18 Feb The Vibe Restructuring: Is this the beginning of the end of my freelance career?
Last week, a rumor zipped throughout the internets. It was posted on a few gossip blogs. And then I noticed a few of my Facebook friends linked to the article on their pages.
Word was, VIBE magazine was experiencing a financial crunch. And that they did not even have money to put out the March issue of the magazine.
I didn’t believe that for a second. I know how the magazine game works. And if a magazine like Vibe went under, it wouldn’t be like that. They’d be able to announce ahead of time that the magazine was folding. It wouldn’t fall apart in mid issue.
At least I hoped not.
The truth was revealed a few days later.
Vibe is cutting its paid circulation by 25%, going from 12 issues per year to 10. And instead of laying people off, they are moving to a four-day workweek and pay cuts that will be between 10-15%.
All of the above actually sounds smart to me. I know nothing about the business side of magazines. But I do know that if I worked in the offices at Vibe, I would not be mad at a 15% pay cut, (as opposed to losing my job). And a four-day workweek? I’ll take it!
But this restructuring is obviously a symptom of the larger crunch that print magazines, particularly entertainment magazines, are going through right now. And of course, this makes me wonder: What does this mean for me?
I am a full-time freelancer. No day job. No benefits. (Except from TH. Which is the main reason I married him…)
Here’s how I make my money:
1. I have a writer’s contract with one magazine. They pay me XYZ every month, whether I write five stories or none. (It usually hovers around two. With the occasional cover story thrown in as well). If I break it down to a word count, I get paid much less for each story than I would if I wasn’t on contract. But this check comes faithfully every month. Which is worth the lower pay count.
2. I collaborate on celebrity memoirs.
I’ve got one other book in the can but not yet published. And a few more possibilities. Obviously, this is the most lucrative aspect of my business. But it’s not secure. I don’t walk up to celebrities and say, hey! Can I write your book? It doesn’t work that way. So I never know when this kind of project could be presented to me. And then, even after you’ve struck a deal, there’s no guarantee it will actually happen. For example, I signed a deal with a rapper to ghostwrite his memoir. Before the ink was dry on the contract, he decided he wanted to try and write it himself. I’d already turned down other deals in order to work with him. So I was stuck for three months with no work. The book game, though it pays well, is tough. I can’t plan my mortgage payments around it.
3. I write celebrity features and trend pieces for magazines like GIANT, Vibe, KING.
Sometimes I get a call and an editor will say, go interview Diddy and give me 2000 words. Easy. More often, I come up with an idea and send out a pitch to an editor. If it’s accepted, I get to work.
I can’t front. I’m worried about what the recession will mean me for me. I know that budgets are shrinking. I noticed about a year ago that I wasn’t traveling as much for stories. I did a piece on Solange for GIANT. She was in Texas at the time and I thought I’d have to jump on a plane. But instead, we just did a phone interview. That was my first clue that things were changing. If the artist isn’t in New York, the story doesn’t usually come my way. So I’m sure I may get passed over for assignments because of location. A few years ago, I was criscrossing the country regularly on assignment.
(And there was actually a time when I might fly out to interview a celebrity more than once. For a single story. Those were the days. And those days are over.)
I reached out to a few freelancers to see if they’re feeling the pinch too.
Here’s my girl Serena Kim, a full-time freelancer in Los Angeles.
So are you feeling the pinch?
I’ve been cut from lots of my regular blog assignments and columns. I don’t get as many magazine assignments as I used to, and outlets are reluctant to pay promptly because they have a cash crunch. Things are so hard right now for my family. I can’t get into the gory details without really playing myself out in a public sphere. And yet, I continue to freelance.
Are you thinking about getting a day job?
I’ve decided that I still make more as a freelancer than I would as a secretary or some other kind of day job that I could get. So I’m not looking for a job. But if anybody out there wants to give me a job, I’ll definitely consider it! LOL.
Do you believe the recession will make things harder for freelancers…or easier since staffers will be cut?
In some ways, it feels good to be a freelancer in the recession, because you don’t have to worry about the specter of job cuts. Also you can be nimble and dabble in whatever interests you.
