Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “freelance pay rates”

Just Pay Them, Dammit!

More preaching to the choir (presumably) … Caitlin Kelly’s take on unpaid internships. The title sez it all.

Broadside

By Caitlin Kelly

So, imagine you finally get  a shot at the industry/job/company you’ve been dying to work for forever.

Imagine you have even spent the time, energy and hard work to acquire an MBA.

But, hey, sorry, we would love to have you come work for us, but we just don’t have a budget for interns.

As if.

A court decision made this week, I hope, will strike fear into the greedheads who keep offering work without payment:

A Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled on Tuesday that Fox
Searchlight Pictures had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws
by not paying production interns, a case that could upend the long-held
practice of the film industry and other businesses that rely heavily on
unpaid internships.

Should the government get tough to protect unpaid interns, or are internships a win-win?

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III…

View original post 504 more words

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Things That Make You Go, “Hmmmmm….” (Or: A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013)

And here’s a response from The Atlantic‘s senior editor, Alexis Madrigal.

In part:  “Man, I feel everyone on how scary it is to be in journalism. When I made the transition from a would-be fiction career paired with writing research reports into full-time journalism, I nearly drowned in a sea of debt and self-doubt. I was writing posts on my own blog, which almost nobody read, but it did, with an assist from my now-wife, get me a couple gigs writing for some known websites. I got paid $12 a post by one. The other was generous, and I got $50. I was grateful as hell to have this toehold in the world. I remember walking down Bartlett Street in the Mission and saying to myself, out loud, “I’m a writer. I’m a writer! I’M A WRITER!” It was all I’d wanted to be since I was 16 years old. And I was making it.

Except I was not making it. Every day that went by, I was draining the little bit of money I had. I started selling anything I’d acquired to that point in my life that had any value. After the last Craigslist purchaser walked away with my stuff, I stood there in the living room of our apartment staring at the books and crying.

I had so little money and so much debt that any time I had to go to an ATM, I was seized with horrible anxiety. I practically could only do it drunk. You know those ATMs that display your balance EVEN WHEN YOU TELL THEM NOT TO? Well, I hate those ones. I would take my money and as it displayed my balance on the screen, I would carefully unfocus my eyes so I couldn’t really tell how little I had. The credit crunch was happening and I didn’t have any credit left. My loving, wonderful, brilliant parents were going through a rough patch, too, and they couldn’t help, either. I was tortured by the idea that I’d taken on this new career when my family needed me. I asked myself whether I should have stayed at the hedge fund job that I took right out of college and hated so much I quit before the summer ended.

I sometimes hoped that the whole world would collapse — it certainly seemed possible back then — because my debt would be swept away along with the rest of civilization. My dad had once said, right during the credit crisis, “Don’t worry, we’ll all be potato farmers soon anyway.” And I would think about that and it would make me happy. At least then I wouldn’t worry that I was going to be torn apart at the seams by the demands of a work life that couldn’t even keep me afloat in an expensive city. I really, really resented people who could count on financial support from places unknown. They didn’t seem to get how hard it was to keep it together when you might drown under your own debt at any minute.

Like an idiot, I figured I could write a book and use the advance to pay off my debt. That kind of worked, though the process of doing the book melted my brain. I was so tired and my mind was so filled with words that I would forget where I was, almost coming to in supermarket aisles wondering why I was staring at mangoes. I hate mangoes. But at least the money gave me some breathing room. I could approach an ATM without feeling weak in the knees.

So, all this to say: I know the pressure these debts can put on you. I know how angry it makes you, at yourself, at other people, at the world. Why didn’t I save more? Why did I buy that thing? Why did I have to pick up that tab when I didn’t have any goddamn money? How could I support a family like this? Why won’t the world recognize my talent is worth more!?

And so when Nate Thayer published emails with our newest editor (second week on the job), I can see how that might happen. How you might finish writing your last email, “No offense taken,” and then staring at your blog’s CMS that night, decide, you know, what? I’m tired of writing for peanuts, because fuck that. And if a young journalist in her first week on the job was part of the collateral damage,hey, the world just isn’t fair, kid. Pay it forward.

I get it, but it was still a nasty thing to do.”

