August linkspam and the road ahead

First, I’m delighted to report that one of my images will be on permanent display in the Ellisville (Mo.) City Hall. It’s “Pigeon of New York,” found here (second photo from the top). It was in their temporary Behind the Lens photography show, and apparently they really liked it!

The annual ebook for my lovely Patrons was finally completed and emailed to all current Patreon subscribers, and I thank you for your patience. Anyone who subscribes to the Patreon this month is also going to get the ebook as a welcome gift. I remain exceedingly grateful for the Patrons, whose generosity allows me to rely on steady income through the sleighride of these two years in school.

The fall semester kicked off in August, and heaven knows that’s going to swallow my life! One of my classes is on anti-media rhetoric, so that should be an interesting theme to my blogging this fall. I’m doing an independent study on the philosophical aspects of media ethics, and of course, I begin work on Ye Olde Thesis. Thoughts and prayers.

And now, to this month’s work! Or at least that which was published this month…

Excerpt 5: Banshee’s Run (Patreon)

Railroad crossing in Highland finally gets traffic signal (Highland News-Leader)

Highland schools get ready for launch (Highland News-Leader)

Life in Highland, Illinois (Patreon, photo essay)

Dear Subway (essay, Medium)

The Beast vs. Brad Admire (essay, Medium)

House of Memories (essay, Patreon)

The $543 DVD (essay, Medium)

Highland focuses on home developer incentives (Highland News-Leader)

The Sunflower Maze (photo essay, Patreon)

Another fall, another semester (blog, Donald Media)

Eclipse fever (essay, Medium and Patreon)

At long last, Othello (review, CultureGeek)

Enrollment up slightly from two years ago for Highland Schools (Highland News-Leader)

I’m off to San Antonio later this week for the annual Excellence in Journalism conference, where I am honored to represent St. Louis Pro to the important business of the Society of Professional Journalists. I will be meeting with my colleagues on the national ethics committee, and skulking about the panels on issues ranging from freelance survival to the ethics of covering suicide. I hope to get free long enough to get some nifty photos and possibly develop a travelogue on San Antonio, which is a new city for me.

I’ll be live-tweeting the conference at @edonaldmedia, so if you do the Twitter, feel free to follow me there if you really want to hear all about the things we journalists do when we’re away from adult supervision. It’s going to be 101 in the shade while I’m there, so whatever’s left of me will be reporting back next week!

July linkspam, new outlets and more!

It’s been a crazy busy month, though one of the weirdnesses of freelance magazine writing in particular is that you’ll do a pile of work in July, but it doesn’t appear until September or November. Still, by my standards, July was a bear of a month.

This month I celebrated my one-year anniversary of full-time freelancing, and we haven’t been evicted yet! I go into greater detail in “One Year Later” as listed below, but suffice to say it’s been an interesting, rewarding and ultimately positive experience, and I have a lot more to learn.

Also, this month I launched on Medium, which allows me to share essays and get paid by the click. I’m still figuring out exactly how it works, but a lot of good writers seem to be making money there, and what I’ve read so far is good quality. Please feel free to check out my page, and if you are so moved to click and “clap” for my work, it is deeply appreciated.

Here’s what went public this month:

Endgame checkmate (CultureGeek)

Today we celebrate our Independence Day (CultureGeek)

Behind the lens: Work featured in photography exhibit (Donald Media)

9-year-old serves as ‘mayor for the day’ (Belleville News-Democrat)

Highland to upgrade water plant (Highland News-Leader)

I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like (Patreon)

Roundtable: Spider-man: Far From Home (CultureGeek)

Highland Street Art Festival goes forward despite city opposition (Highland News-Leader)

Another roar at Pride Rock (CultureGeek)

Highland votes in favor of fewer construction inspections – with a twist (Highland News-Leader)

Cyberattack causes major outages on campus (The Alestle)

The National Aquarium (Patreon)

Here comes the sun: Sgt. Pepper’s is a big hit (The Alestle – my first restaurant review!)

Highland High School graduate gets perfect ACT score (Highland News-Leader)

One year later (Donald Media)

“Alleged victim” (Medium, a rewrite of a previous essay.)

“What do you like to read?” (Medium, see above)

In addition, you may have heard about a recent incident in which a high-ranking political operative admitted impersonating a student journalist in order to get into a conference call with a candidate from the opposing party and lob accusations at her. As president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, I wrote a statement condemning the action that was endorsed by a majority of the St. Louis SPJ board, and our statement has since been picked up by other news outlets, including the Telegraph and the Intelligencer.

Here’s the statement.

As it discloses, I am personally affiliated with The Alestle at SIUE, having served on its board for years and worked with the students this summer in an editing and advisory capacity; and my SPJ vice president is the Alestle program director. However, I believe this gives our opinions greater weight, not lesser: we know for a fact that this “student journalist” does not exist, and our responsibility to call out unethical behavior per the SPJ Code of Ethics is not lessened by our connections to the student newspaper.

Finally… I didn’t write this one. But the local newsmagazine, Edge of the Weekend, featured my family in an in-depth profile for their back-to-school edition. The weirdness of three family members all going to college together finally made print. The photos used are mine, because my menfolk are my favorite photographic subject. Many thanks to Jill Moon, magazine editor for Hearst Illinois, for thinking of us.

We’ve gotten a lot of attention on this story, and it’s been really sweet to see how many people are cheering us on and supporting us as we enter our second year of family-wide higher education and abject poverty. Six jobs, three tuition bills, two impending graduations and one car. It’s been… interesting.

And in three weeks…. here comes the fall semester!

One year later

It’s been a year, and coincidentally I was back in the newsroom for a few minutes.

One year ago today was my last day at the newspaper, capping 18 years in one newsroom and 21 years in daily news. It was chaos, of course: the paper in the middle of another round of layoffs, and the president was in town, which meant a number of our people were out of the office being jeered by the public so they could cover his speech.

It was bittersweet and strange, a bit like that dream when you’re falling slowly down a flight of stairs and you wake up before you land.

It was nostalgic, with a lot of memories from nearly half my life bound up in the place and in the people, enough that I needed to encapsulate those memories in a photo essay and, eventually, in writing. 

There’s a better analogy than the falling dream. It’s like jumping off the high dive without being able to tell if the pool below you is full of water, and you’ve got your family handcuffed to you. It might be easier to make that jump when you’re only responsible for yourself and maybe a cat, but when you have other humans depending on you, it’s frankly terrifying.

Could I manage to earn a masters degree in two years while freelancing? Could I gain enough skills and academic credentials to land a full-time teaching position and continue to be of service to my profession? Could I juggle all of these responsibilities while not starving to death or starving my family?

I spent the first few weeks of grad school convinced I had made the second-worst mistake of my life. I didn’t fit in, I was too old, my writing style was entirely contrary to academic expectations, the theoretical and philosophical aspects of research and analysis were… daunting. We’ll go with that. 

But somehow I passed, re-learned academic style (still a work in progress), and began research projects that reflect my passions and aspirations. 

I am officially halfway through my masters degree in media studies, and no one has yet chased me off the campus shouting, “Heretic!”

And I love teaching.

I’m not good at it yet. I’m capable, and I’m learning. My students seem to appreciate me, though I don’t think they appreciate the unannounced news quizzes that pepper the semester’s fun. (Too bad, kids. That’s what you get for drawing me as a professor.) More importantly, their writing seems to improve from the beginning of the semester to the end. 

It’s quite clear to me how much I have to learn in this new profession, but I really love it. I don’t know if I’ve yet converted any students to leap into news reporting as a profession, but they seem to gain a greater appreciation for journalism, at any rate. If I can train them to evaluate good, balanced, smart reporting, to follow the news from multiple outlets and figure out the real from the fake, if I can open their eyes just a bit to the importance of journalism, then I’ve succeeded in my mission, whether or not I get them to become reporters.

The freelancing has been a slower launch, partly because I had no idea what I was doing. If there is a craft to cold-pitching stories to editors, I have yet to master it. But thanks to a number of contacts in the industry, I’ve started to develop some regular recurring gigs, working with local news organizations and some magazines, as well as my fiction editing work. 

The photography has mostly been going to the Patreon, which has been an utter delight. It launched shortly before I left Ye Olde Newspaper, and I’ve experimented with a lot of different content. I’ve tried fiction excerpts, nonfiction essays/rants, photo essays, travelogues, even a recipe or two. The Patreon has become an absolutely essential part of my family’s income, but I have also found it wonderfully stimulating in a creative sense. I’m always thinking of new ideas to share with the Patrons, of places I can go and photos to shoot that might interest them. 

All through the spring semester, I ran the Door Project: I covered my office door at the campus with Magnetic Poetry words, and photographed the fascinating (and occasionally silly) poems left by anonymous passers-by. All of it was chronicled on the Patreon, with a summary on Donald Media.

The last few weeks have been consumed with compiling a promised ebook for the Patrons, for those who joined the Patreon during my birthday week and my original audience members. We’re minutes away, she said as she took a hammer to the algorithm that keeps deleting her footnotes. Another thing I’d never done before: Self-publishing. I’m not sure if it counts, since it won’t be available to the wider public. But it’s definitely on my horizon.

Today was the anniversary, and it was actually a quiet day. The Boy was off to a ballgame with his father, who is in town for the weekend. The Man had to work. So I decided on a whim to drive down to Eckert’s Farm in southern Illinois, because they had created a maze of giant sunflowers. It’s like a corn maze, but all sunflowers, and those things get crazy tall. I thought it would make for some fun pictures for the Patreon, and I was able to pick up some fresh peaches and other tasty items.

And on my way back, I stopped by Ye Olde Newspaper.

It wasn’t actually out of nostalgia. My former work twin* messaged me earlier in the week that a package had arrived for me. I was not sure who had missed the memo after a year that I was no longer employed there, but after she ascertained that the package wasn’t ticking, I promised I’d drop by the next time I was in town. It so happened that the newspaper is only a few minutes away from the farm.

Fortunately there were folks I knew on duty, and we chatted for a few minutes as I collected my package (a book for review). It was good to see the newsroom again, so familiar it might as well be an old apartment where I once lived. It helps that newsrooms never change; they switch out the posters or the computer screens once in a while, but fundamentally, they never change. I promised not to steal anything on my way out the door. 

It felt like full circle. I left a year ago not knowing if there was anything else I could do in this world that would be worth anything to anyone, much less could feed my family. I left in a bittersweet tang that I once described as eerily similar to the emotions of my divorce: regret, sadness, firm resolve that it was the right choice while coated in fear that it might be a terrible mistake. 

It’s a frightening thing to imagine that you can have a different life, but it’s also a freeing moment, what my good friend Frank Fradella might call the Possibility Sense. (You should totally check out Frank’s new book.)

There was no way I could have managed this far without my terrific fans who keep buying my work, clicking the links and supporting me, particularly my wonderful Patrons. Special thanks and a round of applause should go to my beloved menfolk. My husband Jim is carrying more than his fair share of keeping the roof on while I go through this crazy balancing act, and has never wavered in his support. My son Ian has been wonderfully supportive, as well as quite sanguine about going to college with BOTH parents. We’re a team, helping each other through one of the hardest times in our family life, and I couldn’t be more blessed with their love and support as I wade into the final rounds.

We’re still waiting to see if the landing is a splash or a thud. Ask me in another year.

* Her name is Elizabeth O’Donnell. When she was hired, I introduced myself as “Elizabeth Donald, and we are so going to be getting each other’s phone calls.” I was not wrong. 

May bylines

One of the weird things about being a freelancer is that you never quite know when your work will run, and when it does, you aren’t always able to snag a link. However, as you know, I’m working for a lot of local, regional and national publications as a reporter, editor and photographer (and available for more!).

Here are some of my recent bylines:

Philadelphia college aims to address lack of rural healthcare in southern Georgia (INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine)

Highland buys land to move public safety building project forward (Highland News-Leader)

Historic Spindler building enters final days (Belleville News-Democrat)

Highland council rejects all bids for new public safety building (Highland News-Leader)

CultureGeek: Summer Movie Round-up!

The Troy Times-Tribune has recently moved into the wild, woolly world of the internet, so I’m not sure any of my stories are live there yet, but I do hope you’ll bop by and support them. I’ve been covering the Madison County board for them since fall.

On the Patreon: a photo essay on the Sauer Castle in Kansas City, which I shot several months ago; and a short essay titled “Full Circle” about returning to student journalism after 22 years as a pro. Subscribe!

Patreon changes!

Any new venture is a work in progress, and you have to double or quadruple that when you’re managing a creative endeavor.

The Patreon has become a major part of my work, and like others who have launched one, I’ve found it creatively stimulating. I find I am actively seeking out subjects about which to write, photos and travelogues to create, specifically because I think it will interest the Patrons.

That’s to say nothing about the importance of that income for my family. As you all know, we are a party of three, all in college, and surviving on one paycheck plus whatever I can scrape together.

With that in mind, I decided to rework the structure of the Patreon rewards. I wanted to give more content at the lower price points, because they’ve stuck with me and they should get more for their dollars. I have also created a firm deadline structure for the Patreon, so the posts will be timed more regularly and it won’t necessarily fall by the wayside when my classwork gets insane.

The revised rewards for the Patreon will be as follows:

• $1 per month: Thank you! Your name will be listed on my website as one of my wonderful Patrons; no contribution is too small. You will receive access to exclusive weekly blog posts, which may be on any number of subjects ranging from writing to journalism to grad school.

• $3 per month: You will receive access to at least one photo post from my various photo shoots, along with stories or travelogues about the shoot, location and history, in addition to previous rewards.

• $5 per month: You will receive one short story or nonfiction essay per month, in addition to previous rewards.

• $10 per month: I will critique up to 1,500 words of your fiction or nonfiction per quarter, in addition to previous rewards.

• $25 per month: You’re famous! With your permission, I will put your name in a pool for “Tuckerization” – as in, I will name a character after you in an upcoming work! Plus all previous rewards, of course.

• $50 per month: You will receive an annual ebook of my essays and short stories, as well as a thank-you listing in the author’s note of my published novels, and all previous rewards.

• $100 per month: You’re my best friend. You’ll get a print chapbook once a year on the month of my birthday (or a paperback, depending on what’s been published most recently), a critique of up to 4,000 words of your fiction or nonfiction once a quarter, and all previous rewards.

At each level, existing Patrons should be receiving more content than they had before. And if you have not chosen to join the Patreon so far, I hope you will consider it.

This is going to be a tough semester – I’m taking three graduate-level courses as well as teaching one, and that’s a lot of work. The good news is that more of that work will feed into my interests, and thus may start showing up here and on the Patreon. I am taking a class in cultural studies in media, and another in creative nonfiction. It’s safe to say this is going to bleed over into this work!

As I said back in July, I sing for my supper. The support of my Patrons helps me to feed my family, and they deserve to get what they pay for. Thank you for your support – none of what I do is possible without you.

Authentic social media marketing without losing your mind

I had the pleasure of visiting with the Midwest Editorial Freelancers Association this week, to hear expert Solange Deschatres of SCORCH talk about social media branding.

SCORCH is right here in St. Louis, but it has a very high-level profile among social media management. Clients include Microsoft, LinkedIn, GE, Annuitas and more. Since my social media strategy has basically been “yell at people on Facebook, retweet on my two Twitter accounts, forget that I have an Instagram, and check into LinkedIn once a month or so,” I clearly need some help.

Deschatres says the main thing is “really putting yourself out there and being authentic, being true to you.” That may sound simple, but it’s not. A lot of people, including weirdo creatives like me, will chase trends and try to do the New Thing because they think it will catapult them to immediate success. But it comes off as stiff, trying to hard, the message hidden under layers of shellac, Deschatres said.

Videos are intensely popular on social media, Deschatres said, so even if your video is just a few minutes of you talking into the camera, go on and post that video. I can personally affirm this from the last few years at the newspaper; even if my news video was thirty seconds of the police chief repeating the basic facts that are already in the story, people would click it.

It’s counter-intuitive to me, since I’m very words-focused; I am the person who scrolls past the news video in favor of text even on broadcast news sites; who can’t stand audiobooks and gets annoyed when people read the text at me. Oh, just give it here and let me read already.

But video is the thing. Wait, didn’t we just tell you not to chase trends? Yes, but instead of chasing the trend, try to find a piece of the trend that fits what you do and run with that, Deschatres said.

Another huge key is consistency. Post often, and post regularly. “You are not going to become an overnight internet sensation,” Deschatres said. “People build their audiences over years and years… It’s the consistency that matters.”

We talked for a good bit about the different kinds of social media and their focus. Writers are on LinkedIn and Twitter; Instagram trends young while Facebook trends middle-aged and older; and of course Google Plus is dead.

That’s demographics, though; think about what you’re marketing before deciding which medium to use. My photography, for example, should probably go up on Instagram rather than Facebook, where it’ll get traded around like a meme. (Naturally, much of my work is going first on the Patreon, but hey, a woman’s gotta make a living until she wins the Powerball.)

And please, give up the whole “I don’t ‘get’ Twitter” or whatever excuse you’re using for not stepping out of your comfort zone. A creative who is actively trying to sell and make money at art needs to be present online to be present at all, and that means spending time in social media that you may not prefer. Curate your feed, protect yourself, but don’t be silent. None of us can afford silence.

Some Facebook groups are still useful despite the ever-changing and annoying algorithm – that might be just my own opinion, but Facebook’s algorithm has generally made marketing on the behemoth site a nightmare and a half. But niche groups can provide connections and keep you aware of opportunities, Deschatres said.

Did you know that LinkedIn has a Facebook-like feed where you can post content and follow or unfollow other feeds? Did you know LinkedIn has its own news service posting original content? Many of us (myself included) tend to think of LinkedIn as a place to post your resume and job-hunt. But Deschatres says the content has shifted to become a little more personal, not just buttoned-up business press releases.

In part, she says, that’s because the nature of business has shifted. “People can smell BS a mile away,” she said. “Business decisions are also emotional decisions… they’re making it about choice.”

So while you can’t be everything to everyone – and if you try you’ll muddle your message to the nth degree – you can target your appeal to the right audience. Even big companies like Microsoft are looking for small, local companies like SCORCH, seeking nimble and creative workers they can work with from anywhere, she said.

While you’re figuring out where to be and how often to be there, also consider your content. How-to’s and a look inside your creative process are wildly popular, rather than sharing the content itself, Deschatres said. “There’s lots of content out there, but there’s only one you,” she said. “It’s not so much about promoting the work, it’s about promoting you and your expertise, what you bring to the table.”

A few key points:

Think about your reposts. Remember that a retweet may or may not be considered endorsement, but it can reflect that way no matter how many disclaimers you put on your profile that no one read.

• Beware of politics. No one says you can’t say what you think (unless you’re doing news, in which case you should already know the inherent ethical problems with wading into politics while reporting.) But keep in mind that clients and customers will be reading it, and it can cost you dearly. That also goes for authors fighting with reviewers; really, guys, nobody wins that fight. Have a drink and move on.

• There’s no such thing as posting too often. This flies in the face of what I’d heard before, but that was in the early days of stone knives-and-bearskins internet, and now Deschatres said you have to speak often to be heard. “The biggest detriment to your brand is not posting too much, it’s posting too little,” she said.

You can manage this in part by scheduling your posts. Set aside some time to come up with posts and schedule them at the times when people are most often online. Tweetdeck is free and fairly simple to use for managing multiple Twitter accounts (I have five, because I’m insane). I was using HootSuite to manage Facebook, but when I tried to go to the paid version they made me mad with billing problems and borked-up service. You can look into Later or buffer, which have free or low-cost options; if you’re a company willing to spend some money, Sprout Social seems to be very popular, but it’s $99 a month, so that’s pretty much out of the reach of most freelancers, I would think.

While social media can therefore become your part-time job – and don’t we all have awesome things we’d rather be doing? – you can manage it with an editorial calendar. I did this myself when I decided to go freelance. It’s separate from my usual “where do I need to be and when is that doctor’s appointment” family calendar, which is color-coded and coordinated with husband and son for our collective sanity.

My editorial calendar, however, has set deadlines for my freelance projects and research projects, as well as recurring deadlines for blog posts, newsletters and social media. Of course, sticking to those deadlines is always the challenge, which is why I know there will be two more essays written this weekend, along with two freelance news articles, a newsletter, and more literature review for the grad-school research. This is while I’m selling and signing at the Dupo Art Fair and running a charity book sale at Leclaire Parkfest, so keep your life in mind when you set up this calendar. Let it fit into your life, not the other way around.

But don’t ignore it. Whether we like it or not, social media is the future, and while it will change and evolve over the years as it has since it was bulletin boards and AOL chatrooms, it is where people are finding their business partners, clients and contractors. If you’re living the freelance life, you need to be out there.

“Think in advance about what you’re going to do, but as long as you get something out there… Social media presence is by definition about being present,” Deschatres said.

To that end, if you want to find me on social media, here are my various locales:

Facebook: Personal and journalism

Facebook: Author page

Twitter: Personal and author

Twitter: Journalism and grad school

Twitter: SPJ

LinkedIn

Instagram (But please don’t check this yet. I need to get my teenage son to help me figure out how to use it…)

And, of course… THE PATREON.

August Linkspam and Future Musings

It was a quiet month here at Donald Media, largely in transition between the daily news beat and the brave new world of freelancing. I imagine bylines will be much rarer, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing.

My official last byline for the News-Democrat centered on the turbulent history of the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses of Southern Illinois University, as another president is forced to resign. I was a bit nervous writing this story right before I switched gears, but since both sides seemed to feel it was fair, I breathed easier. If both sides are happy or both sides are mad, you’ve done your job. It ran a week after I left.

On CultureGeek: a review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  and Christopher Robin.

On the Patreon:

• A essay titled “First Rough Draft of History” musing on departure from daily news, available to subscribers $5 and up.

• Blog posts on “Freelance Folderol, Part 1,” and on grad school: “First Class” and “Paradigm Shifts,” available to all subscribers.

• A photo essay from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Chinese Festival, available to subscribers $3 and up.

• A fiction excerpt from Banshee’s Run, the work currently in progress, available to subscribers $10 and up.

On the home front, we spent much of August in a mad frenzy of mucking out the house (which got about 75 percent done) and setting up my office again. It had devolved into a dumping ground of storage, and still is only halfway mucked out. But I have shiny new computers in the Tower now, which should greatly expand my capability to make art and words to entertain you endlessly. Now all I need is time…

Buckle in, because I imagine the movie reviews over on CultureGeek are going to largely center on journalism movies for a while, since that’s what my grad school research will focus on. I’ve had to (at least temporarily) discontinue the Linkspam posts and the Fake News Roundups here on Donald Media, because honestly, there’s only X amount of me to go around. Those are fun features, but time-consuming, and frankly the hit counts don’t justify continuing them until or unless I acquire more hours in the day.

I’ve been asked if I intend to write political essays now that I am no longer working for the newspaper. It is very tempting, and Zod above knows there’s plenty of material these days. Here’s the thing: I don’t know what form my freelancing will take. Most freelancers I know develop a niche and specialize in a particular kind of content. I haven’t done that – if anything, I’ve been a generalist my entire career, hopping from subject to subject from day to day. In short, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I will still be called upon to write politics, and thus it would still be inappropriate to opine about the issues of the day.

But yes, it is tempting.

Coming up this month: lots and lots of school, more Patreon work as the membership grows, the Student Boot Camp for SPJ, and the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference in Baltimore, which I will be attending to represent St. Louis SPJ. Watch my @edonaldmedia Twitter for the journalism-related material, and @edonald for personal and photographic evidence. As you might know, I lived in Baltimore for a time as a teenager, and I have fond memories of Charm City. I am really looking forward to five days staying right at the Inner Harbor, and will be shooting photos of anything that will stand still. If only I ate seafood.

In the meantime, the freelance folderol continues, the photo backlog is piling up, and the Patreon is (understandably) getting a large amount of my attention. You might consider subscribing

One small step for me.

This has proven much more difficult to write than I anticipated, probably because this is the hardest decision I have ever had to make. 

Harder than the decision to leave Memphis and my career in the arts in order to pursue a career in journalism. Harder than the decision to divorce my first husband. And I’m not one to take a leap without considering all the options, so you’d best believe that I have discussed this with Jim, with my parents, with close friends, with mentors. Probably until they were tired of talking about it with me.

I have dithered and stalled, because once I post this, it’s final. It’s real.

I’m leaving the newspaper.

With that decision ends 21 years in daily journalism.

Wow, that was hard to type. And I haven’t even done it yet.

If you know me at all, you know how much my work means to me. I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to journalism, ever since I made that decision to quit my artistic career and pursue a different kind of storytelling, the kind that can change the world. I always knew I wanted to tell stories and be in public service, and in journalism I found a way I could do both. 

I believed it then and I believe it now, and the only difference between my passion for news in 1997 and my passion now is the amount of grey in my hair. For 18 of those 21 years, I’ve reported for the Belleville News-Democrat. I was and am proud to part of this team. The people I work with are some of the finest journalists I have ever known, with a dedication and steadfast perseverance that would stun the readers if they could only glimpse behind the scenes. 

And I have been proud to serve the people of Madison County for 17 of those years, through good times and bad. It has been my privilege to chronicle the life of my adopted home.

I’ve said often in my speeches that this is the best time in history to be a journalist, and I meant it. Still do. Ask me about it sometime, and buckle in for an essay.

Now I have a wonderful new opportunity.

Beginning in August, I will be a teaching assistant at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I’ll be teaching newswriting, and the assistantship will allow me to pursue my masters degree. I was actually accepted last November to begin in January, but it took a while for the financing to come through, and they were kind enough to allow me to defer my acceptance to fall.

For those keeping score, my whole family will be in college together. It’s like a sitcom, only we provide our own laugh track.

With a masters, I can pursue a full-time teaching position. I can pass on to beginning journalists all that I learned in 21 years of shoveling coal into the furnace, along with the things they won’t find in their textbooks. I can focus their attention on the Code of Ethics and the ongoing debates that too often get shoved into ivory-tower hypotheticals. I can be useful to my profession, and continue my career in a new phase.

I’m really excited about this. I always intended to move into teaching when I was finished reporting, a second career in the sunset of the first. This is a little earlier than I planned, but you know what they say – life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

However.

There’s one to two years of grad school ahead of me. A teaching assistantship does not equal the salary of a full-time reporter (low bar, but still). I am blessed that Jim has a good solid job with health insurance. But we were largely reliant on my income for our family, and that means I don’t get to sit around and wax philosophical in coffeehouses while I’m in school. (What? I was in college once upon a time.)

The development of The Plan has taken up much of the winter, and if this blog has been quieter than usual, that’s why. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

• Freelance writing. I’ll be knocking on a hell of a lot of doors, and I hope my esteemed colleagues in other publications will remember me when they need someone who can turn around a story quickly and well. In part, I’ll be doing this because rent is a thing, and in part it’s because I cannot bear to give up journalism entirely. It’s been my daily life for half of the time I’ve been breathing, and I find it hard to even say my name without adding my newspaper onto the end of it, as though it is another last name. I love the work, and I intend to keep doing it as long as I am able.

• Fiction. I’m still working out how my fiction work will change. To be frank, the novels have never paid off as much as I had hoped financially. While I would dearly love to write the next Nocturnal Urges book and finish the Blackfire zombie trilogy and a half-dozen other books sitting around on their outlines, it may be that novellas and shorts will be my necessary focus in the next two years. It really depends what the market will bear: just like in journalism, you get more of whatever you click. If I see more interest in my fiction, I’ll create more fiction.

• Photography. I’ve already expanded the photography site with its own online shop, and am pursuing more local art and craft shows with an eye to moving into higher-end art shows when I can afford the fees. I’ve also opened a shop on FineArtAmerica, so if you ever wanted my creepy angels on a tote bag or greeting card, now’s your chance.

• Editing. I’ve been doing side-gig work as an editor and writing coach for many years, working with new writers and small press publishers to help them shape and grow their work. I will be taking on more clients, and hopefully with a faster turnaround now that it will be part of my “day job.”

• Patreon. Yes, I’m joining the marching legions. Frankly, this is going to be the most important part of our survival. And I’ll sing for my supper: essays, short stories, musings on grad school, on journalism and the news of the day, photography, live chats, and much more are layered in the rewards for those kind enough to support me in this new venture. 

If you’ve ever wondered, “How can I help?” – this is how.

Please subscribe to my Patreon, and share it around with others.

 

What’s not changing: Literary Underworld will continue to operate. The store remains open. The newsletter, the website and the author features will continue. 

What may change: Cons. It will basically come down to hard cash: a con may cost us $300-500 to attend, and people aren’t buying books at cons like they once were. Jim and I are always there for a con willing to pay our way, but that isn’t common anymore. So we may have some hard choices to make, and we hope our friends on the circuit will understand if we have to regretfully decline.

What’s not changing: My volunteer work. I will not have to step down as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists or give up my seat on the Ethics Committee, because I’ll still be earning the bulk of my living from journalism. I will also continue to run Relay for Life, because cancer doesn’t take a vacation while I go back to school. 

What may change: Little things. Donations. Birthday gifts. Dinners out. Our trips to Memphis. I think it’ll basically depend on how many gigs I get each month, and our standard of living will have to adjust. 

A more flexible schedule may mean I’m free to do things I was never able to do before, like a cup of coffee on a weekday afternoon with a friend in the city, or a daytime photo shoot before the garden closes at dusk. I’m rather looking forward to remaking my life.

But this is scary. I’ve been mugged three times and won each fight, and I wasn’t as scared then as I am now. I’ve had two heart surgeries and an emergency c-section and wasn’t as scared as I am now. When I divorced my first husband, it was terrifying to think about being on my own again with a four-year-old hostage to fortune, but I wasn’t as scared as I am now.

I’m not afraid of the work load or the hustle of a freelancer. I’m not afraid of being back in the classroom after more than two decades. I’m nervous but not afraid of teaching, a whole new profession for which I am prepared only on the sense of knowing the subject matter thoroughly, and having guest lectured many times for various colleges. I imagine there’s a learning curve in front of me, but that’s exciting, too.

No, I’m afraid of the money, of not being able to support my family. I spent a long time as a working single mother. I did the poverty rounds of choosing whether to stiff the electric bill or the water bill (electric, they can’t shut you off in winter); of eating peanut butter so Ian could have a good meal; of finding non-exterminator ways to fight roaches in the apartment; of begging friends to watch my son when I had to work a Saturday shift because I couldn’t afford ten hours of babysitting.

I know poor, and I don’t want to be there again, not when Jim and I have worked our tails off to reach a point where all the bills are paid and up to date and we have a little in savings and almost no debt besides the student loan I’ll never escape. Do we really want to go back to peanut butter and cutting the milk with water to make it last longer?

I’ve had multiple panics where I call Jim and tell him I’ve lost my mind, we’re going to starve and be homeless. He always talks me down out of my tree, and tells me that he believes in me and in my ability, and we are going to be okay. Ian and Jim are both my biggest supporters, and we are all in this together as a team.

It’s not an easy thing to change your life, but who’s going to do it for you?

 

There will be a live chat TONIGHT at 8 p.m. CST in the Literary Underworld Tavern chatroom. Join me!

 

Don’t call it a gig economy

If the latest research is to be believed, freelancers will be the majority of the workplace within a decade.

The study showing this trend was co-sponsored by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, so we might take the results with the proverbial grain of salt. But it’s backed up by much of the buzz I’ve heard, from students and younger workers and new moms – if they’re right, 47 percent of millennials are freelancing, and they’re the ones rising up in the workplace.

Freelancing in America” projects freelancers will be the majority of the workforce by 2027, and the freelance workforce grew three times faster than the overall workforce since 2014.

The top concern among freelancers is income predictability, which is (ironically) predictable considering the variable nature of a freelancer’s work. More than 60 percent of full-time freelancers dip into savings on a regular basis, compared to 20 percent of non-freelancers.

Take note, politicians: 72 percent of freelancers would cross political party lines if a candidate supported their interests.

What are those interests?

Health insurance is key. The Affordable Care Act arguably spurred a large number of people to launch into freelancing who could not manage it before, and it is largely supported by freelancers. Like non-freelancers, they are concerned about paying off debt, including student loans, and saving for retirement. They are entrepreneurs, and have many of the same concerns as those creating brick-and-mortar businesses. But they’re more concerned about income predictability and health care than taxes.

And they need ongoing education. More than half the U.S. workforce is not confident the work they do today will exist in 20 years. But freelancers are far more likely to be prepared for automation or technology to take over their jobs; more than half of the freelancers had undergone re-skilling training in the last six months, compared to less than one-third of non-freelancers.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel said freelancers will play more of a key role than people realize in the future, calling it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

From what I’ve seen among the students I’ve met so far? They aren’t necessarily looking for That First Job anymore. They want to work for themselves. They want to make a living and support their families, but they are increasingly unwilling to give up their autonomy for it.

In journalism, it’s a tough sell to get them interested in applying for a newspaper. There’s one small-town paper I know that is paying $10 an hour. Another pays $12 – to its long-term veterans. Try selling that to an upcoming grad with $30,000 in student loans. They literally cannot take these jobs. If the workforce doesn’t keep up with the needs of the workers, the workers will go out on their own.

A few other statistics:

• Freelancers contribute $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy per year – a staggering 30 percent increase over last year.

• Freelancers average 4.5 clients per month, and 63 percent believe a diverse portfolio of clients is preferable to one employer – a 10-point increase since last year.

• To the shock of no one, most work is found online – 71 percent.

• More and more of them are going full-time, with dropping rates of part-time and “moonlight” freelancers as the numbers of full-timers grow.

• Two-thirds of freelancers began freelancing by choice, not by a necessity such as being laid off.

And that bit about calling it a “gig economy”? I remember when I first began working by remote for a newspaper, and this was a brand new idea: a reporter who operated in the field! No newsroom, just laptop and cell phone! They called us “backpack journalists,” which I really hated. It felt infantilizing, like we were kids play-acting at being journalists. I haven’t carried a backpack since college. I used the term “remote reporter,” which wasn’t great, but was a better description than “backpack.” Words matter, names matter, and we who make our living with words should know that better than anyone.

Freelancers prefer the phrase “freelance economy” five times over those who didn’t mind “gig economy.” Gigs are for garage bands. Freelancers are at work.

The full results deck is available here.