Yes, this is the About page on the website of a freelance journalist.
It’s where you expect to see mention of awards, plaudits and accomplishments no matter how minor (not to denigrate anyone’s work – we’ve all got our own personal best and trust me, I don’t have any awards).
It’s the place for boilerplate about how many high profile publications love you, how sought after your writing or public speaking services are, how many industry panels you’ve sat on, maybe a few quotes from editors who’ve commissioned work.
If that’s what you’re interested in, here you go.
I had my first article published in the media in 1995. In 2001 I got serious about being a freelance writer. In 2006 I left the safe confines of salaried employment to do so full time.
In my career I’ve written for over 150 magazines, newspapers, supplements, newsletters, blogs, liftouts and websites. I’ve had a little over 1,500 articles, reviews, round-ups, interviews and features published, comprising around one and three quarter million words. I’ve written for a dozen long-gone blogs and printed rags you’ve never heard of right up to Variety, Empire, GQ, The Sydney Morning Herald, Christianity Today, Dazed, FHM, MacWorld, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, The UK Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest and TimeOut.
But lest you think I occupy a position of any prestige, I’ve also written for Penthouse, Girls and Corpses (yes, it exists) porn site Woodrocket.com, the blog of a major bank and to my eternal shame, even The Daily Mail.
I’m quite proud of my record of editors assigning repeat work because I can spell, string a sentence together and submit before or on deadline. I consider myself a fully rounded and competent writer with the skills necessary to make a living and run a business doing it, and I think most of the people I’ve worked with would agree.
But this isn’t that kind of About page.
You might consider it a bit of an essay on the state of the media and content industries today, it might even come across as a rant. But the page is called ‘About’, and this is everything I know about writing for a living.
I like to think of myself as a writer, and every piece of writing tells a story, so in high-minded moods I even fancy myself a storyteller. But these days that doesn’t seem to mean very much.
Certainly not as much as it used to.
Storytelling was greatly devalued during the early web era. Suddenly we could so easily swap the content of books, movies, TV shows and games we forgot it wasn’t the content we’d been paying for.
What we’d been paying for all those years at record shops, video stores, movie theatres or book retailers was the physical media and the industrial infrastructure to deliver it to us. The plastic VHS case, the vinyl LP, cassette or CD, the book after it had been designed and printed in the thousands.
Decoupled from all that infrastructure we began to view content as free, something news organisations did nothing to dissuade us from as they gave stories away online as loss leaders to get more subscribers to their printed products (more on this below).
Services like Napster, Limewire and Kazaa were targeted ruthlessly by industry associations and lawyers, but the technological cat was out of the bag, and they just evolved into ever-harder systems to take down like peer to peer.
Eventually creators and rightsholders wised up and started to understand consumer sentiment. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to pay for content (although that was probably a bonus to many), we just wanted content in digital formats because they made it easier to consume.
The studies around how the people who pirate movies are actually the most dedicated moviegoers (and therefore keep the movie business afloat) have been done, and it’s the reason the iTunes store was such a success straight out of the gate when it came to digital music.
For years afterwards movie studios and distributors dithered and wrung their hands over release windows and territory licenses, barely aware of how little the rest of us cared about their traditions and business models.
The ‘problem’ of music had been solved by the iTunes store model. Market forces had forcibly stripped out the bloated overheard and artificial costs behind physical records, tapes and CDs and we were finally paying a fair price. The industry had been gutted and bought low, but at least people were paying for music again.
But to many it wasn’t even price. We had iTunes for music. As a popular refrain around the late 2000s had it, where was the iTunes for movies?
A small DVD mail order company from Santa Cruz, California would balloon to such economic and cultural power it would ultimately usher in an iTunes for movies economy, Netflix perfecting the delivery of digital movies and TV on demand.
Books went through their own baptism of fire – a system for delivering them electronically soon became entrenched in Amazon, the iPad, etc – but the problem the book industry still faced was marketability. With several streaming services, a games console or two and multiple handheld devices in most households, there’s less time than ever to read, and people who truly love books seem to be slowly aging out, much like those who buy physical newspapers.
Physical newspapers (and other printed periodicals) is where I come in.