So Madrigal (I have to say, Alexis Madrigal is a helluva handle … but whether real or nom de plume, I couldn’t tell you, not being in the habit of travelling in such rarefied circles as the editorial conclave of The Atlantic) opens with the sympathy card.  While it rings true, it smells a little less like freelance spirit by the end of the piece, and a smidge more like defense of the indefensible.  But see for yourself, and do read some of the very well-presented, thoughtful, and insightful comments by freelancers and editors alike at the bottom.  (And then come back here and share your thoughts on THIS blog, because I’m another starving freelancer who fantasizes that I will be able to monetize this brilliant and under-appreciated blog just as soon as I have enough hits and engagement to spontaneously set the world ablaze.)

In its entirety:  A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013.

Solidarity, Comrade: Even MORE on Writing for Free

fuck you pay meI have ranted about this before.  Most writers … hell, most creative types … have ranted about this before.  But since the problem has not skulked off into the Cave of Shame just yet, it bears repeating.  Here’s author John Scalzi‘s take on Not Writing For Free:

A Note To You, Should You Be Thinking of Asking Me to Write For You for Free

A Little More Re:  Writing For Free

And since he practically dared me to post his Big Green Graphic, I will do so without hesitation.

Now, I do not have the profile of a John Scalzi (he of multiple science fiction novels with movie options).  This does not mean I — and others of my ilk, who toil ceaselessly and without hope of praise or strolls on red carpets,  in the dank subterranean home office/spare bedrooms of the world — need to write for you for free.  My skills have value.  So does my time.  So fuck you, pay me.  I’m totally worth it.

(Besides, I’ve found nothing like a work-for-free rant to boost my blog numbers.  Thanks in advance, John.)

Just in case there is anyone who hasn’t yet seen Harlan Ellison‘s priceless diatribe on the subject, here it is for good measure:

This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing …

Back in February of this year, I blogged about a PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada), Toronto chapter, seminar I’d attended, about journalistic opportunities in “new media“.

Among the speakers was Wilf Dinnick, who presented to a room full of freelancers in various stages of bewilderment, desperation, and angst about the state of their careers, a strong and irrepressibly optimistic case for embracing markets such as OpenFile, which he founded and edited.

In late September, OpenFile ceased publication.  (If you click the above link, you’ll see the most recent stories were posted September 28, at least as of the moment I posted this.)

And guess what?  A whole bunch of freelancers haven’t been paid, and Wilf has stopped communicating with them.

I wonder if it’s too late to apprentice as a ditch-digger or something.

Here are the gory details, including  the open letter written to OpenFile by six Montreal-based contributors who would really like some answers, please:

http://www.thestoryboard.ca/openfile-freelancers-post-open-letter-to-wilf-dinnick/

http://journomel.com/2012/11/12/freelancers-write-open-letter-to-openfile-for-payment-dinnick-responds/

http://reopenfile.tumblr.com/

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Methinks She Doth Kvetch Too Much

For those who consider me a whiner … me with my petty and ceaseless kvetching about no longer being able to scratch out a living as a freelance writer … I bring you a link:

The Worst Writing Job Ever

A quick calculation based on the pay rate for this unparalleled opportunity reveals that a 500 word article generated with the requisite superlative research skills and demonstrating “excellent grammar and an engaging voice” will yield a handsome 4.5 cents as recompense.

I need to go have a little lie down.  

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Mistress of None

I read another one of those well-meaning blogs full of advice for writers tonight.

I know, I know … it’s one of those trainwreck things.  Can’t look away.

It asked me (all earnest-like) to re-examine why I started freelancing in the first place.  The object, I guess, being to see whether I’m cranking out magazine minutiae because I desire to make a living (apparently, a bad impulse) or whether I have a “true passion” for the creation of purple prose.  (In a word, eccccch.)

So I’ll confess, at the risk of being poked with soft cushions (“She must be made of harder stuff!”), the shameful truth here.  I started freelancing ….

