* with apologies to Smashing Pumpkins...
I am still just a...shrew in a cage?
If you asked me to which animal freelance writers are most similar, my delusional side would respond with one of the noble, independent big cats, perhaps a proud and aloof bird of prey, or some other dignified, solitary, non-pack animal of quiet dignity and regal bearing.
In truth, however, we're rodents. Squeaking, expendable little rodents living in the shadows. Specifically, we're shrews. Yes, shrews. Shrews are small, powerless, largely invisible, and must forage for
Most freelancers, if they've been freelancing for long - and especially if they have families not associated with a trust fund - eventually start casting long, covetous looks toward the safety and predictability of regular, gainful employment. Steady paychecks, regular hours, and perhaps even the possibility of a few meager benefits start overshadowing the once-shiny allure of unpredictability, creative independence and freedom from routine, which are - un-coincidentally - the exact same qualities used by the neighbors of virtually all freelance writers to convince the neighborhood watch association we're drug dealers...
The point is, even semi-successful freelancers (which by my definition is any freelancer making enough money to afford at least one good weekend drunk per quarter) always keeps his or her eyes on the journalism and publishing job boards, just in case. I am no different, and lately I've noticed a number of interesting-sounding editorial positions opening up, including a few in the sporting mag world. I've even contemplated applying for a few of them.
The thing is, though, if I could pick the one industry in which I'd be most terrified to make a career decision that entails uprooting my family, selling my house, and moving halfway across the country for a new job, it'd be publishing. The print industry is in a bad way, and turnover, both voluntary and forced, is staggering. I know a few writers and editors, both magazine and newspaper, who have lost jobs recently, and the future doesn't look any better, even for those positions that sound so compelling in the job description (What? An opportunity for personal growth? Self-actualization? The chance to be a team player, part of something bigger than myself? Quick, sign me up!).
I suppose many, if not all of those open positions are being filled by young, unattached, and geographically mobile candidates, while many of us older, rooted fogies read the ad, think "that sounds like a pretty cool job, wonder how I'd be at that?" and then, knowing there's no way in hell we'll ever find out, go back to foraging for crumbs.
When I quit newspapers and started freelancing full-time some 13 years ago, I reasoned that I had two fallback positions should freelancing not work out. One, newspapers would always be here, I was a good reporter, and I could always go back to a beat. Yes, yes, I know. Please, all you fired, downsized, laid-off, let-go and permanently furloughed daily reporters and editors stop laughing, and crying. Two, telecommuting was obviously the future, and if I couldn't find a reporting job I could always find some sort of regular, full-time editorial position I could perform from home. Sure, it may be with a publication like Linoleum Flooring Weekly, but it'd be a job.
Well, newspapers are in even worse shape than the magazine industry, and the promise of a bright, shining, pajama-clad telecommute-based economy has, for the most part, never materialized. Most editorial positions remain firmly in the "asses in seats and on location" category, which tends to keep most of us mid-career shrews foraging in place for crumbs.
At first glance, it seems depressing as hell. And if you're simply hoping for a continuation of the status quo, I guess it truly is. But I honestly think the publishing industry as we know it is doomed anyway, forced to die or adapt into something completely new. All those interesting jobs you can't apply for because you're old, fat, slow, and rooted in place? In all likelihood they'll cease to exist in a few years, anyway. The traditional paradigm is toast, and so are a lot of publications that continue clinging to it.
And that, I believe, is a good thing. Or at least it has the potential to be a good thing. Who knows what opportunities for both good writing and the potential to make actual money from that writing will spring forth from this paradigm shift? Lots of shrews, including myself, are still trying to figure that one out.
So I guess all us mid-career shrews should just bide our time, keep our tiny little snouts to the prevailing winds and keep gathering what crumbs we can as we figure out how to navigate this brave new publishing world. And if it turns out that I can't figure it all out, I'm still convinced that this can be my new calling in life.
Even in the face of a changing world, people still love real books, apparently, which I'm pretty sure is more than you can say about most magazines these days.