Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Despite All My Rage...

 * 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 work food literally every waking moment or they will die, until utterly exhausted and used up from the effort of finding assignments sustenance, they die, anyway. And if that's not the description of a typical freelancer then I don't know what is.

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.


  1. There is always the fallback of being a public information officer for some wildlife agency, I suppose, if you could stand it. I almost applied for a regional PIO job with the Colorado Division of Wildlife once — my wife did not like the town it was in (she has since changed her mind), but I was more concerned about whether I could function in a bureaucratic environment. I think I survived twenty years in a university environment by having an office that was off the beaten path and trying to stay out of politics — not always possible, of course.

    Through firefighting, I have met a lot of agency PIOs (e.g., US Forest Service) who don't have that reporter experience in their resume. Sometimes that does not matter; other times, it shows in an underlying hostility toward the news media, usually described as wild animals who should be caged far from the incident scene and tossed scraps of meat at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

  2. Freelancing isn't much different regardless the industry. For most of my career, I freelanced as an "Instructional Designer". There was always uncertainty and the constant search for the next gig, but I had a niche when I started, with experience that few people had. I did some pretty cool stuff, and they paid me well for it. I did some boring stuff, but didn't care because they paid me well for it and I knew it was temporary. It was a hard, uncertain lifestyle, but it suited me (in the same way that I think freelancing suits you).

    Now universities have both undergraduate and graduate degrees for every aspect of my work and wide-eyed, eager college grads and post-grads to fill those positions at a fraction of my hourly cost. Even worse, they have turned what I do into formula that can now be outsourced to people who don't even fully understand the words they're transcribing.

    I bailed. Back into the world of Full Time Employment (FTE). Benefits. Paid vacation. All that jazz. And let me tell you... I'm a shade older than you, Chad, but I'm not old enough for this life. It's stifling. I'm getting out.

    We all want what we don't have.

  3. I think the location of your bookstore dream is Fargo/Moorhead. Sure North Dakota is desperately trying to fuck up it's western horizon right now with the boom in the oil patch (cute,eh - like cabbage patch - that's what they call it), but it has all the qualities that you described. And it will likely take another twenty years before it's totally trashed. In the mean time, there's a lot of money floating around, a couple of great Universities, lots of old fishing junk and plenty of gun freaks. Might work. Oh, and the wind blows all the time - it is (or was) the great northern prairie.

  4. Good thoughts, Chad. And I think you're absolutely right - the printing landscape is changing dramatically these days, though it's also good to remember that it certainly isn't the first time - many a highbrow cognoscente thought that literature and quality writing were utterly "doomed" when inexpensive printing processes and paperback books were first developed, for example. Instead, a number of the most prominent writers of the 20th century made their rent money by writing for them.

    "Adapt or die" has always been an inescapable maxim, in my experience, but there will continue to be an audience, and an appreciation for, quality writing. And there will continue to be ways to make (at least some) money at it. Newspapers, books, magazines - they all may die in short order, as we currently know them, or at least transform into other things. And for those of us with nostalgic attachment to these mediums (myself included), it can seem depressing. But I refuse to believe that good writing will ever die. After all, new formats are only that - at the end of the day, its still the content that matters. But people who have been in the business for a while, and don't/aren't willing to change, and keep lamenting that it "isn't the same business it was 20 or 40 years ago" are sealing their own fate, just as they always have, regardless of the business they are in. Remember when there were journalists who refused to give up their typewriters, and loudly proclaimed that they would "never write with a computer?" Where are they now?

    As in just about everything, I think it's important to take the long view - which usually makes it obvious that whatever "dilemma" we think we are currently facing has probably happened numerous times before, in some shape or form, yet things evolved and continued on. I think it's also important, just as it always has been, that when you can't find the outlet that you want, you need to create it.