Archive for February, 2016


MacGyver your own Freelance Community

anna-pratt-headshot-My column for the latest issue of Quill:

I started freelancing nearly a decade ago, before the recession had taken hold. I’d worked at a community newspaper for several years, covering education, neighborhood news and the arts, and I wanted to explore new ground. At the time, it may have sounded risky to trade the downtown office for my sunroom, but the housing market hadn’t yet collapsed. Freelancing wasn’t exactly a get-rich-quick-scheme, but it afforded plenty of non-material benefits: independence, adventure and growth. Right away, I began writing pieces for other local outlets, which was a great way to develop new beats, meet new people and hone new skills.

However, it wasn’t long before the economy tanked, and some of the publications I’d written for went out of business. Still others could no longer afford to pay for stories. I was playing bill collector for myself, researching and pitching ideas to editors, and cranking out articles on tight deadlines for dwindling pay. I also juggled a part-time job that had an erratic schedule. Thankfully, I eventually landed temporary gigs and contracts that helped to tide me over. Even so, freelancing always seems so fragile.

In many ways, SPJ has buoyed me along the way. Some years ago, I joined the Minnesota chapter’s board, and then after attending the national Excellence in Journalism conference, I got involved with SPJ’s then Freelance Committee. Over the past couple of years, the Freelance Committee has morphed into the Freelance Community. The broader, more all-encompassing Community is about nurturing SPJ’s diverse freelance membership, which continues to grow by leaps and bounds. You can find the Community on the SPJ website: spj.org/freelance.asp.

Our page includes a message board/forums, a resource guide, freelancer directory, jobs listings, calendar, chatroom and more. And the Community’s new crop of volunteers on the executive committee — who were elected in November — are planning events, both “live” and virtual. We’re brainstorming ways to connect with freelancers all over the place, respond to freelancer questions and needs, and support one another in our respective endeavors. We welcome your participation, as well. There are all kinds of ways to get involved. If you’re a freelancer or just interested in hearing more about it, we hope you’ll sign up for the Freelance Community in 2016. (Feel free to do so on the SPJ website or drop us a line.) Join in a future chat or just email us to say hi! In the meantime, here are some of the things I’ve gotten out of belonging to the Community, thus far:

CONNECTION There’s no denying that working from home can be a bit isolating. I joke that I’m a little too aware of the goings-on on the street outside my window. (My desk faces outdoors.) As freelancers, we must MacGyver so many things. I feel like I’ve got duct tape, scissors, shoes with holes in them, random wires, old phones, gum, coffee and more, holding things together — pitches, invoices, equipment (sometimes this is literally true). Oh, and the things I’ve done for free wifi! Similarly, as freelancers, we have to gin up our own “co-workers.” Thanks to the Community, I’ve met other freelancers across the country who’ve provided support, offered feedback and occasionally even helped revising a story or crafting a pitch. Also, it’s inspiring to hear what other freelancers are up to. I’ve talked to freelancers who’ve taken their careers overseas, others for whom journalism is a second career, stringers for national or international news outlets, and freelancers who specialize in the environment, radio and music. It’s always fun mingling with fellow freelancers into the wee morning hours at EIJ and taking a “lunch break” or “happy hour” to chat online with others spread across the country.

ASSIGNMENTS/GIGS Occasionally, my colleagues have introduced me to editors or sent assignment/gig listings my way. Or vice versa. Some editors have even reached out to me, and/or I’ve been able to steer them to other freelancers. Sometimes it’s helpful to brainstorm with people about what to do when I’m stuck in a story or where to send a pitch. It helps me to get out of a rut.

PROFESSIONAL TRAINING Professional development is yet another DIY area for independent workers. In my time with the Freelance Community, I’ve learned about negotiating rates, invoicing and targeting national publications, as just a few examples. But training is an ongoing thing. It happens through formal conference programs or Google Hangouts, but also just by being surrounded by a knowledgeable bunch whose experiences, perspectives and beats run the gamut. When I’m scratching my head, trying to figure out, “What’s next?” Community members spur me to keep going. I encourage you to MacGyver your freelance career, as well. You’ll find a lot of the raw materials at SPJ’s Freelance Community (spj.org/freelance.asp). We look forward to hearing from you.

As a staff-reporter-turnedfreelance-journalist, Anna Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fist-fight in a church basement, all for various stories. Pratt also chairs SPJ’s Freelance Community. Drop her a line at annaprattjournalist @gmail.com or on Twitter: @annapratt. 

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The writing life (part two): Be part of the solution, not the problem

keith campbell

Guest blogger: Keith Campbell 

See part one of this series here.

What does it mean to be part of the solution and not part of the problem? I firmly believe that taking no action is being part of the problem. Now is not the time for keeping your head down and sticking to yourself. Stand up for yourself and what is right. Stand up for your fellow struggling writer because, if you’re not struggling now, chances are you were at one time. Supporting your fellow writers is being part of the solution.

There wouldn’t be anyone posting ads that pay five dollars per article if no one was willing to write those articles for five dollars. There is a market for that kind of thing only because we allow it to happen and have become part of the problem. Writers must value their craft. No one else will. If you take on work that ultimately pays below minimum wage, that’s no one else’s fault but your own.

