The previous stylebook came out in 2010. What’s new in this edition?
The main centrepiece of the new edition is the social media policy. It’s not the first time we’ve had something on the books, as it were, to help and inform people who work for CP as to how to manage their activity on social media in the context of the news agency and in the context of their daily journalism. But it’s an area that evolves very, very quickly. It wasn’t in the book in a comprehensive way, just mentioned as a great way to gather material, crowdsource grassroots opinion and so forth. [The new policy] coincided with the hiring of Andrew Lundy, our new director of digital. Over several months, we had a committee of reporters and other CP employees discuss what kind of model we’d have and how it should be framed. They were passionate discussions, because people feel quite strongly about social media and what they can do with it. We forged this policy to guide people in how it can be used as a tool, and the importance of using it as a tool both for information gathering and disseminating the work we do, and the pitfalls, the areas where you can get into trouble. Because it was so new, people tended to forget the long-existing policies of objectivity, fairness, accuracy, all the tenets of journalism, apply there too. It is a platform, a place where we’re engaged in discussions and sometimes arguments, and there’s a lot of back and forth. We wanted to ensure we were putting our best face forward representing the company when they were involved in these talks. Also, privacy issues come into play, and accuracy is fundamental. If you’re representing the company on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else, you have to be in that framework of being a journalist first. … The policy itself is several pages along, with a great amount of detail, and I wanted a concise, condensed version to go in the book.
What other updates did you make?
Mostly tweaks, which is a fairly typical way to go. It’s the first edition of the stylebook I was involved in as an editor. We’re saving up more changes for down the road. We have a significant anniversary coming up, CP’s 100th anniversary in 2017, and I’m hoping we’ll mark that with comprehensive changes from cover to cover in the next five years or so.
Changes to the online edition happen between books. Does this book crystallize those changes?
It’s always a bit of crystallizing. It wasn’t an overhaul, but filling in a few spots where we don’t have anything in the book and we probably should. Suicide is a good example. It ended up in the section on sensitive subjects, and it will likely be expanded on in later editions. We were silent on that issue until now, and I felt we needed some acknowledgement that this is an area where you need to take your time, think carefully about what you’re doing and the impact it will have on other people, because it is a sensitive subject. Traditionally, in media, it was a verboten subject – the attitude still exists in many newsrooms that if it involves a suicide, you set it side, it’s not something you want to talk about. But that attitude has changed dramatically in recent years, dealing with prominent stories that put suicide at the forefront – First Nations are an example, and cyberbullying and teenage suicide are major issues. And it felt wrong to turn a blind eye to an issue that was dominating so much of the discussion in the national media on a daily basis. So this is us dipping our toe in the water a little bit. … There are lots of experts out there, with different opinions and perspectives on how to approach it. Get advice. Don’t just blunder through a story or dismiss a story out of hand because it touches on this issue. There is very prescriptive advice. If you go to certain mental health agencies or organizations, they often have tips for media, sometimes very heavy-handed, recommending certain language over others, putting certain facts in. We don’t want to go there, we just want to make sure it’s on people’s radar.
There’s new content on dealing with government and corporate officials.
As you know, I’m based in Ottawa now, and it’s been a prominent issue for us up here, very often dealing with government officials or other media relations folks who are less than forthcoming. This is a government that’s made it very clear that it takes a certain approach to the media, and we wanted to give advice on how best to handle situations in which someone who may in fact be being paid to deal with the media isn’t returning calls, or they’re demanding to see questions ahead of time, or refusing to do phone interviews. These are all things we encounter on a regular basis, and we wanted to provides some guidance on that, so that’s in there.
What was updated in the “unnamed sources” section?
It’s quite common among major media outlets, they now have a requirement that if you’re going to quote an anonymous source, you have to explain why, you have to cite the very specific reason why you’re choosing to grant anonymity to a particular person – for example, it’s someone who’s not authorized to speak to the media, or who doesn’t have permission to release certain details, or who’s fearing for their safety. We’re trying to give the reader as much guidance as possible as to why this person has a good reason for choosing not to use their name. The other thing it does, it forces the reporter to take a second look at why it is. There’s a tendency, very much in this day and age, to go to that default position. If somebody doesn’t want their name used because they don’t want to get in trouble, that’s not good enough. Hopefully this policy will get reporters to take a second look…and both parties are forced to think about it, and it discourages the use, the wanton use, of anonymous sources, but still permits it when necessary. There are definitely circumstances where it’s in the public interest for a person to be able to speak out without fear of reprisal. We’ve always tried to find the middle ground and provide flexibility. That section on anonymous sources, there’s a solid two pages now.
How much do controversial news stories inform or drive updates to the stylebook?
