" rel="attachment wp-att-1798Mike AlboPerformer, novelist, and freelance writer Mike Albo used to pen the Critical Shopper column for The New York Times. But Albo lost that gig in 2009 when an online scandal broke about his attendance at a press junket in … "/>

Former Times Contributor Mike Albo on Junkets, Future of Journalism

Mike AlboPerformer, novelist, and freelance writer Mike Albo used to pen the Critical Shopper column for The New York Times. But Albo lost that gig in 2009 when an online scandal broke about his attendance at a press junket in Jamaica.

Earlier this year, Albo published his side of the story as a Kindle Single called The Junket. Ebyline talked to Albo about the challenges of freelancing, opportunities in digital publishing, and more.

How did you get involved with Kindle Singles? Could you tell us about your experiences with that?

My pal and frequent collaborator, the writer Virginia Heffernan, suggested I contact the editor of the section, David Blum. I do anything she tells me to, basically. Virginia is and always has been one of the 5 journalists in the world who dare to be optimistic about the internet. Rather than taking the easy route and being a doomsayer, she chooses to the more difficult path of being forward-thinking. Like her, I also believe writing and writers can have a healthy digi-existence, we just have to not only think outside the box, but help change or maybe crush that box and put it in the recycling bin. I emailed Mr. Blum, and then we talked on the phone and had a nice convo. I was originally trying to pitch him my new short Underminer (the character I perform which Virginia and I turned into a novel in 2005), but then I described The Junket, and he immediately said he wanted to read it…

The JunketAlthough it’s technically fiction, The Junket has a strong autobiographical component. Did you consider taking more creative liberties or was it important that you stayed true to  the story?
Originally I planned on it being even more fictional. But I definitely knew I never wanted to write a non-fiction “memoir” of my experience. If I did that it would have had to be totally dry and dogmatic and full of boring blow by blows and lots of fact-fortified arguments like “in 1973, the newspaper created a policy that blah blah blah.” This version gives the story a swiftness, and also lets me conceal/redact some people I didn’t want to bring fully into the spotlight. I just wanted to tell an emotional story, about what it is really like to be a working writer in America in the ’10s. The sacrifices and struggles and pendulous swings between faith and resignation and weird worry that you should hang it up because you are crazy and delusional for ever thinking that this is your ‘calling’ or even believing in a ‘calling’ in the first place.

The Junket exposes some ironies about the publishing world, for instance, when freelancers are assigned to cover luxury products they could never afford or when editors who accept freebies chastise freelancers for doing the same. Do you think there’s a way for the industry to clean up its act? Can freelancers balance journalistic ethics with the economic realities of the business?
I do. I think the perk-making and junketry can all be up front. Like “so I got a free trip to Panama to this hotel. This is what I like about it. If you are paying attention, and if the editor of this piece doesn’t suck out all the life from my story, you may be able to read between the lines and understand how I really feel. My unexpurgated impressions will appear in a novel or story or blog someday.”

As long as we live in a consumer culture dependent on an advertising model for dollars, there will be this kind of writing. If you are a freelance writer, you know sometimes you have to do it to make a buck, and have to write stuff that makes money. Anyone you meet who scoffs at this is either lying or they are so rich and connected they dont even realize how much they thrive on the system.

But I think its important to have your own outlet, so you will not feel compromised. I write my own work and perform, and give myself places to get out what I want to say.

But also I don’t know about you but I can tell when someone is blowing bubbles in their prose. False praise and the puff pieces are pretty easy to detect. I guess in the end I have this trust in the evocative way words can expose truth even when people are trying to obfuscate it. Look closely and it’s all right there in print.

Lifestyle journalism is so much a reflection of our time and the ever-widening division forming between rich and poor…”I’m wearing Bottega while eating artisinal cupcakes on a found mahogany table in a sustainable hydropowered solar townhouse designed by a super famous belgian starchitect!”

Any closing remarks?
This whole ordeal only sharpened my knives, so to speak. I guess I figured out that I am not hanging it up. And if you say you are a writer to yourself, you shouldn’t hang it up, either.