So You Want to Be a Journalist?

Someone wrote to me asking for advice on how to become an investigative journalist. I really don't have any, so instead I told him the story of how it happened and I hope it helps him somehow. Here it is.
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Someone wrote to me asking for advice on how to become an investigative journalist. I really don't have any, so instead I told him the story of how it happened and I hope it helps him somehow. Here it is:

Dear X: I'm not sure what to tell you here. That's because I didn't start out as an investigative reporter. I started out writing plays, poetry and finally short stories. I got a book called the Writer's Market (I think) about 30 years ago and went through the listings of journals and such to figure out who might print my stories. I used to send out five every week. They were often the same story, just photocopied and sent out. And the first year, I averaged about one sale for every 50 stories I sent out. And that sale was usually for either nothing or $25.

The second year I sold about two for every 50 stories I sent out.

Then I had a breakthrough: I was normally taking about a month to write a story. Way too long. So I made a deal with myself: I was going to write one story a day for 30 days, and that meant write it completely so that I could send it out at the end of the week with the other stories I'd written that week.

It was crazy impossible but I did it: At the end of the month I had 12 short stories, three or four opinion pieces and a 160-page novella. Amazing. And armed with that supply I was able to start getting sales about one out of every 10 places I sent stories to. And one of those places, a non-paying music weekly paper in the Village in New York, had an editor who called me to ask me to write him a non-fiction piece. He'd already printed four or five of my stories and wanted to try me at non-fiction. So I did. And it was okay.

About a year later, I was headed down to the Amazon for the first time and I told him I'd write a report every week on what happened that week. Which I did. I spent a lot of time on those reports.

Unfortunately, I discovered when I got home that he hadn't printed them. All of the hand-written stories were in my apartment mailbox. Seems he'd gone out of business while I was away.

But I looked at those stories and thought they were good. So I went to the Writer's Market and looked at the non-fiction category of magazines and papers. And then I started sending those stories out. And damn if High Times didn't buy one, then a magazine called Overseas Living bought one, and then Walking Magazine bought one and someone else bought one. Of the seven pieces, I think I sold 4 or 5. Better yet, I earned about $1,700 from those sales, which pretty much paid for the whole trip.

So I decided to concentrate on non-fiction -- since it apparently paid so much better. And High Times asked me to do another story on the Amazon, which I did, and then another. And then finally the bosses called me into their offices one day and asked if I could do an investigative piece. I said I'd never done one but that I would try.

They said they wanted me to get an interview with Dave Foreman, the head of a group called Earth First!, a great environmental action group. The problem was that the FBI had put the key members of Earth First! on their most wanted list and so nobody knew where to find them or how to get in touch with them.

So there I was being asked to find this guy whom the FBI couldn't find. Sure.

I thought about it for maybe a week. How the hell could I find Foreman? I read anything I could about him from before he was on the list and then got this: He came from either Montana or Wyoming, or at least had lived in those places. And he looked big. So I suddenly got the idea that he probably played high school football, since most big kids in the Midwest do, and I thought I might call all the schools in those states to find out if he had ever gone there. That didn't go anywhere because schools wouldn't give me the information. So I thought about it again and it hit me that maybe he liked to have a beer and watch football...

So I decided to call every bar in both states to see if I could find him. I picked Wyoming first and I don't know why. I called information -- this was long before computers -- and asked the telephone operator for the names and phone numbers of the first three bars listed in alphabetical order in Wyoming. I would have asked for more but three was the limit per call. So I called information again and got three more numbers, then again, and again until I had some two hundred or so drinking joints in Wyoming. Took about two weeks to collect that information.

Then I began making calls, in alphabetical order. At each I would say: "Hello, this is Peter Gorman, and I'm with High Times magazine. I'm trying to reach Dave Foreman of Earth First! and if you know him can I give you my number for him to call me?" Or something like that. Of course no one admitted knowing him. That went on for a couple of weeks.

And then, while I was working somewhere in the middle of my list, I got a call one day. "Hello, is this Peter Gorman?"



That happened again the next day. And then the next day and maybe two more times until one day when I said "Yes," the person at the other end said: "This is Dave Foreman. You want to talk with me?"

And I did and I got the interview and right then, I knew I was going to try to be an investigative journalist. All it took was coming up with a way to get information that no one had thought of. Imagine how I felt knowing that the FBI had Foreman on their most wanted list and couldn't find him and here I was in my little apartment in New York City and I got to him. Incredible feeling.

After that, I took every hard story -- and tried to come up with some of my own -- that I could get my hands on for High Times. And then other magazines started calling me, sometimes for regular stories, sometimes for investigative pieces.

So what advice can I give you on becoming an investigative journalist? None, really. Just keep your eyes open, keep trying to sell stories somewhere, anywhere, and sooner or later an editor will call you and you go from there and see where it leads. And if you can get in with a weekly alternative paper -- I'm with the Fort Worth Weekly here in Texas -- there is plenty of investigative stuff to work on. How to do that? Just keep trying, even when you're only selling one story out of 50. The key is to keep sending material out. I was sending out 250 pieces a year for four or five years before enough editors knew me that I didn't have to do that anymore.

I hope that helps.

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