On the Future of Freelancing: The Journalist as Marketer.


Pondering the future (and burritos) at Stanford. (Photo by C-M.)

For two days last week, I traveled to Stanford to participate in a conference on The Future of Freelancing. Needless to say, any gathering of journalists these days is akin to attending a deer-in-headlights convention. It’s a fraught time to be a freelance writer. Newspapers are shutting down left and right. Magazines, which have historically paid the livable wages, are thinner than ever. And everyone seems to want journalists to write for free, or almost free — or, worse yet, for “exposure.” And any time anyone even utters the word “exposure,” I am seized with a terrific desire to bitchslap Arianna Huffington.

The conference was interesting, if not earth-shattering. We had magazine folk (among them, Esquire‘s David Granger) talk to us about the power of story-telling, a slew of digital media types told us all about e-books and the internet, and a parade of panelists dissected the intricacies of “marketing,” “product” and “branding.” (Apparently, that’s how being a freelance journalist is referred to these days.) What will happen to our industry remained unclear. Though, to be fair, I didn’t expect the conference to answer these bigger questions because, really, who the hell knows?

What was clear is that, over the last decade, there has been a big shift in what is expected of a journalist. No longer is it sufficient to report and write well and be amenable to over-editing. There was a clear expectation by all of the VIP figures present (both digital and dead tree), that writers need to be deeply engaged with the public, that they need to cultivate their own built-in audience, and that they need “leverage their networks.” (As part of this, there was plenty of obsessing about Twitter and Facebook and blogs — and whatever other social media stuff the Redbull-saturated set may yet have in store for us.) There was also lots of talk about marketing. In fact, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that “marketing” was the most oft-repeated word of the conference. And it wasn’t in a sexy, Mad Men kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that journalists these days need to self-promote. I do it relentlessly. But I worry when it starts to feel like the focus of what we do. I think part of the reason that we’re in this shit-hole to begin with is precisely because of marketing. Because for decades, publications have focus-grouped their content to death, creating cover lines about 17 ways to get flat abs and pumping out written-by-committee stories about lifestyle “trends.” In fact, barring a few key titles, I think it’s safe to say that much of our media is nothing but marketing. And as a result, it feels empty and dull.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the web in all this, it’s that there are people so passionate and so committed to certain thoughts and ideas, that they’re willing to put them out there for free. (And I’m not referring to opportunistic content mills who churn out crotch shots of Miley Cyrus.) If we expect to continue to be paid for our work, we’re gonna need a little bit of that fire in the belly, a willingness to explore new ways of telling stories, to convey a passion for what we do. What we certainly don’t need is any more marketing.

16 comments

  1. Reid

    I listened to the freelancing panel you were on for the Smith Women in Media conference, and I appreciate having this other perspective on the “future” of freelancing.
    I love a lot of the lines in your post, like this: “… to be fair, I didn’t expect the conference to answer these bigger questions because, really, who the hell knows?”
    Indeed.
    As an editor–for a tiny regional free monthly magazine (meaning exceedingly limited budget)–I’m acutely aware of how hard freelancers work for a pittance. (And I could never afford you, but I applaud your business-like focus on appropriate compensation.) Since I value good writing, I pay as much as I can for good writing, and also cultivate local writers who can meet my requirements.
    I hope that good writers won’t give up on demanding compensation for what they do. Many folks think they can write–and they’re wrong. And THOSE people I don’t pay–because on the rare occasions I use their work, I end up rewriting it. (Some stories are worth telling, though, even if they need major editing.)
    The HuffPo model is a frightening one–parasitically dependent on legacy media staffed by professional writers, with a few of its own staff writers and editors thrown on top. Many writers/professionals/celebrities/self-promoters like the exposure the Huffington Post provides–until their work is exposed to a slew of trolls.
    I don’t know the answer either. But as an editor, my experience is: You get what you pay for.

  2. molly

    Granger hit is on the head when he mentioned being driven to make changes at Esquire because he was bored. Fear and desperation and bad rates are making writers crazy and we can all fall into the tendency of not making sure even *we* are engaged in our own work, much less making sure others will be compelled by it. Fire in the belly. Great way to put it. Thanks for the post.

  3. coldbrew

    As an outsider to the world of journalism, I still see lots of opportunity for good journalists. I guess I like to believe this is just an opportunity for the journalism industry to “go lean.” Forget large bureaucracies, forget middle-management. This is the time to test the ‘business model waters’ and there are some doing it (no obvious success there yet). We need more doing it, and I wish more journalists would align with small entrepreneurs/developers (perhaps as side projects).

