What’s changed for freelance writers?

BY Chandana Banerjee| IN Media Practice | 27/07/2009
Has freelance journalism changed over the years in terms of attitude, ethics, payments, and the way of working,

Mita Banerjee taps fervently at her laptop, rushing to meet a deadline. Over a decade-and-a-half ago, when she stepped into the arena of freelance journalism, she wrote her articles by hand and submitted them personally to the local publications. Once the articles were published, she would have to wait for months before making the rounds of the editorial offices, getting the invoices signed by several people, cajoling them to dole out the payment that rightfully belonged to her. A few more trips and a long wait later, the cheques would be grudgingly handed over to her, sometimes with deductions termed as sudden change in payment policies.


Now, after all these years, she can write her manuscripts on her computer, and send them swiftly to the editors via email. Cheques arrive more-or-less promptly, often getting credited to her PayPal account. Besides, she can use the internet to reach out to writing markets beyond the boundaries of her town, as well as substantiate the interviews with online research. 


For Gauri Warudi, a freelance journalist and filmmaker, the changes that she has observed in her two-decades of writing career are a mixed bag. Her typewriter has been replaced by the computer; the personal delivering of the articles to the editorial department with the quick and easy e-mail and attachment. But at the same time, she feels that generous pay cheques have been replaced with peanuts,  passion for writing by adsense, hands-on  research by copy-paste.


Someone once said that change is the only constant. Things can change for the better or for the worse. I wonder how much this profession of freelance journalism has changed over the years in terms of attitude, work ethics, payments, and the way of working. Are there more changes that can turn this field of freelance journalism into a viable career for those who want to eke out a living as storytellers?  In an endeavor to understand what has changed and what has not, from the point of view of freelancers, I spoke to freelance journalists with various capsules of experience.


Attitude and ethics:

Sreelata Menon was as assistant editor with a Mumbai-based magazine in 1972.  She went back to freelance writing seven years ago after a break of almost thirty years. She has a pertinent observation to make about the change in attitude and ethics -   sea change in attitude definitely, but work ethics still need a lot of fine tuning. She, like quite a few freelance journalists, feels that a lot needs to be done vis-a-vis ethics regarding payments, since several editors and publishers still do not give freelancers the credit they deserve for the effort they put into a piece.


Sucharita Dutta-Asane, who has been freelancing for the past two years, agrees. Publications are yet to wake up to the fact that a freelancer works equally hard, and is as capable and deserving as the regular office worker whose hours are more visible. This attitude often translates to negative payment ethics as in underpayment, and delayed payment.  Even the freelancer¿s social circle contributes to the negative attitude by not really understanding that she also has certain time crunches, and work requirements.


What has not changed much over the years is this: freelance means almost free attitude that publications and people around have towards writers who eke out their living by writing for several newspapers, magazines and websites. Freelance journalists put in as much or more effort than an average staffer to come up with interesting story ideas, and work just as hard to research  their stories. Diligent about meeting their deadlines, they work without the guarantee that the article will make its way into print, or have the comfort of knowing that the cheque for their submission  will arrive on time, if at all.


Says Mridu Khullar, a freelance journalist, who writes extensively on social injustice and women¿s issues for national and international publications, some editors tend to see freelancers as hobbyists working from home as a way to kill time.  She is also quick to add that this sort of attitude is changing, and people who can multitask, travel, and come up with good ideas are very much in demand. She points out that the changes in the global work environment are affecting Indian publications.


There is a glimmer of hope for the hundreds of freelance journalists, who continue to file their stories in  publications around the country. Charu Bahri, who freelances for a variety of magazines and websites, feels that  since everyone is becoming cost and innovation conscious, the opportunities for freelancers are increasing.


Money: There are two schools of thought about the rates that are offered for articles. Some believe that the payments are much better than before, while other freelance journalists feel that the good old days of journalism were better, when the cheques were sumptuous. Yet, others feel that rates have remained static. Says Hasmita Chander, who contributes regularly to national, international and regional publications, the rates have been mostly stationary for the last 10 years, except for a few magazines and editors who agree to pay more for writers with more experience or higher quality work.


