As I write this, there is a storm of controversy blowing up in my blogger community. Many of my colleagues contributed their time and talents and credibility to a parenting site that went from indie darling to corporate machine seemingly overnight. Other colleagues were editorial and marketing staff at that same website. And along the way something happened – no one seems quite sure what – leaving former staffers without jobs and former bloggers without gigs and a lot of people confused and stressed about paying the bills.
I’m not taking sides. It’s a mess all around, and I hate that people and their families (whether on the staff/executive or blogger level) are under strain because of it. I have no idea where to place blame or even if there is blame to be placed.
But here’s the part I want to get across loud and clear: this – all of this – was completely, totally, 100% predictable.
This is what happens with media companies: they merge with other media companies. They get sold and bought and acquired. They change ownership, leadership, and staff. Sometimes they completely disappear without warning. Sometimes the people in high-up positions are just as blindsided as everyone else. Sometimes they know something is up, but can’t talk about it. Other times they choose not to because they need or want to figure out their own next steps first. This is all true even if you are friendly with those people, or believe them to be your actual friends.
I learned this the hard way myself when I began freelancing back in 2003. After working my tail off to create a strong connection with an editor at a national magazine, she left the company abruptly while thisclose to assigning my first big story. She passed the pitch on to her successor, who never – and I do mean, never, never, not ever – responded to a single one of my follow-ups. Other magazines I slowly, steadily, persistently courted disappeared. The website where I got my start as a parenting writer folded. Others stopped paying contributors. Sometimes a story of mine would be killed and I’d go from regular writer to persona non grata for no reason except that the new “guard” wanted to wipe the slate clean and bring in all their own people and ideas.
In 2010, right in the middle of the editing process with my book The Happiest Mom, which I wrote in partnership with Parenting magazine, 3/4 of the magazine’s editorial staff was let go…including the editor-in-chief who had championed my idea in the first place. Her replacement was not nearly as enthralled with the book – or, I believe, me – and I can only say the launch experience was not quite what I’d hoped for. (Parenting, incidentally, has since folded.)
This is the reality of freelancing today. It requires a certain comfort level with risk, an ability to bounce back quickly from loss, and the foresight to see what’s coming next. It also requires – demands – diversification, so that when one leg of your stool breaks you’re left with a few others to support you.
So I’ve watched with discomfort as bloggers I know have poured themselves into their work for one company at a time, giving this one company their best ideas, driving huge amounts of traffic, and aligning their professional fates with the fate of a single media entity.
Here’s the thing: no matter how hard you work for it and how much you love it, a media company won’t love you back. It’s not a human being, no matter how many perfectly lovely human beings work there. And your loyalty might very well not be rewarded, because the people in a position to reward your loyalty may very well find themselves powerless or without a job.
I’m not saying not to give your best to the companies you work with. As a freelance content creator, the quality of your work is your professional integrity and your calling card all in one.
But you can’t give it all away, your brand and your identity and your time and all your best ideas, to a single company unless that company is paying your benefits and has you on the payroll. We must recognize that all gravy trains eventually run dry, and that when they do, all we will have is the connections we’ve made and the brands we’ve established for ourselves.
So what, as a freelance blogger, can you do?
You do your best work and you keep an eye on the horizon at the same time.
You look for subtle clues that a publishing empire is changing, floundering, or failing and shift the percentage of time and energy you invest in that outlet accordingly.
You focus just as much on building your own brand on your own platform as you do lending your brand to somebody else’s.
You read industry news, network like crazy, and make contacts in all different kinds of roles at all different kinds of media companies (you never know where those people will end up.)
You learn the difference between a friendly business relationship and a true friendship (and man, you hold those true friends close.)
You don’t ever burn a bridge unless it really, really needs burning.
When people move on, you stay in touch and see where they land. You think of ways you can help them in their new role – not new ways they can help you, (though in the best-case scenario, the relationship remains mutually beneficial.)
You plan for at least a month – no, two months – without getting a check, because in reality, that’s what’s going to happen to you at some point.
You stay on your toes.
You do all this because this is what it is to be a freelancer.
Not everybody is cut out to freelance, and that’s not a value judgement. Sometimes I think those of us who are might be a little unstable, to be honest. But the truth is that contributing articles to a website on a 1099 basis – even if it’s fifty posts a month and your fee is referred to as your “salary” – is not the same as being a contract employee. (Not that contract employees’ jobs are necessarily any “safer,” but it’s a different kind of uncertainty.)
I’ve made a go of this crazy life for going on eleven years now, earning a full-time income for most of those years. But I’ve never had fewer than five or six irons in the fire at any given time. I earn money from websites and magazines I write for, yes, but also sponsorship income from my lifestyle and family blog, speaking, coaching, mentoring and teaching, editorial consulting, spokesperson work, books, and other gigs I cobble together to make it all work. And often all at the same time.
If you’re one of the bloggers who’s feeling blindsided, used, undervalued, or financially stressed right now, I feel for you. I’ve been there, and I know it feels awful. But here’s your wakeup call. This situation is not unique to a single corporation or leadership team. It’s the nature of this business and it requires us to buckle up and take thoughtful, bold, and strategic control of our own professional destinies.
It requires creativity and bravery. It requires a lot less Monday-morning quarterbacking and a lot more proaction. It requires us to think and act in many directions at once. It requires us to diversify.
Use those freelance gigs to support you as you create your own empire. Because in the end, the only thing that you can control is the brand you’ve built for yourself.