How Media Is Modernizing The Classic Freelance Model
There are many romantic, old-school images of freelancers in the media business: A writer sipping coffee and typing notes in a local cafe. A photographer on assignment in far-flung lands. A journalist reporting from the front lines of battle. A designer hauling a print portfolio to agencies around New York City.
That’s because independent workers have long-been an integral part of the media and news business, decades before Uber and the shared economy offered new opportunities to those looking for a creative, flexible work lifestyle. Writers, copy editors, proofreaders, researchers, illustrators, graphic designers and producers have a storied history — pun intended — at magazines, newspapers, television stations and, more recently, websites and digital publishers. There have even been terms bestowed to independent professionals specifically in the media space: stringer, correspondent, contributor, etc.
Over the past century, some freelancers have even rocketed to literary fame: For example, J.D. Salinger started out as a contributor to Columbia University’s Story Magazine and continued to contribute during his career to the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Hunter S. Thompson will always be most remembered for his freelance work for the New York Herald Tribune, Rolling Stone and The Nation. And on his way to writing Call of the Wild, Jack London was a true freelancer, writing articles for about $.10 a word for magazines like Collier’s and Bookman.
Playing Catch Up
But even as the scruffy, ink-stained and newsprint-focused media business has evolved into a sleek, digital, 24/7 news cycle centered on mobile devices and real-time everything, many news and media outlets are still playing catch up when it comes to empowering their independents with the tools and technology needed to be successful.
For instance, the typical freelance writer has historically enjoyed a direct relationship with just one or two editors — so when staffers leave, these independents may have to start completely from scratch. Meanwhile, editors juggle dozens, if not hundreds, of pitches and portfolios that clutter their email inboxes, which prevents them from being able to respond to breaking news in real-time.
The back-office part of the equation is just as bad. Sending contracts and W9 forms has tended towards a clunky process of emailing, scanning and printing, while hard-copy invoices bounce around offices until they sit on the desk of Accounts Payable for weeks. In addition, writers, photographers and designers may have to wait months for their checks, or occasionally worry about getting “stiffed,” as recently reported by the Washington Post. In the article, one trade magazine writer laments: “Because I’m not being paid regularly, I’ve had to reevaluate whether I can do it, even though I‘m working consistently.”
Freelancers haven’t sat idly by in response: This past December, the Freelancer’s Union introduced the #FreelanceIsntFree bill in New York’s City Hall, the nation’s first proposed legislation protecting NYC’s 1.3 million independent professionals against client nonpayment. And over the past couple of years, the National Writers Union has gone to bat for many writers looking to settle non-payment claims.
“Always-On” Editorial Team
The romantic image of busy, noisy newsrooms has long-ended — in fact, over the past decade in-house staffs have been winnowed to the bone due to budget cuts, while traditional media cultures have struggled to reinvent themselves in an age of Twitter and BuzzFeed. At the same time, many magazines, newspapers and publishers have come to rely more heavily on free agent talent help to keep the content flowing at lower costs. For instance, in 2013 the Chicago Sun Times fired its entire staff of photographers -– 28 full-time journalists — with plans to rely primarily on independent creatives.
Today’s 24-hour news cycles and viral phenomenons require a responsive workforce that can adapt in real-time to the unpredictable nature of our world. But, those workers must be organized and managed properly so they can negotiate pay, accept assignments and pitch stories without bogging down the editorial process. This, any staffer buried in time-consuming administrative tasks can tell you, is no easy task.
Want an “always-on” editorial team that can be ready for the next assignment quickly and easily? Here are three options for the next-generation media organization — that, admittedly, are not all created equal:
1. Continue with a paper and email-based manual process
You can continue this way: Many media organizations — including many digital publications that still send checks by snail-mail — remain stuck in an antiquated process that is manually intensive and disjointed, spread over various content management systems, emails and spreadsheets. But by doing so, you risk falling behind forward-thinking companies that are ready to create a seamless process that works smoothly for both editor and freelancer.
2. Build something internally
Some tech-savvy organizations such as the Washington Post and Vox Media are taking on the challenge of building an internal freelance management solution from the ground up. But, this is an expensive and time-consuming process — that may not ultimately be as flexible and comprehensive as necessary. More importantly, a homegrown solution may not provide the powerful compliance tools that businesses rely on to mitigate their compliance risk and ensure their contractors are properly classified.
3. Invest in an on-demand newsroom
The emergence of on-demand workforce technology is finally arming news outlets with the tools they need to compete in a non-stop media world. This technology allows them to streamline the management of contracts and assignments; quickly route assignments based on location and expertise; automate 1099 compliance and consolidate payment and invoicing systems. This is a win-win: Staff editors, producers and managers are able to find the right creative talent without getting bogged down in administrative tasks. Freelancers, on the other hand, engage more easily with editors and get paid more quickly.
A recent article in MediaShift, a website which explains how traditional media is changing with digital disruption and adapting their business models, points out that “the business of freelance journalism no longer fits into the framework of a generation ago. It doesn’t even fit into the framework of ten years ago.” Author Genevieve Belmaker, an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer based in Jerusalem and New York City, points out that “anyone clinging to the old way of doing things should seriously reconsider their position.”