It’s a difficult time to be a freelance writer. In a harrowing year for journalism’s bottom line, cutbacks and layoffs have ballooned industry-wide, adding numbers to the ranks of freelance reporters even as freelancing budgets wane. Today, The Intercept published a statement of principles for its freelancers, facilitated by the National Writers Union and developed over the past year by way of conversations between members of Intercept leadership and a small team of frequent contributors.
The statement, intended to uphold transparency and accountability, resembles similar documents that the NWU has devised over the years, but it’s unique in its collaborative creation. “I’ve never been part of any process like this before,” Betsy Reed, editor in chief of The Intercept, says of working in consultation with freelancers to design the principles. “We took a great deal of care in hearing out a whole range of their concerns and interests. We did not agree on every single thing, but it reflects a lot of input from our freelancer community.”
The document itself is not a contract, but more of a public commitment and a tool for accountability. It outlines The Intercept’s commitment to communicating openly with freelancers, to being mindful of intellectual property, to providing necessary resources, to giving credit. It states that The Intercept will endeavor to respond to timely pitches within forty-eight hours and all other pitches within two weeks (the agreement uses the word “typically”). In some cases, freelancers will be eligible to use The Intercept’s access to databases like LexisNexis and pacer. The publication outlines its commitment to paying freelancers within thirty days of receiving an invoice, offers a sample of contract language, and creates a process for follow-up questions in the case that writers are struggling to receive feedback.
Many of the outlined expectations seem reasonable, even basic, and many represent standards that The Intercept already maintains, but the agreement’s designers hope that the increased transparency about the process behind the scenes will serve freelance contributors by giving them something to expect. “We hope to do better as an organization in making sure that we are attentive to the range of concerns that freelancers have,” Reed says. “We have made a serious effort in that regard in the past, but having this statement of principles, which is public, will just be helpful in having a standard that we can all seek to live up to.”
Many of the document’s facilitators hope that it will inspire and catalyze similar processes at other publications across the industry. “We believe that transparency is the most important tool to ensure freelancers are treated fairly, and a document like this one ensures that all freelancers, no matter what stage of their career, can best advocate for their working conditions,” Haley Mlotek, 2019–20 cochair of the Freelance Solidarity Project division of the National Writers Union, told me in an email.
Alex Kane is one of the regular contributors to The Intercept who took on a leading role in proposing standards and providing feedback for the principles agreement. Early in the process—facilitated by the Freelance Solidarity Project—Kane and the other contributors interviewed other Intercept freelancers about their experiences. (This effort comes amid some internal turmoil at The Intercept, most recently involving the departure of Glenn Greenwald, but freelancers regularly cited positive experiences with the publication.) Periodically, Kane and other contributors met with Intercept leadership to discuss specific language and conditions, which they continually presented to other Intercept freelancers via email chain. “We wanted to be accountable to them,” Kane says. “This is not a document just for people who worked on it. This is a document that will positively impact a much wider freelance pool.”
Freelancers, by nature, experience a hazardous freedom. Freelance workers in any profession face unique challenges and vulnerabilities, being unsupported by the resources of institutions or the collective power of labor unions. And freelance writers must navigate standards and expectations that differ from one outlet to another, balancing the promise of publication against the necessity of earning a living wage. This year, many freelancers were ineligible for the unemployment assistance provided by the cares Act, despite the fact that they were facing many of the same difficulties as their industry colleagues who lost staff jobs. (Disclosure: I freelance regularly for CJR.)
“It’s very difficult for freelancers to recognize that they have rights as workers. At a time when media companies are collapsing or consolidating and cutting so many jobs, the ranks of freelancers are ever widening,” Kane says. “As freelancers, we’re increasingly recognizing that it is a labor issue—we need to improve our working conditions. These kinds of principle documents are one step on a long road that we can take to assert ourselves collectively.”
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).
EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past nine months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)
Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:
- LOCAL NEWS CONTINUES TO FIGHT: For the Reuters Institute, Rachael Jolley checked in on local newspapers navigating their work amid the pandemic. Jolley reports declining sales but increasing audience attention at many newsrooms around the world. “It has become clear that readers want national news headlines to be put in a local context and know how government directives translate to their daily lives,” Jolley writes. Elsewhere, the PressGazette found that seven large publicly listed news companies are valued more highly than they were at the end of last year. And for CJR, Ruth Margalit considers “what’s lost and won as newsrooms close their offices for good.”
- CHANGES FOR FACEBOOK IN THE UK: The United Kingdom has announced a new Digital Markets Unit of their Competition and Markets Authority; the new tech regulator will be dedicated to ensuring that Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms are limited in their power, The Guardian reported last week. Yesterday, Jim Waterson reported that Facebook will pay publishers in the UK to license news stories. And for the PressGazette, Charlotte Tobit broke down a number of proposals made by the House of Lords in a recent Future of Journalism Report, including a call for a more strategic approach to funding journalism, stronger regulation of radio and TV content, fairer treatment for freelancers, and stronger media literacy efforts.
- THE OAKLANDSIDE ASKS HOW TO SERVE READERS BEST: For CJR’s new magazine issue about reimagining the press, Jack Herrera interviewed Tasneem Raja, editor in chief of The Oaklandside, about community-engaged journalism, listening sessions, service journalism, and launching a newsroom amid a pandemic. “We have a tradition of service journalism newsrooms, but we need to radically redefine who we are serving,” Raja told Herrera. “That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with over the past nearly ten years of my career: Who is this work for?”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES LAUNCHES NEW INITIATIVE: Yesterday, the New York Times announced a philanthropically funded investigative initiative called Headway. The project intends to produce ten to twelve investigative data projects each year, focused on challenges facing the country and the world, and it will include a new fellowship in support of local news. The fellow will spend a year working on stories for the initiative, followed by a year working at a local news organization.
- CREATING VALUE FOR READERS: For the Substack newsletter A Media Operator, Jacob Cohen Donnelly and Jarrod Dicker argue that the media’s business model is not broken. “It’s not a question of whether consumers should pay for content. It’s a question of if we’ve done enough to deserve being paid for,” Donnelly and Dicker write. The problem lies in the failure to shift operations to create value for customers, they argue; the key is to make a stronger case to readers that the publication can provide them something worthwhile.
- NEWSLETTER ABOUT PAKISTAN CONNECTS PEOPLE: NewsRun, Anam Khan’s daily newsletter about Pakistan, helps the Pakistani diaspora stay connected while providing streamlined and curated news to readers in Pakistan, Hanaa’ Tameez reported for Nieman Lab. “The NewsRun is a single touch point. People get it in their inbox every morning and everything they need to know is compiled onto one platform and broken down in bite-sized format so that they don’t have to scour the internet to read the news.” Khan told Tameez.
- LOCAL MICHIGAN REPORTERS STAY BUSY POST-ELECTION: After President Trump’s onslaught of lawsuits and recount demands, local political reporters in states like Michigan have had their hands full reporting out the aftermath of this year’s presidential election, Anna Clark reported for CJR. To deal with the on-the-ground complexity of reporting an otherwise straightforward story about a president trying to change the results of an election by throwing out votes in majority-Black communities, local outlets began breaking down articles into smaller stories in order to include fact-checks in headlines, as well as ramping up efforts to produce explanatory pieces.
- MORE LAYOFFS: iHeart Media reported a third round of layoffs, which Poynter reported as resulting in the loss of more than one hundred thirty jobs.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
Lauren Harris is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.