by Rachel Sanders 

Journalists from across North America gathered in Banff last month to discuss the importance of deeply researched journalism in the era of alt-facts. And at panel discussions populated by major publishers and established journalists, freelancers made themselves heard.

The Democracy Project journalism summit happened at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity on October 20 to 22. It followed a week-long intensive investigative journalism course taught by journalists Patti Sonntag and Rob Cribb. Of the twenty participants in the intensive, over half are currently working as freelancers.

As newsrooms continue to shrink and cut staff, freelancers play an increasingly important role in journalism. At the Banff summit, several spoke out about challenges such as harsh contracts, low pay, and lack of support in the face of online abuse.

Contract concerns and online abuse

At a Saturday morning panel called “When Social Media Is the ‘Paper of Record,” editors from Vice, The Walrus, The Atlantic and CBC-Radio Canada talked about their efforts to reach a fragmented audience and the importance of bringing in diverse voices. During the following Q&A session, freelance science journalist Lesley Evans Ogden rose to question the panel about their contracts.

“If you really want to bring in unique stories and potentially high risk stories that the public needs to hear about, then you also need to take a look at your freelance contracts,” she said.

She said some media organizations use contracts that don’t protect freelancers in the event of defamation lawsuits.

“You kind of wash your hands of that with indemnity clauses. And you’re also, in many cases, not paying freelancers fairly,” she said. “So if you want those diverse voices, please take a look at your freelance contracts. We have good stories, but make it easy for us to bring them to you.”

Evans Ogden received a round of applause for her comments.

Another journalist rose during the same question period to talk about online abuse. She’d experienced such abuse recently, she said, after writing a freelance piece for an online publication.

“I decided not to talk about it to my editor because I didn’t want to bother him,” she said.

Since she was at the beginning of her working relationship with this editor, she didn’t want to give the impression that she needed him to take care of her emotional wellbeing. She asked the panelists about their approach to dealing with online abuse against freelancers.

One panelist said it’s an editor’s job to support all contributors, but it likely came as no surprise to freelancers in the audience to hear that a colleague had trouble asking for an editor’s help in such a situation.

Freelancers fill a growing void

Hearing freelance issues raised before high-profile editors seemed to galvanize one group of freelancers. Following the panel, they approached the summit’s organizers and pointed out that there were no freelancers represented on any of the weekend’s panels.

In response, summit organizers moved quickly to add freelance journalist Carolyn Thompson to Sunday’s panel, “Investigations for Small Newsrooms.” Thompson joined representatives from The Tyee, National Observer, and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix to talk about the ways that small media organizations and independent journalists contribute to investigative journalism in Canada.

Thompson, who’s currently based in Kenya, said there’s a need for freelancers to fill a growing void in journalism. She said as newsrooms reduce staff, there’s a lack of in-depth coverage from some parts of the world and on particular beats.

Thompson acknowledged the difficulty of funding independent journalism but said that grants are a great way to fund freelance projects. She also suggested that partnering with start-ups can help freelancers get access to resources that can help them tell better stories — mobile phone polling services and 360 video were two examples.

In an email interview, Thompson said the summit was a great source of support for independent journalists.

“As freelancers, we are often working alone and craving access to supportive editors and colleagues who could guide us through challenges or provide motivation when we hit a dead end,” she said. “I think it’s crucial for journalists to find ways to encourage and support each other in this work, and to come together to share resources and insights.”

Although she was surprised to be added to Sunday’s panel, she was happy to have had the chance to share her experiences as a freelancer.

“I think there are many journalists interested in pursuing investigative work through freelancing, especially as media houses shrink. Those of us who do are faced with unique challenges – often we work alone, without regular support from editors or colleagues, and without the backing of an institution until later in the reporting process,” she said.

Thompson said she sometimes struggles to identify priorities and find the right balance of time investment on a project. She notes that the kinds of discussions that happened at the summit are vital.

“The more editors and journalists discuss the changing industry, the better equipped we will all be to produce great work together.”

“Freelancer issues should concern all of us.”

During the Q&A portion of the Small Newsrooms panel, a freelancer stood up to ask what publishers can do to better support the freelancers they rely on for much of their reporting.

David Beers, founder of The Tyee, said that freelancers subsidize the news media and that media outlets should make freelancers part of their communities. His newsroom has made efforts to invite freelancers to weekly story meetings.

Beers also proposed a number of solutions to the problems faced by media organizations. Among those were a $20 million government fund for investigative reporting, a tax credit for all citizens for the first $500 that they spend on journalism each year, and charitable status for people who fund journalism in Canada. Such steps, he said, would ease the financial pressure on media outlets and result in more money to pay journalists.

Patti Sonntag, one of the instructors of the week-long investigative intensive, said concern about issues affecting freelancers was one of the reasons behind the event.

“Freelancer issues should concern all of us. We created the intensive and the democracy conference with the goal of providing tangible, practical support for journalists, and to open the conversation about the impacts of the changes to the media landscape on Canadian democracy,” she said.

The training in investigative journalism helped them meet the first goal, and also gave participants a chance to pitch their ideas to several of the media leaders who took part in the weekend summit.

“Throughout the week of classes, the freelancers brought to the group their questions about the obstacles they were facing and we all tried to come up with solutions,” she said. “The conference was included in the intensive, which provided the intensive participants and the freelancers who were able to attend with opportunities to meet the panelists and raise these issues.”

Although the summit won’t happen again next year, the investigative intensive will be an annual feature at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The solutions to the problems facing freelancers aren’t obvious, said Sonntag, but raising awareness might be the first step.

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