This is the last new post I’ll write in 2008, so it seems fitting to look back at the biggest stories of the year in the digital media business and how they’ll affect on freelancers now and in the future.
I’ll weigh in with my top 10 first. Feel free to send your own suggestions for the trends and events that made the past 12 months the most interesting, albeit gut wrenching, in recent times.
Dec. 26 update: For anyone who read the earlier version, I’ve now added links throughout.
1. The recession – It was a crippling, industry-changing year for newspapers. The double whammy of the recession and declining readership as more people get their news online had devastating effects. Publishers tried anything and everything to cut costs in the face of plunging ad revenue and declining subscriptions: filing for bankruptcy protection, selling or mortgaging properties, slashing jobs, outsourcing to India, folding entire sections, trimming geographic distribution, dropping 7 day-a-week distribution, going online only and teaming up with former mortal enemies.
The take away for freelancers: Though never the highest paying markets, newspapers were reliable clients that could be counted on for a steady stream of work. No more. I know a handful of freelancers who still do regular newspaper work, but by and large this market is a goner.
2. Media industry layoffs – Newspapers laid off 21,000 people during 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they weren’t the only ones. By the end of the year, magazines, TV stations, radio stations and book publishers were all slashing employees, many of them long-time staffers whose salaries and benefit packages made them some of those companies’ more expensive workers. That’s a lot of institutional memory down the drain – but when the ship’s sinking, everyone’s expendable.
Take away for freelancers: Be ready for competition. Some of editors you used to pitch are now vying for the same assignments at their old magazines that have been your bread and butter. But don’t sweat it too much. Not everybody’s cut out for the freelance life. If you’re good at what you do, the uptick in self-employed writers shouldn’t affect your business as much as other things (see no. 1).
3. Paid blogging – Blogging’s been around so long it’s regularly written off as passe. Skeptics aside, it is possible to make a decent living as a blogger, either as a gun-for-hire or for yourself. In the case of the latter, it’s possible, but not easy. Running a blog that earns enough to live on from ad sales, affiliate programs or sales of your own editorial products requires equal parts good writing, marketing and networking – not necessarily in that order.
Take away for freelancers: More companies are including blogging in their overall marketing strategy, opening up opportunities for corporate blogging gigs. Websites like ProBlogger.com do a good job of keeping up with the latest openings. And if you’re blogging for yourself, sites like ProBlogger and Copyblogger have mounds of material on what to do, and what to avoid.
4. Writing for Websites – The media world is turning to the Web, with newspapers updating stories throughout the day on their Websites and more online-only publications starting up every week. Even magazines are getting into the act, albeit more slowly than other types of publications – although some (think Conde Nast) have reversed course and given up on the Web. Also popping up: Web content syndicates that operate like wire services of yesteryear, producing copy that’s posted on the Websites of subscribers such as ISPs, news aggregators and corporations.
Take away for freelancers: Websites are the new newspapers, but not all are created equal. Some pay pennies, others $1/word or more. Writers need to be particular about who they work for. Takeaway no. 2: there’s no longer a stigma to writing stories that go directly to the Web – though it’s still hard to convince PR reps of that. And no. 3: HTML is your friend. If you want to write for Websites, know at least a little about it and how to add links to your stories pointing people to related material.
5. Multimedia – Writers are expected to know how to tell a story not just with words but with photos, podcasts and other multimedia elements. And it’s not just reporters. In addition to the editing work she does, one features editor at a mid-sized West Coast daily newspaper that’s been hit by budget cuts and layoffs also writes stories, shoots her own video for them and records podcasts – and expects anyone on her staff to be able to do the same.
Take away for freelancers: If staffers are doing it, you should be too. Multimedia makes you more marketable. Learn it so you can pitch it. Not a DIY type? Online classes and workshops are everywhere.
6. Writing for exposure free – There’ve never been more opportunities to write for the Web – for free. I’m not just talking about the start ups that advertise on Craigslist who promise to pay contributors “in exposure,” but also some of the biggest blogs around, like The Huffington Post.
Take away for freelancers: Don’t do it. No matter how exciting it might be to see your name on HuffPost, writing for free is not a business model.
7. Social networks – It’s not just about how many friends you have on Facebook anymore. 2008 was the year social networking for work took off. LinkedIn was a huge beneficiary, ending the year with more than 30 million members. Companies large and small ramped up their use of social networks for marketing, recruiting and customer relations.
Take away for freelancers: If you haven’t started, now’s the time to dive in. Wired freelancers are already using social networks like LinkedIn to crowdsource (find sources), get assignments and do their jobs better. Don’t get left behind.
8. Twitter – Yes, lots of people use Twitter to describe what they ate for breakfast or where they’re stuck in traffic. But the microblogging platform also helped reporters quickly spread word of the terrorist attack in Mumbai. More editors, reporters and bloggers are using it to update followers on works in progress or their latest blog posts. As a social network, Twitter feels like an cocktail party that’s still small enough you might just accidentally hit it off with someone who could end up being a source or offering you a job.
Take away for freelancers: Get in on the ground floor – trite but true. It’s still too early to see the difference it’s made in my writing business, but other freelancers swear by it as a way to follow trends, discover publications or editors they want to work with – or vice versa – and find sources on the fly. Caution: it can easily become a huge time suck.
9. Work made for hire – FNASR contracts are going the way of the dinosaur due to the migration of content to the Web (see no. 4).
Take away for freelancers: Reslants are your friend. If you don’t own the copyright to a piece you can’t sell reprint rights to other publications. But you can recast a story written for consumer publication A into a piece for trade magazine B or Website C. Or use research for a piece for trade magazine for Fortune 1000 companies for a piece for a small business Website. Recycle, reuse, repeat.
10. The brand of you – Whatever the specialty – writing, marketing, blogging, Website design, etc. – self-employed workers are figuring out they are a brand and are marketing accordingly (see Julia Allison). These campaigns include everything from professionally designed Websites, blogs and YouTube channels to email signatures that list the owner’s latest blog posts or book deals.
Take away for freelancers: Take the plunge. Even if you don’t have time or money for the big stuff, tacking your Linkedin, Twitter and blog addresses onto your email signature is a start. Blogging software is free and can substitute for a Website. And if you’re already doing all that, 2009 might be the year to take it up a notch by starting a monthly podcast or e-newsletter to showcase your work.