How Do We Make Freelance Journalism Sustainable?

    by Josh Stearns
    June 17, 2013
    With the recent cases of hacking of news organizations' networks and reporters being snooped on by the DOJ, journalists should be more concerned than ever about their security. Image courtesy of Internews Network on Flickr and used here with the Creative Commons license.

    Last month the Chicago Sun Times fired its entire staff of photographers -– 28 full-time journalists — and plans to rely primarily on freelancers. This news is just the most recent in a growing trend across the news industry, which is relying more than ever before on independent journalists and freelancers. However, despite all the debate about the future of journalism, not enough has been said about how we can better support freelance journalists and how best to adapt to a media landscape in which so many people are operating without the resources and backing of newsrooms.

    On Twitter, I asked freelancers to tell me what the future of journalism looks like to them. This is the first post in a series where I’ll look at some of their responses. While people come to freelancing for a range of reasons, some by choice, some not, I found a few key themes in the responses I got.

    "If we believe that good journalism takes risks, we need to be prepared to find ways to support the risk takers."

    Missing from Studies

    But before I get to those responses, some background on the major research done recently, and the conspicuous absence of freelancers.


    According to the most recent statistics from the Pew State of the News Media 2013, the U.S. has lost roughly 30% of its journalism workforce since 2000. While I wasn’t able to find concrete data on the rise of freelancers, anecdotal evidence suggests a major shift in the industry. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that they are increasingly handling cases for independent and freelance journalists; the Society for Environmental Journalists recently told the Federal Communications Commission that it has seen a spike in membership from people identifying as freelancers; and both Newsweek* and Columbia Journalism Review have reported on the increase of freelancers reporting from conflict zones abroad in the last year.

    Indeed, it is in these conflict areas where the issues and challenges facing freelance journalists are most pronounced. At Newsweek*, Sarah Topol writes about the risks of independent journalists who “are often venturing into danger without the training and equipment afforded full-time staffers, such as helmets, flak jackets, satellite phones, first-aid kits, or even health insurance.” Freelancers who talked with the Columbia Journalism Review’s Alysia Santo acknowledged that news organization may lend a hand in extreme cases, however, most won’t even discuss insurance with their freelancers. “This arrangement,” reports Santo, “leaves freelancers — who are taking personal risks on behalf of news organizations — liable for their own expenses if they’re injured or killed in the line of duty.”

    However, these issues are not by any means limited to the international context. Of the nearly 100 journalists arrested while covering protests here in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012, many were freelancing for major news outlets including the New York Times and NPR. Many others were independent journalists hoping to sell their stories and photos to local papers and national news sites. When the handcuffs went on, there was often no editor to call, no in-house counsel to come to their defense.


    Ignoring Independents

    Few of the major “future of journalism” reports released in the last five years mention freelancers beyond a passing reference. I looked back at the Knight Commission report, the Downie/Schudson report, the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities report, the Columbia Post-Industrial Journalism report, and recent Pew State of the News Media reports. While freelancers are mentioned in passing, none of these reports deeply explore the roles and needs of freelance journalists in their discussions of the changing landscape of journalism.

    Imagine if we spent half as much time talking about the needs and challenges of freelance journalists as we do talking about “becoming your own brand.” Or imagine if we acknowledged in all the debates about new business models, how many of those models depend on stringers and freelancers. Anyone concerned about creating a robust future for journalism needs to be concerned with the question of how we build stronger networks of support for individual journalists working on their own projects, or as freelancers.

    So now on to the responses I received when asking about how freelancers see their future in journalism.


    Jay Rosen said in response to my tweet, “It’s increasingly impossible to make a living [as a freelancer] as the price of ‘content’ drops.” The question of how freelancers are paid, if they are paid at all, was highlighted this spring when Nate Thayer published his correspondence with an Atlantic editor who had asked him to write for free (read Felix Salmon, Paul Carr, Mark Armstrong and Alexis Madrigal for more on that debate). Indeed, for many of the freelancers who weighed in on Twitter, the future of journalism looked financially bleak as the price per story has dropped dramatically. Jenn Pozner called the future of freelance journalism “economically dismal,” and Sarah Jaffe summed it up in one word: “broke.”

