30 November 2007

Getting paid

It's the end of a month and I've just spent a tedious half-day invoicing various clients and getting my books up to date. It's a relief to see that not too many people owe me money. Apart from one client who still owes me £145 from a much larger bill sent in February. Most of it has been settled in dribs and drabs over the intervening months but I don't want to get heavy as this client does give me regular, prestigious work, even if the rate is not fantastic. My accountant will not be pleased though if the debt drags over into yet another tax year.

Money is also an issue when you freelance. One hack I know of through an online forum writes for the national press and was asked by another client if she would write a lengthy feature. She said yes, until she found out the payment on offer was £25. Stick a nought on that and you might be getting somewhere... You have to laugh or you'd weep. Our trade is being wrecked by the zillion and one wannabes out there who are prepared to work for little or nothing. An example: someone on a business forum I use offers to write articles on any subject to be used as content on someone else's business website. His charge? £4 an article. Yes, you read that correctly -4 measly quid.

The number of outlets (particularly on the net) seeking writers who are willing to work solely for the kudos and the portfolio clippings is also rising. And now the NUJ is planning to confront the government over the blatant disregard for the minimum wage laws by newspapers and magazines who ask students to do up to 6 months' work experience for free. That's not work experience, that's exploitation.

Writing is a profession and a skill. It can be incredibly hard at times - staring at a blank page and struggling to string it all together (thankfully, for us professionals that's not an everyday occurrence but it can happen at times). As a professional skill, writing should and must command a professional remuneration. Why should we work for nothing? Newspaper bosses don't work for free. Neither does the editor, the page designer or the secretary.

I leave you with this fabulous clip, brought to me by a fellow hack today. It made me laugh but it has the bitter ring of truth to it...

23 November 2007

Feast and famine

It's all one or the other in this game. Either you are inundated with work or you have next to none. There never seems to be a happy compromise.

I've had a lean November, after months of solid work. I wasn't really panicking as I've been in this situation before and know from experience that it's not unusual. Mind you, I was getting to the stage where I was seriously considering cold-calling for work after I worked out that I'd earned barely a fifth of my income from the previous month. Then a quick read of some of the professional forums I network on showed that many other freelances seem to be in doldrums too. Phew! Not that I wish my colleagues a workless month - it's just that it's good to know I'm not alone and that clients and editors don't hate me. It's just a slack period all round.

And besides, I've just been offered lots of work. Admittedly, I turned down one job because of the anti-social hours required for 5 (count 'em!) nights a week, and another it turns out is not happening until March next year (!). Neither was the latter being offered on the plate it seemed to be at first, when I discovered others had been approached too and therefore I'd have to pitch for it. But one client I did lots of well-paid work for this year has asked me for more. And not being the type to say no, I said I'd email on Monday with my proposals for the project. Result.

Work beckons this weekend, too. I agreed to take on an urgent research job for a sick colleague who needs help while recovering for the lurgy (trust me, when you're ill and freelance, you have to crack on with commitments - it's very useful to be able to call on trusted colleagues at such times). I also, foolishly, took on a couple of other small jobs that I'm now regretting having agreed to. But hey, it was a slack month! I need the cash...

14 November 2007

Rogue databases and consent

Over on the ever-splendid JournoBiz forum, some fellow hacks were discussing something called Journa-list. I'd not heard of this before and my curiosity was piqued so off I went for a nose...

Journa-list is run by the Media Standards Trust, which in its own words describes itself as "an independent, not-for-profit organisation that aims to find ways to foster the highest standards of excellence in news journalism and ensure public trust in news is nurtured". Now, that's all well and good and I can't argue with that - standards matter in journalism and it's good there is some kind of body keeping tabs on things.

But my hackles are raised. MST's Journa-list database is being compiled without consent of those journalists it is listing. I ran a search on myself and, sure enough, I was there. Except I hadn't asked to be on it and the entry on me lists only one article anyway, which is hardly accurate. I have to question the ethics of gathering such data without consent by an organisation that claims to uphold standards of excellence in the industry. I am much more in favour of a voluntary database of the sort Journalist Michael Cross is proposing.

