Monday, March 29, 2010

Doing the hustle for a writing gig

I'm late to the party here, but I'll say in my own defense that the phrase would have washed over me a year ago. Today, it has meaning: The Gig Economy.

Tina Brown and The Daily Beast apparently coined it when the online news and entertainment site, headed by Brown, reported in January 2009 that workers on higher rungs of the career ladder were "hustling" -- working multiple jobs to make ends meet. They no longer were employed in the traditional sense -- one 9-to-5 job offering paid vacation and other benefits -- but instead worked gigs that involved putting together multiple projects to make "the nut" of ongoing expenses.

Brown used the term again this afternoon during a panel discussion held (and webcast) as part of the forum "Transforming Journalism: The State of the News Media 2010." Staged at George Washington University in D.C., it drew students in person, online and through Twitter, and offered them this nugget retweeted (#SoNM) around Twitterdom: "Don't let your parents say you shouldn't go into journalism. You're the ones to reinvent it."

Maybe, but first let's revisit the Gig Economy and do a little back-of-the-envelope mathematics.

For most Americans, the traditional 40-hour workweek remains, The Daily Beast said in its 2009 report. "But fully one-third of Americans in our survey are now working either freelance or two jobs, with nearly one in two (45%) taking on these additional positions in the last six months."

And what's more, "by and large, these new alternative workers are not low-income -- they are college-educated Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year," it said.

In other words, they paid the entrance fee to climb the career ladder, but now find they're no better off than their paycheck-to-paycheck brethren who didn't go to college.

The survey, conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based market research firm, involved 500 interviews via the Internet with U.S. workers aged 18 and older. (See survey results here.)

According to The Daily Beast, the Great Recession bears some blame: "This shift toward freelance and multiple jobs ... is being exacerbated by the economic crisis." But this time, it's not only those on the lower rungs of the ladder who are having to hustle to adapt. They're being joined by middle- and upper-class workers who are "being asked to do more for the same or less pay, to work more outside of normal hours --and are more likely to see layoffs around them."

For journalists laid off in the past few years as newspapers cut expenses to fight declining ad sales, freelance gigs often were the answer. Some wrote for new entities created to pick up what legacy media jettisoned or never did well; others helped slimmed-down newsrooms keep coverage going.

The Daily Beast (late 2008) and GlobalPost (early 2009) were founded in this period. Both use freelancers, who are paid $250 to $350 per story -- a one-day, quick-turnaround piece, Brown and Global Post Executive Editor Charlie Sennott said today.

That's better than the freelance pay offered by others, but if I wanted to use either gig to earn anywhere near $75,000 a year, I'd have to really hustle. At $250 a pop, I'd have to write one story a day for 300 days over the course of a year to earn that kind of income -- meaning I'd be working many seven-day weeks to accomplish it.

For $85,000 annually, I'd have to produce a story daily for 340 days each year; for $100,000, a story a day for 400 days -- or more than the 365 days that comprise a year. It's hyperbole, of course, but you get the point.

So did Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, who moderated the panel: "This model is not going to sustain a journalist" once he or she is no longer a fresh-faced newbie but has a mortgage and kids.

That's one place where those who will reinvent journalism can lend a hand: Get us away from this gig model and back to one requiring less hustling.

(GWU's School of Media and Public Affairs promises video clips of today's discussion and a full transcript by week's end.)

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