Words Of Wisdom From the Guy Who Didn't Hire Me

Editor's note: This story is part of a community-oriented, weekly article series in which Community Manager Caira Conner discusses how to get the most out of PolicyMic.

Fact: When I was 22 years old, I wanted to get paid to write. I pinned all my hopes and dreams on this aspiration. To help make this happen, I applied for a Voice Media Group Fellowship, and then pinned all those hopes and dreams on what I hoped would be an acceptance letter.

I didn't get one. I was devastated. The guy who turned down my application, Andy Van De Voorde, said that though my clips hadn't wowed him, I shouldn't give up.

He was right.

Who is Andy Van De Voorde? He's the executive associate editor for Voice Media Group, which owns and operates eleven national publications, including the Village Voice, the Dallas Observer, and LA Weekly, to name a few. He's still hard at work doling out encouragement and good advice to young journalists, and joins PolicyMic to share insight on how talented millennials can use our online platform to their advantage.

Key advice: Learn to constructively channel your reactions to injustice, prepare to back up your opinions with hard evidence, and don't be afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Oh yeah, and never give up.

About Andy: When he's not on the clock, he loves reading narrative non-fiction, experimenting with the mixing of new cocktails, hanging out with his wife —who's the coolest person he knows— and betting on horses. As often as possible, Andy likes to visit New Orleans and New York City, because his son and daughter live there. Plus, they're also fabulous places to drink whiskey, eat good food, and bet on the ponies.

Caira Conner (CC): You oversee the Voice Media Group fellowship program. What's your favorite part of your job?

Andy Van De Voorde (AV): In addition to the fellowship program, my duties include the recruiting and hiring of staff writers, music editors and various other talented individuals, and handling various special projects for the company. As for the favorite part of my job, it's sitting down with writers and editors, often over cocktails, and talking about stories. I also have very much enjoyed watching a large number of young writers develop over the years.

CC: We argue that one of the biggest advantages to writing for PolicyMic is that having a portfolio of published work leads to other professional opportunities. PolicyMic positions itself as a springboard. Would you agree that our pundits can use it to get ahead? 

AV: I think it's absolutely an advantage for a young writer to get their work published on a forum like PolicyMic. Journalism has always been a profession where an ability to write and report is more important than where you went to college, or even whether you went to college at all. We like to think of VMG as a meritocracy, and I would imagine that PolicyMic has a similar attitude—i.e., write it, don't talk it. Show me what you can do, and if I like it, I'll ask you to do more. In terms of leveraging those sorts of opportunities, my one piece of advice might be that it's very important to get some reporting into the mix if you're angling for a job at a company like ours. Opinion journalism is a booming field these days, and I imagine there will be opportunities for people who prove to be pithy pundits, but in our case, we want people who are also able to break news and report hard. I've always operated under the assumption that if you spend three or four weeks working on one story, as our writers often do, you should come back with a definite opinion about the subject, but it should be an opinion you're ready to back up with your reporting.

CC: When an intern or a fellowship applicant asks "How can I do what you do?", do you have any pat advice?

AV: As a general rule, I try to avoid pat advice of any kind, in part because I ended up where I am largely because of dumb luck and the kindness of strangers, not because I followed some seventeen-point plan I read about on the Internet. Of course, this does not mean that people don't occasionally ask me the very question you cite. My inclination is to think that this is one of those situations— much like the famous cliché about psychology— where the person asking the question really already knows the answer. If you want to be a writer, you need to write. If you want to be a reporter, you need to report. What does that mean in practical terms? It means being nosy; asking questions; always maintaining a list of possible stories and augmenting it with notes/observations as you go along; and not being afraid to ruffle feathers. I'd rather have someone come up to me and run a story idea past me than ask me how to go about becoming a successful journalist. As noted previously, if they have it in them to become a great journalist, they probably already know the answer anyway.

Oh, and it also often helps to be the sort of person who gets royally pissed off about unfairness, injustice, and unearned privilege in this life. The best investigative reporters I've known were always good at nursing this sort of simmering rage in constructive ways.

CC: Your turn. Any thoughts or questions for the PolicyMic community?

AV: No questions, just all my best wishes. I salute any effort to encourage good writing and thinking, and from what I can tell, PolicyMic is driven by a genuine interest in both of those things. In my experience, journalism projects, whether digital, print or otherwise, have the greatest chance of success when they are driven by a desire to say something, not a desire to make money. For that, I salute you.

For more advice on writing and using PolicyMic as a professional springboard, join us on Twitter (#TalkPM) with your questions, feedback, and good jokes for a live community discussion Wednesday, September 11 at 12:00 p.m. ET.