Journalism is all about telling a great story. That hasn’t changed, and never will.
That was the happy message at the “Future of Freelancing” conference held last week at Stanford University. Several sessions served to inspire the 120-plus mid-career freelancers in attendance, telling us to stay brave and persistent in pursuing our craft. I was heartened by a panel of assigning editors from Popular Science, The Washington Post, Wired and The New Yorker, as they talked about the wonders of long-form journalism, a “crying need for narrative” and their hunger for new ideas from freelancers.
Everything else, however, is changing fast: the platform on which we publish our stories, the tools we use to tell our stories, and who controls how we tell those stories and to whom. While the changes are daunting at best, for freelancers they can be an opportunity to become the vanguard of a new age of journalism.
It’s news to nobody that publishing platforms are changing. While paper isn’t going away, other platforms have proliferated. The Web is already as popular as paper, for reading short items at least. The e-reader and iPad are becoming increasingly popular as ways to deliver news and magazine stories. Writers need to be on all these platforms, or they’ll miss part of their potential audience.
As these platforms change, they open up new ways to tell our stories. Ways that we should all learn. Although the editors at most sessions wouldn’t go so far as to say they’d pick a freelancer with video and audio skills over one with just writing skills – all other things being equal – it was clear to me that writers without audio and video in their toolbox will limit their opportunities. The most practical and useful session of the conference was given by Richard Koci Hernandez, a Ford Foundation Multimedia Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, who inspired us with his belief that today “is the golden age of storytelling,” excited us with the prospect of “reaching a global audience with one click” and gave us practical advice on how to acquire audio and video skills.
Finally, the old gatekeepers of publishing are losing their grip on the creative product. Remember the term “disintermediation,” which was popular in the 1990s when the Web had just burst onto the scene? It’s gaining speed in publishing. Authors are publishing books themselves rather than going through traditional channels. Why can’t journalists publish their stories directly on the Kindle? Journalist Damon Brown recently published a guide to the iPad on the Kindle, for example. It’s priced at $1.99.
For those journalists with an entrepreneurial bent, in particular, the future could be interesting indeed. This conference was a one-time deal, the project of Christine Larson, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. She deserves an award for having the idea and pulling it off. We freelancers – indeed all journalists – need more conferences like this. I hope the immense amount of positive feedback I heard at the conference turns into action by all attendees to make sure we get them.