Telling stories

Posts Tagged ‘freelancer’

It’s Time for Writers to Say No to Nothing

Posted by southwrite on August 23, 2014

Money HandI don’t know how I avoided it. After all, I’ve been doing freelance writing since the late 1990s, so I’ve been through quite a few booms and busts in the business. Yet, here was the offer. It was delivered third hand through a friend and went something like this, “we would consider your writing for us, but the first article has to be for free. You know so we can determine if our styles match.”

Over the years I’ve written articles for a number of magazines, ghosted three books, and worked for numerous corporate clients. None of them ever said, ‘we want it for free – you know, to try you out.’

Writing, like any business relationship, carries a certain amount of risk for both the author and the publisher. I may not deliver exactly what you want. You may not hold up your end of the agreement or even pay me. Wanting it for free isn’t really about this risk, it’s about cutting expenses and boosting profits. These days, many very profitable publishers pay their writers and reporters next to nothing or nothing at all. (The most notable examples in this category are the Huffington Post and VICE.)

They have no problem finding takers for their nothing. Of course, it’s usually couched in the sweet melody of prestige. You’ll get noticed and the work you do will translate into big (paying) jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately that rarely happens. Writers who publish their work on sites like the Huffington Post find that the strong wind of notice tends to be a mild breeze or a dead calm. There are too many other toilers and too much material to get noticed. Meanwhile, the site makes huge profits for owners with little left over for those who actually produce the material that brings eyes to the site in the first place. Arianna Huffington sold the Huffington Post for a cool $315 million. VICE publisher Shane Smith is likely to go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion making its owner a billionaire. Most other web ventures and magazines don’t make anywhere near that level of profit, but to one extent or another they’ve adopted the same business model.

In one sense this is pure capitalism at work. In the modern marketplace it’s not about the product you offer, but the leverage you have over workers or customers. In publishing, the business model is often based on scamming the producers into giving away their work. Why pay real money that could pay real bills? Instead offer some intangible and mythical alternative based more on hope than actual experience.

Writers are especially vulnerable to this ploy. We create and we have an overwhelming desire to share our creations with others. We want people to read our work as much and sometimes more than we want to be paid. Many novices come to the profession with low self-esteem about their abilities and a fear that nobody will publish them.

This is a mistake and one that has consequences for all writers. The more of us who fall for the writing for nothing scam, the harder it becomes for everyone else to make a living. The profession, in which once many professionals of varying abilities could make a living, has been transformed into a hand to mouth existence in which only the biggest names with the deepest platforms can really make money.

Make no mistake about it, writing is a business in which you have to make money – or you need to do something else. Writing is labor that deserves to be compensated at an appropriate rate.

The long history of labor and management relations has been marked by conflict and even violence over wages and working conditions. As independent contractors, freelance writers aren’t represented by unions (although there are a few like The Freelancer’s Union that claim to be), but we are more like employed workers than we care to admit. We have all the responsibilities of self-employed business people, but are still servants to those who publish our work. As the smallest of companies in this Free Agent Nation, we have little or no leverage when it comes to negotiating with magazines or corporations.

So, how do we deal with this issue – with those who want our work without paying for it? The first step is by realizing that you are a business – no matter how small – and that you must run it like a business. You’re writing to make money and turn a profit. You won’t produce either if you succumb to the enticement of providing something for nothing. I realized that fact when I heard the offer I mentioned above. That’s why I said no and did so without reservation.

It’s time we all said no to nothing.



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How Many Jobs Does it Take to be a Freelancer?

Posted by southwrite on July 24, 2014

Hire MeIt’s pretty clear now that the old way of working that our parents knew so well doesn’t work anymore. This won’t come as a surprise to freelancers like me who have forsaken the 9 to 5 for independent employment and our own particular brand of entrepreneurship.

This is the Free Agent Nation of Me, Inc. As many see it, the movement toward independent self-employment is reinventing “work” and the meaning of success.

Freelancers Union founder and executive director Sara Horowitz writes “Many freelancers rightly see the standard workweek as a prison of the past. Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding — it’s practical and efficient. Time is a new currency, and successful freelancers manage, save, and spend it wisely.”

