It is a rule of thumb in the life of the freelance journalist, almost as sure as the law of gravity, that the more you get paid for an article, the greater likelihood it will turn to mush at the hands of too many people paid to “edit” the work. We might even work out a financial equation for this degenerative process: for every cent-increase in per-word payment, there will be a meaning-decrease in every word. Or, rather, the words will take on all sorts of meanings you never thought they had. Or the words will pop their heads into scenes where they had not been meant to pop. Or the editors will attach like ticks to the ideas of the people quoted and suck out entirely, perfectly, inanely, the meaning of what the person really said. Or the words will be a jive version of your original intent, the fevered imaginings of a slope-shouldered creature who sits in a room most of the day looking at a computer screen or mirror. Finally, in the worst case, the words may not be the words you wrote at all – a shock to see at the eve of publication, something weird and alien, as if your newborn child had grown an extra head in the night and now screamed at you in the morning.
So how to deal: here’s this creepy weird offspring that is kind of yours, has some of your looks, one of your eyes, a portion of your hair, and one of your legs, and, if you keep the thing, it will pay a good deal, possibly even two or three months’ rent or a vacation somewhere warm or a meal at the best kind of restaurant that you haven’t visited for a long time. Ideally, the freelancer would have the courage to take the deformed infant of his work and throw it in a dumpster or perhaps toss the bloody thing back to the editor and say, “Here, you sign it.”
But the money. And the money is of course the problem in the first place, as it is the onus and grift with most everything that matters. Still, let’s be fair. There are many fine venues where a freelancer can hold his own to say (something approaching) what he wants in the way that he (sort of) wants, and get paid for it.
However, my personal experience – which is arguably nothing at all – is that in the freelance business of magazine writing you cannot say exactly what you want and get paid well for it. This is hugely important, because it amounts to a seriously dysfunctional relationship between what magazine writers want to say and what they are allowed to say by their handlers.
Magazine writers, like animals reacting to stimulus, learn the path to gratification. They look for the story that can be sold. The writer, when tossed a big contract from a prestigious magazine, feels the money-anvil on his head – he needs to produce something worth the cash, and it mars his writing. It makes him want to formulate all kinds of big ideas that answer the bigness of the remuneration. In other words, he looks for words that will please money. This sounds harsh, but it’s a fact. I know it’s a fact because I do it as a habit. The freelancer’s life for the most part is about finding topics that will sell in the (often insipid) marketplace of ideas, or, in the ideal case, tricking the dingleberry-brained market into running something that no one wants to know about because no one else is speaking about it.
Now behold the rush among magazine editors to unveil the rot in the economy and make a sale on the disaster unfolding. A year ago, no one wanted to hear it. When in January of 2008 I proposed to my various editors in the usual line-up the idea of a profile of Gerald Celente, a trends forecaster who for the New Year predicted a coming economic cataclysm – well, the answer was that Celente sounded crazy, none of it made sense, what he suggested was too extreme, it wouldn’t fit for our pages, it was too negative blah blah.
Here’s what Celente was modestly suggesting just over a year ago: “In 2008, Americans will wake up to the worst economic times that anyone alive has ever seen,” he wrote. “Just as they didn’t see 9/11 coming and were frozen in shock when terror struck, [Americans] will be frozen in shock when terror strikes again.” Celente predicted “failing banks, busted brokerages, toppled corporate giants, bankrupt cities, states in default, foreign creditors cashing out of US securities…the stage is set, the big one is on its way.” Well, this was exactly right. But it wasn’t news. The “competitiveness” of the “progressive” magazine marketplace is all about charging like smiling lemmings when everyone is saying the same thing (George W. Bush bad; Iraq war bad; Blackwater bad etc), but give them a subject that no one is talking about…and the question, of course, is why no one else is talking about it. Perverse? Yes, indeed. Blinkered and tiresome and just plain dumb? Ditto.
Young Freelancers, listen: Your best pieces will be written for magazines and journals and newspapers that pay you nothing, or nearly as nothing as can be managed (like, um, CounterPunch). I only attest from what I know. When New York Press in 2005 published a series I wrote about corruption in Brooklyn politics, my editors at the time, first Jeff Koyen, now happily unemployed, and then Alex Zaitchik, who until recently was in Russia working for the expat mag Exile, saw rightly that there was no news in what I was writing, no ad opportunities, no payback beyond the justice of the story itself. Brooklyn had always been corrupt and nothing would change, certainly not due to my pen. That was the news. The New York Press editors, who were as broke as me and running the paper out of a love beyond money, let me write whatever I found. They edited not a single word. I still haven’t been paid in full by the Press.
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM writes for many magazines and is currently working on a book called “The United States Must End,” about the break-up of the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.