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Ask a Climbing Writer: Has Coronavirus Made It Hard to Find Writing Material?

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With COVID-19 forcing the climbing community indoors, has it been hard to find things to write about? I imagine a lot of your normal job involves writing up news about competitions or ascents, and those things haven’t been happening. Has your job been impacted?

—Ben M.

Thanks for the concern, Ben. I gotta tell you—being a climbing writer is usually pretty dreamy, but this is the first time that I’ve started to wish I had a “real” job.

In some ways, you’re right about the news problem: With travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines in place, athletes haven’t been able to travel far in search of projects, and climbing competitions have either been canceled or postponed. In some places, even local crags have been off-limits. That means gear testing, another source of income for freelancers like me, hasn’t been possible—at least, not outdoors.

I did test a waterproof backpack last month by filling it with dry toilet paper and taking a shower in it. (Happy to report that it’s both water- and shampoo-resistant.) And I’ve been getting my crimp fix by hanging a pair of Metolius Wood Rock Rings in a tree and “testing” them with near-religious frequency. Though I’m not sure how unbiased my feedback can be; if you handed a loaf of bread to a starving man, I doubt he’d be able to give anything but a rave review, either.

Fortunately, news and gear reviews only make up a small percentage of my work. It’s often easier to make a living as a climbing writer by focusing on “evergreen” articles—stories that stay relevant season after season. Those include things like athlete profiles, tips articles, and trend stories.

The great thing about the climbing community is that it exists far beyond the boundaries of our sport. It’s made of conservation advocates, social activists, and small business owners. Families, couples, and groups of old friends. Writers, sport historians, and artists. It’s made of people across all spectrums of gender and race, and on both sides of the political divide. That means that, with or without open crags, there’s always plenty to bicker about, and plenty of ways to brainstorm on how we can make our community better. All that is writing material.

Plus, climbers are a resourceful bunch, and quarantine has been a good reminder to be open-minded about the definition of “newsworthy.” Everything from the best gear for at-home workouts, to that weird kitchen cabinet-climbing fad is worth covering on a slow news day.

Unfortunately, plentiful writing material doesn’t necessarily equate to job security. There’s a lot of economic uncertainty right now, and because of that, the publications that usually farm out scads of work to freelancers are freezing their budgets. Rather than invest in new writers, many are focusing on saving money to make sure they can support their full-time staffers.

The other issue is that magazines rely on advertising dollars to stay afloat. As big gear brands re-examine their own expenses and tighten their marketing budgets, some decide they can no longer afford that full-page ad. Some magazines have had to drop entire issues as advertisers pull out.

The result: Freelance contributors across the board are struggling to find takers for their work. Me for example: I’m sending about twice as many pitch emails as usual, but they’re getting accepted about half as often. Most of the time, editors respond apologetically: “We’d love to assign this, but we just don’t have the budget right now.”

Some publications, like Climbing, have shifted focus to subscriptions, supporting freelance contributor in the process. There are other sources of hope on the horizon, too: Gyms are starting to open up, and some climbing organizations have loosened recommended restrictions for local crags. I’m watching closely and hoping that the economic engines that usually support media start revving again soon.

It’s a stressful time, but you don’t choose to become a freelance writer for the job security. Overall, I have to say I’m grateful: I have some work. I have a tree to climb. I have a safe place to wait out the virus. And, as always, I have plenty to write about. 

Have a question for a climbing writer or editor? Ask it in the comments below to submit your question for a future edition of the column.