Poor, Starving Writers

Oh, sweet heaven, I've hit my nadir: I'm writing a column about contracts. Not sexy contracts. Not "Troy Aikman's multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract" or "Tony Soprano's mother-killing contract." I'm writing about "freelance contracts." These are pieces of paper signed by people who are not employees of a media product, but who are writing a story for said media product, that detail just how little money they will receive.

Before you hyperextend a digit in your mad rush to turn the page, let me explain why I'm writing about something so patently boring. I used to be a freelancer. Twice. It is a great job in several respects. You get to work at home. When you are tired, you nap. When you are hungry, you eat, usually while watching television or playing a video game. When it is sunny, you find a swimming pool. Really, the only time you have to "work" is when you drag your lazy bum to the computer a few hours before deadline--which, in that respect, makes freelancing like any other job in media except that you don't have to pretend as though you're working during the rest of the day. On my desk is a picture with me in it that was taken during my freelancing days: I was 30 pounds lighter, tanned, full head of hair, no bags under my eyes. Frankly, I was hot.

I was also very poor. Like, making-about-$10K-a-year poor. Unless freelancers are writing often for big national magazines, they're probably earning a third of what they could as a staff writer somewhere. For the freelancer, every dime counts.

So when freelancers complain that they're being screwed out of money--more so than usual--I tend to be sympathetic. Which brings us to the contracts, and to Sophia Dembling, a former Dallas Morning News staff writer who left in 1994 to freelance full-time. She is the most vocal of the several regular Morning News freelancers who are distraught about the paper's recent attempts to make them sign new contracts that allow the paper to archive and resell their work on the Web, with no additional compensation for the writers. The contracts, all versions of which say the paper can use a writer's story "in any medium or format (now known or later developed) for no additional fee paid to you," has caused Dembling and others to ponder not writing for the paper.

"Like many of the freelancers, I've just been writing without a contract," says Dembling, who notes that when a paper puts her stories up on a Web site or sells them to online databanks such as Lexis-Nexis, it effectively kills her chances of reselling a story to papers in other markets. "And like most folks who have to balance getting a fair deal with making enough money, you are always amending where your line in the sand is drawn. But soon our final line will be crossed, and we'll be squeezed out."

Not that the paper cares, of course. Part of the problem freelancers face is that they make up a small portion of the paper's writers, meaning they have 'bout zero leverage in contract negotiations. But this time, the freelancers are not bitching in a vacuum. Freelance unions and writers across the country have begun picketing, quitting, and suing papers or firms like Lexis-Nexis, trying to stake out their position in the brave, new, someday profitable world of online content. "There are wildfires breaking out all over," Dembling says. "I just want the Morning News to see that the fires are getting closer." (Here's a shocker: Calls to Corrina Ulrich, a legal affairs bigwig with the Morning News' parent, Belo Corp., were not returned.)

John Ostdick understands the issue from both sides. As a former Morning News business editor, and as former editor of in-flight travel magazine American Way, Ostdick had to negotiate with freelancers on behalf of his corporation's interests. (Read: The Man will keep you down.) He spent almost two hours on a New York street debating the finer points of his magazine's freelancer agreement with a contracts watchdog for the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Now Ostdick, a full-time freelancer since 1998 who has frequently contributed to the paper's Personal Technology section, says he, too, may have written his last piece for the News.

"I can understand the motivation behind a story agreement such as the News is offering--maintaining its archives and providing electronic sales to other data services is integral to the future of the newspaper industry," Ostdick says. "But the freelance pay scale for most newspapers is extremely low, and most fees don't compensate for the time, research, and expense that goes into stories. When a paper then additionally seeks unequivocal rights to the piece, it eliminates any chance a writer has to recoup those expenses by selling a version of that work to another vendor. The DMN agreement I was presented basically eliminates all writer rights to a work. It gives them carte blanche to profit from it." He offers an example: If his work is resold to six different databases, Ostdick says he should get a flat fee or a percentage of the sale.

That is along the lines of what Dembling says she and other freelancers in this market deserve: a choice whether their work goes online; a fee designated for Web rights to a story; and some compensation for work archived or sold to databases that charge for downloads or make banner-ad money.

Could that happen here? A high-profile court case against The New York Times, a recent case filed by The Authors Guild against major online databases, and freelancer uprisings in Boston and San Diego suggest the papers will have a battle on their hands. This could include New Times Inc. papers such as the Dallas Observer, which has long had contracts that give one fee for all uses of a story, including any online archiving or reselling to a database. (New Times does pay a separate fee if a story is used by another paper in its chain, such as the Houston Press.) But it's unlikely to be a high-profile strike like at the Boston Globe, because there is no strong union presence here and, to be honest, freelancers are still seen as low-priority concerns for most media.

"Freelancing is a career choice," Ostdick says, "but in all cases it is a business fraught with challenges. Freelancers who are compelled to sign these types of agreements make it all the more difficult for the rest of us. Bottom line, however, I--just like those who have imprudently signed bad contracts--have families to feed and financial responsibilities to meet. Everyone has boundaries."

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste