By Jason Gillikin | July 23, 2012
One of the highlights of my days at the Western Herald was covering Desmond Tutu’s 2003 visit to Grand Rapids. The kindly archbishop occupied center stage and spent more than an hour recalling his life struggles and his thoughts on peace and mutual respect during the early days of the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While at the Herald, particularly in my early tenure as a section editor, the rich interplay of politics and religion often served as a foundation for my opinion columns or colored the execution of staff editorials. I recall, for example, the rather bitter argument in the newsroom when — as copy chief — I recommended killing an unsigned editorial excoriating African Catholic bishops for opposing contraception; I argued that the comments amounted to ill-informed slander and fundamentally misrepresented Catholic teaching. The Boss backed me, and the piece was killed despite the slammed doors and tears from the opinion desk. Other times, the media undercurrent of Islam after 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war required constant attention, usually to keep columnists from veering into theological discussions for which they lacked any conceptual expertise or factual substance.
After an oh-so-early retirement in 2005 from the editor-in-chief’s office at the Herald, I stepped back from journalism and instead took a day job at a local hospital. Years later, after I broke the back of the health problems that prompted my departure from the newsroom, I joined the ranks of freelancers. Most of my work product has been commercial writing-for-hire; currently, for example, I’m working under contract for Demand Media as one of several expert writers for eHow Tech, although I’ve done plenty of ghostwriting and maintain three active blogs. In 2012, I’ve made enough income from Gillikin Consulting to survive as a full-time freelancer, although I continue to work at the hospital.
Funny thing about Gillikin Consulting. In theory, I pull forward the four strands for which I consider myself a subject-matter expert: Journalism, ethics consultation, Web marketing strategy and start-up development. In a practical sense, only the “journalism” line has evidenced any substantial profit; more than 85 percent of my revenue in 2012 has come from commercial writing and editing, with the balance coming from Web marketing. Most of my start-up consultations remain unpaid because my “free initial consultation” usually results in a starry-eyed prospective entrepreneur seeing me pluck the petals off the rose. From an ethics perspective, although I’ve delivered presentations to a national audience about moral theory in the workplace, I haven’t seen substantial revenue there, either.
So, despite my branding, I’m a writer. I love to write, to edit, to create. It’s effectively been a full-time job for the last year or so, in addition to my full-time hospital employment. Rough? Sometimes. Rewarding? Always.
Religion has always fascinated me. I minored in comparative religion at Western Michigan University and spent several years in the pre-seminary program for the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids. I have a better-than-average background knowledge of the sociology of religion and the grasp the major theological and ecclesiological debates in many different faith communities.
Thus: I’m a writer. With not-insubstantial knowledge of religion. Who’s written about religion for publication. You’d think, then, that with the generally sorry state of religious expertise among today’s practitioners of the journalistic arts, that I’d be a shoe-in as a “religion writer.” Yet the arbiters have decided otherwise.
An Exercise in Futility with the RNA
Picture it: Two weeks ago I received an unsolicited email from a prospective client, inquiring about my sophistication with religion. We had a conference call. The prospect wanted someone with a background in religion to assist with some market research. Fair enough.
The questions prompted some background research. The deeper I dug, and the more media resources I consulted, the more obvious it was that there was no “there” there. I therefore decided to stretch my freelancing legs into the religion pool and sketched out some letters to send to media outlets, offering my services and explaining my background.
While I was poking around I stumbled across a group called the Religion Newswriters Association. The group seemed interesting — a collective of journalists dedicated to advancing the quality of religious reporting. Cool. So I joined and paid my $50 dues as an active journalist, as per Section II, subsection C, of RNA’s published membership policy: “A self-employed author, documentary filmmaker, blogger or other media content producer who covers religion consistent with the principles outlined in Section I.”
“Gee,” I thought. “I’m a self-employed media content producer and nothing in Section I precludes me.”
Then the fun started.
It began with an email from RNA’s business manager, who decided that despite my application (and my prior review of the membership policy) that I was really an “associate” instead of an “active” person, and she switched my classification accordingly. An associate is basically a PR person or non-journalist under their terms of membership.
I objected to this. To which the business manager asked to know how I funded my business. She said that to be “active” at least 51 percent of my revenue needed to derive from journalism — despite, I might add, no such requirement being identified or even hinted at in the membership policy.
The business manager kept asking me about money, at one point asking: “I need to know how you fund your business.” My response, all along, is that having read the membership policy, I have self-identified as a freelance-journalist-slash-blogger and that my self-identification should be sufficient.
