Like the entire media industry, the freelance model is changing
Back in the mid-1990’s, J.P. Partland could freelance an article for one publication in New York, and then make additional dollars off of it by syndicating the article to different markets across the country. This isn’t so easy to do today with the Internet’s power of global reach.
But while the Internet has cut back on his ability to reuse an article, it has provided opportunities that didn’t exist before, noted Partland, co-executive director of the Editorial Freelance Association (EFA). “I can write something and it doesn’t even have to see paper to reach a million people – so the efficiency of writing is going up, but the cost of writing has gone down.”
By virtue of the Web, today’s digital world has created an environment where anyone can become a writer, or “citizen journalist,” said Amy Green, a freelancer whose work has appeared in People, Newsweek and the New York Times. According to Green, who is also freelance chairwoman at the Society of Professional Journalists, freelancers are their fastest-growing group. Similarly, Partland said that in 2000, the EFA’s membership numbers were at about 900, while today they hover around the 1,600 to 1,650 range. Indeed, Vocus Media Research Group added 109 freelance records to the database since January. From the fresh-faced college journalism grad who is finding a less-than-desirable media market, to displaced writers, the increasing number of journalists entering the market are “coming from all walks” of life, said Partland. The problem, however, is that the price tag on journalism has plummeted because of the accessibility of these writers who – willing to work for a poor man’s wage – provide media outlets even less incentive to offer freelancers decent rates. “Journalism stories, especially online, are so devalued right now,” Green said.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, professional freelancers have seen their income drop by 50 percent. “A lot of publications used to be able to pay freelancers to do really solid investigations,” Nick Martin, a freelancer and former employee of the East Valley Tribune, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s just not much of that going on anymore.”
Meanwhile, properties like Aol’s Seed.com and Demand Media are churning out freelance articles by the masses. The model allows writers to check out assignments, work on them and then submit them back. For instance at Seed.com, multiple people can check out the same assignment, so it’s a gamble on whether a writer’s article will make the cut once it’s complete. In the case of Demand Media, a writer may be the only one working on an article, but the wages are relatively low. Regardless, this format may be sticking. Recently, Demand Media formed a partnership with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution supplying the daily with articles for its travel section. “Certainly it’s an idea that is gaining traction, it’s something that is happening and it’s real and it’s gaining ground,” Green said.
In a fresh approach to assist freelancers in an increasingly large and competitive market, the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists is giving journalists a chance to interact with editors of area publications by sponsoring a night of “freelance love” in an event this month that is based on the speed dating model. According to MinnPost.com, the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and Minnesota Monthly are included on the list of guest publications. “Many of our members have been asking us to do something along those lines,” SPJ board member Amanda Theisen told MinnPost.com. “The freelancer can pitch a story idea, or simply introduce themselves to the editor and show them some of their work. Then after five minutes, the freelancer moves onto the next editor, then the next, then the next … you get the idea!” In the same vein, the American Society of Journalists and Authors holds a similar event in New York every year, noted Green. “It works great, it’s a really good idea and I’m sure the Minnesota chapter will have a lot of success,” she said.
Despite an apparent swell in freelancer numbers, Partland believes it may be temporary as laid-off journalists try to get back into an office setting, which at least offers health benefits, if not stability. Meanwhile, not everyone who says they are freelancing writes on a regular basis. Some writers go more than six months without a byline, and many do not have a personal Web site or updated LinkedIn page. Without those three things, they aren’t considered pitch-worthy and don’t make the cut-off for inclusion in the Vocus Media Database.
Whether they stick around or not, Green is hoping the industry will come back around by providing freelancers with living wages. “There are people who say print is going to go away and that’s how it is,” she said. “I guess I would like to see a future where valuable journalism is preserved and the value of journalism stories is preserved – where real reporting is rewarded financially, and where journalists are able to do important stories and are able to make a living doing that.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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