Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Renee Peck was interviewed by Talia Abed. Talia and Renee discussed Renee’s work as a journalist and editor at the Times-Picayune and how that led her to co-creating the arts and culture publication, NolaVie.
Steven Melendez is a freelance writer based in New Orleans who has successfully adopted a style of journalism that is often avoided by many in his industry. He specializes in pieces that take an alternative perspective on anything one can imagine. The vast majority of content we have access to is controlled by a small group of individuals, about 15 men to be exact, who are able to directly or indirectly modify information to compliment financial and political agendas. Antigravity Magazine, an alternative publication in New Orleans, has somehow overcome this institutional hurdle by placing strong opinions that aim at transparency and information. And one of their contributors is Steven Melendez.
Melendez has written for small publications as well as recognizable names like NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, so I wanted to better understand Melendez’s perspective considering his eclectic professional and personal experiences.
The unconventional life that Steven has lead provides a perfect foundation for freelance. As a matter of fact, it’s necessary. Challenging someone’s reality is noticeably harder to do when they’ve had a wider frame of reference for life. Perspective is integral in understanding how an article (or any form of media for that matter) will be received by an audience, so it makes sense that someone who’s been exposed to a broader range of ideas and cultures would be better equipped to make bold claims without sacrificing validity. It’s clear that Melendez fits this well-rounded bill and you can tell he knows from the assertive tone in his work.
SM: “I’ve lived in a bunch of different places. I went to grad school in Chicago and worked in the Virgin Islands for a year, which was good because I worked at a newspaper down there. Then I moved back to New York where I’m originally from. I lived there for a few years. I think that was a step towards getting established and building the context of freelance. Then for a variety of different reasons I decided it was time to leave there, and I went to a bunch of different places. I was staying in a bunch of different cities for a month or two at a time looking for a place to live and ended up down here…I do local coverage for Antigravity, and also Where Y’at and Purple Lens. There’s definitely a vibrant internalism scene down here so my national work is where I cover other topics.”
It’s particularly impressive that Melendez isable to achieve these dynamics as a writer — he still participates in the nationally recognized media as well as more hyper-local and alternative publications. Major news outlets are often of that stature because they’ve chosen to pursue profit above all else. In Steven’s case, the concept of ostensibly controversial work being censored is contradictory, but Steven explains to me just how wrong I was.
SM: “A lot of departments I’ve been writing for are trying to shy away [from politics], the editorial side is generally separate from the opinion side. The Wall Street Journal is a good example. They’re sense of humor is…well, they have an older audience, so it’s just a different type of humor. I would word my observations differently for them than I would use for Antigravity, or even something like Gizmodo. I wrote something for them [Gizmodo] recently about people who sort of horde digital files. And it could have been a Wall Street Journal story, but it would be told very differently; the language and the quotes that I would use. I would probably use more serious quotes for the people[being interviewed] and probably studied more academics as opposed to people who do it themselves. I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast rule. It’s a lot of seeing what the publication looks like and then talking to the head of that publication, editing it as best as you can, then they’ll usually say, ‘Ok can we cut this? Can we extend this?'”
Independence as a writer is usually preferable, but the financial obstacles often make it an unsustainable endeavor. That’s why I find it fascinating that Melendez is able to uphold the values of freelance/alternative journalism even when cooperating with the titans of his industry. By picking his battles, Melendez is able to participate in the financial side of journalism as a profession without sacrificing the authenticity that so many writers and stories lose to manipulated information. The more he described his interactions with editors of prominent outlets and the structure of his career, it became obvious that no soul, not even a percentage, was being sold.
That’s an interesting situation to be in. It seems that your work isn’t affected by the company you’re writing for.
SM: “At least in the interview process I don’t think it is. Again, there might be some pieces where I’d have more ostensibly-neutral experts versus people who are actually experiencing whatever it is I’m covering. It would be different depending on the subject matter too…If I was writing serious business stories for one of them [major outlets], a lot of them have strict files about when you use the full company name, how you abbreviate, and things like that. A lot of that just doesn’t affect me because I’m not writing for those type of sections.”
