Cash-flow is king

There is a relatively straight-forward three-step process for a freelance journalist looking to get a print commission. In better times it would go as follows:

  • First, the writer does the difficult part of devising a viable pitch; something fresh, relevant and also do-able.
  • Second, the writer identifies the publications which would be interested in the piece, as certain topics are better suited to certain media outlets.
  • Finally (as this is the real world) the writer identifies the newspaper from within that whittled-down group that is going to pay best for the finished product.

This is a simplified process, of course. Journalists may also, for example, decide against pitching to certain publications because they disagree with their ethics, politics or something else. They may also favour pitching to a publication with a higher profile in a certain area, even if they do not pay the best (although there is usually a correlation between reputation and pay-rate).

However in the last year or so the final step has been amended significantly for me. Where in the past, for very simple reasons of self-preservation, the only financial factor I had was how much people paid it is now primarily a question of how quickly they will do so.

As we hear time and again from small and medium businesses, cash-flow is a major problem in the current climate and for self-employed workers like freelancer journalists this is no different.

Up until recently, in my experience at least, payment cycles were generally uniform across the industry. You might wait a month, at a stretch two, but generally you would get paid for a printed piece within a reasonable time frame. Some small-time publication houses were far more erratic than this, paying people whenever they could, but most had a set process that was somewhat reliable.

Since the recession started to bite, this has changed in some places (though it should be said, not in others).

For example:

A certain Irish newspaper was previously a very reliable payer, doing so less than 10 days after the month of an article’s publication. This meant that, at the very most, you would be waiting 6 weeks from publication to payment but possibly as little as 2 weeks. Most importantly the system had reliability – you were always safe in the knowledge that a cheque would come in the letter box on week X no matter what. This is an invaluable comfort to have in such an unreliable profession.

Late last year I found out, after pestering their admin staff for a missing payment, that this system had changed. Now freelance writers must wait 90 days after the month of publication for their cheque, meaning there could be as much as a 4 month gap between publication and payment.

Any of the publication’s editorial staff I’ve spoken to on the matter agree that it’s a badly thought-out move and one that I understand many in there argued against. However, the business decision was made and that’s the end of it.

Now I understand that this industry is in a bad state and even the biggest companies are struggling to make ends meet. However making freelancers wait obscene amounts of time is little more than a safety-pin solution to the cash-flow problem that the company itself is no doubt suffering from too. It is also one that only serves to alienate some of these “suppliers” of what is a critical feature of the product itself (if you want to talk about this in business terms).

What it means for me as a freelancer is that this newspaper has suddenly fallen way down the ‘pitchable’ ladder. Not because I do not like the newspaper, its staff, its focus or even its rate of pay – all of those things are reasons why I would have gone to them in the past. It has fallen down because it has a far longer payment cycle than other newspapers who might take similar pitches, so these alternatives get pitched to first.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not the case that I’d work for a pittance as long as I was paid it in advance. Nor is it the case that I have disregarded this publication altogether; far from it. But if the pay date of two competing publications is wildly different but the rate is not logic alone dictates my preference. At the moment I, and many like me, cannot afford for to do otherwise.

What publishers need to ask themselves is how much damage they are doing to their product by bringing in these (and many, many other) anti-writer policies in the name of the bottom line. The survival of these publications is obviously in everyone’s interest but I disagree profoundly with the implication that this can only happen at the cost of writers’ ability to make a living.

I mean, maybe I’m being naive but surely I’m not the first, last or only writer to change my preference away from those that take their time when it comes to paying?

Microsoft Dublin’s role in new Office 2010 software (IT – 28th May 2010)

Microsoft has launched the latest version of its Office software suite with new features allowing for easier collaboration and multimedia editing in documents.

According to the company, its Irish offices played a significant role in the product’s development, sharing responsibility with Microsoft Seattle for bug fixes in the months leading up to its launch.

In Dublin, 230 people worked on the release over the past few months, also developing different language versions and features, like the Setup process through which users must go to install the software.

“We’ve got a development team here and they’ve developed what are called ‘core features’, which will appear in the US version of the software,” says Derek McCann of the Microsoft European Development Centre. “To be honest, it’s quite exciting and to have some of it done in Ireland is great.”

Microsoft Office 2010 comes three years after the software’s last version and will go on sale on June 15h. However businesses buying in bulk have been able to purchase it since May 12th.

While it is visually similar to its predecessor, there have been a number of changes made to improve much-used functions such as cut and paste.

