The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, January 06, 2006
Newspaper Writers: Full Time Vs. Freelance
In response to a reader who was disgusted by the writing of one of the Chicago Tribune's newest freelancers, disc jockey Steve Dahl, Eric Zorn made this comment in his blog: general, it's scary for us and not good for the reading public when freelancers and stringers begin to fill roles and space in the paper traditionally or formerly filled by full timers. Freelancers and stringers can be very talented, of course, but in the long run newspaper journalism, if it's to continue to attract talent and keep the quality high, has to be a steady gig that pays OK.
Now perhaps I am biased as a potential Tribune freelancer, but the former computer programmer in me wonders, Why should you guys be so special? Why shouldn't you have the same anxieties about your decent middle-class jobs being farmed out to people willing to work without paid benefits? That's where the rest of America's middle class is right now -- either already outsourced, afraid of being outsourced, or working as a freelancer, consultant, etc. It just strikes me as naive to expect oneself or one's profession to be exempt from the new rules of American business. That is not to say that outsourcing is necessarily a good thing -- often it just plain sucks -- but it's a reality.

I also take issue with Zorn's contention that it is "not good for the reading public." There are plenty of magazines out there that produce consistent, high quality publications using mostly freelance writers. Why couldn't a newspaper achieve this? All it takes is an editor with a keen sense of his/her readership who can assemble a solid stable of writers. One could argue that readers benefit from a broader range of opinions. That's one reason the Tribune publishes guest editorials. And of course, freelancers cast a wider net, which is why the Tribune uses freelancers in sections like Travel. Undoubtedly benefits can be cited for staff and freelancers, but the claim that freelancers aren't good for the readers reeks of elitism (incidentally the same sort of elitist contempt that some journalists (not Zorn, to his credit) harbor toward bloggers).

At least Zorn admits that "it's scary" -- damn right, it's scary. Just ask my former colleagues in information technology. First employees feared losing their jobs to consultants. Not long after that happened, domestic consultants feared losing their jobs to consultants with H-1B visas (essentially indentured servants, they often work for much lower pay). And then when that came to pass, H-1B workers eventually lost their jobs (and their visas) when companies shifted to off-shore resources. (One could compare this to the progression of factory jobs from union to non-union to Mexico/China.) For me the writing was on the wall when I started seeing consulting gigs that began with six months here and ended with six months in Bangalore (the latter to be paid in Indian rupees!). At least newspaper journalism is safe in that respect -- it would be hard to write about Chicago from New Delhi.

What about the original outsourced journalism, wire services (i.e, Associated Press)? While I appreciate reading a diversity of voices telling a story, each offering a different take and employing a different mix of facts, one could argue whether there is much to be gained by multiple newspapers paying their own reporters to be on the scene when they could run wire copy instead. I suspect that many newspapers with smaller budgets or less competition do just that. And of course, columnists are often syndicated, which is just another flavor of freelancing. The Tribune uses plenty of Associated Press stories and syndicated columnists already.

I know that Zorn wants to justify and keep his job. But the attitude that staff cannot be replaced is such a tired lament in the 2000s. Many professions went through this in the 1990s, and factory workers have been behind this eight ball for 20-30 years. Outsourcing can be done well or poorly, but it is virtually inevitable in today's business environment. When freelancers are writing 90% of the articles in the Tribune, will we look back at Zorn's words the way we look at those of American autoworkers who once claimed the Japanese would never build better cars?


