Archive for the ‘Freelance News’ Category

Will Ebony settlement be ‘start of something big’ for freelancers?

Hazel Becker

Hazel Becker is resources coordinator for the SPJ Freelance Community.

The news that 45 freelance journalists will receive their fees for unpaid work published by Ebony magazine is more than welcome – it’s cheer-worthy! Hats off to the National Writers Union (NWU) and to the freelance writers, editors and designers who will receive 100 percent of their owed invoices to settle their claims against the publisher.

On Feb. 27, the Chicago Tribune broke news of the settlement, reporting that the agreement calls for the magazine’s owner, CVG Group, to guarantee payment even if financially strapped Ebony Media declares bankruptcy. The agreement settles a lawsuit the union filed in September 2017 on behalf of more than 50 freelancers, including six writers who settled for about $8,000 before the agreement was reached.

For these and other unpaid independent journalists, this settlement represents a start in addressing the problem we all face when we contract in good faith with publishers and broadcast outlets who, for whatever reason, don’t honor our invoices after using our work. The problem seems to have grown over the last few years as clients are cutting their freelance budgets and rates – effectively bringing the sustainability of freelance journalism further into doubt.

But is it, as the old Steve Allen song goes, the “start of something big” – a real change in how independent journalists are viewed and treated within the journalism world? That remains to be seen.

In a press release about the Ebony agreement, the NWU mentioned it is working on other cases. In fact, the union has settled a non-payment grievance filed against science magazine Nautilus. Also, the union is representing six writers who are owed more than $20,000 by Uptown magazine, which publishes city-specific editions in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The owner, Uptown Media Group LLC, based in New York, is under the jurisdiction of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act that came into effect last year.

Both of these grievances were initiated after the Ebony lawsuit was filed, when freelance journalists with unpaid invoices from the two publishers approached the NWU about their situations. Union president Larry Goldbetter told the Trib: “We consider it a pretty good outcome, even though it was totally senseless to have to go through all of this.”

Senseless, indeed. Freelance journalists agree in good faith to work for news and feature outlets with the expectation that they will keep up their end of the deal: pay our invoices on the schedule agreed.

Having to chase clients for our pay, let alone file a grievance or lawsuit, should not be expected of freelancers. So yes, the settlement is a first step. But until publishers and editors treat freelancers as partners in producing good journalism, it will be only a step. There’s still much work to be done.

Expand your freelance network – join SPJ’s freelance community!

Hello, freelance colleagues!

Have you heard about SPJ’s new Freelance Community? Launched this summer, the community is a new way for SPJ members interested in freelancing to connect with each other. It’s an ideal place for freelance journalists, editors, photojournalists, broadcast journalists and other freelance-related media to network, share ideas, find work, brainstorm, trouble-shoot and more. Check out the new freelance site on where you’ll find dozens of resources*, including:

To learn more about the Freelance Community, email Michael Fitzgerald or, join us Sept. 4-6 at Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville, Tenn. We’re organizing a “no host” freelance meet-up on Thurs., Sept. 4 at 8:30 p.m. Central Time. RSVP here.

Expand your freelance network and job opportunities – join SPJ’s Freelance Community today!

*To access some of the community’s resources, you will need to login with your member ID and password. If you don’t have one, click here. If you have a member ID but have lost your password, click here

It’s National Grammar Day (insert exclamation point here)

This is it, the day all word mavens and grammarphiles relish with a fervency everyone else reserves for major national holidays, weekends, and end dates on the Mayan calendar.

It's Grammar Time!Yes, it’s National Grammar Day, and if you think itinerant commas or cliches stand a ghost of a chance on this auspicious occasion, think again. It is a day that all of us should spend paying greater attention to the craft of good communication and do, as Grammar Girl urges, “March forth … to speak well, write well, and help others do the same.”

That includes using “their” when “there” or “they’re” doesn’t work, correctly distinguishing “to” from “too” from “two,” slicing off dangling participles, and excising unctuous conjunctions, among many other attentions to linguistic and syntactical detail.

The day’s designation isn’t bound by law or scripture, but motivated by common courtesy. In our information-crazy world, precise use of language rises to the level of imperative. To serve society and convey respect for others, we are obligated to employ language precisely, appropriately. Poor grammar muddles our messages and implies ignorance or arrogance. It can cost reputations and dreams.

