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Giving up rock-and-roll journalism to recalibrate a writing career
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Have you ever been told: “You should get a more sensible career"? I’m Timi, and each week we interview a storyteller, artist or creative entrepreneur in Asia who ignored this advice to pursue a creative career. They show us how they paved their own path and dealt with unmitigated failures on their way to building a unique and singular foolish career.
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The best thing, hands down, has been discovering interesting people. Like this one: Marla Darwin is a design studio owner, craft beer brewer and millennial parenting columnist. It’s typical of the multi-hyphenate nature of this group. Pooja Pande said it best in the comments: “So many coolios here.” Her company’s news network, Khabar Lahariya, is a newsroom in northern India run by Dalit women.
A lot of you tell stories, or aspire to, so I thought this week was an excellent time to feature a storyteller who’s made some unconventional choices to keep growing in her career. Kristine Fonacier is a seasoned editor who has helped countless writers get their stories into shape, including mine.
I wasn’t planning to have two Filipino creators in a row but don’t worry, we’re making our way through the region. The editorial calendar is a fun game of Diversity Jenga that reflects us and where we are in the world.
INTERVIEW: Swapping rock-and-roll journalism for volunteer work to recalibrate a writing career
Journalist and editor Kristine Fonacier launched her writing career in the golden age of magazines, and freelancing as a music journalist quickly took off. Ten years in, she found herself questioning her work’s relevance.
“I was doing rock-and-roll journalism. After your hundredth party, you begin to wonder if you’re really contributing anything to society.”
This triggered a career recalibration that included 18 months of volunteer work in Guyana, an experience that informed her decisions when she came back to the publishing world and went on to build a body of work covering business, politics, culture, and travel.
As editor-in-chief of Esquire Philippines (the first female editor in the title’s 80-year history), Kristine led an editorial shift that placed fully-clothed middle-aged women on the cover and called out misogyny in its pages. She helped the country’s youngest billionaire write his first book. Then out of a desire to tell travel stories about the Philippines that were not listicles about white-sand beaches, she co-founded Grid Magazine, an independent title still running today. She is currently editor-in-chief of travel title Smile Magazine.
In this interview, Kristine spells out the traits that helped her build a versatile writing career, how to turn a passion project into a sustainable business, and why she looks for attitude over talent when hiring writers.
Here are some highlights:
1. Show up like a professional from day one
When she started out, Kristine set a personal rule: she said yes to every assignment. “I said to myself, just keep doing the work. Turn things in on time, turn in a lot of things on time, and be unassailable, go the extra mile, do the extra research.”
This part of the job was not about being a talented wordsmith (although she is). It was about developing curiosity. “You have to be interested in everybody's story. This speaks to the kind of person you are, not just to the kind of writer you are.”
It meant doing things as simple as showing up without knowing if there was a guaranteed story. “Sometimes it's going to be interviews with people you don't want to do right now. But you really never know where that's going to lead. Some of the best stories I’ve ever had come from connections made years before.”
Showing up also helps cultivate access, an edge that has allowed Kristine to find original stories, whether it’s an inside look at the over-the-top lifestyle of a provincial governor or clocking new freediving records with the Sama fisherfolk, an indigenous community in the southern Philippines wary of outsiders.
The freediver story, Water Breathers, was three to four years in the making. “I first went to an island to write about a specific resort, made friends with some resort owners, the resort owners invited me to take freediving lessons with this guy, this guy called me up two years later to say, ‘Hey, I'm doing this cool thing, do you want to come?’ And I did. I showed up, there was no story there yet. I showed up and that story got written maybe one, two years later.”
2. Proactively confront your career crossroads
After a ten-year run covering music and lifestyle for every title imaginable, Kristine took a step back to ask herself if she was doing what she set out to do. She describes this period as a crisis of faith. “I think all professionals, at one point, if their work matters, they step back and think, am I doing what I set out to do? I wanted to know if communications work was contributing to the betterment of society.”
So she exchanged lifestyle journalism for volunteer work. Kristine spent 18 months working as a disability communications advisor in Guyana, a job she found through Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). The experience gave her a different perspective on the role of communications in society.
