The alt-weekly journalist and food writer discusses his journalistic development, Triad City Beat, and what it means to strike out on your own.
What does success really mean anymore? Perhaps it’s a simplified version of “making it,” where the intersection of one’s aspirations meet financial security and a relative level of notoriety.
However, that’s seldom the end of the story for those who get to this point. What lies after the first big hurdle? What steps does one take to get here?
Eric Ginsburg, mostly known for his work with Triad City Beat and Yes! Weekly [at the time of publication, that is], has arrived to the point in his journalistic career where he can write in his own voice, with independence and integrity. But working in freelance, he has an ever-changing set of challenges.
Ginsburg contends that success is a moving target. He’s done freelance work for notable outlets such as Newsday, Munchies, Healthyish and Creative Loafing Atlanta—and also works as a digital content producer for the Center for Creative Leadership. Ginsburg’s professional trajectory is one of patience, planning and honesty about one’s goals vs. ability.
In this interview, Jordan McFadden discusses Ginsburg’s journalistic development, his hand in helping create Triad City Beat, what it means to strike out on one’s own and how those interested in journalism can get started.
[Jordan McFadden] What was it like to transition from Yes! Weekly to Triad City Beat, in terms of quitting a potentially comfortable job and taking a risk on something that doesn't yet have stability?
[Eric Ginsburg] To be honest, Yes! Weekly wasn’t a comfortable job anymore. My editor (Brian Clarey) had been fired and I’d been asked to take on half of his role with no change in pay or title. I did negotiate for a title change and for a raise, but by the time the raise was offered, I’d already decided to jump ship. The raise was also a considerably smaller percentage than I’d received as a merit raise the previous year, despite much more being asked of me.
Brian, Jordan (Green), and I worked really well together as a team. We were the entire full-time editorial department, and had worked together for about three years. I honestly didn’t see a reason to stay without them. (Jordan and I quit together.)
But also—it was challenging. As exciting as it was to start a new business and have much greater editorial control, my pay pretty quickly nosedived. It never recovered fully.
[JM] Did Brian Clarey’s departure from Yes! Weekly make it an easy decision to want to pursue something else?
[EG] Absolutely. If Brian hadn’t left Yes! Weekly, I probably would’ve spent a couple more years there. I loved working with him.
[JM] You mentioned that you wanted to cover music for the alt-weekly paper, but then expressed gratitude that you didn’t. What changed?
[EG] Again, brutal honesty? We wanted our cultural coverage to be overwhelmingly local. When I realized I’d need to write basically 45 stories a year about local music (and maybe seven about touring acts, give or take), I realized I’d dodged a bullet.
There’s plenty of incredible and delicious food in the Triad. Some of it—specifically international restaurants usually run by immigrants and refugees or their children—can compete with the flavor and taste of food in major metros. There is some really excellent music being made locally, but the idea of churning out 50 or so pieces about it in a year and then turning around and doing the same thing the following year isn’t something I want to sign up for. Props to the people who have done it for TCB—they’ve done a much better job with it than I could.
[JM] When and how did you decide it was the time to leave Triad City Beat?
[EG] There’s no precise moment. It’s more a confluence of factors. The two biggest were the need to make more money and the desire to push myself to take on new challenges. I freelanced some on top of working relentlessly at Triad City Beat, but I didn’t really have the chance to take on stories outside the Triad, try my hand at writing for bigger outlets, etc. Plus, I didn’t want to live in the Triad forever. After three years at TCB, I dropped to part-time, and when I did, I expected to leave fully within a year. (Which I did.)
[JM] What about your experience writing about food for Triad City Beat has lead you to where you are now? (Being published on Vice’s Munchies, etc.)
[EG] Everything! Brian taught me how to be a food writer. He gave me the space and the opportunity to learn, to experiment, and to fuck up. And if I didn’t have the clips or title of being TCB’s food writer, I never would’ve gotten more work writing about food for outlets like Indy Week and Winston-Salem Monthly, which later helped set me up to write for publications like Munchies, Healthyish, and Newsday.
[JM] What’s the importance of having a mentor as a journalist? What have you learned that you might not have without Jordan and Brian?
[EG] Oh god, I can’t even begin to really pay appropriate homage to these two guys. Having a mentor is critical, whether it’s a formal one like a boss or professor, or an informal one. I’ve sought out the advice of plenty of more experienced journalists—I still do that all the time. I strongly recommend it, no matter your discipline. They can also just be other people whose work you admire, even if you’re technically at the same level.
I owe Brian and Jordan a great debt. I’ll try to repay them by doing great work and fighting the good fight. And encouraging people to become sustainers of Triad City Beat. If you see Jordan, buy him a beer. Brian would prefer a pack of cigarettes. If you want to be a journalist and you live in the Triad, try to intern with them, or buy them lunch and pick their brains.
[JM] How has your experience with Triad City Beat influenced what you want to achieve with your writing, in terms of what you want to represent and/or the conversations you want to start?
