Currently viewing the tag: "freelance journalism"

Staff Reporter

April 25, 2018

Christina Varga, an editor and journalist at The Globe and Mail, discusses how to pitch freelance work to newspapers. (Amanda Pope)

Tone-deaf pitches and failing to do adequate research on the publication are the biggest mistakes freelance journalists make when trying to sell editors on stories, experienced freelancers and editors said during a recent workshop at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

The half-day workshop, Getting Started: Conversations About How to Freelance, explored what it takes to succeed as a freelance journalist in today’s competitive media landscape.

Takara Small, a Toronto-based freelance tech journalist, said reporters need to be well acquainted with the publication they are pitching to so that they understand its focus and whether its tone is formal or informal. This research should be used to shape the story pitch: “The biggest mistake I made…was I would write a pitch that I thought was good and hand it out to a publisher or an organization without taking into account that editors prefer pitches in [certain] formats or like to talk about different issues in a specific way,” said Small, a former contributing editor for Fortune magazine.

Yasmine Mathurin, a Toronto-based freelance multimedia journalist, said she learned this same lesson the hard way after having a radio documentary pitch rejected. In her final year of Ryerson’s master of journalism program, Mathurin produced the documentary for her major research project. She submitted it to the CBC Radio Doc Project– a program that airs radio documentaries, essays and first person stories – but was turned down. The program coordinator subsequently told her they liked her story idea but not her pitch: “When I pitched the project, I didn’t pitch it in the language that made sense for radio. It’s not that my story wasn’t good.”

Mathurin, who is now an associate producer for CBC’s Personal Best podcast, said that during her conversation with the coordinator, she pitched another idea she had for a web series and it was warmly received. Her written pitch for this new idea was eventually accepted.

Among other things, she said, the experience taught her to always have multiple story ideas in hand.

While the tone used for pitches matters, it is also important for stories. Christina Varga, who edits custom content for the Globe and Mail, said different sections of a newspaper approach stories differently. The more formal tone used in the business section, for instance, differs from the more light-hearted approach of the Globe’s Good News section, which offers up heartwarming stories or profiles of people who are making a difference or starting a company.

“If the editor hasn’t given you a sense of the less concrete stuff that they’re looking for, feel free to ask” for examples of stories written in the preferred tone or format, Varga said.

Allison Smith, the founder of Queen’s Park Today, a subscription-based daily news service covering Ontario provincial legislature, said if a freelance journalist is interested in a story, chances are the audience will be interested in it too. When the Real Housewives of Toronto debuted last year, she said, there were no written recaps about the show so Smith pitched the idea to Toronto Life magazine because she had a personal interest in reading recaps of reality television shows. Others did too, she said, noting she found out her idea has morphed into the magazine’s most popular column after she was accidently copied in an email between the magazine’s editors.

“In Canadian journalism, there is so much that isn’t written,” Smith said. “If you’re thinking about something and you think there should be a story about it, there probably should and someone else probably isn’t going to write it. So find the opportunity and throw yourself into it.”

Staff reporter

April 8, 2018

Nicole Cohen said precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media because it limits the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

The uncertainty and insecurity of the freelance life has major consequences including the elimination voices belonging to people who can’t afford such precarious employment and less investigative reporting, says author Nicole Cohen.

In her new book, Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age,” Cohen includes the results of an online survey of 200 Canadian freelance journalists. The results paint a bleak picture of life on the freelance front lines. The survey revealed that 55 per cent of respondents had intense workloads upward of 50 hours a week, only 20 per cent are able to set their own rates of pay, and that female freelancers are generally paid less than their male counterparts.

“For freelance journalists,” Cohen said, “precarity means not knowing where their next assignment or paycheque will come from or anxiety about uncertain futures, or social isolation, income instability, or a lack of access to mentorship or training, which can inhibit career development.”

Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, recently discussed the book, which was awarded the Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize, at a Ryerson School of Creative Industries and Global Communication Governance Lab event attended by about 100 students.

In addition to the survey, Cohen’s research explores the political, economic and cultural context in which freelancers work, and examines efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. She also argues that the ill effects of precarious work for freelancers extends beyond individual hardship: There are also implications for a just and democratic media system.

“Journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life,” Cohen said. “Because powerful corporate and political interests influence so much journalism today, freelancers are in a strategic position to produce independent, autonomous material free from corporate and government control.”

That’s the ideal. The reality, she argued, is that precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media by limiting the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. Of the survey respondents, 93 per cent identified as white: “Ensuring that journalism is accessible and sustainable to workers regardless of gender, race, or class is critical,” Cohen said.

“Those who produce journalism have great influence over what types of stories are told and from what perspectives. Our media system remains dominated by white men who can afford to pursue careers in an insecure industry that requires more to perform extended bouts of unpaid work.”

In the best of cases, Cohen said, freelancing can give journalists the time and space to produce investigative, critical and exploratory work that workers in understaffed, time-strapped newsrooms often cannot undertake. Quality reporting of this type, however, is jeopardized by low pay and irregular hours of work because freelance journalists can’t afford to do investigative journalism when they aren’t paid to do core reporting and research. The low pay and time pressures, Cohen said, force freelancers to produce quick-hit articles rather than more in-depth, quality journalism.

And the pay is low: Of the 200 survey respondents, 45 per cent of the freelancers reported earning less than $20,000 per year from writing.

“Many go into great personal debt to finance stories, as media outlets won’t pay for expenses,” Cohen said, noting that writers’ remuneration is determined by editors’ personal valuation of their work, word count or sometimes page views.

Freelancers are generally paid long after they do work and regularly chase late payment themselves. In such conditions, she said, it’s increasingly difficult for most to earn a living from journalism alone.

Cohen identified collective action by freelancers as one way to fight for improved pay and working conditions. In the United States, she noted, the National Writers Union just recently used legal proceedings to secure $80,000 in unpaid fees for 48 American freelancers who contributed to Ebony and Jet, magazines for African-American readers.

In the months leading up to the settlement with Ebony Media and the private-equity group that owns the magazines, freelancers took their complaints to social media using the Twitter hashtag #EbonyOwes to drum up public support, a strategy that alerted many to a not-so-secret reality that when companies struggle financially or when editors forget to file invoices, it is individual freelancers who pay.

“We have seen some inspiring movements and campaigns that are addressing these issues,” Cohen said, pointing to the growth of an intern labour rights movement internationally and the ongoing unionization of digital media workers over the past two years. “What these initiatives show is that the only way to address precarity and to improve writers’ rights is by acting together, not alone.”


Staff reporter

Freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld interviews a Syrian refugee. [Courtesy of the National Film Board and Santiago Bertolino]

The room was silent as freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld described the horror of seeing a truck filled with corpses.

Rosenfeld said he was in in Dar Bizmar, Iraq, when he saw the bodies of ISIS fighters loosely tied to the bumper of two flatbed trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Dangling hands and feet dragged on the road.

“I don’t really prepare for [seeing] these things,” Rosenfeld told more than 100 first-year Ryerson journalism students and members of the public. “You try to understand what you’re getting into by knowing as much about what is happening in the area, what kinds of atrocities have been committed.”

Rosenfeld, a Canadian freelance reporter who has worked in the Middle East since 2007, spoke to students on Oct. 27 following a screening of the new National Film Board (NFB) documentary Freelancer on the Front Lines. Filmmaker Santiago Bertolino followed Rosenfeld between 2013 and 2016 as he pitched stories to mainstream news outlets, worked with local fixers, interviewed sources and navigated war zones in Iraq and Syria.

Rosenfeld said the role of a journalist is to report the truth so that the public feels a sense of responsibility to act upon it.

