When Reporters Freelance on the Web, Bosses Get Edgy

By: Steve Outing

Newspaper staff reporters and editors have been freelancing on the side for years. And as long as the organizations that they freelance for aren't directly competitive with the journalist's home paper, most news executives tolerate the practice. Since being a journalist isn't the most lucrative of professions, allowing a talented reporter to supplement his or her income by writing for others in his or her spare time can be a technique by a newspaper for holding on to a valued staff member.

But developments in Internet publishing are starting to threaten this uneasy relationship. The types of publishing organizations that staff journalists can work for and not pose a conflict with their home newspaper is dwindling because in cyberspace publishing the old geographic boundaries break down. All of a sudden when a publication that formerly did not seem to be competitive goes online, it's a different situation.

This issue is just beginning to emerge in newsrooms, as more opportunities arise for seasoned journalists to supplement their incomes by providing freelance content to other organizations publishing on the World Wide Web. More and more, staff journalists are being turned down by their bosses on requests to freelance for online ventures.

Take the example of a basketball writer for a major U.S. daily who was courted by America Online to become a freelance columnist in a new AOL sports area. AOL offered a substantial amount of money, but when the writer approached his supervisors, they said no, citing the paper's policy of not permitting staffers to write for competitive organizations.

As another example, the editor of one U.S. newspaper said that in the past, if one of his reporters wrote a freelance piece for the Boston Globe, that probably wouldn't have been viewed as competitive and thus would have been allowed. But now that the freelance story could end up on Boston.com, the Globe's Web service, suddenly it's a competitor -- since both newspapers' online services draw audiences from well outside their traditional geographic boundaries.

Management as 'the enemy'

Bob Ryan, director of Mercury Center at the San Jose Mercury News in California, says this is turning into an awkward situation for newsroom managers who are having to turn down requests by reporters to freelance for new online ventures. Some online publishing ventures are coming after newspapers' best people, Ryan notes, hoping to get high-quality editorial talent on the cheap. From the courted reporter's perspective, "we become the bad guys when we say, 'we can't let you do that,'" Ryan says.

The animosity that a spurned reporter might feel over being told that he can't do something that will earn money in his spare time can damage the employee-employer relationship. So, some employers may have to resort to appeasing the employee by offering more money to maintain a good relationship and not ultimately losing the writer.

Ryan sees this as a potentially growing problem as well-funded online publishing ventures approach newspapers' most valuable asset, their editorial talent. The problem, he says, is that these companies are trying to create quality content on their online sites without going to the expense that a typical newspaper must in order to develop its own quality editorial product. It's not appropriate for the Mercury News to, in effect, subsidize the creation of content for an outside online venture by lending the paper's intellectual resources, he says.

An example of this in action is SportsLine USA, a national sports news Web service that utilizes the freelance contributions of a stable of sports writers and columnists from media throughout the U.S. SportsLine USA can easily be construed as competitive to newspapers' printed sports sections as well as to their online sports areas. Some newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, have rejected staff sports writers' requests that they be allowed to contribute to SportsLine USA.

Existing policies still in force

At the sampling of newspapers I surveyed for this column, I found that most papers continue to go by existing policies about employee freelancing. The rule at the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, is that staffers cannot write for a competing media organization if they are writing on the topic they normally cover for the paper, according to executive editor Matt Wilson.

The principal issue, he says, is that it doesn't make sense from the newspaper's perspective to allow employees to contribute information (in rewritten form) that has been gathered at the Chronicle's expense to a competitor. If a sports writer wanted to write a freelance piece on his own time about the Internet and sell it to a Web service that was potentially competitive to the Chronicle's online service, The Gate, that might be allowed, Wilson says. But when it comes to recycling content that was gathered on Chronicle time and reselling it online, that's likely to prompt a denial -- particularly if the online service can be viewed as being competitive to the newspaper or its online service.

At the New York Times, associate managing editor Dennis Stern says simply that he doesn't want any Times staffer showing up on a competitor's product -- online or not. All requests to freelance must be approved by management, and the policy is made clear to all employees. Problems with online freelancing haven't come up yet.

At the Denver Post, new media editor Todd Engdahl, who used to be the paper's city editor, says no new policies have been written to address online publishing ventures yet. The long-time policy stands, where staff journalists are allowed to freelance but not for competitive organizations. This will get more restrictive for reporters, particularly in the sports area, because so many national sports online services are emerging which cover regional sports. This will get to be a delicate issue, Engdahl suggests, because these will be off-limits for employee freelancing -- and at the same time, newspapers' sports reporters are being courted by online companies looking for inexpensive content.

No boundaries on the Web

One editor I interviewed cited an example at his paper where a staff columnist self-syndicated his column to an "online magazine," with the approval of management, who allowed him to keep all the revenues. In a demonstration of how the Internet is drastically changing the publishing landscape, however, the paper's new media director started putting the column on the paper's Web site. In the columnist's eyes, this move potentially threatened the value of his column to the online magazine -- yet the paper was obviously within its rights to publish the columist's words on its online service. This is the kind of problem that must be considered carefully in advance by managers before approving an employee's freelance request.

(The issue that the above example brings up is particularly troublesome for full-time freelance writers, who traditionally have written a single article and then rewritten it to sell to other publishers. When a freelance piece is published on a Web site, with a potential worldwide audience, it may be more difficult for the writer to sell virtually the same article to other online publishers. This lack of geographic boundaries for electronic publications will work to the detriment of freelancers used to selling a single article to several geographically distinct print publications.)

Changing landscape

Most of the newspaper editors that I spoke with for this column believe that the freelancing issue will come up increasingly with their staffs -- and that conflicts are inevitable as staff journalists are approached with opportunities to make extra money writing for online ventures but are turned down by their bosses for competitive reasons. Existing staff freelancing policies will continue to apply in cyberspace publishing, but employees are likely to become more disgruntled as new opportunities are dangled before them but they will be unable to accept.

Fred Mann, director of Philadelphia Online, the Web service of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, says his organization is grappling with this issue today and trying to figure out if the current policy needs to be rewritten to take Internet publishing into account. The papers don't want to limit the rights of staffers to freelance, but nor do they want their employees to aid the competition, he says. Management is looking for a middle ground, Mann says, recognizing that allowing freelancing is one of the papers' tools for retaining its most talented journalists.

See you at Connections 96

I will be attending the Newspaper Association of America's Connections 96 new media conference this Friday and Saturday in Las Vegas. I hope to see some of your there!

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