Freelance writers march into war. The cause: increased rates, rights and respect. The enemy: publishers like Transcontinental. Who will retreat first?
Charles Oberdorf moves slowly to the stage. The veteran magazine editor and writer, tethered to an oxygen tank with a nasal cannula because of emphysema, looks older than his 67 years. Before him, the biggest names in the magazine industry cluster around tables with white linens, awaiting the presentation of the 31st annual National Magazine Awards. In the magazine business, Christmas comes in June. At the Carlu in Toronto, 650 editors, publishers, writers, art directors, photographers and illustrators have come together, fingers crossed for their own publications, to cheer on colleagues and friends as awards are handed out recognizing the best work of 2007.
The first honour of the evening is the most prestigious: the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement, which is going to Oberdorf. Over the course of his 46 years in journalism, Oberdorf has written for and edited some of the country’s most well-respected magazines, including Saturday Night and Toronto Life. He has also volunteered with Magazines Canada and is the academic coordinator of the magazine publishing program at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.
“I feel like I’ve just been inducted into the most exclusive club in the country,” he begins his speech, beaming from beneath wire-rimmed glasses and a grey beard. Most of the attendees are decked out in semi-formal attire—suits and cocktail dresses—but Oberdorf is wearing a tuxedo, complete with cummerbund and bowtie. He speaks of his early days in broadcast, explaining that he made the switch to the magazine world in the late 1960s partly because magazine editors were a more likeable bunch than broadcast producers. Then, he does something surprising.
“I trust all you editors are still treating your freelancers in that nicer, magaziney way,” he says with a wry smile. “Now, if only we could do something about the money.” Applause and nervous laughter erupt. The notion that freelancers should be paid more tends to make people uncomfortable.
Oberdorf points out that most Canadian consumer magazines still pay the same buck-a-word rate as when he started in the business, while housing costs in Toronto, by comparison, have skyrocketed. “It’s a small wonder it’s so hard to find freelancers with first-hand knowledge of subjects like home ownership, investment strategies or parenthood.”
Laughter and cheers accompany the now-louder applause.
“I don’t want to scold. This is not the time for that. But I think it should be on the table,” he says. “I’ll shut up now, but thank you all very much.”
In the balcony sits writer and former Toro editor Derek Finkle, here to support his friend, Adam Sternbergh, who is hosting the event. As he watches Oberdorf return to his seat, an idea begins to form, an idea for a literary agency for freelancers, like those that exist for book authors. Finkle is familiar with many sides of the publishing business, but much of his career has been spent freelancing, typically writing long and research-heavy features—the kind being rewarded here tonight, and the kind freelancers don’t dare calculate their hourly rates for because it’s too depressing.
By the time Finkle leaves the party, he has started to think about how an agency might work. Experienced freelancers sometimes negotiate better than the standard rates, but he knows that while their trade is inherently entrepreneurial, writers tend not to be business minded, and most shy away from negotiation. He could do the tough talking for them while making a commission.
The idea, put into action, proves popular. Today, Finkle represents close to 100 writers. And his is not the only effort to organize freelancers. As contracts have become progressively less friendly, grabbing more rights for the same old rates, writers’ groups, both established ones such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and the fledgling Canadian Freelance Union, are trying to ensure the continued viability of the freelance writer.
The realization, over the past year or so, of a freelance union and an agency geared toward improving writers’ lot is no coincidence. The professional writer able to make a living as a freelancer has become as rare as a typewriter in a newsroom. If conditions don’t turn around, this breed will disappear forever, dealing a devastating blow to the quality of Canadian magazine journalism. The battle for self-preservation is on, but amid budget cuts, decreasing ad revenues and the growing need for multiplatform content, it’s one that’s going to take a miracle to win.
* * *
Freelance writers have always been on the margins of publishing, the creative renegades doing things their own way, refusing to get “real” jobs. But it was not so long ago that freelancing was a viable career choice, despite its inherent instability. Magazine veteran Don Obe says that in the 1970s, freelance writers could reasonably expect to make enough money to own a home and a car, and to support a family, which is not the case today. In fact, in 1981 Obe quit his job as editor of Toronto Life to freelance because he wanted to write more.
Of course, this was also a time when the biz was such that new graduates could walk into a publication’s office, say, “I want to work here,” and be hired on the spot. Opportunities were comparatively abundant and a living wage easier to command, as was respect. “As a freelance writer you not only could hold your head up high, but you could be really proud of what you did,” says Obe.