Users can now also edit videos and pictures from within Word and PowerPoint, rather than having to do this with separate software.

One of the more notable developments is the availability of Office Web Apps, an online version of Office. These free applications are expected to launch alongside the retail version and will allow users to store and share their documents online, as well as collaborate with others.

“What’s best about Web Apps is that the formating is maintained across the platforms, so the document online will look exactly the same as it did on your desktop,” says Richard Moore, business manager information worker at Microsoft Ireland.

“There is no fidelity loss either, which we think is absolutely paramount if you want to show people your work.”

The Web Apps are a clear reaction to Google Docs, the free web-based software suite that now competes with Microsoft Office. However Moore says its online software does not have all the functionality of its desktop equivalent and would be best suited to making final changes in a document rather than creating one from scratch.

“We think people will want to use an office client and use this as a companion,” he adds. “Rather than force people to do everything in the cloud, we are giving people the option.”

Documents that are stored and shared online will likely be accessed from Microsoft’s cloud computing data centre in Clondalkin, Dublin, which was opened by the company last year.

The article was published originally in The Irish Times on 28th May 2010.

That super (not so) secret project I was on about

About a week ago I tweeted about a “super (not so) secret project” that had finally gotten under way. It was a vague reference to something that I had finally made a reality after over a year of thinking, talking, planning and procrastination.

So what is it?

Well, I am proud to announce that teic.ie is now offering a weekly syndicated column to local and regional newspapers in Ireland. The column consists of gadget reviews and tech tips and is available free to non-overlapping weeklies in the country (assuming they are willing to carry a sponsor’s logo alongside it).

So far two newspapers have signed up to carry the column – The Clare Champion and The Leitrim Observer – and I hope more will get on board in the very near future. As mentioned above the column will be sponsored, although at present I am still talking to a number of companies about them coming on board.

I think tech is increasingly relevant to everyone, not just a small hardcore as it may have been in the past. I hope this column will reflect that and provide relevant and digestible content to newspaper readers up and down the country.

I have high hopes for the column. I’ll keep you posted as to how well placed, or otherwise, they are.

Buying ink cartridges is no longer a black and white issue (IT – 14th May 2010)

With cheaper options now available, printer firms have to justify the high cost of cartridges, writes Adam Maguire.

Staff at HP are quick to list interesting facts and figures about the company’s print technology, and they do so with a certain sense of pride. An ink cartridge’s nozzle is one-third of the width of a human hair, for example, and can have up to 36,000 drops of ink passed through it every second. It can take three to four years to develop a new ink formula and it must be suitable to use in several climates and on any type of job.

These and many other statistics are used by HP, to some degree at least, to explain the high cost of ink for the consumer. The mantra that “ink is not just coloured water” is stated repeatedly by Geraldine Morel, the company’s European marketing product manager, as she explains just how much work is involved in print and ink production.

“We are always spending on RD [research and development] at all levels to ensure we can provide reliability to our customers,” she says.

“For example, certain climates can cause mould to grow inside cartridges if they are not made in a particular way so we work to ensure that does not happen.”

In the past printer manufacturers did not really have to justify the cost of ink. But with towns and cities across Ireland – and the world – now dotted with cartridge refill centres and companies such as Tesco selling own-brand cartridges, this has changed.

Customers are increasingly moving to these so-called “after-market” suppliers to get ink for their printers, having noticed a significant difference in the upfront cost of a full cartridge.

HP suggests this is a false economy, however, pointing to research it commissioned QualityLogic to undertake. According to the study, HP cartridges give nearly 17 per cent more prints than third-party alternatives and over 52 per cent more than refills.

This alone may not compensate fully for the price difference but Morel points to the study’s other statistics on cartridge reliability to make up the difference. According to QualityLogic, more than 12 per cent of third-party cartridges and 18 per cent of the refills it tested simply did not work at all.

“Reliability is hugely important – if a cartridge does not work, that’s time you have lost in having to go back out and buy another one, not to mention the headache caused if it means not having a job done when it was needed,” she says. “It also means you might have to buy another cartridge so you’ve spent twice as much before printing anything.”

With these figures in mind, HP claims that after-market ink can cost up to twice as much as its own consumables in the long run.

However, ink is always going to be most expensive for consumers. As Morel points out, ink’s cost per page drops when bought in larger quantities but as home users only buy a small amount at a time the cost stays high. HP is trying to counter this by offering “standard” and “value” versions of some cartridges, the latter being of higher capacity and so cheaper per print.

