To say these last few months have been out of the ordinary is like calling COVID-19 the sniffles. Last year at this time, none of us expected a world-wide pandemic, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers launching a nationwide come-to-Jesus meeting about racism, the tear-gassing and arrests of journalists at Black Lives Matter protests, the economy on the verge of collapse, and, yes, murder hornets. The last three months have felt like three years.
I’ve taken to reading the newspaper at night before bed. (We get two at my house, the Baltimore Sun and The New York Times.) This has become a soothing ritual, and I find myself moving from dark feelings (rage and fear) to lighter ideas (what is a four-letter word for “finales”?). The newspaper is less ominous in the evening, because like most journalists, I’ve already devoured a healthy portion of news throughout the day. Just before going to sleep, I can get the longer take, evaluate what has shifted since morning.
My news obsession began when I was a child. As the oldest of four, I was also preoccupied with truth—both finding it and proclaiming it loudly to anyone within earshot. I began reading the Roanoke Times in middle school, and I’ve subscribed to a print newspaper my whole adult life.
But I didn’t go to J-school. I majored in mathematics—another field obsessed with truth—and went on to teach high school geometry. It took me a long time to come to writing, first journalism (as an online content producer for the Virginian-Pilot and then as a business reporter for Inside Business), then with a mix of reporting, essay writing, and content marketing (as a freelancer), and now creative non-fiction.
ASJA was founded as an organization for independent journalists and book writers. These days, it’s darned near impossible to make a living writing only journalism or books. So most of our members stitch together a living through a diverse portfolio of clients and publications. Books and long-form narrative become the passion projects that are possible because we’ve written pieces for alumni publications and white papers for companies, a combination that some of our long-time members are concerned about. It’s not that the ethics have changed; it’s that our members understand how to make these ethics work while making a living.
ASJA has changed. We still strongly support the First Amendment, naturally. We also recognize that journalism has a special role to play in a time when social media feeds are substituted for responsible reporting and our elected officials (Democrat and Republican) are adept at thwarting journalists’ efforts for uncovering the truth. But we have also found an important niche among writers’ groups: we help professional freelance writers make a living.
Over the years, as I’ve been chair of the publications committee, an at-large board member, and vice president of the board, I’ve heard our members ask for more from ASJA. Some of these requests are contradictory. Vocal members have said that they want more emphasis on journalism, less on content marketing, and yet more than half of our members tell us that they are content writers. We have members asking for information about essay markets, and then we’re told that we shouldn’t promote publications that pay less than $1 a word.
As my daddy would say, “You can’t win for losing.”
And that’s just fine. ASJA is here for the individual member, yes, and we gladly embrace the challenges of developing programs that suit our membership as a whole. As our world needs journalism more, the industry is unable to pay freelance journalists and book authors enough. Our membership and programming have changed with the changes in the industry.
At the same time, misguided and stubborn elected officials are promising to make freelance writing even more difficult, while assuring us that their actions are for our own good. With anti-freelance measures like AB5 in California and the federal Pro Act, freelancers’ livelihoods are on the line. As an organization, we’re being asked to brush off our rusty advocacy skills and represent our members in courtrooms, state houses, and Capitol Hill.
I don’t think there’s a writer on this planet who isn’t worrying right now: about how we’ll survive the triple threat of racism, a pandemic, and a recession. As freelancers, many of us are also in hustle-mode. We’re pitching and writing and editing, as we are caring for children and aging adults. Thankfully, we have our words. Those frustrating, awful, charming beasts that keep us up at night and also help us put food on the table. (“Use your words,” I used to tell my daughter, when as a toddler she was having a tantrum.)
I am so honored to be ASJA’s president, even during these times, when the world feels like it’s on fire. Although I don’t practice journalism daily, I still feel the rush of getting the story, finding the truth. And I know that my fellow ASJAers—journalists, book authors, and content marketers—feel similarly. I can’t think of a better time to be a writer, to be a member of ASJA, and to serve ASJA as your president. And I can’t thank you enough for entrusting me.