Photo of wine columnist and author Mike Stepanovich

Mike Stepanovich – #Wine #Columnist

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.

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