The new relationship between editors, freelancers: unexplored territory for A&T journalism researchers

As newspapers depend more on freelance journalists to produce content for print and online publications, a study by two North Carolina A&T researchers examines the pros and cons of the newspaper editor and freelance journalist relationship in the digital age.

The study was conducted by Kim Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Emily Harris, M.A.J., a lecturer in the department and advisor to the award-winning A&T Register student newspaper. The researchers found no studies in the literature focusing on the editor/freelance journalist relationship in the digital age.

Such a study is important because of the dramatic changes taking place in the newspaper business. More newspapers are downsizing their full-time news staffs as print readership and ad revenues decrease, while online readership and ad revenue increase. Unable to hire full-time reporters to provide content for print and 24-hour online publications, some newspapers are forced to hire freelance (part-time) journalists, who get paid by story and receive no benefits.

Among newspapers making such decisions in 2013 was the Chicago Sun-Times, which fired its entire 28-member photography staff and announced it would hire freelancers and require full-time reporters to shoot pictures and video.

The researchers sent a list of questions via email to three editors and eight freelance journalists who worked for a daily newspaper in North Carolina to learn more about how they worked together using the Internet and mobile devices. The freelancers contributed stories and interacted with editors from remote sites while working full-time jobs outside the newspaper. They didn’t visit the newspaper or meet face-to-face with their editors.

The study showed that editors and freelancers embraced their virtual working relationship, but the lack of face-to-face interaction led to distrust. Some editors complained about some freelancers’ lack of preparation and inability to follow-through on stories, while some freelancers complained about the lack of attention they received from editors. Some freelancers felt isolated from the newsroom and not part of a team effort. Not surprisingly, email and mobile devices were the most popular way that editors and freelance reporters worked together to discuss story ideas and edit.

“Despite their dependence upon and appreciation of digital technology in the editing process, it’s clear from the study that editors and freelancers saw a need for occasional face-to-face meetings, where they could discuss what is expected of the other, discuss story ideas and just get to know each other on a person-to-person basis,” Smith said.

As one editor said, “That’s how you build trust.”

“Editors could also do more to make the virtual part-time workers feel part of a team by praising their efforts, making them feel like they were making a difference…that they were important,” Harris said.

The trend toward the use of more freelancers may be a good thing for students in journalism programs looking for reporting opportunities, Harris said. She has interviewed a number of journalists who make a living as full-time freelance reporters. Asked how to be successful as a full-time freelance journalist, the interviewees provided these tips:

  • Come up with your own story ideas.
  • Develop your multimedia platform journalism skills to become more valuable.
  • Do much of the pre-editing yourself.
  • Stay in touch with events happening in your communities.

While there are no firm numbers on the number of freelance journalists, there is evidence that the number is increasing. The Society of Professional Journalists has created an online directory for freelance journalists looking for jobs.  In the United States in 2010, writers and authors held 145,900 jobs, 68 percent of whom were self-employed (full time), and 26 percent worked part time (self-employed), according to U.S.  Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was not clear what percentage of those writers and authors were freelance journalists.

In the future, Smith and Harris would like to interview more editors and freelance journalists and study the differences among newspapers related to what they pay freelancers.

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