David Hayes, the quintessential freelancer, got his start in this “golden age,” having finished journalism school in 1981. He immediately started freelancing, not really giving the decision a lot of thought, and quickly made a name for himself as a top-notch feature writer. “It was a different era,” he says, “and freelancing didn’t seem so difficult.” Since then, he’s won numerous National Magazine Awards and has written for publications such as Toronto Life, Chatelaine, The New York Times Magazine and Saturday Night, as well as producing four non-fiction books. He lives and breathes feature writing, but he still spends a lot of time worrying about where his next story is going to come from.
Alex Hutchinson, a freelancer who entered the business in 2006, says that if a writer is willing to live cheap and work his ass off, it’s possible to make an okay living freelancing. He doesn’t reveal what he earns in a year, but it’s enough to support himself and his wife, a full-time student. Granted, Hutchinson, 34, doesn’t have kids or a mortgage to think of. (He jokingly calls his wife, a medical student, his “long-term insurance policy.”)
Today, there are few like Hutchinson, and almost all professional freelancers supplement their incomes somehow. There are many reasons for the overall decline in writers’ standard of living, the most basic being that rates have remained stagnant for decades. There are some exceptions, but the top pay for a magazine piece is generally $1 a word, the same as it was 30 years ago. For younger writers, that sum is practically the Holy Grail. Rates at publications where writers tend to learn their trade barely cover rent and spaghetti, never mind daycare and a mortgage. Indie magazines such as Spacing, Maisonneuve and This Magazine pay about 10 cents a word. Newspapers hardly ever top $1 a word, and are often closer to half that, while trade publications’ fees range from 35 cents to, sometimes, $1 a word. Not only are the rates lousy, but these days, recession-hit books with less advertising mean fewer assignments.
According to a 2006 PWAC survey, the average freelancer’s income is around $24,000. By comparison, the 2008 Statistics Canada poverty line for a single person living in Toronto was $22,171. And freelancers are on their own when it comes to benefits, vacations and retirement savings. The PWAC estimate includes both career freelancers and those just starting out, so the figure likely skews low—a full-time freelancer can expect to earn $25,000 to $60,000 per year. The unfortunate reality is that freelancers tend to hit an income ceiling relatively quickly.
John Macfarlane, editor and co-publisher of The Walrus, is aware that his magazine isn’t paying writers enough, and he isn’t happy about it. “We’re already paying as much as we possibly can pay and still keep the doors open,” he says, admitting that perhaps if the magazine were more robust financially he could fight for higher rates. For now, though, “the money simply isn’t there.”
As if the poor pay weren’t bad enough, the internet has further devalued professional writing. Adopting a practice now referred to as the original sin, publications began putting their content online gratis in the 1990s, hoping that substantial online ad revenue would follow. It didn’t. Instead, this approach reinforced the notion that information wants to be free. The rise of online content aggregators such as Suite101, which pay writers a pittance only if an article generates advertiser-friendly traffic, has helped normalize the idea that writers don’t need to be fairly paid. “I actively discourage writers who ask for my advice from contributing to sites like these,” says Kim Pittaway, a star freelancer who’s been in the business for 24 years and has garnered a half-dozen NMA nominations. “Even with the students I teach, I tell them that they are better off creating their own sites and doing work that is distinctive and engaging to them and their readers.” And it’s not just the smallish publications that are to blame—even The Huffington Post, the hugely popular news and commentary site, has built a business model around using wire copy, linking to news stories and by not paying its bloggers for original writing.
Even when they pay writers reasonably for print pieces, some publishers are demanding digital and cross-platform reproduction rights without additional compensation. A few years ago Canwest held the dubious honour of having the most hated contract in the industry; it claimed all rights—including moral rights—to any commissioned work. Then in June 2009, Transcontinental Media, which publishes magazines includingCanadian Living, Homemakers and Style at Home, introduced a document that basically stripped contributors of virtually any control over their work, gave the publisher almost unlimited opportunity to reuse material—and worse, would apply to all future pieces for Transcon titles.
Considered in the context of supply and demand, the freelance problem makes some sense. “Freelancers are workers, right?” says Nicole Cohen, a journalist-turned-academic who’s studying labour organization among freelance writers. “Historically, employers have a tendency to get the most amount of work for the least amount of pay.” Today’s market is flooded with work-hungry writers, many of them willing to undercut the others in order to secure work, which further devalues the freelancers’ product. Many of the younger ones simply don’t know any better. Cohen says this is due to the lack of historical memory that comes with not having a union. Writers starting out don’t know how good things could—or should—be.