It certainly helps to put it on the front burner. When the things we’re dealing with are prominent, it puts them on my radar that much more quickly. An issue like suicide – Rehtaeh Parsons and all the other examples we’ve been wrestling with in recent months – that will bring the issue to my attention more quickly. So I’d say it’s a major driver. The book is a living thing, and we’re trying to keep it up to date and current.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There’s a section on using online images. A good example is the bus crash in Ottawa. It doesn’t take long for tribute pages and personal Facebook pages to acknowledge a tragedy or event. We felt we weren’t providing staff enough direct guidance on the use of pictures posted online. Sometimes there’s an attitude that if it’s online, it’s fair game, but that’s not always the case and we wanted to give more guidance.
There’s a part about obscenity. We made the change to the online stylebook years ago, around 2010, but this is the first print edition to reflect that. We needed to give ourselves more flexibility. We serve a multitude of different clients with different expectations and needs. Mainstream media clients, newspapers and the like … if there’s obscenity in the news report and it’s relevant and part of the news, oftentimes you’ll see that in print. But when you start to get into online… we’re serving a lot of corporate clients that have their own attitude towards these things. Maybe they have a family-oriented site. They tend to have a higher bar as to whether obscenity and profanity is permissible. So we’ve had to evolve our approach and provide multiple streams. Sometimes we’ll provide a story edited from that higher bar. And it became a very complicated issue, not easy to navigate. And the advent of the Internet has pushed a lot of language into the mainstream that traditionally wouldn’t be there. When Fucked Up won the Polaris Music Prize, we had an issue there. I think at one point we mentioned them as “a band whose name couldn’t be published in a family newspaper.” But at a certain point, you’re providing a disservice – we can’t name the band that won the Polaris Prize! It gets difficult. So our traditional approach, historically, we didn’t use devices, for example, asterisks instead of certain letters. We don’t specifically recommend that approach, but we’ve amended the policy that we no longer have a prohibition on it. If anything, the revisions in the policy have broadened it to let us use different strategies. And we feel that’s a reflection of what the media world at large needs to do now.
This interview has been edited for length. Images courtesy of James McCarten.
WIN A COPY! James is giving away two copies of The Canadian Press Stylebook. To enter, send an email to jaclynlaw[at]gmail[dot]com with CP STYLEBOOK in the subject line. Please include your mailing address. Deadline for entries is Sunday, Nov. 10.
To order copies of the book, visit the Canadian Press website.
Today I have a treat for you: tips on display writing from Kisha Ferguson, writer, editor and journalism teacher. I’ve been an admirer of Kisha’s since her Outpost Magazine days (she was the founder and editor), and I’m excited to share her advice on Editfish.
It’s no surprise so many journalists end up being spin doctors, speech writing flaks, or ad copy writers. In order to entice a reader to read, you have to first sell them on what you want them to read. Storytelling comes second. And these days, it’s no longer “Come take my hand, gentle reader,” but rather, “Read this or else.” The visual noise is becoming louder as more and more information competes for our attention, increasing the need for every headline to scream.
There is no denying that writing a he(a)d, de(c)k, teaser, bumper, banner, value-added, kicker, sub-headline, etc., is an art. A great example of this is Twitter. Cramming enough info into 140 characters is an amazing exercise in explanatory brevity, especially when your aim is pushing someone to read an article they can’t see at that exact moment. In other words, getting them to “click on through to the other side.” (More on that later.)
Having gone back and forth over the years between working in magazines and TV news and current affairs, I’ve managed to apply that art to both media. Especially now, as I primarily bang out news copy for a living, viewers “read” TV a lot. Talking heads and voiceovers now compete with screen text, often scrolling, popping up or changing several times within a two-minute item.
I was once told to “Find the meat and sell it,” as a way of coming up with great headlines. Replace “meat” with pathos or drama…but always remember the selling part of it. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re waiting for a visit from the clever copy fairy.
1. The best things in life are 3’s.
When in doubt, employ the magic power of “3” to sum up the elements in your story, preferably with alliteration: “Guns, God and Guantanamo” or “Coffee, Capitalism and Culture.” Even better, throw in an ampersand or a plus sign…works especially well on cover copy.
2. I’m OK, you’re (not) OK.
Ask a thought-provoking question. Put the onus on the readers – using “you” – to make them question themselves or their beliefs, or worry about something they never thought to worry about before, thereby giving them almost no choice but to read the next few graphs. This is especially effective in women’s and parenting publications, where inducing fear, a sense that something’s wrong, sells the magazines and the products advertised inside: “Are you getting the most from your 90-minute workout?” “Do you really know the man you’re sleeping with?” “What dangers are in your child’s lunchbox?”
3. You’re a poet and you know it.
Use rhyme to riff on common expressions: “The Great Stall of China” (a story about a three-day traffic jam); “Lush Hour” (about drinking on the tube in London); “Coffee, Tea or D.V.T.” (how people develop blood clots on airplanes).
4. Perturbed lines.
Riff on song titles or lyrics. See graph #3.
5. Love it and list it.
Before the rise of data visualizations, infographics and “charticles,” there was the list – short, punchy bits of info that fall somewhere between copy and display copy. Lately, they seem to occupy more space in front-of-book sections, often replacing articles rather than complementing them.
