Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Couple of E-Mails and a Photo

If you live in the U.S. and walk by newsstands regularly, you'll have noticed that Rolling Stone is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. I haven't seen any of the hoopla -- although I hear their Summer of Love issue is pretty good -- but I did get an e-mail a while back from a woman who's organizing a reunion of the San Francisco staff.

Staffs, I should say; in the early days Rolling Stone went through employees pretty often. I should know. I was one of them.

For a little over six months, from sometime in March to sometime in October, 1970, I worked at Rolling Stone. It was a very exciting time to be there, because it was exactly in that period that the magazine took off, that it printed some of the first pieces that put it on the map, and, not so coincidentally, that the record industry, whose ads it needed to survive, decided it was worth supporting.

Under the leadership of the managing editor, John Burks, we learned on our feet, most of us. I sure did; I'd joined the staff, barely 21, by far the youngest, with virtually no idea how to do anything. The first thing Burks asked me to do was to start double-spacing my copy. "The typesetters go blind if you don't," he said. That's right: we used hot type. In fact, for the first weeks I was there, we shared space with the print shop that typeset and printed the paper, at 746 Brannan Street. After that, we moved a few blocks to 625 Third Street, a brand new office building, where we had a whole floor.

That's where we worked, where we printed the stories of Janis Joplin's death, of Jimi Hendrix' death, of the student protests that summer, and of Charlie Manson, stories that won the magazine an award from the Columbia Journalism Review. By the time it arrived, pretty much everyone who'd been involved in those stories had been fired. Me, too. I was cleaning out my desk as two women from the circulation department wheeled in a big birthday cake for the fourth anniversary party. "Are you still here?" one of them asked. "Why don't you get out of here." I got out.

That's why I scratched my head when the woman organizing the reunion announced that there was a web page for it, because naturally I went right there and saw this photograph:

It's labelled "Rolling Stone staffers circa March 1971 at The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco." Which is a hoot. Yes, it's from March, 1971, but the one thing it couldn't be is the staff of that particular magazine, because pretty much every person in that photo had been fired by October, 1970, when I left. There's Jon Goodchild, British design wunderkind, on the far left; someone I vaguely remember but can't name; Patty Hafferkamp, who'd been the receptionist; Burks in some weird floppy hat; Cindy Ehrlich, from the art department (although she often spelled Patty at reception) in her nurse's getup; Robert Altman, the photographer who succeeded Baron Wolman as the Rolling Stone photo guy (and with whose permission this photo is used); John Morthland, fired just before me, the guy who brought the Hendrix story in despite being sent down a million blind alleys -- and of course, despite not being in London; Michael Goodwin, the magazine's film writer, but also a bon-vivant and folkie; a guy whose name I forget but who was an expert in direct-mail advertising; Hal Aigner (thanks, Mike!), who never had a thing to do with RS, but was a fine writer; Phil Freund, who'd been the business manager at Wolman's Rags magazine, and Phil's wife, whose name I've forgotten.

It's a staff photo, all right (although I'm not sure why I'm not in it). It's just the staff of Flash.

Flash was all too aptly named. It blew up and never happened. We had big plans, but they came to nothing. Just why is explained much better than I could in a column by another guy who's not in the picture, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who was responsible for our cover story, and, indirectly, for nearly getting Groucho Marx busted by the Secret Service for calling for Nixon's assassination. That made the front page of the New York Times, but, sadly, too late to save Flash. It revived Groucho's career, though, so maybe Flash didn't die in vain.

For a while, I was thinking of attending this staff reunion, although most of the folks I'd enjoy seeing again -- Burks, Goodwin, Wolman, Carroll, Morthland, Altman -- I can see any old time when I'm where they are, because we're more or less in touch with each other. It's also around the time that Village Music will be closing, and I'd really like to be around for that. But what really caused me to draw up short was when a follow-up e-mail disclosed that the events of the reunion will cost money -- $295, plus a 3.5% processing fee.

And that brought me back to SXSW this spring, and all the writers walking around wondering where the work had gone, and saying "Thank heavens my wife has a job." (It'll cost $295 plus the fee for your wife, too). In a way, it made me sad; the planned events involve catering and space rental, and a lot of care has gone into planning them. But we're also in an era where thousands of journalists are losing their jobs, where magazines are cutting back on space for writing because ads are disappearing. Maybe not many are as broke as I am, but most writers I know, even veterans -- maybe especially veterans, perceived as being "too old" or something -- are pretty broke these days.

