Friday, October 23, 2009...9:30 am

Beyond journalism

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I was happy to see the stalwart folk at FleetStreetBlues flag up my online how-is-your-media-recession poll a while ago. But a comment they made in their post begs for a little more attention. (Actually, it begged for it weeks ago, but I’ve been a bit preoccupied.)

Freelance Unbound reckons he’s survived the recession just about OK, with the worst of it a five month period starting in September 2008. But there’s a catch – in order to survive, he’s been forced to diversify. By which – by his own admission – he means turn to things other than journalism (marketing, web production work, brochure design).

It’s that “by his own admission” thing that caught my eye. It’s like it’s a guilty, shameful secret that I ought really to hide from my peers. I survived but (whisper it), I had to compromise myself.

Now, I know the FleetStreetBlues stance on journalism – it’s quite hard line:

The best thing about journalism isn’t blogging, or Twittering, or finding innovative multimeeja ways to tell a story, or even asking someone difficult questions Paxman-style. It’s about finding something out that no one knows, and telling people. Simple as that.

I respect this clarity of vision and purpose, and I wish them all the best with it. But, you know, it’s quite a limited view.

There’s more to journalism than news

It’s quite a limited view of journalism, for a start, which has a kind of sprawling, amorphous, uncontrollable life of its own. It encompasses soft magazine features, hard investigative reporting, specialist trade writing, photography (yes, photo-journalism has the word journalism in it), celebrity nonsense and a whole range of production work, including my beloved, and dying, sub-editing.

But beyond this, it’s quite a limited view of what could, or should, make up a creative working life.

This came to me in a moment of more or less blinding clarity one grey afternoon in between feature pages on a trade magazine shift in west London, some two or three years ago.

For years, I had that nagging sense that I just wasn’t amounting to anything in my media career. Hacking out show previews and features on promotional vouchers – no matter how wittily put together – didn’t really seem to satisfy my need to be somehow – creative.

I felt trapped. I had to pay the mortgage and all the bills that come with more-or-less adult life. And what was left at the end of the month had to go towards feeding Gordon Brown’s taxation addiction.

Spare time? Not so much. And what there was didn’t feel like enough time to achieve anything very much. Certainly not the great unwritten novel or film script – or whatever else I wasn’t managing to get around to writing.

But then it all changed.

John Scalzi, writing slut

For some reason lost to history, I found myself on the Whatever – a long-running blog by science fiction author John Scalzi. But here’s the thing. He didn’t start out being a science fiction author. Oh no. He started out by writing for AOL’s web site. Then when he was made redundant, he freelanced doing anything from games reviews to marketing copy. As he says in his post on utterly useless writing advice:

I’m not a writing snob. I won’t just write certain types of writing — I’m a slut, I’ll write anything if you pay me. This is related to being flexible, quite obviously, and it’s also rooted in my desire to try different things. For example, some of my most profitable writing gigs involve writing marketing materials.

A fair number of writers get snippy about writing marketing stuff, but you know what? I actually think it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to try a new medium of writing, it’s fun to set a goal and try to hit it, it’s fun to learn how this stuff works. And of course, writing marketing material pays really well, so it’s also fun to spend the money I make off it. Some writers may hold up their noses at my largely indiscriminate writing proclivities, but that’s fine. More work for me, more money for my family.

Frankly, this was a revelation. Here was someone who had trodden similar ground to me and, instead of being cranky and unfulfilled, positively revelled in it.

A six-figure writing income

This attitude didn’t hurt his earning power, either. In a post on writing and money, Scalzi talks at illuminating length about how his writing income breaks down and what he’s made over the years. Which has been in the six-figures (in US dollars), on average, from 1998 to 2006. One year it hit $150,000 – a staggering amount of cash for freelance writing – thanks to a healthy amount of juicy corporate work.

Don’t get me wrong, the money’s a big draw. But it was the attitude that went with it that really changed my perspective. OK, so you’re producing 1,500 words on some promotional marketing show at the NEC. Should you be all tormented by the futility of it all? Not Scalzi:

Writing professionally, even at its worst, still beats the hell out of lifting heavy objects off the back of a loading dock for $10 an hour.

Which, in that moment of epiphany, I saw was true. I also realised that my idea that spending my time writing marketing-driven feature copy was standing in the way of my creativity was utterly false. Writing brochure copy and writing cool short stories are not two entirely different things. They are two related things at different ends of the same spectrum.

How the freelance became unbound

From this insight has come a range of positive things. Freelance Unbound is one of them – it’s a tool to help me write and learn about web publishing. It’s a useful space for me to organise my thoughts on meeja and suchlike. And it’s really good practice and discipline for regular writing. I value that tremendously.

I was also prompted to cast my net a bit wider in writing terms. The thought of all that boring, back-of-the-book ad-get feature copy I was writing meant I didn’t see the need to branch out at all. I mean, none of it was creative, right? So I might as well just do the same old thing.

This year, however, I’ve written a load of CEO profiles for a Dorling Kindersley book and dipped my toe into corporate writing. And it’s all quite different stuff that has helped shape up my writing skills in valuable ways.

But if this is true of writing, it’s also true of other creative endeavours. From this insight, and driven by savage publishing recession, came the realisation that there’s no point in being precious about design and layout, either.

Which is why I’m more than happy to spend some of my working hours lovingly crafting web banner ads and marketing materials for various business events. Journalism? Nah. Interesting? Actually yes – especially given that I am being paid in effect to pick up a whole new set of skills that will undoubtedly be valuable in future.

So when I read accounts of redundant journalists signing on and bemoaning the demise of the old-style newsroom, I do get a bit tetchy if they don’t seem prepared to branch out even a little from their comfort zone.

If you aren’t convinced, I’ll have to link again to a great post from Recovering Journalist Mark Potts about life after journalism. He makes the case much better than I do and it’s well worth another read.

There’s a great big interesting world out there beyond journalism. I admit it…

3 Comments

  • Hail Marys, Te Deums and Amen to that.

  • Completely agree with all of that – wasn’t trying to say that journalism was in any sense ‘better’ than some of the alternatives you and Mark Potts mention.

    But while photography, subbing, feature writing etc IS journalism as much as news reporting is journalism, writing marketing copy isn’t. It’s a valid, interesting, rewarding career, but it’s not in any sense journalism.

    And so my point was simply if you’re asking journalist how they’ve survived the recession, and they say they’ve survived it but only by doing things other than journalism – well, they haven’t really survived the recession as a journalist.

  • I think what you’re saying is really about writing rather than journalism. Journalism is just one branch of the writing tree. Marketing copy is another. Each are about finding the right words and putting them in an order that makes sense.

    I’ve always seem myself as a writer first and a journalist second. Over the years, I’ve used my writing skills to produce features, news, press releases, advertising copy, blurb, reports, web text and a dozen books.

    I can understand that some journalists don’t want to venture out into the much larger and diverse writing world.
    But if you’re versatile, it makes it not only makes it easier to pay the bills but, as you say, it can also improve your writing skills.

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