The indignity!

A good friend who follows this blog — that is, he has clicked the FOLLOW box to the right, and therefore receives new posts in his email in-box– makes a helpful suggestion that has me wanting to roll up a newspaper and bop him on the head with it:

“If a person is using an ad blocker in their browser, they won’t see the “Follow” button in WordPress.”*

Can you spot what has me irate? He may receive Wordwork; he may even read it. But as they say at the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) at Fort Leavenworth,** the lesson hasn’t been absorbed until behavior changes. He, who should know better without being hectored by me,  is mixing singular and plural in the same sentence: “if a person…,” “they won’t see…” He either didn’t receive this post, has forgotten it, or is waving a red flag before me for his own amusement. 

Allow me to repeat: The best way to avoid both confusing the reader by mixing the singular with the word “they” and falling back on the awkward he/she or his/her is to make everything in the sentence plural. My friend could have gone unbopped had he simply written “Readers who are using ad blockers in their browsers won’t see the ‘Follow’ button in WordPress.” 

Yes, I will someday address how to write about a person of complicated sexuality who wants to use the personal pronoun “they.” I’m trying to figure out how to do that inoffensively. If you have any ideas on that, please share them. 


* If you’re reading this on the web, do you see the FOLLOW box to the right? If not, try turning off your ad blocker for a minute and see if that helps. 

**That’s a link to one of my favorite stories from my time covering the military for The New Yorker (2004-2007).

Be Easy

As Hyman Roth says in The Godfather Part II: This is the business we’ve chosen.

This is a theme to which I’ll return often: Magazine editors are among the most unhappy people in the country. This is especially true now, with the industry imploding. But it’s been true for years. They work under relentless deadline pressure. They never know when the company for which they work is about to spring some awful surprise — closing the magazine, shrinking it, changing the format, replacing the top editor. They live in perpetual terror of losing their jobs. They’re underpaid. The work isn’t as glamorous as they thought it would be. It goes on and on.

It’s long seemed to me that these people are desperate for any brief respite from the hideous stress under which they work. One way that Margaret and I have enjoyed our limited success has been to make a conscious effort to be that respite. Briefly put: We try hard to make ourselves effortless to work with. We work as hard ast that, sometimes, as we do on the quality of reporting and writing.

We strive to make a phone call or email from us a moment of blessed relief in an otherwise dreadful week. Ah, we want the editor to think. Dan and Margaret are on the job. I can relax a little.

Certainly we have to do acceptable work. But read our stories: This is not wiggy-brilliant poetic wordsmithing. We do thorough reporting and then write it clearly. (Our work can be expressed in the equation Good Information + Strunk + White.) The work is fine.

We’ve gotten repeat assignments from high-paying magazines, I believe, only in part because our work is good. Another big part is that we make editors’ lives a little easier.

The actor Joe Pantoliano once said in an interview that he realized early on that he wasn’t the most handsome or talented actor in Hollywood; that he had a high, unpleasant voice; and was generally a dime a dozen as a character actor. So he set out to make himself the nicest man in Hollywood. He showed up on time, ready to work. He accepted direction. He didn’t throw tantrums. He simply made himself pleasant and effortless to have around, so people liked hiring him. Then, his natural and remarkable talents were given a chance to shine through.

For the rest of this week, I’ll share some techniques that Margaret and I have used to make ourselves easy to work with. Some of them will seem, at first blush, to be lifted from the Book of Duh. But we’re constantly amazed at how many writers fail to observe the most basic courtesies, and how many seem to founder as a result. Stay tuned.



More plural problems

Hey! Washington Post copy desk! Let’s go get a be… 

Hello? Anybody here?

All right. You there, reading this. What’s wrong with this line from Post columnist Michael Gerson’s recent column?

After a brief, brilliant campaign that toppled the Taliban, there were a series of complications across the terms of three presidents.”

