Message to Prospective Clients: Let's Be Clear

High on my wish list for news and feature editors advertising for freelance journalists is to tell us how we fit into their publishing plans. All too often, it’s difficult to tell from the ad or call for pitches whether this opportunity fits into our work plans.

If content providers would say what they mean and mean what they say in their postings, we could save a lot of time – ours and theirs – by not applying for unsuitable gigs. Here are various scenarios gleaned from recent postings seeking freelance journalists:

  • Their business model includes regular contributions from independent journalists, perhaps because they want to air features and reports from a variety of voices.
  • They need coverage in an area (geographic or subject matter) where they don’t have staff reporters and are looking for top-quality freelancers with knowledge and connections to provide it.
  • They are contracting work to a freelancer while determining whether a new product or area of coverage will work.
  • They use freelancers to fill in for employees on leave or to cover occasional shifts.
  • They post the job status as freelance so they don’t have to put someone on the payroll.

I say “yea” to the first two, “ok” to the third if it’s fully disclosed in the notice, but “no” to posting freelance jobs to fill staff positions without hiring. It doesn’t matter whether the gigs or shifts are full- or part-time, regular hours or on-call. These days it may not even matter whether the work is done in-house or remotely.

All too often we find ads like “Senior Digital Producer - Full-Time freelance with the opportunity to turn into a permanent position” or “full-time freelancer with health benefits to work on features and front-of-book/back-of-book.” Or this one for a sports copy editor, clearly a newsroom job under supervision of a higher-ranking editor: “Enter data into website. Provide assistance with editing process. Answer phone calls, help compile roundups, and edit stories.” These are clearly staff, not freelance, positions and should be advertised as such.

Many media companies post for freelancers because employees cost more. Like all employers, publishers and broadcasters must withhold and match employee payments for Social Security and Medicare in addition to paying for state and federal unemployment insurance. These workers also generally are covered by wage and hour laws and workers’ compensation insurance. These “benefits” cost employers not only money but also time for compliance. Hiring freelancers is one way to get around that. As a result, journalism is among the industries that frequently don’t comply with the state and federal worker classification rules.

Independent journalists with years of experience say there are other reasons media companies prefer to post freelance gigs. Here are a few:

  • They can get quality work done cheaply by laid off and early-career journalists.
  • They don’t care about the quality of the work – they are just looking for cheap content.
  • They have no intention of paying and are less likely to face a meddlesome collection action from an independent worker, particularly one working remotely.

Some readers might discount the intentional abuse the latter reason connotes, but many long-time freelancers are convinced this problem is more widespread than we know. As for the lack of care about quality, we have the option to say “no” to cheap work that wastes our time, and shame on us if we agree to do it and then complain. But shame on them if they take advantage of our colleagues’ unintended employment situations.

Classifying a worker as an employee vs. independent contractor is important to companies for tax and legal reasons – specifically relating to employment tax and labor laws. The classification depends not on how much money a business has in its budget, whether the work is done in a certain place, or even how much value the business places on the work. In the U.S., according to the Internal Revenue Service, it relates solely to whether the person or company doing the hiring has control over what work will be done and how. Some states go further, with presumptions that workers are employees if they perform substantially similar functions as employees.

To media companies that look at experienced professional journalists as a source of cheap labor, whatever their circumstances, I say “shame on all of you.” You contribute to the smog surrounding our profession today. You need to clean up your act and help us all get to a better place for journalists to fulfill our role as watchdogs, educators and providers of information to the public.