Interview with Randy Dotinga, President, American Society of Journalists & Authors
For podcast release Monday, February 16, 2015
KENNEALLY: “Independent writers” is a phrase easily mistaken for a redundancy. After all, writers by their natures value independent thinking and they treasure their independence. Virginia Woolf wasn’t the first or the last author to want a room of one’s own.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. In the era of smartphones and online media, freelance writers abound, though few manage to make anything but a bare bones living. According to a 2014 survey by CopyPress, a content marketing firm, only 13% of writers reported they earned more than $30,000 annually, and nearly half said they made less than $10,000.
Writers like Randy Dotinga, though, are able to survive and thrive on freelancing income by adopting work habits that leverage their talents and maximize their happiness. Randy is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and he joins me now from his San Diego office. And welcome to Beyond the Book, Randy Dotinga.
DOTINGA: Great to be here. Thanks for talking to me.
KENNEALLY: Well, we’re looking forward to chatting with you about what we’re calling the pursuit of freelancing happiness. And Randy Dotinga, we’ll tell people that you are a former newspaper reporter, that you left the newsroom to become a full time freelance writer in 1999, and you write particularly about medicine and health for outlets like Newsday, WebMD, and Kaiser Health News, as well as on politics and government for the Voice of San Diego. You’ve done book reviewing, too, for the Christian Science Monitor. And so clearly, put together a package that sort of satisfies you and your intellectual curiosity, but apparently also puts food on the table. So tell us, how do you do it in 2015, Randy Dotinga? How do freelance writers survive and thrive in this era of abundant content?
DOTINGA: I think the key is to really be educated about what you need to do to survive. It’s to understand the trends in journalism and the trends in freelancing. About 99% of my gigs that I get are because I know somebody who’s looking to hire somebody as a freelancer or I know somebody who knows somebody. The networking is one of the crucial things that freelancers have to understand, that if you are spending each day coming up with story ideas and pitching them to random strangers at magazines or newspapers, then you’re doing it wrong. You need to have and create a network of writers and editors around the country that helps you to have editors find you.
The writers are always sitting around and hearing about assignments that they can’t do for some reason. It’s not their subject area, not their expertise. They’re too busy with something else. And they can tell an editor, hey, my friend Chris is a freelancer in Boston, why don’t you contact him? And that kind of personal connection I think is so crucial and something freelancers often don’t realize. They think they can do it alone, and they don’t need organizations like my organization, the ASJA, or other kinds of writer groups or even meet-up groups or just meeting people on the internet who are writers to make those kind of connections.
KENNEALLY: Right, well, Randy Dotinga, the dark secret about Chris Kenneally is that he was in fact a freelance writer for many years.
DOTINGA: I’ve heard this, yeah.
KENNEALLY: And what I used to say to people is that “I eat what I kill.” And so I always found it very hard to say no to just about any assignment, by which I found myself challenged, and that was really part of the excitement of the business. One day writing for the New York Times, and the next day writing for Glass magazine. This made for a variety that really was the spice of life for me. Is that how it works for you?
DOTINGA: For me, I guess I have a pretty clear form of ADHD because I bounce from topic to topic each day and even like each hour. And I can handle a variety of topics and not go crazy. And I think that’s a key for a lot of freelancers is to be able to appreciate that variety and to have a kind of flexibility that you could write for, like you said, a trade journal about glass manufacturing one day and the next day write a movie review or do custom content for a company or do a newspaper story.
If you have that kind of flexibility, you can have multiple assignments that are regular. You could write for a trade magazine – write a column each week for a trade magazine, and then write regular stories about medicine and health, and then have another kind of gig that’s something completely different. And you kind of cobble all this together and try to find a few that are regular each week or each month that you can depend on, and that helps you to get through those kind of slow periods where you have less stuff coming in if you have something regular. Even if it’s not your dream job, it can help you get through and do the work that you really care about.
KENNEALLY: Absolutely. It provides you with a base on which you can build for whatever direction you want to go in. And the American Society of Journalists and Authors represents something like 1,200 independent writers, primarily from the US and Canada, but from around the world, too. And so I wonder, Randy Dotinga, if you’ve got a sense today of the sources of freelance opportunities. We know that newsrooms, the traditional newspaper newsroom, has been shrinking – or have been shrinking over the last few years. But content is exploding. So where are the assignments coming from?
DOTINGA: There’s quite a lot of growth in the custom content world. That’s – let’s say you can be a company like Dell Computers and you may create a website about technology that has a lot of basic news stories, and the main difference from a newspaper would be that there would not be any stories that make Dell look bad. But Dell might use this as a way to bring in customers to think about the Dell brand and to read about Dell products. And it’s journalism in almost all the traditional ways. When you’re writing a story, you have to be fair and accurate and all that. But it has that twist that it is custom content and it’s paid for by a company, so it has a little bit of an advertising twist. We call it advertorial in the newspaper land. But you can also make quite a bit of money.
