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.