‘Writers as Witness’ Series at Scuppernong Books

Megan Pociask
Staff Writer

PC: Megan Pociask

Scuppernong Books continued their ‘Writers as Witness’ series last Thursday, October 3 at 7 p.m. with their latest newsworthy topic: ‘Working aBroad Beat; Freelance and Regional Reporting’. 

The event featured the ever-so-talented and renowned North Carolina-based journalists, Issac Bailey, Joe Killian and Barry Yeoman giving advice to future newswriters about the complexities of freelance journalism. 

The series, cosponsored by Pen America, Greensboro Bound and Scuppernong Books, provides the opportunity for the public to hear about various avenues of writing, and the challenges they each encompass. 

Pen America’s Piedmont representative opened the night by saying, “Being a writer is very dangerous these days. Writers of all sorts, journalists, poets, playwrights, spoken word artists… are often the first people to assign language to the sudden shifts in society and culture. We are often unrecognized change agents. Especially in a state like North Carolina, where so many of our local and regional issues link up to larger national narratives.”

Steve Mitchell, the moderator of the evening, began the panel discussion with a tame, yet incredibly interesting question for the three journalists. He asked them, “why in the world [they] became a journalist?”

Issac Bailey, a former columnist for The Sun News, has written for Politico, CNN.com, Time and The Washington Post. He is a 2014 Neiman Fellow and author of ‘My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime’ and ‘ Poverty and Racism in the American South.’ 

He began writing while attending Davidson College in his junior year because of one reason, and one reason only.

“Because I got really, really angry. I actually did not see any…diversity within the words I was reading and I got upset about that and I started writing and I haven’t stopped since”.

Barry Yeoman was the senior staff writer for The Independent in Durham. He’s written for Mother Jones, The Nation, The Washington Post and the New Republic. He was honored by The Columbia Journalism Review as one of the, “best unsung investigative journalists working in print in the United States.” He is also the author of ‘The Gutbucket King’. Yeoman likes to say that he, “popped out of the womb as a journalist”. 

“It was the only thing I ever wanted to do and I think at first it was because I thought newspapers were cool…lots of the adults in my life told me I couldn’t be a journalist…because journalism was seen as a bastard profession. I was supposed to be a doctor or lawyer or something that a middle class, suburban Jewish kid was supposed to do. I entered college as a psych major and that lasted for three days,” said Yeoman. 

Joe Killian spent a decade at The News and Record in Greensboro before leaving to work for the nonprofit, NC Policy Watch where he takes a close look at North Carolina government, politics and policy. 

Killian became a journalist because when he was in high school, he, “accidentally came across…Youth Journalism International…”. 

After then going on to discuss the inner workings of freelance journalism and how you manage to find and choose work, Bailey stated that the deciding factor in choosing what to write about came down to the fact that he wants to, “teach the public the complexities of [certain] issues, to make it more obvious that just because a person does something monstrous, does not make them a monster…”. 

Killian, who works for a nonprofit newsroom, shared that nonprofits can be a great avenue for journalists, however, no matter what, “the truth is all reporting is about relationships, in my case, I’m not looking for people to pay for stories, I’m looking for people who can help me figure out what the next story is…”

Yeoman added that though Bailey chooses his stories as a specialist in criminal justice, he considers himself to be more of a generalist who, “spends periods of time in specialty niches, [that is] it really is at the demand of the market.”

Yeoman noted that he, “used to have this basic formula where [he would] do eight stories a year and each story paid him about an eighth of an income and everything was good, and now that’s not true…now story lengths are shrinking and your pay per word, word rates are shrinking and the number of freelancers is growing because newspapers are laying off journalists and the internet is…paying five cents a word or nothing, so increasingly it takes a kind of nimbleness to do freelance…so that I can make some semblance of a living.”

All in all, the resounding message throughout the panel discussion was that freelance journalism is not easy, it does not usually pay well and often times, journalists will be viewed negatively, but it is something that matters. It matters for the sake of democracy and for the sake of simply understanding perspectives outside of your own.



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