Saturday, February 13, 2010

Incredibly shrinking pay scales

Thirty-one years ago, a publication paid me $20 for 200 words on a ham glaze. I can’t say that first payment was particularly sweet because every assignment since has been honey poured on white sugar, right to this day. Every time I hit the SEND button on an invoice, it’s with a self-satisfying, “Holy shit, I’m a paid writer.”

Then the check comes. So much for the paid part.

With so many journalists on the bench, editors have dropped their freelance rates to pittances an inmate wouldn’t accept for working in the prison laundry.

More galling are the all-too-frequent suggestions that a byline is payment enough. You’re getting exposure, right?
Then there’s the contract-stretching. You agree on a certain amount of work for a certain payment. But by the time Accounting actually cuts the check, you’ve painfully learned how elastic a hard-and-fast agreement can be.

Recently, for instance, I agreed to do a feature for X dollars. I was told upfront that requesting photos from my sources would be part of the task.

Then the assignment memo came. The directive that I should solicit photos had morphed into a requirement that I secure more than a half-dozen pieces of art, ideally of an historic nature.

I discovered later that the illustrations were used for an online slideshow posted separately from my story. I’d provided material for two editorial pieces. Yet I’d only been paid for a story and some supporting photographs.

Similarly, I’d been asked to write a sidebar, for which I was promised a few more dollars. The assignment memo revealed that this “sidebar” was more of a second, albeit shorter feature—nearly one-third the length of the mainbar, focused on a topic different enough to merit considerably more research. For that effort, I’d be paid less than 20% of what I was making on the mainbar.

Sure, I should’ve nailed down all the variables, and I never did voice my objections. But how much negotiating power do you really have when an editor calls? The sub-text seems to be, Take it as we’re posing it or we’ll offer the assignment to any number of freelancers who’re baying for work.

Sadly, it looks as if the buyer’s market is going to persist for some time. But the day is going to come when we can say as often as we like, “For that money? No, I’m going to pass.”

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Me? An unknown daddy?

I was showering Wednesday evening when my wife walked into the bathroom, slapped down the toilet lid, and took a seat with the determination of an interrogator. “We have to talk,” she said in a voice that would’ve made a nun shiver.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“That all depends on what you have to say.”

Her father had just called. A woman who hadn’t given her name had called him because she was trying to track me down. “She thinks you may be her father,” my wife explained. “So you’re going to call her.”

Drying off provided an opportunity for what I’ll delicately call a highlights film of my premarital past. One way or another I would’ve known if a co-star had become a mother within the limits of Surprise Daughter time. There was no way I had an unknown child.

And in any case, why did someone looking for me call my father-in-law? How could they have drawn a connection between me and him? And why not just get in touch with me? It’s not as if it’s tough to find my e-mail address, given how much I blog, use social media and write bylined stories for online media. Many of those postings include my e-mail address.

No, I thought, this is fishy. This has to be some sort of scam.

So I called the woman, who seemed abashed, but not that much. She explained that she was trying to find her father, and all she knew about him was his name. She’d made a list of every Peter Romeo she could find, and was working down the roster, calling each one.

Then she gave me her mother’s name and asked if it meant anything to me. She added where her mother was from.
I didn’t recognize the name, and the location was someplace I’d visited perhaps half a dozen times, but never in search of romance.

I assured her that I wasn’t her father. I gave her some info on other Peter Romeo’s with whom I’d been confused over the years, and wished her well.

“I’m 27 years old. I think it’s about time I met my father,” she said, then apologized for bothering me, and hung up.

I hope she finds him.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bah, humbug to bah, humbug

A year ago, some five weeks into my unemployment, I wasn’t sure if we could keep up with our mortgage and food bills. My wife still had her job, which provided our health-care coverage, but she worked for a newspaper. ‘Nuff said.

I’m not nearly as uptight now, though I still don’t have a job, and the possibility of landing a full-time editing or writing gig appears even slimmer (my wife, though employed for a major daily, works neither in editorial nor ad sales). Still, the world didn’t collapse into chaos, and premonitions of a Great Depression, as recalled by my folks in the same tone used by a noire movie character to recount a crime wave, no longer looms as a possibility.