“What I fundamentally believe is that the role of a journalist is to be honest and tell people exactly what is happening in the world from the perspective of those who are most affected by the issues and the policies,” he said. “The people have to be able to … understand the way the world is. The role of the journalist is to give information so that they are responsible to do something about it.”

Rosenfeld has written about people whose lives have been affected by violence in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Turkey. His work has been published with the Nation, the Daily Beast and Al Jazeera.

If people do not feel motivated to push for changes after reading his stories, he said, he does not consider his work to be useful.

Rosenfeld said the NFB documentary highlights how important it is for journalists to be present on the ground, particularly in an era when mainstream news outlets seem to be increasingly reliant on press releases.

“It is important that people receive a perspective that isn’t completely beholden,” Rosenfeld said.

Watch Jesse Rosenfeld’s full Q&A below:

Special to the RJRC

Freelance journalists starting out in the business should be wary of working for exposure instead of money, experts said in a recent Ryerson Journalism Research Centre webinar.

The discussion, featuring Lauren McKeon, author and digital editor of The Walrus, vice president of the Canadian Freelance Union Ethan Clarke and Daily Xtra associate editor Eternity Martis, centred on how to navigate a freelance career in journalism and make tough decisions like determining what pay is too low and how to negotiate contracts. The conversation was directed by Ryerson School of Journalism professor Lisa Taylor and broadcast to an audience of mostly journalism students.

“A lot of folks talk about the quality of journalism these days and ask about why it’s not as good as years in the past, and a lot of it has to do with the rate of pay,” Clarke said. “Quality work takes time.”

Free work privileges the people who can afford to work under those conditions, he said, adding that it is important for journalists to do their best to combat this problem in the media industry. Although it can be difficult to resist, Clarke suggested writers should not only avoiding unpaid work but also rates of pay that are too low.

“(Journalism) takes real skill and unfortunately, through dynamics on the internet, that’s been cheapened,” Clarke said, noting that the internet has produced many self-proclaimed journalists. “We’ve really got to fight to bring back that respect and the value of paying for good journalism.”

McKeon urged journalists to wage the battle for better remuneration by talking to each other about pay and bad actors in the publishing industry.

“It’s up to us to start breaking the silence on how much we do get paid, what publications we maybe have challenges with,” she said. “It’s really uncomfortable to talk about how much you get paid and all that sort of stuff, but it’s important that we better the industry.”

That said, the question of what is acceptable pay for freelancers is often a personal choice that writers need to determine for themselves, McKeon said. In her own freelance work, she said she accepted low pay early on in her career to work for publications she believed in.

“Everyone has to weigh how much they want to do the story and how much they want to work with an organization, what it means to them, what type of journalism they want to do, what’s important to them,” McKeon said. “It’s all about gauging what kind of journalism you want to do and what type of career you want to build.”

Martis emphasized that freelancers “will not be fed by exposure.” She suggested that freelance journalists set up a budget that includes how many stories they’re going to write each day and what kind of stories those will be. After completing her Master of Journalism degree at Ryerson, Martis said she did a variety of freelance work, including shorter pieces for publications like Complex magazine and content for non-journalistic groups like the YWCA. She continues to freelance while working at the Daily Xtra.

She said that sometimes making money as a freelancer means doing a variety of work.

“It all really comes down to knowing the publications you want to write for,” Martis said, “but it also comes down to choosing places that maybe you’re not so interested in, if that’s what you need to do to pay the bills.”

Clarke said that if journalists are struggling with pay, contracts or any other of the difficult aspects of freelancing, it’s essential to remember that working as an individual doesn’t leave you alone.

“Stop thinking of yourself as an individual, you’re part of a group,” Clarke said. “There are other workers all around you, find ways to unite with them.”

The Canadian Freelance Union offers services that include support for journalists who are having difficulty getting paid, contract advice, health plans and other insurance options, press cards and more. Find these and other resources on the CFU website.