What I learned from my 1994-2004 freelance journalism career

1/ In the past few weeks the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe has revealed the true political economy of the global publishing industry. I came across the hashtag from Nick Mamatas and McKenzie Wark: I edited Mamatas at the former Disinformation website and read Wark as a contributor to the former 21C Magazine in Australia. The New York Times portrayed #PublishingPaidMe as an “industry reckoning” for publishers.

2/ I had a freelance journalism career from 1994 to 2004. In 1994, I worked for a year unpaid as a journalist and an industry liaison for the La Trobe University student newspaper Rabelais. Every two weeks I wrote several reviews, interviews or articles. I dealt with Australian, United Kingdom and United States film distributors, record labels, and publishers. During this year I was a practitioner of the New Journalism form of creative non-fiction pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese. I also spent the year reading The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and other United States magazines in La Trobe University’s Borchardt library.

3/ Towards the end of 1994, I ran on a broad-based political ticket to be one of the Rabelais editors for 1995. My team lost the vote to a left-wing ticket that became infamous the next year when it published a shoplifting article and Premier Jeff Kennett cut its funding. In the meantime, I had reached out to the editors of the Perth, Australia-based REVelation countercultural magazine for a phone interview with the author J.G. Ballard. I followed this up with a New Journalism portrayal in early 1995 of Noam Chomsky’s Australian lecture tour, and an interview with the author Robert Anton Wilson, conducted by email from La Trobe University’s computing offices.

4/ The REVelation material led me to meet 21C publisher/editor Ashley Crawford. We worked together on a profile of the maverick physicist Jack Sarfatti who inspired the Roger Zemeckis film series Back To The Future, and who lived in a very X-Files like meta-fictional arcanum. I got to dialogue with 21C contributing editors, attend editorial meetings, provide marketing analysis for a planned books imprint, and conduct interviews for a possible book.

5/ 1996-98 was the peak of my freelance journalism career. This coincided with working for REVelation, 21C, and writing cover-stories for Marketing, Information Age, and Desktop magazines. But in early 1998 the publications REVelation and 21C folded. I took a sabbatical from publishing to focus on my undergraduate studies. In June-July 1998, I started writing for the Disinformation website, and in November 1999, I became the subculture search engine’s website editor.

6/ Towards the end of the 1995-2000 Dotcom boom, I worked for Artbyte and Denmark’s Black Box magazine project. When dotcom funding was cut and the Web 2.0 era emerged I wrote for Internet.au on entrepreneurship and technology trends. One of my last articles was on Google’s initial public offering. I was also working as a researcher for the Smart Internet Technology CRC who didn’t want me to write for other publications. So, in 2004 I effectively ended my freelance career to concentrate on research, on editing the Disinformation website (until February 2008), and later on building a career in university research administration.

7/ As the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag has revealed, publishers vary in terms of their payrates for articles. REVelation paid about $AUD800 a cover story. 21C paid $AUD1300 an article but had international distribution and a high profile subscriber list. Desktop and Marketing were about $AUD1200 per article or cover story. I supplemented this income by working in charity telemarketing and writing public relations press releases for Dotcom era web development companies. When I was able to work for several different publishers at once this meant more regular cashflow.

8/ The intangible assets I was able to build was a reputation as a freelance journalist that enabled me to cover both Australian and United States markets. I was able to adapt to Dotcom era technological shifts such as conducting interviews over early messaging services and having articles published on global magazine websites. I was also able to work with a series of supportive editors and publishers who improved my articles and gave me the freedom to write on topics like memes in advertising that would later become much more influential in popular and political subcultures.

9/ In retrospect I made several key mistakes that I would not realise until much later. I didn’t understand tax efficient planning for journalism expenses. I didn’t understand how to negotiate stronger contracts. I didn’t understand the role of background and project created intellectual property in publishing. Although I developed a niche in countercultural publishing I did not yet understand the programmatic approach to research. I learned about these topics much later in my career when I worked closely with university lawyers and research centre directors. These sunk costs now enable me to advise Early and Mid Career academics on how not to make the same mistakes with their research and publishing.

10/ What the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag has revealed are the opportunity costs to authors of writing and releasing their creative material into the world. Working with a financially viable publisher that can survive in the long-term is important. Intangible assets like reputation and the ability to network with different editors can be just as important as having good story ideas. Developing your craft and knowing your audience are critical and are both now easier to achieve with blog publishing and social media platforms. Being aware of these hidden costs will enable authors to better evaluate the opportunity costs of publishing versus spending time on other activities.