For Scratch Magazine: A day at work with an investigative journalist

Erin Siegal McIntyre is an independent/freelance investigative journalist and photographer based on the United States/Mexico border in Tijuana. She works in print, online, broadcast, and radio journalism; her topics of focus include border issues, Mexico, Latin America, drugs, organized crime, immigration, veterans, and photography.We asked her to track what she does all day, and how much it costs.

The Goals:

To make $45-50,000 (before expenses and taxes) this year producing a mix of multimedia stories, investigations, and projects; some long-term watchdog investigations that are personally satisfying; and some shorter assignments taken just for profit.

To make time for a few pieces of writing that may be unpaid but allow for creativity, style, or the use of other brain muscles not regularly used in straight journalism.

The Workday:

Every day is different; some days are spent doing interviews and traveling around the city to various locations.

7–7:30 a.m.
Wake up, check email, Twitter, Facebook in bed. What’s breaking in the world, what’s trending? Has anything happened locally in Tijuana overnight, like the Army raiding an ex-Mayor’s mansion and confiscating a weapons cache? Any new drug tunnels or mass graves?

8–8:45 a.m.

Walk dogs, clear head. Remember that I’m not trying to sell daily news. I can’t afford to. Web doesn’t pay enough and neither do the newswires; the cost-benefit ratio is skewed in favor of the media corporations, not the contractor. Begin looped internal monologue/pep talk designed to convince self Work Has Meaning. Pick up the local newspapers: Frontera (daily, 4 pesos, or 30 cents), and Zeta Tijuana (weekly, 15 pesos, or around $1.50).

8:45–­9 a.m.

Hop in car, turn on the news (Noticias MVS con Carmen Aristegui), drive to office, cleverly disguised as the reception of a local storage unit facility. Once in awhile, I’ll buy coffee from the local spot (10-20 pesos, depending); otherwise, it’s a travel mug and Trader Joe’s beans from the U.S. Outside my office, I slip the guard dogs a few Milk Bones (daily, 1 bone per pit bull, 3 dogs total) to foster goodwill.

9–10:15 a.m.

In-take. Scan newspapers, taking iPhone photos of any articles I want to save (phone bill, $200/month; office rent, $200/month). Browse posts on the various listservs, professional organizations, and online groups I belong to. Tweet particularly interesting, important, or amusing links to help pull in new social media followers at my target rate of 100+/month. Scan Twitter and Facebook again for content, tips, leads. Check for news related to intercountry adoption; post links to the website for my book, Finding Fernanda.

Delete/reply to all email in attempt to keep Gmail inbox at under 50 non-archived messages. Someone from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has invited me to speak to grad students about themes related to Finding Fernanda; they don’t mention a fee. Check in about university speaking fees with my fellow Fellows from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism (all unpaid; fellowship provides database access and student research assistants based in Boston). Tell Stanford I usually receive an honorarium of $2,000-5,000. I don’t tell them this usually happens in my dreams. They do not respond.

Send note to my local intern, age 19 (paid a percentage of my own fee, depending on what stories he helps with). He can’t meet this week, and is getting flaky. Consider finding a new intern; curse fact that I purchased non-transferable student IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) membership ($25) for current intern. Make mental note to be harder on future assistants.

10:15–11:30 a.m.

Review daily schedule. Evaluate tasks left over from yesterday. Figure out priorities by deadline. Check “Money Owed” client spreadsheet; see who’s past due and re-invoice, with added late fees, if necessary. Here’s looking at you, Al Jazeera America!

Check the FOIA Project‘s new procedural or substantive Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit decision blog. Check status of my 25+ ongoing FOIA requests to various federal and state agencies. Call to follow up on a few. Squeaky wheels, grease. If necessary, check in with pro-bono lawyers about threatening government with lawsuits to obtain requested materials.

Remember I have to give a Powerpoint presentation in three weeks to a conference of women journalists; shelve until week of conference.

Try to avoid G-chats from friends who have 9-5 jobs and time to engage in such niceties. Fail.