In regard to his situation, Melendez explains, “It works our well. It’s been good for me because it lets you set your own hours, within reason. Sometimes I have to go meet with someone or call somebody at a certain time. Like, I might have a call at 9 in the morning then at 2:00 PM. I don’t have to be in a particular office, I don’t have to report what I’m doing at a particular time to somebody as long as I get my stories in on-deadline.”
In a way, Melendez has transcended this socio-economic barrier by making enough of a living while also pursuing his personal aspirations. To do this obviously requires the grit to be the master of your own affairs, which many hope for but may not possess the ability or resources to do so. In addition, you need to have a keen understanding of each publication and the departments that runs it. That requires research and interpersonal skills. To be able to adjust the lens from which you’re speaking or writing is a potent tool because opportunities become limitless. You are not bound by the pressure to be “on brand” because the same ideas can be expressed through an inconceivable amount of words and perspectives.
Yet, as Melendez says, “It really depends on what it is that I’m covering. If it’s a straight news story I feel that it’s still important, but a lot of times it’s a standard inverted pyramid. With the longer pieces it really varies on what it[the story] is and what the publication is. If its something for a local publication, I might be able to put more voice in it. I do a lot over the phone, which I feel like a lot of reporters do now, but it makes it a little harder. You can’t describe how someone looked or acted, but when you can, that’s great. If you can help tell their story, and you can see: is this somebody affected by a particular problem?”
You can see how useful it is to be able to adapt the same skill in multiple facets, particularly in an industry with massive wealth disparity between the mainstream and alternative companies. Melendez has gained enough credibility to create his own online zine called Fast Company, for which he writes and edits the majority of the content. One article that stood out to me on Fast Company discusses the use of private jets for transportation by government officials to a climate change convention in Zurich, Switzerland. This is the type of story that could be a victim to shock value or hyperbolic reporting, but Melendez approaches the topic logically and in line with his mission.
As he says, “So there’s actually one jet provider that releases the information about the number of flights. They release an estimate because they think that’s going to help their business. But there are a lot of companies that the Davos people themselves say they don’t have an estimate. They[Davos] obviously are going to give a lower number. The private jets are going to give a higher number, so ultimately you’re not going to get an exact figure. You’re going to have to go with what people are willing to share and see what seems to be in the range of possibility and what doesn’t. In theory, you could have someone watching airports and stuff, right? If you were willing to pay for it; it would just be a challenge for most publications nowadays.”
So you just circumvented the entire company, except for that one private jet provider?
“Yeah, I mean they had the numbers and Davos had their own numbers in response — that’s probably as close as you’re going to get there. The airports don’t know. Are people coming in from Davos? Is the number of flights being affected by the traffic flying into Davos? So something like that you’re not going to get an exact number, it’s really a matter of calling around, seeing who might know, or being able to come up with an expert. That was just a short story. If I was doing something longer, I probably would have called somebody who’s been studying this, and they can say, ‘Okay, this is what you could look for; this is what the airports have down, etc.” You could try and get Freedom of Information Act-type records about what planes flew in there. For that story it probably wasn’t worth it. It was just the idea that a lot of people are taking private jets to Davos…”
I admired the calculated strategy that Melendez uses on all fronts in his work; I believe it’s the reason that he is able to work under such versatile conditions. Investigative journalism is a struggling art due to the intense competition among publishers. Hearing a current writer suggest a tactic like that brought a smile to my face. It also raises the question of what is considered valid information to use in an article. People and writers alike will too often accept information that they deem agreeable at face-value in order to validate themselves or their writing. It’s also incredibly difficult to prove something to be fact, especially if there’s no physical access to the subject of the article. This is why Steven diverts to experts or personally obtained information on the given topic. Maintaining authenticity is a deceivingly arduous task between the temptation to earn more and the highly-critical climate that we live in. Steven’s situation is unique in that he has a foot in both doors. He’s cunningly adapted his original ideas to strict, hierarchical industry in a way that lets his true voice come out on top.
Steven Melendez’s take on journalism is nothing short of critical in this day and age. Information we receive is becoming increasingly pointed, and it seems that everyone has an agenda. We need more writers who are willing to step up to the challenge of maintaining individual integrity without giving in to systemic pressures. The balance that Melendez displays in his ability to produce acceptable work for seemingly any publisher is an attribute that needs to be more widely adopted if the war on fake news is to become an issue of the past.