Inside the career of a successful ghostwriter
Jonathan Rick’s writing appears in hundreds of mainstream publications, but it rarely includes his byline.
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Not many people know what it’s like to have their hopes and dreams crushed over the course of a single lunch meeting, but Jonathan Rick experienced it firsthand in 2004. That’s the year he got an internship at Time Magazine, a dream role for someone who wrote for his college newspaper and had long wanted to break into journalism.
One day Priscilla Painton, who was then an assistant managing editor at the magazine, took Rick out to lunch. “She asked me about my goals, and I told her that I wanted to be the next Joe Klein,” a veteran Time columnist. “And she said, ‘That's great. Come see me in 30 years.’ And she was serious.”
Painton explained that you didn’t just wake up one day and become a magazine columnist. Most of the top opinion writers first spent years as reporters, performing the kind of meat-and-potatoes journalism that can be found in virtually every newspaper, from your local weekly all the way up to The New York Times. “But I didn’t really want to become a reporter,” Rick told me. “I wanted to become a columnist.”
He decided to give it a try anyway. After he graduated college, Rick applied for a journalism fellowship and got placed at The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I was quickly disabused of the notion that I wanted to pursue journalism,” he said. He realized he would never be the next Joe Klein.
And yet here we are 15 or so years later, and Rick’s opinion writing appears regularly in places like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, and Fast Company. He gets paid thousands of dollars for each piece, often more than the per-word rates of other freelancers who write for these same outlets.
There’s just one catch: his byline rarely appears on the op-eds.
That’s right. Rick is a professional ghostwriter, one who pens articles and other content on behalf of executives, academics, non-profit leaders, and virtually anyone else who wants to engage in any sort of thought leadership. And he does all this while charging far more on a per-word basis than all but the top tier freelance journalists.
Pivoting to public relations
So how did Rick bypass the 30 years of gumshoe journalism that had been prescribed by that Time editor?
It was a fairly circuitous path that started with him landing a role in the media relations department at the Cato Institute. “At first I was disappointed,” he told me. “But actually it turned out to be a good thing, because it set my career on the trajectory that it's been on.” Rick edited and pitched op-eds that had been written by the think tank’s scholars, and he began to grasp that there was this vast ecosystem of important people who wanted to leverage the media’s reach to influence the population at large.
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