Journalists understand this perhaps better than most people, but as we enter the age of “citizen journalism,” when so many American citizens possess the tools and potential to stand in a position of authority on news, the grammar imperative becomes acute. The serious task of news gathering also demands serious presentation. Careful use of language conveys not only necessary detail, but also personal credibility. People who use language properly will be assigned more authority than people who do not.

If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who reads resumes for a living how many job candidates are passed over because of spelling errors and misplaced punctuation.

So, take care today to watch what you write and say. Recognize this sixth annual National Grammar Day by putting usage among your top priorities. If you’re smart, you’ll strive to turn that attention to detail from headache to habit.

David Sheets, SPJ's Region 7 directorDavid Sheets is a freelance editor, adjunct professor of journalism at Lindenwood UniversityRegion 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

SPJ Solutions Offers Insurance Benefits to Members

As a long-time freelancer, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is acquiring the kind of benefits that come along with a day job — life insurance, health insurance, sick time, vacation time, etc. For things like sick time and vacation time, I have built those estimated expenses into my hourly rate. That system doesn’t work for insurance benefits though.

Because my background is finance, specifically benefits programs, I know where to look and how to evaluate carriers, coverages and premiums. A lot of freelancers don’t have that experience, or don’t want to learn. They want to write! Other freelancers don’t know where to begin to look for benefits. Do you find a local agent, Google “find insurance in Cleveland,” or ask friends for referrals? There are lots of ways to find insurance coverage, but SPJ has simplified all of that for you through SPJ Solutions.

Earlier this fall, SPJ partnered with WestPoint Financial Group in Indianapolis to provide SPJ members with access to a variety of benefit programs including life insurance, health insurance, disability coverage, long-term care, liability insurance, errors & omissions coverage and more. Forgive the cliche, but this new program, called SPJ Solutions, is one-stop shopping for insurance benefits and financial services. WestPoint Financial has agreed to work with SPJ and its members to offer a wide range of products and services in all 50 states.

For more information on the program’s benefits, contact SPJ Solutions at WestPoint Financial. You’ll receive a response within two business days. You’ll be put in a touch with an advisor who will help you identify what product(s) you need and provide you with options and quotes. One contact. One call.

SPJ Solutions @ WestPoint Financial
Email:  spjsolutions AT

The only requirement is that you are an SPJ member. Not a member yet or need to renew your membership? You can join or renew online now for only $75/year.  This is just one more way SPJ supports its members, so you can focus on doing the things you’d rather be doing — writing, editing, reporting, teaching!

Director of Membership Linda Hall at SPJ HQ is also available to help you with any questions about SPJ Solutions. You can reach Linda at 317.927.8000, ext. 203 or via email.  I helped HQ put this program together, so I am available to answer your questions as well. Call me at 360.920.1737 or contact me via email.

Virtually Yourz,

Dana Neuts, Freelance Journalist
SPJ Secretary/Treasurer
2013 Candidate for President-Elect




Two way-out ideas for freelance travel costs

We freelancers are always bumping into obstacles. Like, how to pay for our reporting trips. Here are two ongoing, creative approaches to freelance travel.

Freelancer Amber Nolan has come up with jethiking, or really Cessna hiking. She’s used that to bum flights to 13 different states. I love the idea, though I’m not sure it’s a great way to cut your expenses for freelance work. For one, there is no network of pilots willing to tote along a hitchhiker, so you can’t guarantee you’re going to be able to get some place when you need to be there for reporting. Her site suggests that the last piece she did was published in May, and involved travel by kayak. But she appears to have a TV show in the works, based on her travels. If there were a network of pilots offering up rides like this, there might be some way for freelancers to actually leverage this sort of thing, especially travel writers.

Chris Killian, a freelance political journalist and SPJ member, spent two months covering the presidential campaign in the swing states by living out of an old van. He set up his own site, SwingStateStories, where he published the bulk of his reporting, which was supported by Kickstarter funding. But he also landed this meaty cover story in the Christian Science Monitor’s Weekly. The numbers do keep this in perspective: he raised $4,472 on Kickstarter, and that’s what supported his two-month trip. He ran out of money before he could make it to Florida. But it is a sign of how unconventional methods are viable, depending on your costs and your interests.

Guide for freelance journalists debuts at EIJ12

Updated, 9/28: A year’s worth of work by SPJ’s Freelance Committee debuted at Excellence In Journalism 2012 with the introduction of On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism, the committee’s first effort to consolidate the collected wisdom of its members.