Indeed, my confidence had rebounded sufficiently by this year’s holidays to no longer deny their existence. I wasn’t exactly belting out the ho-ho-ho’s, but the Grinch no longer had a kindred spirit. No tree, no holiday dinner, no lavish gift-giving, no cards or their e-mail equivalents. But at least I’d stoke a flicker of cheer by buying presents again for a few youngsters who’d been skipped along with everyone else last year.

It didn’t prove the Duraflame log I’d hoped. Then today, poking around the internet, I came across a column that, strangely, was published after Christmas by the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette. Maybe columnist Jeff Barr realized I’m not the only one in need of a holiday Hail Mary pass. In any case, I thank him for giving me the sort of feeling you got from watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time. Except his account is real.

You can read it for yourself here. But let me give you at least a flavor of it with this excerpt.

The column recounts how a woman, Michelle, was walking along a highway when a van, which I presume was driven by Barr, stopped to offer her a ride. She was laden with stuffed shopping bags.
“I work at Burger King and I got my check today,” she said. “It’s not much, but we’ll have presents under the tree.”

The drive led to a mobile home where Michelle is raising her family. The single mother proudly spoke of snatching up the trailer for $100 three years ago, and gutting the place “right down to the floorboards.” A slow renovation process that took every extra penny has resulted in a comfortable home for her children.

She told of getting the knee brace from a friend as payment for baby-sitting. She spoke of picking up free storm windows from an acquaintance who “had the same, exact trailer as we did. How lucky is that?”

Not a single tinge of bitterness; just a working mother relating stories of her home and her family
Remember, this is in Michigan, the Great Recession's third circle of Hell.

I think I may have another conversation with my pal, Jack Daniels, and put on the Phil Spector Christmas album.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A year after the axe

Monday marks exactly 54 weeks since I was pink-slipped, which means I’m reflecting nonstop this weekend about relationships.

Connections, after all, have been the coin of my new realm. Whether or not you get work, fulltime or freelance, depends far more on whom you know that what you’re able to do. Which means you’re constantly looking for new contacts—anyone who can open a door, refer you to worthwhile link, serve as a partner, offer some helpful advice, or just make the prospecting process a little more pleasant.

You can’t help but evaluate those relationships, as mercenary as that might sound. Actually, I wish I knew some real mercenaries who could deal with a few of the people who figured into my career efforts of the past year.

Many of the contacts with whom I’ve interacted deserve their own Hallmark special. Near strangers stepped forward to help me in ways that I never would have expected—in one instance, the sister of a distance acquaintance; in another, someone who’d seen my byline but have never once written, called or otherwise had any interaction while I was on a publication’s staff. But he stepped up with some immediate help.

A woman I’d known for years, though not very well, came forward with job help that kept me from making a huge mistake. I could see no gain for her except the gratification of thwarting a bull-shit artist who’d already sold her some snake oil. Indeed, her assistance could’ve backfired into a job problem for her. Yet she did right by me, for which I’m hugely grateful. I’d now walk over hot coals for her.

At the other extreme were the people I had regarded as friends but soon learned were snakes that had learned to slither upright. A few wouldn’t even speak with me afterward, even on a personal basis. Once I couldn’t help them any longer, or no longer posed competition, I was dead to them.

Most galling of all was the former colleague who called up a source of freelance work to ask that he award the assignments instead to some of her cronies. He ignored her, and indeed has given me considerably more work since then.

The Snidely Whiplash in that scenario also rebuffed an 80-plus-year-old contact/friend who wanted to get in touch with me after I’d been fired. She said she had no idea where to reach me, even though I’d retained the e-mail address and cell phone number that I’d used during the three years she and I had worked together. Indeed, it’s printed on a wallet-sized directory that I know the staff still uses.

And then there are the thieves, legions of them. We journalists have our strong points, to be sure. But respect for another’s work is clearly not one of them. I can’t tell you how many times my blog and Twitter postings have been ripped off by other members of the media. Friends have advised me to put in a bit of mis-information as a way of scaring them off. But I don’t want to sink to that level.

Of course, journalists aren’t the only parties to swipe an idea. A longtime acquaintance approached me to see about working together. I had an idea that complemented the specialty of his consulting firm, so we discussed it a bit. Then he largely disappeared. He resurfaced with a new venture that incorporated many of the points we’d discussed. I can’t prove he knowingly borrowed my notions, but the coincidence certainly is striking.

