Dynamist Blog

Daniel Okrent on Journalistic Outsourcing

In his parting column, NYT public editor Daniel Okrent had this to say about people like me:

7. If you've been noticing more and more unfamiliar bylines in the paper, it's no accident. Additional sections, the demands of The Times's Web site and its television operation, and generalized economic pressures have spread finite staff resources across the requirements of a much wider mission, and have increased the paper's dependence on freelance writers.

Now, I've got nothing against freelance writers; I've been one myself, and tomorrow morning I'll become one again. It's a respectable way to make a living (even if a fiscally preposterous one). Though Times freelancers agree to abide by the paper's ethical rules and professional standards, there's no way someone who's working for The Times today, some other publication tomorrow and yet another on Tuesday can possibly absorb and live by The Times's complex code as fully as staff members. Unrevealed conflicts, violations of Times-specific reporting rules and a variety of other problems have repeatedly found their way to my office over the past 18 months.

The economic pressures on all newspapers are real, of course, and no modern newspaper can thrive unless it commits resources to new forms of distribution. I'm sure The Times devotes a larger share of its revenue to reporting than any other paper in the nation. But the price of stretching a staff too thin, and of patching the weak spots with day labor, could be much, much more expensive.

Damn straight I don't "live by The Times's complex code," since I have my own personal integrity--and brand--to worry about. I do, of course, abide by the provisions of my contract. Those provisions are not identical to those by which staffers are governed; if they were, I would have to quit, since I subsidize my writing with speaking. But Okrent is right about one thing: The Times does get my labor, and the labor of its other freelancers, dirt cheap (with no raises!). We also generally pay our own expenses. The upside is that we get to be independent thinkers and don't drown in a giant, semi-functional bureaucracy.

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