Ann Friedman was executive editor of GOOD until last summer, when GOOD’s cofounders famously laid off the site’s editorial staff. Friedman and several other former GOOD staffers launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Tomorrow, a collaborative journalism project to create a single-issue magazine.
With editing stints at GOOD and The American Prospect behind her, Friedman is now embracing the freelance life. She writes weekly columns for New York Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, curates the Tumblr blog Lady Journos, and posts hilarious animated GIFs on her Tumblr blog #realtalk from your editor (a companion to her CJR column). She also delivered the closing keynote (cleverly illustrated with GIFs) at the Power of Narrative Conference in April.
Ebyline recently caught up with Friedman to find out how she jumped into freelancing, why she loves GIFs, and what she learned from cofounding Tomorrow magazine. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Had you freelanced before the layoffs at GOOD?
Before I got myself suddenly unemployed, I described myself as an indoor cat. I only worked in staff positions, and I’d mainly made my living as an editor. Not only had I only had staff jobs, but I had never really tested my ability to produce the volume of writing it requires to be a freelance writer. That was not the plan.
It actually was a great asset to me that I was an editor first. I had an innate sense of how to make editors happy and—let’s be real—editors are your employers when you’re a freelance writer. They’re the ones who greenlight the things that you want to do and they’re your internal advocate when your check isn’t coming. Editors are your most important relationship when you’re a freelance writer.
What are some of the strategies that make editors happy?
Something that would always drive me nuts is when writers would get indignant about my response time or about the fact that I was juggling so many different things. It seemed like there were some writers that didn’t seem to grasp how many demands on my time there were. It’s almost like editors are standing in a room full of screaming children running in a million different directions.
I always try to be respectful that there are many demands on an editor’s time and understand that I’m never going to be priority number one. I try to think of my editor as my ally. A lot of it goes back to having a great respect for the craft of editing and being willing to collaborate with editors.
You’ve become known for animated GIFs. Do you think that they’re a fad? Or are they here to stay?
The GIF is just another tool among many, many tools that journalists have to help punctuate their work and promote their work. I use them as a way to unite the high- and lowbrow. A lot of my friends who are photographers are starting to make great photographic work with GIFs. You can do a lot of different things with it. Not everything is the joking, goofball GIFs that I embed in my CJR column as a way of lightening up what would otherwise be a pretty heavy topic.
What were some of the lessons from working on Tomorrow?
One lesson was community is powerful. It was an amazing community that supported us by funding us on Kickstarter and promoting our work after Tomorrow came out. I don’t think Tomorrow would have come about if we hadn’t cultivated a group of readers around the work that we created prior. People love the idea of being part of what we were about with Tomorrow. We paid everyone something. It wasn’t fair market rate, but everyone involved with the project got paid which is something we’re really proud of. People didn’t do it for the money. Most just wanted to be involved with the project.
If I had it to do over, I would have loved to work with someone in a publisher role. All of us are journalists. We lived on the editorial side. It’s pretty hard to put your business brain on and your editorial brain on at the same time. So if we had it to do over, I would have tried to enlist help from someone to handle our business stuff from the outside.
A new crop of journalism grads is about to enter the workforce. What’s your advice for them?
Find some way to do the thing you’re excited about. Sometimes that means picking a crappy day job that doesn’t meet all of your journalistic goals. Take those jobs, even non-journalism jobs, and pay your bills. Then use the huge amount of resources available digitally to create a one-off Tumblr or collaborate with a group of people on a reporting project.
There’s a feeling among a lot of J-school students that they feel stuck in a city regional reporting job that’s not that fulfilling. I actually think there’s never been a time in journalism when it’s been more possible to do this other thing on the side. I don’t think that journalism accurately prepares journalists to be entrepreneurs in the way that most of them are going to have to be if they want to be successful.
Photo by Stephanie Gonot