6. One word to rule them all.
A single word can make a big impact, especially if splashed across a double-page spread, and even more so if you can invoke a sense of doom and gloom: “Aftermath: The Story of…” Or use a fairly banal word, hopefully given a great graphic treatment, followed by an alarming premise: “Water: Why the World Will Soon Run Out of It.”
7. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
You’ll always get someone’s attention if you can somehow use “Armageddon,” particularly when it comes to fairly benign events or weather stories: “Snowmageddon.”
Using the “gate” from “Watergate” as a suffix never fails. I now regularly screen All The President’s Men in the journalism classes I teach, after students asked me why they keep seeing “gate” in headlines.
Kisha Ferguson (@kishaferguson) has spent a lifetime putting words in a readable order so they make some kind of sense. As well as editing other people’s words, she also teaches a generation of wannabe journos how to make it in the big, bad media world. She’s currently working on a book and a documentary despite a full-time job delivering bad news by writing and producing TV news and current affairs stories.
Did you know that Canada’s magazine industry has a Best Practices Guide? D.B. Scott explains how editors, publishers and writers can benefit from following its principles. The guide was created by the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors and Magazines Canada.
New words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online: apols, cakepop, foodbaby, jorts, phablet, selfie, twerk, omnishambles and more. Check out the definitions here. (Thanks for the link, Corinna vanGerwen.)
A new marketing tactic for magazines? Mr. Magazine gets the lowdown on the “Cheeriodical” (I’d rather get one of these than a flower arrangement).
Network before you network: four tips that make use of social media, from Ilise Benun of The Marketing Mix.
Three weeks to go until The Word on the Street in Toronto! On Sunday, Sept. 22, check out what’s going on at the Wordshop Marquee (workshops for writers), Nothing But the Truth Tent (literary non-fiction) and Toronto Star Tent, among others. Visit the site for dates and info for Kitchener, Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Halifax.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my first year of self-employment.
1. Network like your job depends on it — because it does. In my experience, being a member of a writers’ group, such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), has been immensely helpful in getting face time with editors.
2. Pitching is not personal. It’s business. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And again. And, well, you get the point.
3. Know your worth — and your rights. If you’re not happy with a fee being offered, try to negotiate when possible. If the client isn’t worth the time, don’t be afraid to turn down the assignment. And never sign a contract without reading the fine print.
4. Pick up a side gig to give yourself a source of steady income. It’s also helpful in giving yourself a bit of a schedule and staying connected with the outside world. Shoot for opportunities that will enhance your skill set. For myself, working part-time as production coordinator at a university newspaper has given me the chance to learn more about the advertising side of the business.
5. The corporate writing world is one avenue to earn enough money to pursue “passion projects.”
6. Sticking to set working hours goes a long way towards being productive. I typically work 9 to 5, but start earlier if it’s going to be a particularly busy day. Without fixed hours, it’s easy to get too laid-back.
7. If used correctly, social media is an excellent, cost-effective marketing tool. But it can also be a huge time waster. Log out of social media when you’re not using it for work-related purposes to avoid surfing.
8. Continuing education classes or workshops that are going to enhance your business are good investments. The write-offs they bring don’t hurt either. (Moderation is key.)
9. Keep in touch with a network of other writers so you don’t get lonely — and to stay inspired.
10. Always be on the hunt for new publications and clients. The unlikeliest clients can end up being the best ones. The Canadian Writer’s Market is a great resource, too.
11. Keep a daily freelance log of all the work you’re accomplishing. It will give you an instant lift at the end of the week…or serve as a motivational kick in the butt if you’re not being productive enough.
12. As your office manager, it’s up to you to be on top of the paperwork. Set up a system to ensure that you invoice promptly. And, of course, closely track what has been paid. (I find an Excel spreadsheet is the easiest way to do this.)
13. Give up trying to explain to your relatives that, yes, freelance writing is your real job.
14. Stay positive during slower periods. Never forget your reasons for wanting to freelance in the first place.
15. Freelance writing is really hard work (and not glamorous). But it’s also extremely rewarding to run your own writing business.Vanessa Santilli (@V_Santilli) is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a former youth editor and reporter for The Catholic Register. She has written for publications such as MoneySense, The Medical Post and Canadian Living, and she is a member of PWAC Toronto Chapter.
One of the best things about the magazine industry: the people who work in it. I’ve met so many smart, talented, creative types who are passionate about what they do. I’m featuring some of them in this blog, Q&A-style, starting with David Lee, associate photo editor at Hello! Canada. David and I go way back – we went to the same high school in Scarborough in the mid-’90s, graduating a year apart. David moved on to Ryerson’s journalism program, magazine stream. He’s been at Hello! Canada for three and a half years.
You were a yearbook photographer in high school. Did that influence your career path? Prior to working on the yearbook, I was already intensely interested in photography, so being able to take photos and use a darkroom only increased my interest in the field. I was also heavily influenced by the work of National Geographic and Time magazine photographers and how powerful an image could be in terms of telling a story. I took that passion with me to journalism school, where I ended up being the visuals editor for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in my final year. That position landed me my first photography-related job as an intern, then as a photo researcher, at Canadian Business magazine.
