Monday, February 2, 2009

PJM revenue model analyzed

I'm sure it's all very simple, if you're an accountant. But I'm not an accountant, and I don't even know whether those calculations are based on the real contract terms or are just someone's speculation.

If I had been good at math, I wouldn't have become a journalist, OK? (It's a career field occupied almost entirely by the math-deficient.) But the rock star gig didn't work out, so . . . I was driving a forklift in 1986 before somebody offered me a newspaper job for $4.50 an hour, and a year ago, I walked away from The Washington Times after 10 years as an assistant national editor. People said I was crazy, and I won't argue with 'em, but it was like God said, "Go," so I went.

As I keep reminding you people, I write for money. Fee-for-service. An honest proposition:

  • If you can hire somebody else cheaper and get satisfactory results, go for it.
  • If somebody else offers me more money to do the same job, I'll go for that.
  • If you don't like what I turn in, I'll pitch it somewhere else.
  • And if I start feeling I'm not being treated right, I can find my way to the door.
Nobody's forcing me to write, and nobody's forcing you to hire me. It's called "capitalism" and "freedom," and nobody's taking advantage of anyone else. To be a capitalist worker -- that is to say, a labor entrepreneur -- you must be prepared to ask yourself some tough questions:

  • If you let somebody take advantage of you, whose fault is that?
  • If your employer does not treat you with courtesy and respect, whose fault is that?
  • If other employees seem to get favorable treatment, why don't you?

. . . and perhaps most importantly . . .

  • If you are so damned mistreated and underpaid, why is it you can't find somebody to pay you more and treat you better?
If you can't accept responsibility for your own shortcomings and failures, if you want to wallow in self-pity, and sit around whining and grumbling and destroying morale because you think the world owes you a living, well . . . There's 6 billion people on this planet, pal, and there's no shortage of losers.

One day, when I was working as a sports editor for the notorious Otis Brumby (ask any journalist in Georgia about Otis's reputation), I found myself visiting the office of a high school basketball coach, who was called away from our interview to deal with school business. And as I sat there waiting, I started reading a little Xeroxed poster on the wall:

If you work for a man, in heaven's name, work for him!
If he pays you wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him, speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents.
I think if I worked for a man I would work for him. I would not work for him a part of the time, and the rest of the time work against him. I would give an undivided service or none. If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.
This I took to heart and from that day forward, as long as I worked for Otis Brumby, I worked for Otis Brumby. About another four months was all I could stand, and then I went back to driving a forklift, playing in rock-and-roll bands and even, for a while, working as a disc jockey in a gentlemen's club (fired for "fraternization," but I was a bachelor and a Democrat back then).

Two months later, I got hired to work for Burgett Mooney, who once stood by me when he had every reason to fire me. It wasn't pity or friendship, but he thought I was a good writer, so he kept me on. And I worked for him as long as I could afford to, then got hired by The Washington Times. There, too, there were occasions when they had every reason to fire me, but they thought I was a good writer, so they kept me on, until finally it was time to go.

Regrets? Well, it's unfortunate I missed the opportunity to work for Jeffrey "Real Journalistic Standards" Birnbaum, but you roll the dice and take your chances, eh? How I envy those who've had that good fortune . . .

Now, I'm seeing all the fallout and recriminations from the dissolution of the PJM network, just like I watched Culture11 do its Hindenburg-at-Lakehurst thing, and this morning I feel oddly earnest about these phenomena. (Conor Friedersdorf, take note.)

James Wolcott is amused. It is never a good thing when that asshole is amused, especially when so many people seem so eager to give him cause for amusement. By any reasonable estimate, the folks at Culture11 got chumped far worse than any PJM network member could claim to have gotten chumped. And yet I cannot help but notice that the folks who got played by Culture11 all seem eager to sing the praises of their doomed enterprise and their erstwhile employers, while some of the soon-to-be-former PJM networkers appear on the verge of drowning in the quicksand of bitterness.

