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.