As a frequent freelancer since 1992, after a stint of salaried wire and newspaper reporting experience, I have to say that good editors are increasingly scarce. (See Marty Levine’s article, posted to AAN News on April 12.) Most editors, I find, are (surprisingly) only so-so writers and lackluster stylists. Many strike me as lazy as hell. Others seem to resent freelancers, or regard their independent status as confirmation of inferior skill, or some social deficiency. (Otherwise, the reasoning goes, we’d have a staff job somewhere.)
There is also the issue of journalistic ethics. Despite recent scandals that tend to imply a trend of reporters running wild, with editors a thin blue line of First Amendment warriors protecting the high ground of journalism, I have found that editors are not immune to the temptation to embellish and invent.
For example, one magazine editor, who was assigned to cut one of my pieces to fit diminished space, expanded quotes of different people I interviewed, adding fictional words, so paragraphs would wrap properly. Merely a trifling matter of layout, you see. I had to go to another editor at the publication to get my quotes restored to their original — and authentic — form.
Increasingly, I am encountering incompetent, professionally remote editors. I try to make a point of being ahead of deadline, and under budget if expenses are allowed. I defer to editors whenever possible — my motive being to demonstrate flexibility and a team spirit, to show respect and maximize my chances for future assignments. I don’t mind accommodating editors’ sometimes arbitrary changes in my texts. But I am a journalist, not a PR hack or a lazy, take-the-money-and-run freelancer. I cut my teeth as a wire service stringer for Reuters, in San Francisco. I was then Reuters’ only person in the city, on a shoestring budget, with low pay. But it was exhilarating, if tedious and often thankless. I competed against a powerhouse AP shop of several excellent reporters, and a small building full of Dow Jones employees, most of whom worked for the Wall Street Journal. Still, I held my own and did not embarrass Reuters. I even broke a couple of national stories, one involving a NATO nuclear war policy secret being kept from the citizens of member nations including the U.S., which taught me the ineffable but immensely gratifying rewards of grunt reporting.
So, when I encounter editors who assume that they’ve been there and done that — and I encounter them more often than in prior years — I have to bite my tongue. When an editor infers that my years of reporting and writing experience are irrelevant to the skills one needs to be an editor of freelancers, as one did here in Los Angeles recently, I have to sigh.
As for writing for alternative weeklies, which I relish reading wherever I am in the USA for their boldness and earnest determination, I regret to find that the pay is spit. If you have a family to support, you leave the alternative beats to kids with trust funds, or an admirable ability — and willingness — to live on rice and beans and take the bus to interviews.
Mark Hugh Miller
Los Angeles, Calif.