Score one for the freelancer! (a cautionary tale)

By guest blogger Hazel Becker 

This is the story of a freelance journalist who went up against a national publisher and won. The individual facts and circumstances are not uncommon.

Hazel BeckerThe freelancer had a personal story to tell, and pitched it to the editor of a publication that would have broad reach. The editor said yes, and the two agreed on compensation and a deadline. The story was published in print and online, pretty much as written.

After publication, as agreed, the writer submitted an invoice. In response, s/he received a contract to sign, awarding the publisher the right to disseminate the story electronically and republish it at will. After responding that s/he had asked about a contract and was told none would be required, along with a copy of the email in which all these terms had been discussed, the writer was told that if the signed contract was not returned, s/he would not be paid and the story would be taken offline.

The writer spent considerable time coming up with an altered version of the publisher’s contract that clarified some provisions and laid out specific terms s/he would agree to. Specifically, the writer made it clear that the work was not to be adapted or changed. S/he also stated that additional electronic rights had not been granted and would need to be negotiated separately.

Here’s the happy ending: the publisher agreed to go along with the agreement between writer and editor, and paid the invoice. This freelance journalist pitched to a respected national publication because s/he wanted this personal story to be told to a broad audience. After some hassle, s/he retained control over how the story would be told in the future and received the agreed compensation.

Here are some lessons, learned or reinforced, from this story:

  • Always have a contract. This happy ending would not have been possible if the writer and editor had not memorialized their agreement in email.
  • Email agreements can serve as contracts. The email thread between the writer and editor specified the elements necessary for a contract: the writer would send the specified work, the work would be published in print and online, the writer would submit an invoice, and the publisher would pay a set amount. No legal language or special form was needed.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge authority – or contract provisions you don’t agree to. When push came to shove, the publisher agreed to forgo most of the legal provisions it generally asks writers to accept. Strong-arm tactics aside, the writer stood up to the big guy and won.
  • Be clear about your negotiating goals. This freelancer wanted two things from the publisher – control of how this personal story would be told, and compensation for the work. S/he didn’t get sidetracked by other aspects of the contract or negotiation. In the end, s/he got what s/he wanted.

Not all contract disputes will come out this way – and not all of them should. The fact that the freelancer’s rights were preserved in an email exchange may have been the deciding factor here.

Most contract negotiations are carried out before the job is done, and standard contracts can be intimidating. Sometimes publication lawyers load freelance contracts with clauses that apply to all the media organization’s work, for “simplicity’s sake” or other reasons, and the publication won’t budge. Some publishers ask freelancers to take on more responsibility than is warranted. As independent contractors, freelance journalists often weigh their need of cash flow or total compensation ahead of other considerations. We have a tendency to accept the terms offered, knowing that most of the time it will come out fine.

But there’s no reason not to try – and if you can take some strength from this freelance journalist’s tale, please do.

Also, please tell us your own stories about contract provisions and negotiations. Send them to spjfreelancecommunity [at] gmail [dot] com. We’ll cull the results and write more on this subject in the future.

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  • RustyToddler

    Great advice. Thanks.

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