Transcript: Surviving As A Journalist

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Interview with Alexandra Owens
American Society of Journalists & Authors

For podcast release Monday, April 22, 2013

KENNEALLY: Freelance journalism has never had it so – well, how would you fill in that blank? Let’s start with the sunny side.

Freelance journalism has never had it so good, as smart devices and digital distribution make it possible for more men and women than ever to contribute their reporting and opinions to conversations in the public square.

And then, there’s the dark side. Freelance journalism has never had it so bad, as the flood of content online washes away traditional business models and scatters advertising dollars and the income that went with them to the four winds.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series, Beyond the Book. My name is Christopher Kenneally.

From April 25 through the 27th at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors offers dozens of educational sessions to help freelance writers make the most of the opportunities waiting for them, while avoiding the dangers that might keep them from success.

Joining me from the ASJA headquarters in Times Square is Alexandra Cantor Owens, ASJA executive director. Alexandra, welcome to Beyond the Book.

CANTOR OWENS: Hi, Chris. Thank you. Nice to be here.

KENNEALLY: It’s good to see you and to see your office view of Times Square. It’s a bit of a bustle down there, and you’re in a bustle right now as you get ready for the conference. But before we talk about what people should expect if they attend, let’s go back to that question at the open. What is the state of freelance journalism as the ASJA sees it?

CANTOR OWENS: The state of freelance journalism is exciting, to put it in one word. The opportunities that you described, some are disappearing, but new ones are arising. And since freelancing by definition is an ability to adapt, freelancers who are entrepreneurial and really flexible are taking great advantage of these opportunities.

The are getting tossed about with the reinvention of new business models and the disappearing of old business models. That’s certainly true. But freelance writers are perhaps in a better position than, say, a staff journalist whose job simply disappears. They have always had multiple income streams, multiple irons in the fire at any given time, lots of clients, lots of beats instead of perhaps just one. So freelance writers are really not suffering as much as the traditional journalism staffer. They’re in a better position.

KENNEALLY: You make some great points. I was a freelance journalist myself for many years, so I know what you’re talking about. That adaptability and that preparation for the future is really important. After all, you eat what you kill when you’re an ASJA member, right?

CANTOR OWENS: I suppose that’s one way of putting it. It’s really very exciting, and we’re hearing all kinds of new content opportunities that freelancers are turning into real work. For example, the buzzword these days is content marketing. Well, writing for corporations is nothing new. That’s certainly something that’s been going on forever, but there are two things happening right now that are making it sort of in the news right now.

Traditional media platforms are in search of new revenue streams. The traditional ad-supported platform is going away, as we know. So branded content on a website that has infinite space is certainly a great way to do that, so that’s one thing.

And on the other side, corporations are seeing social media and want to exploit that, but they need content to get into that conversation. Freelance writers have opportunities in this world more than ever before, and professional freelancers – people who have been doing it by design and by intention – are the best-equipped to adapt and work with their clients and deliver what’s requested, and they know the ropes going in. So it’s really a very exciting time.

KENNEALLY: Let’s talk about the way the conference is helping ASJA members and others prepare for all those changes. First of all, what’s the theme this year?

CANTOR OWENS: The theme this year is Fire Up Your Writing Career. ASJA, as a 60-year-old trade association of professional freelancers, has always been about writers helping one another make the most of the environment. So we are always providing a space for writers to talk to one another, share information, share what they’ve learned, and when the industry undergoes an upheaval – and this is not the first and it won’t be the last – this is the best tool that writers can have.

We refer to members, but our conference is open to the public. We have one day that is set aside for ASJA members and society business and so forth, but Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27 are open to the public. Freelance writers at any stage of their career can come and learn from our professionals who are there who have really been involved in framing the sessions and the educational platform, and the many, many experts and industry thought leaders who are on hand to network and to learn from one another.

KENNEALLY: That’s a good point, too, because I’ve attended some of the conferences in the past years, and the panelists are drawn not only from the ranks of people here in New York and elsewhere who are part of the publishing world, but they’re often ASJA members as well, so there’s a sense of not simply talking at people but talking with them.

CANTOR OWENS: Absolutely. Each one of our sessions is run by an ASJA member who is either an expert on the subject or has a passion to learn about the subject. So either way, they have the contacts and the influence to put a panel together of people who really know what they’re talking about.

For example, ASJA past president Sam Greengard and Damon Brown are doing a session on tech. The two of them are absolute experts. Damon wrote the book in iPad, one of the first books on the iPad. Sam is a renowned expert. He’s our home office guru. So they really know what they’re talking about, and they’ll be doing an up-to-the-minute roundup of tech that is needed for freelance writers.