Publishers have gotten away with keeping rates low because freelancers, as a group, have been willing to work in a low-income field, says D.B. Scott, an industry consultant who runs the Canadian Magazines blog. Magazines today aren’t paying much more than they were in previous years, maybe less, says Scott. “And who can blame them if people are willing to work for less and less? It’s kind of a race to the bottom.”
While it’s easy to think of freelancers as expendable, the reality is they carry a huge load at Canadian magazines. Newspapers have staff reporters, using freelancers to fill gaps, but magazines are dependent on freelancers for most—in many cases, all—of their content. The magazine industry needs its freelancers.
* * *
Derek Finkle talks with his hands. He’s dressed in a striped pink shirt (with typical stubbornness he insists it’s “ruby red”), jeans and a blazer, and his wavy, uncombed hair falls to his chin. He leans back in a white leather swivel chair in a meeting room on the main floor of the Canadian Writers Group’s Toronto office (a space he shares with his wife’s graphic design company). It’s October 2009, and for the past six months, Finkle’s been doing little except negotiating for freelancers’ rights. He insists he is not a crusader, but his passion for the cause and his clients is clear when he speaks. “What drives me,” he says, “is that we represent some really talented people who have been undervalued for a long time.”
Finkle started out in magazines in the early 1990s as Toronto Life’s first editorial intern, and has since earned a name as a talented feature writer, but also as someone who tends to irk people—both editors and writers. He is generally kind and pleasant, but he has an aggressive streak and is known to speak passionately and at top volume when his sensibilities or sense of fairness is offended, which contributes to his reputation as someone who refuses to back down. Tales of the 42-year-old’s rants are passed around like folklore in the magazine community. Despite the talk, Finkle seems largely unaware of others’ perception of him, much like an attack dog doesn’t know it’s a vicious beast.
Finkle began his feature writing career with an in-depth story called “The Sting,” about two men who tried to hire a hit man to kill a business partner, but got outed—and busted—in the process. He started working on this 6,300-word piece while doing his (unpaid) internship. It appeared in Toronto Life in February 1994, but rather than getting paid for it—which would have allowed him to move out of his grandmother’s basement—his only compensation was the fleeting glory that comes with publishing in Toronto Life. (He would later comment that the paid-in-exposure offer is “an old trick.”)
Finkle, who has a BA in English from Princeton and an MA in the same from the University of Toronto, did get his foot in the door, though, and went on to establish himself as a successful freelancer, often writing long features about crime. In 1998, he published No Claim to Mercy, a book about Robert Baltovich, who was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Bain. Finkle questioned the verdict, as did others. Baltovich was later retried and found not guilty in 2008. During the retrial, Crown prosecutors subpoenaed Finkle’s notes and tapes. Finkle fought the order on the grounds that relinquishing the material would trample on journalistic integrity. The ensuing fight, which Finkle ultimately won, got a lot of media attention, and as a result, Finkle became something of a cause célèbre, cast in the role of crusader for journalistic principles.
After the book came out, he took a job as an editor with Saturday Night, then in 2002, he moved to Toronto-based men’s magazine Toro as editor, a position he held until the magazine folded in 2007, necessitating a move back to the freelance business. Around the same time, he and his wife, Julie, welcomed a son.
When he attended the NMAs in 2008, Finkle had few plans beyond continuing to freelance, but in the weeks that followed, he really got started on his agency plan. By September, more than 80 writers—including top names like Kim Pittaway and David Hayes—had expressed interest in the idea, and by March 2009, Finkle had more than 200 applications from writers seeking his services.
He launched the Canadian Writers Group (CWG) in May 2009 with an initial client list of 50, choosing to grow slowly. He selected the original group based on which magazines they wrote for and the type of writing they did, aiming for a broad spectrum of specialty and talent. He insists it was not a popularity contest, but he does have most of Canada’s top names in his stable.
Pittaway was one of the first to commit to Finkle’s group. “We’ve been fighting these battles individually, and every few years we get another publisher coming out with another crummy contract,” she says. “You really do need to come together in some way to get somebody else on your side.”
For writers, the CWG represents hope for a better future, the opportunity for an advocate and possibly a way to stop the disintegration of the profession. For Finkle’s part, while his sympathies are clearly with the writers, and he is sincere in his quest to improve their working conditions, the agency is, above all, a business, and he is an entrepreneur. Fortunately, the CWG doesn’t have a lot of overhead costs and, financed with his own capital, it covers its bills through the 10 to 20 percent commission he charges.