I totally agree with you there. I think I’m hustling more because I’m not afraid of losing my job. Since I don’t really have one. I’m ALWAYS hustling for the next job and don’t have much stability. So I’m used to this.
Exactly. I’ve survived three years at freelancing because I’ve tapped into the vast network of colleagues that I’ve built over the years. I try to hand in everything on time with impeccably compiled research and lots of self-editing. As a former editor, I remember that the writers who actually went that distance were few, and I kept going back and assigning the ones that did. Hopefully that’s why my editors keep assigning me. I’ve also reduced expectations in terms of rate and length. It’s a whole different landscape now.
Reduced expectations in terms of rate and length?! When Serena said that, I started biting my nails. I had to deal with that for the first time recently. And I didn’t like it one bit.
I’m proud to say that over the years, I’ve developed a reputation as a tenacious reporter who hands in clean copy with impeccable research. (At least 90% of the time). I’m punctual. And I’m open to edits.
And as far as I’m concerned, I want to be paid what I’m worth.
So when it comes time to negotiate a fee for a story, I have no problems asking for the high end of the pay scale. I know that times are different now. But the idea that I may have to accept a reduced per-word rate is scary. I don’t cut corners when I write a story. So I don’t want anyone cutting corners when it’s time to pay me!
Last month, I accepted an assignment from a magazine we’ll call XYZMagazine. I’ve written at least a dozen stories for the magazine over the past five years and I have a great relationship with the editor. He calls me up:
XYZ editor: Hey there, I want you to write a story about ABC.
Me: Oh yeah. I love it. I’m on it. How much are you paying me?
XYZ Editor: Well, um.
Me: You can pay me LMNOP. Same thing you paid me last year for a similar story.
XYZ: No. I can’t. I can pay you half that.
Me: HALF!? Are you serious?
XYZ: Yeah. I am.
I was fuming. The article involves a lot of work. And I have my own research assistant that I pay out of my own pocket. And I’d written an almost identical story just a year or so before and had been paid double what he was offering. (And even that hadn’t felt like enough!).
Reduced rates. Boo. Hiss.
I checked in with another freelance writer for her thoughts. Her name is Celia San Miguel. She’s been a full-time freelancer for a minute. And she has a very cute website at sickathanaverage.com. (If you ever want to salivate over items you can’t afford. Or splurge on something anyway, check it out.) I found these shoes on her site:
Too cute. And I just copped them for Tog. We will NOT talk about how an almost two-year old does not need 70.00 shoes when we’re in a recession. Moving on! (And if TH is reading this, they were not 70.00. They were on sale. For seven dollars. With free shipping. =)
Celia, are you feeling the pinch yet?
Yes, yes, yes, I have very much felt the pinch directly. I’ve written mainly for music and entertainment magazines over the year, and those have gotten hit particularly hard since the music industry was already ailing prior to the recession.
Do you think there’s any hope?
Some women’s fitness and health publications are still doing relatively well, so that’s an area where there are still opportunities. But I’d say the web is where it’s at — sure, a lot of websites don’t pay writers for their work but some do, and there’s no better time than now to start transitioning since the future will very much be about being a diverse, multimedia entity.
How often do you think about getting a day job?
I think about getting a day job relatively often (it depends on how dire my bank balance is looking! lol). I can’t say I’ve been actively looking for one though. I occasionally check to see what’s out there, but it hasn’t been an aggressive pursuit. And, frankly, there isn’t very much out there in the media realm, so I’ve been pretty disappointed when I have looked around.
Do you think the recession can be good for freelancers? Or just make things harder for us?
I hate to say it, but I think the recession will make it harder for freelancers. Sure, some staffers are getting cut, but those who are staying on are being asked to do triple the work — just so they don’t have to pay freelancers. A lot of magazines are resorting to doing everything in house which, of course, means no money for freelancers.
I agree with both Serena and Celia on several points. I do think this is the time for freelancers in print media to step up their game and venture into multimedia. If you can’t shoot basic video and edit it, you may be in trouble.
