Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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Bill argues with self about casual hell

Over the last two nights, I've made some posts to CAJ-L on being stuck in casual hell as a journalist — the worst shifts, the worst work and the least security. For the hell of it, I argued the pro and the con sides in different posts.

It was actually an offshoot of a thread called Colby Cosh: Who let him in?

The Lisa Johnson referred to below is a CBC reporter in Nelson, B.C.:

Lisa Johnson wrote:
> This question of being able to afford financial uncertainty
> is an important one.
>
> As a young journalist, I think one of the big initial hurdles
> is the ability to withstand a years-long period of financial
> uncertainty to get where you want to be.

That's where rich parents come in handy. In No Logo, Naomi Klein argued that only the children of the well-off can now afford to work in what she calls the cultural industries because they're the only ones  who can afford unpaid internships, which have become a key stepping-stone.

I'd really like to see a study on the socio-economic backgrounds of students in two-year college programs vs. those who go through four-year degree ones.

Another thing is if you're lucky enough to have really rich parents, you can engage in the type of resume-building activities that impress upper-middle-class managers and, just as importantly, shows that you're one of them.

> More experienced people on the list who have faced job loss
> later in their careers might say the uncertainty never goes
> away. I'm sure that's true for some.  But it's different at
> the beginning because having a financial cushion can
> determine whether you can really have a career in the field at all.
>
> At CBC, I see casuals who are doing very well quit. It seems
> a shame when it takes skill and talent and luck to get in the
> door. But they have to walk out of it because they can't
> afford not knowing how much work they'll get each September
> and January. (To be fair, this isn't always a question of
> privilege. Some also choose lifestyles or buy condos that
> mean they can't afford sporadic work).

Some like to eat too, and excessively sporadic work can get in the way of that.

I once overheard one CBC casual tell the others that while she'd love them to bring her a coffee back from Starbuck's (there's kitty-corner from the northwest corner of the CBC edifice in T.0.), she only had two shifts in the last two weeks and was just flat broke. This person, from what I could see of her work, was good at her job.

Another one, when asked by her colleagues when she was back in next, told them she hadn't been scheduled for anything for two weeks. “Oh, but that's OK. I needed to clean my apartment,” she said brightly, keeping the game face on.

Must have been one filthy apartment.

Some casuals, upon making inquiries when their work dries up suddenly, have been told (words to the effect of): “You're a casual. We don't have to tell you why.”

And some people just walk away from that kind of life to one where they can afford a cup of coffee or consider owning their residence. Imagine.

Keep in mind, this isn't restricted to media. High-tech companies are notorious for having separate-and-unequal staff-contractor workforce mixes.

> At other places (and other fields, NGOs especially) the only
> way in is volunteering, and unpaid internships. Which is a
> great way to learn, but only feasible for someone with other
> money to live on.

See my original point.

Bill Doskoch
Toronto, ON

Speaking strictly for himself

That generated one response. Here is the exchange:

Shannon Lee Manion wrote:

> Things don't get better for us poor writers because, well, as
> Bill insinuated, if we are part-timers or casual, or heaven
> forbid, one of those icky freelancers, then we just don't measure up.

I didn't insinuate anything of the sort. I was responding primarily to Lisa Johnson and the topic of why seemingly talented casuals might drift away from the CBC.

Now, since no one argued the positive side for casual work at CBC, allow me to argue against myself.

It does pay relatively well, although you have to negotiate a bit. One reason it does pay well for casuals is because you get pay in lieu of benefits.

Many people have found that if they moved from casual to staff jobs at CBC, their take-home pay actually goes down.

If you have a really good boss there, and there are some excellent ones (you know who you are!), you can still be assigned some interesting work, even as a casual. As an example, I got to do online news features and analysis for the 2003 Saskatchewan election and was flown out to help cover it on election night (and a great election it was! Right down to the wire!).

My cheques never bounced and I was always paid on time.

With other freelance clients, that doesn't always happen.

I was allowed to sit in on professional development workshops (on my time :) ) which is an added bonus. One positive about the CBC is it has a strong training component in its culture.

Since CBC does buy freelance material, if one were wise, they would use their casual time at the Corpse to network and and develop some clients on the various shows (it's a huge content beast).

For many people, a casual gig there does lead to full-time work. In some cases, however, the union has had to fight to get people hired into staff heaven after they'd been in casual-contract purgatory for  up to five years or so.

When the great CEP-Guild battle was going on in the fall of 2003, I overheard many people say “the guild got me on staff,” and that sealed their choice for them.

But be mindful of those horror stories I told, because they happen.

The sad fact is that casuals are — in general, and in any business — cannon fodder by definition. If revenues drop or the budget/staffing levels otherwise need a downward adjustment, you know who's going to take the hit first. Companies try to figure out what their core staffing requirements are and then use casuals/contracts to expand and contract around that as necessary.

I've seen life from most sides in this business, and I would say one caution about doing casual work is  don't think it's forever (remember the above graf). The CBC pays well, but if you're a full-time casual there, then you've effectively got one client.