I’d enjoyed a mildly successful career as a graphic designer (which I still dabble in, see examples on a very out of date website right here) until the early 2000s, when I shifted focus to freelance journalism.
How much talent I had as a writer is for you to judge according to the work on this website, but I made a concerted and consistent effort to use every story and every opportunity as a springboard to better work in higher profile publications.
I started with small websites and magazines you’ve never heard of like the local street press music rag, and over the next decade and a half worked my way up to the newspapers of record, also carving inroads in consumer magazine titles like those I mentioned above, some of them the pinnacles of various beats.
I initially stumbled into writing about technology, pushed hard to break into my real passion of movies and turned my interest in science into generating passable success as a science writer.
In more general features I’ve written about everything from feminism to fan theories and predicting the future to photographing lightning. Every new story makes you an instant expert, and owing to the years I’ve been doing this and the work I’ve performed during those years, it results in a workable knowledge of a huge variety of topics.
And now, years later, it’s time to ask what it’s come to.
If you’re in the industry of news, magazines or journalism or know much about it, you’ll know it’s ultimately come to very little.
My expertise isn’t worth anywhere near what it used to be. Like tens of thousands of others around the world, I’ve found myself like a blacksmith who specialises in shoeing horses in a world going crazy for the car.
I have a lifetime of knowledge about a field, I have the contacts and know the methods to navigate its vagaries, the professional experience to deliver results and the means to exploit monetary value from it all, and it’s all been left behind by the march of economic and technological progress.
First it was the web itself. Newspapers, secure because of the money they made from classified advertising, put articles online for free with a shrug of complacency.
Periodical magazine publishers were similarly nonplussed. The internet was still kind of niche, and their market – adults – hadn’t caught on. Everybody was still consuming media in printed form and paying for it, so what was the harm?
What we all (publishers and readers) failed to realise was where I started above. We thought we were paying for the information on the printed page, but we weren’t. We were paying for giant printing plants and forests worth of paper and the costs behind them. If someone else was prepared to give us the same information for free we’d happily go there.
And we did.
While Rome burned around it, the news media barely even fiddled. Anecdotal evidence from inside every major newsroom I’ve ever heard said the same thing – the print and digital people distrusted (almost hated) each other, and the two parts of the business model that should have worked in perfect concert never saw eye to eye.
The revenues printed media had enjoyed disappeared as smaller, nimbler players emerged online with services to advertise cars, jobs and garage sales with immediacy, cost effectiveness and an all-digital (ie nearly free) workflow.
Where once the money was in preparing and packaging information for consumption, suddenly it was all in directing us to that information elsewhere and letting us share it with each other.
And it was all there online, unfettered, unfiltered and completely free. It’s become a cliché that Facebook and Google have killed journalism, and like all pervasive cliches that’s only because it’s (partly) true, but the news media handed them the rope to hang it with.
Now those companies are the giants and the government enquiries, congressional and regulatory grillings, deals and agreements are all PR and posturing. They know the once-pivotal news business is in their complete sway, scratching for the crumbs they throw from their bursting coffers.
So, while I had a few golden years of making a workable living and enjoying the spoils and privileges being a freelance journalist offered, the train was already plunging off the cliff.
One outlet after another contracted painfully (‘no freelance budget, sorry’) or closed up altogether. Almost every publication I’ve written for, over 100 of those 150 mentioned above, is gone.
And here’s an opinion that’s very unpopular in the media business but which the economics of the information age makes clear.
Consumers don’t miss it.
Users have spoken, and they’re perfectly happy getting their information from searches and sharing it with social media, with no need for the gatekeepers or expense of a printed media industry.
Way back when everybody first started worrying about this sort of thing I read what I thought was a well argued opinion from the former editor of a major city newspaper, who said the web would be where consumers go for short, quick bites, just the raw information they need about a subject or incident. Newspapers and magazines generated by ‘proper’ journalism would be where we’d go for deeper, more thoughtful analysis of those short, sharp facts.
As much as I agreed and looked forward to that era, history has proven us both wrong. The quick bites of clickbait culture have taken over and people don’t seem too bothered with deeper analysis at all.
