalism right right now now every day on page a3 of the New York Times they
they list what are the most read stories and most shared stories of the day
before on the New York and usually five or six that they single
out and they’ll say you know 22,000 shares on Facebook or you know 10,000
likes or this was you know the most read story and there are a lot of serious
stories on that list right well so the whole nature of the whole nature of
newspaper print and and how newspapers sort of conduct themselves have has
obviously changed because it’s no longer about building subscriptions and
attracting good advertisers through large subscriptions that’s now really
about the social media engagement it is and a lot of them I mean a lot of good
reporting has been done using social media you know including by the kids
that were in the high school right last week or the story of the Boston Marathon
bombers you know a a lot of information and from the Las Vegas shooting coming
from you know the civilian journalists right just people who happened to be
there right but also if you if you you follow the news you know that even
traditional publications like the New York Times is doing their live tweeting
during an event you know during the Olympics during a school shooting
there’s a way to get something much more immediate than just going to their
website and and and so they’re using it to report it’s a you know it’s it’s different it’s
it’s just different right well it’s more real-time so things have a little bit
more about less of a shelf life yeah and in you know and still for the last
40 years real time has been radio and television which takes us immediately
there too right and it’s still a source and probably you know I think
probably the biggest source for besides social media now radio TV would be right
the next you know live live coverage right wow that’s fascinating so so kind
of bringing everything back sort of to your class and community education what
is it that you really love about just sort of community and education in
general well I think bringing together people who probably don’t know each
other but will meet you know through an interest of theirs and as I said I love
to encourage people to write because I think it’s it’s a self exploration as
well as research and and and exploring a particular subject that you’re
interested in I think there’s a give-and-take and fun even in a
classroom that is different then you know go back to the teaching English 101
when I had Running Start students and and and young people and you know they
they have to take that class right there was some classes at ability college when
I was teaching when I had I had any in the evening returning Microsoft
executives who never finished you know their their associate’s degree and were
coming back and and also I taught technical writing which you know the
students who were firefighting students at Bellevue college had to take the
nursing students had to take technical writing you know returning business
people and so there were a lot of people who were had had to take that but but I
think that mix of adults is is really interesting and that you know the end of
learning from each other absolutely do you have any favorite moments as an
instructor or specific cases where you’ve taught a class and something
interesting or something amazing happened in the class that you’d like to
share well I was not to harp on school shootings but it’s kind of in our ether
right now I was teaching a journalism class today at Bellevue college the day
of Virginia Tech shooting that day I believe and the students at Virginia
Tech were using social media to report on it and then they also not just on
social media but they were putting out their newspaper at the same time and I
thought gosh what what an example to show these college students of how the
immediacy and the importance of reporting because you know we’re we’re
better off if we know what’s going on in the world you know and and if we know
you know sooner rather than later I think it’s uh I think journalism it’s
just a terribly important thing in a democracy yeah and so I I think of that
moment and I had students at Bellevue college who you know one student mind
just you know got his master’s in a very exclusive you know design program at the
University of Washington Business School and just to see you know where they
where they go you know what path they go down yeah is there anything else you’d
like to add about your class other than well I hope you know I hope that I can
inspire people to whether they come in with an idea or not that it’s it’s
something they want to try and that it’s an interesting process but also you end
up with you know you end up with a product and and I will say I think the
most important thing about writing and this isn’t original with me but when you
write you find out what you think right because you’re forced to to examine you
know you know what thank you and so and I’m also a great
believer that writing is rewriting that probably most colleges don’t put enough
emphasis on the importance of rewriting you know just doing a quick draft
version isn’t that’s it’s not done them right it’s not done I you know good
writing is crafted you know it’s a process it is not just it’s a process
and it has to be rewritten yeah very good well thank you so much
for coming everybody it was fun to talk to you yeah it was really great if you’d
like to know more about Rebecca’s class or any of our classes that we offer feel
free to visit our website you

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