You know there’s a recession and you’ve sent out dozens, maybe hundreds of resumes. You know no one’s returning your calls.
What I didn’t know — until I read this report from Unity, a national group representing minority journalists — is why so many journalists are suddenly on their own. In one year, from September 2008 to August 2009, 35,885 of us lost our jobs — 24,511 of them in print media. While the economy on average lost jobs at a rate of 8 percent, for us it’s been 22 percent; almost three times the national month to month rate.
I got canned by the Daily News in June 2006, so had already been freelancing full-time again for a while by the time the hurricane hit. Even then, starting last August, I lost $2,300 to one deadbeat who declared bankruptcy, another $1,000 when a newspaper special section cancelled that issue, and my assignment, and another $12,000 when an editor who swore I could count on a year’s worth of columns in 2009 changed his mind. Many of us felt like cartoon characters who keep running even while they’ve run out of cliff and are falling fast into a steep canyon.
For many of us, and I’d say most over the age of 40 who’ve lost those print jobs — and I know some other T/S contributors are in this group — that’s it. You’re going digital or you’re leaving journalism entirely. That’s what a panel of four New York City headhunters told a standing-room only, wait-listed room full of journos last week. They ranged in age from fresh grads to gray-haired men and women clearly in their 50s, 60s or beyond. One headhunter with 20 years’ experience in New York publishing, Karen Danziger, (who once placed me as editor in chief of a trade magazine), said 80 percent of the jobs she is now asked to fill focus on producing digital content. Until you snag that next full-time job, that sound you hear is the steady squeak of the hamster wheel, pulling in paid work wherever you can find it.
The larger issue for anyone who fantasizes about the freelance life, as many cube-crushed souls still do, is making it pay. In journalism, at least, anyone can sit at a computer, make some calls, send some emails, have a few clever ideas. The barriers to entry as a journalist are so low as to be invisible. But when many articles still pay $500 or $1,000 or $1,500 — a very few will offer $6,000 or $8,000 — that’s a whole lot of hustling (while paying 15% to FICA and finding and affording full-cost free-market health insurance) to match even a salary of $40,000 or $60,000. As every entrepreneur knows, unpaid sick days are annoying while uncompensated holidays and long weekends, when no one you need answers their phone, can be an intrusion into your need to keep cashflow from slowing to a terrifying trickle.
Here’s a Washington Post piece, written by a grateful staffer, about what life is like as an entrepreneur.