So we went nine rounds by email until this morning, when Debra Mason, the executive director of RNA and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, weighed in. After working through the usual pleasantries, Mason said: “Upon visiting your site, it is clear that you are a marketing and public relations individual first and primarily. Thus, you do not qualify for active membership.”
Mason went to my business site, which is how I normally arrange these things when I present myself as a writing professional. She didn’t visit my personal blog — active since 2006 — to review the three long-form essays I’ve posed since April that dealt with religion as a central theme, including a post from earlier in July about the adaptation of divine-command ethics to a secular worldview. She didn’t review my portfolio to see what I’ve written over the years. She took one snippet about my working life and decided that the part is equal to the whole.
Therein lies the problem: RNA decided it knew better than I do about who I am and what I do; worse, there’s clearly a subtext that I’m lying about myself or my intentions as evidenced by Mason dedicating the bulk of her response to explain why RNA’s board “has committed to protecting our members from public relations pitches.” Reading between the lines, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that they think my goal is to spam the group with PR and marketing nonsense.
Mason also seemed to contradict the formal written membership policy by saying that “a blog alone is not sufficient to quality for membership” (according to section 2[c], it does) and that I needed to demonstrate a majority share of income from journalism despite no such requirement appearing in the policy.
In short: I’m not welcome. I doubt other freelancers are, either.
(Come to think of it, if fear of spamming is really a problem, it seems that the situation could be addressed more effectively by dealing with individual bad behavior instead of creating unnecessary barriers to entry.)
Thoughts on the Problem of Freelancing
Let me state outright: Religion Newswriters Association, or any other journalism group for that matter, is free to set whatever membership policies it desires; furthermore, these groups aren’t required to set policies that I personally deem to be coherent. They can cast a wide or narrow net and set whatever tiers or access levels they wish. If they want to focus only on fully employed writers, that’s certainly their prerogative — although the policy should be tweaked to be less ambiguous about who is or isn’t a real candidate for membership to avoid unpleasantness like our current disagreement.
That said, I’m concerned about the impact of restrictive membership policies on freelancers. RNA, through its membership policy, purports to decide who’s a real journalist and who isn’t. Instead of allowing applicants to self-identify — based on one’s own understanding of his history and intentions — RNA has elected to decide for itself. That lack of trust, in itself, speaks volumes. But the impact of such policies on freelancers may well prove counterproductive in light of the organization’s professed mission.
Let’s face it: Dedicated religion writers are scarce. In Grand Rapids, for example, the former religion editor of The Grand Rapids Press, Charles Honey, was downsized into individual-contributor status because of the paper’s financial position. Dedicated religion coverage is disappearing in papers across the country. People who are writing the beat are unlikely in most cases to be making 51 percent of their income from doing so.
Then there’s the gig economy. Polling from 2009 suggests that a quarter of working people have more than one job, and that a quarter are freelancers. Within the field of journalism, the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests a fairly bleak outlook, with a projected loss of 8 percent of reporters and correspondents.
In a practical sense, then, a freelancer has to balance a lot of plates just to break even each month. Very few — usually, the ones either displaced from the commanding heights of journalism, or niche veterans with a well-developed client base — can comfortably afford to freelance full-time. Many work several jobs, for which writing is merely one piece of the puzzle. Requiring freelancers to earn 51 percent of their money from writing therefore seems like an odd way of identifying who is or isn’t a real journalist, and one that may well exclude a lot of people for whom economic reality proves to be a trump card.
Yet it’s this group of people who may be the most at-risk within the industry. Full-time journalists have access to an organization’s infrastructure; freelancers rarely do. If ever there were a segment deserving of additional support, it’s the part-time freelancer — the folks who generate a substantial amount of content but are otherwise left to fend for themselves.
More broadly, a policy that’s written to include freelancers and bloggers but is explicitly designed to create not-at-all-intuitive barriers to their access causes frustration among those who are told they’re not welcome no matter how they identify themselves, while reinforcing archaic J-school pretensions about what a “real” journalist really is. The “Is journalism a profession?” question seems to pop up here.
Again, RNA may set whatever policies and include or exclude whomever it wishes. That said, my experience with this group suggests that it fundamentally mistrusts applicants and that (despite the literal wording of the policy) freelancers or bloggers aren’t welcome unless they’re full-timers who book revenue from their work that exceeds half of their total income. Mason was kind enough to extend associate membership or to seek a refund, but given how this played out, I’m going to seek the latter path.
Given the state of religious journalism, focusing on the purity of the practitioner instead of welcoming people in good faith — to empower them to be better journalists of religion — seems counterproductive.
I wish RNA well. I just wish their membership policies helped expand access to religious-journalism tools more broadly than the current policy is likely to engender.