Having greater control over your own time and doing the work you love is what brought many of us to freelancing.

While most people still work for (mostly small) businesses, the number of freelancers has risen dramatically to about 42 million. While many have willingly chosen this life, quite a few are self-employed because their corporate job was downsized or outsourced. (They had to create their own business to be hired.) Of course, many of the people filling the cubes in offices are considered “contractors.” This legal fiction enables a company to employ someone without the expense of benefits or even a W-2.

A great many younger workers – the Millennials and their cousins – have embraced self-employment. Having watched their parents get downsized, they know there’s no more lifetime employment. That evaporated along with pension plans and retirement parties with gold watches.

While the idea of a Freelance Nation sounds very appealing, you have to ask how much of this is being driven by passion and how much is simply desperation?

Yes, freelancers have definitely redefined the traditional job, but that definition is not always as romantic and in control as our advocates would have you believe. Consider this: 87% of freelancers have more than one gig a month, and 35% have more than four gigs. Instead of concentrating on just one job, they’re cobbling together multiple jobs and employment – which could mean a part-time job at Starbucks when they’re not at a table working on an assignment. The number of gigs they work on a regular basis is a reflection of declining rates and the inability to make a living by sticking strictly to their own particular niche.

Is this the future of freelancing? You can download the entire report here and decide for yourself.

I became a full time freelance writer in 2002. At the time, I was working for a small college at the time that was in the process of imploding. A large number of faculty and staff had already been laid off in the chaos of the school losing its accreditation. I hung on as the atmosphere grew more toxic and my envy for those recently departed colleagues grew.

When I finally left it was more with relief than sadness. The next day I got up at the same time, got dressed and ready, but instead of driving to the office I walked a few steps to the spare bedroom that had become my home office and went to work on a stack of assignments. I’ve never had the desire to work for a full time employer since then.

I’m also realistic about the nature of freelancing in the modern global economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say you’re competing not just with the freelancer next door, but those around the country and around the world. If what you’re producing can be done by others more cheaply, then clients will seek them, find them and forget about you.

As freelancers we face the same challenges and the same prospects of having your market “disrupted” by wily competitors as any corporation – but without the advantages and resources. That knowledge doesn’t make me want to return to the office, but it casts a sobering perspective over this career I’ve chosen.

What to do? Maybe those multiple jobs and streams of income really is the future.

Posted in Life, Uncategorized, Working | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Running Your Business Like a Business

Posted by southwrite on June 26, 2014

computer moneyYou became a freelancer because you wanted the freedom of working for yourself, choosing your clients and setting your own schedule. That’s what being an entrepreneur is about, right?

Yet, many of us don’t act like businesspeople. We love the freedom, but don’t want to do the mundane things that companies do to be competitive. Sure you’re probably good at your core business – writing, design, photography or whatever – but, what about the business of business?

Here I’m talking about the common practices that companies follow to maximize profits and stay in businesses. You can run your businesses better and improve the bottom line – putting more money in our pockets – if we take a look at what companies do and adapt those practices to our own admittedly small time operations.

Be ruthless in cost cutting

Successful companies get to be successful not just by having a great product and sales team, but through the unglamorous job of keeping expenses in line. A good business will cut out unnecessary expenditures and search for better and cheaper ways to get things done.

One freelancer insisted to me that she needed a fax machine and second phone line. When I questioned how many faxes she actually received the number was less than one a month. When you calculated the cost of a fax [maintenance, ink and paper, and a second phone line] it was probably around $30 each or more.

More than likely you can scan your documents and email them. If you think you need a fax use an internet fax service. Although the service only costs $10 a month, over time it’s become increasingly inefficient. Few people send faxes these days and if you really have to send one your local office supply store can do it for you.

You can probably think of any number of cost saving measures that won’t cramp your business or your style. Did you really need the New York Times in the morning when every article [and more] is available on-line? The same goes for the magazines you buy. Nearly all of them are available online or e-versions on your tablet. Many can be obtained free through your local library’s ebook program.

Set a goal to identity common expenses – particularly recurring monthly charges – and decide if you really need the service or the product. If it’s a business expense, decide what it would mean to you if you didn’t have it.

