Ask The Editor

October 27, 2009

More.com gets into the writer exploitation game

On a writers listserv I subscribe to, a writer posted a message that she’d been asked to write for More.com — the online presence for More magazine.

But…

More.com wants her to write for free. And this writer wonders if it will be good exposure for her to do so.

Here’s my take. You can expose yourself, night and day, all over the web. And it will get you exactly nothing. Why would you think that the exploiter will pay you for what you’re giving away for free? Why would other magazines rush to offer you big money if they know you’ll write for free (and trust me, they’ll know).

The only time it makes sense to write for exposure is when you’re publicizing something else that you want readers to know about and buy (your book, for example). If you don’t have something to sell to readers, working for nothing gets you exactly that.

Don’t allow profit-making ventures to make money from your labors.

But for those who still aren’t convinced, who think it might make sense to write for “exposure” only, here’s a suggestion. Contact one of your favorite charities and offer to write something that lets the charity spend its limited funds on doing good deeds. In these difficult economic times, that would be a great way to get web exposure while helping out those who really need your help.

– Anita Bartholomew

 

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 2, 2009

New York Times’ public editor’s inexcusable excuse about reporter errors

A friend read yesterday’s blog post on sloppy reporting at The New York Times and pointed me to Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column in today’s Times. It’s about an error-ridden obituary that the paper published upon Walter Cronkite’s death. I found one section particularly telling:

THE TIMES published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily [emphasis Anita’s] and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

I quickly checked whether The New York Times was still publishing the work of Alessandra Stanley, the entertainment writer/critic/obit writer who has a “history of errors,” according to Hoyt, and who hit the error jackpot on this one. Clicking on her name in the public editor’s column, I discovered she has had three pieces published in the Times since the errors in her Cronkite obituary came to the editors’ attention.

Clark Hoyt makes clear that Alessandra Stanley wasn’t  rushing to meet the deadline on this obit on the day Cronkite died; she’d written it on June 19, almost a month before it ran, and turned it in without fact-checking it.

Let me pause here and say I can’t imagine any competent writer turning in work he/she hadn’t ascertained was factual.

I just had to head off a potentially embarrassing situation with a magazine I won’t name. After turning in a thoroughly fact-checked (by me) article, the magazine emailed its “edited” version to me for a final review. I discovered that the magazine had introduced at least 19 factual errors including an entirely new section I’d never seen before (and certainly hadn’t written). The editor or someone else had apparently decided that the article should include information on an issue about which this new writer had no knowledge or understanding. This person had then written approximately 100 words-worth of wildly inaccurate conclusions.

Although I provided corrections to the sections where the magazine had introduced errors into my own copy, I didn’t have the time to double-check all the new material written by someone else. Simply knowing that, in the sections originating with me, someone had turned carefully checked fact into something less was enough to convince me to distance myself from the piece. I demanded that the magazine remove my byline.

I point to the above because I’m confident that most professional writers would do something similar: either ensure accuracy or, if that weren’t possible, make certain their names weren’t associated with inaccurate copy. To be less vigilant can amount to professional suicide.

But, if I’m reading Clark Hoyt’s column correctly, The New York Times doesn’t have the same concerns about reputation that I believe most of my freelance writer friends have. Despite being forced to run a column about correcting the copy of “a television critic with a history of errors,” and at a time when thousands of competent journalists are out of work, The New York Times gave this person several more chances to potentially embarrass the paper of record.

It does boggle the brain, doesn’t it?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 1, 2009

Where does The New York Times get all these lazy reporters?

I admit I have a love-hate relationship with The New York Times. I count on it being what a newspaper is supposed to be (and it often is). So when it lazily just quotes the interested parties in a story without digging for what the real story is, as it seems to do about once a week,  it feels like more than a disappointment. It borders on a betrayal.

