It’s not easy being a journalist these days. Well, technically, it never was. But the odds keep mounting against you. Many publications have laid off employees, shut down entire departments, and even cut back budgets for freelancers. It’s become so common that’s it doesn’t shock anyone anymore.
The disruption caused by the internet to the journalism industry is profound, unpredictable and it’s only just getting started. The Guardian had massive layoffs this year, while Al Jazeera America shut down.
The struggle is real
Journalism’s struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing media landscape is no secret, especially since their quest to find a sustainable business model has eluded most of them. I will blog about those potential business models in the coming weeks, but today I have one short personal story for you.
The Daily Grind
Sending query letters to editors of publications is a thankless, rigorous and neverending aspect of life as a freelance journalist. I, along with countless others, send dozens of these query letters every month with the goal of getting that story idea assigned from the editors.
I am a (science and culture journalist.) [/join page] This past January, I struggled to get one particular science story assigned. I pitched it to Discover, Scientific American Mind and several others, but all of them shot it down. I considered scrapping this story idea altogether and focusing on my other pitches. But I happened to really like this story idea from the field of neuroscience.
Then finally, a new Website of focusing on brain science said YES! It was going to be a science feature piece for $350 — which is below my usual rate given that it’s a 1,000 word story. But I agreed to the terms because I didn’t have much of a choice.
Over the next several days, I got busy with my interviews, edited and re-edited my drafts and double checking all the facts and quotes in my story. Then shortly before my deadline, I got a shocking note from my editor:
“We are shutting down, Dinsa. I’m so sorry we could not work together this time.”
My hard work over the past week seemed to be for nought. My research, interviews and story would not be published by TKTK magazine, because well — they’re closing down. And even worse, there was no “kill fee” clause in my contract. Yikes!
Side note: A kill fee is a nominal payment to the writer from the publication in the off chance that they do not publish the story for any reason. It generally ranges from 25 to 50% of the payment for the article.
In my 5 years of experience as a full-time freelance journalist, I had never found myself in this situation. What do I do with a story that I have already written?
But fortunately, I didn’t have to think too hard, because a stroke of well-timed luck solved my dilemma for me.
Lady Luck To The Rescue
I got an e-mail from an editor at another national science magazine that could not have been better timed. She told me that the theme for her next issue is ‘Creativity,’ and that I should reach out to her if I have any story ideas for it.
You probably already know how this story ends, right?
The article I had spent the last week writing was a perfect match for this publication’s next edition.
I wasted no time in pitching my story to her. And just like that, I was assigned this story yet again, and for the same price as the prior magazine.
Got Lucky. But for how long?
It’s been quite the ride, and while reflecting on this, I realize that this is a microcosm of our broader journalism landscape in the 21st century. Budgets at publications are getting smaller, which in turn is affecting the rates that we freelancers can charge. These problems are only going to get worse, until publications figure out a sustainable business model.
I’m glad it worked out well for me in this particular situation. It was part luck and part experience. I’ve been in the industry for quite a while and have great relationships with many editors and publications.
But it just goes to show, we’re all in dire straits. Publications are struggling to adapt to the social media heavy internet media landscape.
A strong wind is blowing across the publication industry and we’re all going to have to adapt if we’re going to make it through.
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