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An exploration of participatory journalism

Freelance journalists: Working in freedom or fear?

I worked in a newsroom for almost ten years. Most people I know still do. When I read Mark Deuze’s Media Work and he suggested freelancing allows for greater freedom and creativity I almost choked. In my experience, most freelancers try to stay under the line of fire and do what they’re told so they’ll get hired back.

Although not the focus of my thesis, the newsroom environment is obviously a factor when it comes to priorities in news production, so I decided to talk to some freelancers and get their take.

I’ll admit it – Deuze isn’t all-wrong.

One television veteran who worked full time at CBC for 20 years and now freelances says she’s more creative in her new role. “I feel I work harder at being innovative as a freelancer as the competition is much larger outside than in a smaller staff environment.” She’s no more concerned about sharing her opinion than she was as a full-timer because there is always a worry you won’t get “the best assignment “ if you’re “too outspoken”.

Another CBC veteran, now freelancing, says, “the freelance option serves some professionals well. They are usually paid better and can sometimes pick and choose their work”.  But, he also feels freelancers are “sometimes viewed as ‘hired help’, seen but not heard from”.

That echoes the experience of a former staff journalist freelancing since 2004, who thinks contract workers are treated as “second class citizens”. When she made a suggestion to improve the quality of writing on a national show she was “called on the carpet” by the news director because she was “just a freelancer” and “shouldn’t be stirring things up”. She now focuses on corporate work.

A freelance reporter told me, “Agree or disagree you don’t rock the boat. You have no job security. As a reporter or on-air person I can’t freelance in five places. I have to put all my eggs in one basket. Why hire me instead of someone who does what you say?”

A journalist new to the profession brings this to the debate, “Though the perception is that freelancers have more freedom to be creative as they are not tied to one job, I couldn’t disagree more…lack of work can lead to a great amount of pressure…which can seriously stifle creativity”.

Another young journalist working as a producer had a different perspective: “We use them [freelancers] because we have lots of airtime to fill. It’s cheap and the station is understaffed. So in our case it has nothing to do with creativity”.

The bottom line could very well be the most important factor in all aspects of freelance production. A seasoned freelancer put it like this, “Freelancing has nothing to do with journalism. It’s a business.”

So, does freelancing allow for more freedom and the expression of individual thought and creativity? I would say for an elite few, yes. But for the majority, freelancing offers an opportunity to make money, with no job security, and no benefits.

It’s most often not about creativity, or getting to the heart of a story. It’s about getting called back for another job – and, overall, that doesn’t allow for more freedom of thought, or add a variety of voices to mainstream news.

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About redefiningjournalism

I'm a Journalism Professor at Sheridan Institute for Technology with a special interest in participatory journalism. This site was originally the platform for my thesis work, but I continue to use it to explore how participatory journalism is changing news, production practices, and public discourse.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Freelance journalists: Working in freedom or fear?

  1. Nicole:

    Really interesting article on freelance journalists. I think for many, financial insecurity and scambling for the next story is a reality — certainly for those without any contract. There is a certain creative freedom but also the reality of having to juggle and pitch possible stories to media outlets that may or may not be interested, and if accepted, may or may not pay on time or at all.

    This is an issue close to home for me. My son is a freelance journalist in the middle east, and for a young person trying to look for some security in the media world – especially when their perspective on issues that are extremely controversial is highly critical –that security is almost impossible to achieve.

    Here are some of his recent articles:

    http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/12/2010122911646107575.html

    http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/israels-public-relations-policy-never-apologise-always-confuse?pageCount=0

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/23/pa-israel-ramallah-political-establishment

    Always look forward to reading your blog.

    Posted by Mark Rosenfeld | January 20, 2011, 3:15 am
    • Thanks for the comment and the link to your son’s articles. They remind me of work a student of mine did as a freelancer in the West Bank — I still have a vivid picture in my head of some video she shot of Palestinian homes being razed by the Israeli army — or perhaps it’s more of an auditory memory — the screams of the people whose homes were being destroyed. Could these young journalists be better able to share these versions of stories, despite the difficulties, because they’re not tied to one organization? I’m not sure. I do know the student I was speaking of earlier came back very disillusioned about the ability to get high profile organizations to pay attention to the version of events she was covering.

      Posted by redefiningjournalism | January 20, 2011, 4:28 pm
  2. I worked as a freelancer in the early doc and I would certainly agree that it was a more creative time.

    But I would add another layer to the discussion: union vs non-union. I strongly feel that having union protection as a journalist adds to your ability to be outspoken. In my view it’s always the old timers/staffers who can afford to be the most outspoken because there’s less fear of losing their job security. If something is not right or just a plain dumb idea, we certainly speak up no matter who might be in the meeting.

    After all we were hired for our analysis and skills and frequently we have more experience than the managers we report to. We wouldn’t be doing our employer any service at all if we didn’t state them. But at some companies (from personal experience) I can say that it’s not viewed that way all the time.

    Posted by Annette Bradford | January 20, 2011, 3:37 pm
    • Thanks for the comment Annette — union vs. non-union, and even just how comfortable anyone feels sharing their opinion in a newsroom is something I’m thinking about, but didn’t have room for in my blog. I was both union and non-union when I worked at City. I agree, the union offers great protection and many people who do stand up for issues both editorial and environmental would not have the power to do so otherwise.
      I must say though, I never felt I couldn’t speak my mind even when I wasn’t part of the union — although anyone who knows me well also knows that’s more of a compulsion than a matter of choice :)
      My ideas may not have been used, or agreed with, but I didn’t feel like I was putting myself in jeopardy by putting them out there, and often spoke out if I thought someone else was being treated poorly, or there was a problem with a story/show.
      Obviously, there are many factors at play here: The newsroom environment, individual personalities, not to mention personal finances — so back to my original question — are freelancers working in freedom or fear, more creative, or more worried about getting hired back? I think I’ll have to wait and see how this discussion unfolds before I comment further.

