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There are thousands of freelance journalists in the print media in India. Some begin as freelancers and then hitch on to a more stable job in a newspaper organization. Few stick on because it is very difficult to sustain freelancing as a way of life. Some of the most famous journalists in the country, however, have shifted to freelancing whose celebrity status gives them ready space to contribute the same column to different print media publications across the world and earn much more than they probably did as regular journalists. Some classic illustrations of syndicated journalists are Khushwant Singh, M.V.Kamat, Rahul Singh, Darryl D’Monte, Kanchi Kohli, Sudhirendra Sharma, and Shobha De. They have built up a wide canvas after having honed their skills over decades in publications they have strived to take to higher rungs on the media ladder.

“Many still raise an eyebrow when I tell them – I am a freelancer. For these figures, the word ‘freelancer’ equated to ‘lazy bum who could not crack into a reputable organization. They smirk and ask me – what did you do for your graduation? When I tell them that I was among the top three of my class at a reputed engineering college and had offers from some big companies, the silly condescending smiles disappear. But when they hear that I am part of a $760 million strong US Company and their only representative in India, the scope and implications of the entire shebang becomes glaringly obvious,” says blogger-journalist Trina Moitra.

Traditionally freelancers have always provided a different voice since they are not obligated to write for the institution. But the moot question is whether the leading professional media houses need good and different articles or they need only those that supplement the need of the market.

But she works for a US company and that spells out a bright story full of the colour of money. Most freelancers in India are not half as lucky as Moitra. This writer who has put in 34 years of her 65+ years into freelancing, will never be a millionaire but she cherishes her freedom – of expression, of choosing her editors, of choosing what to write, why, when and how and what NOT to! More women than men freelance because the patriarchal family structure demands the male head to bring home a steady income. Freelance journalism can never guarantee that. Freelance journalism gives you the freedom to work from home. But there is no salary, provident fund, leave travel allowance and sick leave or promotion. Yet, many youngsters are quitting steady jobs to freelance.

Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, had this suggestion: “To the degree possible, freelance writers should try and have credential letters from a news organization. I know it’s not always possible. But if you are working as a stringer for say, Philadelphia Inquirer, keep a letter from the editor. Make it official.” Why? “When someone from the New York Times or even Current TV gets into trouble, there are people of substance who will make contacts on the highest level and bring some pressure to bear,” Bettinger said. “Their stories will get heard.”

Manjira Majumdar, who has been freelancing for two decades, says, “It is very difficult to remain a freelancer in journalism. Even ten years ago, newspapers/journals kept at least 20 percent space for freelance contributors over and above their routine columnists etc. Over the years this space dwindled because feature stories (mostly done by freelancers) have shrunk giving way to tabloids like stories and more visuals to compete with TV.”

Amitabha Nag an IT professional who draws a huge salary at an IT firm willingly writes freelance for many publications because the money is not important for him. “The situation has bettered in the sense that there are a lot of websites which have come up now and so as a freelancer one has more avenues of opening up. However the web by the very definition resembles something cheap and readily available which makes the freelancer’s work a bit shallow in the sense that professional journals may not take that too seriously,” he opines, countering Majumdar’s angle to some extent. But he goes on to add, “The bottom line is that unless the freelancing world is more remunerative, it is difficult to get good articles from freelancers. Traditionally freelancers have always provided a different voice since they are not obligated to write for the institution. But the moot question is whether the leading professional media houses need good and different articles or they need only those that supplement the need of the market.”

“I do not regret having switched over from a regular job in a reputed newspaper organization to freelance. The grinding and the training in a publication house is a help, even necessary, to branch out into freelancing later. It provides the contacts, teaches the basics of editing and gauging the requirements of different publications. I have given some of the most productive years to regular jobs in newspapers and I have gained a great deal. But I also find that being on my own has given me the freedom to choose and expand my horizon,” says Ranjita Biswas, who recently won a top award at the Laadli-UNICEF Media Awards for Journalism in the Eastern region.

“Freelancing has both advantages and disadvantages,” says the fiery Rina Mukherjee who recently won a landmark judgement against a noted newspaper organization for sexual harassment at the workplace. She specialises in climate change, health, gender and other issues and has been invited to present papers at conferences in India and abroad. “The money is not much, and for the effort put in, abysmal. A journalist can’t be able to cover politics or business since you are denied access to politicians and top businessmen unless accredited. Once you are out of a regular job, you cannot report on business or politics, or even administrative matters. Similarly, going to a disturbed area is tough. The place is out of bounds, and if the police accost you, you can find yourself in trouble,” she adds.

“I prefer the new environment of having to send briefs to editors who must okay a story and then I must write it. As editor of a feature service, Trans World Features, I have discovered that without a brief it is difficult to approve an idea. The time constraints are high because everybody is into multi-tasking these days,” Ranjita elaborates.

With a shrinking job market and not-sure salary grades, shortly, some more hundreds of journalists will join the freelance bandwagon. One only hopes that the word ‘free’ is not taken too literally by editors and owners.

“As a freelancer, you have the advantage of having access to several publications. If your story does not fit into one, you can easily hand it over to another publication. In case you are multi-faceted and can write expertly on several major issues, your stories can make their way into several webzines, newspapers or publications. Thus, you may cover gender issues for one, human rights for another, and the environment for still another,” explains Rina.

“But bureaucratic red-tapism and petty jealousies can mar your progress. Sometimes, your stories may be held back using one excuse or another and published months later. This is a surefire way of killing it! If this happens to you as a freelancer, you can easily blacklist the concerned publication and refuse to ever do business with them. I have myself done this when a particular publication lost the photographs I gave to them, and delayed publication,” Rina adds.

“Freelancers working part-time, or on short-term assignments for news outlets, should have the same protections as full-time employees,” said Elisa Tinsley, director of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). “In recent cases involving freelance reporters and producers, news organizations such as The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor have assumed that responsibility.” At the same time, she warns, “freelance journalists should be informed of and operate according to the news organization’s security guidelines.” But this is not happening in India, now or shortly. But we earn on a side also – writing scripts for television, books on our specialized areas, lec-dems in colleges, and papers to international journals. None of them pay well or not at all. But the byline visibility helps in getting other paid assignments.

As I finish this piece, a phone call informs me that in Kolkata alone, seven dailies have closed shop for good. One is in English and the rest are in Bengali. With a shrinking job market and not-sure salary grades, shortly, some more hundreds of journalists will join the freelance bandwagon. One only hopes that the word ‘free’ is not taken too literally by editors and owners.

Dr Shoma A Chatterji
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