Two problems here, actually. The first is simply a poor aesthetic choice, not an actual error. As I explain here, “there is” and its variants (there are, there were, etc.) is a weak and dull construction best and easily avoided.

The error in Gerson’s sentence is, once again, is one of mixing up singular and plural. A series is a singular thing. It may be made up of many components, but it is singular, so Gerson should have written, “…there was a series of complications…” One wouldn’t write, “the family were at the beach,” even though a family consists of multiple people. 

The British muck this up all the time. Years ago, while waiting in a Singapore cinema for the newly released Jaws 2 to begin, I was flummoxed by these words in giant type on the screen: Shaw Organization Present. Could the producers really have made a typo or a grammatical error in the first image to appear on the screen and in eight-zillion-point type? No, my British-educated colleagues told me. The British consider “Organization” a plural word because it’s made up of many people, so “present” is correct.

The difference between their way and ours may not merit taking up arms at Lexington and Concord, but it bespeaks differing world views. The way the British see it, the components of an organization are more important than the whole. Their way smacks of disunity, whereas ours makes of many, one. Or, e pluribus unum.* 

Then again, perhaps the British way of linguistically honoring the individual components of a whole over the whole itself is to be expected of people who’d bolt the European Union. Maybe “Shaw Organization Present” should have warned us that this was coming.


*Among a certain set it is clever to say that the American Civil War was fought not over slavery or the Mississippi River, but over a verb. Is it the United States is or the United States are?


Local News!

I’ll get back to opening a foreign bureau in a minute. First I want to convey some important local news: I don’t have prostate cancer.

Duh, I hear you say. You have brain cancer. Well, ever since September 18, I’ve thought I might have both. On that day, my general physician, a man endowed with an impressively long and stout index finger, said during my annual physical that he felt a “nodule” on my prostate and that I should see a urologist. I knew I was screwed  when the urologist’s receptionist asked me on the phone, “did your doctor use the word ‘nodule?'” and when I said, “yes” continued, “then we’d better get you in right away.” The urologist, too, had an index finger for the record books, and after raping me with it said I’d better come back for an ultrasound. Remember that screed I wrote you about me on my roof yelling at Cancer? I wrote that then, and have been walking around for almost a month thinking that cancer was eating me up from both ends. Preoccupied? Me?

Today (October 23), I returned for the ultrasound; the urologist had this device all lubed up and ready to go.

ultrasound device

That’s my wholly inadequate index finger, for scale. Getting to the necessary spot with this thing felt like the New York MTA was building a new subway tunnel in my lower abdomen. 

But somehow, by looking at this utterly featureless screen, 

prostate ultrasound

…the doc could tell me definitively that I don’t have prostate cancer and don’t even need a biopsy. 

His office is way out at the edge of town, near Costco. Margaret said I was such a good, uncomplaining patient that she would take me for a treat — one of Costco’s signature quarter-pound hot dogs.

hot dog



Starting a Freelance Career Abroad

I’m telling this story in reverse, for which I apologize. But here’s how we got to that first night in Nairobi: Starting a career as a freelance journalist can be brutal. As in any other field, you need experience to prove yourself, but you can’t get that experience without first having experience. As I’ve said here, you don’t need clips badly enough to write for free (or for too little money to make the writing worthwhile) but you do need some sort of track record, to demonstrate you can deliver the goods.

One way to separate yourself from the hordes of similarly eager would-be freelancers is to offer editors something they can’t get elsewhere: reporting from a far-off corner of the world. In other words, take yourself abroad and set yourself up as a foreign correspondent.

It worked for us. Margaret and I were reporters at The Atlanta Constitution in 1986she in the Savannah bureau and I in the main newsroom in Atlanta. I’d worked in Asia for The Asian Wall Street Journal; she’d lived in Mexico and had reported for the Journal-Constitution from Cuba. Both of us itched to get back out into the big world. We applied to several papers that had foreign correspondents, and the Washington Post’s foreign editor gave us this invaluable advice, paraphrased here:

Just go. Getting a foreign posting at this paper would mean working on the city desk for years and sucking up to the national editor. Then, if you’re lucky, you might get a national bureau. Do that for years while sucking up to me, and maybe, with a lot of luck, you’ll get a foreign posting. You’d be much better off just picking a place on the map and setting yourself up there as freelancers.”