I checked in with my literary agent and two editors at national magazines to see what they’re saying. My agent, Ryan Fischer-Harbage, handles all my book deals. (And that of several other clients.)
Are we going to see a decrease in celebrity memoirs?
I think celeb books will do even better in this market because publishers must sell books and our culture revolves around celebrity, for better or worse. Name brands have inestimable value.
What about my money? Do you think advances for writers will shrink?
I think writers will be paid per their quotes as always.
Well that sounds encouraging! But then again, isn’t it my agent’s job to keep me from worrying? I do remember reading that even during the depression, the entertainment business blossomed. So maybe there’s some hope there. Although the book game is still precarious for writers, even in the best economy. What about my magazine assignments?
I called up the editory of XYZ Magazine first thing this morning.
You are the editor of a major magazine. Tell me the truth and give it to me straight. Is it gonna be hard for me to get work in this recession?
Yes, it is. I think most magazines are going to expect their staff to pick up writing. As far as freelancers go, their rates are going to get cut.
Even for your long-time, well-established freelancers that always turn their stories in on time and bring you great ideas?
Yes. Even you Aliya.
That is so unfair!
Look, it’s the reality. Advertising dollars are dropping. Our budgets are shrinking.
Well, your staffers can’t write everything. Are you at the point where you are turning down submissions from freelancers because you can’t afford them?
We’re not turning down good stories yet. I can still go to my publisher and ask to stretch the budgets. They understand that the bottom line is we want to sell magazines.
What is your advice to freelancers?
Don’t be too proud. If you have to get a cut in your word rate, you should do so. And maybe you can explore a writer’s contract. Where you’re getting a lower word rate but you’re getting security.
What about new folks, just starting out. Should they even bother?
Yes! A new person with great ideas, you’re golden right now. This is your come up. This is your chance to make a name for yourself. If you are okay with the reduced rates because you are just starting out and you have fresh, well-researched ideas, this could be a great time for you.
That was encouraging. Kind of. Except that crap about reduced rates. (Waaaah!)
But I had to get someone from VIBE to talk to me. Since this is the magazine actually taking a step to deal with the crunch right now. And lucky for me, (and all my dear readers), I did find a Vibe editor willing to speak anonymously on what the restructuring will mean for freelancers. Interesting stuff here:
What does the restructuring really mean for full-time staffers at the magazine like yourself? A four-day work week and a small pay cut doesn’t seem so bad.
The sweetest thing is that our readers will still have VIBE in their lives, and yes, those of us who remain on staff will still have a job with the same benefits. This is a strategic move for VIBE’s long term survival, and given the climate for media in general right now it’s a vote of confidence. Despite the shorter work week we still have to put together a great magazine and multimedia website.
What about us freelancers? Will I ever write for Vibe again?
The good news for freelancers is that VIBE is still here. Staffers have not been downsized but we have our hands full. Yes freelancers will get work, but they’ll have to hustle harder like everybody else. People who have specialized expertise (unique and compelling ideas, hard to get contacts, video skills…) will have an edge. People who live outside NY will get work when there’s a story in that town. As always the key is to think like an editor. Anticipate and fill the the media outlet’s needs. New freelancers should try to break in on vibe.com, which will be more of a focus for all of us. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I do believe VIBE’s best days may be in the future.
Okay. This just made me feel better. You’re saying freelancers need to hustle. I don’t mind hustling. You sound hopeful.
Like our president said, I believe in hope, but I also believe in action.
And there’s where we stand today. If you want to work, you can. If you want to make a living as a writer, it may be harder. But it can still be done. I’m still worried, quite honestly. But until we’re all selling apples in the street, I’ll still be here. Writing.
Dear readers, how is the recession affecting you? If you’re in media, I’d love to hear if you’re cutting budgets. If you’re a fellow freelancer, you know I want to hear how you’re faring. And if you’re in an industry far removed from media, I’d still like to know if you’re feeling the pinch. Are you cutting down on which magazines you buy? (Don’t do that! I need to eat! Ha.)
As always, I’d love to hear from you…