Sincerely, Leaders of Color: It’s time to talk about the way we treat freelancers

Leaders in news organizations have a chance to change the way we treat independent journalists.

A quote from the author, Emma Carew Grovum, that says, "Think of these folks as people, not tasks."

(Background photo by Brook Cagle on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

We need to talk about how this industry treats freelance journalists. And particularly, I’d like to talk about what we can do to CHANGE the way this industry treats independent journalists.

Freelance life is a constant hustle, and there are barriers between each assignment and full-time sustainability. One of those barriers: assigning editors and newsroom leaders who treat freelancers as an afterthought.

I’ve tried to move the needle for freelance folks throughout my career. Having gone through several periods of full-time freelancing—some successful, some disastrously not—I empathize with the challenges independent journalists face.

As an assignment editor, I fought for better rates for my writers where I could, and worked to move my edits along in a timely manner so that my reporters could get paid.

As a product manager, I built a technology pipeline between our CMS and our accounts payable tools so folks could get paid on time.

And now having been a freelancer / consultant / independent for the past three years, I’ve seen it from both sides of the table: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I spent some time recently chatting with Katherine Reynolds Lewis, founder of the Institute for Independent Journalists and a longtime independent journalist herself. We talked about what kinds of changes leaders can make to better support freelance journalists and consultants.

The low-hanging fruit: Tips anyone can start trying immediately!

  • Start by educating yourself! Learn about how an independent journalist’s workflow and time management may differ from what you’re used to with staff writers.
  • Think of these folks as people, not tasks. A freelancer is a small-business owner and you are probably not their only client or assignment. Consider where in their daily or weekly ecosystem you might fit in.
  • Above all else: Remember you hold the keys to this person getting paid. It’s a privilege and a responsibility many editors and publications often take for granted.

OK, so what about some more tactical things leaders can try?

  • Lewis said she loves when assigning editors publish clear and transparent pitch guides for potential journalists.

These are opportunities to share how you and your publication think about storytelling and reporting assignments, what you are and are not looking for, and how soon someone can expect a response.

These guides can help your publication work with more diverse independent journalists, Lewis said. The more folks can understand your thinking and how you will evaluate their pitches, the more likely you will attract a diverse slate of independent journalists.

  • Next, Lewis suggests assignment editors and managers can do a much better job clearly scoping an assignment at the outset. How many experts and how many community voices do you expect for a piece of this nature? Are there specific questions you want answered or angles you want addressed? How will you coordinate visuals and social planning? What is your editing and fact-checking process like? What is your payment onboarding like and how long does it take to get set up?

Adding not just an estimated timeline, but also a backup timeline, can help an independent journalist plan accordingly.

If you’re sensing a theme to this advice, it’s that clear and current communications are recommended and appreciated.

  • When you’re working with a freelancer or consultant, don’t be surprised if they want to lock in a fixed number of rounds of editing and revision. Again, this helps them plan their time and not lose both time and money to scope creep or unplanned changes of mind.
  • Editors should also spend some time with their legal teams getting familiar with their publication’s standard independent contract. Lewis says folks don’t need to become contract-law experts here, but they should understand what they are asking from freelancers and what sorts of common tweaks and addendums savvier journalists may be asking for.

Like anything else in this industry, it’s about relationship building and finding ways to leverage those relationships in a non-exploitative way.

Finally, some big and lofty dreams that we hope leaders will pick up and run with:

  • If you’re in a position to do so, train editors and managers who work most closely with freelancers. Teach them best practices like the ones outlined by the institute so they can build fair and equitable relationships with independent journalists.
  • Invest in infrastructure that helps alleviate freelancer and contractor pains, such as long response times for pitches or delays in payments. Make sure your team has access to systems that lead to better collaboration with independent journalists. Need help? Reach out to the Institute!
  • And a big plea from me: Include your freelancers in your newsroom digital security strategy and support plans. There’s nothing more horrifying than an independent journalist publishing explosive stories, receiving immense blowback online—from vitriolic response to outright violence and harassment—and watching their publishers sit silent.

At the heart of all of this is just being a human being who is working with another human being. Be kind. Be generous. Be thoughtful. Be intentional.

When we can, always trying to be better.

Emma Carew Grovum
A current and former freelancer

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  • Emma Carew Grovum

    Emma Carew Grovum is a journalist and technologist in New York City. As the founder of Kimbap Media, she coaches and consults with newsrooms on key strategy areas including leadership, product thinking, and diversity/equity/inclusion.


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