July 25, 2011 8

Free, not free-falling

By in blogging, journalism, reading, Uncategorized

What I did Friday is scary and possibly rash. I gave up my main source of freelance income, not because I can afford to but because I couldn’t abide by it.

I was writing up police blotters, crime reports, municipal news and other quick-hit items for a network of hyperlocal news sites in the Houston area. I live more than 1000 miles away, in Chicago, and I’ve never even visited Houston. Unlike AOL’s Patch, another provider of hyperlocal coverage, this business model relies not on editors who live directly in the community but on dozens of writers like me who sit at home and regurgitate press releases and comb through police reports and city records without having the faintest connection to the suburb or neighborhood being covered. How’s that for “hyperlocal”? I was never required to actually pick up the phone for a story. In the interest of efficiency, labor is divided. Other people did any necessary calling and interviewing, but that only happened for a minority of stories.

So I slogged at this for almost seven months. What I produced wasn’t entirely meaningless. I can’t say the company dips to the level of a content farm. Crime reports are valuable to a community, as are announcements of city bids and job openings. But mostly my brain acted as a barely filtered funnel for pages and pages of PR stew, and I was grinding out quantity over quality while ignoring what was happening in my own city. This work was clearly going nowhere for me.

Rash to quit? Yeah, maybe. My checking account has a balance of less than $4.

I know it’s grim out there for a job seeker. Last Thursday I attended the annual picnic of the Chicago Association for Women Journalists (AWJ) at a Greek restaurant in The Loop and was floored to hear 50-somethings with reasonably successful careers and decades of experience talk sheepishly about submitting work for free to Huffington Post just for the clips. How sad. I’m not against doing work for free, but not for an established company that could pay if it felt like it.

I’ve been torn between wanting to write more, contribute more, and being alternately disgusted with and intimidated by the avalanche of information that already exists. On bad days, when I’ve got 22 unread tabs open and I’m sucking on the teat of Facebook for more-more-more and reading another post about the branding possibilities of Google+, I wonder if there’s even a point to adding another word to this crushing mess.

I snap out of this funk when I read about Longshot Mag and other ventures that focus on quality over quantity, meaning over branding and that treat social media as tools not idols. So I’m hopeful that the future isn’t doomed to HuffPo freebies and farmed-out reports. I read Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not a Gadget” this weekend, and it’s been giving me a lot of inspiration, especially his take-down of Web 2.0′s hive mind and his manifesto for a weirder, more holistic and individualistic digital realm. I don’t share Lanier’s fascination with virtual reality or understand the more technical aspects of his argument — and his suggestions of “songles” and “telegigging” strike me as absurd — but I recommend it for anyone who cares about digital culture or current culture in general.

Maybe it was the muggy heat last Thursday, but as I walked across the river to the el train station on my way home from the AWJ dinner, the skyscrapers towering around me felt like hands holding me up, hands that would catch me if I fell. I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.

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8 Responses to “Free, not free-falling”

  1. Reem Tara says:

    GOOD FOR YOU. You’ll rock this. And that city can be good to people – I hope it’s good to you. And I hope you write here more.

  2. LindsayC77 says:

    I am scared and thrilled and excited and nervous for you.

    And those hands? Some of them are mine. Feel free to fall this way anytime.

  3. Rachel Storlie says:

    I feel a surge of adrenaline when reading your post. I am proud of you and your totally sane decision, and applaud your deep soul-searching and personal moral code. You are a smart, lovely, and resourceful woman who will not be kept down by the crushing blows of technological exploitation. so, keep fighting and searching, and be a local in your new city–and those hands will indeed keep holding you up.
    Take care, wonderful!

  4. Katjusa says:

    Thanks so much Reem, Lindsay and Rachel! I’ve been honored by how many people are supportive of this, and I say ‘honored’ because I take with that support a responsibility to follow through and do the right thing.

  5. Three ideas

    1. Diversify
    2. Know when to say yes and no. Obviously, you knew you had to say no in this situation.
    3. Have goals.

    Maybe that helps.

  6. Katjusa says:

    Short and sweet. Thanks.

  7. [...] one comes from Chicago-based Katjusa Cisar who blogged recently about her departure from a hyperlocal network in [...]

  8. Nannerl says:

    Your decision will resonate with professionals outside journalism. As a well-qualified ESL/EFL teacher for me it had recently come down to one live job prospect as a “professor” instructing newcomers to the field on how to teach ESL/EFL. All work was to be entirely online. I’d never have seen a face or have had a personal encounter with my fledglings. All the data, including lots of online tests, would have been at my disposal–to be conveniently downloaded from the company’s trove.

    Cog-in-the-wheel came to mind as I faced this position consisting of sitting for hours before a screen and riding herd on the presumed progress of students, read, company clients.

    Like you Katjusa, I decided to tighten my belt, expand my self-respect chest, and say no.