For freelance magazine writers in Canada, a beleaguered bunch at the best of times, the news came like a rejection slip. On January 19, Southam Inc. announced that Saturday Night, the country’s last general interest monthly, would become an insert in the weekend National Post. The venerable 113-year-old commentary on Canadian culture will be, according to the Post line, going back to “its historic roots” as a weekly. But many freelancers couldn’t help wondering if it meant their role at the magazine would also belong to the past.
Long considered Canada’s most prestigious publication by freelancers, Saturday Night was also – as of its last monthly issue in March – the best paying magazine in the country, and one of the few that consistently gave writers the space needed to tell a story properly. More issues mean more content, though the smart money says the bulk of it will be provided by Post staffers, with the odd piece imported from across the pond. And writers worry the few freelancers who do get work won’t get paid as much. With a shrinking number of attractive, high-paying markets and an increasingly hostile relationship between writers and editors, the freelance writer is looking more and more like an endangered species in this country.
A weary Derek Finkle was worried about this long before the news about Saturday Night became public. One afternoon last October, Finkle was having a beer with his 4 p.m. breakfast at a bar called The Auld Spot Pub on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. His menu decision, coupled with his shoulder-length hair, made him appear more like a rock star than a freelance writer. Then he began talking economics. A regular Saturday Night, Toronto Life and Flare contributor, Finkle expressed frustration at Canadian pay rates that have not changed in well over 10 years. Compared with American rates – which range between US $1 and US $2.25 per word (big name writers can demand even more) – Canadian pay appears just short of criminal. “It’s like you’re trapped in an endless cycle,” he said. “You’re going to be paid a dollar a word for the rest of your life.”
Or, more accurately, until you burn out. There is no retirement fund for freelancers, though some suggest residuals from electronic republication could serve as one in the same way SOCAN cheques do for musicians. The problem with such a proposal is that publishers see no reason to part with extra revenue reaped from the electronic reproductions of previously commissioned stories. In fact, some standard contracts now give the publication – rather than the writer – not just electronic rights, but rights for any means of transmission yet to be invented. When Rogers Media Inc., former magazine powerhouse Telemedia and other publishers moved to grab e-rights in their contracts a few years back, it reminded freelancers how badly they are exploited.
Most freelancers responded with grimaces and complaints, though a few brave souls decided it was worth the effort to fight for what they believed belonged to them. Freelance writer Heather Robertson launched a $100-million class action suit against the Thompson Corporation. Represented in the suit are freelancers who sold work to The Globe and Mail and had their work reprinted without permission in the InfoGlobe electronic database. In the United States, Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers’ Union, won a landmark copyright case against The New York Times last September when a federal appeals court ruled that using newspaper articles in a database without the author’s permission was a copyright violation.
Publishers have seen profits rise with ancillary, electronic revenue streams and their magazines have grown fatter with ads since the last recession ended, but editorial staffs have stayed thin. Editors, unlike their counterparts in advertising, have not gone after publishers for bigger budgets. And that’s just fine with publishers. “You rarely hear readers talk about bylines,” says Paul Jones, publisher of Maclean’s, “If the readers don’t care, why should the editors and publishers care?”
They should care. Readers may not look for bylines, but they easily recognize high-quality content. And the assembly-line mentality that has developed at many of the country’s magazines is hardly conducive to producing top-notch journalism. These days, it seems, the main goal is to just get the product out. Instead of taking the time to teach writers the craft of magazine writing, many editors prefer to rewrite. “More rewriting goes on because good writers get tired of crappy pay and leave the business,” says freelancer and Chatelaine contributing editor Kim Pittaway. “And newer writers don’t get better because they don’t get the time and attention.” Simply put, a good number of editors see freelancers as providers of raw materials, not as talented suppliers of finished product. The use of freelancers as glorified researchers is a throwback to an era before the birth of New Journalism. A more literary and scene-heavy style, New Journalism made the writer’s voice an essential part of a magazine piece. After it first appeared in Esquire and New York in the late 1960s, The Canadian and Toronto Life began assigning handling editors to help writers improve pieces and get to the heart of their craft. Staff writers lost their jobs, and freelancers – suddenly cared for and appreciated – became the principal content providers for the country’s magazines.
But today’s speeded-up working environment, coupled with a slew of younger, less experienced editors, has all but forced that nurturing environment into the realm of nostalgia. Anne Collins, Jocelyn Lawrence, Jim Sutherland and Anne Vanderhoof are some of the solicitous old-school editors whose absences are felt in today’s less civil freelancing climate. Toronto Life’s John Macfarlane, one of the last “writer’s editors” in Canada, says editors’ mediocre pay (usually between $35,000 and $55,000 a year) and increased workloads mean a high turnover rate. And younger editors – many of whom come from newspapers where tight deadlines preclude social niceties – have not learned from the older generation how to treat writers. “There are fewer editors than there used to be,” Macfarlane says, “and they’re working harder. They don’t have the time for the care and feeding of freelancers that they used to.”
