This is what’s pissing me off today (April 23rd, 2008)

Yeah, yeah, I’m posting twice this week, so just get over it already. Take your non-mouse hand, reach up and close your mouth before something flies in there and dies.

This relative flurry of posting is partly to make up for my rare, if ever, post frequency while I’m in Romania for four weeks in May and partly because I’m consumed in a stuttering rage of pissed offtitude!! If I hadn’t already launched my stress toy out my 26th story window during last week’s anti-travel writer BS, I’d be liquefying it right now as I transform into the Incredible Freelance Writer Hulk. Yeeeaarrrrgggjackhole!!

The incapacitating feelings of wrath that I’m experiencing right now are heightened because I feel obligated to be pissed off on behalf of every established and aspiring freelance travel writer in regards to the self-righteously obtuse comments recently made by New York Times travel editor Stuart Emmrich about their policy of not accepting stories that were written on the strength of any complimentary services (airline tickets, hotels, meals, etc.). Furthermore, he highlighted a point that I wasn’t aware of previously, that being the Times won’t accept any stories from a freelancer who has ever accepted a comp in modern history! Are you f*cking kidding me??

Well, to be fair, there were caveats. Like say the freelancer in question was bitten on the face three times by a Burmese King Cobra, in which case the Times is willing to overlook that the freelancer didn’t crawl out of the jungle, down the nearest village, hand over his emergency c-note to a black market money-changer so as to pay for the antidote out-of-pocket.

This is an old peeve of mine that has intensified as I’ve become crabbier and devoid of all empathy in the past few weeks, but it’s being especially tweaked because it’s coming from someone that I’d hoped would know better. Further to Mr. Emmrich’s comments, in case a hapless freelancer has any questions or needs clarification about possible loopholes, the Times has posted their ethics handbook online. Fair enough. For most forms of journalism, particularly for salaried employees, you gotta have something like this. But when dealing with freelancers, particularly in the arena of travel where research expenses are prohibitively high, you’ve gotta find a middle ground.

I don’t know what the Times pays for one-off articles, but I know the national average paid by newspapers is $200-300. I’ll give the NYT the benefit of the doubt, since they’re the Times and presumably have a little bit more money to throw around, and just guess that they pay $400-500 per piece. (Anyone that knows better, please comment below.) Nevertheless, this compensation doesn’t come anywhere near covering the expenses of, say, a five night trip to Copenhagen ($1,500-2,000), never mind the freelancer’s time investment (let’s call it six days of travel and two days of writing), which should be, at a minimum, $25 per hour (or $1,000 per week), what with the self-employment tax and other cruel penalties freelance writers have to deal with like costly individual health insurance that I swear I’ll look into just as soon as I get back from Romania, mom.

I point this out this no-brainer fact, because on the subject of pitching the NYT, Emmrich innocently offers that “The Travel section needs reporters to identify these stories and ferret them out, not people who just want to write up their vacation experiences.”

Oh really? Does it get a little exasperating that all you receive in your submissions inbox are hacks traveloguing their trip to Colonial Williamsburg? Are you wondering why most of these submissions are unprintable, clichéd amateur nonsense? Well since you seem to be genuinely baffled, I’ll tell you: it’s because any idiot can see that it’s mathematically impossible to make a living pitching to you. You can’t expect a professional writer to pay for expenses out-of-pocket for all of the trips they take year round, and then turn around and pay them the shit fee you pay for one-off articles. Maybe a hungry newbie will eat a $700 one-time loss for a NYT byline, but not a professional who has the rest of the year(s) to think about.

So, now that you’ve alienated 98% of the people that have the skills and qualifications to produce a NYT-worthy piece with your sanctimonious ban on comps, please don’t act surprised when all you receive are missives fired off by ambitious stay-at-home moms. (Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that. I love stay-at-home moms, particularly when they stay at home with their shrieking two year olds, rather than sitting next to me on a trans-Atlantic flight.)

To sum up, you can’t have it both ways. Either you’re gonna have to accept stories that involved comps – and have faith that the writer has the capacity to objectively review a comped service – or start reimbursing freelancers for their travel expenses. Or pay an upfront fee large enough that the writer actually has something left to buy groceries when all is said and done. We’re talking upwards of $1,500 for a short domestic destination piece and $3,500 or more for international destination features. If you expect everyone else around you to bow down to your rules on comps, you’re going to have to start putting out.

Better yet, cut the diplomatic crap, stop pretend-coaching potential NYT submitters and own up to the fact that in a perfect world you’d rather not deal with freelance submissions at all. This way you don’t have to spend one morning every six weeks slogging through the submissions inbox, deleting all those stories about Orlando and Philadelphia’s cheese steak stands, and people won’t waste time and energy sending those stories to you in the first place. After all, as Mr. Emmrich happily admits in the same piece, he has an overflowing pool of gifted, NYT salaried writers on hand that he can tap if he’s ever in a jam and no one can deny that they’re a lot easier to work with than a hodgepodge of time-consuming, one-off freelancer pieces.

Finally, Mr. Emmrich, with all due respect, clearly you’ve enjoyed the security and bulging paychecks of the NYT for a little too long to be authoritatively disseminating sage wisdom on the subject of freelance travel writing. The next time you feel compelled to lecture aspiring freelance travel writers, it would behoove you to emerge from your insulated, salaried Editorial Fortress of Solitude and bring yourself up to speed on the realities of freelance travel writing of the current century. Thank you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have business errands to run that cannot be done until I’ve pancaked over the alarming green tone my skin has taken on and replaced the torn rags that were perfectly presentable Old Navy clothes when I started composing this diatribe.

StumbleUpon It!