You make some good points here, though I take issue with your contention that my assigning value to staff journalism "reeks of elitism."
It's true that many magazines turn out high quality work written mostly by freelancers. But most magazines of quality-- nearly all, in fact --have a stable of staff writers. Why is this? It's not because magazine publishers are selfless patrons of the journalistic arts. It's because editors and readers value a certain predictability, month-in and month-out; because, long-term, in degrades quality when you turn every writer into a by-the-word mercenary who worries primarily about what he can sell and only secondarily about the journalistic merits of his stories.
Further, newspapers are different from magazines in that many of the reporters are either on beats or are on general assignment, meaning that they don't know what breaking story will be assigned to them when they walk into the office.
Beat coverage requires full-time attention to a topic, an agency, a courthouse, a government body and so on. A newspaper could hire someone to cover a beat piecemeal (in fact we do in the suburbs where some of the village beats are not full time) but not only does that relationship threaten to become abusive in the labor sense (full-time work, freelance pay, no benefits) but it also leads inevitably to quicker burnout, more turnover, a frequent drain on institutional knowledge and memory and, overall, lower quality.
Editors simply cannot effectively assign breaking news coverage to writers whose services they must bid for every day. When a warehouse fire breaks out, they have to be able to yell "Hat and coat, Jones!" and not wheedle over the phone, "umm...are you busy today? I can pay you $100 if you get over to a burning warehouse."
In less obvious ways, staff feature writers help a newspaper build its identity and relationship with readers better than a rotating cast of freelancers. Not always, but more often, staff writers can take more chances and focus more energy.
Also, long-term, writers/journalists need to make a living, need to feed their families, send their kids to college, pay their energy bills and so on. Freelancers can accomplish this and some do better than I do, I'm sure. But many talented journalists with a lot to offer tire of the grind, grow weary of the uncertainty and look for more stable, remunerative lines of work. This, too, is a net loss to the reading public.
I'm not saying a 90-percent freelance Chicago Tribune can't happen, but I am saying that it's not merely self-serving or sentimental or misty-eyed or elitist of me to argue why it shouldn't happen.
Is every freelancer a "by-the-word mercenary?" That's a bit harsh, but I suppose I had it coming. For what it's worth, I never said staff journalists were bad; I just disagreed when you said that hiring freelancers was not good. I'm sure both have their place, but I will be shocked if the balance doesn't shift toward freelancers in the next decade.

And while you say freelancers are more concerned about making money than about journalism, I can cite several examples where Tribune staff reporters (and editors, for that matter) seemed not to worry much about the "journalistic merits" of their stories, most notably the Farm Aid "exposé" fabricated out of a poor understanding of non-profit accounting. I'm a freelancer, and I certainly wouldn't have made that mistake.

I didn't mean to leave the impression that I don't respect many freelance writers and acknowledge the quality of the work they do. Nor did I mean to leave the impression that a staff-written story is inherently better than a freelance story. There are many instances in which freelancers bring special expertise to a subject and thereby generate work that's superior to that which could have been generated by staff writers.
In other words, I have a lot of respect for freelancers and I know how hard many of them work and how dedicated they are to their craft. Most, however, would agree that it's a tough gig and that the pressures they feel are often not salutary--not conducive to them doing their best work.
And I'm not arguing that every word written in a newspaper or magazine ought to be staff written, or that an all-staff-written publication would in the long run be better than one that included freelance talent.
There should be a balance, and I hope that this balance is always struck in a way that aids the journalistic mission and not the bottom line, when those missions are in conflict.
For that matter, I hope the same is true in all industries. I'm not suggesting that Consolidated Widgets ought to compromise its product or its core values by refusing to outsource; but what I'm seeing all over is a wilingness to outsource in a way that achieves short-term gains at the expense of long-term customer satisfaction and company values.
Are we friends again?
> Are we friends again?

Sure. It's been an interesting dialogue.

You're right that making a living freelancing for newspapers and magazines isn't easy (though starting pay for reporters isn't great either). The real money is in copywriting, P.R., corporate communications, etc. I'm focusing on copywriting, although I'm dabbling elsewhere (dabbling meaning I spent months writing a book about bicycling last year).

Regarding outsourcing in general, I think the mistake companies make is that they don't recognize that their core competencies should never be outsourced. An office function like payroll is easily farmed out, but when someone buys a product for its support reputation and then the company outsources their support center, they've blown it in exactly the way you describe. The key is knowing your customers and why they choose your product over another.

Come to think of it, on that basis you could argue that local news reporting is something the Trib shouldn't outsource whereas features (via freelancers) or national/international news (via wire services) are better candidates.
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