The place on the map we chose in 1987 was Zimbabwe. We stayed three years, saw a lot of eastern and southern Africa, came home with exactly as much money as we had when we left, and had established ourselves with several newspapers and magazines.

You can’t just go anywhere. Near as I can tell, three criteria must be met:

It has to be a place of some newsworthiness.

It can’t already be overrun with American reporters.

The cost of living has to be very low.

Now that we’ve ruled out Paris, London, and Moscow, it’s time to open the world atlas like a dinner menu and get to work.

Zimbabwe worked well for us because at the time, apartheid South Africa was sustaining a series of low-intensity wars in its neighboring countries collectively called “the front-line states” — Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and to a lesser extent Malawi. Stuff was happening. And most American papers, if they had Africa correspondents, kept them either in Nairobi or Johannesburg. Back then, any reporter based in apartheid South Africa had a hard time traveling to the rest of Africa. And Nairobi was 3,000 miles away. Finally, by trading our money on the black market, Margaret and I could live well on US$1,000 a month. We had a house in the suburbs of Harare with a live-in maid, a 10-year-old Peugeot 504, and a downtown office in a news cooperative where we shared three telex machines and two employees.

When I say, “stuff was happening,” remember that I’m talking about African stuff, so we were reliably able to sell one story a month to our client newspapers. (Our clients were such triple-A clubs as the Atlanta Constitution, the Dallas Times-Herald, the Kansas City Star, the San Francisco Examiner, and a few more.) Each paper would pay us $150 for a story, and, being far apart from one another, they didn’t care if we sold the same story to our other clients. (Although once, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune put a story of ours on the AP wire and the Chronicle picked it up. So both San Francisco papers had the same story, with the same byline, on its front page, even though only the Examiner paid for it. The Examiner’s editors could have been furious about it, but I recall them being quite understanding.

To file our stories, we’d sit at one of the office’s communal telex machines — a device about the size of a dishwasher — and laboriously punch out a long yellow telex tape, applying about ten pounds of pressure to each keystroke. This we’d feed through the ticker on one machine; it read the holes we’d punched in the tape and converted them to letters and numbers. We’d get it going (thumpthumpthumpthump…) wait until the emergent end was long enough to reach the next machine’s ticker, run it through there, wait again, run it through the ticker of the third machine, and, in a miracle of Crimean War technology, we could file a fifteen-inch story to three papers in an hour or less — provided the tape didn’t catch on a chair leg and break. Often it took more time to file the story than it had taken to report and write it.

Nowadays the technology is better but the world more crowded, dangerous, and expensive. So finding the right place from which to freelance might be hard. But not impossible. It may be time to begin thinking in this direction. More later about how actually one gets this done.

When Margaret and I decided to launch our freelance career by going overseas, we got some more good advice: Introduce yourselves to editors before you go. Editors who receive unsolicited work from overseas reporters they don’t know tend to be suspicious they’re getting CIA or other countries’/factions’ propaganda.

These being the days before websites, we made up a folder that had my clips and resume on one side and Margaret’s on the other. We send a packet to the foreign editor of every American paper that had one. We also sent one each to NPR and Mutual Radio.

All of them called us. And all of them said the same thing: We won’t give you any money up front, but we’d love to hear from you. What we exacted from them was permission to call collect and their Telex numbers. Today, of course, the equivalent would be the editor’s email address.

