Have always hoped, somehow, my journalism would make a difference to the world, to its readers, maybe even to voters or policy-makers.
In my early 20s, I tackled a grim and difficult and important story, the testing of cosmetics and other products on animals. I won’t detail what I saw, but I never forgot it, and to see that as a young person is to be changed. I wrote it for a brave editor, the late and much missed Jane Gale Hughes, whose Canadian national magazine — as small in size and apparently unsubstantial as a TV Guide — was called Homemakers.
Its name was misleading, suggesting anodyne chitchat.
Quite the opposite!
Jane, extremely rare for any editor who hopes to keep their job, had to fight the advertising department because, of course, the advertisers of the products being tested would object and pull their lucrative ads.
The ads whose revenue paid her salary and my freelance work for her.
She ran my story anyway and I’m really proud of it and grateful for her belief in me as a younger journalist to produce it.
This tension between money and truth-telling never goes away.
In 2005-6, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest paper, I did a huge investigation of the cruise ship industry.
What I learned persuaded me to never take a cruise.
Of course, the editor refused to run my stories — for fear of losing their ad dollars. They finally ran one-half of my work.
Every story that digs deeply.
Every press conference — pure theater! — during which smart journalists ask challenging, tough questions, even in the face of sneers, insults, pompous political lectures and hostility.
It all adds up.
Jose and I are soon at the tail end of long and challenging and satisfying careers in journalism. We remain deeply passionate about the need for intelligent, analytical, critical reporting on every aspect of life.
But both of us were cautioned — long ago — to remember that even a lifetime of our committed excellence, even for the largest and most influential outlets, and all the work of all our talented colleagues, is the equivalent of water drops on stone.
One at a time.
Each story — each image — only a drop.
How can it matter?
Drop after drop — repeated over and over and over and over — as we and others continue the work, and stone wears away.
The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking. So, the king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. So the king again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.
And so the King kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the finishing of last night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During these 1,001 nights, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and had three sons with her. So, having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her tales, he spared her life, and made her his queen.
Anyone who hopes to earn a living as a writer — whether of books, blogs, journalism, fiction, marcom, advertising — knows the sort of daily pressure she felt.
You gotta have a fresh story!
Here’s a recent New York Times piece about Contently, a new intermediary between people who want to tell their corporate stories and the writers who might have the skill to do so. The site offers access to 27,000 (!) writers — 8,000 of whom have been deemed “pros” because of their experience. (FYI, I ‘m not a Contently user or provider.):
Three young men — Joe Coleman, Dave Goldberg and Shane Snow — started the company in 2010 after the rise and crash of so-called content farms. They believed there was room for a company that enabled high-quality stories told on behalf of commercial clients, what is now known as branded content.
Over the years, this content has had an unsavory reputation — most have been infomercials masquerading as editorial content. But the bar has been raised by companies like Red Bull, whose incredibly popular extreme sports videos almost make it seem like a media company that sells beverages on the side.
Contently, which grew out of the TechStars incubator program in New York, developed a roster of writers and journalists for hire and a software application that helps companies tell their own stories as well. Three years later, the company has raised $2.3 million in financing, developed a roster of 27,000 writers, grown to 24 employees and has 40 Fortune 500 companies among its clients. Some of its customers include American Express, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo.
When you walk into the Contently office in SoHo, as I did on Tuesday, you can’t help noticing the large slogan on the wall: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”
Let’s be accurate, if pedantic.
Those with the money to pay people to tell the stories rule the world.
The actual tellers — those “content providers”, even the elite 8,000 (is that possible?) — are contemporary Scheherazades, running faster than ever before to pay their bills, to stay alive financially another day.
Contently pays its writers between 50 cents a word and $1/word.
Let’s put that into context:
If you’re hired to produce 1,000 words at 50 cents a word, you’ll earn $500. At $1/word, $1,000. Few content buyers want a 10,000 word opus, no matter who you are.
So if you were able to get $1,000 worth of work every single week, (no vacation, no sick days, no holidays), you could potentially earn $52,000, year before taxes.
I suspect that competing against 7,999 others, even in the cool kids’ labor pool, would likely mitigate against a steady five-figure income.
The other dirty secret of becoming a “content provider”, (which is what all journalists are, too, really), is that a wage of 50 cents to $1/word is what top journalists were paid in the 1970s, when I started writing for a living.
