Saturday, June 28, 2014

the economics of freelancing – 101

If you’re not a freelance writer and maybe even if you are, you probably have no idea what the pay rates are these days. And for those of you who’ve reached this post because you know I’m raising money, it might not make any sense to you why I raise money if I’ve also got a job.

First, as you may know, the media industry has been in a bit of a freefall since at least the 2008 financial crash. That, combined with the onset of the digital age, has left media entities scrambling to figure out how to finance the information they disseminate. The good part of this scrambling is that it’s launched a new season of innovation. [The Nieman Journalism Lab offers some good coverage of models people are trying out.] The question isn’t whether we still want to have news and reportage in some form – the question is what form we want it in and how to pay for it.

All the scrambling has definitely affected freelance writers and reporters. Our wages have stagnated or dropped. [This article’s a bit dated but is a pretty good summary of what’s happened to the industry.] Everyone wants content these days, but they need so much of it that they don’t want to/can’t pay real wages for it. Well, that and other problems.

Thus, similar to larger media entities that are testing out various not-for-profit journalism models, in the current phase of my Big Grand Ideological Idea, I’m trying out a nonprofit model of freelancing. One that says there are important stories to be told but acknowledges that it’s not cost-effective to tell them according to present business models. Thus, I’m seeking out people who agree that these stories need to be told (and told well) and who will make donations that supplement the gap between what media entities pay for my work and what comprises a reasonable, living wage for that work.

So, let’s get some real, hard numbers on the table:

Scenario #1: For several months now, I’ve been researching a story here in France. From interviews to web research, most of my research is in French, which means it takes even longer than it normally would. Before beginning the formal interviews, I spent hours in background research online and informal interviews trying to gain a baseline understanding of the question I was investigating and an initial list of sources – to help inform the formal questions I would ask. Very conservative estimate of time spent: 7 hours.

Next, I spent time contacting prospective sources, prepping for interviews, traveling to and from interviews, and conducting at least 7 interviews. Then, because most of these interviews were in French, I had to record them and then transcribe/take notes afterwards.  Very conservative estimate: 50 hours.

In addition to all this, there’s some ancillary research to do to verify information, to track down some stats, etc. Because I’m the thorough type and I want to get it right and report accurately, this will take me a very long time.  Very conservative estimate: 7 hours.

Finally, it will be time to write the 700-1000 word article that will not nearly hold all the things I’ve learned. Thus, all this good information will have to be distilled down into much less space than I’ll feel like the story warrants. And it will be a feat to tell the story accurately in short-form. Very conservative estimate of writing time: 10 hours.

Very conservative grand total of hours spent on this article: 74 hours (roughly 2 weeks of work time if it could be done straight through)

Guess what I’ll get paid for all of that work?


Yep, that’s right. $300. Before taxes and business expenses.

Taking the time regularly to research stories at this depth means I’d be living on $600 a month before expenses and taxes. And over here in Europe that’s only about 438 €, which doesn’t get you very far toward covering living expenses.

This is why I’ve invited you to help me get these stories told.

Scenario #2: This summer I’m going to Togo, in West Africa, on a reporting trip. The cost of my flights alone is $1600 (and I’m already halfway to Togo, coming as I am from Europe). Add on-the-ground expenses, and the rough estimate climbs to $2000-plus. There aren’t many media outlets I’m presently connected with for whom I could hope to be paid enough to cover the expenses of this reporting trip, let alone make enough extra to count as income. In this scenario, most of the expenses of the trip will be covered by the sponsoring organization, but it would be preferable, for the sake of objectivity, to cover them myself. I’m a minimalist traveler, but even the costs of cheap travel in the service of reporting a story are hard to make back, when most stories pay in the range of $300-600.

This is why I’ve invited you to help me get these stories told.

And contact me if you would like to be involved in helping important stories be told!

Friday, June 27, 2014

what my work is about: mission statement and core values

Mission Statement:

To connect with people and places around the world in order to tell their stories with truth and authenticity.

Core Values:

I hold the following convictions and seek to partner with those who identify with these core beliefs: 
  • People have potential. All people have value, and their potential can be discovered and known.
  • The world is a place of wonder that should be explored and shared. Sharing experiences and observations with others helps to preserve our child-like curiosity about our world.
  • The truth matters. Whether the truth appears to be pretty or ugly, it carries beauty for being the truth. Though life is messy and relationships can be hard, honesty and authenticity honor people and their deep desire to be known. Care for nuance and subtlety can result in truth that is life-giving rather than harsh.
a few of the people I've met while reporting around the world

hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work I go

A week ago I strutted happily out into the sun. It was later than I'd planned, but still early enough to count as morning.

