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Integrity and Identity: Don’t Sacrifice Your Voice for Money

April 22, 2010

I consider myself a writer first, an editor second, a digital content strategist third and a search expert fourth. Of course, they are all interrelated on the Web. But writing is the work that feeds my soul the most, in print and on the Web. I am proud to say I have published more than 1000 articles in my career. Most of these are related to Web technology in my past roles with ComputerUser. But I have also published on business and lifestyle topics as a freelance writer.

Of all the freelance work in my portfolio, outdoor travel has created the greatest source of writing joy for me. It’s the kind of work that speaks from the heart of my unique identity. These experiences I write about are as much a part of me as the scars I accumulate as I stumble through my journey. If I did not have freelance contracts to write these pieces, I would still write them. So it is with little sadness that I had to break off a long-standing relationship with one of the last remaining editors who still publishes the kind of work I write.

Though my travel experiences are unique, my experiences as a freelance writer are not. The Web is not just a boon to digital writers, it is a bane to those who thrive on the print industry. Those of us who write for the magazine industry in particular face tough times. Tough times can make us feel like we are forced to compromise our integrity to continue to get print work. The story I am about to tell is about how I refused to compromise my core principles, despite the pressure. In my case, it means the end of a prosperous relationship. But I believe it will be worth it in the long run.

The slow death of a tech magazine

I saw the death of magazines in the tech industry from the inside. At its peak in 2000, ComputerUser distributed 2 million copies monthly, averaging 80 pages per book in 35 markets. We knew our readers well enough to know that their preferences were leaning toward digital even in the late ’90s. So we developed a solid Web property to go with our print property– At its peak, it had 1.75 million UVs per month. In the days before Google Adwords, we lost money with that many visitors per month. Never mind hosting and webmastery, ad sales couldn’t even cover the ad director’s salary.

So the print publication had to carry the online version. This was a sad story. Every month in every market, a handful of advertisers pulled their ads. They couldn’t get ROI on them as users went to online auction sites for discounts on the commodity products most of our advertisers sold. Every month, we had to cut budget, which meant cutting content and increasing the ad/edit ratio. Over three years from 2000 to 2003, I cut my budget 34 times. Every budget cut meant a letter to freelancers with whom I had worked for years, telling them their services were no longer needed.

The death by a thousand cuts was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Editions folded as readers stopped picking up the publication, which was increasingly an ad vehicle with scant editorial. I was under constant pressure to introduce more advertorial–advertising disguised as editorial that cleverly mentions advertisers or potential advertisers in a positive light. I resisted this pressure, which led to the untimely death of my career as a magazine editor. The publication folded within months of my dismissal. My only regret is that I did not leave when the writing was on the wall.

The death of lifestyle magazines

Through it all and in the intervening years, I moonlighted as a freelance writer for regional business, lifestyle and technology magazines. I even wrote a column for ComputerUser after getting laid off, until it folded. But the travel pieces didn’t just keep me out of the unemployment line, they became the assignments that helped me find a voice outside of the geek press.

I watched with interest as the magazine I wrote for got thinner and thinner every year. I also noted the ad/edit ratio shrink to just above the limit for the post office to deliver it as something other than a catalog–80/20. That ratio depends on an assumption that the sponsored editorial within the book counts as editorial and not advertising. If you count sponsored editorial as ads, the ratio was nearing 90/10. You can imagine that readers don’t want to pay for a magazine that is little more than a catalog. As subscribers drop, advertisers follow. I can see from the outside the same trend that I witnessed from the inside.

Perhaps what’s keeping the magazine afloat are the explicit mentions of advertisers or potential advertisers within the editorial. Ad reps love these because they are ready leads to call. Their numbers might be going down, but if they have new leads, they can stay motivated. The life blood of magazines is not the readers, as many outside the industry suppose, but motivated ad reps. Take away their motivation and the magazine will surely die.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that my editor wanted me to take my pieces in a different direction–less first-person experiential writing, more buzz about places to stay, eat and play. I considered the change and I just couldn’t do it. What I have is a body of work with the same unique voice. It’s not about helping readers engage in the buzz of an area, it’s about helping readers disengage with that buzz, quiet their minds and listen to the still quiet voice of God in the outdoors.

The birth of a blog

I hope this story helps freelance writers put the death of print into perspective. The end was inevitable. I have accepted it and I’m moving on. My new vehicle will be a travel blog, where I can tell these stories without the pressures of advertisers. I don’t know if I will make money from my new venture, when I get it going. But I will have a place to express my unique voice and help people experience what I experience when I go off to the woods. That is enough.

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