The 77-page guide, available only in digital form, addresses a broad range of questions common among new and aspiring freelancers — from bookkeeping to business licenses to branding — soon will be made available to SPJ members in good standing. Later this fall, it will be sold as an e-book for a nominal fee, with the proceeds going toward committee programming.

Incoming chairman Michael Fitzgerald says the committee plans to update the guide on a regular basis, and include more personal experiences from freelancers to reflect changes and trends in the marketplace. SPJ also encourages freelance writers and editors not yet affiliated with the society to join and add their input to the guide.

Comments, suggestions and criticisms are welcome and should be made to David Sheets, the guide’s editor, by email at, or through Twitter at @DKSheets or LinkedIn.

David Sheets, a freelance journalist and former content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is Region 7 director and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter.

Plagiarism is a choice, not a mistake

(Reprinted with permission from dksheets’s posterous blog.)

Sorry, Steve, but I disagree.

Most journalists don’t lie on purpose.

But I can see why the former Kansas City Star newspaper columnist would think that, and thanks to the slow bleeding of the newspaper industry I predict the number of accusations will increase.

Steve Penn’s case may put a magnifying glass to the problem. About a month ago, Penn, who had written for the Star since 1980, lost his job due to alleged chronic lifting of content from news releases and passing off that content as original writing. At least two examples were caught by editors and were cited by the Star when it announced his firing, though the newspaper says it found “more than a dozen” violations going back to 2008.

You’d think Penn would be contrite and apologetic, as expected when one’s professional credibility is questioned. (After all, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria was, after admitting to plagiarizing from another writer for a magazine column, but then undermined his sincerity by saying the infraction was a “mistake” and a “lapse,” as if briefly forgetting that plagiarism was wrong.)

And plagiarism is a harsh charge — among the worst in Penn’s profession; the stigma attached usually hangs on into a subsequent career. Instead, the veteran writer has sued his former employer’s owner, McClatchy Newspapers, for punitive damages totaling a minimum of $25,000, claiming his reputation was harmed because he was held out as an example to account for behavior considered acceptable to Star staffers and condoned by its supervisors.

His rationale, as stated in the lawsuit, is that lifting content word for word from news releases has become “widespread practice in journalism,” because public relations pros craft the releases with that in mind, carefully considering even the tone and theme of their pieces when writing for media outlets.

If journalists copy and paste, all the better for public relations, the theory goes, because it shows the PR folks that they have delivered their messages effectively.

This theory is persuasive, and pervasive. A writer for the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher, Allan Wolper, who interviewed me last week about Penn’s case, even chuffed a little when I dismissed Penn’s rationale as selfish.

I accept Wolper’s thinly veiled doubt that Penn’s was unique behavior. Print journalists — still the primary sources of the credible news circulated on the Web — endure withering pressure to produce more and better news stories despite diminishing newspaper staffs and resources. And with the flurry of news releases falling daily amid compounded print and electronic deadlines, the allure of lifting a sentence here or a paragraph there to save time can be irresistible.

Because nobody’s going to notice, right?

But what separates professional journalists from wannabes, poseurs and pundits in large part is a willpower forged by the urge to do what’s correct and proper by their publications, their profession, and their communities. This willpower finds support in ethical principles adapted to protect all journalists and advanced by the Society of Professional Journalists, and in Penn’s case the policy elucidated by the Star’s Code of Ethics, which states rather clearly that plagiarism “includes the wholesale lifting of someone else’s writing, research or original concepts without attribution.”

(As an aside, at every newspaper I’ve worked, I’ve had to sign a form saying I had read and understood the company’s list of behavioral policies before they agreed to employ me. The form was among the sheaf of papers the personnel office insisted I fill out before they put me on the payroll. I’m guessing the Star has similar forms — and one of them has Penn’s name on it.)

Of course, in the broader communications world, upstart media, strenuously attuned to Web metrics for validation, may lack a list of policies, let alone the circumspection professional journalism demands, so they feel free to replicate pre-packaged material without compunction, or revise it out of context, unfettered by editors back-checking their work. At some point though, their credibility, and maybe their careers, will hinge on whether they borrow or create. Penn and Zakaria are learning that now.

Policies and codes aside, journalists are responsible as writers and authors to be true to their audiences and themselves. Sure, PR people may not mind seeing their words copied without attribution, but journalists are not supposed to let someone else’s voice supplant their own. The sure course away from journalistic credibility lies in ignoring that.

So, to anyone who choses to plagiarize another’s work, then gets caught, understand this: Nobody made you do it.