I think we all know that gas, groceries, health care and most other costs of living are not what they were in 1979 or 1985 or even 1998…
Before the crash of 2008, the top magazines were offering $3/word or more — so a 3,000-word story could net you a nice $9,000; I once snagged a $6,000 check from Glamour for a 2,000-word story at that rate.
These days? Most experienced writers I know are working twice as hard for half the income, many re-inventing ourselves in every possible direction to earn additional revenue.
I spoke this week to a friend who’s been working for four years as a staff editor — these days a good long run — at a national magazine I subscribe to and had hoped to do some freelance work for. Their parent company, Hearst, is moving the entire operation from New York City, (where most employees have a partner or spouse working as well), to a regional Southern city to save money. My friend’s wife has a terrific staff media job, one not easily re-acquired in that other city, that’s for sure.
The editor in chief has already quit. I suspect most of the staff will as well. I’ll be very curious to see what the new staff produce, while crossing my fingers for those about to lose their jobs.
Disruption, change and flux are the order of the day.
So, sit back, relax.
Let me tell you a story…
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These are a few of the stories from my 30-year career I remember most:
— Crewing aboard The Endeavour, a replica of Captain Cook’s ship, for a week between Norwalk, CT and Newport, RI. Slept in a hammock every night, climbed the rigging dozens of times a day to 100 feet in the air to work enormous square canvas sails while standing on (shriek!) a swaying narrow footrope. A paid journey into the 18th. century.
— A day in the Arctic village of Salluit, while a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. We landed in a tiny prop plane on an airstrip of ice, greeted by members of the village of 500, including the mayor on his snowmobile. The story we’d been sent, at $5,000 expense to report, so pissed off the village that I had to go on the radio (a particle-board shack) to be interviewed in English, translated into Inuktitut, to placate everyone enough to even talk to me. No pressure!
— Interviewing Patty Varone, the female NYPD veteran who was the bodyguard for former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani for nine years, and who helped to keep him alive on 9/11, for my book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” Everyone thinks he was the hero, while it was her job — while dodging falling bodies — to protect him and find somewhere safe to run to.
— Bird-dogging Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip for two weeks as they toured New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba. Such pomp! In the back of her car, a suitcase with one large red tag, with two imitable words: “The Queen.” Equerries, everywhere! A group of reporters were invited for cocktails aboard her (then) yacht Britannia and the engraved invitation, gold-edged, from the Master of the Household, still graces my kitchen wall. Her jewelry is gob-smackingly huge. Those are real emeralds and diamonds, kids!
— Performing in “Sleeping Beauty” at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center with Rudolf Nureyev. I was a “super” (short for supernumerary, i.e. an extra), playing a Lady in Black, one of the retinue of Carabosse, the evil witch who casts the spell on the princess at her 16th. birthday party. Not being a dancer, not knowing the score (literally), not having had the benefit of a dress rehearsal (!?), I descended the set’s huge staircase about 10 bars too early on opening night. On another evening, my costly, one-of-kind costume skirt got caught on a soldier’s sword as I was trying to exit. A traffic jam of pissed-off professional dancers behind me hissed “Hurry up!” behind me. Stress? Moi?
— Grilling women who had suffered a variety of tragedies, from losing a husband to a heart attack in front of them to having their home burn down.
— Being sent on a “stake-out” to the Edison Hotel in midtown Manhattan in 80 degree heat and humidity to stalk and interview two Quebec female tourists, one of whom had been stabbed while crossing the street. This meant standing for 6-8 hours at a stretch, surrounded by a dozen competing reporters, on the dirty pavement and hoping to grab the girls, alone and first, whenever they showed up.
— Covering a bloody and horrific head-on crash between a bus and a personal vehicle, in Montreal on a winter’s night. The car windows were sheeted with blood. I had to take my drivers’ test the very next day. (I passed.)
I love the adventure, intimacy, travel and astonishing variety of people I’ve met on assignment — everyone from Prime Ministers to Billy Joel, convicted felons, Olympic athletes, politicians, physical therapists, Boy Scouts. I love stuffing a notebook and a few pens into my jacket pocket or bag and setting off to hear some new stories. I love the challenge of having to decide, on the fly with no direction from a boss, what’s important and what to leave out (knowing they can alway challenge me later!)
I love coming home with my head and my notebook filled with great details and quotes and sifting through them all to make sense of them.
Too bad that print journalism is a dying industry (and on-line writing pays much less.)
Have you ever read a story and wished you’d covered it?