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Home > Reading Room > Putting professionalism in the freelance profession

SPJ Reading Room

Putting professionalism in the freelance profession

By Wendy Hoke

Some of you may recall a column by Byron Calame, The New York Times public editor, from Aug. 14 called, “Outside Contributors: In The Times, but Not of The Times.” If you missed this column and you are a freelancer, I suggest you Google the piece and read carefully.

In his column, Calame revealed that in some sections of The New York Times, particularly feature sections, about 80 percent of its content comes from “outside contributors.” He quotes Executive Editor Bill Keller as saying that the percentage of contributed content has increased significantly since 2000.

But while Calame talks of the great contribution freelancers provide, he also attempts to call readers’ attention to the “different” product they get from contributors.

“The paper’s high aspirations for the freelance corps are clear in the opening sentences of its formal guidelines for them,” he writes. Those guidelines state: “Times readers do not distinguish between staff-written articles and those written by outsiders.”

Calame, however, believes The Times should distinguish between staff-written and freelance-written articles, and he urges readers to insist they be identified as such.

Why does he believe this? Because, as he goes on to cite in several pathetic examples, “The risks of a freelance operation that depends too much on harried editors are easily apparent.” Evidence of his claim include:

• Use of pejorative quotes from an anonymous source.

• Problems with conflict of interest.

• Participation in an event a freelancer was covering.

Calame writes that these examples, his discussions with several freelancers who admit to not reading The Times’ 48-page guidelines and the editors’ complaints that freelancers’ work takes longer to edit don’t do much to improve our reputations in the industry. And folks, we simply cannot afford to operate unprofessionally.

I have many problems with Calame’s column, and I wrote him in response. Namely, I don’t appreciate him perpetuating and indeed aggravating an “us-versus-them” mentality between editors and freelance contributors.

We must face facts that we both need each other. Freelancers rely heavily on editors for their livelihood. Editors need the ideas and the range of geography, experience and topics we provide for their readers.

So why can’t we all get along?

It comes down to a misunderstanding of what the other does.

Having spent eight years as a magazine editor and many more as a freelancer, I believe I have a good understanding of both sides of that conversation.

Sloppiness in reporting, writing, editing and disclosing conflicts simply cannot and should not be tolerated by editors. Don’t get an assignment and disappear for weeks. Now I’m not saying an editor should kill a story because it’s missing a crucial element. But you can certainly send it back to the writer for some additional work.

And if, as an editor, you don’t take the time to learn about a writer’s background and experience, including reviewing samples, you hire them at your own peril.

Freelancers — you must gain a clear understanding of what the editor is looking for in advance of the reporting process. If the story angle begins to shift, let them know.

Ask to see the final edited version of your story before it runs. Sometimes copy editors are sloppy and may add a benign, yet incorrect, fact to your story without your knowledge.

This may sound like Business 101, but it’s so important to maintaining good working relationships with editors. And no matter what you say about the writing process, freelancing is all about ideas and relationships.

And to the editors, particularly those at newspapers: My guess is that it takes longer to edit freelancers’ copy because they are not pumping out the newsroom factory style that everyone else on staff does. And in my humble opinion, newspapers in particular could use an injection of creative writing styles.

Freelancers have to differentiate their writing and tend to push the creative envelope in an effort to have their work stand out from others. Sometimes this is welcome, sometimes not.

But in the cases cited in Calame’s column, the buck stops with the editor, harried and all. Why would a freelance piece be subject to any less editing than a staffer’s piece? Makes no sense and is certainly not the fault of the freelancer.

Now, as to Mr. Calame’s problem with our not reading the Guidelines: If you take such a cavalier attitude toward writing for a national daily newspaper, you don’t deserve the assignment. Lord knows no one writes for The Times for the money, but if you are unable to uphold the highest standards when submitting your work, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing and why.

Calame’s column questioned both our integrity and our professionalism and somehow implied that we deliver a lesser product than staffers. “(I) can’t avoid the conclusion that it’s unlikely The Times will ever be able to give freelancers the same oversight it gives staffers. So readers deserve to know whether a freelancer or a staffer provides the content.”

Respectively, I disagree. Readers buy The Times, period. Editors hired the writers, and if they get sloppy work, then the editors were sloppy in their hiring practices. And need I point out that their biggest ethical blunders of late have been by staffers?

Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based writer who serves as co-chairperson of SPJ’s National Freelance Committee. She can be reached at wendyhoke@comcast.net.

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