When did you know you wanted to work in the media, and magazines specifically? It was pretty early on. Before I had even decided to go to journalism school, I had always loved reading magazines. The gorgeous photography and in-depth feature writing were so compelling to me. It wasn’t until I went to university, though, that I knew working in a photo department was something I could do as a career.
What are your main duties? Basically I help research photos for stories, assign some of the photo shoots, and keep in touch with the agencies and photographers who provide us with photos. A huge chunk of my time though is involved with determining and obtaining rights to photographs. With such high-profile subjects and lots of exclusive images, making sure all the rights are in place is an important aspect of my job.
Whom do you work with at Hello! Canada? We’re a pretty tightly knit team here. Unlike most traditional newsrooms, a lot of the stories are generated because of a photograph. For example, the news of Angelina Jolie’s engagement broke with the release of a photograph of her wearing an engagement ring. Jennifer Aniston’s engagement news broke much the same way. When we find stories like that, the editorial team has to jump in and research the story behind it. I can’t really think of very many other newsrooms that have that kind of dynamic. It’s certainly different from a traditional monthly magazine, that’s for sure! On the flipside, the editorial team has to keep the photo department informed of what subjects they’d like us to photograph and what stories they’re working on. The art department sits between both realms and lets us know if there are different photos that they’d like to use or they need more images to flesh out a story.
Hello! Canada is a weekly publication. What is a typical week like for you? Typically our week starts out on Wednesday after we’ve closed last week’s issue. The editorial department will give the photo department a list of photos to start researching for some of the givens in the book: What’s On and the Lifestyle section. By Friday, we’ll have a sense of what stories we’d like to put into the news section of the magazine, and we’ll start putting some photos together for those. Once Monday rolls around, it’s basically non-stop until we close the magazine on Tuesday. A lot of the news that we cover happens from Friday to Sunday, sothere will be a lot of photographs to pore over and stories to consider.
When choosing images, do you work with guidelines, or do you have a lot of freedom? Every magazine has a visual style and Hello! is no different. There would be photos that would look obviously out of place in our magazine. Within the style of the magazine, though, there is still a lot of freedom. For major events like the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine, there were thousands of different images to choose from. For a more typical news story, there are still a variety of things we can try. For feature stories, we can be a bit more creative as well and try things that we wouldn’t normally try in a news story, but again I think that’s true for any publication. Although the pictures we choose may differ from other publications, I think the process the photo department goes through is very similar.
What are some of your favourite issues, features or photo assignments? I’ve always liked when we do our big portrait-focused issues, like our Most Beautiful Canadians or Hottest Bachelor issues. We get to use photography from some of the biggest names in photography in our magazine. Some names that come to mind are Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh. It absolutely never gets tiring to look at the stunning photography from the masters of portraiture. Aside from that, anytime there’s a huge news event like the royal wedding or the coronation anniversary, it’s really exhilarating to see the wealth of images coming in and just having so much to choose from. Getting to photograph a celebrity is always exciting. Working with talented people in front of the lens and behind it is always satisfying. Our recent fashion shoot with Avril Lavigne for our Canada’s Most Beautiful issue is a perfect example of that. Celebrity photographer Mark Liddell, who shot the story for us, worked extensively with Avril before, and I think it really shows in the pictures. Where sometimes a celebrity will be really stiff working with someone they’re unfamiliar with, the results you can get when the shooter and subject have a great rapport are fantastic. Sometimes when things go really well, it can lead to other opportunities, like getting the exclusive on her wedding photos, which Mark Liddell also shot for us.
How do you approach a big story like the royal baby? With big news stories, we go into the event with a plan in mind but it’s always difficult to know exactly what you’re going to get. You can guess at what kind of photos there will be, but until the event actually happens, there are no guarantees. For example, with the royal baby, we knew ahead of time that they were going to be coming out of the front doors of the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital and that they would pause for a picture, but that only really guaranteed us two or three different kinds of photos. Getting the Middletons and Prince Charles and Camilla visiting the hospital were unannounced extras for us. The various expressions that they had and the interaction between the two was different from when William was brought out from the hospital by Diana and Charles.
How does choosing photos for print and web differ? Choosing images for the web is a bit different because of the way images are consumed. In print, you have very tight control in terms of how one photo relates to other photos on a page and how that arrangement tells a story.
At magazines that don’t have a photo editor, who researches and selects images? Some publications use a freelance photo editor or photo researcher on a per-project or per-story basis. Some publications will just use the art director to research the photos.
What tips do you have for people interested in being a photo editor? While there are courses out there to get started, most of the skills related to being a photo editor are learned on the job. Aside from time on the mountain, though, the best thing you can do is immerse yourself in photography. Learn about photographers from the past like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who defined The Decisive Moment, and current photographers like Edward Burtynsky, whose landscape photography is unparalleled in my opinion. Take this and apply it to whatever publication you’re working for, or want to work for. In my case it’s all about celebrity photography, so I try and keep on top of all aspects of the business, like the agencies (Getty, Reuters, AP), candid photographers and celebrity portraitists.