    Jay Rosen

    Jay Rosen

    However, for many, money was just one piece of sustainability. It is time for a broader discussion about how independent journalists sustain themselves over the long haul. I know journalists grappling with PTSD after reporting in conflict areas, struggling with access to credentials or resources for research like academic libraries and databases, and more. There are a hundred little ways that newsrooms support each other, but most fundamentally, they are a built in community that independent journalists don’t have. We are beginning to see new networks emerge — some formal, some ad-hoc — to support freelancers and independent journalists and begin to take on roles institutions have traditionally played with their staff. But much more is needed. Figuring out how to build more connective tissue and deep community among freelancers and across the boundaries of independents and newsrooms would go a long way.


    The Daily Beast and CJR pieces mentioned above focus primarily on issues of safety, both the concrete equipment and training needs of freelancers, but also other issues like insurance and legal assistance. For the most part, newsrooms have not stepped up to support their freelancers in this way. This is a huge area of need, and while some great groups are working on these issues (for example, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues and the Digital Media Law Project) they are mostly small organizations with limited budgets and staff. If we believe that good journalism takes risks, we need to be prepared to find ways to support the risk takers.


    I separate security and safety here to focus specific attention on the increasing threats journalists face around digital security. With the recent high-profile cases of hacking of news organizations’ networks and Twitter accounts, as well as the subpoenas of journalists’ phone records by the Justice Department, journalists should be more concerned than ever about their security. As with safety issues, journalists working in newsrooms have a different level of infrastructure and investment regarding digital security than solo reporters have.

    In terms of both safety and security, the freelancers I talked to felt like access to training was a key concern. Many trainings were out of reach financially, and many journalism schools still are not offering enough in the way of safety and security training. Nathaniel Miller argued that “universities would be wise to develop interdisciplinary courses on entrepreneurialism/freelancing. Great for biz and arts too.” The Digital Security Guide from the Committee to Protect Journalists is a vital resource, but more accessible tech tools, trainings, and resources to help independent journalists manage their own security are still needed. I’ll tackle this and the role of journalism education in preparing people for working on their own further in a follow-up post.

    In their recent report on “post-industrial journalism” C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argue that “the process of journalism is being so radically remade by the forces of technology and economics that there is no longer anything that might be described as ‘an industry’ for the individual journalist to enter.” The atomization of news doesn’t just apply to content, but is a lived condition for huge numbers of individual journalists who have had to rethink what it means to work in the news.

    That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, we need to do more to account for these changes in our debates and discussions about the future of news. We should ensure we have more freelancers at the table and invest as much in reports and technical assistance for individuals as we have for startups and business models.

    I’ll write more about these and other issues facing freelancers soon. Drop me a line if you want to chat, or have other ideas for key questions we should raise.

    CORRECTION (6/19/13): The story initially cited a story in the Daily Beast by Sarah Topol. That story actually ran in Newsweek, but also ran on the website of the Daily Beast. We regret the error.

    Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of “Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy,” “Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules,” and “On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media.” Find him on Twitter at “@jcstearns”:http://twitter.com/jcstearns.

    Tagged: citizen journalism freelance freelancer independent independent writer journalist arrest

    17 responses to “How Do We Make Freelance Journalism Sustainable?”

    1. Erik Sherman says:

      You might expand your research next time beyond however many or few freelancers that might have caught something on Twitter. For example, there are freelancers who understand the business end and have significant incomes. There have been formal and informal freelancing organizations for decades. You could get a more balanced and nuanced view. Also, I’m glad to see some people looking at this aspect of the industry. Freelancers are increasingly becoming the workforce, and if news organizations don’t react accordingly, they may find that there aren’t qualified people willing to do the work for them.

      • jcstearns says:

        Thanks Erik — as noted in the piece above, this is the first in a series which will include a range of in-depth interviews and an examination of what is working and what is not. I used Twitter as a sounding board, not the full extent of my research. More to come!

        • guest says:

          I’d consider interviewing with you – drop me a line using the email address I use to post this comment. I am posting as guest to avoid signing up with Disqus but the email address is good

    2. RatherNotSay says:

      Organizations that purport to help journalists disgust me. They’re rent-seeking leeches, sucking up funds to pay hefty non-profit salaries and sluicing money to the in-crowd. The stirring of academia and journalism will kill the news. Journalists with fellowships are tools of the establishment. Journalists angling for tenure are whores.