This is not the first time, alas, that I have been listed on a database without my permission or even knowledge. A year or so ago, I was emailed by a company that was inviting me to upgrade my listing on its media database. What database, I wondered? I took a look and was unhappy to find my details had been lifted from somewhere else without my agreement. A bit of investigation revealed that most of the other hacks on there had one (paid for) database in common, so it was obvious what had been trawled. On that occasion, I made a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office, but not before I was threatened with legal action by the perpetrators for bringing the situation to the attention of other journalists.

More recently, googling my phone number revealed I'd been listed on a commercial database of businesses owned by a very well-known publisher. Again, it took a bit of detective work to track down who I needed to speak to to get myself removed.

As a freelance, I like to retain some control over where I am listed. I pay to be on several highly reputable databases, and these are the only ones I want to be on. I do not want to be listed by anyone else and it infuriates me that I have to search for myself regularly on the net to check that I'm not showing up on something I've not consented to.

And as a journalist committed to upholding professional standards, including ethical ones, I find it particularly odious that others in the media seem to have no qualms in breaching the Data Protection Act or behaving otherwise unethically when it comes to the issue of consent.

12 November 2007

Styling English

David Marsh writes in today's Guardian about the latest edition of the newspaper's style book, which has been updated and published anew.

I remember when the Guardian's style guide was first published on its website - as a writer and editor, as well as loyal Graun reader (and these days occasional freelance for it too), I found it fascinating reading. Many of the paper's styling decisions back then made perfect sense, while some seemed rather unusual. I used to regularly consult the online version when working abroad as it kept me up to speed with current usage back home and was thus an invaluable reference work.

These days, I seem rarely to look at it as much of the stuff I copy-edit either comes with a style guide attached or I use NODWE and Hart for guidance. I've also written a fair number of style guides myself over the last decade.

The Guardian's new style book modernises common usage yet again. It's good to see they are finally ditching honorifics after first mention, for example, a practice I have pursued for several years already. Another for one my bookshelf, I think, as it's always handy to have several to consult (and funnily enough, despite the hours I spend on the net, these days I'm more likely to consult a print edition than hunt around on the web when I need styling answers fast).

11 November 2007

Books and newspapers

I came across Juliet Doyle's Musings from a Muddy Island blog the other day. It's a splendidly eclectic mix of posts on printing and typography, books, photography and art. My attention was particularly drawn to her post on why we keep books. I totally identified with Juliet on this - Wordsmith Towers contains thousands of books, about half mine, the rest my Beloved P's. Neither of us ever get rid of books. Well, I do very occasionally, but only the freebie chick-lit cover mounts from women's magazines that I tend to read just once then recycle at my nearest charity shop. Chick lit is not a genre I normally bother with, you see. I fear that we will run out of space eventually for our books. My office is full of dictionaries and other "work" books. Cookery books are in the dining room next to the kitchen. The main living room has books on entertainment (film, rock music, soaps), exploration and geography, and history. The other living room is crammed with general fiction, crime novels, travel guides and maps. The spare bedroom contains P's sci-fi and fantasy novels. Our bedroom has shelves of erotica. The landing is shelved with politics and Judaica. And, well, you get the picture...

Books are my friends. I have favourite books I return to again and again, and books I read only once but will never part with. I grew up in a house crammed with book, was reading before I went school and cannot imagine having no books around me. I guess it explains why I chose the career I did. An ex of mine never read and I remember how shocked I was when we first met to discover that he owned just 6 books, 1 of which was the telephone directory and 2 of which were car repair manuals. When we moved in together he grumbled about the size of my book collection and banished all books from the living room. You can see why we were doomed...

I love looking at other people's book collections too. It can tell you masses about the kind of person they are, just as their wardrobe and CD collection will.

If you're quick, go to Radio 4 right now. The Beeb is running a series of very interesting programmes on journalism and newspapers. I'm having a lazy Sunday here, indulging in a marathon listening session to catch up on some of the programmes I missed earlier due to work pressure.

