A number of the People of LWON are freelancers. They work from story to story, one publication after another, holding multiple positions all the while. One reason for freelancing is that staff jobs at newspapers or magazines, which have always been sparse, are now outright rare. So writers go out on their own; they put their careers together out of spare parts. Dan Vergano, veteran newspaperman and science writer at National Geographic, says this kind of freelance career feeds something called the “gig economy.”
Dan thinks the gig economy creates a poorer, less-responsible climate for science writing. The LWONers, apparently part of a national trend in openness, have opinions. Dan is kind enough to elicit them.
Dan: Shall we call this “gagging on the gig economy?” Dan: Wired calls it “The Force that Could Save the American Worker” while AlterNet calls it “Cut-Throat Capitalism.” Science writers have worked from gig to gig for decades, so who cares about the decades-long collapse in staff jobs and science sections, the old “job” economy? I guess I care: I work with a lot of great freelancers now but I worry that the economics of gigs just won’t let them do the kind of reporting that really would be better for everyone. Is the new gig economy any different than the old freelance economy?
Helen: Yes, it’s worse.
Christie: It’s definitely worse. Magazines used to give regular contributors nice retainers that kept the income somewhat steady, but those retainers are mostly a thing of the past. There are far fewer pages for print magazines to fill, stories have become drastically shorter, and most publications are still paying the same per-word rates they paid 15 years ago. [Ann: I’m older than Christie and it’s 25 years ago.] It’s more difficult to write a tight story at 2,500 words than it is at 4,000 or 5,000 (you have to do just as much reporting, and work twice as hard at culling and shaping the material into a coherent narrative). All this means that we’re working harder, for less money. A magazine feature that would have paid five figures a decade ago, now might net the writer $5k. And that’s just print. The web is worse.
Helen: I think the gig economy is a crappy way to get good stories out of people. I mean, obviously freelance writers do a ton of great work. But, over the years, if you want lots of good stories, you need to give someone time, and when you’re freelancing, all the incentives are pushing you to spend as little time as possible on each thing and move on to the next thing.
Ann: I know. I keep telling myself to do the math: number of stories x days to do each one ÷ pay for each one = pay per year but 1) I’m no good at math and 2) the exercise is extremely dispiriting. So I don’t do it. But The Open Notebook did it for me; they did a survey of 142 freelancers and the average income was $52,500 (standard deviation = $26,400). That seems high to me <ick>.
Helen: Well yeah. They threw out numbers for about 20 people who reported income below a certain level because they assumed those people had another means of support. I was like, um, I wish. My other means of support in my one really bad year was my savings. (I can’t remember and refuse to look up whether I was actually below the cutoff, but I was within shouting distance.) (This is why I ditched the gig economy for a full-time job this year.)
Ann: My other means of support, especially when I was starting out, was a spouse with a steady paycheck and benefits. There. I said it. <ick ick ick> And if I ever did do the math, I’d be doing smaller, faster, less interesting stories.
Christie: I support myself on my writing, and I’m still ok. But as I look around, I’ve noticed that I’m a rare breed — the freelance writer who lives on writing alone. I’m working harder, and being more strategic than ever about which work I take. I had a source come to me recently with a really important public service investigative story that I decided not to pursue. It killed me to say no, but I couldn’t afford to do the months of reporting for a story that would pay me pennies on the hour. And these days, even if you get paid a decent rate, you might spend half a year on story that only runs 2,000 words. That hardly seems worthwhile.
Erik: I mean, yeah. Without a big newspaper behind me, I can’t afford to do the kind of hard-hitting stuff that used to be the stock-in-trade of newspapers. Exposing truth, deep investigation, that kind of thing. I do a story like that about once a year and it’s always a money pit. On the other hand, I think that with stories like that, the writing – the quality and accessibility of the prose – is much better because editors can be more discerning and every story has to earn its spot.
Dan: Surely, the professionalism of the enterprise won’t crumble without science writers within institutions. Surely, within a short time, given the growth in gig-friendly digital publications, the profession will be as solid as ever. Am I right? Or should I be worried? Should readers?
Ann: I don’t know if those gig-friendly digital publications should keep anybody from worrying. I haven’t written for them so I’m talking only as a reader. The stuff on Matter, Medium, Aeon, Quanta, Nautilus, Atavist and I don’t know who-all? I’m half-way thinking it’s indulgent, badly-edited, and not company you want to be in; and half-way thinking it’s fascinating and personal and no way would it be published by standard magazines and thank God for the gates opening. Some of them pay, I hear, some of them pay very little or nothing at all. I have no idea how they’re staying alive. So we’re still stuck with the bad math.
Erik: I’m starting to think it doesn’t really matter. Look, this is what is, right? We can whine about it all day but our cheese has been moved and we have to adapt. Even if it means potentially more people going after crappier cheese. The real question is how do we do good journalism within this new context?