11 a.m.–noon

Re-establish priorities for in-process pitches, projects, and stories. At the moment: two national radio stories that are pitched and green-lighted (one $650, one TBD), one national radio investigation in the pre-reporting/ negotiation stage, and two magazine pieces (one green-lighted, one ready to pitch, fee on both TBD) that need to move forward. Three mag editors have asked me for story ideas and I haven’t yet delivered any. One of the mag editors is rolling in cash. Clock = ticking. I also have two separate long-term multimedia investigations in various stages of non-completion, each involving complex arrangements between myself, other reporters in other cities, multiple broadcast outlets, outside (and often dwindling) foundation grants. And that’s just the funding, not the reporting , stalled FOIAs, and lawyers.

I’m getting hungry.

Noon–1 p.m.

General research/reporting: phone calls, arranging interviews, setting up pieces of stories, soliciting sources via email and Facebook. Glance at ongoing “Potential Story Ideas” file; contains 257 folders. Think about recent invitation to pitch a new weekly national TV series on border issues ($ to be determined), wonder if outlet will just steal my ideas. Google templates for non-disclosure agreements; outlet agrees to sign before reading pitch.

1–1:30 p.m.

Get tacos from place next door (2 for 20 pesos, or about $1.80). Re-caffeinate.

1:30–3 p.m.

Buckle down and write/re-write a set amount of words for green-lighted magazine story.

Open draft of in-process proposal for my second book, consider working on it (Cost: two months of research and reporting, unpaid, gambling that my agent in NYC will be able to sell proposed manuscript for enough money to make time investment worth it), decide my attention span has vanished, close document. Squirm. Consider learning how to use Scrivner ($0, copy supplied by generous friend).

Remember I haven’t yet sent CBS b-roll video footage of myself “being a journalist” for an upcoming show appearance, where I’m featured as a talking head. Wonder if such work is beyond the consulting fee they’re paying me ($6,000). Try to squelch thought, as there’s really no question about it: in total, I’ve worked more than they’ve paid me over the course of the last two years while the show has been in production. They claim they’re over budget and thus cannot pay me a day rate for shooting, editing, and transferring b-roll (usual video day rate: between $250 and $750).

3–3:15 p.m.

Scan list of upcoming grant and fellowship deadlines; consider pros and cons of doing a documentary film that’s been stuck in my head for months, involving an unstoppable Tijuana activist. Unable to commit, despite main character haunting me. The thought of having to fundraise a major project makes me really tired. But a certain grant deadline ($10-$25,000) is next week. Do I spend the time prepping an application, including acquiring a matching non-profit sponsor? Or do I continue to sit on the damn fence? For now, I’m frozen, fencetop.

3:30-3:45 p.m.

Check email again. Yes, Al Jazeera, you can hire me on a day rate to shoot video ($TBD) during a single day in October, even though you haven’t yet paid me for 5 days of work this past July. No,, I won’t rip off The New York Times to rewrite a story I photographed for them ($250), for you ($100-175).

3:45-5 p.m.

Leave office. Swear to self that I’ll stop reporting news and take a sabbatical to finish the book proposal soon. Head to a copy shop to view a DVD of a video deposition leaked to me (laptop disc drive is broken, too expensive and useless to replace). Head across border to San Ysidro for post office, any possible paychecks, and bank.

6 p.m.

No paychecks. End up at the local ranch having beer with Mexican cowboy friends who sometimes double as sources. They know a lot about everything, and I’m trying to hook one of Diane Sawyer’s producers on a story where their contacts could be helpful. Cowboys will open up if they’re in the right mood. They’re not. News of the day is that a certain local trainer has just killed a client’s horse. Apparently, this is the second animal killed by his training methods. A fiery Facebook page has been created to “honor the memory” of dead horse, allegedly beaten to the point of bleeding from the nostrils by said trainer, even after horse stopped breathing. Do I want to write about it? Yeah, but it’s a tangent. A trap. Who would buy that story? “Animal control asleep on the job?” I’d spend a whole day on it and get paid jack ($100? $200?). Sounds like something for We have another beer.

Next day, Fox News runs dead horse segment.


Erin Siegal McIntyre is a freelance investigative journalist based on the U.S – Mexico border in Tijuana. She’s a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, a Redux Pictures photographer, and a hustler. Buy her book here, and follow her on Twitter.

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