Posts Tagged ‘freelance’

Who Owns Your Digital Rights?

March 15, 2012

Several years ago — before the Internet really took hold — I wrote a series of slice-of-life essays for a local newspaper. They weren’t very good, and I didn’t get paid. Still, I was just starting out, and they did what I needed them to do: taught me how to work with editors; gave me confidence; and served as evidence of publication when I began going after paying gigs.

The newspaper , which is now about 100 years old, is published by a small company on a shoestring budget, so they’ve never invested in a significant online presence. However, recently a local community organization made a generous grant to begin digitizing old issues, as a way of preserving the town’s history.

Now, as an active community member, I think it’s great that our heritage and history will be available to anyone who wants to enjoy them. I’ve had the chance to browse some of the issues from the 1920s, and they’re truly fascinating. I’m told that many of the older newspapers are nearly unreadable, so the grant couldn’t have come at a better time.

But as a writer, this turn of events leaves me uneasy. You see, when I agreed to publish my essays, I never signed a contract — the newspaper was too small to even offer contracts to freelancers. My agreement with the editor was simply that she would publish the essays, but I would own them — so I could market them elsewhere if I ever chose to do so, or not. It was all up to me.

I never agreed to give the paper digital rights — simply because back then, there was no such thing.

Sadly, I hear many stories of writers whose work has been digitized without their permission. As a matter of fact, I recently attended a workshop by a consultant who has built a successful business helping writers recover damages from publishers who may have illegally turned their printed books into e-books. But when I went up to her afterwards to ask about newspaper articles, she basically told me to let it go. “It’s impractical to expect newspapers to contact every single writer who has ever written anything and ask for permission to digitize,” she said.

Truth be told, the current digitization plan for my local newspaper involves only older issues that are in the public domain, which means it does not cover the more recent issues in which my stories appear. And as I understand it, digitizing newspapers is a long-term process — meaning it may be years and years and years before the question of whether to digitize recent issues comes up. I’ve also been told that should my essays ever go online, I could easily lodge a complaint, and they would quickly be taken down. And, I suppose, when you get right down to it, I might actually find it nice to see those essays online, possibly getting a second, digital life.

Still, I can’t help worrying for writers who, for one reason or another, really don’t want to see their old newspaper work suddenly appear on the Internet.

What do you think?

Another confusing day in the life of just another working writer.

Can a Good Writer Make a Story Out of ANYTHING?

February 27, 2012

Not too long ago, I got a great assignment from the editor of a website devoted to religion. She had identified seven key ethical values — empathy, compassion, spirituality and a few others — and she wanted me to create a kind of grid showing how each of these values develop in children, with boxes for infancy, toddlerhood, preschool-age kids, middle-grades kids, and teens.

Now, it was pretty easy to find experts on and research about how children of all ages demonstrate values like empathy and compassion. Studies show, for example, that even very young babies will cry when they see another baby crying. But there was simply no evidence, no studies, no nothing –at least not back then — to show that babies can feel spiritual. I contacted child-development scientists and authors at major research universities and facilities, and got the same answer: Spirituality develops later.

So I finally called my editor, who resisted my explanations, evidently because the horror of a blank box in her grid outweighed any need for facts. “Come on now,” she said condescendingly. “You know as well as I do that a good writer can make a story about anything.”

I was speechless. My first thought was that I couldn’t believe what she was saying.

My second thought was that she was right.

More recently, I took my young daughter and her friend to a classical music concert at a local community center, and was approached by a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station. The reporter held the mike to my face and asked why I had decided to come out with young children on such a cold, dark night.

“I knew the music would be beautiful, and I wanted to enjoy it with them,” I said.

“Did you come to be part of the great community spirit here tonight?”

“No,” I said. “I just wanted to hear the music.”

“But would you agree that there’s a wonderful feeling of community, with so many people from town coming together?”

“I guess,” I said. “But we came for the music.”

Not surprisingly, when I saw this story on the local news the next night, I was not part of it. Instead, there were a bunch of people talking about — what else? — community.

