Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Reality bites

Never sell all rights.

This was a tenet I saw frequently when I first began freelancing. Its basic premise: if you sell all rights, you may not be able to profit from your work in the future. Given many readers' increasing reliance on the World Wide Web, this is especially pertinent to writers. Who wants to allow a huge publishing company to profit off your hard work, in any form, with nary a cent to you?

Unfortunately, in the real world, it isn't this simple.

The corporate decision-makers of one of the magazines I work for recently decided that requiring freelancers to contribute "Works Made For Hire" as defined in the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act was in its own best interest. This was partly the result of the Supreme Court's decision in Tasini vs. The New York Times. But also, I suspect, partly the result of a budget crunch.

Proceeding under the "Never sell all rights" mantra, I emailed my editor to express my concerns. I had three main questions.

  1. If I couldn't get a substantial pay raise, I wanted to be able to revert back to the company's old contract, which only retained all rights for an exclusive publication period of two months before granting them back to me.
  2. If I had to create a WMFH, I wanted a cut of their reprint profits, even if it was somewhat small.
  3. If I couldn't get a profit share, I wanted at least to post my work on my own website in the interests of marketing, and I wanted them to give me the reprints free of charge.

As I'd expected, my editor, who used to freelance, was sympathetic. She'd even forwarded my email to the publisher to tell him the magazine couldn't afford to lose good writers. But then reality bit. Not only does the magazine not make much profit off reprint sales, they aren't willing to give me reprints for free. Why? Their employees' labor, and their company's resources, figure into creating reprints. There are layout and graphics to consider. Giving me reprints for free would cut into their income.

They offered to sell me low-resolution reprints at a discount: $200 as opposed to $800. I declined.

I asked for advice from several sources. One, a fellow freelancer, encouraged me to stick to my guns. "They won't respect you if you let them walk all over you," she told me. Another friend, who used to work for a newspaper and therefore created all of his works for hire, advised, "Think of the work you do for these folks as the wage-slave part of your work. It will put food on the table but not especially grow your business (though the contacts you make, and the mention of the articles you wrote for them in your list of publications, will be valuable)."

But the most telling advice of all came from my editor herself. "Because of the limitations on my budget," she wrote, "I often must give more work to those writers who are paid a lesser fee. The reason is at the end of the day, the management expects me to be at or under budget." (She further told me that it was unlikely the magazine would archive its articles online, since it was deemed unprofitable.)

The writing is on the wall: to get better pay, I need to find other markets to work for.

But I won't quit this market. Although something about the situation still doesn't seem fair, the reality is, my income is necessary for my family's benefit. To throw a hissy-fit and refuse to work for this magazine would cut away a substantial portion of that income, before I've replaced it - and let's face it, keeping my son fed and warm is more important than proving a point.

Besides, I believe in my work. Feedback from my readers, most of whom are public safety professionals, reflects that my work indeed helps them do their jobs. For me to quit over a contract dispute seems somehow unfair to them. They, after all, are prohibited by law from striking when they have contract disputes. Many of them even work without contracts, year after year, again because keeping their families fed and warm is more important than proving a point.

Then again, however, making a business decision based on other people's circumstances isn't very good business. And I can't help but remember just a few short months ago, I was starting to wonder if trade magazine journalism - much of which is more PR than journalism for the magazines' advertisers - was really where my career was headed. I like investigative journalism. I've never really seen myself as a PR type. So maybe this contract issue is God's way of telling me it's time to move on, not totally, but into something that can maybe help readers more than my current job.

Reality bites. But only, I'm finding, if we don't try to change it.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

What makes a "real" journalist?

Al, one of my trade mag editors, congratulates me the other day. "You've gotten your first piece of hate mail," he says. "You're officially a real journalist."

I'd been accused of failing in my ethical duty to provide balance. Not, ironically, for the recently-published piece about the controversial body armor manufacturer Second Chance and its use of the controversial fiber Zylon. (In fact, many readers congratulated me for my fair treatment of all the players in that story.) No, this was for the magazine's annual Body Armor Update, to which the major body armor manufacturers in North America contribute their news. One company's notable absence drew the ire of several of its stockholders, one of whom was my hate mailer.

Long story short, I did a search of the mailer's username, found a stockholder forum on which he posted, and found the original postings encouraging a different member to email me expressing their collective unhappiness. As a member of the larger community in which the forum was hosted, I posted several messages explaining our editorial decisions (namely, the fact that their own company had no news for us), and after several back-and-forths, the stockholders finally decided to lay blame where it belonged: with the company's marketing staff.

Epilogue to happy ending: my hate mailer IM'd me with profuse apologies and gratitude for my point of view.

Which brings me to the subject. What makes a "real" journalist? I suspect it's not so much the milestones - first piece of fan mail, first piece of hate mail - as what they represent: the ongoing struggle we all go through to improve ourselves and our writing. In reality, this email and my reaction to it were direct results of other events that happened this year: a source rudely refusing to talk to me. Joining the esteemed Deciding to start these blogs, as well as my own website. Finally, realizing that I'd better find alternate, better sources of income or else face having to give up freelancing altogether. And that I'd have to stop thinking of myself as "just a writer" and start calling myself a "journalist" if I expected to make it into bigger and better markets.

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark wrote in a recent column about how to write an ending, "Some journalists think of themselves as reporters, while others aspire to the title of writer. While these labels more often refer to self-image than exercise of craft, the idea of an ending often divides the reporter from the writer. The writer wants to craft an ending. The reporter just wants to stop."

As an aspiring novelist and short story writer, I was struck by Clark's insight. Over the last few months, reflecting on my struggles and the fact that my job working for trade magazines often involves more PR work than journalism, I'd wondered whether my writing was suffering, whether I could stand to make it more creative, whether it was possible to be more creative. Reflecting on Clark's column, which included different types of endings, I realized that 1) I'd already put his ideas to use in my work and 2) even PR work - describing to law enforcement administrators how vendors' products can be put to use in their agencies - leaves room for creativity, in terms of describing successful case outcomes or progressive policies that this one product helped facilitate.

It's not New York Times material, but it's a start. What matters is that I'm thinking about it and ready to put my creative side to use - even for PR. That is what makes a real journalist.