I’m not mentioning names here because of the Six Degrees of Separation rule—you never know who’s linked with whom. And at the one-year mark, my prospects for a fulltime job aren’t exactly looking robust.

I could use as many positive relationships as I can forge.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why I'll stick with keyboards

One of the enlightening experiences of being unemployed is having to fix things, since you can’t afford professional repair work. Which is why I have a paper towel glued to the gearshift of my Jeep.

It looked like a miniature Don King, the cottony tufts of Bounty flapping in the wind. I took off what I could with scissor, scrub pad and fingernail, but there's still a cap of textured white fuzz. A tiny Anderson Cooper is my co-pilot.

I would remove the tissue shreds altogether if I could find a way to melt Krazy Glue. But I know I’ll end up with nothing but the metal shaft of the shift, the rubber completely eaten.

That’s a real possibility for someone like me, who’d probably be invited to help with the refreshments if neighborhoods still held barn-raising parties. I lack whatever gene helps people deduce what end of a hammer to use. And then there’s knowing which pole of the nail to strike. Though I understand that using words like “pole” when talking about a nail is indicative of my deficiency.

Yet when the rearview mirror inexplicably disconnected from the windshield one day, I had no choice but to page my inner Bob Vilas. It was clear that the adhesive holding the butt end of the mirror to the glass had simply given way. How tough could it be to glue it back on?

So off I went to what has to be one of the last remaining five-and-dimes in America. The prices no longer fit that descriptor, but the wares definitely do. You can get everything from newspapers to prescription drugs, dried flowers, plumbing supplies, toys, cigarettes, notebooks, and even snacks. Best of all, there's no employee trying to make small talk by asking what sort of project you're doing, a la Home Depot.

I walked out with a bottle of Krazy Glue, almost swaggering with confidence. The glass was meticulously cleaned, as was the part of the mirror that would be affixed to it. The glue went on, the mirror was pressed against the windshield, and voila!, the problem was resolved.

For about six hours.

Out came the Krazy Glue again. Surfaces were virtually sterilized again. The two parts were joined together again in glued harmony.

The repair lasted four hours that time.

Clearly I wasn’t using enough glue. After the ritual cleaning, I held the bottle of adhesive in one hand as I brushed some both on the windshield and the mirror’s butt end. I was so focused on covering every inch of the to-be-joined surfaces that I didn’t noticed I’d mindlessly tipped the bottle. Out poured the fast-drying glue, covering the gearshift and the console between driver and passenger seats.

Thinking in a flash, I grabbed a paper towel and sopped it up.

Hence my one-car tribute to Don King.

That led to the equivalent of waterboarding for a non-handyman like myself: Going to hardware store and asking for advice. My part always goes something like this: “Screws are the ones with the threads, right?” “When you say ‘hammer it in,' you’re talking about having nails, right?”

It was frustrating, but deliciously satisfying in a second analysis, to discover that the experts’ Rear View Mirror Affixing Kit—and I kid you not, there really is such a thing—worked no better than my Krazy Glue.

Finally, I did what I always do in such situations: Surrendered the project to my wife. She could work at Home Depot, she has such natural aptitude for such things.

Rather than buy some fancy adhesive, she picked up what remained of some sealer we’d used to patch a our pool. She slathered it on, slapped the mirror in place, and declared, "Let's have lunch."

That was eight days ago. And it’s still holding.

Clearly the Anderson Cooper proxy is very pleased.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Listen up, dish washer

I gave my major appliances a long pep talk this morning, but I’m not sure I got through. The TV and washer seemed particularly apathetic, as if they’ve resigned themselves to a final resting place in the garage. They're not even trying, dammit. Clearly they don’t understand what a blow it can be to an unemployed person when a trusted device gives a final shudder and works no more.

I found out how tough that can be this weekend. Last Thursday, I’d laid a hand on my IMac screen to slide it back a few inches. I must’ve used too much force, because I heard a SNAP!, and the screen went haywire. It was clear I’d crunched the LCD screen of my 18-month-old, much-beloved machine.