I was happy because I was heading to work. In a way all the world could understand. I had donned nice clothes, packed my computer tote with the day's tasks, and was commuting by foot to my office building where I would climb the curving stairs and spread the tools of my trade across a desk surface larger than any available flat spaces in my tiny home. And later, I could even take a real lunch break. Delightful.

I love it when a plan comes together.

I've had this plan before, but it never worked out. So I wasn't very hopeful this time when the plan wandered back into my brain a couple weeks ago.

The plan: to have an office somewhere outside my home.

You see, freelancing has lots of perks, including working from home. Except that sometimes working from home loses its perkiness.

And lately, that's exactly what had happened. I was not being productive at home. There always seemed to be dishes to wash. And taking work to some sunny café or other isn't really an option here most of the time. The café culture in Aix is not the pretend-this-is-your-office culture of Starbucks. And besides, even when Starbucks is just down the road, sometimes you just really need a real office for the task at hand.

I've been working from home for a long time now - in the U.S., in London, in France. And now that my formal French classes have ended (I do not yet speak perfect French, lest you be fooled by that phrase) and my excuse for leaving my house multiple times per week to interact with other human beings in person has evaporated, I was beginning to feel the tension of needing to be around people while also needing to get work done. Chatting with friends in sunny cafés every afternoon wasn't an option.

So I searched. And I found. It was one little ad listed two months prior on, the French equivalent of Craigslist. The proprietor is a super nice French woman. The other office-mate is a bilingual South African. The space feeds my creative soul. So I decided it's worth the financial risk (the part where I don't really make enough extra to pay for this space - YET) to invest in a little corner of the world that I can refer to as "my office."

Thus, two days per week now, I get to go to work. And it leaves me feeling immensely grown up and professional.

The building entrance.
Heading upstairs!
A note welcoming me to the two-room office digs on my first day.
The mother of the pigeon family that lives across the street.
If one must have a view of a wall, this wall works.

Friday, June 13, 2014

even welcomed intruders can be scary

Bordeaux by lamplight. May 2014
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three months shy of marking two years here in France, I’ve been noticing a new sentiment creeping into my psyche: some sort of emotion that seems important, but it’s lurked in the shadows just enough to avoid being identified. Tonight, though, as I ambled back to my centre ville apartment with my Tuesday-night-carry-out-special pizza from Dominos, I finally got a clearer view.

So here I am, ready to describe this little perp to the police sketch artist.

For so much of the time since I arrived in France, I’ve been very impatient, wanting desperately to really absorb this language. For me, language isn’t just a binary code of on and off switches. It’s soul. And I’ve wanted desperately to enter into all the places that accessing that soul can take me.

There have been glimmering, hopeful moments along the language-learning way, but it wasn’t until the past six months that something really changed. First, I just didn’t feel so tired anymore after days spent in French. Then, I began to understand without translating. Then, I began to be able to speak more and more spontaneously (on good days, anyway) and even crack the occasional joke.

And now, as I head into summer and mark two years of immersion and language study, I understand why people moving abroad often do two years of language study. My language skills still vary by the day, but mostly they’re solid enough now that they provide a hefty core mass for the snowball that’s rolling down the hill (or up the hill, since that sounds like more of an accomplishment :-) ) and constantly adding new words and expressions to its dictionary. I have a solid enough base now that this language thing is starting to improve exponentially.

But there’s another thing happening, and that’s the thing that surprised me as it stepped into the light tonight: A different kind of fear has replaced my impatient fear that I’d never master this language. You see, French is in me now. The on-off switch I kept trying to switch on is now permanently on. I can no longer turn it off. I can no longer choose not to understand French. Oh, I still don’t understand EVERYTHING, but I pretty much always understand something.

And the scary part is that I’m not in control of this anymore. Really, in truth, I never was; I realized months ago that I couldn’t make myself understand even though I desperately wanted to. I just had to wait until the words worked themselves into me.

But now I can’t make myself not understand.

So the scary part of all that—other than the not-being-in-control part--is that now that French has taken up residence in me, I can’t kick it out (kind of like the way French landlords can’t easily kick out their protected-by-law tenants :-) ). My new tenant won’t ever leave and has already done and will necessarily do more remodeling in me. And I don’t know what the result is going to be. So that’s the scary part. I can’t undo what’s been done during these past two years. And I can’t stave off what French will do as I keep using it and giving it an ever homier home in me.

We’re always changed by new experiences, and any travel or living abroad will always change us. So I’d anticipated that. But somehow this infiltration by this language, that I pursued and welcomed, feels like a deeper change than that wrought by trying new foods and meeting people who are different from me.

Because language is more than the right letters and words and punctuation marks. Because it’s more than words correctly combined and uttered at the right time. It’s soul. And the French soul has infiltrated my English-speaking American soul. And there’s no going back now. Scary or not, on y va! (Let’s go!)