Full disclosure: I’ve been a freelance writer for the past six years, writing mostly for The Motley Fool.
I’ve officially read too many rants decrying the fall of print media and traditional publishing. Ed Wasserman’s essay for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), “Keeping it Honest in a Freelance World,” went too far.
“There’s good reason not to welcome this,” Wasserman writes, referring to 2008’s bumper crop of unwilling new freelancers. “It means journalists will be paid even worse. It means coverage is likely to suffer from further loss of consistency and coherence, not to mention expertise.”
So reporting under the influence of a 1099 rather than a W-2 is tantamount to institutional decay? In one sense, yes, I suppose it is. Watching New York Times Co. suffer through a $74.5 million loss in the first quarter and an all-too-public game of chicken with unions representing employees of The Boston Globe was breathtakingly painful. The Gray Lady and her peers have been our nation’s primary watchdogs guarding against government and corporate corruption. For these bastions, financial erosion is like tooth decay — and a watchdog without fangs is a spectacle, a ready-made subject for America’s Funniest Home Videos or perhaps Taxicab Confessions.
In another sense, freelancers are the editorial equivalent of a research and development department. Their expert queries convince newspaper and magazine editors to try new ideas or even new formats. Don’t publishers need smart R&D now more than ever? Isn’t it via entrepreneurship that we’ll revive this flagging industry?
To be fair, Wasserman isn’t arguing against freelancers generally but for more antiseptic levels of disclosure. He points out that freelancers subsist by going where the money is, which can create shifting loyalties. That’s a fair criticism. Only when publishers and readers understand who writers serve in their reporting can their words be counted as credible. Conversely, freelancers who deceive editors, readers, or worst of all talk show hosts languish in publishing limbo — at least until there’s a book to promote.
What’s frustrating is Wasserman’s presumption of shoddiness. Why should we assume that a federated newsroom composed of a nucleus of employees surrounded by a brigade of freelance contributors would perform any worse than a salaried staff? The very thought smacks of starched wisdom as passe as the tab collar, as if anything not blessed with the holy water of institutional doctrine is inferior. Aren’t these the sorts of assumptions that helped the Times, McClatchy, Tribune and others light a multibillion-dollar inferno that’s helped to torch Madison Avenue?
The truth is that “The Gig Economy,” as The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown calls it, is a massive opportunity for publishers. Freelancers offer these dollar-challenged institutions their first real glimpse of what it might be like to be Google, freeing them to try small-scale, low-cost experiments with limited downside and unlimited potential.
And what of the writers? They’re going to need to be more social in order to survive. The best will connect relentlessly and market endlessly. Every story will become an advertisement of their brands, their roles in the R&D machine.
Some writers will cave under the pressure, others will thrive. In the end, and in an economy where writers are only as good as the next gig, it won’t be quality that suffers. Stiff-necked newsroom religion and those who practice it won’t be as fortunate.