The Columbia Journalism Review report on Rolling Stone‘s “campus rape” article had some extra resonance for me as a freelancer. Like all journalists, I was fascinated by and aghast at the dissection of what went wrong in the reporting and editing of that piece. But while budget constraints didn’t cause those failures, the report brought to mind other challenges that freelancers and editors face in working together in these cash-strapped times.
In more than a decade of activity on social media that cater to freelance writers, I’ve read many online discussions in which freelancers give high marks to outlets that publish their work with minimal, if any, editorial revision.
The preference is driven by simple economics: unless a change in editorial direction makes re-reporting necessary (and sometimes not even then), we’re not paid more for revisions. We get flat fees or per-word rates that cap our earnings from assignments regardless of the number of hours we spend on them. A lower number of hours translate to a higher hourly rate for the article. In worst-case scenarios, that economic pressure can lead freelancers to use under-compensation as a rationale for taking shortcuts that have more to do with hitting their income targets than with nailing a standard of adequate reporting.
Things are no better on the publishing side, where budgetary constraints are equally likely to be driving editorial decisions. As publishers cut budgets to the bone, overextended editors are forced to skimp on things like fact-checking—and too often, the publishers counterbalance the risk that creates by trying to place all liability for errors on freelancers by way of onerous indemnification clauses in our contracts.
Though I support a publication’s right to indemnification against a writer’s acts of plagiarism or violations of copyright, the clauses that are now commonplace take things much farther—beyond reason and beyond the freelancer’s ability to shoulder the burden. They are, in effect, a tacit admission that at some point, budget cuts cross the line from economizing on expenses to gambling on our exposure to perils far worse than a lost hour or two spent making sure that our reporting bases are covered.
It’s a recipe for disaster all around, and I don’t believe this is the best we can ask of one another. Freelancers and editors should be looking to one another for collaboration — doing their best to have one another’s backs.
Finally, we should value one another less for velocity in a rush through editorial review and more for mutual protection against errors, omissions, or lesser lapses in our work before it’s published instead of negotiating which way the fingers will point after the fact.