Journalism in the 21st century is arguably more challenging than ever before. Traditional newspapers and magazines have been shrinking, while online content is in many arenas dominated by aggregators and 10-cent-a-word wannabe writers.
You have to be agile to feed a career in these settings, willing and able to jump back and forth between traditional and new media.
I was fortunate to land a job with The Associated Press right out of college, one that alone could have produced a 30-year career. But an opportunity in the early 1990s to chase the seemingly enviable life as a freelancer — one who writes largely what he chooses and enjoys 30-second commutes from breakfast table to computer and no firm work-week — led me to leave the AP after not quite 15 years.
I’ve leveraged the skills that a “traditional” career taught me to build an online presence with NationalParksTraveler.com, a webzine that has carved a strong niche revolving around national parks and garnered a following of more than 1 million readers a year.
While the work is fun and fulfilling — searching for news to place on the Traveler often produces ideas that can be pitched to mainstream publications that have weathered the storm — it’s not for the timid. Not only do you constantly have to be mining for ideas, but selling them can be perilous. Contracts that not too many years ago sought only First North American Serial Rights, and perhaps the “non-exclusive right” to the content for Web use, have gone beyond being merely creative and gotten downright ugly.
Here’s actual language from one contract that reached my desk. In return for less than a dollar per word, I was being asked to give the publisher:
“… the exclusive right and license, throughout the universe, to (i) edit, modify and reproduce the Work; (ii) prepare derivative works based upon the Work (including, without limitation, translations in all languages); (iii) distribute, transmit, publish, republish and reprint the Work and all derivative works thereof; (iv) add illustrations, artwork and/or photographs to the Work; (v) publicly perform and display the Work and all derivative works thereof; and (vi) exercise, promote, and market any and all other rights in and to the Work in all languages and in any and all media, formats and methods of transmission now known or hereafter developed …”
In other words, the publisher not only wanted to print the article in one place and format, but in any media — “now known or hereafter developed” — throughout the universe, no less, and to spin off its own derivatives with my copy — without additional compensation.
Sadly, these freelance contracts are becoming more and more commonplace. You can argue for better language, and sometimes you’ll succeed. Many times you will not. If you don’t and you do sign off, you could theoretically find yourself competing against your own copy some day.
So what do you do? You can find a different line of work, or endeavor to make the current ground rules work for you. After all, the Internet drastically cuts the overhead when it comes to publishing, and at the same time quickly and easily increases your exposure. With all the growing and diverging interests out there, developing a niche following on the Internet — and potential advertising or sponsorship support — is an increasingly attainable option. For some, it could develop into a full-time job. For others, it can be a worthy sideline that supplements a more traditional journalism career.
I launched the Traveler in 2005 to broaden my platform as a writer of not just national park topics but also environmental issues, wildlife, public lands, etc. Supporting the demands of the Traveler led to more than a few mainstream media assignments with such publications as Audubon, National Wildlife, American Express’s Executive Travel Magazine and many others.
But when the MSM swoon hit publications in the advertising pocketbook, the news hole tightened and assignments got cut, in number and length, without a corresponding offset in pay.
At the same time, though, the Traveler’s following continued to grow. From 400 or so readers that first week back in August 2005, the Traveler now is read by more than 1 million a year. That’s not going to compete with Politico or Slate, but for a niche market it’s fairly respectable, and advertisers are beginning to see its value.
And, really, you can’t beat the working conditions or the occasional park trips for field research.
Kurt Repanshek’s journalistic career has ranged from various roles with The Associated Press to a freelance career with bylines in Smithsonian, Audubon, Sunset, Hemispheres and many other publications, as well as a growing online following with National Parks Traveler.
Tagged under: Freelancing