Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wherein lies my loyalty?

Loyalty is something I've been thinking about a bit lately--specifically as it has to do with my writing both as a full-time writer and editor and as a professional freelancer. Sometimes the waters can get a bit clouded and it is important that I constantly make sure what I'm doing is ethical and appropriate.

Ethics of Freelancing

I recently struggled with the ethical question of whether freelancing for a newspaper that had cut many full-time staff positions was contributing to what I consider harmful to the community and to the paper itself. I have very strong feelings about the importance of arts coverage--anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows this. Arts coverage is important to the newspaper, to artists and arts organizations, to arts patrons, to the community, and (to get really philosophical) to the future.

It is the passion that I have for writing about the arts that has me freelancing for the Lansing State Journal at all. Newspapers don't exactly pay good rates for freelancers most of the time. It's not a way that you could make a living. It's why I will sometimes tell people that I consider the writing of my column to be my community service. I'm able to use what talents I have to support the artistic growth of our community. I write because I'm passionate about the community we have here and I believe that the more people who get involved in the community--whether as a participant or an audience member--the healthier of a community we are going to have in terms of economics, quality of life, safety, education, and interpersonal connections.

Priorities of a Freelancer

That said, no matter how passionate I am about the arts community, the harsh reality is that covering it is never going to be at the top of my list of priorities. At the top of the list are the needs of my family, which is going to mean pursuing work that keeps us housed, clothed, fed, and provides for my son's current and future education. Next on the list is going to be EI, the employer I have been with for 15 years. They are fantastic to work for and the writing I do for them and for the hospitality industry is interesting, challenging, and (hopefully) of benefit to people around the world. This is why a freelancer is never going to hold the same value to the community as a full-time arts reporter. Yes, I think that what I do provides a service to the community, but I never wanted to take the place of full-time arts writers who could truly cover the arts beat.

However, the stark reality is that my refusing to freelance wouldn't bring back a single full-time employee. The issues that newspapers are struggling with right now go far deeper than that. Nor would taking a stand by refusing to write benefit anyone--and it would end up hurting quite a few.

So there is one question of loyalty: What is my loyalty to the profession of arts writers and how do my actions impact that profession?

Another question of loyalty is whether my loyalty is to the newspaper first or the arts community first? I'd like to think that in most cases it is possible to be comfortably loyal to both. Yet there are times when the goals of the two can come into conflict.

What makes me a journalist?

I grew up in newsrooms as my father was a community editor who would frequently take my brother and I with him to work. I remember interviewing him about his work for a class project when I was in elementary school. As he explained to me why he was a journalist, I became star-struck with my own father. He passed on to me the value that journalism is about service--service to the community, to our country, and to individuals.

I started working on school newspapers in junior high and knew then that I would be a journalist. I took classes in it all through junior high and high school and eventually earned a bachelor's in journalism from MSU. By then, I was already working full time for the Journal (though I had to promise my editor that I would finish getting my degree).

Leaving the Journal to come to EI was one of the toughest things I ever did, even though I know now it was the right thing to do career-wise. However, a change in employment doesn't take the journalist out of a person. It remains my training and I retain many of the ideals that I grew up with.

I often think that the tension between the journalistic background and the love that I've developed for the arts community is a healthy thing because it forces me to evaluate what I do, to listen to what others are saying, and to stay constantly open to learning.

When I attended the arts journalism fellowship at USC a few years ago, I made friends with colleagues who shared the same struggles and brought a myriad of approaches to those issues. I saw that the types of things we struggle with here in Lansing are struggles found in communities all around the country. There is no lack of art in Flyover country, but there is a lack of coverage and awareness. The fellowship also made me aware of my own shortcomings and helped me identify areas that I need to pursue greater education. Sasha Anawelt, the director of the program (and an absolutely amazing woman), provided a lot of encouragement in this area, giving the wonderful advice that if I stay open to receive the art that I'm experiencing, then I'll find a fair way to write about it.

Now I've gone off on several tangents, when what I eventually wanted to get to was this: If I'm called upon to choose a loyalty, it actually won't be to either the Lansing State Journal or any individual arts organization in the community. Instead, it will be to my ideals; it will be to the necessity of both journalism and art for a healthy community.


Jane said...

Excellent thoughts, Bridgette. I commend you on your ability to stay impartial while juggling what might look like competing interests and you do it with such integrity and sincerity

Jane said...

Thanks for your integrity and sincerity Bridgette. Kudos for balancing everything so well.

Chris said...

VERY meaningful words. And sadly ironic how they apply to so many different careers in different fields right now. I for one, as both fan and actor, am pleased and impressed with the publicity you continue to give to the arts. It is hard to see positive change anywhere these days. Thanks for your passion in the "little slice" of your world that we get to see!

Ron Redman said...

Sounds like everyone here might enjoy a blog I've been reading for a while now..
It addresses some of these issues and has other good practical advice.

Bridgette Redman said...

Thank you, Jane. It is a balancing act and I try to stay on my feet and at least be aware of what might cause me to fall.

Chris, you're right--it can apply to many different careers. The arts have enriched my life in many ways and I am grateful that I have an opportunity to give back. I think one of the main losses that newspapers are facing is that freelancers are far more likely to be doing stories that are simply publicity. That's important, but what's even more important are the harder news stories about the arts--stories that are much harder for a freelancer to cover.

Hi Ron! Welcome to my blog, o' brother-in-law, mine. Did you find me through Facebook? I'll have to go check out that blog. Thank you for the link.

Anonymous said...

It's a conundrum all of us freelancers struggle with all the time - and you described it so well.

In fact, I thought about it today even before I read your blog entry. In a series of e-mail correspondence, I encouraged a theater company in Southeast Michigan to contact another in West Michigan regarding their two upcoming festivals. Should I have done that? Is that within the scope of my job as an arts editor and journalist? I dunno - but I felt it was important for the two to introduce themselves and explore what excitement could be launched between them.

As you know, we often encounter such gray areas in our work - and to me, the correct answer to such questions is this: What will the harm be, or what good may come out of it. And the good side almost always wins!

Thanks for your thoughtful discussion on this topic!

Bridgette Redman said...

That's also where I think it helps that those of us who are colleagues in the industry are able to talk to each other. We can end up navigating our way together.

In the NEA session led by Michael Phillips, he admonished us to: "Live in the world of theater and the wider world. Theater is our calling. We belong on the other side of the fence, but there is no border patrol. We're double agents."

I suppose some of it also comes from my background. My father was a community editor and he was involved in his community. He was in Rotary, he served on association boards, and volunteered in the community. It was expected that he would be a part of the community he covered--even when he lived in another one. It seems to me a much more recent thing that we expect journalists to keep themselves separate and not "belong" to what they cover.