Undercutting the competition

As should be readily apparent, I haven't posted to Lascher @ Large in some time. I've spent the past two months completing my master's degree, a time during which I sacrificed this site to one last focus on academics. I've also taken some time to consider what my next career steps might be, to pitching various publications on my master's project exploring the challenges and opportunities facing Los Angeles' evolving transportation network given the current economic and budget crises and to apply for a handful of fellowships and jobs. Earlier this week someone asked me for a short description of the type of work I'd be interested in. While I understand the need for focus, I'm always amazed how difficult it is to sharpen my my interests to a well-defined point. As a writer and an observer I hesitate to craft such definitions. I fret about what I could be leaving out by bounding my interests. If I am to be open to recounting the stories I encounter I don't want to pen myself into a place where I don't feel prepared to tell certain ones. As my personal acquaintances know, I am a restless, transitory man. I often long to run my toes through that green, green grass on the other side of the fence, sometimes (often) at the cost of savoring the tranquil landscape at my feet. Of course, in any field, successful individuals know summarizing their own work isn't a limiting practice, but rather a guide to help them understand the tools available at their own disposal for future endeavors.  Thus the challenge for me — and presumably millions of other people considering their futures — is to plot the path before me by identifying both where I want to be and knowing just how much I'm worth based on the skills I've already developed.

When my father, Edward L. Lascher, penned his Lascher at Large column, he spent much of his time dissecting his own profession, the practice of law. Now that I've completed my work at USC, one regular feature of this Web site will be follow-ups of subjects he first broached two decades ago (or earlier).

Today, though, I thought I'd take a moment to express some frustrations about aspects of my own profession. No, right now I won't discuss whether newspapers are dying or how journalism is to be saved (Suffice it to say that success will come from energy devoted to quality, compelling content, not desperate hand-wringing over the latest bells and whistles and revenue generation models). Instead, I want to talk about the outrageous expectations expressed by some hiring managers and others soliciting original content.

I understand that businesses are struggling to make ends meet. I am fully aware how privileged I am to have the luxury to experiment with freelance writing instead of savoring the opportunity to make ends meet with a stable job. Many folks don't have that chance. Many have families to feed, mortgages to pay, debts to satisfy. In fact, sadly, more and more people just need some way to put food in their own mouths and a roof over their own heads.

Nonetheless, that doesn't excuse employers from taking advantage of their potential hires. As I've been redefining myself, I've also been keeping tabs on journalism, writing and editing opportunities in Los Angeles and other cities in which I'd enjoy living. Call me naïve, but a few examples posted to Craigslist yesterday are shocking.

An online community newspaper in Pasadena advertised it was seeking a full-time assistant editor with “Newspaper experience to develop story ideas, to make and manage assignments, to schedule and manage writers, copy edit, fact check, proof and write.” This individual was to have a “minimum [emphasis mine] 5 years' experience with a community newspaper,” and possess a number of skills that would benefit any publication, online or in print.

What was the enticement for this demanding job? $600-700 a week and no mention of any benefits. For those with slow computational skills, that's between just more than $31,000 and $36,400 a year. While the individual could work from home, and thus, presumably didn't have to live in Pasadena, where rents for a one bedroom apartment start around $1,000 and more often than not top $1,500, any candidate for  the position who wanted to live close to the community he or she covered would struggle just to pay for housing. At a time when hyper-local and niche coverage is becoming more the norm (the Voice of San Diego is one tremendously successful and inspiring example), one would think someone with five years of experience in community coverage in addition to the ability to manage a publication online would be a tremendous asset to new media outlets.

Of course, there are more outrageous examples. One poster to Craigslist wanted a professional writer to work for free on targeted promotional materials. Unfortunately, that post has been taken down, but not before a follow-up post from someone who shares my frustration (albeit with a bit more vitriol). Sadly as the respondent refers to, such posts are hardly uncommon on Craigslist. I haven't explored postings in other professions, but I suspect we are not alone in our consternation.

Meanwhile, another poster is searching far and wide for a writer to pen “30 original articles about Las Vegas attractions, events and history.” Each is expected to be an original work of between 600 and 800 words. How much is being offered for this body of work? Ten cents a word (a low, but still, sadly, realistic figure)? Try $200 for the entire package. Let's break that down. They want about 21,000 words written for two bills. That's 1.05 cents a word. A penny and a half. Must I break down the time it takes to produce that much original observation of heavily-publicized hotels and nightclubs and figure out what that means in hourly terms?

Freelancers are often cautioned not to calculate their work in hourly terms lest their hearts plummet to the floor along with their bank accounts. Work is work, right? Sadly, I know someone will take each of these gigs. And more power to them – I know how hard it is to find work and I know how important it is to build up a portfolio. So if they need to hustle to make a career, I'm not stopping them.

Still, if publishers and other hiring managers want to succeed, they will need a committed, loyal and stable staff and to develop sharp, insightful contributors. An investment in skilled journalists ready to take risks to lead publications into the future is a wise choice. It may seem counter-intuitive to talk about investment in a time of economic malaise, but those who take such leaps of faith will be best positioned for future success. Those, however, who treat their content producers as chattel will continue to struggle to maintain a stable source of original content, and thus, they will spend all their time watching editors and writers leave for greener pastures while their competitors invest in competent, devoted teams passionate about the work their doing and the success of their organizations. The former will have no content to which they can apply their ingenious revenue generation models, while the latter will long benefit from quality work that sells itself.