You mentioned tech in your intro. It’s very true. Freelance writers, again, because they are so used to working remotely, are in a much stronger position than they’ve ever been with technology catching up. I myself use a variety of tools to allow me to split my time between our Times Square headquarters and my home in New Jersey.

KENNEALLY: Right. Talk about some of the tracks you’ve got and how throughout those two days of public conference people could sort of pick and choose.

CANTOR OWENS: We have five simultaneous tracks. They’re loosely organized to allow people to select from sessions that are more focused on the art or the business of freelance writing.

There’s a track on the craft of writing, which talks about things like how to find your great subjects and how to bring elements of statistics in. The sessions are focused on how to improve your actual writing.

Then we have a track on tech, we have a track on market snapshots that tell you about different genre markets, and we have one that’s new this year. It’s called Knowhow: The Road to Success, and each one of those sessions involves learning a new skill. There’s one on video journalism, there’s one on actually how to bring sound into your work through the spoken word, through podcasts, through various platforms.

And on Friday, there’s also lots of sessions about protecting yourself in this litigious age with contracts, morphing, showing us new wrinkles all the time. It’s very important to be aware. As a solo practitioner, it’s very important that writers can protect themselves.

KENNEALLY: That’s an important point at Copyright Clearance Center. Rights and copyright and licensing are really essential, and you’ve got a program about writers beware and how to avoid publishing scams. Then there’s another one on negotiating your own book contract. Who are the instructors for that?

CANTOR OWENS: The Negotiating Your Own Book Contract, we have Jan Constantine from the Authors Guild will be there. The Writer Beware! Session has the people behind that blog from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and a lot of people who have done this. We have writers who have been in those situations and will share their own experiences.

KENNEALLY: And you’ve also got some stars, some people who really have been very successful, some keynotes, and some special presentations. Tell us about a few of those.

CANTOR OWENS: A.J. Jacobs is our keynote speaker, and he is a contributing editor at Esquire and the author of some New York Times bestsellers that are just hilarious. Drop Dead Healthy. He has a way of becoming his subject for a year, such as The Year of Living Biblically, and writing about those experiences.

KENNEALLY: You have to tell people about that book. It’s a bit of masochism. He went through the Bible and he got all of the sort of proscriptions in the Bible about what to eat and what to do and what to wear, and he tried to live up to them all.

CANTOR OWENS: And the part I love is how his family reacted to some of this. It’s just a brilliant read, and he’s a very funny guy.

And of course Sree Sreenivasan from Columbia journalism school is back. I don’t know how many years he’s done this, but he always comes to ASJA and shares, as we know, his terrific perspective on social media. He’s an absolute expert on it, very engaging, and people come just to see him. He’s an annual attraction.

We also have a session on public speaking, which is going to be a hands-on workshop with three toastmasters, facilitators, who will be there to instruct.

KENNEALLY: And plenty of opportunity for people to network and get together with other freelance writers and commiserate or share the sort of tips for success.

CANTOR OWENS: Yes. We have changed the pace of things a little bit. If anybody has had a criticism of our conferences, it’s that they’re too busy. So what we have done is changed the session schedule a little bit so now we have two in the morning and two in the afternoon, allowing longer sessions and longer breaks. So we will have a lot more sort of elbow room for networking.

There are receptions after, Thursday and Saturday evenings. There’s the keynote luncheon. There’s breaks with beverages and sponsored networking events.

We also have another track this year of sponsored content, where sponsors including such entities as Contently and PR Newswire, they will actually have a room in which they can share their information in a more accommodating space than just standing across a table from one another.

KENNEALLY: For information about the conference and signing up, everyone has to go to asja.org.

Any last words about the conference itself to sort of pitch people and get them in?

CANTOR OWENS: We’ve changed the pricing too, a little bit. You can come to one day, or the other day, or both days. I would just encourage everybody to sign up now. We do take walk-in registrations, but we prefer you to register in advance. It’s really the best investment you can make in your freelance career. Whether it’s a career by intention or by accident, if you find yourself new to it or are trying to get your existing career to the next level, this is the conference for you.

KENNEALLY: And not a bad excuse to be in New York in April.

CANTOR OWENS: Absolutely. We have field trips, too. That’s another added treat. Those are on Wednesday. We have a behind-the-scenes walk to Grand Central Station that is being led by Anthony Robins, who wrote a book about the centennial. And we have a member taking a group to the New York Public Library for an investigatory tour.

Those two are on Wednesday. Information about those is also on our website. Go to asjaconference.org for conference information.

KENNEALLY: Alexandra Cantor Owens, ASJA executive director, thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

CANTOR OWENS: Thank you very much, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: 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 e-books, 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 the Copyright Clearance Center website, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.