David Sheets is a former content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a candidate for Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.


Freelance frustration: same as it ever was

Freelancer Ben Adler has penned a lament on the field in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Piecemeal Existence.

The article spells out how bleak it is for many freelancers. Sites offer pittances for blog posts, sometimes based on the number of views a freelancer gets. He might be asked to just plain write for free. One editor, Choire Sicha at The Awl, defends the practice:

“I think working for free was always the case in journalism,” says Sicha. “You had to pay for graduate school, know the right people, or hustle your way up. There were slightly more paid newspaper internships, but they always went to a certain kind of student.”

I freelanced in the 1980s in Chicago. I didn’t do it for the right papers. I sometimes made $20 an article. I wrote regularly for a place that paid $100 an article, and some of my articles ran more than 2,000 words (that works out to 5 cents a word). But my rent at the time was $280 a month. I remember an ad for a writer that promised $500 for 10,000 words of supposedly simple prose. Even for me, that was a bit much (probably because I hadn’t done the math on those 2,000 word, $100 stories).

What I did not do was write for free. It took a while to make a living without having to supplement my writing income by waiting tables and working as a legal proofreader. Yes, there were unpaid internships that went primarily to trust fund babies. But the world today looks grimmer than the one I started in, the recession-plagued 80s.

The real challenge to the profession is that “free” does not create incentive to do actual reporting, as Adler notes. He also questions whether people who write will be able to sustain their current pace for the next 40 years, or when they have kids. He profiles three people piecing together a living of sorts by writing, none of them doing much more than surviving. This kind of subsistence journalism did exist 30 years ago, and I recognize the world Adler writes about. In some ways, things aren’t that different.

But where Adler strikes a hopeful note, looking at the evolution of Gawker from sweat shop to a place that offers salaries, it’s clear he isn’t confident about it. He fears the collapse of the path that leads away from subsistence journalism. It’s a fear shared by many, and his article is worth a read for anyone thinking about or currently freelancing.

Lessons from Jonah Lehrer

As a freelance journalist, I’ve occasionally reworked material on the same topic for multiple stories. I haven’t done much of this, but I’ve often brainstormed how to get more mileage out of my work. I’ve read books from freelancers who talk about repurposing written material, presenting new angles for different audiences. It seems appealing, especially for my bottom line.

So it piqued my interest when prominent science journalist Jonah Lehrer recently got himself in trouble for doing just that. Media blogger Jim Romenesko broke the story that Lehrer had “self-plagiarized,” sometimes paragraphs at a time, in numerous pieces for various publications.

It triggered plenty of discussion in the media, including everything from sharp criticism to shrugs and everything in-between.

Since then, a handful of Lehrer’s stories for The New Yorker, where he started working in June, have been flagged with disclaimers about the duplication of material. Also, Lehrer apologized in The New York Times, saying it was “a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” The New Yorker has promised it won’t happen again.

Some noteworthy speakers on the subject have defended Lehrer, asking, “How bad is it to repeat oneself?” Others have pondered the broader context, blaming the “more-is-better” ethos of the web, for Lehrer’s slip-up. Others call him an idea man, not a straight-up journalist. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, whom Lehrer has been compared to, backed him up, saying that in this new media environment, the rules for bloggers are still being written.

The situation got the SPJ Freelancers Committee talking about the practice of repurposing work. Our comfort levels with doing so ran the gamut, with some people shying away from the practice altogether. But a couple of my colleagues are veterans at this, and they offered some tips for recycling pieces while staying in editors’ and readers’ good graces. I’ve included some of their thoughts, below.

For the most part, it’s a matter of transparency from the get-go, they say.

Committee member Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has done some repurposing through the years but “only very carefully — making sure it’s clear that a version of the information has been published,” she told me.

Once, she submitted a profile on a small business owner that she’d written for the St. Louis Argus to Essence magazine. “They sent me a check for $75 and published it almost verbatim. My first national clip!” she said.

For several years, she wrote about the annual conference of the International Association of Business Communicators for a number of publications, often drawing from the same material. Her clients were OK with the overlap; their publications came out at all different times and went to different audiences, she said.

More recently, she started contributing to a newsletter for a client for whom she also pens a monthly marketing column. Before she started this gig, she let her client know that she writes for an association magazine in the same field.

“This client said it would be fine if I rewrote some of those articles for her company’s newsletter,” she said.

By the same token, “The association editor says it’s OK as long as my articles for her come out first and the repurposed ones are noticeably different,” even if the same sources and quotes come up, she said.

