"Sunset Spiderweb, September 1, 2022, North Hero, Vermont" by Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Journeyman Journalist, 1979: No strings attached

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"Sunset Spiderweb, September 1, 2022, North Hero, Vermont" by Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
“Sunset Spiderweb, September 1, 2022, North Hero, Vermont” by Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

Does a reporter create a conflict of interest by accepting publicity work from the subject of a story? I walked into this problem and got tangled in some strings early in my news career.

Journalists are expected to be objective, or at that was the assumption 40 years ago. Today many seem to be advocates for one source or another, which leads to suspicion and distrust of the media.

Like many kinds of corruption, it starts small.

As a freelancer, I preferred to cover the arts, particularly the performing arts. This was less important to my small weekly newspaper than the day-to-day news of the community. As an editor I resolved this by creating an arts page for the paper and writing features for that.

In my journal entry for September 15, 1979 I mentioned that that I “saw marionettes show” as part of a whirlwind day of assignments. I wrote a review and a feature about the performer and published it in that week’s edition.

Then, the next week, I wrote this journal entry:

A bit of excitement today — I agreed to write copy for a PR brochure for [artist]’s marionette show. Looks like a low-budget operation, so I’ll do what I can to keep the costs down. But success here could lead to other freelance work with other artists, and particularly a script writing collaboration with him on a story about Faeries. A stimulating thought …

Journal, Volume II
21 September 1979

Two days later, I was at work on it: “Tonight I wrote up a surprisingly good draft of the marionette PR…” I wrote.

And then, the next day:

A delightful day. The highlight, other than putting the paper together and writing a long letter … was completing and presenting the publicity brochure to [the puppeteer].

I was really pleased with the copy — simple, dignified, and persuasive — as well as with the form of the design and copy, all of which fit together purposefully. I must have had some inspiration for that, for which I am thankful.

The tough part was settling on a price to ask. The [puppeteer’s family] live on a fairly self-sufficient place, apparently with little income, and I wasn’t sure what my time was worth. But he was ready — even willing — to accept $20.00, which made us all feel much more at ease.

Journal, Volume II
25 September 1979

No harm, no foul here, Howard. But next time, here’s some advice from an older and wiser you.

Budding Writer Howard: Always, always, always know the value of your work. You can agree to do it for free, you can offer a discount. You can negotiate down. But not knowing what you’re worth will lead to bad business choices, as you should have learned by now. “Make me an offer” doesn’t cut it.

Neither does making your decision based on your assessment of the buyer’s potential financial situation. The family lived simply in an old farmhouse heated with a wood stove. In Vermont, that’s often a lifestyle rather than a flag of poverty.

Journeyman Journalist Howard: Ethically, it could have been much worse. You might have accepted the assignment to write public relations copy first, then done the review. Still, this puts you in an awkward position if a review ever comes up again.

And yet, when you eventually move on to a public relations job, now there will be something in your portfolio to show the new employer.

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