Morel does not make any cost comparisons between HP and other printer manufacturers, however, saying the company’s focus is currently on the alternative sources of ink for its machines.

Another study conducted by QualityLogic on ink costs does make this comparison and is less than flattering to HP. Kodak machines proved to be the cheapest, costing 4p per colour page printed. HP’s cost fluctuates depending on the machine tested, ranging between 11p and 17p. The worst was a Lexmark cartridge, which cost 22p per colour page.

However, value is not the only thing HP is using to keep customers buying its consumables; its environmental credentials is another. The company, like other manufacturers, has a recycling programme which encourages users to send back empty cartridges so they can be re-manufactured into new ones.

As part of the HP Planet Partners recycling programme, customers can order recycling envelopes or boxes online, and new cartridges are being designed to be more easily processed upon their return. The programme is running in 53 countries and has recycled 770,000 tonnes of waste in the past 20 years, though this only represents a small percentage of the cartridges manufactured in this time.

The company also uses recycled material in its product packaging and says it is considering launching a specialised line of recycled paper in the future. According to Morel, the company previously had a similar product but it did not prove popular with customers.

At present customers are encouraged to recycle for their conscience alone. When asked if the company would consider offering a discount scheme to those returning empty cartridges, Morel says this is not an option.

“Our lawyers say we cannot link [cartridge recycling] to financial incentives as it would be deemed unfair competition to the after-market industry,” she says.

“We would need to find a non-financial incentive instead and so far we have not found anything.”

This article was published originally in The Irish Times on 14th May 2010.

Keeping track of my freelance workload

I’ve been freelancing since the middle of 2006 and I’ve never been good at keep track of my workload, finances and expenses.

For a while I had a book that I noted all my work in; including the topic, publication, commission and deadline dates, expected income from it and date of payment. I lost track of this quite quickly. This year I decided to really get myself organised and I set about drawing up a Calc spreadsheet to replace the aforementioned book, figuring it would be easier to keep on top of.

At first it was just a list like the one mentioned above only this time, through the magic of computerings, I was able to colour code each entry based on status (in progress, submitted, published, paid for etc.) to make it easier to understand at a glance.

Then I started to get fancy and, having figured out how to do basic calculations on the programme, I built up a second sheet to automatically track my work based on the information I was entering on sheet 1.

I now have everything about my overall workload (words written, average price per word, total earnings, total paid, total outstanding) available at the click of a button. I’ve also broken the figures down into month-by-month and publication totals, meaning I can see how my income is doing over the course of the year, who I’m getting the most work from, who still owes me money and how much.

It’s been of huge benefit to me and if I can figure out a way to make a generic version I’ll upload it here for all to use.

Until then, here’s a few interesting statistics I’ve pulled from the file:

By the end of the month (based on the commissions I currently have) I will have:

  • Written 38,760 words across 39 articles (It’s actually more than that – I only count my work for businessandfinance.ie as one article and don’t give it a word count).
  • Written them for 9 different publications (3 of which are online).
  • Earned more than I did in total in 2009 (bearing in mind I was teaching for half of last year and so my freelance income was lower than it could have been).
  • Been paid for just over 40% of what I have earned so far this year.
  • Earned most in April, which accounts for 35% of my year’s income to date.

The site gets a face-lift

For the few of you still coming here on a regular basis, you may have noticed the site has had a bit of a face-lift in recent days.

The old design had been in use for a few years, it was based on a very old version of WordPress and was also using quite muddled code (largely because I took an existing theme and hacked it to pieces with dodgy some HTML of my own).

I wanted to put the latest version of WP on here and I decided it was the perfect excuse for an overhaul of the design too. Unfortunately I had trouble upgrading the database and ended up having to create a new one, transfering the old blog over to it once it was set up.

This has meant that a lot of information got lost in translation, not least categories, tags and many comments. Hopefully it won’t have a huge effect on other parts of the site – like the links that are out there on Google or the RSS feed etc. but time will tell on that front.

I’m in the process of cleaning up what I can but with over 400 posts on the site it may take a while. The same applies to the Portfolio section which was always badly neglected and is, as you can see, years out of date at this stage.

Hopefully I’ll have time to put the house in order in the weeks ahead and I also hope to actually start posting on the site regularly again. I’ve been quite busy with real work and with teic.ie in the last little while and twitter has been my outlet for any short thoughts I might otherwise have blogged.

As a result I’ve not been writing anything on media recently. I hope I’ll be able to rectify that soon.