…because I’d sent out 150 resumes over a three-month period and gotten no responses whatsoever. There it is.  That was the reason, some 17 years ago.  And it’s still pretty much the reason.  I’m getting rather weary of being told I’m supposed to feel a higher calling.  It’s something that plays to my strengths, and yes, I enjoy it, for the most part.  But seriously, the nobility of the craft stuff is a little disingenuous, given that the general public lumps journalists in with ambulance-chasing lawyers as some particularly odious mutant variety of slime mold.

Also, given that the pay scale is somewhere well below ditch-digger and deep-fry-station jockey.

That’s been the main problem (and chief source of my kvetching here) lo these past few years.  Where once I could make a marginal living as a freelance writer, now I seem to be working four times as hard for a quarter of the pay.  The assignments are fewer and farther between, with magazines either going tits-up in a snowbank, or bringing all their content creation in-house as a cost-cutting technique (finding out your editors can’t write?  Priceless).

The pay scales are in tatters, with editors apologetically offering fractions of what they used to pay.

And, of course, waiting for your cheque is pretty much like awaiting the Second Coming.  Any minute now.

So given that the Real Job prospects are slimmer than ever — I am STILL reeling in disbelief that I couldn’t even get an interview from the Ontario Equestrian Federation for a communications coordinator position, so really, what’s the point?? — I have recently had to explore various other income opportunities.

Since spandex and I have something of a conflicted relationship, and my ability to hold my breath underwater is average, at best, I have not availed myself of the mermaid opportunity (see above).  Though I am finding myself in oh-so-flattering breeches (the most expensive pants you can look like hell in) rather more often lately.  I figured I had better make some attempt to resurrect my comatose coaching career.

Yup, I’m an Equine Canada certified coach.  (To be fair, it was called the Canadian Equestrian Federation back when I first gained my little frame-able certificate back in the mid-1980s.  I have no idea where the certificate went.  Maybe my mother has it.  I was the first person from the Windsor, Ontario area to gain CEF coaching certification. Woot, me.)  It’s been hard to concentrate much on coaching the past few years when a) I’ve had to move around a fair bit and rebuild my clientele from scratch each time, b) I’ve gotten rather disenchanted with the all-too-frequent revisions of the national coaching program, which seem to benefit no-one except those collecting the multiplying fees, and c) I’ve also gotten rather disenchanted with standing in a meat-locker-temperature indoor arena in February, getting coated with a quarter-inch of filthy airborne footing while my fingers and toes linger dangerously close to necessitating amputation.

But it’s an additional, if erratic, income source, when I can scare up clients and when the weather cooperates and their horses aren’t lame.  And like freelance writing, it comes with a fair bit of scheduling freedom, and I can cherrypick the clients.

A recent internet ad has yielded a trio of new students, which is a good start, even if winter is hurtling towards all of us intent on putting the kibosh on much of the riding activity.  It has at least meant that I can purchase a couple of bags of feed and shavings.

Also, I used the power of the Interwebz to hang out my shingle as a critter-sitter.  I’ve resisted this one for a while precisely because a good friend of mine is quite successful at it; she’s actually making more babysitting beasties and watering plants, than she was at her former corporate drone job.  I have not wanted to step on her toes, but finally figured if I focused on environs that would be awkwardly distant for her, I could in good conscience give it a go.  One gig thus far, briefly mentioned in my previous post:  I took care of two exceedingly geriatric dogs, aged 13 and 15, for a 10-day stretch, in their owner’s home.  Apart from the difficulties of coaxing them to eat, and the ever-present peril that one or both of the little furbabies might wake up dead in the absence of their habitual humans, it was simple enough, and it came with better TV than I have at home, so … win/win.  Would like to do more of that.

I actually got quite a bit of writing done while I was there, too, though I’m not sure I was really providing all that much companionship while I was at it, since it wasn’t crystal clear that these mostly-deaf, mostly-blind canines had really registered I was not their usual caretaker.

And I’m continuing to muck stalls other than my own, though I did decide that one of my two jobs had to go; it was a combo of too early and too anal.  I’m back to weekends only, apart from right now.  I’m pinch-hitting for eight days while the regular barn manager is cavorting in Cuba, and bloody ‘ell, is it making me feel almost 50.  

