She pitched the piece “all over the place: The New York Times magazine (rejected), Texas Monthly (rejected), The New Yorker (rejected), Philadelphia magazine (rejected), Slate.com (crickets), and others. Nobody was interested.” Williams—who, over a twenty-year career in journalism, has received pretty much every honor a magazine writer can hope to: a National Magazine Award, inclusion in The Best American Magazine Writing, a Nieman Fellowship, and editorships at prestigious publications (she is currently the executive editor of Boston Magazine)—found her story, finally, homeless. The hoped-for return trip to Houston, and to her story’s subject, wouldn’t pan out. (“I just couldn’t do all that on spec. A month’s rent…”)
An acceptance-turned-rejection from The New York Times, just two days before the piece’s intended shorter-form Style-section publication, was the last straw. “It wasn’t about the time spent on the story,” Williams says; “it was just that, to me, it was a story I felt deeply that I wanted to tell.”
She continued reporting the piece, remotely. (Freed FedExed her letters, journal entries, and old NASA documents, and the two spent hours on the phone. “It was the best we could do,” Williams says, under the circumstances.) In late December, spurred by the news peg that was Possum Living’s re-release, Williams assembled an ad hoc team of fellow journalists to provide editorial feedback for the piece—an editor (her Boston Magazine colleague Geoffrey Gagnon, who did the work as a favor), a copy-editor (Jennifer Johnson), a fact-checker (Leigh Ann Vanscoy)—and signed a photographer (Audra Melton, whose travel expenses Williams paid, but who took no additional fee for the work) to shoot the images that now accompany the piece. “I wanted the story to come through all the channels that it would have gone through had it gone in a magazine I’d normally do business with,” Williams explains.
The final step, though, was taking the story beyond those channels—building the platform that would fill the most basic and essential function of a magazine: distribution. For Williams, as for many journalists, self-promotion is a task akin to dental visits, dish-doing, TSA screening: a necessary business, yes, but an unpleasant one. (Compounding the issue: “I’m Southern,” Williams, a Mississippi native, notes—“I was raised not to brag on myself.”)
So, though “I’d intended to have one,” she says of that most precarious of self-promotional precipices, the personal Web site…she hadn’t yet taken the leap. Before, that is, “Finding Dolly Freed” came in need of a place to live. To help its cause, Williams enlisted the services of Web designer Johnson Fung, who (for a fee) built paige-williams.com, both as the host of “Finding Dolly Freed” and as, yes, an archive of Williams’s prior work.
In some ways—except, of course, for the financial—the story’s outlet-orphaned status was liberating. No negotiations with editors. No need to conform structure to the confines of the printed page. “The story still has to work, of course,” Williams notes—“it still has to perform the way it would in the print model”—but in the case of “Finding Dolly Freed,” the piece’s within-the-context-of-no-context publication allowed the story to be, in the fullest sense, a story: transcendent of outlet, transcendent of brand. True to itself and its author’s vision for it.
And: readers, it seems, are responding to that. As of Sunday night, Williams says, the site has had some 3,000 unique viewers—a small number, to be sure, compared to what the story might have gotten as a Times or Slate piece, but a considerable amount given the story’s self-published (and -promoted) nature. As for time-on-site—a metric that speaks more revealingly to the journalistic goals of import and impact, and is often a more meaningful indicator of those goals, than one-off clicks—“the bounce rate has been low,” Williams notes. “People are spending some time with it.”
They’ve also been spending some money. On January 6—the first day the story, and its SUPPORT THE JOURNALIST badge, was live—twelve people contributed to “Finding Dolly Freed,” Williams says. By yesterday evening, that number had jumped to thirty-four—with contributors from Austin to Brooklyn to Chattanooga, from California to Brazil, donating a total of $423.18, in amounts ranging from $0.75 to $100. (“I’m trying to write a personal thank-you note to every donor,” Williams notes. “May take me a few days.”)
The numbers so far may be modest in relation to Williams’s broad recoup-the-$2,000-production-cost-and-also-maybe-get-paid-a-little goal for the project—particularly in light of the fact that, as a seasoned freelancer who writes for high-end publications, Williams generally (or, in today’s economic climate, ideally) commands $2 a word for her writing. (At that rate, had it been published in a traditional publication, “Finding Dolly Freed” would have earned her $12,000, rather than, as of now, -$1,576.82.)