But that was exactly the question I had after reading “Freelance Fizzle” in the New York Observer, an examination of why the young folks can no longer find money or fame contributing to magazines. Or, more dramatically, “the rise and fall of the writer.”
I devoted myself to becoming a freelancer four years ago. I never worked on staff at a magazine. I jumped into a freelance career with no savings, an erratic laptop, and paper-thin connections. I will be the first to admit, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. But I’m creatively fulfilled. I’m selling stories. And I’m having a lot of fun.
But unfortunately, the first thing anyone ever wants to know about is the money. According to the article, this is what you have to look forward to:
Freelance rates are generally much lower. For most established but not well-known writers, $2 per word at a major magazine is standard, though usually negotiable. So even if a fledgling magazine writer were to write one 1,500-word feature a month for a national magazine—which would in itself be a difficult feat to pull off—he or she would be pulling in $36,000 a year before taxes. That’s also assuming that none of the stories were killed or held and that everyone paid on time.
Now, I don’t write one 1,500 feature a month. I write six or seven or eight stories a month, ranging from 300 to 2,000 words (and, ahem, I don’t always get $2 a word). Even when I was a fledgling—which, I guess, I still am—I was writing more than 1,500 words a month. That meant pitching a helluva lot more stories than I actually landed. And yes, at first, with smaller magazines, hounding people to pay me. But selling 1,500 words a month? More than do-able for a new freelancer.
Maybe 1,500 words a month might have been the acceptable pace back in the day of poring over microfiche and filing via telefax. Today anyone can write articles twice, maybe three times as fast. Just this week I marveled at the fact that in one day I was able to research the average price consumers pay for wine, find images of early Buckminster Fuller domes, and conduct an interview with a designer in Paris. Then I tossed up two blog posts, read a dozen articles online, replied to some instant messages, and sent about five gazillion emails. We can file stories before those New Journalists even made it down to the local library. We better be writing more than 1,500 words a month.
And that’s not even the half of it when I see what my freelance friends are doing. Freelancers today can easily pump out pieces for glossies while they pontificate on their blogs, produce radio pieces, star in vblogs, appear on 20/20, accept speaking engagements, consult on product launches, work on a book during the week and a screenplay with their buddy on the weekends. Even my friends who sit on staff at mags, all freelance on the side, for experience and exposure. Just being a straight-up freelance writer? Why? When it’s so easy—and so fun—to do more.
Sure I race to the computer when I know there’s some new piece up at Vanity Fair by Tom Wolfe. I always click when I see Joan Didion’s byline on NewYorker.com. (Yes, take a moment to savor the irony in both of those statements.) But most of my current writing heroes? Bloggers.
Ah, but that’s the problem, says freelancer Karl Taro Greenfield (who this month in Conde Nast Traveler wrote a story about a depressingly stereotypical San Francisco that included this line: “But unlike California’s other oasis of reinvention, Los Angeles, this is a real city…”). Blogging is ruining the next generation of great writers:
Mr. Taro Greenfeld continued: “As much as I can’t stand these parochial notions of journalism school, there is something to be said for, like, reporting. There’s something to be said for hanging around with people. … Editors who are around my age say, ‘We’re just not finding those up-and-coming 20-something writers.’ Those people used to be like a bedrock of magazines! … Why aren’t we better at producing young writers?”
I went to journalism school. I hang around with plenty of people. I, like, report stuff. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as an up-and-comer I have better things to do than spend the first half of my career sitting in edit meetings.
Actually, I find it pretty amusing that this article was written by Doree Shafrir, a talented up-and-comer and former editor at Gawker, who has achieved both an influential gig at a traditional publication and that elusive thing called fame because of blogging. And now she has a personal blog as well as another awesome blog made up exclusively of emails from moms, Postcards from Yo Momma. Not because she doesn’t know how to, like, report. Blogs tell a different story in an intimate and community-driven voice that no print piece in existence will ever achieve. That’s why every magazine has them now. But it’s not easy. In the piece, my friend Amy Goldwasser, who is pretty much the grand dame of magazine freelancing, points out the internal strife that strikes every magazine who wants to “go online.”
I think another important thing to look at is where this article was published; to me, it’s the same old (and also stereotypical) New York story. At least in Los Angeles we don’t have the golden-lit Gay Talese-at-Elaine’s, old-guard magazine dreamscapes dangling over our heads to encourage us (or drive us to drink). What we have are lots of role models who came here with one singular dream, perhaps, but realized quickly that what they really had to do to succeed is to merge their many spheres of talent into this one blissfully imperfect, undefinable career. And that’s exactly what every freelancer should aspire to be—a multimedia, experimental, try-everything-once kind of creative who can morph between industries like that silver stuff in Terminator. With a smile.
To me, the most inspiring line in the whole article came at the end of the first paragraph: “Today you can be a blogger who writes books or you can be a stripper who wins an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.” The best moment in recent Academy Awards history was when Diablo Cody got her statue for writing Juno. I saw her standing up there and realized this was my new hero (and not just because she had the most kick-ass dress). Okay, Cody was a stripper, but she was also a copywriter, a blogger, a journalist, an author, a screenwriter and…a freelancer.
Thanks to upod for its eternal wisdom.