BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. If you're a regular listener to this program, you'll know that we frequently speak with reporters who, you may guess, can be difficult to get on the phone, not because they're out covering a story or crashing on deadline, though that's sometimes the case, but more often because they're freelancers, which means they have no title on the masthead, no four-digit extension in the company's voice mail directory and no cubicle in the office. And, more importantly for them, no regular paycheck, no pension, and certainly no benefits. According to Working Today, the freelancers' union, there are an estimated 50 million such independent, self-employed, temporary or part-time workers across the country. Make that 50 million less 1 after long-term freelancer Ben Yagoda publicly removed his shingle on the pages of slate.com He joins me now from a position of relative security as Director of the Journalism Program at the University of Delaware. Ben, welcome to On the Media.
BEN YAGODA: Thanks, Bob. It's nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. After 30 years as a freelancer you said it was glorious but now it's over. I'm done. I'm just curious, was there a last straw for you after three decades of hustling?
BEN YAGODA: Well, there really was. I sent out an idea, a proposal to a publication that will remain nameless. I had not written for this publication but I sent it through my literary agent and I didn't hear anything back within a couple of weeks. My agent e-mailed the editor for a response. No response. Tried it again. No response. Still no response. And I thought, "That's it. That is the last straw."
BOB GARFIELD: If you have a staff job at a newspaper or magazine, you know, you go to work. You either write a story or you don't and at the end of two weeks or a month or whatever, your paycheck comes in anyway. Freelancer has to constantly not only produce pieces but to sell them in advance.
BEN YAGODA: Freelancers commonly are paid what's called "on publication." You have to propose the idea, do the reporting, do the writing, finally, you hope, get it accepted, and then wait a couple of weeks, a month, a couple of months for it to be published. Then it goes to accounting [LAUGHS] to - to issue the check, and many things have happened in accounting before you actually get that check.
BOB GARFIELD: Ben, 23 or 24 years ago you were a Senior Editor at Philadelphia Magazine and I did a freelance piece for you for which I was paid the sum of 500 dollars. I think it was maybe a 1500-word piece. Judging from the piece you did in Slate, it seems to me that had I submitted the same piece today, I wouldn't have gotten paid a whole lot more.
BEN YAGODA: Yeah. The first piece I had published in a national magazine as a freelancer in 1978 was a "My Turn" column in Newsweek. 500 dollars. The piece I just published in Slate that we're talking about now, 500 dollars. Your article in Philadelphia Magazine 23 years ago, 500 dollars. There's just something - [OVERTALK]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
BEN YAGODA: - magical or mystical about that figure. I can't tell you exactly what it is.
BOB GARFIELD: I know one thing, though, that's changed is car payments have changed in that period of time, and mortgage payments. So how is anyone supposed to make it if the economics are so much a relic of 30 years ago?
BEN YAGODA: To become a freelancer you feel that you have to create a brand and have one idea and parlayed it into eight different publications. And they're constantly on the phone, on e-mails, setting those things up. Do consulting, do websites, do public relations. The idea of doing something of, you know, literary or journalistic merit or quality, that would have to get lost in the shuffle in that kind of a life.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about those things that you're managing. Those were strategies, as I understand it, suggested by a publication aimed directly at freelancers. Tell me about that.
BEN YAGODA: A good organization called the American Society of Journalists and Authors, ASJA, put out a Guide to Freelance Writing. And one of the chapters was called "Writer-Editor Relations." In the sense that a master and a slave have relations, maybe it's relations. And one line in that that almost made me cry, giving writers pointers on how to deal with their editors. "Many writers send holiday greeting cards or let their editors know they are mailing charitable contributions instead of sending cards. A few send gifts to their favorite editors. It's important, however, not to be too pushy." You have to have a certain kind of a personality that I may once have had way in the distant past but I certainly don't have it any more.
BOB GARFIELD: Young man's game?
BEN YAGODA: I would say so. A young man, young person or an oldster like myself with still the young person's fire in the belly. Mine has gotten somewhat extinguished.
BOB GARFIELD: But, of course, in order to publicly surrender you have to have this one last swan song. How was the process [CHUCKLES] of selling the piece about your last piece as a freelancer?
BEN YAGODA: You know, truth to tell, Bob, I had the idea well over a year ago. I sold it to another magazine - [OVERTALK]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
BEN YAGODA: - after a lot of back-and-forthing and -
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
BEN YAGODA: - changes and questions and all that. This other nameless publication held it for a year and they finally said, "Well, it looks like we're not going to publish." Which was a blow to the ego, but, as you can probably appreciate, being able to sell it twice, that's like a freelancer's daily double.
BOB GARFIELD: This isn't really necessarily your last freelance piece, is it?
BEN YAGODA: This sort of giving it up forever thing is, I don't know, poetic license.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right. Well, journalist and maybe former freelancer Ben Yagoda is Director of the Journalism Program at the University of Delaware and author most recently of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.
BEN YAGODA: Thanks so much, Bob.
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