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February 7th, 2013

Maintaining Hope in a Changing Publishing Industry

Last summer, I sent a pitch to an editor at Whole Living, a publication of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The editor expressed interest and then ultimately declined. Six months later, the company published its last issue of Whole Living.

It’s not easy being a freelance writer in a tight economy, but it’s probably not easy being an editor either. The publishing industry is in the throes of paradigm shift; giants of the print industry like Newsweek magazine — a publication I contributed to and received taglines in — are giving way to the digital age.

As more people read on Kindles and iPhones, the distribution of content is changing the demand for content. And that is affecting freelance writers and editors alike. I wondered how to stay on top of all this and still build a career. Publications were closing, websites were launching and editors were moving around. Sometimes today it feels like experienced writers are starting from scratch.

When I was a stringer for Newsweek more than a decade ago, I was in my 20s, and, honestly, it did feel easier freelancing then compared with freelancing today. Editors answered emails in a timely way. There was less of a chase and assignments would just show up by email or phone. I didn’t really fight with anyone about getting paid. And I continuously got work through referrals, and relished in the freedom and creativity of being a freelance writer in cool cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York.

“Writers are competing in a smaller market, and … editors are going to be lean toward writers who are known commodities.”

I asked several print and online editors I knew about what they thought of the changing publishing industry, and only one editor, Dan Saltzstein — an assistant editor of the Travel Section at The New YorkTimes — agreed to be interviewed.

Saltzstein notes that there are “fewer print outlets with ever-shrinking budgets. This means that writers are competing in a smaller market, and also that editors are going to be lean toward writers who are known commodities. It also means decreased fees for writers and photographers and less available money for expenses.”

That certainly felt true shortly after the 2008 economic downturn. In 2009, MediaFinder.com  an online database of publications in the United States and Canada  reported that 596 magazines closed that year while only 275 launched during that period. Gradually, the market appeared to have improved, with 52 magazine titles debuting during the first quarter of 2012 and only 12 titles closing.

Some of the more popular categories introducing new publications included restaurants, lifestyle and hunting and fishing. Despites the ups and downs of titles launching and closing, print advertising continues to decline, which can ultimately affect the print opportunities for freelancers. Most people agree the future of content is on the web.

Says Saltzstein, “There are web-only operations that provide new outlets (albeit often with lower fees), and the possibility for writers and photographers to create “clips” for themselves to show editors via their own blogs or individual websites,” he says.

I launched my own blog in 2005 back when there were only a handful and no such thing as a “blogosphere.” You didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to self-promote. I began a blog because after years of writing for others, I wanted to just write for me, write something completely unpackaged that did not have a target audience in mind or accounted for an audience’s limited reading ability (if I had a nickel for every time an editor told me I was writing “too high” and needed to bring it down to an eighth grade reading level, I would be on a beach not worrying about a mortgage).

“There are fewer editors, tighter budgets and more ‘all rights’ grabs.”

Eight years after launching that blog, it has become a useful tool in developing relationships with editors and readers. Writers and editors seem to agree that the publishing industry has changed forever, but the writers I talked to had different takes on how to best go forward.

“There are fewer editors, tighter budgets and more ‘all rights’ grabs,” says Jodi Helmer, a writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina, who has freelanced for several major national publications. Writers, she says, sometimes have a “sky is falling mentality” but really, there are still opportunities to enjoy success.

“I continue to make a great living writing for magazines and websites (and, to a lesser extent, writing books for traditional publishers) and I do it the old fashioned way: sending targeted queries to magazines I want to write for,” says Helmer, who also mentors writers. “I’m not sold on the idea that changes in the publishing industry have made it more difficult for new writers to break in or experienced writers to be successful freelancers.”

A good story will eventually find its way to print or web. That’s what I was told in college and many of my colleagues still believe that holds true. Yet knowing how to pitch is as important as what to pitch.

“Editors and producers are in a daunting game of musical chairs in the digital age as the publishing industry goes online.”

Axel Bang, a public relations consultant in the New York City area, says that despite his 20 years of experience in the business, he’s had to double his efforts to know who to contact with story ideas.

“Editors and producers are in a daunting game of musical chairs in the digital age as the publishing industry goes online,” says Bang. “I keep mailing lists and media contacts current by twice each year calling and doing Linked-in searches for my own list of reporters and producers and see who’s still there, what their beat is, or where they have moved.”

As people continue to move around, whether it’s jumping from a print publication to an e-zine or from one bureau or city to another, above all, I try to remain flexible and to always keep my eyes and ears open for good stories. As so far, that strategy continues to pay the bills.

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