Amy Braunschweiger: Web Communications Manager @ Human Rights Watch

Name: Amy Braunschweiger

Age: 39

College & Majors/Minors: English and German major/European studies minor

Current Location: NYC

Current Form of Employment: Web Communications Manager at Human Rights Watch

Where do you work and what is your current position?

I work at Human Rights Watch as their web communications manager–I basically work as their feature writer, do a lot of editing, and I’m part of a team that oversees strategy and execution for all our digital properties, including our website, social media, e-newsletters, other digital projects, etc. What I do is storytelling, often using words together with photos and video. I work with people who are lawyers and human rights experts, so a lot of what I do is translate what I’m told or what I read from political/legalese into language that allows a piece to live and breathe. The information was already there, it was just buried.

I’ve had so many writing and editing jobs I can’t even count, as I was a freelancer for ages.

  • Author: Wrote the book Taxi Confidential: Life, Death and 3 a.m. Revelations in New York City Cabs.
  • Freelance article writer: Had fun, fabulous articles published in awesome places like the New York Times, New York magazine, Worth, etc. At the Village Voice I lead a team of writers to create 3,000 or so nightlife listings/reviews.
  • Freelance less-sexy writer: Had less fun but also sometimes interesting pieces published in steady-paying places like trade magazines for financial professionals, nonprofit newsletters, for investment banks, random financial sites, etc.
  • Ghost writer: Helped ghost write an encyclopedia of American food and wine. (It was never published as the head writer entered something of a downward spiral.)
  • Other odd jobs/gigs that my writing and reporting skills lead to as a freelancer: Had a gig doing background checks on corporate executives (reporting skills); Market research for an arm of Morgan Stanley (interviewing skills); researching how to build schools in Vietnam for a nonprofit (research skills).
  • My only other fulltime job: Was a financial reporter at Dow Jones writing mostly breaking news stories. My feature stories (3% of the job) often made it into the Wall Street Journal. 
  • Stringer at Ohio’s Toledo City Paper: Wrote about nightlife, culture and fun.
  • International: I’ve also had a few fellowships that have allowed me to live in Germany and work at German-language publications. I’m not a native speaker, just lucky and strong-willed.

Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different). 

I was in my early 20s when I came home to Toledo, Ohio, from a fellowship I had in Germany. I didn’t consider myself a journalist, but I really enjoyed participating in, and writing about, nightlife and the arts (at my college paper, at my internship as an MTV stringer covering Cincinnati’s music scene, at my fellowship in Leipzig, Germany where I worked at their city magazine). But I thought that I was now an adult, and adults wrote about politics and finance, so I should get a job writing about one of those two things. So I lived with my folks, waitressed, drove my mom’s car and spent months applying to “serious” jobs. Somewhere in there, I got dumped, too. It was not a happy time.

My first real full-time job was at Dow Jones Newswires, and getting hired there was crazy. I applied for it, and then called me, did a phone interview, and then asked me if I’d take a 4-hour test in their Detroit Wall Street Journal bureau (Dow Jones also owns the WSJ). I asked them for any tips, and they said brush up on your math, know how to calculate percentages. I did, drove the hour to Detroit, and took the test. It took me an extra hour, but it really wasn’t that bad. They were mostly trying to judge how logical you were—do you compare apples to apples if we give you apples, oranges and bananas? That type of thing. I easily calculated all the answers in the math section, but had I not asked about what to study ahead of time, I would have winged that entire section, and the results could have been grim. Math was never my best subject (understatement). Just as an fyi.

Then Dow Jones let me know that I passed the test and asked me to come in for a 3-day work trial in Jersey City, where they were based. I had to spring for my own plane ticket and lodgings there. Might I add I had zero money? My folks said “No way!” but I went for it anyway, buying a plane ticket and staying with my friend’s parents in a nearby suburb. There, people who were surprisingly young, fun and interesting trained me in financial newswire writing for three days–how to report on earnings, retail sales, airline figures, mergers, etc. Afterwards they had me take yet another five-hour test to see how well you absorbed the training.

You know what? I totally bombed that test. Awfully. But they still hired me. After the fact, one of my editors told me that they liked my international experience, I was smart enough, and–wait for it–I fit into the newsroom personality-wise.  

My take-away: sometimes you just have to go for it, buy your own plane ticket, and go out of your way to get something. Even if the hiring process is ridiculous.

My other take away: I came to embrace what I call the lunchroom rule. You have to have the skills to get in the door, but people really want to hire a co-worker that they can sit down and talk with over lunch with. I bombed that second test and got hired anyway. Why? The lunchroom rule. When I applied to a long-term freelance position at the Village Voice, my resume was plucked out of already short-listed bunch because of the lunchroom rule (the editor was fascinated with Berlin, and I’d lived there), and at Human Rights Watch I was hired over someone more qualified than me because they just liked me better. I’ve seen this play out over and over again both with friends and with myself.