      Posted by redefiningjournalism | January 20, 2011, 4:45 pm
  3. Our TV station often uses freelance photographers to fill holes. Sometimes they are hoping for a permanent gig in the newsroom, but not always.

    Probably the best freelancer I work with doesn’t want a full-time or even permanent part-time job, he has been offered those positions at the station, however he chooses the slightly more risky, but often, more lucrative freelance world. He tells me that the corporate videos or short term network contracts pay much better than a typical newsroom.

    I love working with this photographer, he’s good, he’s smart, and he’s enthusiastic, which makes me think staying out of the daily grind of news and only filling-in keeps him fresh and motivated. His ideas and opinions do matter, he uses his experience and analytical skills every time he shoots a news story. But let’s face it, in a newsroom, voicing your opinions doesn’t mean you’re right, or even if you are right, the story treatment will not necessarily change…there is a hierarchy in the decision-making process. Someone does have to make the final decision.

    Posted by Karen Owen | January 20, 2011, 4:16 pm
  4. I have also worked with some fabulous freelance camera operators — some had no interest in being hired full time — I would put them in the group of the “elite” few who can pretty much pick and choose their work — but many of them were trying to land a full time job. Another person I spoke with also felt it was easier to be behind the scenes and freelance as it gave you more freedom to move around. I couldn’t agree more about the need for a hierarchy in a newsroom, but don’t think it’s necessarily about having your opinion agreed with, just feeling like you can share it and that it counts — I know many people both full time and freelance who’ve felt silenced in a newsroom.

    Posted by redefiningjournalism | January 20, 2011, 4:51 pm
  5. Nicole,

    The decline of full time positions in traditional media streams has created a whole host of start ups like http://www.demotix.com/ that cater to this new surplus of casual labour and are having a profound change in the business of journalism… including creating a new type of media pioneer http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/technology/27podcast.html?src=busln and dozens of new versions of info gathering and summarizing http://tldr.it/ including our own http://paper.li/eyeonsheridan (We’re in the game too! ) However, business and journalism are one and the same, despite the theology of self importance the media revels in, it is indeed dying http://twitter.com/#!/themediaisdying and http://www.mint.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/MINT-DEATH-OF-NEWS-R3.png

    What kind of journalism is at risk? As a freelancer I know there are dozens of opportunities to participate in pseudo journalistic pursuits such as sports, entertainment, and fashion/lifestyle whether it is on the production side or editorial side of things but real investigative journalism, stories that can change laws and right wrongs (the stuff movies are made of) is disappearing rapidly http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4904 and this is not really a freelance/staffer issue, you need large budgets and vast resources that only a large entity can attain. Even the ProPublica.org experiment has fallen back on traditional revenue stream models in order to carry on http://www.propublica.org/article/why-were-publishing-advertising-and-where-we-stand-on-funding

    So I think the question that needs to be addressed is not whether a freelancer or staffer will go out on a limb farther than the other … that is a specious argument because anyone in the media knows that the newsroom culture and attitudes of management will determine that, not the individual hired as a freelancer or staffer. They will operate as a the keener they are or are not. No the issue is whether or not there is a tree to climb up in order to get out on a limb, for those so inclined.

    To assume that people would strive to do a better job is to assume that there is a better job to do, what risk is there in fulfilling the marginal task of getting the show to air or paper to press when all that is asked of you, irrespective of your position in the company, is to be a stenographer. The risk/reward model purposed assumes that newsrooms are stifling (which can be true or not true, again, that’s newsroom culture) and that freelancers rely heavily on recommendations for work. Word of mouth and connections are very valuable but only in that they should back up what you put out there already. Your portfolio of images/clips/stories/ etc on your website (if you don’t have a place for people to go you’re not in any one’s the future job stream) are who you are and in an age where transparency is required of everyone (except our elected officials, large corporations and government entities). You better have a presence because the business is now you and you are a business. Your clients will have certain expectations and you better deliver… but whether those expectations include you striving hard or just phoning it in is communicated to you by your client and the atmosphere in which you will be temporarily working, and whether or not you are the sort of person who gives it all or not. It is NOT determined by the nature of your contract.

    My two cents… probably not even worth that much though :) Great discussion, keep it going!

    -cd

    The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. Edward Dowling, 1941

    Posted by Chris DIck | January 20, 2011, 11:50 pm
  6. Hi,
    Thanks a lot, im a freelancer writer, this blog
    helps me a lot and give some vital information.
    i read another blog about freelance.
    this also help me for what i write in my job.

    Job Centre

    thanks again

    Posted by Jobcentre | May 11, 2011, 4:20 am
  7. I always have come to this site in line of my work. I am a journalist lately working as n anchor at a local channel called NBS Television at the same time I manage Programming at Capital FM, just came by while I was analyzing the factor of hiring more freelance reporters compared to having a core staff. I will one day have you you come to Kampala, Uganda for a seminar.

    Thanks

    shawnkimuli.com

    Posted by shawnkimuli | May 3, 2012, 7:42 am

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