…and the beginning of something new? Call it a midlife crisis (my birthday is approaching, send me a gift), call it a period of deep introspection, call it whatever you like, the long and short of it is that I have been a freelance journalist for 15 years and journalism as it is today is wearing me down.
No, I am not retiring from journalism, I am just resigning myself to the fact that previously as a freelancer I could make money from this profession and at the moment I am finding it a struggle to compete. Articles on subjects about which I am passionate and which, subjectively of course, I feel should be published for the lofty and perhaps naive ideals of the “greater good” are no longer the same as those which perhaps I penned some years ago, or, do not appeal to editors in the mainstream media outlets.
I remember my first editor Heinrich at Central America Weekly (now defunct) in Costa Rica when I started out as an intern all those years ago impressing upon me that to succeed in journalism was to possess nothing more than “thick skin”. This is an absolute requirement, and I will always remember my time in San Jose fondly, my first job being to interview the country’s vice president. Perhaps alarm bells should have sounded when I realized that we were all meant to be selling advertising at all possible times just to keep the paper afloat. It was an economic necessity and of course today it is an absolute reality of any publication.
Preferring to steer clear of the pitfalls, perhaps displaying less maturity in the field as I thought I had, I found myself writing a great deal of travel pieces. This was not only enjoyable, it enabled me to land a job as an expedition guide and spend a great deal of time on the road. Those of you who read this blog will know that I have criticized this particular field intensely for its routinely advertorial text. Now, as a specialist in conflict resolution and with a profound understanding of Colombia and a complete lack of desire to oversimplify reporting to cater to a mainstream media crowd, I am finding myself in a journalistic quandary.
Do I trivialize my reporting by ensuring that it can be consumed by the mass market? Yes, it is easy to argue that if I were truly a master of my profession I would both be able to create a digestible piece of writing explaining the situation in Colombia for example and make it “sexy” for an editor back home. I suppose that I am not there yet.
There are more factors to explain my clear malaise with the industry. This year two “friendly” editors with whom I had nurtured relationships of respect and reliability over several years have moved on, and have as yet to find other positions. This has left me at a zero standing once again with outlets which clearly prefer to source everything in-house. I understand this policy too in a period of penny pinching and cut backs, what is the purpose of paying some freelancer when you have people on the payroll? I called up a publication the other day to pitch a piece which I clearly felt would sit with them and the response was that “they already had a journalist en situ” with whom they only worked. Again, this is fine and were I that person I would be sitting pretty, but, this journalist did not get the exclusive that I was covering. Surely, the piece of news is more important than the whim of a loosely retained journalist?
Talking to a former journalist on Sunday (who shall remain unnamed), she confided that she had left the industry since her bosses were reluctant to keep running as they put it: “stories about rats in council houses ”, regardless of the fact that these were timely, interesting and obviously devastating pieces of news that needed to be told. She had it down to the fact that everywhere was “dumbing down” and I am inclined to agree with her.
My interview with Bogota’s Mayor Gustavo Petro had interest, timeliness and controversy but one outlet “did not feel it” but instead on their front page was running a story about “zombies”. I recall the first guest speaker at my university when undertaking the MA in International Journalism. John Pilger always makes a splash and he stood there before us almost pleading with the eager young faces before him “not to sell out”. Now, I disagree with a great deal of Mr. Pilger’s politics and writing, but, one cannot accuse him of being a fringe player, this is someone who knows the industry. Were I to find myself in an auditorium with him once again or in a position to ask a question of him, I would suggest that we are all required nowadays to sell out.
Perhaps one of the most foolhardy and impulsive moves I made in journalism when my career was but in its fledgling stage was to walk out of a job with a very large and very influential English daily newspaper. They had me placed at the social desk where I would be expected to trawl fashionable bar launches and film premieres to stalk the “famous” and embarrass them drunk to glean humiliating quotes. The first week was intriguing and I spent most of it inebriated on fine champagne, the second week was tiresome as I was after the person who came second in that year’s Big Brother phenomenon and on the third week I walked out. I later heard from the hack who took my place that I was continually referred to as: “the unimpressed one.” I feel quite flattered by this title. I did not get into journalism to write about the peccadillos of press hungry socialites. I am happy to say that I am still unsure who the Kardashians are and what Miley Cirus did the other day.
Truly, I have no regrets leaving that post and my television is extinguished before any “celebrity news” can be broadcast.
So, what happens to a journalist when he or she becomes too knowledgeable in a field? I guess we become writers and academics. I have not opened my file on “The Mompós Project” since my last entry into what will eventually be my novel when I get round to writing it. But, I think this is now the only way that I can progress in the field. Are books becoming a thing of the past, and if I don’t have any contacts in the publishing industry am I prepared to self-publish and run down that road? With this in mind I know that I will have an enthusiastic support group of writers trying to urge me on. In fact, we have even created the “Struggling Writers Group” in Bogota, so struggling in that we have yet to meet all at once.
I guess it’s time to buckle down once again and focus on the projects which matter. I need an income, but, I am happiest writing, so I am going to have to struggle with the nuances that this presents. When there is a moment, I am going to print off the 20,000 words written for “The Mompós Project” and take a red pen to it. In the meantime, you can mainly find me applying for all sorts of jobs to make ends meet.