Most of Finkle’s workday is spent on the phone or on the computer, negotiating contracts with editors and setting up work for his writers. Though he hasn’t yet made back his initial investment, he’s bringing in enough cash each month to cover the office space and administrative help, and to pay himself—though he won’t reveal how much.
It’s unclear whether Finkle has had any success in winning higher rates for writers. He has brought some clients work that they say they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise—Craig Silverman, author of the Regret the Error blog and a book based on the popular site, credits Finkle with negotiating a regular feature for Report on Business magazine. Silverman joined in part because he felt an agency like CWG should exist and that Finkle was the man to run it.
While Finkle has been able to negotiate higher rates for others, the raises have been inconsistent, and it’s unclear whether they’ve been enough for writers to break even after he takes his cut. This is the worry that kept freelancer John Lorinc from signing up—though Finkle courted him early on—and why he’s still skeptical. “I’m not convinced I would get value for my money,” says Lorinc, who has written for such publications as The Walrus, Toronto Life and The Globe and Mail for more than 20 years. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know roughly what the limits are, and that some of the publications that I write for just don’t have any more money.”
Pittaway, on the other hand, has her sights on issues larger than her finances. She signed on with Finkle for a one-year contract not expecting to make any extra money, and was even prepared to lose some in exchange for having a bulldog like Finkle in her corner. “I know Derek can be somewhat less than diplomatic, but I’m perfectly okay with that,” she says. “Now, I may change my mind if he really pisses someone off, but frankly it’s worth it if my rates stay the same and I give him his cut, just so he can be my guy.” Others agree: Finkle says he hasn’t lost a client yet, and Pittaway plans to stay on for a second year.
Pittaway habitually negotiates higher rates for herself—she doesn’t need the CWG to get her better deals on individual assignments, though Finkle has negotiated an increase for her on at least one pitch. She joined on the basis of solidarity, as have many of Finkle’s other writers. But a successful business cannot be sustained on principle alone, so it’s possible that once the feeling of camaraderie wears off and freelancers’ finances are further strained, more writers will sway toward Lorinc’s point of view.
Finkle thinks about this possibility often, and hopes he’ll be able to entice his writers to stay by bringing them more work, especially high-paying corporate gigs. He also wants to negotiate CWG-specific contracts with magazines like Reader’s Digest, so his writers would get a better rate than others.
Finkle doesn’t tell his writers whom to work for—they are free to do all the 10-cents-a-word pieces that they like—but he does counsel them to put a value on their time. He encourages freelancers to work for clients who compensate them fairly for their labour.
Besides his day-to-day work, Finkle also focuses heavily on long-term plans for the CWG. He’s already pushing magazine editors to shift the per-word rate to a project-based sum that would better reflect the time and effort required to complete a piece, a practice that some magazines, such as Toronto Life, already follow loosely. A freelancer might be able to produce a quick, 300-word piece in a day, and $300 for a day’s work is nothing to complain about, but the biggest problem with the buck-a-word paradigm is that it doesn’t translate well to feature writing: even the best, most efficient freelance writer can’t produce a well-researched, thoughtful and polished 3,000-word piece in 10 days. Finkle’s next battle is to establish electronic royalties for his writers. “If a story gets 100,000 hits and is on the internet forever,” says Finkle, “the writer should get paid for that.”
* * *
The sun beams down on Derek Finkle as he crosses a parking lot and heads toward Transcontinental Media’s office in Toronto. It’s July 16, 2009, month two of the CWG, and he is facing his first serious skirmish.
When Transcon, one of Canada’s largest magazine publishers, asked its writers to start signing its “author master agreement”—a draconian document applying to everything the writer produces for the company until one or the other ceases to exist—many refused. The contract contains no language regarding freelance rates, payment schedules or kill fees—so the writer’s interests are not protected—but demands non-exclusive rights, meaning Transcon can repurpose the story as it chooses. By contrast, the old standard saw the publisher buying first North American serial rights only. Had Candace Bushnell, who wrote the “Sex and the City” column for TheNew York Observer, signed a contract like this, the paper could have produced the entire Sex and the City franchise and kept all the profits.
