Freelancing in the Great Recession

Freelancing in the Great Recession

My first op-ed piece published following the recent loss of my day job is well travelled. It has entertained and enraged folks in Florida, Maryland, Utah, New Hampshire, Georgia, Ohio, North Dakota and in several newspapers in my home state of Connecticut.

Now that I have a lot of time on my hands, I regularly Google myself and find that articles I have written pop up in the strangest niches. For example, a minister once coveted my bon mots, deploying them in one of his sermons, which was posted on his web site. I toyed with the idea of billing him.

I will receive a modest honorarium from only one of the ten papers that so far have published my latest diatribe, which examined the burning topic of hockey moms in high places.

When first I freelanced, a quarter century ago, I was thrilled to have anything published anywhere, fee or no fee. I would send mom and dad a copy and wonder if long-lost college friends, or better yet an old girlfriend might see my byline and assume that I was living large as a bilious pundit. If just one ex was induced to muse, “Maybe I shouldn’t have dumped Dave so fast,” the agony of creation would be worth it.

When a piece I wrote was picked up by the International Herald Tribune, I was agog. I’d crossed the pond, gone global. If only I had some foreign acquaintances or ex-lovers.

For all my journalistic conquests, however, I have never harbored any illusions that anything I have scribbled down has had any impact whatsoever on pending legislation, public policy, war and peace, or the price of pirated DVDs in China. I am wont to ruminate on life’s lesser issues: pumpkins, plumbers, coyotes, paint swatches, my dog, skinny-dipping, and, quite frequently, the trials and tribulations of yours truly.

I freelanced for a decade before I got the real job that I recently lost. The term for doing something without a contract, or the slightest guarantee that your effort will be rewarded or see the light of day, evokes gaudy medieval connotations. It conjures Lancelot, decked out in bright heraldic colors and gleaming armor, doing his pointy thing, or Don Quixote tilting at alternative energy devices to no discernible purpose.

More and more I feel like a blithering knight errant. Many opuses I have written have been read only by me or my wife. Lately, getting published has waxed exponentially harder. There is less space in modern narrow-sheets for supercilious ruminations, and when I do make the cut, the compensation is the same, or less, than it was 15 years ago. Many papers have long since axed their budgets for freelance pieces.

Money, of course, isn’t everything. My brother Tom, who died last year, always told me how much he enjoyed my articles, and when I helped clean out his office, I found a folder filled with many of them. That is payment enough.

Newspapers have always wanted to pay freelancers once for their essence and then fertilize their sister publications at no additional charge. When the web was born, my printed rants were immediately posted there, and spread about like crème cheese, gratis. And now that virtually every large newspaper is part of some intergalactic chain, they siphon free copy from one another like a passel of hoboes who have found a side door open at the pie factory. Once I could sell a piece to two or more dailies, but now I am reduced to one, which shares my best efforts like they were chain letters.

In spite of such economies, newspapers are all going broke, they say — or at least they have to trim everywhere to maintain their 20 percent profit margins for their corporate masters. One of my local dailies soon will be eliminating its weekday op-ed page, just the most recent example of its compulsive downsizing. Now there’s a strategy for long-term growth and stability: give the suckers less and hope for the best, at least through the upcoming fiscal quarter.

But enough about them. My hockey mom piece has inspired online fulminations of psychotic proportions. But the response I will treasure always came in the mail, in a plain envelope with no name or return address. How he, she, or it found me, I don’t know — probably off the web. The white, neatly folded letter inside consisted of one short declarative sentence, in all caps: YOU ARE A HORSE’S ASS.

Now that’s pithy, and well within the margin of error.