HOW TO (MAYBE?) MAKE A LIVING AS FILM JOURNALIST
I took note of Anthony Kaufman’s most recent blog post, “How to Survive the Recession?” for a number of reasons. First, Anthony writes our “Industry Beat” column, which is a place every issue where we survey the broader trends affecting this industry. He’s one of the few writers in our independent sphere who equally understands art and business issues, and he knows how to communicate both in concise and clear prose. But Anthony only does four columns a year for us, and if he’s finding the freelance world in general too forbidding at the moment, that’s awfully sad.
I’m finally starting to feel the economic crunch—personally. Over the last year, I’ve written about the crashes of ThinkFilm and New Yorker Films, tracked the demise of VHS, the collapse of indie film financing and followed the obsolescence of movie critics. Now, I, too, am seeing my occupation slip away from me with every passing week. Major publications have admitted to me that they “ran out of money”; others don’t have the room or budget for feature stories anymore; and fair compensation has dropped to the insulting “blog rate”—$35 to $50 for what would have been $100 to $200 for an equivalent amount of work a couple years ago. This shit is real.
Mike Jones linked to Anthony’s blog here, writing that he’s spending more time now on his screenplay career:
The freelance life is a scary one. Luckily, I’ve been able to transition back into screenwriting. This blog suffers for it, unfortunately, but it’s a move of necessity. But where will the other writers go? How will they cobble together enough scratch to weather this?
In the past couple of weeks I’ve done a few “informational interviews” with graduating students trying to figure out the current film journalism market, so Anthony and Mike’s comments have resonated with me. It’s hard to know what to say to people who are intent on making film journalism their means of employment right now simply because most forms of journalism, particularly niche-content ones, are difficult to make a living at right now! In a time marked by increasing disintermediation in the content industry, the perhaps neurobiological lure of non-print forms of delivery, and expanded content offerings (games, social media, etc.) competing for a reader’s finite amount of free time, anyone hoping to make a living by writing about things must figure out new ways of working and getting paid for that work. Like I said, this isn’t just the province of niche-content creators. (Here’s a list of some two dozen articles dealing with journalism and monetization just from the last three weeks.) But it seems to be hitting many niche-content creators the hardest because their audiences were smaller to begin with and their institutions less able to survive a sustained economic downturn.
What’s the solution for film journalists who need to market themselves in the freelance market of the future? There are obviously no concrete answers while we are in the midst of a down economy, but perhaps young journalists entering the job market should begin to prepare themselves for a restructured journalism business (both mainstream and niche) when things begin to rebound. The signs of what that business will be are already around us. For example, NBC newsrooms across the country are being retooled, with existing job positions eliminated and new “multi-faceted” jobs created. News producers are being renamed “content producers” and told they must generate content for not just TV but also the internet and mobile platforms. Pieces must be conceived of with a variety of lengths and viewing platforms in mind. From the Chicago Tribune:
“It’s not a cost-cutting thing,” said Frank Whittaker, WMAQ’s station manager and vice president for news. “We haven’t got the numbers yet, so I can’t tell you if it matches up exactly or not. But the real reason is to take the resources we have and try to produce more content in more platforms than we’re doing right now, and more platforms also means that hopefully we’ll start making more revenue.
“The big picture is we’re trying to become a newsroom that provides content for a number of different platforms, including the growth areas, which could be Web, could be mobile …— a lot of different places where our content may play now or may play someday,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to grow as our traditional business stays flat or declines or whatever happens in the future.”
Let’s say what’s going on at NBC is indicative of what will happen for the business of film journalism as well. What does that mean? My time spent at the Open Video conference last month made clear to me how quickly video is rapidly becoming the dominant communicative mode on the ‘net. So, reflecting on this thought, my conversations with recent graduates, and Anthony’s piece, here are some ideas about how the world of pitching articles to film publications and their corresponding websites may change in the near future.
1. First, pitches will be multi-platform. A freelancer won’t propose just an article but also a follow-up series of blog posts extending that article as well as related video content that the freelancer will be able to cheaply generate. And forget about tear sheets or even PDFs — editors will be directed to sites that include print and video material. Which leads us to…
2. Writing skills will not be enough. Freelance journalists will have to figure out how to create video content to amplify their pieces beyond the print medium. This will require basic shooting and editing skills or else the ability to package oneself with a partner able to handle this aspect of the pitch. Even more important will be the ability to creatively conceive of multiple formats and styles — print, video, interactive — to explore topics. When it comes to journalists doing this now, check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essays for Moving Image Source, Kevin Lee’s critical “rewatches” found on his YouTube page as well as at FilmInFocus, and Jamie Stuart’s combination of short-form filmmaking and journalism for us.
3. Journalists will identify their audiences and know how to reach them. Just as filmmakers include a discussion of marketing when they pitch a film, so too will journalists. What specific existing online communities will be interested in this piece, and how will they be targeted?
4. Related: an understanding of audience metrics will be important. How can material be presented so that it draws attention to itself through feeds, links, and syndication? What types of hooks and pieces of metadata will drawn in an audience? What kind of articles are capable of “going viral?” What existing dialogues in the blogosphere will an article be able to be a part of? A journalist able to think about these issues will distinguish him or herself in a pitch.
5. Journalists will be portable brands. Is the writer pitching the article someone who capable of bringing his followers to a piece? Scott Kirsner is a good example today of someone who freelances for a variety of publications and has also, through his CinemaTech blog, found a way to aggregate an audience and direct them to his various published pieces.
6. Journalists will have to be 24/7. In order to maintain the interests of their followers as well as build their desirability as commentators, long-form journalists are going to have to be skilled at short-form blogging. In order to maintain their reputational authority, they will have to be able to respond to the immediate needs of the daily news cycle while preserving enough of their mental energy to compose their more “written” pieces. Paul Krugman at the New York Times is a good example of someone doing that right now.
7. A future orientation will be important. We are approaching a “new normal,” and while we have some clues, we don’t know what it will be yet. At a certain point being able to discuss this business using the metrics of old will no longer be useful. Journalists discussing the film business will have to know more about the business paradigms of multi-platform production and distribution. And when it comes to creative content, if trans-media projects take hold, journalists will have to be literate in discussing not only cinema but gameplay and other forms of the user experience. Being able to analyze the past will only get you so far. We want to know where we’re going from here.