So, how does this differ from the Lehrer case? “I’m being open about this with my clients and their readers,” she said.

Another committee member, Dana Neuts, agrees. If a writer goes to the involved editors and says, “‘Hey, I used this story over here and I think the example I used also applies here. Do you mind if I reuse it?’ Then the second editor has the opportunity to view the original piece and decide if he wants something fresh and new or if reusing the original work is acceptable.”

When a new version of a story runs, she suggests including a citation of some sort at the bottom, noting the similarities, as The New Yorker has done for the Lehrer pieces.

“To me, the issue boils down to being forthright with your editors so they have enough information to make the right decision for their organization. It is also a matter of professional courtesy,” and it doesn’t take much time or effort, she said.

As someone who’s frequently worked under tight deadlines, I can understand the impulse to quickly copy-and-paste. At the same time, in a business that’s all about informing people, it makes sense to me to be open and honest about a story’s back-story. I’m thankful to Lehrer for reminding me to do that. Now I just need to go back through my work and figure out what pieces might deserve a new slant.


Anna Pratt (Twitter @annapratt) Email

As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Anna Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Over the past nine years, her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration. Pratt chairs the programming committee for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ and she’s running for president-elect of the chapter. She also serves on the organization’s national programming committee. To read more, visit

7 Ways to Deal with the Isolation of Freelancing

One of the toughest things I had to deal with when I made the jump to freelancing three plus years ago was the abrupt difference between a fast-paced, adrenaline-charged atmosphere of a newsroom, and freelancing out of a quiet, solitary home office.

I missed the crackle of the scanner with whatever breaking news. I missed rushing out the door to the everyday stories of wildfires or house fires. I missed the excitement of getting a call with a kernel of a story. I missed my newsroom buddies.

I became depressed, but took steps to get myself out of it.

This is not an uncommon problem, with all the layoffs, downsizing, rightsizing, whatever you want to call it. I have great company — some very good journalists have made the transition from Main Stream Media to freelancing and had similar problems adjusting.

Here’s some things I’ve learned that may help:

Move your body. Once a day, at least, go move. Go for a 30-minute walk with the dog. Your dog will appreciate it and your heart will too. Even better, do what my friend and SPJ freelance committee chair Dana Neuts does and schedule an hour out of your workday to work out. It will give you more energy all day and bonus — up your metabolism all day — if you do it first thing in the morning.

Stay away from the fridge. Put a big “Stay Out” sign on your refrigerator and then stay out of it unless it’s breakfast time, mid-morning or afternoon break or lunchtime. Gaining weight from fridge proximity for home-based workers is not uncommon – make a conscious decision not to. I gained weight working out of the house, which didn’t help my mood. Spend an hour Sunday afternoon planning healthy meals that give you energy for the whole week, and have healthy snacks ready when you do get cravings.

Be a joiner. Network with your fellow SPJ members. Join Toastmasters and learn to be a better speaker. Join your local writers’ group(s.) Join a cycling, sailing, noodling or other interest group (really, there are places where they noodle.) Then — write about what you learn in those groups. My group of choice is master gardening, and it’s one of my favorite things to write about.

Take a professional development class. See what the local technology center or library offers to improve your still or movie camera skills, Photoshop or PowerPoint or other computer skills.

Get a post office box. And then go get your mail once a day. Gets you out of the house and it looks more businesslike to not be getting the mail at home.

Make yourself busy. Have a Query Monday and set a goal to write as many queries as you can that day. Some of my journo friends have Freedom of Information Fridays and make at last one FOI request for a story you’re working on each Friday. Come up with a theme for your day and it will help keep you organized and focused.

Get help. If you find yourself getting clinically depressed, don’t hesitate to get help. Talk to a professional therapist or psychologist. Talk to your pastor. Get together with friends. Don’t be an island.

Here’s what not to do:

No TV … unless it’s a channel that’s solid news like CNN. When I worked at The Associated Press, we had a bank of televisions on local stations. However, the sound was off and we only turned it up when we spotted breaking news.

No housekeeping, laundry or personal phone calls during work hours. I make an exception for cleaning the office, because occasionally my editor used to make me clean my desk and also schedule the occasional hour for filing or organizing your gear. If you need to make personal calls, set a timer for 15 minutes for your break and that’s all.

Good luck.

Carol Cole-Frowe is a veteran journalist and full-time freelancer, working primarily in Oklahoma and North Texas. Her website is


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