Q&A with Elizabeth Djinis ‘16, Founder & CEO, Grafon Writing Company

The following interview is from the April newsletter of the alumni network DukeJournos.

You recently founded your own business, Grafon Writing Company. What inspired you to do so? What are your one, five, and ten year goals for the company (loosely)?

I spent the first four years of my career in daily newspapers. While I am very grateful for my experiences there, I felt like I needed a change. I wanted to have more flexibility in the kind of work that I did, I wanted to have the opportunity to write about a variety of topics for a variety of publications and I wanted to, frankly, make more money. I had always thought of freelancing as the least stable arm of journalism. At least daily reporters have a consistent paycheck and health insurance (when you’re not in fear of being laid off or pay cuts).

But it wasn’t until learning about the experiences of freelancers like Jenni Gritters and Wudan Yan, who run The Writers’ Co-op, that I realized that freelancing and starting your own business was a real and viable path. Learning about their career journeys inspired me to consider going out on my own. As far as goals, I am definitely a goal-oriented person, but I’m not sure I have concrete goals that far in advance! My one-year goal is three-pronged: create a financially successful business and make more money than I made last year, which I’m thankfully already on track to do; write for national outlets I’ve always wanted to, which I’m also making some headway on; and start work on my book idea. Those are definitely big goals, but I believe in manifesting them, so maybe if I write them, I will manifest my dreams!

The five and ten-year goals are so dependent on where the company takes me. I’d like to start a side of the business that I passively run — I definitely don’t want to be the one doing all of the writing forever, at least when it comes to non-journalism projects. I’d like to focus more on contracts with publications rather than one-off pieces. But I couldn’t have told you a year ago I’d be doing this, so it’s so hard to say where I see myself in five or 10 years!

You spent just under 2 years at the Tampa Bay Times, serving as an Editorial Writer and a Digital Engagement and Social Trending Producer. What was the most exciting part of your work at the Tampa Bay Times and which was the most challenging?

I’ll start by saying I feel very lucky that I had perhaps the two most wildly different roles in journalism one after the other in my career. As an audience engagement reporter, the pace was fast and the focus was on connecting with readers. I learned so much about best practices for digital engagement and on social media, and I wrote a lot of really fun stories. The editorial board is perhaps the most traditional journalism role you can have — and it’s a role even a lot of journalists don’t understand. My former editor put it best — being on the editorial board is sort of like being a member of a court. You can offer a dissenting opinion, but decisions on issues don’t come down to a vote, so you may end up writing an editorial you don’t agree with.

I think the most exciting part of my work at the Tampa Bay Times was getting to connect with people, whether through some of my columns, my editorials or my audience engagement work. I also love explanatory journalism, so I really enjoyed getting to explain policy to readers in editorials.

The most challenging part was probably balancing the needs of whether a story performs well online with the kinds of stories I wanted to write. Ideally, you found a story that was fascinating to write and did well online. But, of course, you write some that are simply meant to do well online and not necessarily fun for the writer. With editorials, the writing of an editorial was such a learning curve for me. I often likened them to legal briefs — they are packed with facts, but don’t always offer the same creativity as a feature story. That was hard for me, as someone who loves the writing part of journalism as much as, if not more than, the reporting part.

For those who are not as fully versed in the various different roles a journalist can take on at a paper, how did your work as an Editorial Writer and a Producer at the Tampa Bay Times differ from the work you did prior at the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Florida as a General Assignment Reporter?

They were all so different! As an editorial writer/digital strategist, my job was to prepare ideas for editorial board meetings, write editorials on local news policy and issues and occasionally write personal columns. Since it is all hands on deck at daily newspapers, particularly local dailies, I also edited the letters to the editor at one point and managed social media accounts for the editorial board. As a producer and audience engagement reporter, my role was to largely write stories that did well online. I also co-created an audience engagement project, “Florida Wonders,” where we took questions from readers and answered them in story form. That was very fun! I occasionally helped run the Times’ social media and manage digital strategy for some larger editorial projects.

At the Herald-Tribune, I spent one year as a general assignment reporter and about a year and a half as the education beat reporter. Those years were such an amazing introduction to journalism. I was covering education during a particularly tumultuous time for the school district, so it was fascinating to watch that all play out. As a general assignment reporter in Florida, there is just so much to cover. I got to go to the Keys to write about coral reef restoration and I attended a senior speed dating event and wrote a feature on it. All four jobs came down to writing and reporting, but they definitely had their nuances!

Do you have a favorite piece or project you’ve ever worked on?

It’s hard to have one favorite! I love my science stories — I wrote a piece for the Tampa Bay Times on why palm trees are dying that was absolutely heartbreaking. I wrote columns about losing my grandmother and why attending weddings costs so much that were cathartic to write, obviously for very different reasons. I profiled an environmentalist engaged in yet another battle to protect her neighborhood. I wrote an analysis for Poynter of how Substack might affect the local media landscape.

That’s a long answer, I know! Truthfully, I like any story that requires my brain to really work and gets me writing creatively. I think the last year or so made me realize I am a writing-skewed journalist. I think journalists tend to fall into two camps: either they prefer reporting or writing. I love both, but I think writing is my true love. So I look for pieces that let me do both — really meaty reporting and narrative writing.

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