How about advice on image selection for editors who aren’t photo editors? I think most people have a visceral response to photography – you probably already have an idea of what makes a good photograph and what doesn’t. What a photo editor brings to the table, though, is being able to choose the best photograph from a group of the best photographs. That’s a much harder thing to do. Then to take those best photographs and put them together into something that tells a story is another thing on top of that. I think that sometimes editors forget that the photo editor’s job is much like an editorial editor.
Cover images courtesy of Hello! Canada.
Unsent emails, unreturned phone calls…instead of repeatedly dropping the ball, should you say “no” more often? Fast Company offers seven steps to a cure.
If you cover science and health, sign up for news from the Science Media Centre of Canada, a non-profit organization that helps reporters understand current topics and find expert sources.
Pick up the phone! On The Renegade Writer blog, freelancer Suchi Rudra explains why writers should call (not email) their editors.
Great blog alert: “Notes From My Desk” by freelance journalist Mridu Khullar Relph. Recent topics include: how freelancers can better handle sick days; what she learned from hiring other writers; and how to choose blog topics.
Summer slowdown? Try my ideas for productive downtime.
Healing words for a community: how literary magazine Newtowner responded in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Welcome to the second half of my Q&A with journalist and academic Nicole Cohen. Part 1 is available here.
Jaclyn Law: You wrote an article for Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, titled “Negotiating Writers’ Rights: Freelance Cultural Labour and the Challenge of Organizing.” You suggested that a union could be “the most effective way to challenge powerful publishers.” Unions for Canadian freelancers are a relatively recent development. Why, historically, has it been difficult to organize freelancers to take collective action?
Nicole Cohen: I think the history of PWAC as an organization is instructive here. When PWAC was forming in the late 1970s, there was a big debate about whether to become a union or a professional association. Ultimately it became a professional association, but at its formation the group was oriented to spirited resistance: it negotiated contracts with 19 magazines and twice threatened to go on strike.
That spirit faded over the decades, but recently we have seen renewed energy around organizing freelancers, both from the Canadian Freelance Union and the Canadian Media Guild, which has long represented freelancers at the CBC but is now organizing freelancers across the media industries. This is exciting, and I think the recent contracts introduced by TC Media, The Toronto Star, and other media companies are spurring freelancers into renewed action—they have had enough. There has been an increase in public outcry, meetings and campaigns in the past few months, which is promising.
There are, of course, challenges to organizing freelancers, but I wanted to begin my answer to this question by pointing out that it is not impossible, as most assume, and there are many historical examples of freelancers successfully organizing (see, for example, freelancers in film and television, in the visual arts, and the Freelancers Union in the United States, which is the fastest-growing workers’ organization in America).
That said, there are specific conditions that make organizing freelancers in Canada difficult. For example, freelancers work alone, isolated from one another, and often don’t know other freelancers (this makes it difficult to organize to withhold labour or services, for example). Freelancers have long had antagonistic relationships with unions, as newsroom unions worked to limit the amount of work contracted to freelancers (this is changing, as the CEP is now the parent union of the CFU). Legally, the structures of labour representation in Canada are built on a model of single-workplace bargaining, which makes it difficult to organize workers who work for multiple employers or on multiple worksites to collectively bargain.
What I found interesting is that the skills one needs to develop to be a successful freelancer, and the structure of freelance journalism as highly individualized work, mean that freelancers develop highly individualized coping strategies and particular occupational identities (as individuals, entrepreneurs and professionals) that are not conducive to collective action or organizing.
Finally, in a small industry based on reputation, many freelancers are hesitant to speak out or complain, for fear of losing work (Amber Nasrulla’s recent post on Story Board speaks to this problem).
There are challenges, of course, but it’s not impossible to organize freelancers to collectively confront the challenges they face. There is a lot of activity going on right now around contracts, which is encouraging.
JL: Many freelancers do traditional media work such as article writing and copy editing in combination with corporate work, which is typically work-for-hire—freelancers don’t retain copyright and don’t expect to, and they are often paid better rates. Is this the way of the future, in terms of having a viable freelance career? What could it mean for the profession of journalism?
NC: Freelancers have always done other work to sustain themselves, especially in Canada, where we have smaller media markets, fewer companies and lower rates of pay than, for example, in the United States.
What I found in my survey was that freelancers note that they are doing more and more of the corporate or teaching or non-journalism-related work and less journalism, and many express frustration at this because they got into freelancing specifically to do journalism. In my survey, most freelancers say they want to write long-form, investigative journalism or books, but most earn all or some of their living from corporate writing.
Of course, not all freelancers are journalists and many do not want to be. The problem, however, is that fewer people are able to earn a living doing journalistic work even though an increasing amount of journalistic work is being outsourced to freelancers. I think this has several implications. For one, it means that skilled journalists committed to their craft are leaving the occupation. It means that journalism will increasingly become an occupation for only those who can afford to be a journalist, which increasingly means being able to sustain oneself as a freelancer. This will have the effect of limiting whose voices and perspectives will be heard.
