Rediscovering the joy of journalism, one day at a time

It’s been a busy week around here, and that’s a good and happy occasion. A few freelance assignments that are becoming regular, some prospecting for more work and sharpening story proposals for a new journalism venture have kept me more than occupied — they’ve kept my spirits up and are keeping me hopeful.

I haven’t felt like this every day, or even for a sustained period since I took a buyout in August. Some days have been horribly dispiriting. I’m a moderately pessimistic person by nature, so the constant headlines in the news — and about the news — have dragged me down from time to time.

But in spite of a terrible economy that probably will grow worse, and as the newspaper industry continues to implode, I may have reached something of a tipping point in my evolution beyond the newsroom. One reason is time — it’s been almost four months since I left it. Another is that there are so many of us going through this experience, and we’re reaching out to one another.

Someone who’s been critical in my transition was interviewed by a freelance writing blog about the prospects for journalists. Joe Grimm was the newsroom recruiter for the Detroit Free Press, and still writes a daily blog on the subject for the Poynter website. I filled out a Poynter questionnaire after being approved for my buyout, and Joe promptly called me back — on the first day of his buyout.

It was a comforting conversation, and many of the things Joe said to me he reiterated to The Golden Pencil, a good resource for freelancers. Grimm suggests filling in piecemeal freelance work around an “anchor” source:

“Full-time freelancers amaze me. It seems to me that the way to make a living at it is to nail down one solid, steady customer who will be good for at least 40 percent of your compensation and to then build around it. . .

“I am a big believer in journalism. We are increasingly a knowledge economy. Journalists are right there. But we have to learn and change. Content—good, original, meaningful content—has value. People will pay for it. But it has to be good, it has to be original and we have to find a way to let its creators benefit from it. . .

“Freelancers should take the next step—and keep ahead of people with jobs—by creating more content that they own themselves. Blog. Build Web sites. Publish print-on-demand books. Those have become so easy! Make things that will pay. . .

Some other reading that’s helping me stay focused on my business at hand includes this exhortation to become an independent learner, a phrase I have placed prominently on my résumé.

The change we’ll be grappling with for the rest of our lives isn’t limited just to journalism; it’s the full force of a technological tsunami that’s already arrived on 3.0 shores. Don’t get stuck in 2.0 thinking for long, and if you haven’t gotten to that point, by all means, start catching up now! The institutions that have girded us are collapsing, and they don’t hold the clues to what’s ahead.

That 3.0 world means workers will have to be much quicker to adapt, and must welcome new possibilities all the time. Wired Magazine founder Chris Anderson, whose book, “The Long Tail,” I highly recommend, suggests trying something new every three years, offering this as the rationale:

“You’re now expert at what you set out to master. Great. Now go do something else.”

Staying on top of industry trends is essential. You know this, of course. But as I peer at the dreary newspaper news on Romenesko in a rearview mirror, I’m firmly trained on what’s transpiring in the industry that I now call mine. The excellent Berkman Center, an Internet think tank at the Harvard Law School, has just posted a series of reports on the state of the digital media industry with plenty of useful information for journalists to absorb and understand.

More than anything, I try to surround myself with, and stay in touch with, people who are forward-thinking and energized. I spent some time this week with former colleagues, many of whom feel the way I do. I’ve had conversations with others who have lived the entpreneurial life (in other professions) and who teach me every day what it’s like to be fully immersed in meaningful work that has value for others.

Diving headlong into what media and technology writer Douglas Rushkoff calls “the pleasure of craft” is no guarantee against the economic storm we’re living in. But without it, you’re guaranteed to get swallowed up.

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