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.
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.