Interview with Brian Raftery, freelance pop culture writer for Wired

I love having a blog because it gives me a reason to reach out to people I admire. Ever since I started subscribing to Wired magazine last year, I have looked forward to Brian Raftery’s articles. He’s written for a lot of magazines, but these articles resonate with me the most, and for good reason. His February 2010 article about the Cheezburger Network led me to his website, where I found another favorite in his ROFLcon synopsis. But in November when I read his article about the Insane Clown Posse, I knew I had to get in touch with him.

I’m so glad I did. Even though I’m just a fan, he was nice enough to set aside more than an hour for our phone interview. Brian gave me a lot of insight about what it means to be a freelance journalist today.

Our discussion fell into a few categories, which I’ll elaborate on one at a time.

Writing about subculture

One of the reasons I reached out to Brian was because I admired his depictions of various subcultures. However, Brian’s job description — at least in his editorial position at Wired — is to examine “intersection of pop culture and technology.” Still, Brian doesn’t think that his pop culture work is ever entirely removed from subculture.

“Whenever I write about pop culture, there’s always an element of subculture,” he said.

He said that subculture writing is interesting since it hasn’t been written about to death. “I would much rather write about a small or sizable movement of fans than a Jennifer Lopez album,” he said.

Brian said that as a writer, he finds subcultures fascinating because they’re often ignored or ridiculed.

“I like looking at stories of people or things that maybe other people don’t take seriously and then take them as seriously as I can.”

The problem with subculture writing though, is often finding the audience. At Wired, Brian’s articles need to be comprehensible to a mainstream audience without boring the diehard fans. Luckily, he explains, the readers are always smarter than you expect.

“On the first drafts of stories I will find myself losing paragraphs upon paragraphs trying to explain what LOLcats are or something and at a certain point you realize you’re going to lose people who are really interested in this.”

However, he said it’s very important to give the people who are unfamiliar with the topic an entry point. This is made easier since most of Brian’s stories aren’t about subcultures he himself is interested in. With that in mind, he looks for the big picture reason about why this topic is important to write about now, and uses that purpose to draw readers in.

Working as a freelance journalist

Brian’s current gig as a freelancer allows him to control his own life and make his own hours, but it didn’t happen overnight. After graduating from Penn State, he accepted an internship and then a job at Entertainment Weekly. After leaving the magazine in 2003, he became an editor at GQ. After that, he realized he had enough connections in the magazine world to make a living as a freelancer.

At first, he said, it was terrifying. “It’s such a survival sort of thing. You wake up in the morning and if you don’t start working, you’re not going to be able to pay your rent. Some people tell me, ‘If I freelanced I’d just watch TV all day,’ but if you do that, eventually you’re not going to have a TV.”

The first two years were the toughest. “I took everything I could get,” he said. “It’s the most hustle I’ve ever done, certainly.” But after a couple years, he was able to use his magazine industry contacts to make and keep a couple of streams of income. (The Wired magazine job, for example, came about when he pitched a story to another magazine, and they suggested he try talking to a contact of theirs Wired.)

Now, by “always working three months ahead,” he’s able to schedule time off for writing fiction, honing his comedy improv skills, or taking a technology sabbatical.

As a young journalist, of course I wanted to know how to get my own writing contacts! But Brian said that he owed a lot of his success to luck and timing. He said the magazine community is very small and getting writing jobs is a matter of breaking into that group.

“I really lucked out. I had some great mentors… There were a lot of people who were incredibly generous and gave me writing jobs even when I was just an intern. Nobody would have known I had any talent if an editor hadn’t given me a chance.”

Here’s an audio clip of Brian’s advice for young writers today combined with a bit of talk about new venues for writing:

The writing process

Brian’s articles are long but they never lose my attention. Even when I think I know a topic, like the Cheezburger Network, he always manages to reveal facts I didn’t know yet. So in order to figure out how he starts working on a story, I decided to give him a story assignment. On furries. Listen to the clip to hear how that turned out:

Afterward, I wanted to know what it was like to write about the Insane Clown Posse. You will be amazed at how much preparation went into writing this story… including listening to every single ICP album twice. If you don’t listen to any of my audio clips, listen to this one!

Niche journalism

In 2009, Brian finished his first book, Don’t Stop Believin’: How Kareoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life. It was especially interesting to hear about Brian’s work examining a subculture that he himself is a part of. As a subculture reporter myself, I worry about getting too involved in my subject and I was glad to hear that I’m not alone.

Brian said that it’s natural to become familiar with the people you report on. When you work a beat, he said, you get to know people. However, he said it’s important to be able to tell the difference between being friendly and being friends.

“[In an interview] the trick is to make sure you’re not sitting there thinking ‘Oh wow, we’re friends now.’ I always wait a couple days after an interview before writing the story. You kind of need that clarity so you think ‘this is my subject. They aren’t someone I have to make happy with this. They’re someone I have to be fair to and accurate about,” he said.

He said this is something that he’s been especially vigilant about policing. After reporting on the Insane Clown Posse, for example, “I found myself defending them to friends… But the story itself remains very neutral.”

From what I told him about my reporting on anime conventions, he thinks that as niches go, this is a big one. He doesn’t think it’s easy to get too immersed within but for any subculture that you’re also a part of, “you have to find a level of engagement you’re comfortable with.”

I’m so grateful to Brian Raftery for putting aside some time for a fan and aspiring journalist. It was amazing to talk with someone with such an interesting career. His success has definitely inspired me to more seriously pursue my particular brand of otaku journalism.