What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?

Freelancing! It taught me how to write differently for different publications, how to change my tone of voice. I learned how to read publications from Elle Magazine to Inc. critically, to figure out what editors wanted or would more likely buy. I learned how to pitch myself and the articles I wanted to write—you need to be able to sell editors your ideas and yourself as an author. After I went quickly broke, I was forced to begin treating writing like a business—you do have to pay rent after all. So while I kept up the fun, fabulous articles that inspired me, I also began picking up more boring, financial work that paid much better and took much less time to write. For me, and for many freelancers, money worries will suck away your creativity and you’ll stop having fun with your writing, and I was constantly balancing my creative work with the better-paying kind. I also learned how to be flexible and mold your skills to various opportunities in ways that others can’t see. Doing corporate background checks? No problem, it’s really just reporting under a different name.

What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?

Not much, to be honest. I had fun, made good friends, drank a lot of beer, etc. I took a couple journalism classes, but didn’t find them interesting or useful. I didn’t even declare a major until I was a junior, and my GPA was a 3.2 or something. I rowed crew for the joy of it for a year or two but quit because those 5 a.m. practices killed me.

OK, wait, now that I think harder, I did do some things. My journalism professor basically forced me to get a job at the student newspaper because “I’d never get a job” if I didn’t. I found the newspaper so boring, and I just couldn’t stomach the fact of covering city council meetings, so I did layout and design for them, which was actually fun. And it paid. I did a bit of entertainment writing for them—bands, DJs.

I did take some other summer internships, but I really only worked at them 5 hours a week or so—I was a full-time waitress in the summers, as I needed to earn money for college. So I squeezed in an internship at a tiny suburban newspaper.

This is important: My junior year I spent a summer working in a bakery in Berlin and I studied for a semester in Luxembourg. How I got to Berlin: A professor was interviewing students to work there, my friend from a German class wanted to go, she didn’t want to do the interview alone, I went to support her, and ended up being offered a job. Since I would already be living in Europe, I decided to study at Miami University’s branch campus in Luxembourg, as it cost the same as my in-state tuition.

Full disclosure—I didn’t this to gain any international experience. I did it because it sounded like a blast and I have an adventurous streak. But it changed everything for me.

I fell in love with Germany, the language, the culture and became obsessed with really learning and experiencing it all. And in learning about what an amazing place Germany is, I realized that every other country in the world could be exactly as amazing and interesting if I were open to it. Despite growing up in an area that really wasn’t very diverse, I fell in love with all things international. I went back (for the love of it) and really learned German. I cannot tell you how many doors this experience has opened up for me, both personally and professionally.

Take away: If you want to live abroad and learn a language, do it. No regrets.

OK, back to college. Senior year, something amazing happened. I was looking for a fall internship on our listservs, scrolling past opportunities to cover city hall and PTA meetings in small town Ohio (I love small town Ohio, but no way), when I saw an internship to be a stringer for MTV online. I applied to cover the music scene in nearby Cincinnati, and to my amazement, landed it. It was unpaid, but I was living the free-concert-ticket dream. It was amazing. I had a blast. And I won a writing award reserved for their top seven stringers across the U.S. (they had 100, I think).

My take away from that internship: You can get work doing what you love to do. Not always, and it won’t work out the way you foresee, but it happens. Next step: getting paid for it.

What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?

You may hate your first job. I sure did. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t learning a lot there. And you’ll learn what you don’t want to do/deal with in your next job. I spent four years at Dow Jones Newswires, and only enjoyed six months of it. It was years after I left that job that I realized how strong a financial reporter I had become. And that job opened up so many doors, too, through connections I made, because most people couldn’t write about finance and I could, and because people automatically took you a bit more seriously—even people at glossy women’s magazines. Who knew? So even if you’re hating it, keep learning.

Take big risks if you have the stomach for it. (Say, when I quit Dow Jones to go freelnace when I had no idea how I would make anything happen). Just also make sure you can stomach the consequences if the worst happens—which for me would have been moving back in with my folks (it didn’t happen).

Figure out what you’re passionate about and stick with it, at least in part. You’re always going to do better at what excites you, and you’ll feed off the energy of it. Just prioritize it. It may not be a full-time job or even a part-time job, but it’ll make you feel good.

Keep talking to people. People, for me, are key. People sometimes know things you don’t know and have opportunities you don’t know about. Are you stuck on your novel? Do some research by talking to people who may be similar to your character, either in job or personality. Are you a journalist out of story ideas? Just start talking to people at a bar, at a party, on a plane—especially talk to people different from you—and listen to them. Story ideas will just appear.

Follow Amy on twitter!

Posted on August 31, 2014 and filed under Freelance, Communications, Journalism, Non-profit, Self-Employed, Writing.