If you're a freelancer, hopefully you've got several decent clients. Do the math: If you have five clients and a nightmare scenario emerges with one of them, then you've only lost 20 per cent of your income — hopefully on a temporary basis.

If you're a full-time casual in a large organization and you lose your gig, you lose 100 per cent of your income and have none of the advantages of the staff person (seniority, call-back rights, etc.) and none of the advantages of a full-time freelancer (for one thing, your network will have probably atrophied).

> The way the headline should really read is, 'Broke, the shame
> barrier,' because this is the shame, the working woman too
> poor to afford a cup of coffee or the down-and-out scribe who
> can't afford to while away a summer on an unpaid internship
> or, indeed, to do any sort of freebie schtick. Better to work
> at Walmart, or drive hack or waitress; at least one makes
> enough to eat.
>
> Oh, the difference one little comma makes.
>
> sign me, Shannon, discouraged in Ottawa

At most of the worker-bee level jobs in Canadian journalism, there will likely always be an oversupply of journalists relative to the work available, even more so for the really desirable ones, and that depresses the price.

Unless you can make yourself a brand, it's hard to command a premium for yourself.

But compare it to some other areas of the communicative arts. Most young visual artists I know have day jobs. They say if they get *really* big some day, they'll make $50,000 per year.

Same for most dancers.

How many actors in this country make a living solely off acting?

Every notice how many Governor General's Award-winning fiction writers and poets teach English for a living, as opposed to making one just from selling their books?

I was at a lecture by documentary filmmaker Peter Wintonick ('Manufacturing Consent') last month, and he sarcastically referred to the “vow of poverty” he took in 1982 when he decided on his career path.

Maybe a more logical path for some with a creative urge to report/write/comment but who aren't generating enough income as a journalist is to have a day job and start up a blog or some other self-publishing venture as a hobby.

Bill Doskoch

Speaking strictly for himself

Toronto, ON

Tue, January 25 2005 » CAJ-L postings, Main Page

4 Responses

  1. Anonymous August 16 2005 @ 7:46 pm

    I wish more people would read this.
    I have spent the past four years bouncing from casual to temp to casual to contract back to casual at the CBC.
    The Corp will specifically schedule you 'off' for three weeks once they realize you're verging on 13 weeks straight service, and therefore should receive a boost in your employment status (or at least benefits). That takes you back to square one, over and over.
    It is maddening, especially when you hear things like “all current permanent employees will not be affected” by the company's proposal to employ more cheap people like me. I mean, I am not even an employee. I don't even merit that, after four years. At best, I am a “temporary” worker, with constant reminders of my sub-par status.
    Why stick with it? Well, the work is clean, I *really* love reporting, and I make a whack more money than I would had I stayed at the private TV station.
    But it would sure be nice to not be locked out right now. To be able to plan investigative pieces.
    To file FOIs and access to informations and not worry about am-I-going-to-be-around in a month to follow them up.
    To keep in touch with key contacts.
    To maybe develop some beat reporting.
    Heck, to be able to plan a family! (A maternity leave would put me way in the red for a couple years, but at least I'm not one of my pregnant colleagues, who are both in a very precarious position on the picket line these days)
    I don't honestly believe this lockout will make all these magical things happen. But I sure hope it gets better than it is for us now.
    Not bothering to cross her fingers
    Jen Q

  2. Anonymous August 16 2005 @ 3:46 pm

    I wish more people would read this.
    I have spent the past four years bouncing from casual to temp to casual to contract back to casual at the CBC.
    The Corp will specifically schedule you 'off' for three weeks once they realize you're verging on 13 weeks straight service, and therefore should receive a boost in your employment status (or at least benefits). That takes you back to square one, over and over.
    It is maddening, especially when you hear things like “all current permanent employees will not be affected” by the company's proposal to employ more cheap people like me. I mean, I am not even an employee. I don't even merit that, after four years. At best, I am a “temporary” worker, with constant reminders of my sub-par status.
    Why stick with it? Well, the work is clean, I *really* love reporting, and I make a whack more money than I would had I stayed at the private TV station.
    But it would sure be nice to not be locked out right now. To be able to plan investigative pieces.
    To file FOIs and access to informations and not worry about am-I-going-to-be-around in a month to follow them up.
    To keep in touch with key contacts.
    To maybe develop some beat reporting.
    Heck, to be able to plan a family! (A maternity leave would put me way in the red for a couple years, but at least I'm not one of my pregnant colleagues, who are both in a very precarious position on the picket line these days)
    I don't honestly believe this lockout will make all these magical things happen. But I sure hope it gets better than it is for us now.
    Not bothering to cross her fingers
    Jen Q

  3. Anonymous August 19 2005 @ 3:50 am

    While I'm glad you liked my post, I'm also sad that it did resonate with you. :(
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this space, and I hope you get a stable, interesting gig one of these days.
    Bill D.

  4. Anonymous August 18 2005 @ 11:50 pm

    While I'm glad you liked my post, I'm also sad that it did resonate with you. :(
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this space, and I hope you get a stable, interesting gig one of these days.
    Bill D.