Another thing making me feel freakishly close to collecting my Sears Club Senior’s discount card:  being offered riding gigs that force me to contemplate my own mortality.  Never used to do that.  Used to throw a leg over any unruly critter I was paid to ride, but … a recent offer to field-hunt a five-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gave me pause, and so did a request to school a four-year-old dressage prospect who is 17:3 hands and “has a bit of a naughty buck in him”.  That is a looooong way to the ground for someone like me who don’t bounce so good anymore.  It’s a demoralizing reality that I have to be more selective than ballsy these days.

But I do need the money, because my truck has chosen this juncture to come up with a diseased transmission.  Maybe I should reconsider the mermaid thing.

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Mushroom Farm

Tonight I am keeping company with an exceedingly geriatric and wheezy pair of dogs, as the writing career continues to stutter and stall.

There’s a magazine to which I used to contribute on a pretty regular basis.  I believe it still ranks as the highest-circulation horse magazine in the United States.  It’s aimed at amateur horse owners and beginner riders, so the content is generally pretty basic, but the production values are high and the pay, okay (as in, I haven’t been offered a raise in about 10 years but its rates are pretty much par for the course for ‘nag mags’).

One thing I always found irksome, however, was their Pay on Publication policy.  Not that this is a rare thing in my little lagoon (though apparently outside of niche markets, it is the exception rather than the rule and makes mainstream magazine writers scrunch up their faces at me in various versions of being appalled).  But given that their editorial calendar is decided a year in advance, and the gap between my deadline and the magazine landing on newsstands can be four to six months, with payment 30 to 60 days after THAT … well, that was getting a little old for me, so a few years ago I reduced my commitment to them to one or two articles a year.  Cuz, to my intense bewilderment and frustration, I still have not been able to get Rogers to put my cel phone bill on hold for half a year at a time …

This year, I had only a single assignment lined up for them.  I proposed the topic back in May of 2011.  They assigned it to me in June of that year.  They wanted the article at the end of August.  In 2012.  For publication in December.

Seriously.  I have magazines who expect a 48 hour turnaround on six-interview, 3000 word magnum opera, and then I have this.

I neglected to enter it on my phone’s daytimer (actually I’m not sure I could, it was that far ahead) and thus it completely dropped off my radar.

Luckily, I did at least put it in my mostly-useless Outlook reminder thingy.  Can’t imagine why; I never do that.  So a week before the deadline, my computer made a disconcerting chimey noise it almost never makes, and I was alerted to the imminent requirement to toss together yet another witty, insightful, gripping, yet approachable essay on how to dote on your senior horse (who may or may not be as wheezy and infirm as the canines with whom I am currently cohabitating).

Disaster averted.  And yet, another loomed on the horizon.  While I had been compliantly lining up interviews and compiling background info, rumblings began.  Rumblings from fellow contributors to this same magazine.  Most of whom contributed more frequently than I do, and thus had their ears to the train tracks, or something.

Hey, doesn’t really matter whether it’s a storm or an oncoming train you’re hearing.  Either way, not exactly inspiring news.

Turns out my fellow contributors have not been getting paid.  Not even on the usual ‘four-to-six-months after you send in the completed article’ schedule.  Just, you know, not.

Turns out, the parent company of this magazine has put itself … well, how can I put this delicately.  Up shit creek without a paddle?

Said parent company owns a whole (if you’ll pardon the expression) stable of magazines, in addition to a book publishing division.  If it trots, crawls, slithers, flutters, undulates, swims, or sheds, they probably have a magazine about it.  Or did.  Cuz some of these titles are starting to disappear.  It’s kind of a weird parallel universe extinction thing.

Meanwhile editors are promising the non-payment thing is all just a temporary glitch. Don’t worry, be happy.  Keep writing for us, you promised you would, we’ve got a magazine to put out.  And we were gonna pay you last week, honest we were, but it was a payroll week and you should be just so very, very glad and relieved that all the editors here are still able to make their car payments.  Hang in there.

It’s hard, sometimes, to remind yourself that the editors are not the Snidely Whiplashes in this scenario.  They have undoubtedly been given directions from On High, as to what they can and cannot disclose to their freelance contributors.  Heavy on the cannot.  And as tiny shreds of info do come to us, it has begun to look more and more as if the editors are currently existing, against their will, on a mushroom farm.  There is definitely fungus among us, as they say.