Writing is a skill that not everyone possesses. Maybe you’ve gone to college or maybe you’re self taught like myself. Either way, you have to place a value on what you do so that others value your skills.

You don’t spend four plus years going to college to make what the fry cook at Burger King makes so why would you make the exception when it comes to getting paid for writing? It’s a job, and a job should always pay at least minimum wage. If you’re experienced, college educated or not, you should not be making less than that. There are thousands of uneducated people working at jobs that require no specific skill set and they’re making more than you do writing.

In the United States, the average wage for an unskilled laborer is $29,703., which equates to around twenty dollars an hour. Craigslist is filled with people trying to get you to work for less than half that amount. Still a great many more uneducated, unskilled people are making upwards of thirty an hour, while writers are struggling to make up to ten.

Value your craft!

Having said that, how can I fault the guy who just needs the work? The guy who has a family to feed and is out of work. Should we blame him for taking a gig that pays five dollars an hour? There’s a solution here somewhere, I know it. We just have to put our heads together to find it.

I was asked recently if I thought I could actually make a difference in pressuring Craigslist to kick out the scammers and clean up their act. In truth, I don’t know. But here’s what I believe.

We can make a difference for each other; emphasis on WE. If we do nothing, by our complacency, we’re part of the problem. Let’s be part of the solution instead.

Not long ago, a company was advertising its ghostwriting services on Craigslist Writing Gigs section. They were looking to add ghostwriters to their very qualified team of writers. So I went to their website and checked them out. They professed to have New York Times bestselling authors ghostwriting for them. A bold claim I thought, so I looked further.

A giant red flag popped up when I saw what they were charging clients to get their stories written.

Less than a penny a word.

That got me thinking. If they’re only charging their clients less than one cent a word, how much can they be paying their ghostwriters without taking a loss?

The answer: a penny a word.

They had New York Times bestselling authors writing novels for their clients and they were paying those writers a penny a word for novels up to one hundred thousand words long. Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine a bestselling author of any caliber working for a penny a word. If they really had that skilled of writers on the payroll, I figured I would order ten novels, shop them to different publishers, and live the rest of my days opening royalty checks.

In the interest of due diligence, I went through a number of samples posted by their ghostwriters. I saw nothing there that indicated any real creativity or skill. Just a lot of canned garbage that anyone could write, fresh out of high school. Exactly what you would expect from someone writing a fifty-thousand word novel for five hundred dollars. There was nothing there that would come close to suggesting that the author was a bestselling caliber wordsmith.

So I took to Craigslist Writing Gigs section and began posting ads calling them out. I included their website address so people could see for themselves. That website is the very reason I sometimes have a difficult time convincing prospective clients to actually pay what I am worth for my services. People see sites like those and they think they’re legitimate. Or that the fees there are the norm and they don’t bother to look any further.

However, there’s a happy ending coming!

Several weeks later after complaining to a friend about the site, I decided to have another look. To my amazement they closed it down, then reopened under new ownership. They now pay ten times what the former owners were paying and they no longer claim to have New York Times bestselling authors on staff writing for them. Sure, they’re still paying a ridiculously low amount but it’s a far cry from a penny a word!

So to answer the question–do I think I can get Craigslist to clean up their site? Maybe not, but I do believe WE can make a difference, but only if we work together and have each other’s backs. I believe we have a responsibility to one another to warn each other of scams or disreputable employers. At the same time, we need to reach out to our fellow writers and tell them about the good jobs out there. Speak up for one another and help your fellow writer get that next good gig.

In that way, we stop being part of the problem and we become part of the solution. For those interested in supporting your fellow writer please follow the link below and sign it. It’s time to stand together and make your voice count. Write well, live well, and change the world around you.

https://www.change.org/p/ceo-craigslist-org-take-craigslist-writing-gigs-out-of-the-hands-of-the-predators-return-it-to-the-writers

Keith Campbell is a prolific, self-taught writer and artist with a diverse background in finance and investing, martial arts, firefighting, and emergency medicine. All of which he has been known to use as fodder for writing. 

Keith is a founding member of the online writing community TheNextBigWriter.com and has authored eighteen novels and hundreds of articles for clients on such diverse subjects as finance and investing, self-defense and handgun safety, to real estate, motorcycles, and healthcare. Keith has written monologues for comedians, TV commercials and web series, as well as ghostwriting novels for clients. Taking a page from the life of his favorite artist, Pablo Picasso, Keith sleeps little and writes obsessively. 

Today Keith continues to ghostwrite for various clients while working on his latest darkly comedic love story about a non-traditional family unit with two gender switching parents and a teenage daughter who hates them both. 

Keith lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his two boys and his cat.

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The writing life: The problem with the Craigslist Writing Gigs section

keith campbell

Guest blogger: Keith Campbell

See part two in this series here

It’s not easy being a writer, and if your name isn’t John Greene, Suzanne Collins, or George R.R. Martin, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Being part of an online writer’s community helps, but we can’t give each other jobs so we need to look to outside sources.

