A future for freelancers?

I was surprised, to say the least, when a longtime friend and fellow journalist recently lamented about the state of the news industry today. He was complaining about staff cuts in newsrooms of all kinds (broadcast, print, digital), layoffs and forced retirements, sparse staffing, and, generally, what he perceives to be a lack of quality standards in the media today.

I commented that I, too, am concerned about where the news business is heading. My particular concern is the loss of the newsroom, where young journalists used to be trained and mid-career professionals learned new skills, honing their craft so they could move up or out.

Yes, he agreed, that was a problem because “it’s all about freelancers now. They have no standards. They don’t know how to do real news. They are bringing the quality down.”

I could not believe my ears. This is someone I’ve known all my adult life, who grew up in the news business at the same time I did and with whom I’ve had so many conversations about our careers and achievements through the years. Putting me down, along with countless other seasoned, highly skilled journalists now working on our own and persevering, even as we watch our comfortable newsroom environments disappear or morph into unfamiliar home offices that have replaced the supportive havens where we became good at what we do.

Others in the conversation understood the implications of my friend’s statement in terms of my work status for the last seven years – a retired editor and news product developer making a reasonable pension supplement as a freelance writer, editor, and publication consultant. My friend did not even consider that he was talking about me.

I have no patience with hurt feelings, and our friendship is too long-standing and too strong to take a serious hit. I put his statement into the context of where he is in his life, approaching retirement and more than ready to move on from the unhappy place his newsroom has become.

Besides, perhaps he was expressing concern about the same thing that worries me: who will train the next generation of journalists? Where will they learn the importance of accuracy and fairness? So many of them won’t have a newsroom, a seasoned copy desk to do side-by-side editing from which they learn writing skills, fellow staff members to bounce ideas off and from whom to learn how to do the job better.

I know many freelance journalists who have chosen this career path and are happy to be on their own. I know many others, mostly mid-career reporters and editors, who have been thrown into the freelance life without warning or agreement. Most are finding a way to make a living doing what they know how to do and had no intention of leaving just because the business side of publishing hadn’t figured out how to make a go of it yet.

Many of the freelancers I “hang out” with (virtually and in person) are members of the Society of Professional Journalists. We are journalists first, with professional standards for accuracy and fairness as espoused in SPJ’s new Code of Ethics. We want to produce news that matters, features that enrich and teach, along with other works that help us earn a living without creating a conflict of interest with our journalism assignments.

We will not likely produce all or even most of our work for traditional publishers – newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations. Many if not most of us will produce news for audiences who need or want what we do badly enough to pay well for it. We also will produce news and features that compete on the internet with junk that finds its way there from who-knows-where – and hope enough people know the difference to keep our publishers in business.

I also hope we’ll help teach the next generation – those who don’t find a physical newsroom with good editors, mentors, and fellow staff members who create a collegial learning environment to start their careers in. I hope we’ll create virtual newsrooms, produce e-books and training videos, and present courses and seminars to help fill the gap created by the decline in the traditional news.

It’s starting to happen – as evidenced by SPJ’s new Freelance Community and trends in other niche journalism organizations. I hope it will continue.

I also hope my friend will find a way to look forward with a positive approach. Life’s too short to waste time lamenting what we’ve lost.