Saturday, August 30, 2008

What's a Writer in Portland to Do?

The Portland Mercury ran two concurrent stories this week regarding local media, both affecting local writers--at least to a degree.

On one hand, The Oregonian (for who I have been writing of late, book reviews and travel articles) offered a buyout via email for 100 employees. The publisher, Fred A. Stickel, did not choose the writers; they need to choose themselves. Last year, 50 were bought out. The package consists of a year's pay plus benefits for two years. One younger writer was quoted as saying it was a good deal--they could as well get another writing job. Older columnists were understandably torn. (Story at

On the other hand, a local freelance writer took PDX Magazine to court for both late-pay and no-pay. In disregard of their posted submission guidelines, the three-year old magazine apparently has trouble paying its writers within the allotted 30 days. He filed suit in small claims court, the sheriff serving papers to PDX. The paper paid him, but failed to show up for the actual court date--the judge awarded the writer (Michael O'Connor is his name) court fees, ordering the magazine to pay up. (Story at

This brings up two interesting issues over audience and business, and whether Portland can sustain a community of writers and, hence, writing culture:

Newspapers are suffering most of all. Why subscribe to a newspaper and pay when one can just flip on the computer at a coffee shop for free and see the news compressed into bite-size sentences? From my understanding, the current paying audience for The O consists largely of families, generally middle-aged, in the suburbs surrounding Portland rather than Portland itself. A few years back, the paper launched an advertising campaign designed to pull in young, hipster-readers to the fold. I doubt this will work.

For one thing, the new generation is becoming increasingly weaned on technology rather than paper. Librarians find themselves in the same predicament, helping patrons reference online databases rather than printed books. Not to mention that cultural distrust the young feel for all things "establishment," which generally means "conservative." I fear newspapers across the country are facing the same dilemna, and advertising money is following suit, dropping contracts in favor of the Internet--where the real money and culture is.

The other issue is one of youth culture itself. PDX Magazine is hip, glossy, new-fangled. How old publisher Brett Beber is I don't know, but the editor Hollyanna McCollom is young, no older than her 30's, I presume. If this is the case, it appears that the youth culture as a whole in hipster-saturated Portland, Oregon is sweeping in to fill the void and doesn't know what the hell it's doing, or at the very least is sloppy. It's not uncommon for my wife and I to visit a new business and get shoddy service, sub-par goods (whether it be food or otherwise), and in general a kind of half-assed aesthetic based more on style than substance.

As a writer, what am I to do? I continue with The Oregonian but cannot expect to ever work there full-time, it seems. Not when they're willing to buy out people who have worked there for five-and-a-half years rather than thirty. In today's economy, print just isn't where it's at, and the advertising dollars know it.

But working as a freelance writer, then, must involve also looking for new outlets that look suspiciously like PDX Magazine. And if such media doesn't pay on time or at all, then what? What happens to the writers? The information? The readers?

I asked my neighbor, a published-writer many times over, if it was still possible to make a living on writing. She said Yes. There are always editors, she told me, and editors need writers. But whatever leverage is there is tenuous at best, I think. With such finicky readers, it's a matter of finding the outlet readers want, and an editor willing to keep their staff happy and compensated.