Speaking Up: Sydney Franklin on Persistence and Vulnerability

Speaking Up: Sydney Franklin on Persistence and Vulnerability

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By Julia Gamolina

Sydney Franklin is an Associate Editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, covering new parks, national policy issues, preservation stories, memorial design, and sports architecture from Maine to Miami. Sydney previously served as staff writer at Architizer, content producer with NYC’s Department of Design and Construction, and most recently as social media coordinator for AIANY.

Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, she graduated from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications in 2015 with a master’s degree in arts journalism, and has since loved living in and studying the quirks of Queens and Brooklyn. Sydney speaks to Julia about being open, having mentors, and focusing on becoming a journalist, encouraging those just starting their careers to root their identity in more than just their jobs.

JG: How did your interest in both architecture and journalism first develop?

SF: I did my undergrad at a very small liberal arts school, majoring in journalism and minoring in photography. Junior year, I was able to combine both by taking a photojournalism class. I hated taking photos of people, so instead I studied the revitalization of our downtown, Johnson City, Tennessee, which was heavily neglected at the time.

I did a photo essay of the current proprietors there, their history with the spaces, and I fell in love. To this day, whenever I drive by an industrial brick building or a storefront with peeling paint around the frame, I wonder why it’s there and who’s occupied it through its existence. Give me an up-and-coming, small to mid-sized American city to explore and I’m in heaven.

I remember you telling me that your focus on architecture developed explicitly in graduate school.

I went to Syracuse’s Newhouse School, specifically because they had an arts journalism focus and I wanted to write about film, theatre, and architecture. I had written film reviews before, and participated in college theatre, so I cared a lot about those things, but I found that I cared about them to the extent that I only wanted to be a viewer. With architecture though, the professors in my program quickly noticed that I got more excited talking and writing about cities, so they pushed me into diving deeper.

 Sydney graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, with a Masters in Arts Journalism, Architecture - May 2015

Sydney graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, with a Masters in Arts Journalism, Architecture - May 2015

During Newhouse, you also interned at Architizer. Tell me about this.

At the time, I wasn’t yet confident in my design writing—I was so new to the field— and was stretched really thin between commuting from classes in Syracuse to my internship each week. On top of that, I didn’t have a lot of guidance or mentorship when in the office—something that’s since changed. I did end up writing fourteen or so articles on architecture and got my first few bylines in the industry.

You’re three years out of school now and have done a few different things. Take me through your path.

It’s been a lot, and not just with work—with life! But that’s everyone’s New York story [laughs]. I came out of my graduate program a little burnt out, but immediately found a job working for the City of New York. I was really excited because I knew the city could provide me with a salary higher than in editorial, and a balanced lifestyle, which I desperately wanted after five years of schooling. Wanting to become a writer in architecture, I also knew I would get a behind-the-scenes introduction to the city and to the local development around me.

I worked for the creative services team as a Digital Content Producer. We handled the website, any publications that came out of the commissioner’s office, and a lot of other content. The best friends I have in New York I met there, and it was great in many ways. The supportive relationships are what remember most from that experience, and the recovery time that I really wanted.

 Ribbon Cutting of NYC Salt Shed on Spring Street; NYC DDC Creative Services + PR team

Ribbon Cutting of NYC Salt Shed on Spring Street; NYC DDC Creative Services + PR team

What did you do next?

I heard Architizer had an opening for a staff writer - the job description was me in a nutshell. I reported on global design and really loved it for six months. It was exhilarating to finally be writing news.

Eventually Architizer switched into its current identity as a tech platform, so my job description changed as well into what was basically a content marketing position. Architizer wanted to become the specifications platform within architecture and asked me to write articles about how to build buildings and what products to use to make them.

I’m not an architect, so writing technical pieces about concrete, or hinges, was terribly difficult - granted I feel a lot more confident talking to architects now. I realized though I need to either ask for more pay since those marketing roles get paid more, or that it was time to go.

What did you do after?

I ended up getting laid off last October, right after I turned 26. Many people our age experience this at some point, and it’s not personal, but at the time it did feel personal, and a shock. I had a total identity crisis and was all the sudden grappling with how to figure out what I really wanted versus how not to put all my eggs in one basket.

I ended up working for the AIA and the Center for Architecture, from March until June, specifically for the AIA’s annual conference that was here in New York. My role was social media coordinator – again, not a journalism position but I knew it would give me access to amazing people, and I always had a lot of respect for the Center for Architecture. My job turned largely into marketing New York itself and I learned so much about the city’s most famous buildings. I also did tons of administration work, conversing with local firms to establish Open Houses during the conference. I’m really grateful though for the contacts and friends I made there, which I have heavily relied on in my new job at the Architects Newspaper.

“You have to find solid, older people in your field who can help guide you and be vulnerable with them.”

Tell me how your current position came about.

I’ve known the Senior Editor, Matt Shaw, since being in grad school. I was still at the AIA and coaching middles school and high school lacrosse as a side gig, and learned that the Architect’s Newspaper was hiring several people. I emailed Matt and he just said, “We need to talk immediately.”

What is your typical day like?

It’s a fast paced environment, and I typically pursue 3-4 articles a day. I’ll go to art shows, do hard-hat tours, visit an architect at their office, and then I’ll come back and write it up. Sometimes I take longer on certain stories, especially originally-reported articles that I’m more invested in. I love to interview people – that’s my favorite thing in the world and my greatest strength. In digital news today, everything is all about speed and many of sites will aggregate news for clicks, and original reporting takes time but I push for it. I also love integrating architecture into real world news, which is a lot of what my job is. I rarely write about a building and its design.