They’re perfectly happy to believe what they want from social media echo chambers and algorithm-selected factoids planted in their information stream no matter how misjudged or mistaken. To what else can we attribute the sharp rise in political absolutism and hate that gave us the ascent of one right wing demagogue after another during the 2010s?
Now, of course I don’t attribute the above description to everyone. I’m still a longtime consumer of printed media and appreciate the deeper examination that former editor talked about, and plenty of others are too. But there aren’t enough of us like that anymore, not enough to prop up a media industry the size it was 20, 10 or even five years ago.
Like the enormous artificial bloat of the music business between songwriters/bands and consumers, the financial deadweight is being gouged out of the information business.
And sure, it’s tragic for people like me who have to retrain and start all over again, have a wealthy or successful spouse or go back to living poor like when we started out.
But if we believe in markets (and we all did every time we accepted a transfer of funds from a publisher as payment for our work), we can’t be too sad. This is all just the market correcting itself, which any economist will tell you is the cornerstone of capitalism.
In light of all the above, the job of a writer has changed. Now, he or she must find and exploit gaps.
Websites, newspapers and magazines still need content to exist. Someone writes them. And even though nine out of every 10 pitches you make today get a response of ‘sorry, no budget’ (it used to be five out of every 10), there’s always someone who likes your writing and is willing to pay for it. The first step is finding them.
To many current and former journalists, that means branching out.
More companies exist that need written content, and big companies with a product or idea to publicise are among the most lucrative. A lot of colleagues have done it, and so have I. Have a look at some examples here.
But to the extent we still want to extol the virtues of something we’re passionate about in an established media outlet with actual readers – fancying that our words can inspire, inform or maybe even make a difference in the world – the second step is finding or developing an idea we think would make a great article when so few people are left who agree with us.
This website celebrates not just individual stories I’ve had published in the world’s media, although at first glance that’s what you’ll find here as you scroll and click around. There’s a deeper subtext about the evolution of being a journalist for as many years as I’ve been one.
The evolution began with the first steps of tenacity and determination and the excitement and pride of how far it took me, how the tangible results in the real world around me seemed to counter the self doubt constantly nipping at my heels.
I suspected – correctly – that voice and style would come with practice. As many a scribe has said, the only way to become a better writer is to keep writing.
But I soon understood how much more valuable it was in a practical sense than arbitrary measures like ability or talent because it paid actual bills. And regardless of how much you make as a writer, you can’t put a price tag on the satisfaction of that. I finally was a writer, instead of just saying I wanted to be one like I had when I was a kid and teenager.
There are the elusive but magical times when you really care about a story and everything comes together beautifully in its commission, execution, delivery and publication. There’s the schmoozing, being wined and dined, accepting and enjoying plenty of stuff for free most of us can barely afford, which I enjoyed my fair share of.
But that’s all gone. Now I’ve evolved into something else.
Something much smaller and nimbler, finding and exploiting regions in content creation my previous self might not have bothered with.
Now I look back with envy at the amount of commissions he had, regular gigs that ensured an all-but guaranteed minimum income every month, products showing up at his door to review and a seemingly endless range of decently-paying publications that would love the sound of his ideas if his regular outlets didn’t.
The gaps aren’t as lucrative. They’re not nearly as plentiful. On economic tenterhooks as their owners all are, they don’t often last very long.
But the gaps are what I do now. And when one of them works, I’m taking advantage of a new paradigm in storytelling.
After the financial carnage of an industry already crumbling in the face of smarter, better competition and at least two major economic collapses, the text – the actual words that make up storytelling – is now completely decoupled from any economically viable delivery system.
It’s the reason why a lot of the stories you read on these pages only have a couple of paragraphs and a link to where it was first published. If I reproduce the whole story here, it devalues its original appearance on the website that paid me to write it even closer to absolute zero.
Now, when I tell a story, there’s no relation to the delivery system (short of something that hopefully interests the readers of the publication or section it’s appearing in). The only true value left is something that used to be intangible when what you were really buying was a sheaf of paper with dry ink on it.
The story. The story I’m trying to tell you.
That’s the only thing left that matters.
In this day and age and after all the downbeat and dire news surrounding newspapers, magazines, journalism, the web and information, there’s something pure – almost beautiful – about that.