I’ve written four or five hundred pieces for The Chico News and Review, and a hundred more that appeared in its sister publications, The Sacramento News and Review and The Reno News and Review. I even used to write the unsigned editorials for The Sacramento N&R—never missing a deadline, and never requiring much time or energy from editors because I always sent in “clean” copy. I wrote cover stories, essays, humor, news, music reviews, and features on subjects from the plight of illegal immigrants to the legal problems that come with feeding wildlife. I wrote about artists and teachers, sickness and health, cops and robbers.
As a freelancer I was paid no benefits, earned no vacation or retirement pay, and saw gradual reductions in the rates paid for the stuff that induced sufficient numbers of people to read the rags so that advertisers would buy space.
In exchange, I was treated with varying degrees of disregard or disrespect by editors who often a) ignored submissions, neither accepting nor rejecting unsolicited manuscripts, b) treated people like me as non-voting members in the club they shared, and c) made unwarranted changes to copy without clearing them with me. Rudeness was common, though I’ve heard from many other writers that the new generation of editors almost everywhere seems to think themselves exempt from responding to material they receive in the mail— no longer subject to the quaint professional courtesy practiced by earlier generations of editors who always responded (on typewriters and via snail mail) to freelance submissions. They did so because it was a) polite to answer one’s mail, and b) because freelancers were seen as a resource, even when it took time to wade through a hundred submitted pieces to find a single gem.
Without undue boasting, I’ll mention that my resume includes four published books, as well as essays and stories in publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Threepenny Review and other national and regional magazines and newspapers. Nonetheless, I had to bow and scrape to get editors to take my copy on almost every idea I pitched, or every story I sent in. At The Chico News and Review, that got much worse after Bob Speer retired, and it became increasingly clear that nothing I wrote was going in those pages without a great deal of time-wasting wrangling.
Why, you ask, would editors treat the source of good copy so shabbily? Well mostly, I think, because they can. In the journalistic pecking order, freelancers are without “hand.” If editors ain’t too picky, they can always get writers who’ll work cheap or free, glad to have their vanity stroked by seeing their byline. For such writers, the money is secondary. Lots of writers give their work away in the hopes that they’ll amass a clipping file that will eventually get them paid gigs. Generally speaking, that ploy doesn’t pay off, but it does serve to drive down the price of good writing. Editors know this. (They may be rude and imperious in their tiny domains, but they ain’t stupid). Human nature being what it is, however, it’s hard for small people in small markets to resist letting subordinate freelancers know just who is boss.
Like most freelance writers, I’m used to such treatment, and reasonably willing to eat shit in order to get stuff to the readers for whom it was written. But, in the immortal words of poet e.e. cummings, “there is some shit I will not eat.” (Readers who have missed it should read “I Sing of Olaf,” the great anti-war poem in which this line appears.)
One of the editors at The Sacramento News & Review said she would no longer read anything I sent because she found me “difficult to work with.” I’d worked with her amicably for years, but after I bitched that she wasn’t acknowledging my submissions, that audacious complaint made her vow to never look at another word I wrote. Even if I’d written the “I Have a Dream” speech, the Declaration of Independence, and 50 Shades of Gray, she just couldn’t be bothered to look at it because, well, she just doesn’t have to, and she just ain’t gonna, thus changing her job description from “editor” to “petulant child.” This is an expeditious way to exercise editorial judgment, and it spares busy editors the time-consuming chore of actually reading stuff.
A more recent bit of petty disregard came from an editor who was, coincidentally, a former student of mine. He began to reject short reviews of the kind I’d been writing for years, suddenly finding them insufficiently analytical. I couldn’t find anything much different in the pieces he’d rejected than in the few hundred others the paper had been running almost weekly for a decade. What had changed, however, was that his former boss—the top dog editor who was a little more inclined to my writing—had retired, clearing the way for clearing out older writers and replacing their stuff with stuff from younger and hipper cronies more likely to reach the youthful college youth who were now young enough to be their children. These younger editors seem blind to the fact that the News & Review is also read by older readers who developed the habit of reading longtime contributors to the publications. I am one such reader, very inclined to read stuff written by writers like Juan-Carlos Selznick, Anthony Peyton-Porter, or Tom Gascoyne, because I like their stuff.
Mr. Von Kaenel, the sometimes ill-served publisher of all three News and Review papers, seems content to employ people who will (when it suits them) work to keep good writing out of his publications. But it’s common for publishers to stand behind their editors, right up until the week before they fire them. Several shabbily-treated former News and Review editors might readily confirm this point. In the realm of journalism, publishers sometimes piss on editors, and editors, in turn, sometimes piss on writers.