Don’t drive when you can go direct

Do you have clients who insist on seeing you face-to-face? With telephone, e-mail, and Skype video conferencing, you really don’t need to actually drive to their office. The large companies that I’ve worked with never want to see me in person since all the work is begin done remotely.

It’s usually the small – and low margin – clients who want face time. Nudge them toward phone calls and e-mail. If they insist evaluate how much they mean to you fee-wise. I’ve sometimes found that travel expenses turned small jobs into money losers. It might be more profitable to stay at home and forego the job.

Better and faster

One of your greatest money savers can be you. How efficient are you at what you do? Are there graphic design programs that competitors are using, but you’ve only heard about? Research studies find corporation that invest the most in training also tend to have the highest valuations and stock prices. If you aren’t getting training and education, then you may be consigning yourself to the low end of business.

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Your Office Away From The Home Office

Posted by southwrite on June 22, 2014

Man working cupOne reason I started freelancing years ago was to avoid the daily commute to the office. Leaving the confines of a 9 to 5 job, meant setting my own schedule, finding my own work and clients, but most of all not getting in the car (very often) to drive somewhere in traffic that I hated.

So why then am I so fascinated by the coworking spaces that keep cropping up just about everywhere?

The truth is that after you’ve spent a few years in your home office – whether it’s the basement, a spare bedroom, a closet or even a brightly lit sun porch, you begin to miss the regular office. Not everything to be sure. Not the “boss” by any means. If you’re a freelancer than you’re the boss and you don’t like the idea of taking orders from anyone else.

You do find people  and stimulating conversation lacking. Not that you want to be back in the office with the same crew that sometimes made your life miserable. No, you want to talk to other freelancers and the self employed  about ideas. problems or maybe a collaboration.

Many of us feel that way and some are spending at some a few days in coworking locations. These arrangements usually involve a desk, internet access and lots of free coffee. But there’s usually much more. There are networking events in terms of formal programs and t the informal talks that can sometimes lead to something big.

Just getting out of the house for a while can do wonders for your creativity and peace of mind.

As I mentioned earlier, there are now many coworking arrangements. There’s probably one in your town or soon will be. Most have been set up by private companies, but now even city governments are getting into the act. I came across two good examples of coworking in suburban Gwinnett County right outside of Atlanta.

The small town of Grayson converted an old warehouse into a coworking and incubator space. The emphasis here is on fostering the development of new companies, more than providing an office away from the home office for freelancers. The goal is nurture growing companies that can jumpstart economic development in the town, according to Gail Lane, Manager of the Grayson Downtown Development Authority.

The 438 Grayson Parkway building in downtown offers both coworking space and Incubator programs for new businesses. Along with cheap space, the DDA connects the company with local mentors who can help them develop and hopefully avoid some of the problems that can hamper any new enterprise. She says that other professionals find 438 an “ideal for finding a quiet spot to either get some work done, catch up on e-mails with a cup of coffee, or for meeting with clients, having conferences and networking with other entrepreneurs. We’ve found the concept of “Getting out of the house and into Grayson” a overall positive experience for those who are part of our programs.”

The Suite Spot @ Sugar Hill coworking space

The Suite Spot @ Sugar Hill coworking space

In Sugar Hill, freelancers and startup companies are moving into a coworking space created in the old city hall. This marks one of the first times a city government has converted a city hall into a coworking arrangement. In fact, according to city spokesman Scott Andrews the town may be the very  first.

The structure became available after the construction of a new municipal center. Rather than sell off the not quite historic 1970s era property or turn it into a parking lot, city father saw an opportunity to foster development among the estimated 80 percent of local businesses that are home-based. The Suite Spot @ Sugar Hill was born.

“We see it as a business incubator model,” according to Andrews. “We want to get young growing company or home based businesses in there at a very inexpensive rate. Our goal is to have them grow with the city and move on to the other real estate we will have available very soon.”

Still in the process of build-out, more than half of the ten upstairs office spaces have already been spoke for and a tutoring company called Grasp Learning about half of the bottom floor. The front sector of the columned building is set aside for coworking space and will have a “Starbucks feel,” he explained.

