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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wind outta my sail

UPDATE: Here's a link to some buzz being generated by Yagoda's column on Romenesko letters. Apparently Yagoda's been a part-timer for many years.

Wow! I’m feeling pretty blue. Have you read this piece by Ben Yagoda in Slate?

It’s titled “My Life as a Hack — It was glorious. Now it’s over.” In it Yagoda laments what magazine freelancing has become—a victim of supply and demand. He admits that maybe age has taken the thrill out of the nonstop chase, that he’s weary from the tiredness that comes with working for rates that continue to be the same as they were 10 and 20 years ago—not adjusted for inflation, merely the same. But it’s even more than that.

The Harvard Business School could use freelance journalism as a case study of a buyers' market. Leaving aside a handful of periodicals that value distinctive writing, extensively reported dispatches, and unusual or challenging perspectives, what magazines want is clean and inoffensive copy that fits their magazine's format and fills the space between pictures and ads. There has always been an overabundance of people eager and able to provide this, even if they are treated lousy. Therefore, they are usually treated lousy.

It’s a tough gig, being a freelancer, but though you are routinely kicked in the pants for any number of things (including the self-inflicted kind) and subjected to head-scratching changes or worse—additions—to your story, there is always the thrill of pursuing your passion.

We freelancers have always had to put up with magazines that die on us, along with butchered copy, chuckleheaded editors, rights-grabbing contracts, isolation, lost manuscripts, whacks to the ego, changed quotes, the absence of security or benefits, and—unkindest of all—the kill fee (i.e., paying authors a third or a quarter of the agreed-upon rate if an assigned piece is not used for virtually any reason, up to and including the fact that someone else wrote about Winona Ryder). Usually, though, these indignities are outweighed by the good stuff about freelancing: freedom, no commute, funny war stories, the periodic ego boost of appearing in print, and the chance to eat caviar with Uma Thurman.

Yagoda clearly still glows with the thrills, but what is different today is that no longer is enough.

Modern titles, formatted to within an inch of their lives, require freelancers to shape experience into small, breezy portions that extol the lifestyle or consumer culture the magazine and its advertisers are looking to promote. The ultimate upside isn't the creation of a cultural event, but the creation of buzz.


Normally, this kind of thing wouldn’t get me down, but lately I’ve been feeling a little as if I’m shouting into the winds of Katrina. I’m working hard through SPJ and in partnership with other writer organizations to ensure that freelancers have access to opportunities and that they are valued for the commodity they bring—unique stories told in a provocative way.

In return, I’m willing to talk with any editor about how freelancers can better serve their needs. But I wonder lately if it’s worth it. I’m not sure what sells and that’s caused me to question everything from my news judgment to my writing abilities. I’ve received my fair share of form rejection letters, with a handful that actually had something personal written. My favorite is the “this is too close to something we’re already doing” rejection. Well, if that’s the case, at least I know my judgment and ideas or good—my timing isn’t. Gotta work on that.

And I sometimes feel paranoid, wondering aloud to more than a few colleagues what it takes to crack one editor who seems downright spiteful toward me. In one pitch she expressed such flagrant bias against a story with great societal ramifications because a mother "broke the law!" It was something her readers would never read. She's the editor and it's her decision to determine the news value of a story, but I felt as if she didn't give the story enough consideration. There were many more issues at play including exploitation of immigrant women by their spouses and the Dept. of Homeland Security run amok. But she never let me get that far and so this important story about how one family was treated at the hands of the U.S. government will not be told here. The sad thing is—their story is one of thousands like it around the country. And so I'm looking elsewhere to pursue that story.

Yagoda mentions a writing friend of his who still treasures every rejection note he received from The New Yorker. I’m sure there are freelancers across the world who also prize similar epistolary collections. But worse are the many more talented writers who simply no longer try because they are defeated by the industry.

In the end that’s what keeps me going. I’m just stubborn enough to think that what I do can make a difference and so I’ll keep on. I’m NOT giving up on advocating for better relations between freelancers and the news organizations that rely on their work.


Amy Green said...


So sorry to deflate your sails today. If it's any consulation, I'm still awaiting payment for an assignment I completed TWO MONTHS AGO! Meanwhile I'm stressing over bills, etc. That's what infuriates me most, when payments are seen as petty paperwork and nothing more.

The other thing that gets me is because of the isolation, you read into every move a client makes. I was elated earlier this month as I worked 30-40 hours a week for one client I've worked hard to cultivate. Then, for two weeks, no work. Nothing. What gives? It's impossible to know, and I'd never be so bold to ask. It could be anything, budgets, work load or lack of it, etc. It's puzzling and frustrating.

Like you, I press on because something inside me forces me to. Call it masochism?


Amy Green said...

I should add to this previous comment that, alas, in the freelance world it's not unusual to get paid two months later. But this particular payment is more than a month late. Grrr ...