Ultimately, the challenges freelance journalists face affect the quality of content in media. Low pay means that people focus on the stories that are faster to produce in order to make freelancers’ time worthwhile, and we will lose the kind of journalism freelancers have traditionally excelled at: long form, more creative, challenging types of journalism.
JL: Is there an upside to precarious employment? In an age of newsroom layoffs and outsourcing, could freelancers be better off in some ways—more adaptable, more responsive to the market? There’s been a lot of talk about the creative class, and recent developments like communal workspaces and the benefits of technology for mobile workers. Are these developments a good thing?
NC: I would never say there is an upside to precarious employment—research consistently shows that conditions of precarious employment have negative implications for workers across the labour market: lower wages, economic and social insecurity, no access to benefits or social protections, and risk of poor physical and mental health, for example. But I do think it’s important to recognize that many people do choose to work as freelancers and become self-employed—this is not entirely a top-down process (even though a quick scan of job postings and a look at the numbers of layoffs in media in this country show that it is getting more and more difficult to find employment in media, especially for writers).
Self-employment offers opportunities and advantages, and I think historically we can think of freelance cultural workers as refusing to engage in waged-labour and seeking ways to be autonomous and in control of their work and their lives. And the ability of freelancers to have access to workspaces and mobile technologies and, perhaps, even ways to self-publish, does show promising signs that workers can, potentially, liberate themselves from employers.
The challenge, however, is that in our economy, security is tied to employment, and although we have a rise of self-employment and freelancing, we are not seeing an increase in social protections and institutions to support these workers or this form of work—our social policy and security is tied to employment. And while many individuals do succeed as freelancers (interestingly, they are usually the ones advocating that we all become freelancers), self-employment is polarizing: most earn low incomes, experience insecurity, and would prefer secure work.
I think it’s important to look at the power relations that underpin freelance work: who is benefiting and at whose expense? And what do we need to do to make flexible work flexible (and secure) for workers, not just provide flexibility for companies to offload the risks and costs of production onto individuals.
JL: Can you talk briefly about your current research?
NC: My doctoral research investigated traditional realms of freelance journalism, specifically newspaper and magazine publishing. I am now beginning to research new publishing models that have emerged in the digital age, or digital-first journalism, and the production practices that are made possible by the rise and spread of a freelance media workforce. I am interested in examining what possibilities exist to improve media workers’ autonomy, opportunities and material conditions, and in investigating the social and power relations emerging with a new era of digital publishing.
I am also currently collaborating with Greig de Peuter and Enda Brophy on a research project we have called “Cultural Workers Organize.” We are investigating how cultural workers in a range of flexible employment forms (freelancers, interns, contract workers, the self-employed) in the most vaunted sectors of the creative economy (media, fashion, art, etc.) are collectively responding to precarious employment. We are examining experiments happening on the margins of the labour movement globally to respond to precarity (you can read more at our website, culturalworkersorganize.org).
I’ve long admired Nicole Cohen for co-founding Shameless magazine and for her research into the labour conditions of interns and freelancers. At the end of March, she gave a presentation about her academic work, including the results of her online survey about freelancing, conducted in 2010. I attended along with other freelancers, and I was stunned by her talk—I thought, “More people need to hear this!” So I invited Nicole, a recently minted PhD and, as of July 1, the University of Toronto Mississauga’s new assistant professor in the Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology, to take part in a Q&A.
Jaclyn Law: Can you tell me about your education and journalism background?
Nicole Cohen: I graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 2003 and planned to be a journalist, but wanted to learn more about the world, as I spent most of my time at Ryerson working on The Eyeopener and not in my classes. I was really excited about the prospects of working as a journalist in Canada. I had done an internship at Eye Weekly and was hired as a staff writer, had done a short stint in The Star’s Radio Room program, and was freelancing for several publications: The Star, This magazine, Eye Weekly and others. I had also co-founded Shameless magazine with Melinda Mattos in 2003, when we graduated from Ryerson. While starting my journalism career by freelancing, I was taking part-time classes at York University, which eventually led me to do a MA in political science at York. I decided to do a PhD in the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture, as York offers good funding for graduate students and I was awarded a fellowship and realized that graduate studies, oddly, was a more secure form of employment than freelancing, one that would also allow me to continue to write and publish.
Based on my experience as a journalist and working in alternative/independent media, I gravitated toward communication studies and began studying political economy of communications, a critical approach to media and journalism that examines the power relations and social relations in these industries. It was then that I began thinking much more critically about my own experiences as a media worker and why, for example, I was spending weeks researching long, investigative articles for Eye Weekly and being paid $250 per article (of course now I realize that I should have negotiated a higher fee!).