Especially spore-rific was the announcement early this week that one of the parent company’s other horse-related titles had declared bankruptcy and locked its doors.  All staff caught completely by surprise and unable to retrieve their favourite coffee mugs.   Picture puff-ball mushroom being stomped by shod Thoroughbred hoof.  Ouch.

So my dilemma is this:  do I bust my chops to fulfill my obligation to this magazine?  Factors in favour:  loyalty, tendency to want to meet my commitments, possibility that all this will sort itself out and that there will be more business for me down the road and a gold star on my forehead for having kept the faith.

Factors against:  It’s looking pretty fucking likely that I will never see any money for this article.

I’m grateful that I am not quite as screwed here as some of my colleagues, who are owed four- and five-digit amounts at present.  I’m grateful I’ve been so determined not to put all the proverbial eggs in one basket that I’m only fringe-angsting over this.  But at a time when more and more titles seem to be dissolving, evaporating, or imploding, it’s scary.  Between this, and the markets which still exist but for which I will no longer write because they’ve been total asshats to me, I find myself now babysitting pleasant but neolithic dogs in order to not-quite survive.

More on other weird and occasionally degrading odd jobs in a future rant.

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Exposing Myself

I know it’s a subject I’ve (ahem) touched on before:  The old ‘please work for free’  spiel.  But I thought I should share this latest request because it’s just so gosh-darn warm and polite.  Makes it sound like a really good gig, doesn’t it?

I can never tell whether these guys are just blithely ignorant, or actually know what a raw deal they are proposing and are just hoping I’m fresh off the turnip truck.

Though given that this particular dude found me via LinkedIn, you’d think he would have had ample opportunity to scan my background

I’ll be kind and remove the actual names here, but suffice to say the website/directory/publication in question is looking for equestrian travel content, for which they don’t want to pay.

Sure, I’ll not only contribute to your website and directory for free, but I’ll travel (on gossamer wings, presumably?) to come up with the content, and be delighted that in exchange you will:

* list me in a directory of other schmucks who work for free, so that no-one ever thinks I expect to be paid, ever again

* put links to your website all over my blog (a blog, btw, that doesn’t currently earn me a plugged nickel and, tragically, is likely not to magically monetize when it has a reciprocal link placed on yours)

* follow me on Twitter (be still, my palpitating heart!)

* give me a BYLINE!  Woot!

* allow me to enter your upcoming writing contest (see similar rant here). 

* oh, and my work will be read by equestrians.

Here it is, with names changed because I am far too impoverished to fight off a lawsuit (unless someone knows a nice Canadian lawyer who will work for exposure?):

Hi, Karen. 

You and I are connected through Linked In, and I’d like to briefly introduce myself. 

I’m the CEO of (an American company), and I’m contacting you because I’m seeking writers for short well-written articles on a variety of subjects. 

I can offer you additional national exposure in our newsletter.  You would have a by-line, a link to your website, and would be referenced in our archive’s index of writers with your professional bio. As we grow, your work would be read by an increasing number of equestrians. We are also planning writing contests and awards, and have many other ideas we hope will appeal to you in time. 

Our new service, http://www.insultingwriters.com , is the largest, most sophisticated equine travel directory in North America. This directory is free for everyone, both equine travelers and people who want to create their free travel-related business profile. 

The directory features hundreds of horse-friendly campgrounds, layover stables, guest ranches, and backcountry vacation facilities that provide equine lodging in the U.S.A. and Canada. Each profile has an executive summary of the facility, contact information, pictures, travel directions, and reviews, assisting horse owners with finding the ideal place to stay with their horse. 

So: 

1. If you are interested in writing short articles on equine-related travel (destinations, trails, trail gear, cowgirl apparel, campsite recipes…) please contact me! I’ll get you started… 

2. And, if you wish, we’d like you to place our website’s link on yours as a benefit to your clients and readers. In turn, we’d be happy to post your link on our website. 

3. In just a few weeks, we can also help you generate additional revenue with our link on your site. Please let me know if you’d be interested in knowing more about this. 

