Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Informed Speculation

This expands on my first post using this photo, about being fired from writing Stage Matters for the North Coast Journal.

So: if the NC Journal "enjoyed and appreciated" my contribution, my "writing and viewpoint, as well as your reliability" (I didn't miss a deadline in nine years) as the letter said, why did they fire me?

As far as I can tell, because they don't want to pay me.

I heard independently from two very well placed sources (neither of whom knows the other spoke to me about this) that the Journal, and specifically the publisher, is trying to pay writers less.  One of the sources also said she wants to pay editors less as well.  She isn't paying the editor in chief anything, because for the first time in many years there isn't one.

I got my first indication of this approach more than a year ago, when the then editor of the paper talked to me about a plan to "expand" theatre coverage, and add more writers to it.  There's some history to this which I'll get into in a moment, but here's the point: I mentioned I knew of a good writer who might be interested but I'd talk to her first.  I was immediately cautioned not to tell her what I was being paid for a column because they would be offering less.  Not as a temporary or trial rate for a new writer, but as a matter of permanent policy.

Later I heard from another source that publisher Judy Hodgson  was "upset that she's not making as much money from the paper as she used to" and that she specifically complained about the amount she was spending to pay writers.

Still later I heard that she refused to re-hire arts editor Bob Doran because she had a new arts editor she was paying less than she had paid him.  He had recovered from the stroke he suffered while on the job, which (I heard still another source speculate) may have been prompted by the stress he'd been under to re-create the Journal's web page.

On October 6 I got the email from the current arts editor firing me.  It was Monday, which is the day that copy for that week's paper is due and is edited.  So the theatre review that appeared in that week's issue was in her hands, and the new name for the column was already set.  Obviously this had been planned for some time.  It was calculated and it was cold.  Several weeks earlier she'd proposed "meeting up" for coffee.  She is relatively new to the job, and I had not met her at all.  So what would that "meeting up" have been like?  Essentially this: hi, how are you, good to meet you, you're fired.

Let me explain what my job was.  I was not on staff or on salary.  In fact I have never set foot in the Journal offices since they moved to Eureka.  Working from my home office, I gathered information on North Coast productions, scheduled and arranged to attend shows when they opened, got myself to the theatre, attended the show, perhaps talked before or after to participants, researched the play and playwright, wrote (and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote, on deadline and to the 850 word limit) the review, along with other elements of the column.

For many of the years I wrote Stage Matters I also conducted interviews with directors, producers and so on, to give them a direct voice. These were previews, published before the show opened. That entailed arranging for and conducting the interview, transcribing the recording, writing it up and so on.

 I did this frequently when there was at least one review published in a North Coast newspaper the week after a production opened, which is as fast as reviews ever appear here.  So shows got a timely review whether or not I wrote one.  But several years ago it happened that only the Journal was able to publish a timely review, and that's when I began to review more regularly.  (The situation is better now--there are three print possibilities for timely reviews.)

So that's what I did, and here's the huge sum I was paid: $100 per column.  A column in fact might entail attending two or even three plays, or reviewing one play and previewing another or others.  I got no benefits, not even gas money or mileage.  My column appeared an average of twice a month.  But there was also unpaid work to do between columns, to keep up with the local theatre world.  Pretty much my entire weekend revolved around this, as did private travel plans and schedule.

I realize that most people who create theatre here on the North Coast get less.  But a newspaper is a profit-making entity, and writing is my profession.  Besides, I have some perspective on that rate of pay.

I was Managing Arts Editor of an alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix in the early 1970s.  I authorized payment to writers, so I happen to know that we paid our theatre reviewer $100. The minimum wage then was $2 an hour.  A gallon of gas cost 55 cents.  Ten grand would buy you a house.

Sure, that was Boston, this is our little North Coast.  But that's 40 years ago. Needless to say the cost of living has gone up considerably since then, and so has the pay that pays for everything.  Just the cost of gasoline has gone up considerably in the years since I started the column.  But for the last eight years or so, I've been paid $100.  Before that, it was less.

So how much money is the Arianna Huffington of Humboldt County going to save by firing me?  Despite the rhetoric of "expanding" the "scope" of theatre coverage, the operative phrase in the arts editors email is "new voices in a collaborative rotation."  I take "collaborative" to mean that the editor will be doing a lot more of the writing, though she may choose to call it editing.

  The first non-Stage Matters column to appear (which in form was identical to Stage Matters) was written by someone I know of only as a North Coast actor.  She may have some background in journalism I don't know about, and it's not necessary that she must in order to write reviews.  But it makes a change, and it is much easier to get a non-journalist to write for cheap or for free.  And that's without even considering the question of journalistic objectivity.  Members of the acting community reviewing each other is a novel approach for a newspaper.

So in order not to pay me what often amounted to minimum wage at best, they are probably paying less.  That, as they say, is the bottom line.