08 November 2007

Register of interests and PR woes

Journalist Michael Cross has proposed an interesting idea over on JournoBiz - namely that journalists should voluntarily declare on any conflicts of interest on a register. Much of the reading public is unaware that, for example, hacks writing travel features usually have their trips paid for by airlines and hotels or holiday companies, rather the costs being met by the publication.

The perks of the job can be amazing - or paltry. It depends what you write about. Hacks reviewing products of any description can expect to be given them for free, for keeps. A music journalist is highly unlikely ever to buy CDs. Motoring journalists often get a flash car to play with for a month or so before it goes back to the manufacturer. Reviewing vehicles virtually ensures you don't really need to buy your own.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum. Because of the kind of journalism I engage in, I rarely get freebies. In the last year, I've had about £200 worth of free VoIP kit, but that was only foisted on me by an anxious PR after I'd slated the company in print, in the hope that if I write about them again I'll be nicer. And that's it. Nothing else apart from a couple of free sex toys and two books!

I like the idea, though, of journalists being transparent about perks and conflicts of interest. Michael's aim is for it to operate along similar lines to that of the register of MPs' interests. I am following the debate on JournoBiz as it unfolds and if it ever gets off the ground I expect I'll sign up.

Elsewhere, I had a spectacularly stressful day thanks to a hapless PR. I had an afternoon deadline to file a feature and although I'd requested some statistics several days ago and they'd been promised by end of Wednesday, I still hadn't received them by noon. I was struggling to write my article without the info and spent ages on the phone and emailing. The flack kept saying I'd have them in 10 minutes and an hour would pass and there'd still be no stats.

Finally, I got the email, only for the most important stats I'd asked for to be missing. Another phone call, another hour... I eventually filed late, which I was not pleased about, although my commissioning ed was very understanding because I'd kept her informed of the problem.

When will PRs understand that it's essential to respect our deadlines and supply us with what we ask for? It took this one 4 whole days to come up with 5 lines of info, data that she could have supplied quickly and easily if she'd applied herself. Sigh. At least the other PRs I dealt with this week were a lot more helpful.

Airing dirty laundry in public

I was going to post on why this can sometimes be a good thing, even essential on occasion. I had even crafted half my blog post. Then I decided to scrap it on the grounds that what I wanted to say could not have been said without damaging the reputation of an organisation whose reputation I don't wish to damage. Because it doesn't deserve to be damaged.

A bit ironic, really, that I'm keeping schtum instead.

Perhaps I should just say that it only takes a couple of rotten apples to spoil the whole barrel.

04 November 2007

Standing up for journalism

Tomorrow - Monday 5 November - is official Stand Up For Journalism day.

I won't be doing anything myself to mark the day. Firstly, I'm providing editing cover for a foreign colleague so I'll be chained to my PC all day waiting for Swedish equity analysts to send me their reports. Pity, as the main event - a big rally in Manchester - is not far from me and looks like it could be interesting, as activists will be targeting the conference of the Society of Editors (that's newspaper editors, btw, not lowly copy editors like moi).

Secondly, I'm not currently a member of the NUJ. My membership lapsed when I went abroad and when I first attempted to renew it I was told I couldn't, for a couple of technical reasons. Then my old union did a few things I wasn't terribly keen on so, for reasons too complex to explain here, I haven't yet renewed my membership. I keep toying with it - it is, after all, the only union I have ever belonged to - but nothing has yet managed to persuade me to bite the bullet and fill in the forms again.

I like the idea of a day of action, though. The day is a protest against the huge media conglomerates that own our newspapers and magazines yet keep cutting staff and budgets to boost their profit margins. It's a serious problem in an industry that hasn't seen day rates rise for freelance shift workers in more than 17 years, that means many regional papers can't afford specialist staff such as crime reporters and many national newspapers can't afford to send their reporters out to cover news on the ground. A lot of journalists are reduced to recycling press releases and ultimately it is the public that suffers as they don't get proper news. For a good summary of the situation, read this.

I'll be thinking of my paid-up colleagues while I sit at home correcting Swedish finance reports.