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.