The inevitable result is a growing climate of hostility between editors and writers. Writers resent the editors who constantly rewrite their work, and many editors, especially those with a newspaper background, seem to hold little respect for writers who don’t fit the institutional mentality of the newspaper world. Tony Keller, the goateed, fresh-faced editor of National Post Business, who came over from the Globe in early 1999 with virtually no experience in the magazine industry, is typical of this new breed of magazine editor. He concedes the small number of top Canadian writers working for the country’s magazines is a consequence of poor writer remuneration, but rejects freelancers’ cries of ill treatment. He claims courtesy is an unwritten part of his job description. “There are so few good freelance writers in Canada,” says Keller, “that I had better be nice to the ones that are capable of stringing something together that a reader might actually want to read.”
Indeed, award-winning writers Ian Brown and David Macfarlane feel both respected and appreciated by the editors they work with. But that kind of contented feeling was not on the menu when a group of mostly young freelancers gathered at Corso Italia, a hip eatery in Toronto’s Little Italy, on a warm night this past October. It was one of several informal freelance gatherings organized in recent years by A-list writer David Hayes and Alex Gillis, one of Hayes’s former students and a budding freelancer in his own right. Like its predecessors, the evening at Corso Italia afforded an opportunity for freelancers to swap work stories, keep abreast of changes pertinent to their jobs and whine a little to colleagues – among them Hillary Davidson, Mikala Folb, J.Timothy Hunt, Laura Penny and Diane Peters – who understand.
With the average freelancer earning $20,000 a year, money is an issue, but the writers at Corso Italia mostly complained about a lack of respect. Editors, they said, don’t realize freelancers are forever immersed in a multitude of projects. And why, they asked, do editors have such a problem with returning phone calls, even the repeated kind. “Just respond,” said Folb with a self-deprecating laugh. “Just tell me to fuck off.” Editors sometimes see things differently. Recalling his days as editor of Saturday Night, National Post editor in chief Ken Whyte says that while he worked with some fantastic freelancers, a number of others had expectations that exceeded their professionalism. “Their pitches were ill-considered, their expectations were often too high, and they seldom delivered on time and to length.”
So maybe editors are just returning the favour as they consistently look for new ways to shortchange freelancers. Take kill fees for example. Traditionally, they are only supposed to be used when a piece is beyond hope, and not if a magazine decides against running – or opts to shorten – a piece because of space or timeliness. But it is not such a black-and-white matter according to Keller. When he took over as head of National Post Business, he made a point to get input from Canada’s magazine editors as to when a kill fee should apply. He found no consensus. “It’s shocking, but not surprising,” says Ian Brown. “Magazines are reprehensible in all matters with regard to paying writers.” A similar anger, in an earlier time, was an impetus for forming the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, recalls founding member Val Ross, who is now a Globe staffer. In the 1970s, because PWAC boasted big names like June Callwood and Erna Paris, the association carried enough weight to influence fee schedules for several magazines and the industry-wide standardization of kill fees. But as PWAC grew to take in more hobby writers, it stopped serving its senior writers. As the big names left, it became tougher for PWAC to keep other writers and attract new talent – and that left the organization with little muscle.
These days, the PWAC offices consist of two rooms in a red brick low-rise in the shadow of Toronto’s bohemian Queen West neighbourhood. Traditional jazz is the soundtrack, an American Cocker Spaniel named Ben is the mascot and the most telling decoration is a hanging black T-shirt with white lettering that reads: “YOUR OPTIMISM HAS NO FOUNDATION IN REALITY.” Few serious writers belong to PWAC, especially in Toronto where most of the country’s major publications are headquartered. Perhaps if more writers did belong to PWAC, the country’s editors would have to take the association seriously. But as director Victoria Ridout points out, freelancers are by nature independent and thus difficult to cajole into joining anything, especially if it would involve a boycott. “The will among writers to turn down work is not there,” she sighs.
Increasingly, freelancers are choosing flight rather than fight. Some cross over to (gasp!) public relations, while many redirect their skills to the more lucrative arena of commercial and web writing. Others are following our best actors and musicians toward the U.S. “It’s not for nothing that the two best Canadian magazine writers – Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnick – have never worked in Canada,” says Keller. Maybe he is forgetting about other Canadian talent like Ian Brown, Don Gillmor, Marni Jackson and David Macfarlane. But the recent flight of Guy Lawson and Clive Thompson speaks to Keller’s point.
Dianne Forrest, a former freelancer now editing at Maclean’s, believes the talent drain in Canada has forced magazines to hire more editors to clean up copy. As time goes on, and rates still don’t move (because editors feel the writers now aren’t worth any more), the spiral grows, and the quality of content decreases. “When was the last time you saw Saturday Night or Toronto Life or, God forbid, Chatelaine come out with anything you didn’t already know about?”
Saturday Night certainly commanded attention in January, though it was more because of the magazine’s future than its ability to break stories. For freelancers already saddled with the realities of poor pay, eager-to-exploit publishers and hostile editors, the death of a monthly Saturday Night has made their profession seem even closer to extinction. And for those aspiring magazine writers, toiling away at journalism schools or taking their first steps into freelancing territory, the uncertainty surrounding Canada’s magazines is also raising doubts. “I’m becoming more bitter, more cynical,” says Alex Gillis, who is just three years into his freelancing career. He says a part of it is money, but the big thing is the ability to do good work. Or as fellow freelancer Mikala Folb puts it, “I can honestly say I don’t want to be a freelancer for the rest of my life.”