This is going to continue. Things have been a bit better in England, a place where I have very few contacts, but the shadow is creeping up the wall there, too. This week I got an e-mail from a mailing list I seem to have gotten on for writers for two magazines I don't write for there. The one I might write for doesn't much like Americans, and I had my go-round with them years ago, so maybe that's how I got on the list. Anyway, some excerpts from the e-mail may be of interest to those of you contemplating a career in this vanishing industry.

"Dear All

"And first the bad news. For the first time in six years we were unable to negotiate an increase in freelance writers' pay rates this year.

"We had a couple of amiable and informative meetings with [management] as usual, but by the end of their budgeting process [they] explained they couldn't offer anything – likewise no annual increase for the staff.

"The background is a steep decline in advertising – "migrated" to the web and TV – alongside corporate demands to maintain or exceed the 30 per cent net profit gold standard. Consequently, three staff editorial jobs have been lost at the same time as writing for the websites has been offloaded on to the magazine staff and editorial budget cut by a large chunk. Also you may have noticed a reduction in paper quality."

And in case you think any freelancer gets rich writing for them, they posted the rates. (Quoted in pounds: double it for dollars, multiply by 1.5 for Euros).

"Features: minima 295/266; Reviews: short/standard review 43 (150 words); others, minimum 266 per thousand."

Given that this magazine is owned by a huge conglomerate which, as Jon wryly noted in that column, doesn't care about "good writing," but, rather, in the bottom line, there's even a question of whether, or how long, the magazine can be expected to keep up that 30% profit, and how quickly they'll kill it once it sinks to below that. One way to keep it profitable is to do what they've just done: give the staff more work to do. Which means give less work to freelancers. And more staff burnouts, another feature of life at this particular magazine.

It's a shame, but it's the reality of the situation right now; the profession I somewhat accidentally entered 42 years ago this coming September is in steep decline. I happen to think there'll be a correction at some point, because people will eventually discover that they don't actually like spending their lives staring into screens, and that the elegance and resolution of a plain old piece of paper is, actually, the highest and best use of the medium of words. But we'll have to struggle through the days to come first. And there will be fallout. I, for one, am trying to figure out another way of making a living. It's not easy, after all this time, and to be honest I haven't come up with a single answer. But then, I also don't want to be the last rat off the ship.

Anyway, I probably won't be making that reunion party. Not even to hear Ben Fong-Torres do karaoke. Hell, he used to sing around the office, and I still sometimes wake up in a cold sweat remembering that.


Bowleserised said...

If the same thing happens to me in a few years' time, I'm wondering which magazine's photo they're going to pull out.

Anonymous said...

Great post! It brought made me back to the start I got in journalism about 15 years ago. We weren't using hot type, but even though Quark was already on the market, the Sherbrooke (Quebec) Record couldn't afford state of the art, so the layout was cut and paste by hand. We'd bang out our stories on a Kaypro! Assignments were dished out at midnight for a following day which often started at 8am and ended after a full day at 11pm with the chief editor leaning over with: We need an editorial! It's YOUR turn!
Long hours for very little pay but a great way to learn.

It's funny, but I've been reading about the demise of the profession since before I decided to go back to school to study journalism. Most former classmates and all former colleagues in Canada and Hong Kong are still working and doing well - moved or moving up. Is it mainly a squeeze on freelancers you're talking about? Freelance has always been the toughest road, hasn't it? Glory for a very few, a slog for the rest.
- ian in hamburg

Ed Ward said...

Thanks, Ian. I guess maybe I should head to Canada, then. Actually, both employed and freelance people (and one university-level journalism instructor) in the States wrote me after I posted this confirming how bad it is: newsrooms being emptied out, magazines in decline. I do hope some corner of the English-speaking world keeps its head, because these would be bad skills to lose. And, while it's a slog, it's only been recently that freelancing has become as perilous as it is now.

Anonymous said...

There are still niches where freelancing pays. For instance the News and Views section of some scientific magazines (e.g., Science and Nature) are done by free-lancers. Of course that's strictly for people with a background in science but there has to be other such niches.

Ed Ward said...

Find me one or two and there's an agent's fee (15%) in it for you, man.

Arabella said...

From looking at the gentlemen in the photograph - Ed, would wearing kinky boots help?

Ed Ward said...

Arabella, wearing kinky boots always helps.