    I like the idea of small teams of beat reporters, analysts, and editors putting stories and info together while relying on 3rd parties for advertising, WordPress (for hosting), small developer/ designer shops for specialty tools and features, and one full time sys admin.

    In the information age, these are businesses built on integrity and transparency. So, rather than seeing branding as only possible through self-promotion (something for which I completely share your distaste), take it as an opportunity to interact with your readership in a sincere manner (sincerity will win you more long-term loyalty than any SEO program will bring you in the short-term). Mike Masnick, of Techdirt, refers to this idea with an acronym (I don’t know link policy here, but it’s a dotcom:): CwF+RtB or,

    Connect with Fans (CwF) and give them a Reason to Buy (RtB). CwF+RtB=$$$

    People will tell their friends about you, buy your books, buy your t-shirts, and come to your sponsored talks (among many possibilities). If you are adding real value in any way to even a small subset of people, there are countless ways to earn a living.

    The middlemen in this game of knowledge dissemination (i.e. communications) are not happy about this leap in communication technology (being able to own an expensive printing press or FCC license for broadcasting on a particular frequency were great for reducing competition). These middlemen need to go, and this is causing massive value destruction. They’ve got the ear of the federal government, and, specifically, the White House (e.g. ACTA and VP Joe Biden). I don’t think the creators have to worry though, you all just need to find new partners besides business managers.

    c-monster: If you’re paying attention as much as it appears, I’m pretty sure you are safe.

  4. Anna Tarkov

    Here in Chicago, our alt-weekly’s media reporter wrote an interesting piece on this and a rousing discussion ensued: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/ray-hanania-oak-lawn-sigma-delta-chi-award/Content?oid=1849305

    Personally I am torn. On the one hand, self-promotion is an absolute necessity and cannot be shied away from. On the other, you’re right about marketing bastardizing the news product over the years. But I don’t think those two things go hand in hand. I think there is a vast difference between a journalist building an audience for herself, interacting with readers, promoting her work, etc and the big, bag marketing department at a major media company. There’s no reason we should conflate the two.

  5. AlizaEss

    Found your blog through Twitter… loved this piece. As a former English major who was wholly unprepared for the real writing world, I am grateful for the Internet and the insights of long-term journalists such as yourself. Thanks, and good luck!

  6. Velva Lee Heraty

    Anna, all I can say is you are a kick-ass writer and I, for one, expect you to be around a lot.

  7. Velva Lee Heraty

    Oops! Not Anna? Well, whoever you are my comment stands. I’m hooked on this blog.

  8. policywonk

    I have plenty of fire in the belly. What I don’t have is enough money in the bank to pay bills. I literally can’t afford anymore to post for free on my blogs all the ideas, articles, and commentaries or op-ed pieces that I’d like to post because they take all-important time away from finding work that pays — and these days, that’s infrequent enough. And I’m an experienced journalist; it’s just that experience now counts against me because potential employers well know that I need to be paid what I’m worth, not the pittance they’d rather pay. Which is why they’re happy hiring newbies straight out of school or writers with only a year or two of experience who will do a just-good-enough job instead of the excellent job the readers deserve. We experienced folks need things like full-time jobs with benefits and decent pay because we have families and mortgages and bills like health insurance that we need to pay. That makes us dispensible. And THAT’s the new world order, not web 2.0.

  9. c-monster

    @Anna: I agree. The two probably shouldn’t be conflated. But they often are. Sometimes I feel that journalists have turned to social media and marketing as a cure-all. As in: if I get enough Twitter followers, then all be well. But I think there’s the bigger issue of passion. Those of us who have worked in mainstream media have been trained to hide behind a veil of objectivity, to churn out soulless copy about soulless stuff, all of which makes journalists feel more remote and inaccessible to their readers — which is the opposite of what people are seeking these days. I think part of what we need to do moving forward is to communicate that sense of urgency and dedication in what we do, to be accessible and engaged. Otherwise, well, I don’t know what…

    @Velva: No sweat. I’m Carolina Miranda, aka C-Monster!

    @policywonk: I feel you. As does my checking account — which seems to be thinner than ever. I’m not advocating giving away work for free. Other than my own blog, I don’t do any writing work in which I don’t get paid. And I’ve cut back in recent months on how much I post here. So, what’s the solution? How will we earn a livable wage from what we do? My answer: I have no idea. And, lord knows if I did, I’d probably be able to afford health insurance.