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Thursday, October 22, 2015
Freelance Toolbox

Questions before you dig for documents as a freelancer

By Julie Walmsley

You’re a freelancer who decided to pursue a dig. You hit some sticky spots along the way. There are a few common issues that freelancers face. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman Andrew Seaman weigh in here and in the next issue of Quill on a few legal issues freelancers face.

1. Who owns the documents?

You bring your story to a new outlet. You make the mistake, as I once did, of going without a formal contract because much of your network is one degree of separation from your enthusiastic, seemingly trustworthy editor. Later, you move on and leave behind what are really your stories, but you’ve already handed your editor the reporting and hard-won documents. Does s/he have the right to publish the story under a different byline?

Andrew Seaman: This is somewhat of a legal question, but ethically, yes. If a freelancer turns over the documents and there is a story, it would be reasonable for an editor to assign the story to a new reporter. It would be best to work out an agreement when the reporter turns the documents over to the editor.

Gregg Leslie: Questions like this are always best answered in advance of any controversy, meaning you should specify the answers in the contract that governs your relationship. If it's not clear, and these things aren’t spelled out beforehand, there’s no easy answer, and you’ll have to present your best arguments that that news outlet and its editor should have known that you intended to keep control and ownership of the work product.

2. Who owns the story?

You join an outlet as a regular freelancer and are asked to contribute to an existing investigation. You contribute significantly, obtain new documents and spend unpaid hours preparing the next installments. Then you move on. Does your editor have the right to tell you not to write about it elsewhere if it wasn’t your idea and you didn’t pay for the documents, but it was your time and legwork, and you verbally reported several installments’ worth of exclusive coverage in story meetings?

Seaman: This is also somewhat of a legal question. First, I’d encourage all journalists to demand payment for their work. Second, this is likely best fleshed out in a contract. If it wasn’t discussed at the beginning, I’d argue both parties have the right to publish on the topic.

Leslie: Unless you signed a non-compete agreement or made other arrangements regarding your future work, a freelance contract to research and write on one topic should not restrict you in the future. If you remove documents that an employer owns, they will be able to demand you return them, but even that shouldn’t stop a freelancer from writing in the future.

3. How much should you withhold in an investigative pitch?

You have a huge story and not being a named reporter, want to prove to an editor at a big outlet that you have the material. In your pitch email, you include a link to a Dropbox folder with the documents you’ve been waiting on for weeks or months. You don’t get the green light, but then the outlet runs a nearly identical story. You don’t say anything because there’s a time-urgent public safety and health element, and being a reporter, you value the dissemination of public information. But you spent time and money you won’t earn back, and you can’t take it to another outlet, because your story’s been reported. What should the editor have done? What should you have done?

Seaman: For investigations or enterprise stories, journalists should try to work with news organizations they respect and trust. Select organizations that worked with the freelancer in the past. If that’s not possible, the freelancer should get to know the organization and its leadership. As for the editor in this situation, it depends on their organization. Perhaps their employer doesn’t work with freelancers, but they just received an almost-completed story in their inbox. A phone call to the freelancer is probably best to work out some agreement, or give them a heads up that they’ll have to run a story based on what they have.

4. Where to get guidance and research your options:

Freelancers in SPJ are now a national community. It’s an amorphous body that’s everywhere, but no office to visit or meetings near you. Where can you go?

• The Freelance Community has regular online chats and Google Hangouts.

• Seaman and the rest of the Ethics Committee are available via email, ethics@spj.org, or on the Ethics Hotline 317-927-8000 ext. 208.

Project Sunshine, SPJ’s initiative to maintain volunteer guidance in every state, has representatives to help you with state and local laws.

• The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will answer legal questions by phone. They don’t provide counsel and won’t help you sue, but they will share relevant case law and will tell you when you have grounds to file suit.

• LinkedIn Premium, free with completion of a webinar for journos that is conducted throughout the year, is a great resource to find current and past employees of an outlet, who might speak with candor about whether an editor is trustworthy.

Julie Walmsley is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist digging and diving around a few stories. Her seat as Blogger-Secretary on the Freelance Community’s Executive Committee is up for election. Drop her your own resource links, comments and questions about committee candidacy @JWalmsleyJourno.

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