Scott Horton, in his blog post about the difference between the Times and Washington Post reporting on the same story, points to WaPo having done real reporting. Reading the WaPo piece, you see that he’s right. The reporter quoted the interview subject, in this case, Karl Rove, then checked his claims against the evidence and refuted a number of Rove’s statements. The New York Times reporter, by contrast, swallowed Rove’s statements whole simply to regurgitate them onto newsprint.

To my mind, this pattern of laziness casts doubt on the value of all Times‘ reporting whether political or medical or sociological or legal or otherwise, at a time when news reporting is in deep crisis and needs to prove its worth:

… Karl Rove, violating his agreement with the House Judiciary Committee (which I discussed here), gave “exclusive” interviews to the Times and the Washington Post, in a determined effort to spin the bad news about his role in the firing of the U.S. attorneys and his unseen hand in the work of the Justice Department generally. The Post’s piece, by Carrie Johnson, shows an appropriate level of balance and skepticism about Rove’s self-serving and highly misleading claims. Not so the Times. Indeed, the headline tells the whole story: “Rove Says His Role in Prosecutor Firings Was Small.” The problem, of course, is that the evidence the Judiciary Committee has collected, and the investigation by special prosecutor Nora Dannehy, show precisely the opposite. They put Karl Rove squarely in the center of the effort to remove the U.S. attorneys fired in the December 7, 2006 massacre…

– Anita Bartholomew

May 25, 2009

The problem with Dowd’s plagiarism, Andrews’ omissions, Friedman’s fees — and The NYT Public Editor

In The New York Times yesterday, Clark Hoyt, the paper’s public editor, minimized several ethical lapses by Times’ writers.

First, Hoyt responded to revelations by Megan McArdle of The Atlantic about serious omissions in Edmund Andrews’ piece on his financial troubles, this way:

“On Thursday, [Andrews] came under attack from a blogger for The Atlantic for not mentioning in his book that his wife had twice filed for bankruptcy — the second time while they were married, though Andrews said it involved an old loan from a family member. He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment. The blogger said the omission undercut Andrews’s story, but I think it was clear that he and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no. Still, he should have revealed the second one, if only to head off the criticism.”

Andrews was writing about his and his wife’s dire financial situation. That’s the whole story. If he failed to tell the story accurately, then it’s, at best, a fudge and at worst, a fictionalized account. We can’t possibly know how much of the rest of the story to believe, given this immense omission. And, as several of those commenting on Hoyt’s column pointed out, Megan McArdle isn’t just “a blogger” as Hoyt chose to identify her (and thereby, diminish her importance). She’s probably better known than Andrews as a writer on economic issues.

Of Maureen Dowd, who in a recent column (apparently, unintentionally) plagiarized a post by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, public editor Hoyt wrote:

“I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”

Dowd appears to have believed she was plagiarizing the email of a friend and not the blog post of Josh Marshall. But how is that not plagiarism? She passed off someone else’s words as her own. It doesn’t change the behavior to claim that she was mistaken about who she was plagiarizing.

Next, Hoyt tackled the high speaking fee that Thomas Friedman recently had to return:

“When Friedman accepted $75,000 — his standard rate — for speaking to a regional government agency in Oakland this month, he ran afoul of a Times rule that staff members may take fees ‘only from educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.’”

If this is Friedman’s standard rate, how much effect might getting such a rate have on what he chooses to write about for The New York Times? Or, what positions he takes in his writing?

Hoyt doesn’t appear to see this as relevant. The primary concern he raises is that the group did not qualify as either educational or nonprofit. He also points out that the paper requires reporting of speaking fees above $5,000 but has been lax in enforcing the requirement.

If you read through the 90 (to date) comments on Public Editor Hoyt’s column, you see a pattern of anger and distrust. Hoyt seemed to be explaining away the lapses of his colleagues. And maybe, that’s the problem.

They are his colleagues.

If The New York Times wants to promote itself as having a “Public Editor” who is advertised as “the readers’ representative,” it may need to find someone to take on the role who is a an independent journalist or academic, or another member of the reading public, rather than a member of the club.

– Anita Bartholomew

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