So, before one of these Young Turks of the intellectual Right again accuses me of being a "tedious nothing," let me try to find a conclusion. No amount of ability can guarantee success. One of the most talented rock singers I ever knew turned 40 working as a bartender in Roswell, Ga. Loyalty and hard work are not always rewarded, and sometimes good people get screwed over through no fault of their own. Even the most virtuous people can fall victim to the malice or incompetence of others.

Yet as tragic as those sorts of failures might seem, a man can fail in this world and still retain his honor, so long as others can look at his life and say, "He did what he believed was right, and did it as best as he could."

The real tragedy is the man who was offered a chance at success -- the kind of chance many others had worked and prayed for -- but gave less than his best, then sought scapegoats to blame for the failure that was entirely his own fault.

Failure may be but a temporary detour on the road to success. Dishonor leaves a permanent stain.

UPDATE: It's like an omen or something: Byron York -- one of the genuinely nice guys in conservative journalism -- gets hired away from National Review by the Washington Examiner. I hear they pay well, but the Examiner is notorious as the Bermuda Triangle for Washington journalists. The next time you see Byron's name in print, it will be on a milk carton: MISSING! DISAPPEARED FEBRUARY 2009. IF YOU KNOW WHERE BYRON IS, PLEASE CALL 1-800......

UPDATE II: The Mystery Freelancer e-mails:
I have been increasingly frustrated by the petulant nature of the fallout from the event. I mean using PJM as your only source of income? Talk of betrayal? Anyway you wrote a piece that echoes my sentiments to a letter (though different experience). The freelance writing game is not exactly for the faint-hearted. It sucks to lose a source of income, but you just got to pick yourself up and get on with it. And two months warning? Hell, I have had freelance gigs where it was less than a week. No doubt you have too.
Heh. Try this: Friday night, I go cover a high-school football game for a weekly that publishes every Tuesday. About 10 o'clock Saturday morning, I get a call telling me not to bother writing up the story. The paper's going out of business immediately, and could I please come get my final check before they lock up the office at noon?


  1. RSM writes: "I cannot help but notice that the folks who got played by Culture11 all seem eager to sing the praises of their doomed enterprise and their erstwhile employers, while some of the soon-to-be-former PJM networkers appear on the verge of drowning in the quicksand of bitterness.

    So, before one of these Young Turks of the intellectual Right again accuses me of being a 'tedious nothing,' let me try to find a conclusion."

    Your post is riddled with factual inaccuracies. No one on the right has called you a "tedious nothing" -- that was Freddie, a Young Turk of the left, and one who never worked for Culture11.

    Also, aside from Ericka Anderson in your comments section, no one at Culture11 has weighed in to praise management or to criticize it, so it is obviously inaccurate to say that everyone has done so.

  2. And yet I cannot help but notice that the folks who got played by Culture11 all seem eager to sing the praises of their doomed enterprise and their erstwhile employers,...

    That's exactly right. And you won't. We fully realize how fortunate we were.

    For 8 months (we were online for 5), the investors of Culture11 paid me and my crew to write just about anything we wanted. It was the type of job where you wake up every day thinking, "Do they realize they are paying us to write? Don't they know we (and thousands of other people) are willing to do this for free!"

    Sure, being out of work sucks. But I chose this career. Hopefully I can find someone else to pay me to write/edit. But if I don't -- if I have to go back to working in a factory in Missouri -- I'll look back on that time as one of the most incredible opportunities of my life.

    The fact that we live in a country and an era when people like me -- people who have, at best, only a modicum of writing ability -- can get paid to write amazes me. It truly does. And to get paid to write what I wanted is beyond astounding. What other job gives you such freedom? Even when I had a jobs digging postholes for fences not one would have ever paid me to dig holes anywhere I wanted.

    It pains me to see journalists out of work. I understand more and more everyday the fear and anxiety they are feeling. But everyone should recognize that getting paid to write -- whether for a newspaper, for an online magazine, or for a blog -- is more a blessing than a right.