Now about that history.  I was all for the Journal using another reviewer, specifically to review HSU productions.  In fact, that was my understanding when I started.  I was hired to write Stage Matters (a name I invented) the same week I was hired to write publicity for HSU stage productions (this is also a part time position, paid on an hourly basis).  Both employers agreed to the same terms: I would not review HSU shows for the Journal, but the Journal would see to it that HSU shows were reviewed on the same basis as the shows of other North Coast theatres.  I lived up to my part of the bargain.  The Journal did not.

 So when the idea of "expanding" coverage was first proposed to me, I was all for it if it meant that HSU shows would be reviewed.  It happened only once in my nine years.  Perhaps it will happen more often now.  But I didn't really believe in an "expansion" then, or now.  The Journal ignored theatre and Stage Matters specifically in its promotions, and lately has ignored local theatre openings on its calendar pages, which seldom happened when Bob Doran was arts editor.

Another element of my history pertains to my response to being told not to mention what I was being paid because a new writer would be paid less.  As Managing Arts Editor for the Boston Phoenix and then as Editor of Washington Newsworks (a DC alternative weekly), I butted heads with the publishers on the matter of money for writers.

 At the Phoenix, I noted the various "deals" that had been made with freelancers, some being paid less than others for comparable work.  I made the payments more uniform by increasing the fees of those at the bottom.

 When I became Editor of Newsworks (voted in by acclamation), the paper was in dire financial straits and wasn't paying writers at all.  But the publisher's policy was not to tell writers this, just keep not paying them, and essentially lying to them when they made ever more frantic inquiries.  Beginning my first day, I not only told prospective writers that we weren't paying, I called up writers who'd written for us before and told them.  When we began paying writers again I made sure they actually got paid.

It's always astonished me that everybody else who works for periodicals--even "alternative" ones-- expects to get paid, as do those who supply the infrastructure, but it's scandalous when those who supply the most essential service--writing the words that are the paper's product--expect to be paid fairly.

So I don't go in for this sort of subterfuge. And when told to go ahead and talk to someone about reviewing for the Journal, but to withhold the information that they were going to be offered less, I decided not to talk to her about it at all.  I wasn't going to solicit a contributor under that condition.

The other element of history is my background in journalism, in writing and in theatre.  In response to the first negative review I wrote in the Journal, my qualifications for reviewing were questioned in a letter to the editor by someone who had been in the show.

 I was able to respond that I had been a theatre practitioner (mostly in college and right after) and even recently a playwright, that I had written on theatre for three newspapers and several national magazines, and seen many plays "in at least 15 different cities and towns, from the back of New York restaurants to Broadway, and from the Guthrie in Minneapolis to summer barn theater in central Pennsylvania, and at the Changing Scene in Denver, which was down an alley past a dumpster and an old washing machine."

 I had seen actors who later became movie stars, as well as Kevin Kline's Hamlet, Glenda Jackson's Lady Macbeth, and John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in Pinter's No Man's Land.  I'd interviewed Jason Robards, Joe Papp, Christopher Durang.  I spent two weeks with playwrights, New York actors, directors, dramaturgs and critics at the O'Neill.  I knew Frank Rich, former New York Times critic.  I knew August Wilson.  They knew me.

In writing Stage Matters, I had and used the resources of the Internet, the HSU library and my personal library of over 400 books on theatre (including plays) and my recordings of plays and interviews, as well as the scripts of plays they were doing that that local theatres kindly supplied me when I requested them.

 I brought with me the experience and skills of a professional career that began in Boston, Washington and New York, and involved researching and writing a book that is still considered the classic on its subject, as well as many magazine stories for the New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian etc. etc., including periodicals in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.  I'd also published numerous features, reviews and essays in newspapers all over North America.  That includes pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, in the years I've resided here on the North Coast.

 Maybe that isn't what's wanted now. But that background, plus an absurd dedication to the craft and art of writing, is what they got, for $100 a pop.  And apparently what they decided they could no longer afford.  Not even for another week.

One more thing.  Part of my deal from the beginning was that the Journal was paying to publish my column in their print weekly and on their web page, but I reserved all other rights.  These days the Journal, like many other publications, is demanding a much broader range of rights from freelance writers as well as employees.  This may also have been a factor in my firing.  All of this is speculation.  But as we say in the newspaper game, informed speculation.


Julie Timmons said...

Very informative. I hadn't even realized they'd canned Doran. I wrote for the Journal (remember Maka McKenna?) back when they were still a monthly. Stopped when they became a weekly because I was working ft and it was hard to keep up. Another reason for stopping was that the NCJ wanted to claim rights to any work submitted and I would only agree to one-time use. My time there was pleasant but it sounds like things have really gotten ugly. Sorry for what happened to you.

Anonymous said...

What a shame. I have always eagerly looked forward to reading your theater reviews, finding them the most intelligent and well-balanced I've read in this area.