“We’re trying to give it the trendy industrial look with glass and metal. Some place that people want to come and hang out and work,” says Andrews.

That’s just the kind of atmosphere that a freelancer  finds inspiriting and a good place for an occasional office away from the home office.



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Be a Productive Freelancer Without Giving up Your Life

Posted by southwrite on June 19, 2014

HOME OFFICEIf you’re like me you became much more productive and got a lot more done each day when you became a freelancer. I was only too happy to say goodbye to the endless meetings and the talkative co-worker next door who spend more time in my office than he did in his.

Yet, you’ve probably also found that a home office has it own time wasting traps. I know I have.

You’ve gotten to day’s end with little to show. Oh, sure, you tweeted you commented to Facebook friends, and maybe you even cruised into Starbucks.  Did you finish that assignment? Sure, it wasn’t due today, but if you had, you’d be breathing easier tomorrow when it is due.

Maybe it’s time to look at how you’re working, what distracts you, and how you can make those distractions help you. Here are some tactics that have helped me – when I’ve used them.

The secret to productivity is to always keep the big picture in mind. Ask yourself: what is my purpose? The bottom line is completing assignments – writing a feature article, completing a newsletter design or other task. The productive freelancer doesn’t ask ‘what should I do today?’ Instead the question is ‘what do I accomplish?’ The next question is how can I use the tools at my disposal to get to those finished projects?

Fortunately the very things – like Twitter, email, and the like –  that waste our time can also make us more productive – if we manage them rather than letting them control us and our time.

1. Control social media. Schedule specific times during the day to log onto Twitter or Facebook rather than checking in constantly. Ask yourself what am I trying to get out each session. Is it to find a source, or a new client? Is to learn more about a particular trend or company? Don’t log on if you don’t have a purpose in mind. Sure you can also look at what’s being said about the World Cup, but don’t let it take up the whole session. [And, make sure it is a session – with a specific beginning and end time.]

2. Reset your email clock. The Post Office never delivered mail every minute and you don’t need to see every message as soon as it arrives. Reset Outlook’s automatic send/receive option to a longer interval – say an hour or more. And, turn off the funny sound and icon so they don’t disturb your concentration. If you just have to be available for client e-mail make sure that only true business messages are arriving in your primary mail account. Set a separate Gmail account for all those newsletter, Facebook and Twitter announcements so they don’t overwhelm the work day and more important mail.

3. Make an appointment. Block out time in your Outlook or other calendar for work just as you do a client appointment. Set 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. as a “writing appointment.” Then maybe follow it with “Check social media 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

4. Keep regular hours. I know most of us became freelancers so we could keep our own hours. We all work best when we pay attention to our own internal clock. Whether you’re up at 6 a.m. or just getting started at midnight, set up specific hours that you’re at your desk doing what needs doing. Then stick to your work day/night — whatever those times are for you. It can also make you more productive if you dress for the role. I rarely work in my sweats and I don’t really feel that I’m “working” until after I’ve showered and gotten dressed.

5. Use technology that works — for you. Letting others be trend setters provides you with more opportunities to do real work. Do you really need a fancy time management program to record your billable hours or will a plain old legal pad do? Setting up software programs can consume more time than they save.

6. Get out of the house and home office. In the beginning of this article I mentioned that daily trip to the coffee shop. I know the critics say it’s a waste to buy that overpriced cup of coffee, but there’s more in that cup than java, so don’t give it up. Getting out of the house will provide that change of scene that can re-energize you for more work – not to mention the effects of a shot of caffeine.

Put these suggestions to work and you can tame the technology beast, get more done and still have time for the pleasures it offers.


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Reading to be a Better Writer

Posted by southwrite on June 5, 2014

Tree reading book

Like a lot of other freelancers, I get the question “how do you become a writer?” Since it usually comes from people who aren’t really serious about making writing their calling, I say “well, you write. Then you’re a writer.” And, of course, that’s true. You have to do it in order to be it. You more you write you better you become at it and the better writer you become.