[EG] If you’ve heard me say this before, I apologize, but it’s really the most apt way to put it—in a lot of ways I am TCB and it is me. We started it with our own money. Our team (which is more than the three of us, of course) created everything from the ground up. We made all the decisions, good or bad. That is to say, it can be hard to parse out how TCB has influenced me versus how Brian and Jordan did versus how I influenced it, and so on.
But one clear thing is that I know I want to do more food writing. I kinda knew that going in, but didn’t fully realize it until we were rolling there. The same can be said for booze.
I originally pursued journalism out of an interest in justice. To push back against mainstream media that did (and generally, still does) a lousy job of explaining the complexity of various issues and which frequently leaves a whole section of the political spectrum out of the conversation. That predates TCB, but my work there affirmed the importance of doing stories about corruption, injustice, government secrecy, etc.
[JM] Talk about the importance of editorial freedom as a journalist.
[EG] It’s everything. Without it, you’re basically just writing glorified ad copy, right? There are degrees of editorial freedom, of course—I don’t mean that unless you can write about exactly what you want in exactly the way you want with no edits that you’re not doing journalism, because that’s ridiculous. But if you have no say in what you cover or how you cover it, you’re producing something else.
[JM] What’s your plan now that you’ve parted ways with TCB? What are your goals over the next five years?
[EG] I think journalism changes too quickly for five-year plans. I’m still figuring out exactly what I want to do, and for right now, freelance gives me the opportunity to experiment. I like being able to try new things, work with new editors and publications, etc.
Flexibility is important in journalism. I think it’s great to set goals—and I do, but mine are shorter-term than that—but if you’re married to a specific plan or goal, I think that inflexibility could really hurt you. Being open has led to a lot of great opportunities for me, and especially given the state of journalism in 2018, being open and flexible is probably an imperative.
[JM] Has the transition prompted any notable change in your personal life?
Totally. Freelancing, at least for me here at the beginning, is pretty unpredictable. That means I don’t really have anything resembling a normal schedule yet.
[JM] What are you currently working on?
[EG] I can’t offer too many specifics, but I’ll say that I’m working on pieces for Teen Vogue and Winston-Salem Monthly, and I just finished an article for Creative Loafing Atlanta. I have a couple pitches out there, though, including one I sent yesterday, so this will probably be outdated by the time you read it.
[JM] What do you need to do your work? How important is set and setting for you, in terms of being productive?
[EG] My laptop and phone. Ideally I’d interact with people in person, but as long as I have internet, my computer, and the ability to make phone calls, I’m good. I generally work from home—coffee shops are nice as long as you can plug in, until you need to make a phone call. I like to have Spotify going in the background—key word is background, otherwise it’s distracting.
I work best in spurts, so I’ll do a couple hours on one thing and take a break, spend a bit researching another piece or generating pitch ideas, scroll through Instagram or watch a short TV episode online, then back to work. I prefer to write in the afternoons, but you can find me doing it in the mornings and evenings, too. Adequate sleep and a full stomach are crucial, though. Without either, I’m fucked.
[JM] Talk a little bit about how you manage your time with a freelance schedule.
[EG] Besides what I said above, I’ll add that the work often dictates your schedule for you. You’re on someone else’s deadline. You’re trying to accommodate the interviewee’s schedule. I have an Excel spreadsheet with all my story ideas, including columns for where I pitched something, whether it was accepted, the rate, the due date, and notes. This helps me keep track and prioritize.
I work best when it’s crunch time, but if a project is a little further out, I try to knock out interviews and research early even if I’ll end up writing it later. And I usually bump up deadlines I’m given by two days, just in case. Editors hate writers who don’t file on time (says the former editor).
[JM] Would you say that you are where you want to be right now career-wise, or do you have a few more steps to take before you achieve your career goals?
[EG] Yes. But goals are always changing. Success and happiness are moving targets rather than homes you can move into. I believe in celebrating your victories, but you can’t bask in them too long. On to the next one! And again, it’s important to be open to new opportunities, so if you ask me again in six months, my answer might be different.
[JM] You’re also a digital content producer for the Center for Creative Leadership. Discuss how this type of content differs from the journalistic pieces you’re known for, but also how you may have benefited from this type of creative endeavor.
[EG] Yep! It’s totally different, but I enjoy it, thanks in large part to my team. I work with a small group of really fantastic, dedicated, supportive, and funny people who are glad to have me there. That makes all the difference. Sort of like when Brian left Yes! Weekly—even if my role hadn’t changed, my job would’ve been immeasurably different.
The skills I honed as a journalist aid me in my role at CCL. And I’ve learned a lot there, too, especially about social media, SEO, and analytics. There are overlaps with journalism, but for the most part it’s an entirely different process and mindset. I enjoy that variety in my day—too much of one thing feels repetitive and stale.
[JM] You also graduated from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies with a focus on audio. Talk a bit about your experience gaining this certification and how you’ve benefited from it.
[EG] I highly recommend the Center for Documentary Studies. You can take classes there for pretty cheap, and you don’t need any prerequisites or application or anything. I started out just taking courses that interested me on weekends. I loved my classes at CDS.
