Ask A Pro
Alice Demetrius Stock
Examples of Work
America, You're Beautiful
Yo, Ho, Ho and a String of Rosary Beads
Men -- They're All Alike (Thank Heavens)
A Mother's Garden Forever in Lilac
Alice Demetrius Stock
alice demetrius stock
Alice Demetrius Stock
Why did you become a newspaper writer?
I never imagined or planned to write for a newspaper, though I knew I was a writer when I was very young -- I was not surprised when I won a city-wide writing contest two years in a row in junior high and I wrote for my high school yearbook, but I thought I'd be writing short stories or novels when I "grew up."
I came to the Post-Gazette as a librarian and was surprised when my supervisor asked me if I'd like try my hand writing book reviews (with the understanding I wouldn't be paid any money, but could keep the book). Soon after that, I suggested a story idea to the feature editor and she accepted it. I dropped the book reviews and began writing features as a paid free-lancer.
A senior editor noticed my feature pieces and byline and asked me one day in the company elevator if I'd ever thought of contributing to the Post-Gazette's Saturday Diary. Saturday Diaries are unpaid personal essays on the editorial pages, written only by editors and staff writers. I told him I thought I could do that and turned in two pieces, suggesting he choose the one he liked better. He took them both.
Editors from community and religious magazines who read my Diaries and liked my writing style, asked me to write for their publications ... for a good price. I work on those stories at home on my PC.
My food pieces led a P-G suburban editor to ask me to do weekly dining columns for both east and north zones (geographic editions of the newspaper) in which I interviewed mom & pop restaurant owners, by phone, and told their stories.
In addition, since I like history, I took to helping compile the Almanac (what happened on a certain day in years past) from microfilm, and helped write 8-inch pieces for the Let's Talk About... children's section which answered questions young readers sent to the Post-Gazette: "Was there really a Betsy Ross? How does a mirror work? Why is the sky blue?"
A couple of years ago, I suggested a monthly Vintage Cookbooks column based on my interest in culinary history and my personal collection of (a few) rare and (many) vintage cookbooks.
I've been a paid freelancer for the Post-Gazette for about 15 years contributing many magazine, food, science and health and fitness pieces; every area of the paper, in fact, except business and sports, sections in which I have no interest or expertise.
So, I came to newspaper writing by an unconventional path because I took an opportunity presented to me and ran with it. If I hadn't taken that first no-pay book review assignment, I probably wouldn't be published today.
Please describe your current job at the Post-Gazette
I'm a news assistant on the City Desk. It's a clerical job: gathering and distributing the daily news budget, answering phones and fielding questions, taking dictation from stringers and reporters in the field, distributing faxes, writing briefs and compiling lists. News assistants help the newsroom run smoothly giving reporters and editors room to do their jobs more efficiently. On my own time, I free-lance for the Post-Gazette as a feature writer and cookbook columnist (once a month), compile the Almanac (every third week) and occasionally write personal essays for our Saturday Diary section on the editorial pages.
What are some of the key things you've learned about writing for a newspaper?
I've learned that far from being restrictive, deadlines and word counts can be a writer's best friends. Deadlines keep me focused and word or line-counts have forced me to tighten my writing style, which I like. When the piece is restricted to exactly 17.5 inches, for example, I'm forced to choose my words carefully, to sacrifice words or ideas that get in the way and to utilize every writing technique I know to get my points across.
Tight writing has another benefit. If every phrase, word and punctuation mark is chosen to be absolutely necessary to the reading of the piece, editors have a hard time cutting words out or moving paragraphs around. I start carving my story out with a chain saw, finish with a nail file and put the paragraphs together as if I were cementing bricks. If you follow the editor's request for a certain length and don't give them room to "meddle," editors leave your piece in peace instead of "in pieces."
Sometimes reporters can be perceived as hard-nosed and detached. How do you show compassion to grieving families but still get your job done?
Like the doctors and nurses in the TV program "MASH," reporters often need to pull back and detach themselves so they can be objective about the sometimes difficult or sensitive job. Asking tough, brash questions doesn't mean the reporter or interviewer isn't human; he or she is just putting personal feelings aside for the moment; like a surgeon who can't afford to faint at the sight of blood.
Showing compassion means being honestly sympathetic and empathetic while you're asking hard questions. It's saying, sincerely, to the people you're interviewing, those things you'd want them to say to you, if the situation were reversed. Letting the people you're interviewing know that you understand their situation, whatever it is, makes them more apt to try and understand your situation -- that you need to get the story, but you still care about what's happened to them.
Has compiling a death list changed the way you look at life and the things that are important to you?
The obvious answer is yes. I can't help but appreciate life more when I'm reminded, almost daily, that life is often cut short by accident or illness. The not-so-obvious answer is that it's not just what we write, but everything we read that makes subtle changes in the way we live our lives and what we do with the time we have here. A Chinese proverb says: "Those who do not read are no better off than those who can not read." The same is true of writing. Writers have a wonderful opportunity to provide readers with the information they need to search for the truth; to speak out for what's right; to defend freedom; to protect all that's beautiful; to tear apart what's wrongly together and to bring together what's wrongly apart.
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
Writing, writing, writing ... whether I'm still working or retired; whether it's accepted or rejected; whether I'm being paid for it or not. Writers write because they have a need to record the details of what they see happening around them and to express their thoughts, feelings and, sometimes, opinions about those people and events.
Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?
Take every writing opportunity that presents itself. If you can't find one; make one.
If, for instance, you can't get a paying position right away, write for a smaller publication, even if it means you aren't getting paid. I've seen editors made from people whose work became known from articles and columns in free-to-the-public "city papers" and community magazines.
Again, if you can't get an internship right away, volunteer to assist in a newsroom just for the experience. Those who are perceived by others to be doing a good job -- faithfully completing their assignments, no matter how small; seeing what needs to be done and doing it without being asked -- those are the people who are often asked to fill an empty writing or photography position when one opens up.
Do you have any tips on doing interviews?
Several things come to mind that have been useful to me over the years. First, I research my subject thoroughly before the interview. It helps me to ask more cogent questions and contacts who feel appreciated tell you more. Before the interview begins, I let my contacts know I'll call them before I turn the story in, to check facts and to give them a last chance to add or subtract to their direct quotes. I don't relinquish editorial control by reading the whole story to them, just the words they gave me, but they are generally grateful for the courtesy and more relaxed about talking to me during the interview.
If I'm doing a long interview and the material is complicated, I ask my contact if I can record the session. That way, I don't have to keep stopping them so I can catch up on my writing. The only time I stop them is to get the correct spelling of a proper name. With the recorder going, I can look my contact in the eye, smile and nod encouragement that they're expressing themselves well. I don't transcribe the whole tape; I listen to it, taking out the material I need right into the computer.
I also like phone interviews. I use a headset to save my neck and I type fast enough to get most of what the contact is saying again right into the computer, which gives me a great start on the piece.