15 Comments

Is Fake Journalism Viable as a Career? Methinks Nope.

I took this picture at a hospital on a freelance project.

My journalism studies stopped abruptly after my first semester of college when I realized that my true love is fiction & writing it.  So after–or perhaps it was during–my second semester, I did a ninety degree turn and switched from Journalism to English with a Creative Writing concentration.

I spent most of the glorious next four years swimming in the ocean of literature, criticism, contemporary fiction, and writing.  I dropped the Oxford Comma habit, then picked it up again when I ditched MLA for Chicago Manual.

Now, ten years later, I find myself as a practicing journalist.  Would those lovey journalism professors I scorned during my energetic and immersed first year of college be proud of me, or would they think I’m a poser?  I feel like a poser.

I write hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of words each week for newspapers and magazines, and am in hot pursuit of more of this work using my trusty manual, Writer’s Market, and the online service, too. These are invaluable for the freelance writer.

And while all of the editors I work with seem to esteem me and my work somewhere between pleased and just-glad-to-have-a-reliable-freelancer, I keep finding and being offered more of this work, so I must be doing something right.

The jargon eludes me sometimes (though I cheat), and there are many aspects of AP Style that strike me as particularly un-stylish.

I’m kind of devastated by the realities of the print media business, and I am knees-deep in something that feels, in many ways, to be almost dead.  Rasping halted breaths after the world wide web and free content bludgeons it, print media is living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Nobody is paid well enough (especially not freelancers), and in the barren economic environment–or in the failure of print media to adequately prepare for and adapt to new media–the dearth of analysis and criticism that print media can afford its subjects contributes to the general disregard for critical thinking that is all too prevalent.

Still, I love talking to people and learning new stuff.  I love to do research and procure a working understanding of new topics.  And for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette (that I’m not linking here because every time you open their website, you get popups from Publisher’s Clearing House or Netflix), I get to talk to artists and musicians primarily, and I’ve met some excellent people, and learned about some groovy new tunes.  I’ve also talked to some Broadway celebs and authors I admire or respect.

But, I live in Williamsport, PA.  And while there’s tons of stuff that’s happening here that’s amazing, it’s not New York, Chicago, LA, or even Nashville.  We get d-list celebrities and Glenn Beck. Besides which, freelancers for small-town newspapers don’t really get to talk to the national acts (which is totally understandable and I am NOT complaining), and even when I do get to talk to national acts, it’s not like they’re folks who’re up-and-coming.  American Songwriter probably doesn’t want a piece about Foghat.  And the two pitches I’ve made for singer/songwriters that I thought would work there have been handily ignored.  (Again, not complaining.  Rejection is a reality of a career as a writer)

And in this huge Wildcat Comic Con project, I’m meeting even more cool people and learning even more cool stuff.  Ditto my podcasting for Billtown Blue Lit.  And these are up-and-comers.  So I’m hoping to mine a goodly number of pitches from this work.

But I find myself wondering why I expend so much energy and get paid so poorly (or not at all) when the likelihood that this work (or more of it) will still be available for me in even two years is slim.  Staff writers are more-or-less a thing of a bygone age, with staff writers having made a laborious transition to being called editors and getting paid less to do more work, so I don’t delude myself.  I am an apprentice to an industry that won’t be able to provide for my retirement.

So I mostly view this work as personal enrichment, and building a solid base of published pieces that I can leverage into better-paying gigs, plus writing practice because (say it with me), All Writing Is Writing Practice!

(I am also considering applying to graduate school again.  Don’t tell Penelope.)

Too, I’m getting my name into the world, on the internet, and the more people who know about me, who see my name in conjunction with things they enjoy, the greater my odds of being offered freelance writing work of any stripe.

But Penelope says that when you’re in your 30s, you have to stop doing work that people in their 20s do. I feel like I’m doing what I should’ve done the moment I earned my degree, and the realities of efficiency and the limited number of hours each day means that honoring this low-paying work while pursuing better-paying writing jobs is a tightrope walk between self-torture and -affirmation.

And I get Writer’s Digest, and I read blogs about freelancing, writing, media, and personal/professional development. I learn more about how to freelance as a writer every day.  So maybe I’m doing everything right? Or maybe I should just keep on keeping on and quit worrying so much over the theory.

Anybody care to weigh in?  I’d love to know what you think.  I approve all comments, even if I think they’re wrong, unless they are decidedly trollish.

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15 comments on “Is Fake Journalism Viable as a Career? Methinks Nope.

  1. I say go for it. The MEDIUM is changing, but not the “message.” There will always be a need for content.

  2. I was going to say something similar to Jamie’s comment above. It’s unbelievable how many people don’t know how to spell or put together a decent sentence. I’m not an expert but I try to check my written work for spelling errors and basic grammar mistakes.

    I think we need more competent writers in this world. The problem, though, is the lack of value publishers give to writers in this age of free content. Creative writers are expected to be happy with a free copy of a magazine or online subscription for pieces of literary worth. I can’t imagine the pay scale for a print journalist, but from what I’ve read lately of the industry it can’t be good.

    • I think it would be unethical for me to disclose, but you’re right. It is rather pathetic. And it’s my understanding that staff journalists/editors are comparably poorly compensated.