For $150, papers the size of the Kansas City Star and the Dallas Times-Herald could have proprietary bylines from Africa in their pages. They liked that. It livened things up from the usual wire-service copy. Of course, getting the stories to the newspapers was always a trial. Telex is cumbersome, to say the least. And the Kansas City Star didn’t even have its own machine. We used to file to the reservations Telex of a hotel on the other side of Kansas City, and the paper would send an intern over in a car to pick up the copy.

Point is: If you’re thinking of launching your freelance career by going abroad, do an appropriate amount of spadework first.


Fear not shamelessness.

Okay; you’ve decided to launch your freelance career abroad and you’re wheels-down in your new city. Even before deplaning, your antenna is up, I hope, for stories you might write for your client papers — a profile of the guys who keep wildlife off the runway, the sprawling shantytown just beyond the runway where the airport employees live, or you might blunder into a lucrative and patently disgraceful first-day gig like I did.

Trigger alert: an uncommonly long story follows, but it’s packed chockablock with lessons for a newbie freelance foreign correspondent.

Once Margaret and I touched down in Nairobi and we’d gone through the trauma of my pocket being picked — passport, vaccination card, American Express Card, a little bit of cash — we made our way to the local office of the Associated Press. AP offices are everywhere, and each acts — in addition to gathering news and putting it on the wire –as a kind of mission for wandering scribblers. Local AP reporters tend to know what’s what, who’s worth seeing and who isn’t, which Ministry of Information officials to avoid, where to eat, and so on. Anyplace we touch down, we often look first for the local AP office.

On this, our first warm evening in Africa in 1987, we found AP occupying one whole floor of an office tower downtown. I was jet-lagged, disoriented, and a little freaked out by having all my documents stolen. The American Express card I could cancel; the passport I could replace at the embassy. It was the vaccination card that worried me. I’d been duly vaccinated against yellow fever, but how could I convince border guards of that without the card? Word was that many wouldn’t let a traveler pass without proof of immunity. I could get re-vaccinated, but might a second dose of yellow-fever vaccine kill me? And I shuddered at the the thought of getting re-vaccinated in Kenya during the full flowering of the AIDS epidemic. I could picture a nurse – or even a border guard — reaching into an enamel basin of murky water and pulling up a syringe. No, thank you.

AP’s Nairobi bureau chief that spring was a big African-American who wore nerdy black-framed glasses and talked to us like a coach pumping up spirit before a big game. I listed the papers to which we planned to file and he started giving us a loud newsman’s rundown of stories we might pursue – ranked by potential interest to US readers. A latte-colored young woman with short wavy hair walked up, put out her hand, and introduced herself as Micky Faul, the BBC’s local stringer. I detected deference on the part of the AP guy.  East Africa, which used to be an important piece of the British Empire, was still a lynchpin of the Commonwealth, and the local BBC reporter, I immediately grasped, is a kind of East-African journalistic royalty.

“You could do me a favor, actually,” Micky said. “Moi gave a speech today and Africa Report wants a live-taped Q&A about it. But I really need to be at a Soviet embassy reception in an hour. Could you do the Q&A?”

I looked up at her in a fog. “Moi?”

“Daniel Arap Moi. President of Kenya.”

“I, uh, only arrived today. I don’t know anything about it.”

“Of course; I know that. But I’ll coach you through it and then you can work out the questions and answers with London before you tape.”

“Is there any money in it?”

“I can give you a hundred US,” she said, which struck my ear as a fortune.

I glanced at Margaret, who, with a slight forward-thrusting of her head and lofted eyebrows, indicated that I should do it – about as strong a gesture of confidence in my ability to bullshit through this as it was possible for her to give, and it struck me, really for the first time, how lucky I was to have her with me on this African adventure.