My wife managed to snag an appointment at the Apple store’s Genius Bar, where you can consult for free with a technician. So at least we got the bad news quickly: A repair would’ve run over $1,000, or two-thirds the cost of a comparable new unit. “Just buy another monitor and look at that instead,” said my genius. He wasn't wearing robes, and lacked a long, white beard. But I'm sure he meditates daily.

Best Buy had a monitor on sale for a mere $200. So far, not so bad.

But then we decided to do something about my phone, which is falling apart faster than Britney Spears' career. $125 later, I had a new Blackberry.

Then disaster struck: We came home to find a house where you could’ve baked bread in the living room. The dogs were panting, the room actually looked steamy, and the air intake for the central air conditioning system was making a horrible noise. Clearly the system had broken and, on the first truly hot weekend of the summer, had decided not to do its job.

We managed to find a technician who could come take a look on Sunday (I thought about my genius from Apple, figuring he could do anything, but had failed to get his superhero contact info. I was going to shine a spotlight on the clouds with a silhouette of an IMac, a la Batman, but didn't have a spotlight handy).

As I described the symptoms over the phone, the technician loud out a “Oh, no.” Clearly this was not going to be good.

It’s not. We’ll probably be hit with a cost in four figures. It won’t kill us, but there will be considerable bleeding.

Hence my pep talk. I think the toaster’s shaping up, and the frig is clearly doing its part. But I worry about the others, including the gas grill.

Oh, well. Time to have a stern heart-to-heart with the car.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Twitter of relief amidst the tragedy

You’re probably wondering what the death of Michael Jackson has to do with my now-chronic state of underemployment. But this has less to do with the King of Pop than with how his death came to light. And, amid the tragedy, that surprising process provides some encouraging news about my career plans.

You swells who have a job probably weren’t avidly scouting Twitter yesterday afternoon, as per the norm for the rest of us. So you missed the first news flash from one of the most followed parties on the medium, Breaking News, a Twitter-based news service: “REPORT: MICHAEL JACKSON TAKEN TO LOS ANGELES HOSPITAL IN CARDIAC ARREST.” It was posted yesterday around mid-afternoon, or around 3 o’clock E.S.T.

Eleven additional flashes from Breaking News would follow in quick succesion, including one refuting a rumor that Jackson had died of a drug overdose.

Then, an hour after the first report, came the stunner: FLASH -- LOS ANGELES -- "KING OF POP" MICHAEL JACKSON HAS DIED.

That was around the time that the New York Times reported via Twitter that Jackson had been hospitalized.

Indeed, at 5:51 I got a news alert e-mailed to me from the Times, saying the same thing.

I got a nearly identical e-mail alert at that time from CNN.

By then, Breaking News was offering the few details it could unearth about Jackson’s death. But it had definitely reported that Jackson was dead.

I didn’t know which to believe, the New York Times and CNN, two titans of the business, or this Breaking News upstart, which was relying secondhand on reports from media like But I knew that this event would either validate Twitter and its specialists as a news medium, or underscore why we need our old reliables to keep us informed.

Finally, at about 6:30, some two hours after Breaking News had reported Jackson’s death, the Times and CNN sent news alerts stating that the King of Pop had passed. The reports were secondhand, based on Associated Press reporting.

Twitter, in short, had kicked the mainstream media’s butt. Indeed, I was annoyed at the Times and CNN for taking me on a rollercoaster with their mistakes-by-omission and lateness. Was Jackson indeed dead, as I’d learned somewhere around 4, or was that a mistake, as the Big Two had indicated? I didn’t need the emotional tumult.

So what does this have to do with my state of employment?

Everyday I’m looking for the check in the mail. When it comes, I’ll crack open a bottle of Champagne and celebrate that I have officially been paid to Twitter.

It’s still freelance, and it’s not that much. But, as yesterday sadly proved, Twitter is a journalistic medium of the future. Print isn’t disappearing, but social media are rivaling it in terms of immediacy, and even accuracy, given its nature (the group-report aspect of it tends to be self-policing).

I’m glad I have a hold on it, albeit by my fingernails. It’s nice to have any sort of affiliation with a form of journalism—and, as yesterday proved, it definitely is—that’s growing in use and reputation.