The Debit Side of the Clarion-Ledger

Love’s Columns’ Labor’s Lost?

By Ben S. Pollock
NSNC Director of Online Media

What’s the value of a columnist writing for no pay for a city’s newspaper (rather, its website), which it terms “a labor of love”? It turns out to be a trick question, or at least with no easy answer.

Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Miss.A highlight of serving on the columnists board has been our email conversations. A good subject will produce insights but also wit. So why not share it with the world on occasion?

This week, Vice President Eric Heyl shared a post with the board from the insider Gannett Blog, “Jackson, Miss.: Here’s a Job That Money Won’t Buy; Reader Calls It a Deal ‘Only Gannett Could Dream Up.'” The blog quoted the daily’s original article, “ClarionLedger.com Seeking Columnists” :

ClarionLedger.com is looking for Mississippi’s next great columnist. Those with an interest should know from the start, however, that the position is a labor of love.”

Gannett Blog, and Heyl, emphasized that the company was seeking free work, such columnists would not be paid. Heyl guessed the management mindset: “Because any average Joe off the street can do this, I suppose.”

“That seems like something we’d want to discourage,” wrote at-large board member Brian O’Connor, “unless folks are doing it for a specific future gain, like a guest column to promote a book. I don’t see why we would have a problem with saying you get what you pay for.”

Huffington Post was seen as the archetype of pro bono copy wrangling, but at least its prominence gives a writer decent exposure to help promote other endeavors, such as books, major articles or broadcast appearances.

Outgoing web editor Sheila Moss noted how many Gannett newspapers are moving behind “pay walls,” that is, Internet access only by paid subscription. Enlisting unpaid journalism then is another money-saving move.

“The main problem is we have many TV news channels in a large media market like Nashville,” Moss wrote. “They have websites with instant news coverage better than The Tennessean, and it is free as the breeze.”

Officers considered forming a consensus statement then finding a prominent rooftop from which to shout it. The consensus fizzled because this is more gray than black-and-white.

“I fear any statement we would issue would be seen by some as self-serving from guys and gals trying to protect their own paychecks,” Treasurer Jim Casto wrote.

As new President Larry Cohen wrote, “I suspect in six months, we’ll find that 10 percent of our members are writing somewhere for ‘free.'”

I wondered about the impact on the Jackson paper’s staff. This proposal might collapse soon after it’s attempted.

“Consider the obverse: The editors — the ones who will actually have to run this operation — probably dread it. They’re are going to have to deal with would-be columnists who’ll blow length requirements and deadlines then falter after two or five pieces.

“There’s more to being a columnist than being a ‘perfect hobby for someone who cares deeply about the state and its people and who also has a passion for writing,'” as the Jackson article read, I wrote. “You need chops, legs, stamina, the fight to craft a piece when the ink cartridge seems dry, to be a columnist.”

That’s where the National Society of Newspaper Columnists comes in, educating scribes on how to improve in the year-in year-out, ink-or-pixel craft-profession-art.

Otherwise, the nation would have a thriving Society of Letter to the Editor Writers, yet SLEW doesn’t show up on the Google.

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5 comments for “The Debit Side of the Clarion-Ledger

  1. A Professional
    June 9, 2012 at 10:45 am

    I’m happy to do volunteer work for nonprofits. To do volunteer work for a for-profit corporation? That’s for suckers.

    I have a regular newspaper column that pays me. I also sell my writing to magazines and online sites. Good writers can find paying venues. Not-so-good writers can write for the Clarion Ledger.

  2. June 9, 2012 at 2:01 am

    This is another abomination, true. But NSNC members don’t need to worry about the effects of the paper’s lame idea to find free columnists. It won’t work. We know what goes into the kind of writing that people want to read week after week. The local hacks will pass it around for a few months. They’ll all write their little life stories about how they were adopted or drafted or how they found peace and didn’t win the lottery. They’ll add ‘columnist’ to their Facebook bios and then back to the more benign hobbies that don’t wake them up at night.

    When editors promise — right from the start — not to pay, they kill the ambition of any serious contributor, the people who think they could still be somebody. It’ll die. Just another desperate reach. We find the same problem often with grass-roots citizen journalism sites, where we wish a little harder that donated elbow-grease could build new models of news reporting.

    There are many stories of start-up editors rounding up a dozen people with noble ambitions and providing them with fast lessons in reading reports, taking notes and writing ledes. Best intentions. But two months later 11 have jumped ship. Hey, this was hard work! And for what? For 30 ‘hits,’ two angry responses and a third comment generated by a bot.

    The people who should be concerned now are the readers of the Clarion-Ledger (if any are left) and of course the staffers (if any are left). Maybe the top managers can write the columns, since they are probably still paying themselves. Dash one off in five minutes, maybe. Something on how to build a community. They ought to know.

    Actually, I feel bad for these folks, for everyone still trying. No one has an answer. It’s just sort of feeble to forget what good, loyal, journalism-first, publish-no-matter-what columnists did for papers for so many decades. If you want to build, hire more.

  3. JS
    June 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Hoo boy, and you get to be in Mississippi when you wake up in the morning! Working for free! And for Gannett, too! Don’t git no better’n ‘at, do it?

  4. June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I am a freelance columnist with one paying, twice-weekly gig. I also have a blog, which obviously is free until I get the several thousand regular visitors who’ll attract advertisers. And I’m thinking of send a couple of pieces to newspapers outside my area. They would be “guest columns,” and unpaid. My hope is that with my bio at the end of the column, readers would be attracted to the blog, and then to other places I’ve written, and, finally, to find a way to pay me.

    Unfortunately, the alternative — with news outlets increasingly using free “viewer contributed” material while they complain about the availability of all the free material, I don’t see another way to attract the attention I need to turn a profit — or at least enough to buy gas and electricity to do the next piece.

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