I do a lot of writing –journalism and corporate copywriting – so I practice what I preach. [This blog is an addition – a test to see if I could keep up with daily posting without quitting.] Yet, there’s one thing I don’t do as much as I should and that’s reading.

Sure I read a lot. I read all the time in many different mediums, but mostly on computer and on line. Most of it is research with a little non-worked related material thrown in. I’m also trying to do more reading that improves my craft. The kind that makes me a better writer.

I’m reading more books on writing. Here good examples abound. One of my favorites is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Part autobiography and practical guide for aspiring writers, it’s filled with advice from a master of the craft. Whether you’re a fiction writer or not this is one book you should certainly read.

You should also check out guides aimed at specific aspects of freelancing. The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success by Linda Formichelli. Another good book for both beginners and even veterans is The Well-Fed Writer – Updated Edition by Peter Bowerman. This book covers just about everything you can think of that you might need to know as a freelancer, but perhaps it’s greatest lesson is that Bowerman knows you have to approach writing as a business.

You can find a number of other good works on various aspects of freelance writing here.

There are general interest magazines devoted to writing – Writer’s Digest and The Writer. Either or both are worth subscribing to for the one or two articles in each issue that make subscribing worthwhile.

Along with the how-to books and articles, some of the best lessons you can get from reading come from other writers who are doing what you want to do. Read the work of writers you respect with an eye to how they structure their stories, set up scenes and present information. Break a story down and think about how the writer approached it. This is particularly helpful when you’re reading stories similar to ones that you yourself write.

You might think you don’t have time for this kind of reading, particularly if you’re busy doing a lot of your own. This is the time you most need to sharpen your skills and your mind with good information and most of all good writing.

Posted in Professional Development, Uncategorized, Working, Writing | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Somebody Always Pays

Posted by southwrite on June 1, 2014

Gas Mask Typewriter

What’s the new model for media success? You can get very rich persuading a lot of eager writers to do work – for nothing or close to it. Of course Arianna Huffington virtually created the business model based not paying writers with the Huffington Post – which she sold for a cool $315 million.

Huffington may have been the first to hit it really big by taking a sweat shop approach to journalism, but she is certainly not the only one. It’s a business model that works.

The latest media mogul who has gotten insanely rich off the backs of struggling writers who can barely pay their rent is VICE publisher Shane Smith. His media propertyhas a successful HBO show, global magazine, and websites in multiple verticals. The company is able to sell its “cool young audience” who appreciate its good journalism to major corporate brands. That has generated a lot of interest among Investors who know a hot property when they see one.

As a result the company is likely to go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion making its owner a billionaire. [Arianna must be green with envy.]

Amidst all this wealth you might think the writers who produce all that cool copy would be doing well. Not a chance. This is what it’s like to work at VICE:

Most people don’t go into the media to get rich. But a company as successful as Vice should be paying decent wages. Vice doesn’t. Instead, the company pays shitty wages to low-level employees, “compensating” them instead with the sheer coolness of working for Vice Media. “A handful of grownups a thin middle layer and a gaggle of people who also moonlight at American Apparel” is how one veteran characterizes the company. “The appeal is street cred, lots of free parties/booze and the hope that one earns a coveted Vice ring.” (Literally, a ring that says “VICE,” given to lucky employees.)

Salaries – and remember we’re talking New York here – range from about $20,000 to start with senior producers getting above $30,000. How do you pay for a Brooklyn apartment on a salary like that?

Like all trends, it filters down. Even publications with history and a lot of prestige try to get away with stiffing writers. This exchange between a journalist and The Atlantic, which wanted a 1000 words for nothing is classic.

Now everybody t seems to be asking for something for nothing. If a writer gains a little unspendable prestige from VICE or The Atlantic, what do you get from the local newspaper or magazine? Really. Nothing.

Arianna and Shane approach this like a business. Most writers are still pretending they’re artists. We’re not. And, until we accept that we’re in business to sell and get paid we’re all going to be really poor if we survive at all.

Writing isn’t free. While some people have become rich not paying for it, somebody always does. Whether you work in retail to make ends meet or depend on a spouse or partner with a job, somebody else is paying so that they don’t.

