Caught betwixt and between leaves one a little exasperated and not a little depressed. With limited funds there are limited opportunities, this latest life-change has left me feeling a little like the old Statler Bros song lyric: “counting flowers on the wall…” I have recently left a publication which provided a “mast” to fly my flag and interact with some wonderful people. I will not name this organization, but keen-eyed followers may be able to guess the name.
Having spent about 18 months (plus) learning that I’m pretty good at interviewing celebs (that’s spelt working actors by the way and other folks in the industry) covering conventions, Victoria’s Secret events –as well as meeting some very lovely models of same – and watching a ton of newly released films and reviewing them, along with television shows, I realized a couple of things.
First of all, my abilities as a writer were better than I thought. On top of the above items mentioned as part of my personal training process, I also covered local Las Vegas events and each time the recipients of my coverage thanked me profusely for my efforts. It sort of feels like journalism is similar to riding a bike; once trained never forgotten, no matter how long the stretch…
Secondly, I found that I was in a lose/lose situation.
What started as (or what seemed to be) a great offer, soon turned into something very different. Granted, I was still under a certain amount of shock from the very invasive and “hard to recover from” operations that saved my life on August 31, 2012. *On a side note, I discovered while still in hospital, that Michael Duncan Clarke (Green Mile, Armageddon) had the exact same procedure…He did not make it.*
In my England home, I could no longer pay the rent, I owed thousands of pounds and no landlord wanted to let me lease a property with my daughter and her boyfriend. With the prospect of bankruptcy looming, no homeowner trusted me not to default on my share of the rent.
I had been working for website, since April 2013 while still living in my Kesgrave three bedroom home. I’d been released from my job as Prison Officer (ill-health retired with a tiny pension) and given a payout. Hindsight being 20-20, I should have taken less of a payout and more of the pension.
Still, I was writing professionally for a news publication that seemed to be intent on growing in both viewing figures as well as respectability. Pay was pretty dire, but it would increase as our ratings got better (I had been told) and hard work seemed to equal a pretty good payout. The owner, promised to pay his writers and editors fairly for their work.
On the respectability front, the paper had sources in South Africa who claimed that in June, 2013 Nelson Mandela died, despite what was reported by the corrupt government and the world’s media. This combined with a serious approach to gathering and writing articles raised our ranking and this too felt legitimate.
After writing an article on Madiba’s death where I quoted what we had learned, (Our then World News Editor actually released the story before we could verify another source.) the website was then attacked for three days straight and I was sent to South Africa to talk to sources.
Back in those days, the site seemed to be a proper news publication trying to compete on a global scale. Meanwhile back in the UK by December 2013, I had nowhere to live and my boss then made the offer for me to come over to the USA and stay with him until I “could get on my feet.”
Desperate, I accepted. I paid for my airline tickets and to have my few remaining things shipped over. The cost of all this was covered by me selling practically everything I owned, I then flew to Las Vegas and was met by my employer.
On one hand, my joining the site in Vegas was an excellent chance for me to write for more than my personal blog in a “safe” environment and after an almost 32 year absence a return “home.” I’d been posting up to 8 articles a day for some time on my own site; all for free before working for Vegas site. This was a continuance of working professionally and, in the beginning, my stories were getting hundred’s of thousands of views and I soon joined the “million” club. (Million equaling views and not money.)
Oddly, these huge view counts virtually ended once I got back stateside. Again, making me believe that some “blackhat” techniques were being used by someone.
The money, apart from one very exceptional paycheck, was not brilliant; I was having to use up my small pension from HMPS to live and still running out. The cost of living in the US was much less than that of the UK, I was told, and this turned out to be false. Still, the fact that I had a place to stay and had use of a vehicle was a Godsend and the only real problem was that views on my articles were steadily decreasing.
While being associated with this site gave me a chance to write for, and become “part owner” of a rising news publication, a lot of the opportunities I got for myself. Once I arrived in Vegas, I began responding to all the “invites” received by the paper to events that excited me.
Comic con, Star Trek con, et al. I began making better contacts with the local Hollywood studio reps at the screenings and became a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society. I got our invitations from the studios sorted out as we were missing a lot, apparently, and in short order I was going to around 5 to 7 screenings per week and writing reviews on the films.
On top of that, I was encouraging other writers (I was an editor) to write reviews on popular television shows to increase our Entertainment area. I also worked very hard to do interviews with many actors and other people in the industry to solidify our exclusive content.
Watching the analytic performance of my articles I noticed a disturbing trend. My views were struggling to reach their previous numbers. Where my average per story was around 50,000 and up in the beginning; now all articles died out at fewer than 10,000.
Combined with penalties from Google News, the site was a member, my pay packets got smaller and smaller. I was on a pay system of (supposedly) $600 per month stipend for being an editor and for doing all the above-mentioned things to set up our entertainment section. Anything over that stipend was to come from my view counts.
The stipend money was taken to pay for my rent. As mentioned above, it was $600 pm for (in the beginning) a single room, shared bathroom and use of the communal areas. Later I got the bathroom all to myself, which had been my understanding all along, and the other bedroom as an office. I was paid between $300 and $500 for my views, but my boss was quick to point out that he was “carrying me.”
My time spent setting up our entertainment section was paying off with interview offers, event invites and despite the fall in viewing figures, we were getting pretty good reception from the industry in terms of responses to queries, et al.
There were many “questionable” things about the business that I either ignored or took at face value. Continual meetings to get money from local politicians and other deep-pocketed investors were the order of the day for most of the year and completely outside my realm of expertise.
I was more interested in writing articles, building a respectable base for the entertainment section of the paper and expanding my contacts in the industry. I also felt that despite the gratitude I’d initially felt at the offer, I was being taken advantage of.
