Freelancers in Bondage/An Old Demon Beats a New God | Media | Chicago Reader

Freelancers in Bondage/An Old Demon Beats a New God 

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By Michael Miner

Freelancers in Bondage

The Chicago Tribune recently sent its stringers a remarkably unpleasant new contract. The Tribune agreed to pay them something for the work they do. It agreed to nothing else.

Don't call the new terms feudal; the paternalism of lord to vassal does not exist. The Tribune makes it clear it's denying its freelancers employee benefits, legal protection, resale rights, and compensation for electronic reproduction. Under this contract the freelancers would retain no more claim to their writing than farmers retain to the pigs they leave at the stockyards.

Chicago readers of the Tribune can't fully appreciate the paper's dependence on stringers, but the bureaus whose reports fill the suburban Metro sections couldn't function without them. "We actually outnumber staff writers by ratios that range from 7 to 1 to 11 to 1," says one freelancer. Many cover beats and are sometimes sent out on breaking stories. What they earn can approach a living wage. But, said the freelancer, "they treat us like redheaded stepchildren--beat 'em, abuse 'em, lock 'em in the closet."

The new contract arrived late last month, to be signed and returned by December 15. Rumor had it that its terms would be onerous, and the actual language didn't disappoint. Central to the writers' discontent is the Tribune's blanket dismissal of reproduction rights.

The previous contract refused to pay its freelancers extra when their work was reproduced "in various databases, and in conjunction with any other products, including, without limitation, microfilm, online services and CD/ROMS." But if the Tribune ran a story a second time, or if another Tribune Company paper picked the story up, or if a syndicated section such as KidNews and WomaNews carried the story, the writer would get an extra fee. Or the writer could sell the work a second time to a noncompeting medium.

Under the new contract no medium is noncompeting, and the purchase is once and forever. "You agree to assign to [the Chicago Tribune Company and Chicago Interactive, Inc.] all right, title and interest in all submitted material....CTC and CII shall have an exclusive worldwide license and right to publish, copy, modify, display, distribute, perform and broadcast the submitted material, in whole or in part, in any print, electronic or digital media or software of any kind now existing or developed in the future."

This is journalism as pure piecework, and the Tribune justifies it as a hedge against a future no one understands. "The industry is changing, and I can't tell you what electronic availability will be there tomorrow," says Joe Leonard, the Tribune's associate editor in charge of budget, technology, and administration. "But we have to have our stuff available on it, no matter what it might be."

Since the Tribune now intends to buy total rights, I asked Leonard, will it pay writers more to buy them? Fees are between the writer and his editor, Leonard said. Is an increase planned in the editorial budget to cover larger fees? He said, "I'm not aware of any."

Under the old contract freelancers had to pledge that their work was original. Under the new they must also "represent and warrant that...the submitted material does not knowingly defame any person or unlawfully invade their privacy. You agree to indemnify and hold CTC, CII and their affiliates harmless from and against any and all liability and costs incurred as a result of any breach of the foregoing warranties."

Editor Howard Tyner told me this language gives the Tribune some leverage over its stringers while emphasizing the legal distinction between stringers and staffers. To the freelancers it's simply a petty insult. As theTribune ties its fortunes to them it impugns their professionalism and promises to throw them to the wolves if trouble comes.

And although freelancers were always denied the perks of employment, the new contract rubs their noses in it: "You will not be eligible for any employee benefits of any kind...including, without limitation, medical benefits, insurance and retirement benefits."

The reaction:

"I'm not signing it," said Donna Chavez, who freelances for the Transportation, Tempo, and Metro sections and has published more than 50 bylined stories this year. She won't because she can't afford to. She's resold her feature stories for up to six times what the Tribune paid her for them originally. "Being a freelance writer at the Tribune is like buying the milk without buying the cow," she said. "Now they want steaks and a leather jacket without buying the cow."

Shirley Remes, who writes as S.R. Carroll, estimates that the Tribune has published 800 of her stories in the last eight years, most of them features written for the Du Page and Northwest editions. She's sold 200 this year alone. "I feel we were forced to sign away our electronic rights last year," she said. "I don't want to sell away any more. I'm also concerned about indemnification. The way I read it, we no longer own the rights to our work, but we're responsible for it. The Tribune is no longer going to stand behind us."

Remes said she makes something under $20,000 a year from the Tribune, money that's putting her children through college. "But I can't sign that contract," she said. "I'll go work in the Jewel deli before I sign that contract."

The reaction of a core group of perhaps a half dozen freelancers was to organize. First they took soundings. "An unofficial poll was done in one area where I heard that about 50 percent of the writers said they wouldn't sign the new contract. That's about ten people in one zone," organizer Barbara Gillette told me. Gillette covers the McHenry County board for the Tribune and has had more than 130 stories published this year. In another zone, Gillette said, a dozen or so writers were balking. The organizers calculated that they might have 60 to 100 suburban writers on their side.

The organizers wrote a letter from the "Tribune Independent Writers' Association" asking stringers not to return the new contract, and they composed an alternative contract for them to send to their editors instead. This counterproposal would require CTC and CII to pay extra to recycle their work--either in print or electronically--and protects their freedom to remarket it themselves. It replaces "knowingly defame" with "intentionally defame." I talked to Joe Leonard minutes after a suburban editor called to say he was faxing a copy of the proposal downtown.