As for my story, I went back to my old sources, found some new sources, stressed that I needed something, and finally was able to weave together a few vague sentences that linked babies and spirituality, albeit with the thinnest of threads. I never wrote again for that website.

Sure, I guess a good writer can make a story out of anything.

Just not sure I want to be that writer.

How about you? Have you ever had to create a story where there was none?

Another resigned day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Why I Love Being a Writer: A Reminder

January 19, 2012

Those of you who have been following my blog probably realize by now that I’m a bit of a complainer. I complain about boring assignments or tedious tasks that accompany the writing of a new piece. I complain about editors who hang onto a draft for a month and then demand that the revise be turned in two minutes later. And as for crazy-low payment rates…well, don’t get me started.

But every once in a while, something happens that makes me remember that what I do is actually pretty cool

Last night, my daughter told me about a discussion in her history class. Her teacher was beginning a unit on the Civil War, and asked the students if they or a member of their families had any special interest in or connection with that time period.

My daughter raised her hand to say that I was working on a project about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I had spent time researching documents and journals from the 1860s. She said that when we go on family vacations, we occasionally end up visiting outlying historical locations to scope out new details about Lincoln and the course of the war.

“What does your mother do?” the teacher asked.

“She’s a writer,” my daughter said. “She writes articles for magazines, newspapers, and some websites.”

At this point, the teacher’s eyes widened, and she threw up her hands in a kind of surrendering motion. “Well, we may as well stop the conversation right here,” she said. “Because I don’t think any of us are going to be able to top that.”

I laughed when I heard this story. “Come on,” I said. “I write about mattresses and kitchen gadgets, and occasionally get involved with some historical thing. It’s not all that impressive.”

“Well, she was impressed,” my daughter said.

That conversation stuck with me all night and into this morning, and actually, I’m still smiling as I write this. Maybe my daughter’s history teacher secretly dreams of writing, or maybe there’s another reason why her reaction was somewhat over the top. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that what we do –interviewing people, researching documents, making sense of seemingly random events, and then creating a piece of writing that never existed before — takes skill. And a bit of magic.  It may seem simple to people like us, who do it all the time; but simple, it’s not.

Let’s promise not to forget that, ok?

Another proud day in the life of just another working writer.

 

The Curse of Free Stuff for a Freelance Writer

December 13, 2011

So I have to go to the dentist, and I’m dreading it. Not because I’m scared of pain. It’s just that the last time I went to see him, he handed me a jar of fancy nuts.

Let me explain.

You see, his wife has a start-up nonprofit business, producing flavored nuts — spicy, sweet, tangy, etc. — and she donates all profit to animal welfare. And like the good husband he is, he saw an opportunity to get her some media coverage, knowing that I’m a freelance writer who frequently reviews new products.

“Enjoy them,” he said cheerily. “And don’t forget to tell me how you like them.”

Which, to my ears, meant, “Don’t forget to tell me when your article about them is published.”

Look, I know that free stuff is just about the only perk that writers get. And why should I feel indebted to this guy for one little jar of nuts? I’m sure he didn’t think he was tying a noose around my neck. I mean, come on — we all know that major beauty editors routinely bring home hundreds of dollars worth of free cosmetics each month without blinking a perfectly made-up eye. We all know that online experts get tons of free stuff from manufacturers hoping for high praise in a blog. And truth be told, I’ve gotten some free stuff in my time — some not so great (a cleaning liquid that claimed to remove red wine, but let’s just say I’m glad I tested it on a white rag and not a white blouse) and some pretty wonderful (a queen-size luscious down comforter–‘nuf said).

But no matter if I end up writing positively about the product (the comforter), negatively about the product (actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done this), or not at all about the product (the stain remover and the nuts), I feel guilty, as though I’m getting away with something.

Which is why I felt bad about seeing my dentist.

Although when I finally went back and he charged me more than $400 for a filling, I stopped feeling that way…

Writers — how do you feel when you get free stuff?

Just another guilt-soaked day in the life of a working writer.


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