“It taught me the importance of access, why we must keep telling stories outside of the mainstream, why we must keep servicing the people on the sidelines. I heartily recommend a mid-career volunteering stint to everyone. It changes you in ways that you can't foresee.”
3. Hold the line on quality storytelling
Kristine and her team at Esquire used lifestyle features to show readers how politicians and public figures lived. This wasn't always well-received, especially with subjects intent on controlling their image. In the Philippines, this can place a writer in real danger and have ramifications for the publication.
“We covered all kinds of people, including unsavory characters. We covered gangsters. We covered people with questionable wealth, and it was always done with a nod and a wink. But we tell the story as it is because it's important to cast a light on what their lives are like and let people base their judgments on that. Because if we don't keep putting those people in the limelight, we will forget, then they can get away with their evil in the darkness.”
4. To make a creative project sustainable, build a runway
Grid Magazine is “a love letter to the Philippines.” Co-founded by Kristine with photographers Francisco Guerrero and Sonny Thakur, and creative director Nachi Ugarte, it came out of their desire to tell culture, travel and adventure stories that never found space in mainstream media.
Their ambition included creating a fair and equitable marketplace for creative work and paying creators what they’re worth. Kristine says, “Having been freelancers ourselves, we knew the struggle. And we knew that we weren't going to screw other people the way we were screwed.”
To achieve all this, they had to approach Grid not as a hobby, or even a project for nights and weekends, but as a business. The founders wrote a business plan and raised investment.
Meanwhile, Kristine knew that developing the new magazine’s voice was going to take time — years, really — so in the two years between the idea and the funding, she built her own personal finances up so she could live off it until Grid got to a stage where the startup could pay her.
Having this runway meant Grid had time to develop its editorial voice, set up its systems, train writers and photographers on the atypical stories they were looking for, and test sponsorship. Once they got the hang of this in print, Grid started producing short documentary videos and relaunched their website. Stuck at home during the pandemic, they launched a podcast.
“It was a gamble. We weren't sure we were going to make a lot of money. It is definitely an achievement that it's been able to survive so many years. And it's still telling the stories that we want to tell.”
One point of pride: As Grid Magazine was figuring out how to deliver a relevant issue during COVID, the current team led by General Manager Kimi Villa-Real tested a new revenue model, the single-issue sponsorship. One Day In The Philippines was released while the country was in lockdown, sponsored by a telecom company. For Kristine, who has worked with large publishers in the midst of digital transformation, seeing this agility was a refreshing change.
5. For career longevity, it’s attitude over talent
Above a certain talent baseline, the traits that make a writer stand out are things everyone can hone in themselves:
Going above and beyond to produce a story
“As an editor, I can always help you shape a story, but I need somebody who knows how to find what makes a place or a person or a thing unique, and is able to tell that entire narrative very well.”
“A good story looks like it sprung fully formed from the forehead of the writer, but the truth is there's a lot of work that goes into that. There's a lot of education, even a lot of training. And then there's the research that goes into the piece and a lot of that doesn't even show on the page. And it's a lot of physical work too.”
Reading the publication you want to write for (really)
“What drives me up the wall are writers who don't think that they need any more training. And writers who don't read. Those exist. I still get a lot of queries from people who say I've never read your magazine, but I think I can write for it. It just drives me crazy.”
6. Should you have a fallback?
It doesn’t hurt. “You look around, you see how much anyone in a corporate job makes. And you really have to wonder, why am I in this? If I had a child who asked me if they should, I would say, perhaps you can also develop a career in law as a fallback.”
On the other hand, it never feels like a job. “Writing is the way we process things, and this is the way we think about life. So there's no off switch for that. I can't imagine how I would cope with reality, without reading or writing.”
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To write about travel is to write about place and to do that today means stories about sustainability, disappearing cultures, and climate change. It reminds me of the work of Jittrapon Kaicome, a photojournalist from Chiang Mai whose projects focus on under-reported stories in the Mekong region.
Bose, as we call him, decided to document the air pollution crisis in Northern Thailand in 2014. National Geographic Thailand published his photographs, and he has since been building a body of work that has been featured in Le Monde, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, Channel News Asia and many more.
This is why Bose does his work:
Zooming in on trans-boundary matters in the Mekong region will show how people's lives and activities are connected to the rest of the world. These truly are the stories of my time.
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