      • jcstearns says:

        There is an ongoing debate about self organized ad-hoc networks of individual journalists supporting each other, versus institutional organizations that provide support (see my link about ad-hoc networks above to read more). I believe strongly that we need both, and that both kinds of support structures have a critical role to play that is different and complementary.

        • Rathernotsay says:

          Might be nice to shame editors who slow pay/no pay or rely entirely on their cronies; but most journos are boot-licking dweebs

    3. Dana C. says:

      I attempted to write on this post a few days ago but I guess since it asked me to make an account, my comment didn’t save or post… So what I originally said was: I was wondering about the security of the job. You mention a lot about how writing as a career specifically for one company is starting to die out and many people are losing their jobs. Did your research show how the competition for free lance jobs may become too high that journalist will have to consider steeping away from a journalism career?

      • jcstearns says:

        Hi Dana, That’s a good question, and I’ll be sure to build that into some of my follow up interviews for future posts.

    4. Denise Clay says:

      I’ve been a freelancer for a while. Were it not for the fact that I also teach and do other things, I’d be living in a van down by the river. Somehow, we need to have a conversation about how journalism has become devalued and how that devaluation has manifested itself in how all journalists, not just freelancers, are paid…or in the case of some of the places that have contracted me for pieces and have been met with a stunned silence, not paid…

      • rathernotsay says:

        I’m sorry to say, but if you earn most of your income from teaching, you’re not really a part of this conversation

        • Denise Clay says:

          I teach part-time.
          I also edit.
          I mostly write.
          And I spend a great deal of time introducing folks to my legal council when they don’t pay me.
          The fact that you’re trying to remove me from a conversation that I am more than able to be a part of because, gasp!, I try and teach writing to earn money smacks of an elitism bordering on ridiculous. It also tells me that you know less about freelancing than Ryan Howard seems to know about how to throw a curve ball…

          • RyanHowardscurveball says:

            “I try and teach writing” Really?

            If you only write part-time you aren’t really vested in sustainable freelance writing, that’s why. Some would even say that explosion of part-timers and amateurs are responsible bringing word-rates down and making ‘sustainable freelance journalism’ impossible. Maybe you want to be paid more, but other than airing that gripe what more could you possibly contribute? Find a job as a teacher? Introduce folks to your legal council for free? But hey, it’s a free country… no one’s excluding you from this conversation.

    5. Thanks for this, it’s so important. I’m on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists and its freelance chair; our membership is ~1500 right now and our freelance proportion is 25-30%. Some of them (e.g. me) came to freelancing after staff jobs; others are freelance natives. The issues you raise are ones we think about a lot and try to help with (training at our conference, webinars rest of the year). I think for our corps economic sustainability is key, more than safety. I hear them (us) returning again and again to the same topics: contract coaching/rights grabs, biz planning/diversification, OA/library access, the extreme time demands of freelancing v. life. None of these are things that you get trained for, or that you learned in staff jobs because the paper/station/site took care of it for you. Happy to talk more.

    6. To be blunt, there is no such thing as a free lunch. When a news organization replaces staff with freelancers / contractors, it is transferring costs from the organization to the “employee”. All of the burdened costs of a staffer – IT, insurance, taxes, office space – get shoved onto the backs of the freelancer.

    7. oDesk Trainer says:

      Thanks for the wonderful article about freelance Journalism

    8. guest says:

      Hi, How do I send you an email? For Media Shift there is: no phone number, no contact form, and the only email address that is published, mediashift [at] pbs [dot] org, returned my email saying my email address was rejected by mediashift. (yes, I took out the brackets and formatted the address correctly).

      The disqus comment form requests my email address to post this — I assume you then have access to that address? Can you shoot me an email back? I wanted to reach out to you about this issue and am not setting up a Twitter account at this time, which I guess is the only way to correspond right now with Mediashift. Thanks very much

    9. guest says:

      Some freelancers are well-paid but not well-supported and none are paid well enough to counter attacks on the press. I think we underestimate the dangers to freelancers whenever they face retaliation on their beats for the work they are doing. We are underreporting these incidents.

      Institutional advocates, for example, (CPJ, RSF etc) are sorely underreporting issues here in the U.S.