      There’s some contention about whether bloggers should strive for technically perfect prose. I tend to land on the side of “they should” with the caveat that (serious) bloggers should be forgiven for some typos/oddly organized thoughts because blogging is labor intensive, and daily content, comment moderation, etc, makes a blog a pretty huge (but rewarding) time suck (even if you’re small time like me). :-) But you’re right when you say it’s incredible how many people can’t put together a reasonable sentence.

      My fear with the diminishing cost of content is that writers–especially good ones–will be in higher demand, but where will the money come from to pay for them? I’m happy as pie to be sending my words out into the world with the hope that many people will read and like them, but I can’t buy groceries with the happy feeling I get from being read, or from interacting with readers like you.

      Thanks for stopping by & subscribing. :-)

  3. Hmmm… my biggest weigh-in: I understand you dig Penelope, but I’d like to entreat you to talk her words with more grains of salt. I’ve read her blog and she seems a little bit like the Judge Judy of the internet to me– really big on “shoulds” and “you can’t.” I think you might and you can. It’s difficult to live, balancing our gifts and our dreams with our society’s very broken way of measuring value and distributing wealth. Adding layers of judgmentalness on top of this big difficulty that we’re all swimming in– well, I guess I don’t dig it because it looks like adding insult and to our collective injury.

    • Ha! Carolyn, you are so right. Penelope is very obnoxious, and I agree that she’s way too much about hard lines. I disagree with a lot of the stuff she says about parenting and love and relationships, and I think homeschooling is almost never a good choice; and since I realized that she’s been diagnosed as Asperger’s, her absolutism makes a lot more sense. But I’ve always felt like a flounder out of the sea career-wise, like I value personal fulfillment too much over money, and a lot of what Penelope says about entrepreneurship and business and women inside of it makes sense to me. But your post and the other stuff I’ve read on your blog makes a lot of sense to me, too… I’m more-or-less comfortable working for almost no money and having barely enough. And have had some difficulty reckoning that out for myself in this world that’s so perversely motivated by money, and right now, I don’t even have barely enough, so this is weighing on me in a greater way. I’ve been thinking lately of doing as you’ve done and offering an online course on a “pay what you think it’s worth” basis. I just have to figure out how to package it. So thanks for hanging out, for your super-thoughtful comment, and for your Facebook cheerleading. You are a gem. <3

  4. Penelope is an idiot. I read her blog for about a month. I can’t believe people actually read her. She’s like a whining teenager. Her advice is dead wrong. If there is something in life you want to do, then do it. You have to get your 10,000 hours in to learn it. It doesn’t mater how old you are. You can do this with a couple of different things all throughout your life.

    On content and journalism: we’re in a time of big shakeouts. The future of content is going to be in two forms: crowdsourced and curated. Most old time “print” companies (newspapers) already missed the boat. There are new companies and soon to be created companies that will be the new content creators. Part of practice is discovering who these new publishers are and getting involved with them OR becoming a publisher yourself.

    • Such vitriol, Sue! I am glad I can hear you saying this in my head and sharing your hearty laugh after. It is the way you deliver vitriol, generally.

      So, Sue–who are these new people? I’ve tried getting on board with Demand Media and others like About, etc, but Demand pays peanuts–worse than The Sun-Gazette, and About’s thing is such a massive, unproductive rigamarole (plus, I think their content stinks)… I blog my face off, but aside from hoping people like and share what I say, and applying for every freelance web content/copywriter/blogger/editor spot that I hear about, I don’t know what else to do. Do you know of things besides these?

    • I don’t agree at all that Penelope is an idiot. I do think she overshares sometimes but if you wade thru the personal (and actually, personal stories draw people in; I use that technique, too, altho I like to think I don’t cause as many cringes) there are brilliant little nuggets in there. She can back up what she spouts, even if you don’t agree with the conclusions she draws (and I sometimes don’t — nor do her readers, who regularly tell her she’s full of shit). I’ve been reading her for about 18 months now and have noted that she says often that the way to get read is to be controversial, and that’s HER technique. So — she’s pushing buttons on purpose. :)

      Nice, succinct assessment in the crowdsourced and curated. I personally don’t care much for crowsourced content. (I’ve blogged about this more than once! Ha.) But then, I’m a curator-for-hire, so I’m probably biased. :)

      • Yes, Jamie. I think we have a much more sentimental affection for Penelope than Sue can muster. Sue is a self-made woman who’s had at least 2 successful careers of which I am aware, and possibly others before. She is also an excellent artist and a strong writer.

        I certainly understand Sue’s reaction. Sometimes I am really uncomfortable with the insane advice that Penelope offers so confidently!

        Also–I don’t think that Penelope would suggest that you can’t become an expert on two topics in one career path (or put in those 10,000 hours multiply). I do think, however, that the notion that you should have at least one way to get enough money to live by the time you’re mid-way through your 30s is a pretty sound suggestion. That’s how I read her. Dampen everything she says about two steps to an octave and that’s the essence.

        Plus, I dig her wildly insecure/hyper-confident voice. I read her with my psychoanalysis hat on, but I think I’m always reading with half an eye on the author’s inner (non-written) experience. It’s a game I play with myself.

  5. PS. and there you go, a typo to boot : )

  6. April — you too, are a major gem. ;) Yeah– the Asperger’s diagnosis thing does make a lot of sense re: Penelope’s black-and-white writing. — I totally hear you about the stress of not-at-all-enough money. — Have you checked out http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com? I’ve found a few cool things on there.

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