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Magazines redefine ‘free-lance’

April 30: In October 2009, news surfaced that massive layoffs were taking place at Forbes magazine. When their ad pages dropped by 30 percent, cost cutting measures quickly followed. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that half a dozen editorial staff members were fired then brought back on a freelance basis, which Vocus Media Research Group verified. Now that the dust has begun to settle, here’s a closer look at what’s happening at this publication and how it fits with a similar trend across the medium.

Bylines. In a word, this is what many business writers aspire to having in a magazine like Forbes or Fortune. Paycheck. There’s a word that doesn’t necessarily accompany the previous word any longer. A freelance writer in Orlando, Fla., who wishes not to be named, recently turned down an opportunity to write for Forbes magazine. “They weren’t going to pay me anything,” she said in an e-mail interview. “It would have been in exchange for having my byline published in their magazine.” Already armed with more than ten years of national business writing under her belt, and with two children to feed, she declined the opportunity.

Over at Forbes, two of the most prolific freelancers are Zack O’Malley Greenburg, delivering one Fantasy Sports story per week since the October cut, and Tatiana Serafin, who continues to cover the economies of Eastern Europe/Central Asia and contributes to Forbes’ Billionaires blog. Working as a contributor does have its perks, including the flexibility to make your own schedule and work from home, Serafin said in an e-mail interview. Along with those perks come the downsides, including a lack of benefits or steady income.

“Health insurance is an issue. Waiting for checks to come in after I submit work is difficult. Sometimes wait times are longer than I would like,” she said. Additionally, the word freelance in front of journalist also carries implications of salesperson and marketer.

As freelance once entailed having the free-dom to choose what to write and for whom, freelancers left without any choices are now being equated with free labor. But magazines are a business, not a charity, and publishers are cutting costs where they think is best. As publishers turn each individual reporter into their own SEO (Search Engine Optimization) vehicle, reporters’ workloads double, as they are now responsible for both good reporting and getting the most clicks on their articles. Those marketing efforts used to be on the shoulders of the magazine’s marketing department.

“The primary difficulty is to differentiate oneself in a crowded market, and in tandem get noticed for one’s work,” Serafin added. “Those are not things one does in a traditional media organization.”

What helps Serafin stand out? For starters, she named her website TatianaSerafin.com to serve as a marketing tool, and she updates it sometimes twice daily with news on design, sustainability and notable women in business.

The National Journal is one of the most recent magazines to vet its newsroom when it released some of its editorial staff this week. According to Media Bistro, some were asked to reapply for their own jobs. Editor Charles Green told Media Bistro that the publication is cutting back on print-oriented reporter positions. “We are going to put a lot more emphasis on digital,” Green said. “Like everybody else, we recognize the future is in digital and we need to enhance our presence there.”

With venerable publications like Forbes and the National Journal putting down roots online to stay afloat, it seems inevitable that more publications will continue cutting staff and picking up freelancers on the cheap, if not free.

–Rebecca Bredholt, Janelle Zara & Nicholas Testa contributed to this report.

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