While rates in the national arena may have undergone subtle change in the last decade, Sreelata, who has seen the world of media evolve since the seventies, feels  that unlike the past, freelancers today can earn as much if not more than a journalist on a register. Payments, in most cases, are within a month of publication and by post. Another subtle change is that freelancers do not have to chase publishers for payment as much these days. Mita too finds positive changes in the process of payments, with most publications paying promptly. She recalls that in earlier times one had to almost beg for that rightful payment, and often had to forfeit it too.


Technology: Every freelance journalist agrees that the internet and the computer have revved up their careers.   Mridu states, ¿I wouldn¿t have a career without the Internet; it has enabled writers to communicate with others and not feel isolated in a freelance bubble.¿ The internet has brought more flexibility and comfort to the lives of scores of freelance journalists across the country and the world, who use the search engines to find new markets and substantiate their hands-on interviews with online research, besides  sending their queries as well as completed drafts to editors through email. Gauri however, points out that the internet is both a boon and a bane, since there is  blatant plagiarizing, and it has made people less passionate about doing justice to their stories. Hasmita agrees with her, adding that the demand for writing has increased, with online portals needing content generated everyday. As a result, more work is being demanded, but at poor rates.


The advent of the internet and access to information at the click of the mouse, may have led to rampant plagiarism, but diligent journalists, who take pride in their craft, will still rely on first-hand research, turning to the internet for additional information or new writing markets.


The type of writing: Technology, the internet and the increase in the number of online and print publications, has also changed the content and the style of writing. Mita, whose focus is people, health, environment and social issues along with food and interiors, feels that when she began freelancing, thought-provoking articles , riddles , short stories and poems were much in demand. However, writers from her generation will agree that the language has now become much more reader-friendly, and the use of the first person is allowed.


Old-timers feel that the type of articles being accepted by publications have changed, while for others, like Gauri,  the passion quotient is missing from the content submitted by writers today. Largely, articles being written today seem to address the ad-generation! At least in some publications.


Adsense and SEO requirements may have brought about monotony to articles that are written for the digital media; thoughtful pieces like middles may have been replaced with fact and news-oriented pieces; and rampant copy-paste may have taken precedence over wholesome hands-on research. But it goes without saying that today there are several kinds of writing that any freelance journalist can delve into. From environment to entrepreneurship, fashion to food, politics to psychology, a freelance writer can choose from an array of interesting topics. Articles can be sent to the newspapers in town, to magazines around the country or world, to portals in every corner of the globe. There is so much more to write about and report on. Sreelata puts this all in a neat nutshell - new interests engender new writing. 


Changes that should be incorporated in the field of freelance journalism: More professionalism on the parts of editors who commission stories to freelancers, is one of most important changes needed in this field. Most of us who write articles after getting the approval of editors, have had stories stashed away with payments delayed or held back; queries are left in limbo, leaving the writer to wonder if the story idea was good, bad or ugly. The guarantee to be published is another point that most of us would want implemented in the world of the printed word.


Hasmita feels that more professionalism on the part of editors as well as writers would help.  Writers should avoid accepting work if the pay is not worthy of the time and effort being put in, and when they do take on work, they should put in their best efforts .Editors, on the other hand, she feels, should respond more promptly and be open to negotiation and fair deals with freelance writers.


Speaking about fair terms of work and better payments, Sreelata states  that editors should realize that they need us as much we need them. What would they do without freelance writers- they can¿t  have everyone on their rolls! While timely payments are one of Sucharita¿s  concerns, she also feels that  society at large should have more respect for the time-jugglery involved in a freelancer¿s  work-family-social life.


According to Mridu, a professional forum for freelance journalists is another change that can help support writers and extend their network. Better rates, quick responses from editors, respect and better work ethics can bring about some positive changes in the world of freelance journalism, making it a viable career option for qualified people.






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