Mike was one of our ThinkingFunny 23 panelists, and recaps how he got his start writing a weekly column on wine focusing on the people who make it and how best to enjoy it.
You can see the video session of Mike and his fellow panelists on Crowdcast, or hang around and view it later this year when it is released on Patreon to our regular supporters. Mike was gracious enough to respond to follow-up questions from attendees, some of which were covered in the discussion.
Follow-up questions from attendees:
Q: Can you tell us, again, the story of how you got your column started?
A: I was the county editor at the Bakersfield Californian at the time. I had developed a keen interest in wine from my previous jobs at the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Stockton Record. At the New Mexican, a guy pitched me the idea of writing a wine column. Editing his column, I thought I can do this. Then at the Record, I was the business editor and wrote a Sunday business column that often featured wineries as the business I was writing about. At the Californian, the paper dropped the wine column it had been running due to increased cost. I saw that as an opportunity, and approached the features editor. “I can write a wine column for you,” I said. She said, “Yeah? What do you know about wine?” I said, “I know all there is to know about wine.” She said, “Yeah? Can you write 15-inches a week?” I said, “Piece of cake.” She said, “Great! Your first column is due Monday.” That was in July 1985, and I wrote that column until 2019.
Q: If I were to approach a publisher with a column idea, how should I pitch it?
A: Find something unique to pitch, that isn’t just a retread of what everyone else is doing. Perhaps it’s your perspective of whatever the topic is that you want to address. Perhaps it’s a local take on a national issue or topic. Make sure you have an example(s) to show, and make especially sure that your copy is clean. When I started my wine column I focused on the people at the wineries – the owner, the winemaker, the history of the winery – because people love to read about people. I didn’t want to be just another guy/gal reviewing wines and making recommendations. Few columnists were doing people-focused columns then, and readers loved what I did. That’s just an example of how I developed a successful wine column.
Q: What tips do you have for the person just getting started to break in and produce regular articles?
A: Develop a portfolio of stories or columns that demonstrate your ability. Journalism – that’s what it is, after all – works at a pace most people who aren’t in the business can’t conceive, so learn how to work on deadline, how to write copy quickly and accurately. Be a stickler for accuracy. Demonstrate that you can be counted on for timely and accurate articles that are balanced. Find a weekly or small daily somewhere and commit to working for peanuts the first few years. Learn all you can, then move to a larger paper, maybe medium sized. Newspapers and magazines these days are having a difficult time with revenue flow, so don’t be surprised if the pay is low. You’re there to learn. Read Strunk & White, arguably the best book ever written on writing. Practice, practice, practice.
Q: How do you deal with angry feedback?
A: Listen to the person, try to understand what his/her concern is. Sometimes they have valid concerns. If you made a mistake, correct it. It happens. If you didn’t make a mistake, then be polite but firm. Stand by your work. Sometimes such feedback leads to another story, an angle you hadn’t thought of. Be open minded to that. Don’t be defensive because that will just escalate the dispute. Ask questions to try and understand the person’s viewpoint because often people, especially if they’re angry or upset, don’t express themselves very well. You gain credibility by a thoughtful approach; you lose it by just dismissing an angry reader as a quack.