The biggest issue was the change of direction of the publisher. When I first started writing for the paper, his goal was two-fold. To pay each writer fairly for their work and to build the site up to be able to eventually compete and stay in the top 50 news sites in the US.
This emphasis slowly changed. The site was getting a lot of malware problems, a lot of Google penalties and a lot of bad press from former writers who were leaving in droves. Furthermore, they were complaining that the owner of the site was running a pyramid scheme.
While this allegation was not true, at no time did the publisher ask for money from anyone working for the paper, he got funds from advertisers and investors and things were not adding up for a great many who worked for the paper.
There were a great many of these disgruntled folks who got caught up in the penalty issues, the site was hit several times, some were given poor information or training and others just couldn’t get the program. Still more were apparently lied to.
This was something beginning to creep into my dealings with the publisher, along with getting cast in the role of general dog’s body or servant. What started as my not minding doing the odd favor for a “friend” became an overwhelming amount of time doing things that he could not be bothered to do.
Over the time period living with the publisher, I was told about serious illnesses that he had just been diagnosed with such as cancer. A lot of promises never transpired and as things trundled along, the communication became less and less. Information was segmented and only parts were passed on. As a “late stage” co-founder and 2 percent owner of the company, I found myself continually out of the loop and learning about important things second-hand.
As my dissatisfaction continued to grow, the relationship began to sour. This “friend” who’d made such a great offer suddenly seemed to think it was okay to yell at me in a meeting or during phone calls…it was not. After this happened for the fourth time, I realized that the mutual respect that had once apparently been there was now gone.
After being told repeatedly how it was possible to exist for $300 a month, the money kept getting smaller as were the views. As mentioned above, it began to look like the massive view counts at the beginning may have had more to do with questionable practices that probably helped to bring about the penalties.
Overall, I enjoyed the work I was doing. Meeting celebrities, watching new films and writing about things that I was addicted to, attending comic cons, and doing entertainment journalism was a dream come true. Sadly, once the trust was gone and the “scales” lifted from my eyes, I realized that things were not all as advertised.
For one thing, the site was never going to be sold, as long as money was being made by the publisher 2 percent of this company was never going to amount to anything. Another issue was the accusations of the site being a “content mill.” This allegation was, pretty much, true. The amount of articles required was staggering. I myself wrote almost 1,900 articles from the end of April 2013 to December 2014. For a year I wrote and published between 8 to 10 stories per day on weekdays and up to 15 per day on Saturday and Sunday; a total of around 70 to 80 articles per week.
Before I left, I was contracted to write 62 articles per month. When I began attending the Las Vegas conventions, as mentioned above, the paper was hitting the number one slot in Google News and was generating interviews and making some good contacts. While I was at the Vampire Diaries Convention (A truly abysmal experience as the entire group running the event were small-minded and elitist.) I was called during the second day by the publisher who told me that the conventions would have to go. Telling me that our output was suffering I was informed that I needed to write more on the weekends. Not more original output, but more regurgitated stories for the readers.
Another charge of “citizen journalists” was also levied against the site and there was a lot of truth to this as well. In most cases, writers for the site were not journalists. I had been trained years ago but many who wrote for us had never been trained apart from what our boot camp gave them when they joined.
Granted not every writer was asked to produce such huge amounts of articles but the idea was to have a lot of stories for people to choose from. In other words a content mill. I did personally learn just how much I could write each day and I also found out that self-discipline was in my vocabulary after all.
Of course writing such copious amounts, with little in the way of monetary gain and little support for original output, led to me becoming disillusioned with the job. This went a long way to my decision to leave, but I did so secure in the knowledge that my first love of writing (which really ties with acting as first love but only just) is something that I should be doing full-time. *I promise to refrain from using such long-winded sentences in future, if I do so.*
While my time with the site was a learning experience, it was also an exercise in frustration. Despite this, I truly enjoyed my time as the head of Entertainment and only wish that I’d been more au fait with the world of online journalism.
I do not consider myself a “citizen journalist.” I did take courses years ago and apart from the beginning of my time with the paper, attempted to do unique and exclusive content for my section. Ultimately this was never going to be a winning situation apart from lip service as volume was required, not originality.
My leaving has put me in the position of counting flowers on the wall, if there were any, as my current abode is out in the middle of nowhere with shaky Internet. While I attempt to get a better set up to continue my writing for other sites, which I am currently doing, interviews and reviews are continuing as and when a signal makes itself available.
Rest assured, I would have left my job earlier if funds were available. Unfortunately pay was kept shallow enough that it was not possible for me to make good my escape. At one rather insulting point, my benefactor informed me that he purposefully kept my pay low so I would know what if felt like to be broke in Las Vegas! I told him in no uncertain terms that I already knew what being broke felt like in a lot of different places, I needed no “teaching.”
I am currently writing more on my own blog with plans of setting it up for proper advertising and I’m working for another news site and writing my memoirs (Goodness that sound very “up my own arse” doesn’t it?), for those who are interested, from my years working for Her Majesty’s Prison Service.
In many ways this is a cautionary tale; when you hear too many things that, ultimately, you want; pay attention and realize that you are probably being played. Some people are very good at feeding information that you will believe because you want to.
Since leaving, my life has been hectic and full of reflection. Sort of like the Flowers on the Wall song says, “playing solitaire till dawn…” has given me plenty of time to realize that at the site, things were “okay” for so long because I wanted them to be. Apart from the money issue, I was having fun and learning that I could do so much more than I realized. Finally my end came, like so many others, because of greed and the fact that the company dream as portrayed, was not real.
As a final point: I left the publication on December 31, 2014, despite fulfilling my amount of articles and doing interviews and covering events right up till the end, I have received no money since my half-pay packet in December. So unlike the song’s message, no one is too concerned about my, or anyone else’s, happiness.