4. I’m also seeking special discounts or promotions I can offer our guests and subscribers, and if you or your organization has a product or service I can offer to a national audience, I’d love to promote your special offer. 

5. If you know anyone who has a horse-friendly campground, layover stable, guest ranch, or backcountry vacation facility, please let them know about us. They can create their free business profile on our site and increase their exposure. 

6. Our website has a Calendar of Events… You’re welcome to post your events (or any organization’s events to which you belong) on it, and there’s a blog (link removed) on which we’d enjoy your comments. 

7. Of course, if you’d visit and Like our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/XXX ), connect with us on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/company/XXX ), or Follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/XXX ), we would greatly appreciate your kindness. We would be happy to do the same for you! 

Please contact me for anything. I’m happy to help promote you and your interests in any way I can. 

Best wishes, MR. X.

And my response:

Dear Mr. X,

I know your message wasn’t intended to be rude or insulting. More and more businesses seem to think that “exposure” in exchange for well-written content is a fair trade … but the truth is, it never has been, is not now, and is in no way a viable business model.

If you have actually looked at my LinkedIn profile, you’ll have seen that I am a professional writer, and have been for more than 20 years.  By “professional”, I mean that this is what I do to pay the bills.  With over 5000 published articles and six books to my credit, frankly, I have “exposure” out the wazoo.  Alas, all it seems to get me these days is more requests (I won’t call them offers) to give away my work for free.  And that, I’m afraid, won’t do me much good in terms of paying my rent, my cel phone bill, or dealing with the guy who’s bringing 1200 bales of hay to my place next week.  He is not likely to hold onto his invoice until my newfound “exposure” begins to pay imaginary dividends for me.

I’m particularly concerned about your business model considering that you’re requesting travel pieces.  The investment on the part of the writer is considerable; press trips are close to non-existent these days and if one manages to travel on one’s own dime, there’s little chance of actually recouping that investment.  None at all, in the case of (your company).  How does that make sense?

If I was independently wealthy or had a huge inheritance coming my way, and was still tickled by the idea of a byline, I suppose I might be more receptive to your proposal.  But writers like that are a bit scarce on the ground.  Frankly, I hope you don’t find any, because even if they don’t need the money, it hurts everyone in my industry when writing, as a skill, is so devalued that companies just expect it will be given away.

Just for the record, my minimum fee for freelance work is 40 cents a word … please feel free to get in touch if that rate is agreeable to you at some point in the future.

Sorry to come off as harsh, but it’s becoming very, very difficult to survive as a freelancer these days, and business models like yours (sigh) are exactly why.

Sincerely,

Karen.

I’m thinking I need to just develop a boilerplate response to asshat proposals like these.  Anyone got a good one they’d like to share?

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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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Dear Editor: Seven Things Freelancers Want to Get Off Their Chests

Sometimes I feel like a three dollar hooker.

By which I mean the lowly freelancer still doesn’t get a whole lotta respect in this mean ol’ world.  And it’s not just a matter of having no dental plan.  (Mercifully, I am Canadian, so at least I have basic health coverage … I really feel for my American counterparts who are forking over 3/4 of their income every month for health insurance!)

There’s this vast, yawning gulf in perspective on the publishing industry, depending on which side of the editor’s desk you’re observing it from.  Funnily enough, most freelancers, including myself, have spent some time as editors, so I like to think we’ve got a fairly balanced viewpoint of the priorities of each job.  The converse, however, is not always true —  not all editors have spent time as freelancers.

Many years ago, I started a little e-mail chatlist for freelance writers and photographers who work in my little niche, the ‘nag mags’.  I was just trying to develop a community of similarly occupied people who could compare notes on the markets for whom they were writing, share story ideas and sources, maybe kvetch a little.  Freelancing of any sort can be a very isolating thing, toiling away in obscurity as all are in our various versions of home office.  The chatlist, as Mesozoic as it was, took off, and it’s still alive and just as Mesozoic (technologically speaking) today.  I like to think it serves a purpose, beyond giving me egoboo as its ‘listgoddess’.

But oh my, you should have seen the knickers twisting and the hands wringing, when some of the horse mag editors got wind of the fact that the freelancers were talking amongst themselves!

The horror.  The horror.