At the time, around 2006, a lot of academic research was emerging that was paying attention to work and labour conditions in media and cultural industries, and this research intersected with research in political science and sociology on precarious employment, which has been spreading into growing numbers of occupations in the past few decades. At the time, I was part of a freelance journalist community that was experiencing low and stagnating wages and increasingly restrictive contracts for copyright. The Canadian Freelance Union was also emerging, which pointed to the very serious issues Canadian freelancers were facing in trying to earn a living—serious enough to establish a trade union.
It seemed to me at the time that it was impossible to understand contemporary media and journalism, as political economy aims to do, without understanding the material conditions of those who produce media and journalism. And so, when choosing a research topic, I chose to research what I knew and investigated the working conditions and labour conditions of freelance journalists in Canada. I defended my dissertation in February 2013. I wrote my dissertation as a book and plan to submit it to a publisher this summer or fall.
JL: Can you tell me about your academic work, in particular your PhD work and online survey?
NC: Broadly, I research in the area of critical political economy of communication, with a focus on work and labour organizing in media and cultural industries. My dissertation examines the working conditions of Canadian freelance journalists and freelancers’ efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. I spent about three years researching and writing the dissertation.
The empirical section of my work draws on an online survey I conducted in 2010 of self-identified freelance journalists across Canada. Two hundred freelancers responded. The survey consisted of a mix of quantitative questions (salary, hours worked, type of work, etc.) but also contained a significant qualitative component, where I asked a series of open-ended questions about how freelancers experience their work, what they like and don’t like about freelancing, their attitudes toward collective organizing and unions, for example. I can’t say the survey is an accurate representative sample of all freelancers in Canada (freelance journalists are very difficult to count, as it’s such a fluid profession, and each freelancer has vastly different experiences of and expectations from work than the next) but it does offer insight into the tensions and challenges that underpin the experience of freelancing in contemporary media industries.
To supplement the survey, I interviewed members and organizers of writers’ organizations and unions, including the CEP, CFU, PWAC, CMG and others (including the Freelancers Union in New York City, the National Writers Union in the US, and the National Union of Journalists’ freelance branch in the UK). The rest of the work draws on theoretical and academic literature in communication and labour studies. Overall, I look at the underlying processes, practices, and social relations that shape the work of contemporary freelance journalism and challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that freelance writing is inherently low-paid work.
The argument I make is that freelance journalism has been transformed from, historically, being a strategy of resisting salaried labour by journalists—an effort to gain some control over the terms of commodification of their labour power and autonomy over their craft—into a strategy for media firms to intensify exploitation of freelance writers’ labour power through two primary strategies: the exploitation of unpaid labour time and control of copyright to writers’ works.
JL: Freelance income rates have remained stagnant—and even declined—since the 1970s, and contracts are demanding more rights than ever before. What are some other challenges that freelancers face?
NC: Low and stagnant rates are a major challenge, as is the new contract regime that publishers have introduced, contracts that demand all rights to writers’ works, or rights in a bundle for a very small fee (including, recently with TC Media’s contract, moral rights). These two key aspects of freelancing mean that while there is lots of journalistic work available to freelancers, especially as media companies contract and layoff staff, this work is low paid and freelancers are not earning as much as they can from their works due to highly restrictive contracts. Publishers are buying rights to writers’ works for multiple formats and venues, and so it seems that writers should be able to earn increasing income from the stories they write. But this is not the case—publishers are in a very powerful position and most individual freelancers are in a very weak bargaining position.
These two challenges to freelancers’ incomes are linked to a host of other challenges freelance journalists (and, arguably, all freelance or self-employed workers) face: because rates per word or per article remain very low, freelancers must work longer hours to earn higher incomes. Although most freelancers say they are freelancers because they want flexible schedules, or more control over their time, most work long hours and have intermittent but intense workloads. Work is experienced in feast-or-famine style: too much work tempered by stretches of no work at all. Freelancers must take on multiple projects at once and always be hustling to find work. Self-employed workers have limited access to benefits and social protections, such as EI, pensions, or parental leave.
These challenges have been experienced by freelancers throughout history, of course, but they have intensified in recent decades, as more people are working as freelancers than ever before and, as you note, rates of pay in Canadian journalism remain absurdly low. The freelancers I surveyed, most of who report enjoying the work they do, say the aspects of the job they like least include marketing and promotions, the constant and relentless pitching, and not having control over how much work they have or how much money they will earn (most freelancers do not set their rates for the work they do). Many are leaving journalism, or taking on more and more non-journalistic work, even though many say they became freelancers in the first place to do more interesting work.
JL: In your 2012 paper for tripleC, “Cultural Work as a Site of Struggle: Freelancers and Exploitation,” you’ve applied the framework of Marxist political economy to freelance writers, pointing out how independent workers experience the exploitation typically associated with the employer-employee relationship. Can you talk about the ways that freelancers are exploited?
NC: In my work, I look at how freelance journalists, like all workers, are exploited under capitalism. I use the term in its technical sense: as Marx explained, workers are exploited because they produce more value (surplus value, or profit) than what they are paid, and that surplus is controlled by an employer.
