The secret lives of hacks

Sure, I sold my soul once. Who hasn’t?

It was my first year as a reporter with Computer Dealer News, and we were offered the chance to do some freelance writing for an advertorial supplement on behalf of a storage vendor. The money was pretty good, at least compared with what I was

making at the time. About four of us on staff agreed to write a piece, on the condition that the stories be published under a pseudonym (that was the vendor’s condition, not ours). We had a lot of fun coming up with them — one of us tried to use the name Mia Barkdog, which was nixed — but that was about as creative as the whole thing got.

The vendor sent the pieces back for what seemed like endless revisions, much more than anything I’d had published in CDN until that point. Two of our best reporters were stunned to get kill fees instead of full payment — apparently they didn’t write it in a promotional enough manner. My story made the grade, which made me wonder: am I better off in custom publishing?

Seven years later I can thankfully say no, at least until I’m laid off and have no prospects for employment as a regular journalist. It just wasn’t worth it. For freelancers who have to put food on the table, however, it might be a different story. Over the last few years publishing companies like ours have responded to the IT market downturn by cutting back staff sizes, reducing frequency and in some cases closing magazines altogether. In our newsroom we tend to focus on the impact on our full-time staff, but there is a whole raft of other journalists who have been just as adversely affected, if not more so.

I’ve spoken with a few full-time freelancers who told me it is possible to make a living at it, provided you are willing to balance your regular journalism work with large chunk of corporate writing, including advertorials, marketing brochures and sometimes annual general reports. In the meantime, vendors are more interested in advertorials than ever before, trying hard to make them look as much like editorial products as they can. For obvious reasons, marketers like to see advertorials written by people with talent, who know what they’re talking about. That opens up some revenue-generating opportunities for freelancers, but it also raises some ethical debates.

At the time, I saw nothing wrong with taking on that contract writing assignment, but I do now. This was a company I ended up covering in great detail in CDN, up to and after its acquisition by a larger vendor. There was obviously a conflict of interest there, and I should have recognized it. If I had been a CDN freelancer, it would have been even worse. They may not be tied to any one company, but freelancers are always working for someone. How do you maintain your posture as an independent journalist reporting in the interest of readers about, say, Microsoft, while at the same time get paid by Microsoft for your writing services? If a story threatens to cast Microsoft in an unfavourable light, whose interests win out?

There are plenty of journalists, including colleagues here at ITBusiness.ca who I respect highly, that would have no problem separating the two roles. And yet, even though they may never be any the wiser, I don’t think readers would look at that kind of conflict in a very favourable light. Integrity is about more than appearances, but it does involve behaving in ways that demonstrate your ethics. Unless you focus solely on contract writing for a company or industry that you have no chance of covering as a journalist, the integrity issue is bound to come up.

Knowing some of my friends and coworkers would probably strongly disagree with me on this one makes me want to couch this editorial with a phrase like, “”This is only my opinion, and does not reflect that of anyone else.”” But that seems weird to me — it’s the kind of second guessing you do when you’re writing not what you think is true, but what you’ve been paid to write. Everybody is free to make their own choice, but unless I’m left with no other alternatives, I don’t want to feel like that again.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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