This seems to be happening across all media industries as the Internet hollows them out. Not only is getting paid to write harder than ever, but you also now have to be your own marketing guru to sell your own writing. Lots of people are willing to blog and write for free, though that often means they don't have any way of covering a story in any detail and can't offer any insight outside of their own opinion. Even major outlets like Huffington Post don't pay many of their writers, and what you get as a result is a world wide web full of listicles and aggregated content.
I am a little younger than you (31) but I am just as cynical and don't see the landscape as improving anytime soon. Maybe you need to start your own publication, with a little help from the struggling writers?
Thank you Daniel, the years creep up on you and the responsibilities grow and then it just dawned on me, what am I doing? I'll need cash for a publication, but, should this be forthcoming, I would be more than happy to enter into some sort of enterprise. Thank you for the comment as always.
Great write up Richard. I'm a designer and I find myself nodding to many of your problems. I face the same 'compromises' in my field; however I look at a lot of the work as bread and butter jobs and I focus on other things that I find rewarding; even though for now it may not generate an income; it's a start; it keeps me sane; and I'm doing it my way.
I think it's great if you self publish or go out on your own. You're doing it your way; and there are opportunities to make it on your own these days. Just keep putting the word out there and things are bound to happen.
BTW, I'm off to Colombia next week and I'm really looking forward to it. You're write-ups have been a fantastic source of information about a truly wonderful and diverse country.
Thank you Kat, I would definitely consider self publishing but I am aware of the pitfalls having seen what some friends have been through. I quite like the idea of IndieGogo, Kickstarter or Unbounding in a sort of crowd funding sense. Drop me an email once you are in Bogota and we'll grab a coffee!
I always fear for young journalists coming into this profession who believe that a freelance writer has a hard time. By the nature of our work we are ‘jobbing writers’ – writers for hire – we are supposed to be experienced (often ex-staff) writers who can be hired by any publication to produce original copy/content that adapts its style to each publication or online site with no fear of delivering to a tight deadline. That’s the beauty of freelance work – that’s where we beat the competition by being flexible with an adaptable writing style, which many can’t replicate.
I am happy you were able to tie in your favourite subjects with good commissions over the years, but the truth about freelancing is that we are writers for hire – damn good ones and maybe remembering the true nature of what we do will remind you not to give up hope and to inspire writers that freelance writing is a skill and a magnificent way of earning a living BUT only for the flexible. If you want to write to win prizes, for family and friends or to be patted on the back – stick to creative writing, but people don’t like hearing that because we all know how difficult it is to get published. Contacts might get your work read a little faster, but that’s all. It’s competitive and always has been. For good reason everyone wants to write.
Be happy that you are paid to do what you love and remember many people are highly skilled (and highly creative) and work in jobs that neither satisfy nor come close to their dreams, but they have chosen security. All writers had that choice.
I am still as grateful as I was the first day I was paid professionally to do what I love. Spare a thought for those who haven’t had the luxury – and it is a luxury and one WE chose. We write for others not for ourselves – surely? Otherwise, stay home and write a diary 🙂
All the very best and please be proud of what you have achieved over the years and remember you will be paid to write as soon as you realise adaptability is your true skill.
And all you writers out there – keep writing and forget about competition. The best contacts you will ever make are story contacts – forget lunching with editors, get out there and talk and listen to everything around you. Remember we are the extremely lucky ones.
Wishing you all the very best in everything you do.
Anna, what a wonderful response, thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I guess, after so long, my armour was pierced this last week. I am always going to continue to write and pug away but, it was just so disappointing. Perhaps this entry and of course your reply can serve as some help for future freelancers.
Definitely get the novel up and running and press ahead, however you end up publishing it. Tom Woolf told the world print journalists were all secretly wannabe authors and he was right. You have done your time, earned both expertise and an understanding of how the world works and now is the time to use it. Let the young pups battle with the challenges (horrors) of the newspaper world as it is today, get out your pipe and slippers and accept that it is time to face the new challenges ahead. Good luck!
I have the slippers already! Thank you for the words of encouragement Vicki
Some good insight, thanks RIchard.
I remember at journalism school (a long time ago, in New Zealand) the tutor challenging us by stating ´research shows what bit of the newspaper do people read first´..
..the front page? (no),
the second page) (no)
the sports page (no)
the editorial and letters page? (no)…
OK, answer was …TV page (followed by the daily horoscopes) ….
Seems like dumbing down has been downward for a long time!
If your struggling writers group ever gets to meet up pls let us know so we come along (though I havent even started even to the point of struggling yet)
thank you Steve…I wrote the horoscopes for Central America Weekly, and knowing that my flatmate in San Jose read them, I tailored my text to what was going on in his life at the time!
Does translation interest you? Is there demand where you live? I wish you the best of luck in finding an opportunity that brings satisfaction and a new challenge.
Thank you, I have worked as a translator for some time, but it's not something that I wish to pursue full time.
Essay writing is not a guileless task as some put it. It always gives some people, time perdition. There are numerous solutions that have been put across by the their explanation
Without struggle nothing could be possible to achieve. I will have an enthusiastic support group of writers trying to urge me on.
I don’t normally comment on blogs.. But nice post! I just bookmarked your site