These relations become difficult to see in the case of freelancers, who are self-employed workers, yet workers nonetheless. For one, freelancers sell single pieces of work to a publisher, so it appears that they are not paid for their time at work, like other workers, and freelancers’ names are attached to their articles and to the invoices they submit for payment, further emphasizing that freelancers work for themselves. But with low and stagnant rates of pay, it is becoming increasingly clear that relations of exploitation underpinning freelance journalism are intensifying in contemporary capitalism.
I outline two primary areas of exploitation in my research: one, unpaid labour time, and two, copyright. Freelance labour is very cheap for publishers. By purchasing finished works, for which freelancers are paid an arbitrary per-word or per-article rate, publishers don’t have to pay for the time it takes to develop a piece, research, do interviews, rewrite and edit, and all the tasks that are necessary for producing journalism. For freelance writers, this includes the time of developing ideas, networking, pitching, running a business, invoicing, promoting—a very long list. This unpaid work is critical for the work of writing, yet the low rates writers are paid—rates that have remained stagnant for decades—mean that the cost of writers’ labour power is lowered, or, exploitation is increased. And this is for writing that is paid. The spread of free writing, or writing for “exposure,” on major news sites like the Huffington Post increases the generalized exploitation of freelancers and further lowers the value of their labour power.
The second aspect of exploitation is through contracts for copyright, which are demanding escalating rights for minimal pay and limit writers’ abilities to resell and repurpose their works. Media companies, on the other hand, retain all rights (in perpetuity, throughout the universe, in formats yet to be invented, as most contracts now stipulate) to endlessly exploit a piece of writing. These exploitative practices have generated highly unequal conditions for freelancers in Canada.These practices, of course, are not evenly applied across the media landscape, as there are many publications in Canada that do not exist simply to earn profit, ranging from activist media to not-for-profit and independent publications. But the majority of newspapers, magazines, and websites in Canada are published by large, converged media corporations that are very, very profitable. Key to their success has been offloading of the risks and costs of media production onto individual freelancers who have little power to negotiate for higher rates of pay and improved contracts.
What do freelancers in the U.K. need to know about running their businesses? Pretty much the same things we Canadians do. Here are two helpful new e-books by British freelancers.
Become a Freelance Writer: Your complete guide to the business of writing
By Rachael Oku; Harriman House, 2013; 52 pages
About $7 for Kindle and iBooks editions
London-based writer/editor Rachael Oku provides tips on setting up, promoting and running a freelance business. In a conversational tone, Oku covers networking, finding work, creating a social media presence, positioning yourself as an expert, pricing your services and much more. (Her list of common freelancing pitfalls is, on its own, worth the price of admission.) She also includes ideas that are likely more common in the U.K. than in Canada (such as selling ads on your site or creating a “media kit” with a list of your services and rates, a photo, clips, etc.).
Oku is well acquainted with the ups and downs of freelance life—she’s the driving force behind Creative-Bloc, a social enterprise/hub for writers, launched in 2012. (Disclosure: I’ve written a couple of blog posts for the site.) The wide-ranging topics and encouraging words of Become a Freelance Writer will be especially beneficial for new and aspiring freelancers.
Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers: A Guide for New Starters
By Louise Harnby in association with The Publishing Training Centre, 2013; 126 pages
About $8 for Kindle and Smashwords editions
Editors, there’s an e-book for you too. Author Louise Harnby has been a freelance proofreader since 2005, and she’s also the owner of the Proofreader’s Parlour, a blog for editors and proofreaders. Her e-book covers freelancing essentials such as business plans (yes, you need one), different types of editing, training, promotion, networking, working with clients, resources and more.
Written with absolute beginners in mind, the e-book also contains ideas for gaining work experience, as well as case studies featuring stories from other freelancers (including a Canadian editor). This detailed, practical guide is a great read for anyone hoping to bust out of a cubicle and into a rewarding and sustainable editing career.
In a videotaped interview for CBS, More Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Lesley Jane Seymour, offers career advice for aspiring editors: “If you’re young and you’re getting out of school, you must go digital, you must know how to code, you must start in the digital area. You can always go backwards into print.”
Mr. Magazine, a.k.a. Samir Husni, has a new series of short videos called “Mr. Magazine Minute.” Watch clips featuring American magazine luminaries such as Chris Johns, editor-in-chief of National Geographic; David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines; and Richard Stengel, managing editor of TIME Magazine.
The horror! In a bid to reduce confusion, officials in southwestern England’s Mid Devon District proposed that “All punctuation, including apostrophes, shall be avoided” on street signs. Find out who won here. Thanks to Corinna vanGerwen for alerting me.
Freelancers are often nervous about saying “no” when they’re offered work (what if the editor never calls again?). WordCount and Freelance Folder have good suggestions on how to decide, and how to offer value even when you can’t accept the gig.
Is it tax season already?! Self-employed people have until June 17, 2013, to file their income tax returns, says the CRA—but any money they owe is still due by April 30. Check out Story Board’s tax tips for freelancers, and consult a tax pro if you’re not sure what expenses you can deduct.
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