      This may be very understandable in most respects as the result of a triage process when there are egregious attacks on journalists overseas to attend to. What is inexcusable is that, at least CPJ and RSF, fail to fairly describe and disclose the true state of their U.S. coverage efforts and resources, and as a result they are misrepresenting their US activities and misleading everyone as to the true state of journalism targeting, harassment and intimidation in the U.S.

      This includes misleading the United Nations, which looks to these organizations in part for information on press-freedoms in each country and it tends to marginalize and sort of passively discredit journalists trying to be heard who are being harassed and intimidated here in the U.S.

      Less clear is whether there is political bias at work in organizations when
      it comes to reporting abuses of the press by developed Western democracies. The reporting becomes extremely circumspect, to put it kindly. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you will not find the name “Laura Poitras,” for example, in CPJ reports or CPJ web blurbs and consider the fact that she is relatively high-profile and her predicament is well documented in the press, and therefore meets the “fall in our lap” threshhold CPJ seems to exercise for documenting US-based press violations.

      Freelancing is not just about poor pay. It is about a lower-level of committment by news organizations than the staffer enjoys and expects.

      This is no little thing. It can mean being a disposable journalist where none of the legal power that a staffer enjoys from their news company is offered to a journalist facing access issues, intimidation or threats on their beats. It can mean no insurance for catastrophic events. It can mean none of the counseling support news agencies have established to debrief after war or disaster coverage, or after receiving intimidation and threats.

      In an August 2012 blog post, Mr. Stearns, you quoted Rebecca Rosen writing in the Atlantic: “Journalists who work for big institutions will continue to have better protections,not because of laws that protect
      them but because of the legal power their companies can buy.”

      What happens to those left to fend for themselves is not pretty. If you’ve ever been say, a crime reporter at a local newspaper and wondered what would happen if the angry sheriff on your beat didn’t think the newspaper was backing you up, well, there are examples out there.

      Freelancers can find their careers in tatters, their credibility artificially (but very effectively) skewered, their reputations destroyed, their characters assassinated and worse — a journalist without proper backing is pretty much left to be eaten alive and if it is here in the states, most likely CPJ and RSF and others will ignore it and the press won’t cover it.

      News organizations know this and are not adequately addressing it. Often it is left to individual editors to say how far an organization will be willing to recognize and respond to their freelancers under threat and culturally in the post news-collapse environment a good number of them have quickly succumbed to a class system and actually believe that is what freelancers are for. It’s part of the money-saving equation.

      When mid-career former staff journalists started freelancing in greater numbers, many were surprised to discover only after something happened that they were not going to get the backing they assumed they would. Also war correspondents returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan found an unexpected and disturbing gap in support for freelancers versus staffers and this also caused some protest.

      There have been efforts to change that. For example, INSI, the International News Safety Institute, requires members to pledge equal support to freelancers, but the institute’s main focus is on reporting in physically dangerous venues, such as conflict zones and natural disasters.

      Those venues are dangerous but beat reporting is the object of the most sustained resistance and at times intimidation than anything else. Journalists can get killed in conflict zones but most journalists are harassed for their work, because of what they do, and none are more vulnerable to sustained retaliation than those on a regular beat for a prolonged period of time. That is true here in the states and as we know, in many places overseas it can culminate in jail, torture, or assassination. .

      Arrests at Occupy protests here make headlines — it is easy to confirm the facts about them — while worse examples go unreported right here in the U.S. The press shuns them, advocacy organizations shun them. As Stearns explored in his Aug 2012 post on ad hoc support networks, journalists have to pull together for themselves and from more formal instutional advocates, we are going to have to learn to demand what we need as it is not going to be given to us.

      We are in dire need of an alternative repository for documenting and desseminating information about journalists who have faced intimidation, threats and retaliation here in the states. RSF and CPJ are never ever going to do an adquate job of it. They aren’t going to change.

      When their board members are heading giant media companies who are using freelancers precisely because they don’t saddle them with the obligation to protect them, they are not going to sit by quietly if CPJ starts documenting abuses these board members ignored.

      The proposed shield law that pre-wikileaks scandal was making real headway in Congress should have been alarming to freelancers. It was heading down a slippery slope that would have in practice protected media companies to the detriment of journalists yet many freelancers supported it while being the single group most poised to lose stature, protections, crediblity and indeed, freedom of speech it it had passed.

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