And I think in some cases, freelancers are finding that they can use custom content to subsidize their more traditional journalism content that they do, because custom content can pay so well. It can help you have the freedom to write about things that you might enjoy, like movie reviews or that kind of thing, that might not pay very much.
KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. And there’s no reason to feel compromised by writing about Dell computers. I think that would be actually an interesting assignment to have as long as, again, it provides you with the opportunity to write about those things you particularly care about. And I wonder whether for the members of ASJA these days, this abundance of opportunity that’s out there online also creates opportunity for less than scrupulous players to try to take advantage of freelance writers. Does that happen?
DOTINGA: There is a lot of publishers who are basically trying to rip off writers. That’s not so much in the freelance writing world as it is in the book writing world, which we also – we represent authors and freelance writers. And there are quite a lot of contests and self-publishing outfits that do rip off writers, and it’s important for us – we actually work with an outfit called Writer Beware that – whose job is to expose these kinds of writer frauds. And we do work hard to teach writers to be aware of these, that these are out there, and if they’re taking part in a contest or getting their book self-published or writing for a publisher that they’ve never heard of, that they need to do the due diligence to check out the outfit and make sure that they’re legit.
KENNEALLY: Of course, that’s easier than ever with online search. But I wonder, too, you know, not so much the out and out fraud that goes on, but writers can be presented with contracts that can be lengthy with the tiny, tiny type and all of that, and they may be inclined to want to just sign, because it’s an assignment. And I know ASJA really does feel that reading the contract, understanding contracts, is critical to the freelance writing business.
DOTINGA: It’s crucial. And I think you do hear a lot of writers who are just excited to get work and they will sign a contract without even thinking about it, but there are a ton of pitfalls that can be in contracts regarding protecting your work from a copyright perspective, which you know about, especially at the Copyright Clearance Center, but also protecting yourself in terms of when you’ll get paid and also could you be sued for libel over your work.
And it turns out that freelancers do have some power to negotiate contracts with a typical publisher. There are some major publishers that even will have alternative contracts sitting around that they will give writers who speak up. So we encourage writers to be strong and negotiate contracts and run them by our contract committee if they’re members, or find a lawyer who might help you either for pay or even if you have a friend who’s a lawyer who might just take a look at a contract. You can often find out that clauses don’t mean what you think they mean or even what the publishers think they mean. And you do have the power to negotiate and not sign a contract that you feel uncomfortable about.
KENNEALLY: Right. Well, I get the sense here, Randy Dotinga, that the ASJA is about empowering writers, authors, to think of themselves as being not just the underclass but, if you will, in charge of their own careers. And I know that the upcoming conference for the ASJA at the end of April – April 30th, it begins in New York City at the Roosevelt Hotel – is a way for ASJA members and others, as well, to get more advice and counsel on that notion of empowerment. Tell us a bit about what to expect from the ASJA conference coming up in April 2015.
DOTINGA: Yeah, we’ll have about 500 to 600 attendees over three days. And two days are open to the public. And like you said, the whole focus is empowering writers. It’s about teaching writers to be businesspeople, to make money, to know how to negotiate a contract, and to use the tools of today’s writer world – how to be on social media, how to find an agent if you’re writing a book, how to find clients if you’re a freelancer, how to protect yourself in various ways – and the message is that there are freelancers who make it, that freelancers and independent writers who make good livings and successful, worthwhile livings. This is not for everybody. Not everybody’s going to succeed as a freelancer or as an independent writer, but –
KENNEALLY: Or as a Formula One drive, too, so.
DOTINGA: Right, exactly. This is not for everybody. We don’t want to give anybody the impression that you can just – anybody can be a freelancer and succeed. But you can learn the best practices, like in any business – the best practices to help you succeed. And we are a nonprofit. We’re run by writers who are all volunteers. And all we do, basically, is help writers. And the conferences are one of our main ways of doing that, and we’ve done it for – I think this is about our 44th annual conference. And we’ve been doing it for quite a while and we’re going to keep doing it, because there’s something about that personal touch and those personal connections that’s still valuable even in these days of Twitter and Facebook.
KENNEALLY: Right. And indeed, it is also about much more than journalism. You’ll be having sessions in self-publishing, on speech writing, on public speaking and content marketing, the kind of material – the custom content that you were speaking about before. And also, to your earlier point, Randy, about networking – ASJA just brings everybody together in one spot. So you’ve got editors, you’ve got writers, you’ve got agents. They’re all there and interested in talking with others who share their own interests and share their profession.
DOTINGA: Right. We even have what we call a kind of speed dating for our members. We’ll have at least 80 agents, editors, and publishers that our members can meet with for brief sessions – about eight or 10 minutes – and pitch their books or pitch their stories and make those kind of connections that you can only make in person.
KENNEALLY: Well, Randy Dotinga, president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, we appreciate you joining us today on Beyond the Book. Thanks so much.
DOTINGA: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
KENNEALLY: And we will direct people to learn more about the ASJA conference coming up in April in New York City at the Roosevelt Hotel. Go online to asja.org for much more information.
Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought after materials, including millions of books and eBooks, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com. Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marking. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.