Do you focus on anything in your writing?

At the moment, I love focusing on preservation, memorial design and sports architecture of all things. Early on I wrote an article on the World Cup, and I was writing article after article on the US Open. I became so obsessed I bought tickets and attended a match with Djokovic! Memorials, or designing for death, have also become a surprise new interest. So many projects have popped up in the last six months as a result of the mass shootings we’ve experienced the last few years. It’s a terrible thing to have to conceive of, but when a beautiful memorial is done right, to me, there’s nothing more important.

I also enjoy writing features and op-eds, but I truly love writing hard news. Right now, I’m not interested in being a provocative writer or critic. I want to give you the facts and let the people speak for themselves. My motto is, I want to “find the good and praise it.”

What do you feel your responsibility is as a journalist in this industry?

I think my main job is, first and foremost, to spread awareness. Whether I’m trying to reach the general public, inform the design community, or highlight a specific architect trying to help make a city better, it’s all about democratizing a topic that’s hard to understand. Residents of any community deserve to be involved in the architectural process, and that’s why stories where the locals are considered in the future of a development are so compelling to me. Someday, wherever I settle down, I want to be a stakeholder and a voice for that place.

Where are you in your career today?

I feel less restless than I have in years. I’ve been waiting so long to become a journalist, granted because I myself chose to do other things first, all which benefit my job now, but those three years felt like a long road. At some points during my lay-off when I felt like the media world was imploding, I did think, “Wow, maybe I won’t be able to become a journalist even though it’s literally all that I want.”

Now that I’m the role I’ve been waiting for, I’m saying yes to nearly everything—which may kill me! My job is interesting because I don’t just talk to architects – I love architects and think of myself as an advocate for architects, but I spoke to you, and in a sense, you’re a writer, and an editor. I talk to city commissioners, historians, artists, and real estate investors. I go to press tours, exhibition openings and lectures, so it varies day to day. I’m definitely not bored [laughs].

 View from Top of the Rock 2015

View from Top of the Rock 2015

What have been some of the biggest challenges?

The most drawn-out challenge I’ve undertaken was during the second half of my employment at Architizer. I had to flip my mindset in terms of what I was doing as a writer and learn to accept that my job was different than what I’d originally signed up for. The most threatening challenge I’ve ever had though was a few weeks after we met this summer – I wrote an article that went viral, and it was really scary. It was on a contentious environmental topic, and after we published, the next thing I knew, the whole country was talking about it – from CNN, to Slate, to NBC, to Rolling Stone. Though that may seem exciting, I wasn’t proud of the piece and the whole uproar felt like a massive weight on my shoulders.

Long story short, we generated more traffic with that article than the site had seen all year, but that was a really good example for me of a lesson learned because in some ways, my identity is still 100% rooted in my job and my reputation. Luckily, I had a lot of back up from my team, but it was a painful experience and I’m still not over it.

“Whether I’m trying to reach the general public, inform the design community, or highlight a specific architect trying to help make a city better, it’s all about democratizing a topic that’s hard to understand.”

What have been some of the biggest highlights?

One is the unbelievable access I have to these great designers and people who have become very influential in the industry. I sometimes still can’t believe how easy it is for me to get their attention— that’s one of the craziest things about being a journalist.

My newfound love of sports design is another one! I went into this career thinking that I really want to write about urbanism and hard core city news, and I do and I care, but for example, all the eyes in the world were watching the US Open in those stadiums, and there was a lot of controversy surrounding the heat, and the lack of ventilation, even though both of those major stadiums specifically had ventilation integrated into the design. For me, the opportunity to write something that the whole world will see and read and relate to – my god! 

What has been your general approach to your career?

You have to find solid, older people in your field who can help guide you and be vulnerable with them. Mentors and bosses actually appreciate when you’re real. Since college, I’ve been lucky to have been mentored by some incredibly insightful and kind men—something I know I should be grateful for in this day and age. I’ve actually never had a female boss, but I have been guided but some impressive women who’ve helped me make connections and get that next job.

As for my direct superiors at those jobs, I’ve been pretty open with them, as well as others in leadership. Maybe a few times my outspokenness has backfired, but I’m tired of young people, especially women, feeling like we can’t express ourselves. Case in point with Serena Williams at the US Open! Your feelings are valid no matter what. Don’t feel like you can’t stand up for yourself, and don’t be afraid to be open, really. My bosses and mentors have been incredibly patient with me, have truly listened to me and learned who I am because I’ve spoken up.  

Also, most journalism professors will tell you there is never a stupid question. I’m not an architect, so I’m constantly asking architects questions that may seem naïve, but I’d rather do that to learn from them, the experts. They do not mind explaining their art because they know that architecture is so complex. That’s the beauty of this job. You get to ask the fundamental questions in order to the root of why something was created or why someone did something. My approach has always been about speaking up when I’m frustrated, overwhelmed, or just plain confused.

 Sydney with Jim Dahlman, journalism professor and mentor at Milligan College

Sydney with Jim Dahlman, journalism professor and mentor at Milligan College

What advice do you have for those about to start their careers?

I’m a little bit of an anomaly having known from an early age that I wanted to pursue journalism. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like for someone who feels debilitated by indecision. I did learn though, especially through my lay-off, that I am not my job, so I would encourage those starting out to pursue as many interests as they can, and take up a few different jobs early on. Also, don’t get so tied up in your work life, especially in New York, where the focus on it is unparalleled. I’ve been so lucky to have lacrosse, and my friends, and to be near the beach, go hiking, and find things to do that enhance and elevate my life.

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