Somehow, I was instantly cast as Norma Rae, rabble-rousing in a factory.  Good lord (thought the terrified editors), if we let them compare notes, we can’t divide and conquer anymore!  It’ll get out when we take months to pay someone.  When we steal a story idea and assign it to someone in-house.  When we forget to assign something and then expect one of our little factory minions to churn out a brilliant 2000 word feature on a 48-hour turnaround with no additional compensation.    When we send out a completely draconian contract that requires writers to sign away rights they hadn’t even conceived of yet.

Well, yes, that was sort of the point.

Needless to say, assignments for me were rather thin there for a while.

But eventually the editors got used to the idea.  And got over themselves.  Everyone had to come to grips with the fact that this whole Interwebz thing was making it much easier for people to converse.  I don’t really get frozen out anymore over it … most of these same editors probably assume the chatlist is long dead by now.  (It isn’t, but it’s invitation only, so if you’re a freelancer who’s genuinely interested, leave me a comment and I’ll e-mail you details.)

Oh, and btw, the idea of freelancers unionizing does come up regularly, and there are organizations out there, but unfortunately none of them really has the clout they would like to have, so they haven’t really made much headway on behalf of the really struggling demographic like myself, which can’t afford the annual dues.

Yup, pay them pathetically enough and you can keep ’em under your boot-heels indefinitely.

Now, to be fair, it’s often not the editors who are really to blame when freelancers get a raw deal.  The edict usually comes from further up the food chain, and the editor just gets to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Still, when it comes to freelancing in the 21st century, there are a bunch of things we freelancers would like editors and/or publishers to know.

(Here comes the crowdsourcing part. I asked for contributions from my fellow freelancers for this, so editors, please don’t take these as personal attacks on my part, but as constructive and deferential commentary from freelancers at large!)

1. If you can’t pay well, then at least pay quickly.  Believe it or not, I’ve got biiiiig vet bills, just like you.  POA, or payment on acceptance — meaning that once the writer submits the article, and a cursory glance has determined that it isn’t irretrievable rubbish and has the potential to be published, the writer is sent a cheque for a previously-agreed-upon amount — used to be the industry norm.  But increasingly — and especially, for some unfathomable reason, within the horse magazine niche — it’s now POP, or payment on publication.  Which can be months and months and bloody months after you’ve done the research, interviewed the sources, transcribed the tapes, written and edited the piece, chopped 650 words off it because it was too long (um, maybe that’s just me), and sent it out.

Which essentially means that the magazine has your work in its hot little hands, interest-free, for yonks.  Which, frankly, Ontario Hydro doesn’t understand, even when I try to explain it to them in words of one syllable or less.

When the pay rates keep plunging, POP is really adding insult to injury, folks.  I understand that budgets get slashed and that sometimes your hands are tied and you’re only hanging onto your own job by the slimmest of threads.  But listen, if you’re only able to offer some paltry amount for my blood, sweat, and tears, you’ll soften the blow considerably if you can hustle that cheque into the mail (or my PayPal account) just as quickly as the accounting department’s little legs can manage it.  My cel phone and internet providers and all my other utilities, thank you.

2. It is not easier to “write short”.  Several times in the past few years, I’ve received breezy e-mails from editors, announcing that their publication is reducing the wordcount for their feature articles to approximately half what it used to be … and yet they’re still willing to pay me 2/3 of what I used to get.  Like this is doing me some big fat favour or something.  Like it’s going to save me so much time and work.

Writing short is not easier, especially when (as is almost invariably the case) my gentle editor still expects me to include just as many quotes from just as many experts, and thoroughly cover just as many thorny aspects of whatever the topic du jour might be.  Writing short just means I have to do that much more machete-ing of copy once I have the framework down.  And when I do that, I risk having to eliminate something that’s crucial to the subject and also really interesting, and then, sometimes, being told to shoehorn it back in there somehow (without increasing the wordcount!).

I once had an editor ask me to cover a week-long international showjumping tournament at Spruce Meadows in 600 words.  Not one class — the entire tournament, which if I recall correctly included at least 14 big-news classes.  And then he complained that my copy didn’t “sing”.  Sing?  With that wordcount I could barely manage to list the names of the winners in point form.

