Our second writer in this series is Arlington-based freelance journalist and researcher Orrin Konheim. (Disclosure: Orrin and I are both members of the critique group Arlington Creative Nonfiction Writers.) Orrin has written for The Washington Times, The Washington Post, NewsNow network, Patch, Northern Virginia and Arlington magazines and has been continuously published in some three dozen publications since October of 2010. This interview was conducted by email in February 2020.
1. Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
I'm from Arlington [Virginia] and currently live here now. I'm not thrilled about living in the same town I grew up in at the moment but it does help with connections and sources.
What I do for a living is pretty in flux. I have a bizarre resume. I basically hustle with my writing and hustle to make money however I can which could involve small jobs, applying for larger jobs, trying to land clients, or whatever. In the past two years, I worked concessions for a circus, tried farmer's market stalls, worked for 3 and a half months with the US Census, was in serious consideration for an energy lobbying firm, did some materials writing for a start-up, wrote biographies and marketing materials for a real-estate firm, and worked seasonably for Honey-Baked Ham. I also am certified by the National Archives as an Independent Researcher for Hire. There was roughly a six-month period in 2017 and 2018 when I was entirely self-sufficient on research contracts and that was a pleasant existence.
But I "write for my supper" as the phrase goes and I try not to romanticize it or run away from it. I wake up in the morning and try to assess what the best opportunities are for me, I apply for jobs, I apply for contracts, and a lot of times, it makes sense for me to write an article.
2. How and when did you get into freelance writing?
When I was 17, I applied for a job at Courthouse Plaza and while waiting for my interview I went to the County Board meeting next door. You could say that the curiosity about experiences around me that drives me as a journalist is the same thing that led me to that county board meeting. Sitting next to me was a reporter and as a high school junior needing to stand out in an academically competitive high school I asked him if he had [an] internship. I worked that Summer for him.
I went to two colleges. At the first college, I had two or three invaluable courses on journalism that gave me a base in what journalism is but it was a very small department and the head of the department and I didn't see eye-to-eye. When I transferred, it was a very difficult period in my life and I felt the need to reinvent myself. I couldn't major in journalism without having to cancel out enough of my credits that I wouldn't have graduated on time so I declared a minor in film studies which really gave me a lot of joy. I also found my way into the school newspaper (something I didn't do at the first college for the most part) because I was a cross-country and track runner in high school and a little of college and was wondering why they didn't cover the newspaper. They e-mailed me back and said no one knows how to cover that sport and I could write an article if I wanted. I gave it a shot and they ended up surprised that I knew the style and wasn't in the journalism department so they invited me in and asked me to continue.
After college, I tried writing about film and writing conventional journalism but I mostly failed at first. I was really bad at deadlines and overcoming writer's block. I went to graduate school instead desiring a real job in Washington where you wear one of those security badges and dress up like an adult. After a couple of those and graduate school, I realized that status wasn't all it was cracked up to be and besides no one hired me anyway when I graduated in 2010. I asked the first guy to hire me in high school for a recommendation but he said he couldn't remember my work so he invited me to do an article for him. I did one and then another and somehow landed up at another newspaper across town (Connection Newspapers) in their newsroom eventually. I generally count the start of my reporting career as October of 2010. I've had bylines in roughly three dozen publications professionally since then.
3. Which do you prefer to write for, newspapers, magazines, blogs, or something else? Do you have a particular favorite publication to write for?
It doesn't matter to me as long as they have a good business model. In the past year, two papers I've been a part of and one I was about to write for went out of existence, so I'd like to latch onto things with sustainable models. Then you don't have to feel guilty about taking money from them if they're going downhill. And you can generally tell. For example, in 2011 pretty early into my reporting career as my work at the Connection was unsustainable, AOL invested a bunch of money into something called Patch but they offered so many opportunities to list events and such it seemed obvious that they wouldn't last long.
I generally like publications that are bold enough to ask people to pay or ask for donations because news isn't free and this is one of the most underpaid and stressful occupations. It's a high price to do what you love and it's also not so far from being a fixable problem. When I wrote for sites where you get paid per click, it would generally be a third of a cent per click so if you paid a penny for my article, you would triple my earnings. We're a society that's not incapable of paying money because you appreciate the value of a service (i.e. waiters and cab drivers) and some of us aren't just carrying your breakfast from the kitchen to your table but are literally carrying reports from a war zone to you.