A lot of freelance writers get angry about the unfairness of it all. But let’s face facts, many wanna’ be and even seasoned writers have fallen for the myth of prestige. Just take a look at the people writing for the Huffington Post. Many of them are not beginners, but experienced writers who have done quite well elsewhere. And, VICE has young talented people clamoring for a chance to work there.

When someone asks me about whether they should contribute their work for little or nothing I always try to discourage them. If your work is worth putting any time into then you should get something for it. Otherwise, don’t do it. If publications can’t pay their vendors – and that’s what writers are – then they deserve to fail.


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Take Your Work and Get Out – of the Home Office

Posted by southwrite on May 30, 2014

Station Works

If you’re like most freelancers you’re probably working at home right now. Maybe it’s a nice sundrenched office with a desk, lots of plants and a dog resting nearby. For some, it’s a closet because you need the rest of the room for living. Whatever your office looks like and no matter how much space you have there comes a time when you need to get out.

You want a change of location. You need to see people – the dog isn’t enough anymore.

For most of us that could be a trip to Starbucks to camp out for a while with an iced coffee. But what if a temporary outing isn’t enough anymore. You’d like to have more “water cooler” time with other people to stir the creative juices. If you’re feeling confined, maybe it’s time to look for other digs. Maybe it’s time to get a real office away from home office.

You have a lot of options. There are traditional temp office buildings that can be found just about everywhere. Some companies are also sub-leasing desks in the cube farm or even office to outsiders as a way of cutting expenses and creating new streams of revenue when it’s not feasible to downsize. You can find many of them on CraigsList.

Then there’s Vancouver-based ShareDesk which provides individuals and small teams access to a network of shared workplaces on flexible hourly, daily, monthly, or extended terms. The company calls itself the “AirBnB of office space.”

Popular these days are coworking spaces. Usually found in urban areas in converted industrial buildings, they feature big open spaces where you can rent a desk or an office either long term or on a daily basis.  A good example among many is Atlanta’s StrongBox West. Tucked away on a quiet street in West Atlanta, this former warehouse has the cool industrial look favored by creative techies. Inside bare brick walls surround a large open space filled with tables and desks. Inside you can find desks in open spaces with some separated from others by large curtains hanging from the high ceiling.

It’s the kind of space where creative people can meet, exchange ideas and even form a partnership.

According to there are more than 110,000 people laboring away in one of the nearly 2,500 coworking spaces like this one around the globe. The website for coworking says that “compared to last year, there are now 83% more coworking spaces that serve a total of 117% more members! Considering only workdays, we see 4.5 new coworking spaces have emerged daily for the past twelve months. During the same time, the number of coworking members increased by 245 people on average each work day.”

If you choose coworking, you’ll have lots of company.

And, while coworking can be good for freelancers – writers, graphic designers and PR practitioners – they are also attractive to small startup companies of all stripes.

There are of course many others around the city and they’re even moving out into the suburbs.

Outside Atlanta in the small town of Douglasville, Station Loft Works recently opened up as proably teho only coworking space on the side of the city. Developer Barry Oliver purchased a former 1940s era brick building downtown that had once been home to a car dealership.

“We first looked at it for loft apartments, but Douglasville wasn’t zoned for apartments,” recalls Oliver. “So we started thinking about other things that were needed here.”

He hit upon the idea of a coworking office suite arrangement for the growing population of entrepreneurs and freelancers who were moving out to Douglas County. He reasoned that many of them work from home, but could benefit from flexible office space for meetings or collaborations.

The cavernous building has space for about 60 permanent tenants in various configurations from full time office space to temporary desks, along with a variety of “virtual” tenants who only need a desk and office a few days a month. Up front is a coffee shop offering free beverages and pastries to tenants and encouraging the sort of collaboration that co-working spaces are designed to create.

“We see our clientele being someone who works in teams or with groups and so they would have the need to be able to scale back and forth as far as space requirements,” says Oliver. “By using the co-working space they can collaborate and jump start projects.”

Maybe coworking is just the move you need to jumpstart you project as well.