When Finkle saw the contract in June, he called David Johnston, then executive director of PWAC, who quickly drafted a letter to Jacqueline Howe, at the time Transcon’s group publisher and vice president for English consumer publications, outlining the concerns of the 12 writers’ groups and associations (including PWAC and the CWG) that signed the letter. Soon after, Johnston and Finkle arranged a meeting with Howe, hoping to have the terms amended. (Both Howe and Johnston have since left their respective positions.)
Finkle makes his way to a waiting room in the Transcon building and is soon joined by Johnston. They wait for Iain MacKinnon, the CWG’s lawyer (who also represented Finkle when his notes were subpoenaed during the Baltovich incident). When MacKinnon arrives, Howe’s assistant escorts the trio to an adjacent boardroom—small, windowless and empty save for a nondescript table and chairs.
Howe and Pierre Marcoux, vice president of business solutions and book publishing at Transcon, join the group, and the five get down to business. Though much is at stake, the mood is cordial and professional. Once the pleasantries are out of the way, Finkle, feeling confident, speaks: “We’re representing all the signatories to the letter.” He then spells out his concerns.
“It’s not our intention to develop a magazine story into a television series and then not pay the writer,” insists Marcoux. But the language in the contract is murky, and Finkle doesn’t read it that way. “Then why do you need all of these rights?” asks MacKinnon.
Howe says that the non-exclusive rights clause could, for example, allow representatives of Transcon brands to go on television to promote features in their magazines.
“Well, that’s just fair dealing,” says MacKinnon.
Marcoux jots down a few notes throughout the meeting, but doesn’t say much, except for a few well-rehearsed phrases he repeats several times: “It’s only in association with the brand”; “It’s not our intention.” Howe’s contributions are similar. It’s like negotiating with pull-string dolls.
“Look,” says an exasperated Johnston toward the end of the meeting. “Take all the rights you want. Just pay for them.” Marcoux maintains the writer gets those rights too. It’s a non-exclusive arrangement; the writer and the publisher share ownership.
“The whole idea of a right is that it’s supposed to be exclusive,” says Finkle. “Look, you’re just going to have good ideas vibrating away from your publications if you go ahead with this.” Marcoux insists he supports nurturing a healthy crop of freelancers.
“Well, you don’t want this contract, then.”
“Look, I’m not a lawyer,” Marcoux says after an hour of discussion, “but there’s clearly a wording issue here.” He offers to arrange a conference call between MacKinnon and Transcon’s lawyer within a week or two.
Finkle, Johnston and MacKinnon leave the meeting under the impression that Transcon is willing to compromise. Once the call comes, though, little is accomplished. The lawyer is equipped with the same pull-string mechanism as Marcoux and Howe, and is not authorized to negotiate any terms. When Marcoux next speaks with Finkle at the beginning of September, it’s to let him know Transcon feels the contract is fair and doesn’t plan to change it. (Trying to get Marcoux’s version of events turned out to be about as fruitless as a freelancer chasing an overdue cheque.)
“Okay, then you need to know that we are going to continue to oppose it,” says Finkle. “But now we’re going to oppose it in a very public way.” At this point, Finkle and Johnston begin to rally support from writers’ groups and agencies across Canada, 14 of which form a coalition announced at the end of September to promote a large-scale boycott against Transcontinental Media. The coalition urges its writers and supporters to quit writing for Transcon titles (none of Finkle’s clients have signed the contract) and encourages family and friends of the writers to cancel their subscriptions. A website, badwritingcontracts.ca, was launched in November, and the coalition has vague plans to go after Transcon’s advertisers if things don’t change.
Pittaway is one writer who has been vocal in her refusal to sign the contract, even though Transcon was one of her biggest clients. For her, it’s an important stand. “It’s an agreement you sign once and it applies forever,” she says. “If I sign it, I’ll have no leverage and no ability to negotiate the terms in any meaningful way.”
* * *
Despite its shortcomings, Derek Finkle’s agency may be the best hope freelancers have. The Canadian Freelance Union was formed in 2006, but lacked the resources to get going until the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada committed to financially backing the CFU in July 2009. It then held its first annual general meeting October 3, 2009. The meeting was broadcast via live webcast, with real-life locations in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, and union president Michael OReilly speaking passionately about freelance rights from Ottawa. Disappointingly, only eight or 10 people showed up to the Toronto meeting, and only 40 to 50 of the CFU’s 550 charter members (those who paid a $25 fee expressing interest in the union) bothered to log on from home. “It’s sometimes hard to get things rolling,” OReilly says later.