As I've written professionally for three dozen publications there are so many to name and I'll even give it up for a few of the publications on which things didn't go well. I briefly wrote for TV Fanatic and wish that could have lasted longer but I really like what that site does in terms of TV coverage. ArlNow has a great business model and I've been lucky on occasions when they have a freelance budget to contribute stories. I liked TopTenz because it [has] a pretty efficient process of getting stuff on. Connection Newspapers (which is struggling financially, I believe, so please help them) was great at pursuing human interest stories rather than dry news and they really collected the best of all their freelancers’ ideas when I was there. [The] Falls Church News Press really has its finger on the community and generally has some interesting editorials and other features. One could say that Falls Church is better defined because of that paper which is what a good community newspaper should do.
Also a good editor is key.
4. How many articles do you get published per year, on average?
This fluctuates a lot. There was a one-year period from May of 2018 to May of 2019 where I wrote either 43 or 46 a year for about 11 publications and that was probably somewhere towards the high end. The last four months of 2019 were actually quite bad and I was very strongly considering shifting before things started turning around a couple weeks ago. What helps is reading the market. About three weeks ago, some pieces got rejected and I asked the editor why. He said that he gets 100 submissions a week and can only accept three. That was really useful information so I can assess whether the going's too tough to think this is a good path to make money.
For me, I chase pay and often pay per hour. I'm not willing to sacrifice for a prestigious byline at this point because I already have some respectable publications to my name and another one's not gonna make a difference. I also think continuity is highly important because I want to say on LinkedIn or wherever that I'm still active at this or that publication.
There are a few other factors: I once interviewed Roger Moore's stepson (not to name-drop) because he was floating around the idea of looking for a ghost writer and I wanted to get that gig, I once took an article that didn't pay much about a guy who claimed to own the largest sheet music collection in the state and I play the piano only through sheet music (as opposed to playing by ear), I do think it can be great to go to a nice event, I might have already written on the topic which means I can write it more efficiently and things of that nature.
5. Are you a member of any freelancing or journalism groups or professional associations? If so, can you talk a little bit about them—how have they been helpful?
A humongous thing that keeps me going is my support circle of other journalists and writers. Part of it is that the question "what is journalism" and stuff like that has changed a lot over the years, and it's this bizarre and kind of special profession where we all have these wild and awesome experiences, so I want to hear from others what they think. I like having people to bounce things off of and exchange tips with and I generally have something to offer them too. I generally am most likely to bond with someone if they're actively publishing because they're currently experiencing what I'm experiencing. Also because there's some statistic that 80% of people think they have a book in them and have some sort of aspiration, so there are tons of people who say "I write" but they're not actually doing it.
I was a member of the National Press Club but there are a lot of ways to make contacts. I have a very good friend I made from covering the National Spelling Bee and I went on a ski trip with another reporter. And then there's the group where we found each other and that's a lot for me.
One other thing: I have also come to learn something recently about seeking out people and I've evolved with this. In my very early days of wanting to break into the TV market (more specifically writing about TV) I tried to find the people who were publishing at this site I admired so much that I assumed that if you published there, your life was made. Some responded, some didn't and I made a couple good friends through this. But a number of them just made it look easy and sometimes you can be attracted to that small sample of people who through a great pedigree (say Georgetown, Columbia or Northwestern), connections, a little bit of luck, or just being brilliant, are sailing through. They might give you unrealistic expectations about what to expect. I think being in a professional organization like the NPC [National Press Club] also gave me an illusionary take on what the profession was like since they were screening only people who met a very high standard. It's more useful to about their struggles and it's not too hard to see that everyone has them because it's an industry with a lot of flux and chaos, so you're not alone in riding the currents of it. Again, the best thing to be is most aware of the state of the industry.
6. How do you get your ideas for articles?
It's the hardest thing to explain and the question I get asked the most [often]. After more and more practice, I get more attuned to article ideas. I use the saying "once I start looking for articles, it's not like a meteor would fall outside my front door; instead, once a meteor falls outside my front door, my first thought is how could I sell this story." There are a lot of interesting stories out there and if you leave your house and just go about your daily life, you'll come into contact with ideas. Not necessarily a hundred ideas per minute but that's why it's useful to bank ideas up. I have sold stories that I thought of up to eight years prior.