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The Virtue of Working Yourself to Death

Posted by southwrite on May 25, 2014


Head in hands

When news came a few months ago that freelance travel writer Matthew Power, 39, had died while reporting in Uganda, it generated quite a bit of comment. Colleagues and other writers speculated that he had literally been killed because of his dedication to the job. Power was reported to have died of heatstroke and exhaustion while reporting a story on Levison Wood, a British explorer who is attempting to walk the length of the Nile River.

Yet, much of the speculation focused on the risks that freelance journalists are often forced to take these days. With budget low and sometimes nonexistent, writers must take risks and have fewer resources to protect them than in the past. That may have been the case with Power.

It was certainly the case for Francesca Borri, a freelance foreign correspondent. Here is how she describes the freelance life in an article for The Columbia Journalism Review:

After more than a year of freelancing for him, during which I contracted typhoid fever and was shot in the knee, my editor watched the news, thought I was among the Italian journalists who’d been kidnapped, and sent me an email that said: “Should you get a connection, could you tweet your detention?”

And there’s little that’s glamorous about it: People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang.

And how much did she get paid for her work? About $70 a piece.

Most freelancers don’t face these kinds of dangers, but in many ways we can relate. We don’t get much for our work. Getting $150 for an 900 word story is considered pretty good these days – and it doesn’t require that you get shot. But often you get pushed to do things that you know you won’t get paid for in order to make the story better. Like traveling to meet sources to do a better story when you know it would makes more economic sense to just do an interview by phone.

For many freelancers it has long meant not having health insurance – although Obamacare has changed that for many writers.

Being a freelancer isn’t the healthiest way to live. The low pay often forces you to take on more assignments and work longer hours. Writers become the piecework laborers of the modern era. You get paid for each article you finish and must immediately go on to another one to keep the money flowing.

The sad thing about it is there is no real answer to the situation in which we find ourselves these days. If you’re good enough, work hard enough and get some breaks maybe you can make enough to live a comfortable life.

Or maybe not.

The money matters, but not getting it isn’t going to stop you from working, from getting the story. Ultimately, that’s what being a freelance writer is all about.

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Steal my story, please!

Posted by southwrite on July 22, 2010

Usually writers don’t consider the taking and reusing of their work without permission and compensation a good thing. Although there are many people who have a hard time understanding the concept, it’s much like walking into a store, picking up a purse and thinking you can take it without presenting a credit card to the cashier. Besides, with the low rates many outlets pay these days you may feel as if you’ve already been robbed.

That’s why the move by the non-profit ProPublica site to make  its investigative reporting freely available for republication just a little bit startling. In fact, they even provide advice on how to use their  content under a section entitled Steal Our Stories. If you want something, there’s a handy “republish” button to the right of the byline on every story.

Obviously they want their brand of public interest journalism to get as a wide a play as possible. With the internet so fragmented it’s hard to build an audience and gain readership.

Unfortunately, it also reflects the continuing trend of making creative work available for free on the internet and in the process cheapening the work done by its creators.

This is nothing new and it’s been a source of continuing debate. It speaks to the lack of a viable business model for online publications, as much as, the willingness of writers to work for nothing or next to nothing (think content mills and $5 assignments.)

As freelancers, we’ve all worked, at one time or another, for someone who placed little value on the materials we created. Rather than professionals we were regarded as something akin to unskilled field hands. Sometimes they were businesses, but probably just as often they were editors and publishers who should know better.

People given to shock at the images of desperate people breaking into a New Orleans Wal-Mart for food, think nothing of lifting and republishing an article they didn’t pay for.

I came across magazine articles I had previously written being sold on Amazon. When I pointed this out to the magazine’s editor, she was baffled. They had no idea how the material  had found its way in downloadable electronic format to the “world’s largest bookseller.”

Obviously, I don’t have an answer to this problem. In a world where information is so freely available and few consumers are willing to pay for access, earning a living writing is getting more difficult. Yet, since there is no free lunch somebody has to pay for the stories you read. Maybe the payment comes in poor writing and shoddy reporting. Maybe the author is really working for the business or politician being profiled or the product being touted. It probably isn’t a disinterested party seeking the truth.

Have you found your work used without permission? What did you do about it?

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