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A Few Words of Advice to Editors Concerning Freelancers

June 30, 2011

What fealty does a freelance (arts) journalist owe to her media clients? What does an editor working from within a media organization owe a trusted freelancer?

The media industry is changing fast and these relationships desperately need to be re-thought.

It used to be that a freelancer was a hired gun with no real need for loyalty to a media organization beyond fulfilling the professional obligations set out in each individual assignment. This standard cut both ways. Staffers were expected to pick up all the slack in terms of doing "extra" tasks like representing the media organization on panels and at conferences, blogging etc.

But now that media entities are relying increasingly on freelancers for content and more, the dynamic seems to be shifting.

It seems to me that media organizations are expecting the same level of buy-in and loyalty from freelancers as they do from staffers. But they are not in the main providing the freelancer with any reasons to be loyal.

There have been occasions in the past when I have felt OK about behaving like a staffer, even though I've not been receiving the same benefits or steady paycheck as an employee. If I'm getting regular work from a media organization, am being well remunerated for each assignment and there is mutual respect on both sides, then sometimes I don't mind going the extra mile for an editor. For example, I'll run off a quick list every week of "Critic's Picks" events listings for the organization's website, post to facebook and tweet about articles, attend staff meetings at the editor's office and act as a sounding board for his or her ideas.

But I'm much less willing to do more than the bare minimum (ie the basic assignment in return for a set fee) if I feel like I'm being treated with little respect and am not being compensated adequately for my hard work and expertise.

Here are some ways in which those in charge of working with freelancers can maintain positive relationships and thereby help to keep their organizations, which depend so strongly on outside help these days, ticking along:

1) If a freelancer takes time to send you a personal note with a story idea, don't let it sit on your desk. It might be a story that you really want. Take a quick look and respond promptly to the inquiry with 'yes,' 'no' or 'please send me more information.'

2) Don't expect freelancers to take on ANYTHING beyond the parameters of the agreed assignment for free. If you want additional assistance from them like help with social media or extra web content etc, then you should pay them for it. Even a small add-on amount is a sign of respect for their work. If you really can't afford to pay them anything extra, then find some other way to show that you're grateful to them for their added contribution.

3) Pay your freelance contributors punctually.

4) If you say you're going to call a freelancer on Thursday afternoon to discuss an idea or some other matter, then do it. If you get busy, then send an email saying you need to postpone the call.

5) In general, don't make promises you can't keep.

6) If you have an issue with a freelancer, it's best to discuss it in person. Or if you can't meet them in person, pick up the phone and have a discussion about it. Email is a third less desirable option. But even email is better than not talking to them at all about it.

7) Do not assign an idea that a freelancer has pitched you to another journalist.

8) Pay freelancers' travel expenses. If you can't afford to pay these expenses, then it's crass to forbid your freelancers from going on junkets or accepting offers for help with travel and accommodation from sources. A new system really needs to be developed to solve this enormous "ethical" problem, which extends way beyond the parameters of this blog post.

To conclude: Editors are not the only people with deadlines to meet and businesses to run. Pissing freelancers off is a bad idea. You might think that they're "two-a-penny" to hire, but the good ones are worth their weight in gold.

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