Like Craigslist.

I discovered the Writing Gigs section quite by accident around 2006 and I was amazed at how many offerings there were for temporary and, often permanent, jobs. Over the years, I wrote numerous articles for different clients’ websites on topics like finance and investing, real estate, martial arts, healthcare, plastic surgery, dentistry, travel; you name it, I wrote it. I found my first legitimate publisher on Craigslist. I got an amazing job with a TV ad agency in New York and had the pleasure of seeing some of my scripts come to life on TV. I wrote monologues for comedians, scripts for several web series, made it on the short list for a spot on a writer’s stable for a network sitcom.

It was all good. Until it wasn’t anymore.

Back in the day, I would spend about three hours a day just combing through ads in just about every major city in the US and applied to job after job, focusing on those that played to my strengths as a writer. I almost NEVER got scammed!

But like that old book by S.E. Hinton, THAT WAS, THIS IS NOW, everything has changed. The number of legitimate jobs or gigs began dropping as the number of scams, non-paying gigs, jobs paying less than minimum wage, and ads for jobs that had nothing to do with writing, began to dominate the Writing Gigs section. The pay being offered also dropped dramatically. Ten years ago, it wasn’t difficult to find a steady gig that paid $15.00 to $20.00 per five hundred to six hundred word article. For specialized gigs that required a professional background such as in the medical field or finance, you could easily get steady work for double the pay. Today $5.00 seems to be the standard for just about any article of any length on any topic.

As much as I hate to admit it, the blame partly falls on the writers. We have, to a certain degree allowed, and even been party to the problem. I mean, let’s face it. If no one was willing to write an article for $5.00, nobody would post ads looking for people to write their articles for $5.00. So yes, we have let the fox into the hen house. The question here is, how do we get it out and what are we willing to do to expel that sly old fox.

If you’re unsure the scope of the problem here, just take a look at the issue by the numbers on one particular day.

Out of one hundred ninety-six postings in CL Writing gigs in the SF bay area, forty-nine had nothing to do with writing. That means, right off the bat, twenty-five percent of the total ads are garbage. Of the one hundred forty-seven gigs that are for writing jobs, forty-one of those are non paying jobs. So, of the one hundred ninety-six postings, only one hundred six will actually generate an income. That means fifty-four percent of the postings are a waste of time. That doesn’t even include the gigs that are actually scams, or gigs that pay under minimum wage. Then there are the gigs that fall under the paid gig category but aren’t really a paid job. These are the ones where you are expected to write your article, story, or whatever they need, then if yours is selected you get paid. If that sounds shady, it can be, but isn’t necessarily a scam. For example, if someone is compiling an anthology they will naturally select the best ones that fit what they’re looking for, and pay those. Some will argue that all entrants should be paid, but I’m not going to argue that point. What I will say is, there are far too many paid gigs that use this method to get whatever article they need written, and get it for free. It’s a common and difficult to prove scam that I’ll explain in a later posting.

As you can see, our one hundred six paying gigs are getting whittled down slowly. Then you have the paid gigs that all-out refuse to tell you what the pay is. They use terms like TBD, negotiable, DOE, or will discuss with the right person. It all comes back to writers having to do everything involved in applying for a job before they have a clue what that job pays, if it even pays anything at all. That accounts for another twenty-two postings.

Finally, we’re down to eighty-four job possibilities out of one hundred ninety-six postings that day. If we’re being conservative, take another ten off that number to account for scams and that leaves you with seventy-four gigs to apply for, assuming you are qualified to write for every posting listed. In the end, that makes one hundred twenty-two time wasting postings out of the original one hundred ninety-six ads. That’s the reason I would have to spend three plus hours a day, just looking for a legitimate gig.

For those interested in helping expel the foxes from the hen house, here is a petition. Please follow the link and feel free to leave a comment as well: https://www.change.org/p/ceo-craigslist-org-take-craigslist-writing-gigs-out-of-the-hands-of-the-predators-return-it-to-the-writers

I am also collecting personal stories from writers who have either been scammed, or just want to add their voice to the petition. I think these stories will carry as much weight as the signatures.

In short, we are in part allowing the problem to exist through our non-action, so let’s change that today and make our voices heard. Let’s take Craigslist Writing Gigs away from the scammers and all those looking to take advantage of us. Writers, band together and be heard!

Keith Campbell is a prolific, self-taught writer and artist with a diverse background in finance and investing, martial arts, firefighting, and emergency medicine. All of which he has been known to use as fodder for writing. 

Keith is a founding member of the online writing community TheNextBigWriter.com and has authored eighteen novels and hundreds of articles for clients on such diverse subjects as finance and investing, self-defense and handgun safety, to real estate, motorcycles, and healthcare. Keith has written monologues for comedians, TV commercials and web series, as well as ghostwriting novels for clients. Taking a page from the life of his favorite artist, Pablo Picasso, Keith sleeps little and writes obsessively. 

Today Keith continues to ghostwrite for various clients while working on his latest darkly comedic love story about a non-traditional family unit with two gender switching parents and a teenage daughter who hates them both. 

Keith lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his two boys and his cat.

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