Writing short, writing ‘tight’, is a skill that not all writers have.  It’s something I continuously strive towards, and I’m a lot better at it than I used to be (this blog notwithstanding).  But c’mon, peeps, don’t be trying to spin it like it’s some great big Sisyphean boulder off my back to have less space in which to express myself.

3.  When I bail you out of a tight spot by generating fabulous copy on a ridiculously short deadline, at least have the class to acknowledge that I saved your ass.

Or as one of my compatriots put it, “Your publishing / editorial mismanagement is not my problem!  WHY would you call me on Friday with an offer of a project, only to tell me it’s needed on Monday? Your editorial calendars are set months in advance. What happened? Someone let you down? You know I’m reliable and will get it done so you call me? What’s the incentive?  None.  Your rates are draconian and your attitude simultaneously arrogant and demeaning. I’m doing YOU a favour! At least offer me a slight ’emergency’ bonus.”

4. Hellllooooo?  “Editors who don’t have the decent common courtesy to at least respond to the read request when you send in an article or photo — that’s a pet peeve.  They expect us to have stuff in on or before deadline, then can’t even have the decency to let us know they received it.  I only have two editors who faithfully respond back, and it is so nice not to have to wonder if the thing made it or not.  It’s just bad manners and makes the person sending the article feel unappreciated.  I meet their requirements; can’t they at least have the decency to acknowledge me?  All they have to do is push a button.” — a fellow freelancer (Oh, we are legion, people … and apparently, we’re pissed!)

5. Identity theft is a crime … or at the very least, bad form.   “When you copy-edit my work, I would appreciate it if you would not change my style of writing quite so radically.  You asked me to write it, but now it reads like you were the author.  I also don’t appreciate it when you make changes that make the copy grammatically incorrect.  I’m not complaining about issues that might be right on the line or could be interpreted in different ways … I’m talking about making changes I learned not to do in Journalism 101.”  — a victim of butchered copy (see machete, above).

It’s true that one has to have a thick skin when one is a writer.  Some editing is inevitable, and you can’t be joined at the hip with every precious bon mot you generate in a Word doc.  But there’s editing, and then there’s the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.  When you don’t recognize a single sentence in the published copy as your own, you know you’re not dealing with an editor, but a control freak.

 6. Please stop trying to rob me blind with rights-grabbing contracts.  I know, I know, these don’t get generated at the editor’s desk.  They’re handed down from some weasely little lawyer at the behest of a bean counter in a corner office.  But it’s the editor who mails it out, accompanied by another breezy message which thanks me (I kid you not, I actually received this) for helping their company to “thrive”.

Funny how I end up feeling like you’re thriving at my expense when you send out a contract which requires me to sign away not only my right to get paid if you decide to use my material in six different magazines instead of the one we discussed, but also my right to make a little extra income from my work in alternate formats existing or not even imagined yet, forever and ever amen.  Oh, and then there’s that liability clause which asks me to assume all responsibility for your edited copy, and the little “moral rights” thing.

From the Writer’s Union of Canada: “Stay away from or amend contracts that ask you to waive (i.e., give up) your moral rights. Waiving moral rights permits a publisher to make substantial changes to your work, even to your viewpoint, or to alter the authorship credit by publishing it anonymously or under someone else’s name.”

“The biggest thing is to stop grabbing rights that a) they’ll never use, and b) prevent us from re-selling or making additional income from our work. It is a total piss off.” — another compatriot of mine.

Gawd, we’re a bunch of ungrateful wretches, aren’t we?

7.  Make up your mind.  “Be clear about what you want when you make the assignment, and ensure that you and the freelancer are on the same page. It is wildly frustrating to have an editor ask for rewrites not because the story is lacking per se, but because his/her vision of the story is “evolving” as you go along.” — yet another comrade, who when acting as an editor, strives for clarity.

Thanks to Simon Chadwick, whose cartoons can be found at http://www.ceratopia.co.uk

And at this point, I’m going to save further constructive criticism for a future post.  I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself blackballed by at least a dozen of my regular markets for this one.  Editors, after all, don’t have the thick skins freelancers do …

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