I already had some background in audio, but I wanted to deepen my skills. While I don’t have too many tangible things I can point to and say, “This is thanks to CDS,” because I’m not doing much with audio right now, I’m really grateful that I had a chance to learn new storytelling techniques. I did get some paid audio work a couple months ago, and CDS is the reason. CDS also affirmed for me that I’d enjoy working in a public radio setting someday.
[JM] What would you say is the importance of writers looking into certifications in addition to their degrees or current experience? What are the benefits?
[EG] Well, it really depends what you want to do. But I think the important thing is to always try to be growing, to be learning new things, to push yourself. Otherwise you’re dead in the water. The experience of actually writing for a publication is more important than anything, and I wouldn’t prioritize school or a certification or something over that.
There are classes you can take from Poynter, Mediabistro, and others that are cheap or free. I’ve participated in webinars from ProPublica’s Documenting Hate team, you can buy a $29 class on “how to pitch” from Mediabistro, and Poynter has a whole collection of webinars. Internships and fellowships can also be good opportunities.
[JM] For many writers (freelance, journalists, etc.), taking a risky opportunity can be overwhelming. Talk about what you went through with jumping into Triad City Beat along with making your recent decision to depart from it.
[EG] I think if you know what you want and know what you’re willing to sacrifice to get it, this isn’t actually that hard. Sure, it might take you a while to come to a decision on it, but once you know, jumping has been pretty easy for me. Talk it out with friends, mentors, and colleagues. I’ve been lucky to have had such strong and open relationships with Brian and Jordan that these conversations and decisions have been easier than they might’ve been otherwise.
You need to do what’s best for you. Don’t get too hung up on how somebody might react. Worrying about being broke is legitimate—set reasonable expectations for yourself. Don’t think you can freelance full-time unless you’ve been doing this for a really long time. Have a part-time job lined up.
Also, think about the risks of not jumping. What if you stay in a position that’s wrong for you for too long? You can mess up your career by trying to play it safe, stagnating, or being too self-satisfied. I’m not saying, “Hey everyone, go quit your jobs!” But if you know in your heart that it’s time to leave, staying will probably be worse for you and your employer in all regards. What if you hate your job, stop performing well, and get fired? That’s worse than quitting to pursue a new opportunity.
But I would say to think really carefully about investing a bunch of your savings in something (like a business) if you’ve never done it before, lack a strong safety net, or are at all hesitant about it.
[JM] To you, what does it mean to step into the unknown as a journalist?
[EG] Everything new is an unknown, really. A new job, a story about something you haven’t covered before, someone you’ve never interviewed, the future of your industry. Do your homework, try to roll with the punches, and ask as many questions as you reasonably can. Being a journalist is awesome because it’s basically a license to learn new shit constantly and ask a zillion questions. I don’t have to know everything—I just have to go try and figure it out.
[JM] What advice do you have for other writers who want to follow the same career path but are held back by the possibilities of failure or financial struggles?
[EG] If it’s a new venture or it’s freelancing, it is hands down going to involve financial struggles. Consider setting a threshold for yourself and having a back-up plan. For example—if you’ve got $2,000 saved up that you’re willing to put towards a plan, figure that out, try to budget it, and when you’re close to depleting it, activate your back-up plan.
Do not go into debt for this profession. Journalism can’t love you back.
Also, I know it might look like I’ve taken some big risks, but remember that before I left Yes! Weekly, I worked there for three years. I worked at TCB for four. It’s not like I’ve bounced around a lot, or lacked considerable experience before each decision. Be deliberate. Try to be humble. Admit to yourself what you don’t know. Ask your mentors. Do not try to skip from A to Z.
When I was just starting out, I didn’t realize how bad I was, or how much separated me from the pros. I try to keep that in mind, reminding myself that there’s still a lot that differentiates me from the real pros. You need to believe in yourself, but you also need to strike a balance. If you’re new at this, don’t think you can do what I’m doing. Put in your time. Hone your craft. But if you have the experience and you’re taking a calculated risk that you’ve weighed carefully and you have some savings and a back-up plan, stop doubting yourself and jump already!
[JM] For writers who are just starting out, what outlets do you recommend as starting points to beef up their portfolios?
[EG] Great question. It totally depends on your experience level, location, and what you want to write about. Start at the bottom and work your way up. For me that looked like college newspaper, guest op-eds, local alternative weekly, local magazines, statewide magazine, alternative weeklies in other cities in my state, and then regional and national publications covering the same beat I’ve been on.
I haven’t written for AMPLIFIER, but I’ve written for a lot of similar publications. Some of them couldn’t pay me, but I did it for the experience. The key is to write pieces that you’re proud of, that you can go show to an editor where you want to work/freelance and say, “This is what I can do.”
Early on, get as much experience as you can, anywhere you can. It also really helps to have written for multiple outlets—there are a bunch that I’ve only written for one time, but I get to name-check them forever.
Letters to the editor are a great place to get your feet wet. So are independent outlets like blogs, zines, college newspapers, etc. Start at the bottom, just keep climbing, and don’t be afraid of being told no. Not trying is more of a failure than rejection.