Ann: A related real question: if I were a potential digital-pub writer, I’d like to know if I’d have enough time/money to report thoroughly, do enough interviews, check for balance? Also related: as a digital-pub reader, how much should I believe those stories? Are they fact-checked? Would different digital pubs’ answers to these questions differ?
Erik: I am with you on this. Readers, I’m talking to you: despite what you might think, the media world that informs you – bloated as it is – is not healthy. Few bloggers have any notion of journalism ethics, and almost nothing you read took more than a day to report and write. You are thus less informed than you think you are.
Dan: Is there a chance that gig economy science writers learn to survive, but not thrive? What happens when you have to pay a mortgage, or tuition, or the minivan breaks? Off to ghost writing for CEO’s?
Helen: That’ll work great, until the CEOs figure out how to get eager beginners to do their ghost writing for the exposure.
Christie: As a self-supporting freelance writer, I’m beginning to feel like an endangered species. I don’t know how professional writers can be saved given the drastic habitat loss we’re facing. There are fewer and fewer publications that pay living wages. The new habitats that are springing up — online sites, for instance — are low quality and can’t sustain us. I can’t survive on “exposure.”
Ann: May I take this opportunity to get ravingly pissed off by THOSE FUCKERS WHO WON’T PAY MONEY BUT TELL YOU ABOUT THE GREAT EXPOSURE YOU’RE GETTING WITH ALL THAT CLICKING. Thank you. I appreciate your tolerance.
Dan: What are some ways that science writers are adapting? By raising their own funding?And are you using up all your beer money on your colleagues’ Kickstarters and Indiegogo’s and Beacon Readers?
Erik: I personally don’t know if those are really a stable solution. Nor are the many grants available from places like the Pulitzer Center or Mongabay. But they seem to be a good stopgap measure for the time being. I’m currently working with the latter and they are allowing me to do a few stories I could never do without a paper behind me.
Dan: So do we need to look to freelancers forming syndicates, a United Artists of writers? Will that work in an era of clicks over quality?
Erik: Oh man, great idea. Can you get started on that?
Helen: Yeah, somebody already thought of that. I’m interested to see how it does.
Erik: The thing that worries me most is, what will my retirement look like? I hope my kids are smart enough for scholarships.
Ann: Don’t get me started on the difference between what society pays PEOPLE WITHOUT DISCERNABLE SOCIETAL USEFULNESS and what it pays SMART, EXPERIENCED, EDUCATED SCIENCE WRITERS WHO WANT ONLY TO BRING EDIFICATION AND DELIGHT UNTO THE LIVES OF ALL PEOPLES? Okay, sorry. Sorry.
Erik: Dear reader, if you take nothing else from this conversation, it’s this: Do not piss off Ann. Ever. Seriously, she’s a dangerous woman.
Ann: Only if caps-lock is dangerous.
Dan: A big worry I have is science writing losing the decades-long fight to turn from cheer-leading into a kind of critical journalism. This is from John Fleischman and Christina Szalinski of the American Society for Cell Biology (who are good folks btw): “There is also a new zone emerging between journalism and public information, one in which scientist-writers and writer-scientists will find their own ways to tell stories without worrying about labels.” Yikes, a new label-free zone between PR and journalism, is that okay?
Ann: Not at all okay. Worry about the labels. Public information does give people regular salaries and benefits at entities like universities, professional societies, institutes, funding agencies, industry, funding agencies. And pub info writing is clearly written and, I assume, accurate. But the content of the story is decided by the employer and the point of the story is to get the employers’ stories out to the public. Journalists decide their own content and aren’t supposed to get anyone’s story out. So the reader really needs the labels, needs to know which is which. And the damage online sites are doing to these labels — jeez!
Christie: Lots and lots of online sites now rely on scientists and physicians and other experts with day jobs and nice salaries and benefits to provide “content.” Many of these people are good writers, and a few do traditional journalism. But the lines between advocacy and journalism become blurred pretty quickly, and that worries me. It also pisses me off, because these experts who write for free threaten to make our profession a hobby for rich people. (I realize that no one owes me a living at this, but I still claim the right to be pissed.)
Erik: I have an idea. Super cutting edge. I envision a really big room where people like you, Dan, would work alongside younger folks who could benefit from your experience and editing and ethical standards, and who could share new ideas with you as they come into vogue. It’s a shocking notion, I know. Ready? I call it the “newsroom.” Right? Because it’s a room where news happens.
Dan: A newsroom with all you folks inside would matter a great deal. Not least because you aren’t ones to sugarcoat. That gives me a little perverse hope; We’re going to need hard heads to get through the gig economy.
Helen: Oh, Dan. You’re just saying nice things so we’ll give you exposure on LWON.
Photo credits: Travis Nep Smith; Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen in Washington, D.C., Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum