Freelancers prepare for battle

Melissa WilsonFreelance writers march into war. The cause: increased rates, rights and respect. The enemy: publishers like Transcontinental. Who will retreat first? This week we feature Melissa Wilson’s story from the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Charles Oberdorf moves slowly to the stage. The veteran magazine editor and writer, tethered to an oxygen tank with a nasal cannula because of emphysema, looks older than his 67 years. Before him, the biggest names in the magazine industry cluster around tables with white linens, awaiting the presentation of the 31st annual National Magazine Awards. In the magazine business, Christmas comes in June. At the Carlu in Toronto, 650 editors, publishers, writers, art directors, photographers and illustrators have come together, fingers crossed for their own publications, to cheer on colleagues and friends as awards are handed out recognizing the best work of 2007.

The first honour of the evening is the most prestigious: the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement, which is going to Oberdorf. Over the course of his 46 years iRyerson  
Review of Journalism summer issuen journalism, Oberdorf has written for and edited some of the country’s most well-respected magazines, including Saturday Night and Toronto Life. He has also volunteered with Magazines Canada and is the academic coordinator of the magazine publishing program at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.

“I feel like I’ve just been inducted into the most exclusive club in the country,” he begins his speech, beaming from beneath wire-rimmed glasses and a grey beard. Most of the attendees are decked out in semi-formal attire—suits and cocktail dresses—but Oberdorf is wearing a tuxedo, complete with cummerbund and bowtie. He speaks of his early days in broadcast, explaining that he made the switch to the magazine world in the late 1960s partly because magazine editors were a more likeable bunch than broadcast producers. Then, he does something surprising.

“I trust all you editors are still treating your freelancers in that nicer, magaziney way,” he says with a wry smile. “Now, if only we could do something about the money.” Applause and nervous laughter erupt. The notion that freelancers should be paid more tends to make people uncomfortable.

Oberdorf points out that most Canadian consumer magazines still pay the same buck-a-word rate as when he started in the business, while housing costs in Toronto, by comparison, have skyrocketed. “It’s a small wonder it’s so hard to find freelancers with first-hand knowledge of subjects like home ownership, investment strategies or parenthood.”

Laughter and cheers accompany the now-louder applause.

“I don’t want to scold. This is not the time for that. But I think it should be on the table,” he says. “I’ll shut up now, but thank you all very much.”

In the balcony sits writer and former Toro editor Derek Finkle, here to support his friend, Adam Sternbergh, who is hosting the event. As he watches Oberdorf return to his seat, an idea begins to form, an idea for a literary agency for freelancers, like those that exist for book authors. Finkle is familiar with many sides of the publishing business, but much of his career has been spent freelancing, typically writing long and research-heavy features—the kind being rewarded here tonight, and the kind freelancers don’t dare calculate their hourly rates for because it’s too depressing.

By the time Finkle leaves the party, he has started to think about how an agency might work. Experienced freelancers sometimes negotiate better than the standard rates, but he knows that while their trade is inherently entrepreneurial, writers tend not to be business minded, and most shy away from negotiation. He could do the tough talking for them while making a commission.  Read the rest of the story.