Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Professional Development Day

I’ve never been much of a joiner.

Mostly because when money’s tight, the association memberships are the first things to go.  So I am currently not a member of PWAC, which used to stand for “Periodical Writers Association of Canada” and now stands for “Professional Writers Association of Canada” (presumably, because the writing biz these days is almost more about online content than it is magazines and newspapers).

But I do keep tabs on what the Toronto chapter of PWAC is up to, and when the opportunity presents itself I try to attend some of their evening or weekend seminars, which they kindly open up to non-members who are willing to produce a $20 bill at the door.

It’s mostly about the networking for me.  Living in the boonies as I do, I’m disconnected from the urban writer’s community (where everybody knows your byline) and certainly disconnected from their reputed $1-a-word planet.  (There’s that Holy Grail AGAIN … and I notice it gets mentioned at least once in every PWAC seminar, like you are doing the world a disservice, or at least are remarkably stupid or can’t possibly be any good, if you write for less …)

Other than that, though, they’re generally positive experiences and an opportunity for me to play Urban Grown-Up and wear the nice shoes for a few hours.

Last night’s topic was “Digital Journalism for Pay”, and it was mildly encouraging.  There were three panelists:  Wilf Dinnick, of OpenFile , Bert Archer of Yonge Street Media (for you out-of-towners, Yonge St. is Toronto’s iconic main drag, as well as the world’s longest non-highway street — it goes up to Hudson Bay or something), and Navneet Alang, of the Toronto Standard.  All of these are paying, online-only markets.

Dinnick’s enthusiasm, in particular, was infectious; he insists that people not only want and expect solid, well-written journalism on the Interwebz, but that there are markets which are willing to pay for it.  OpenFile’s numbers would seem to bear that out; according to Dinnick, they have quadrupled their audience in the last three months, and the metrics are still going nuts.  What’s even more encouraging is OpenFile’s model.  While it uses a certain amount of the dreaded UGC (user-generated content, aka ‘citizen journalism’, aka the stuff that’s putting me out of business), what it does mostly is solicit story ideas from the public, then (and I will italicize this because it’s mildly mind-blowing) assign actual professional, paid journalists to write articles based on those story ideas.

In case you don’t know what the fuck I’m on about in this regard — the vast majority of online ‘news’ markets these days get their content from unpaid, unprofessional journalists whose content is usually worth exactly what they are paid for it.  See Huffington Post et al.  (And no, I’m not giving you a link to HuffPo, because I refuse to give it any gratuitous hits. Find it yourself if you must.)

Now, OpenFile isn’t Grailworthy … from what I understand, they pay a flat rate of $200 for stories.  But most of us are grateful for such crumbs these days.  And they aren’t even grabbing rights; they ask exclusivity of the content for a mere 48 hours, after which you are free to do what you will with your work (re-sell it, make giclee prints of it, give a copy to your mother).

A reasonably fair deal for writers?  In this day and age?  Well.  Whatever would Arianna Huffington say to that?

Archer backed up Dinnick, saying that journalism hasn’t really changed; if you have the chops, you’ll do just as well or better in the digital age, than you did selling to traditional print markets.   Furthermore, he thinks good journalists will

Thanks to Patrick Blower of the Telegraph, who would have been consulted had I been able to track him down.

be valued for those skills — if not now, then when the dust starts to settle on the whole changing-face-of-writing thing, in three to five years (est.) — and shouldn’t need to re-invent themselves as podcasters, videographers, and/or code-writers.

Hope that part’s true, because I really can’t afford to invest in video equipment and my hair looks funny on-camera.  Also, I hate the sound of my voice.  Dammit, I knew I should have taken that broadcast class in undergrad ….

All three agreed, “there’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist”.  I presume they mean in that uber-fun, “please be the first to bungee off this bridge into the gorge … it hasn’t been tested but we’re sure it’s perfectly safe” way.  They’re certainly astute in pointing out that the ‘traditional’ print markets — venerable institutions like the Toronto Star, the Wall Street Journal, and Atlantic Monthly — have not yet really come to grips with the possibilities and pitfalls of online journalism.  “They’re casting about at the moment,” Archer said.  “They don’t really know what they’re doing.”

And when money starts to get tight, publications like this don’t respond by selling the printing press.  Nope.  They fire reporters.  That, says Dinnick, is an almost limitless talent pool that online markets can tap into.  True enough.  We’re here and we’re hungry.  And we’re in no position to hold out for $1 a word.

More than ever, it pays to be nimble.  It’s fatal to have all your eggs in one editorial basket these days.  Got to hustle, got to diversify.  Ten times $250 blurbs = one $2500 feature back in the day.  But here was where something of an elephant strolled into the room … when our three esteemed panellists were asked to think of some other online news outlets which paid (other than the three they themselves represented), well … they could only come up with one (The Tyee, a Vancouver-based and -focused online newspaper).

Not such a positive close to the session.

I’m sure it’s all going to sort itself out over the next few years … I’m just not confident I’m not going to starve to death waiting for it to happen.

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13 thoughts on “Professional Development Day

  1. Thanks for the (sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking) summary of the meeting. I was a member of PWAC and would enjoy the camaraderie and access to professional development opportunities – but at this point I can’t afford the dues either. And, like you, I do occasionally manage to attend something thought provoking where I, too, can wear dress shoes and “city” clothes.

    The state of journalism across the country is sad. I was recently offered an on-going gig (if I wanted it) for a local weekly newspaper (part of the infamous Irving chain) for a walloping $20-$30 per 500+word article. Uh – no. It’s not worth firing up the electrons in the computer for that – never mind my time to do an interview, distill the information, write the item, possibly make some phone calls, get in the car and go and shoot the accompanying photo (for an additional $25) plus download, editing and uploading time. Right. This won’t be happening. That’s even worse than the rates paid by some magazines that date back to the dark ages.

    The holy grail of $1 per word? In our dreams, girl, in our dreams.

  2. Well, that is depressing. I guess the question is do you want to hang in there on the possibility that things change for the better or is it a good idea to repurpose all of that hard-won experience and find another way to use your skills and earn a living? My brother is a writer and now he works in the Public Information Office of large county administration. Not as exciting as journalism, for sure, but he has health insurance, a good salary and even a retirement plan. He still writes on the side for himself and at least he’s not always looking for his next paid writing gig.

    • Hi Liz — a lot of journalists end up moving to the Dark Side (PR) for exactly those reasons. I’ve done some media relations and definitely would not be opposed to something steady! Nothing quite right has come along recently, but I keep sending those resumes out …

  3. TaxCoach on said:

    Thanks for showing the reality map. I don’t know how, but there needs to be a better business model for old school news media to survive. Reducing cost by firing reporters are not a long run solution. Somebody need to figure that out. Otherwise, downward spiral would continue.

  4. I see a lot of reporters with video cameras now combining their posts with both written and video. This does seem to be the wave of the future. We are all time poverty and video helps and I too have a Journalism degree and yes I had to move out of my love into something else, because it didn’t pay. I still write on the side to keep my skills nimble.

  5. Kim @ QwikR.me on said:

    Reblogged this on qwikr.

  6. Pingback: Professional Development, Part Two « Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

  7. Pingback: This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing … « Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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