There was some initial enthusiasm for the union, but its slow start put a lot of people off, and there is little hope in the freelance community that the union will be able to accomplish much. “I know this is a terrible thing for me to say,” says D.B. Scott, “but I’m not very optimistic that they are even going to get to first base with the publishers.”
And then there’s PWAC. Founded in 1976 by a group of magazine writers who wanted to use their collective clout to improve working conditions for magazine writers across the country, PWAC now offers little more than handholding services to new writers, providing mentoring and workshops on subjects like professional development and pitching to magazines. PWAC also has a history of lobbying for freelancers’ rights, but has been largely ineffectual. Its efforts are noble, but the reality is that career freelancers tend to quickly outgrow PWAC’s services.
John Macfarlane was around when PWAC started, and is amazed the organization has survived. “I can’t see why, if I were a freelance writer in Canada, I would join PWAC,” he says. “I’m just not understanding what PWAC has done for Canadian freelancers.”
The problem with both the CFU and PWAC, according to Nicole Cohen, is that neither is set up for collective bargaining. “In a capitalist economy,” she says, “the competition for labour means that you’re going to underbid what your true value is because you want the work, whereas in a union structure, it’s collective bargaining and you can negotiate. That’s very important to protect people from undercutting industry wages.”
The CFU hopes to establish collective bargaining in the future, but according to Cohen, these sorts of institutions take years or even decades to gain the clout necessary to make a real difference for their members. Unfortunately, the idea of a closed shop—which would ensure minimum pay and benefits standards for writers, but require them to only work for publications that have signed a union agreement—cuts to the heart of what it means to be a freelancer, and many aren’t ready to give up their independence.
* * *
It’s clear what the fighting groups want (even if it’s not clear how they plan to accomplish it), but what do freelancers want? According to Kim Pittaway, it’s simple: respect. She wants to be treated like a valued member of the magazine industry, to be able to have some say in the contracts she signs and the way her work is used and reused, and to be able to make a living doing what she loves and not have to worry about the day when one of her biggest clients suddenly rolls out a contract that pilfers all of her rights for no increase in pay and then tells her she either needs to sign it or ship out.
It’s not that she’s unwilling to sign a contract like Transcon’s and sell the rights to her work, but she expects to be compensated, and for there to be some flexibility for negotiation. “The Transcon contract grabs more rights than they need for less than is fair. It’s quite simply a bad deal for me as a writer,” she says. Jacqueline Howe, who left Transcon four months after the July skirmish, admits her former company made some tactical errors: “I think it’s a contract that sort of got off on the wrong foot. There’s some good things in that contract and there’s some things that need to be tweaked.”
Not unlike the freelance business as a whole. Can the craft be reclaimed? Lorinc says that asking that question right now is like asking a guy how he feels when he has a fever of 104: he feels like he’ll never be healthy again. This battle has been a long time coming, but, given the economic state, 2009 was easily the worst time in decades to launch efforts like the CFU, the CWG and the Transcontinental boycott. Finkle says it’s never a good time to start asking for more money. Johnston calls this a “now or never” moment: the freelancers’ last stand.
It’s the lack of money that is causing writers like Philip Preville to leave the business altogether. Preville, a prolific and award-winning freelance writer, took a job in 2009 as the director of public affairs for the Toronto Board of Trade. He had built a name for himself writing about politics, travel and society, and was nominated for six National Magazine Awards in five years, but then his wife—at the time a medical intern—gave birth to their first child in 2006, and three years later got pregnant again with twins. After considering his age and where he was at with his career, Preville saw a good opportunity and took it.
There’s still a fight to be had, though, and there’s no use crying over what already is. “We should do less whining,” says Pittaway. “We should be organizing, hiring agents and looking for more opportunities.”
The rub, according to Doug Bennet, publisher of Masthead Online, is that there will always be freelancers and there will always be a market for quality journalism. But if freelancing moves from a vocation to an avocation, the quality of Canadian journalism will nosedive. Bennet worries that the magazine industry is approaching a tipping point where, if publications assign stories to writers who are willing to take less pay, the quality of the content will drop so low that readers will become disenchanted, putting the long-term success of the publications in (even greater) jeopardy.
But do readers care that much about quality, or even notice the difference between award-winning journalism and so-so journalism? It’s difficult to say. “At the end of the day,” says Hutchinson, “if a magazine can publish stuff paying 10 cents a word to hobbyists and if the readership doesn’t see a difference, then the magazine would be stupid to pay $2 a word for the same piece.
Melissa Wilson was the Managing Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.