…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.