Outside of those flashes of inspiration, there are easier ways to come up with story ideas and they are generally of the more routine variety. You subscribe to media lists on your beat. For me, the Goethe-Institut, Ford's Theatre and Signature Theatre and other places around town are useful for the arts beat and I've actually successfully pitched stuff to Arlington-based publications based on Arlington's own PR newsletter.
The best thing if you're looking for a guaranteed story is if an editor assigns you something which comes about in a variety of circumstances--particularly a good relationship.
7. How do you decide where to pitch? Can you also talk a little about the pitching process in your experience, how it works?
I've heard different versions from different people about how to pitch whether to keep it long or short, or whether to get more flashy or be more descriptive.
I am highly cautious of not overly exerting myself and I'm unapologetic about not writing on spec (giving [away] writing that's unguaranteed) so I'm not going to pitch a whole article, but if I think an article's really got a good shot, I will generally go on the longer side because I want them to have a better idea of my article's strengths. I also link to other sources in the pitch, so they can know that I have good backing for my article idea, or see that this is something that's being buzzed about in other corners of the internet.
If I think the article is a long shot/hail mary pass, I will write it short to avoid overexerting myself. Hopefully, editors won't know the difference :(. I generally worry about whether the article is doable after it gets greenlit. It generally hasn't been a black mark on my reputation, if the article's logistics don't match up because it's usually explainable to alternative circumstances. I wouldn't let it happen more than once and I'm pretty hell-bent on making it work if possible.
8. What do you look for in an editor?
I love it when an editor gives me money, lol. No, but seriously, the editors are the boss, I get that. However, it's a field without job security so you want an editor who can let you know clearly how you are doing. You never know when or if they'll just drop you for [no] reason and why. Editors are very busy and they [have] great stresses in their job. The newspaper industry isn't kind to anyone so it's helpful to remember that. That said an editor is going to have SOME communication with you and clear and fluid communication is good. The better idea they have of what they want and communicating that helps you do well. Beyond that, if they can make your work look better, I'm happy with it.
9. Can you talk a little about other forms or media you've worked in or are interested in working in? Fiction? Drama? Graphic novels? Book-length nonfiction? Audio or video?
Well, obviously, because this is a challenging field to stay stable in, I'm looking to pivot my skill set in sensible ways. Much of my writing is human interest so I've been hired to write biographies of business owners and copy for websites.
Surprisingly, I'm interested lately in writing crossword puzzles because that's a very stable field and I'm good with words. There's a whole subculture out there and I'm involved in it primarily for the financial opportunities.
I also am looking into teaching about journalism or film. I created a Youtube channel recently to potentially pivot in any broadcast journalism markets and simply to be creative.
I have no interest in writing fiction. That's a totally different skill set. I write about movies so often that people do often wonder if I should write a screen-play. I have tried my hand at some humor articles and a couple of those have been in short-skit form. I used to say to myself that I don't want to make movies on principle because it is a legitimate to be a film historian/film critic, but lately i decided not to limit myself like that. There is a famous 48-hour film festival and I think it could be fun and educational to be involved with some short films in whatever capacity even if it's just a line producer.
Bottom line is this: I have the joy of being creative for a living so I don't have the luxury of devoting to my time to being artistic with a capital A to an extent, but the upside is I don't spend 8 hours a day at a job that drains all my energy out of me. It would be foolish for me to pursue pursuits that aren't cost-effective like say spending all day painting or playing the piano when I know those aren't things I can make money off. So for the most part, I do believe that rules out book-writing unless I want to spend a great many months being poor. However, it's possible that I can package material already written into a book.
10. You manage a blog, The Sophomore Critic. Can you talk a bit about the blog and what gets written for it?
I started the blog after I graduated from college with a film minor to try to be a film critic. We now know that those positions aren't the best paying or as plentiful. As mentioned, I can't spend excessive time on luxuries, so I don't write [as] often.
The point of the blog is very specific: a) professional samples to show people about film writing or a specific series, b) I might have some material that I pitched that's unusable so it gets put there, c) occasionally, I do just enjoy writing something film or tv-related so much that I'll break the "don't indulge" rule.
For me, it's largely about not over-exerting myself because there are so many hours in the day. That's partially why I created the YouTube channel as well. I can express my view on the movies I've seen really quickly and just slap that on the blog without stretching my writing muscles (that often get over-exerted).
One other reason i do my blog is that it has a donation button and on very rare occasions someone donates and I invite people to do it. A small donation could make a big difference.