Micky and I started walking; she talking non-stop about Kenya’s disappointing leadership of the Organization for African Unity, Moi’s increasingly autocratic rule, popular discontent with corruption, and the heat-shrunken maize harvest. “OAU autocratic discontent corruption maize,” I recited silently to myself, then went through it again and once more. Micky talked about the colonial period, the Mau Mau uprising that brought about independence in 1963 and breezed through Kenya’s history since then.  Finally, we reached a tiny soundproof booth behind a door plastered with stickers for Deutsche Welle, Danish Radio, Radio Moscow, NPR, and a dozen others as well as the BBC; apparently, this booth was a resource shared by every radio reporter in Kenya. A microphone on a stand sat beside a black dial telephone whose receiver Micky scooped up. She laboriously dialed a great many digits.

“Get me Nigel, please,” she snapped without preamble. Covering the mouthpiece with her palm, she said to me, “Nigel’s the voice of Africa Report, which airs on the World Service every evening at five in London, eight here. “Nigel,” she said loudly. “Got a treat for you tonight. I can’t do the Moi-speech Q&A but I’ve got a real pro to do it in my stead. (In my stead, I thought. Brits! The BBC!”) “He’s Washington Post, NPR, all that, Micky said loudly, even though Margaret and I had yet to file anything to any of them. “Nice voice, too. He’s a yank but the good kind. Bags of time in Africa. (Oh, I thought. At least 90 minutes.) I’ll put him on and you two can work out the Q’s and A’s. You’ll want to talk about the OAU, corruption, and the maize harvest. Got that?” She handed me the receiver and leaned in to listen. A chirpy young Brit said, “Okay, we’ll start with you setting the scene – where the speech was, now many people were there, the weather, all that. I looked in panic at Micky, who patted the air and  closed her eyes as though to say, “don’t worry.”

“What you’re going to do,” Nigel said, “is listen to me on the phone but speak into the mike there. Got that?” Micky was writing on a scrap of paper, national stadium, light rain, smallish crowd unenth. “I’m going to ask you about corruption, the maize harvest, what this does to Kenya’s position in the OAU. That seem to cover it?”

“That will be fine,” I said, hunching over the mike, sounding to myself for all the world like a distressed Canada goose, and we were off to the races.

Three hours later, Margaret and sat at a table on the outdoor terrace of casual restaurant, hunched over my little radio, listening to the martial notes of “Lillibulero” which the BBC World Service (formerly the Empire Service) used as its curtain-raiser theme (much to the irritation of the Irish, I’m sure, on whose folk song it was based.) 

“On the phone from Nairobi ,” came Nigel’s bray, “is American reporter Dan Baum, who attended the speech today “(half a day in Africa and I’m already participating in journalistic fraud, I thought…) “Set the scene for me, Dan, where did President Moi speak?” 

He chose the national stadium,” I heard myself say confidently, which makes me think he was expecting a much larger crowd. Even by the standards of his other speeches this year, the crowd today was small, perhaps because a light rain fell throughout.”

” And remind me if you would, Dan. why this speech in particular was so important.”

“Well, Nigel,” I heard my voice saying through the radio’s tiny speaker, “you must keep in mind Moi’s ambiguous position within the OAU….” on and on I went, sounding for all the world like I’d been covering Kenya for a decade — the recent devaluation of the Kenyan shilling, the jailing of a dissident journalist, the arrest of the interior minister on corruption charges, summing up masterfully with, “and of course, Nigel, Kenya’s maize harvest has come up frighteningly short…” 

Finally, it was over. My career as an Africa correspondent had begun.

So, what are the lessons here for an aspiring freelance correspondent?

  1. hang onto your documents carefully; wear clothes with zippered pockets
  2. find the local office of the AP wherever you happen to pitch up.
  3. make friends with other reporters and do them favors.
  4. take work where you can get it. nothing I said on the radio was untrue. sure, I gave the impression that I was at the speech, but didn’t lie explicitly, the content I delivered was as informative as if I had been at the speech. and now I had train fare for Margaret and me to Uganda and I could include the BBC in the list of news organizations for which I’d worked.
  5. if you’re a print journalist, work on your radio voice. if you’re  a radio journalist, work on your writing. the more media you can master, the more work you’ll have.