Collaborative Freelancing

By guest blogger Hazel Becker 

During the Collaborative Journalism Summit at Montclair State (NJ) University in early May, my mind returned to questions I’ve been pondering since becoming chair of the SPJ Freelance Community this year. Who are we independent journalists? What makes us different from other journalists, or from other freelance writers? And why are we freelance journalists when we could be something else?

Hazel Becker

Hazel Becker is chair of the SPJ Freelance Community.

In my earlier contemplation, I asked members of our Facebook group to tell us why they freelance. The reasons respondents gave ranged from “it’s my career choice” to “I can’t find an entry-level job.” Although about half those responding said they freelance by choice, other responses make it clear that some of us go to great pains to make a living and still be journalists. Some of us sell stories to media outlets on a freelance basis while working full- or part-time at other pursuits. Others take on freelance corporate writing and PR work along with story assignments because the pay is higher. Some continue to tell news and feature stories while job hunting after graduation or layoffs. A few, like me, freelance in retirement to stay in the game during these exciting times.

At the New Jersey summit, I was glad to hear that independent journalists have been involved in some of the collaborative projects discussed, including the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters’ Panama Papers effort that won a Pulitzer Prize this year. If we want to increase our involvement in such projects, we need to assess and state our value proposition as professional freelance journalists.

Professional. Freelance. Journalist.

Those three words, taken together, describe the main audience for this blog as well as membership of the SPJ Freelance Community. Breaking the phrase down into three separate words reveals some things about us that will help us identify ourselves and state our value proposition. In reverse order:

Journalist, to most of us, means true storyteller. Whatever the mediums in which we work, we tell real stories — about events, environments and the people who experience them. Whether we’re writing the first draft of history, chronicling a series of events or profiling a person, place or thing, our aim is always the same: to tell a story we see to people who haven’t seen it as we have.

Freelance generally means free to purvey our craft on behalf of not just one but many sponsors — essentially, harkening back to medieval times, free to wield our lances on behalf of whatever cause we choose. As did the warriors of the 13th through 15th centuries, we choose primarily based upon what we get in return — usually payment, prestige or pleasure, the three Ps suggested by freelancer Katherine Reynolds Lewis as worthy compensation for our work. We are on our own, independent, not controlled by any government, political or corporate entity or employed by a single publication.

Professional, broadly defined when pertaining to individuals, means those who work according to a set of generally accepted standards and practices in a field. When pertaining to journalists, I define professional as those who seek truth and report it, act independently,  minimize harm and are accountable and transparent.

These four tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics form the basis of practice standards for professional journalists, not only SPJ members and not only those who say their work is guided by our code. They also should be a stated part of our value proposition as professional freelance journalists because they set us apart from other freelance writers in the crowded, internet-driven marketplace for our work.

Selling Our Value to Collaborate

As freelancers, most of us collaborate to some extent. We work together with publishers, editors, news directors and other media operatives to tell our version of stories to their audiences. We know how to do this! To get in on the action, we just need to sell our value — whether to collaborative projects or to prospective clients.

This graphic report from the Collaborative Journalism Summit illustrates the discussion of how freelancers can be involved in collaborative projects. (Graphic by Phil Bakelaar)

Freelancers who have special skills (foreign language or technology proficiency, for example) or deep knowledge of certain subject matter have an advantage with clients or projects that need those skills. But generalists also have something to sell — their presence in and knowledge of the areas where they live or work.

Here’s one approach to collaboration: The North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative formed to support independent journalists in the Triangle area of North Carolina in 2015 during debate over that state’s H.B. 2, the “bathroom law” targeting transgender people. Early members of the cooperative wanted to tell North Carolina’s story about the legislation, not the outsiders’ versions then being circulated by what they describe as the “parachute media” who arrived in droves after the bill was enacted. In addition to its co-working space in Research Triangle Park, the nonprofit offers networking, educational opportunities, legal advice and events to help members promote their work.

The U.S. news media are in a period of introspection following their dismal performance in reporting on the sentiment of the country in the 2016 presidential campaign. There could be no better time for independent journalists to sell their local knowledge and connections to regional and national media needing to broaden their reach and increase the diversity of voices they listen to and tell about.

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