What of the counterproposal? I asked. "That doesn't matter to me," Leonard said. Will you even read it? I asked. "I always do," he said. "I do not expect it to affect me."

But Leonard's may not be the last word, not locally and certainly not nationally. Electronic rights have turned the traditional relationship between freelance writers and publishers upside down--until a couple of years ago the Tribune didn't even bother with a contract--and the courts may have to speak before the two sides agree on a new one. Work-for-hire rules similar to the Tribune's were imposed last summer at the New York Times; denounced as "odious" by the National Writers Union, the Authors Guild, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors; and then watered down. Last spring the Boston Globe told some of its neighborhood stringers to sign a one-paragraph contract asserting that the Globe "shall own all rights, including copyright, in your articles. As works made for hire, your articles may be reused by The Boston Globe with no extra payment being made to you."

The Globe got back a handful of signed contracts, plus a letter from the newly formed Boston Globe Freelancers Association denouncing the contract as "utterly inappropriate" and suggesting talks. The letter was accompanied by a list of 72 names. The Globe has never responded, said an organizer, but it hasn't pushed writers to sign the contract either. "Everything's in limbo now. Our assumption is that everyone, publishers and writers alike, is waiting to see what that federal district court judge has to say in New York."

The reference was to a suit the president of the National Writers Union, Jonathan Tasini, brought three years ago against the New York Times Company, Newsday Inc., Time Inc., Lexis/Nexis, and University Microfilms. Tasini has described the leaders of today's media industry as "modern-day robber barons" and work for hire as emblematic of what he deems their plunder: "The media giants could cash in on works for decades, without having to pay additional money to many of those who actually created the work."

A sense of underappreciation is endemic among freelancers, and contracts such as the one the Tribune just proposed don't help matters. Free-lancers tend to think that editors like to think the next college kid through the door could do the job just as well. I asked Howard Tyner what he thought about losing 60 or so writers to the new contract and having to replace them.

"It's not number one on the list of things I want to do," he said somberly. "But we could replace at least some of them." Is there a middle ground? I asked, and he replied by reminding me of what publishers in this electronic age tell themselves they must hang on to for dear life. "If there's a middle ground that causes us to keep control of our content, sure. I don't want to get into the situation where I'm selling against myself."

An Old Demon Beats a New God

I've got it!"....................

The president was flung from a troubled sleep by a burst of inspiration. He'd heard the gossip, he'd read the articles in the American Lawyer and the New Republic, he knew bumper stickers had been spotted predicting "Clinton '96; Gore '97." But now he saw his way clear. He shook his wife awake.

"The Republicans are over a barrel, but I was too blind to see," he exclaimed. "I guess the hunt for a national security team to defend that bridge to the 21st century must really have had me distracted."

"That and Paula Jones," his wife said.

It rolled off his back. "They think I'm a lame duck weakened by scandal that they can trample like seed in a barnyard," said the president. "But the way I see it now, this so-called weakness of mine actually gives me the upper hand."

Her husband had survived more hopeless situations than Indiana Jones. When he expounded on the martial art of statesmanship she listened.

"What's the worst thing that could possibly happen to the Republicans?" the president said.

"Bob Dole," she said. "And they kept Congress anyway."

"No," he said. "It's if I just walk away from it."

"You're not capable of walking away from anything or anybody."

"I don't need the presidency," he said. "I'm in my early 50s, and I've got an Oxford education, though I didn't graduate. I can find work. Maybe teach poli sci at the University of Arkansas."

Not for the first time she took comfort knowing he wouldn't be lonely long. And their daughter could spend the summers with him.

"It's not that I will," the president explained. "It's that I want them to think I might. It's a hand I'll have to play very delicately. No one likes the Republicans, not even the people who vote for them. Call a Republican a hidebound horse's ass and everyone agrees with you--that's how I won the gridlock battle. So let's imagine I go to the people and denounce the Congress as scandalmongers who've placed vendetta ahead of governance and the public good. But to get the nation rolling again I'm willing to make the supreme sacrifice. The wave of sympathy and revulsion would wash the Republicans right out of Washington. Besides, Al Gore isn't covered with muck. He's pure and beyond reproach. He's also not a lame duck. Is that who they want in the White House?"

"Of course they don't," she agreed. "He's not fatally compromised."

"And I am," he chortled. "That's why they need me. Well, if they expect to keep me they'd better play ball."

"You'd make a magnificent resignation speech," she said.

"I have built a bridge to the 21st century," he intoned. "But rather than cross over, the Republicans have lit a torch and threaten to burn down that yearning span. I cannot permit America to suffer such a catastrophe. So tonight I step aside. I urge this great nation we all love so much to go forward and cross that bridge without me."

"Gag me with a spoon," said the president's wife.

"Nixon got it wrong," the president mused. "He picked two vice presidents. But one was as big a crook as he was, and the other played too much football without a helmet. He thought they were insurance. No way. Al Gore's insurance."

"I think I may have whispered that in your ear four years ago," his wife suggested.

"Then I owe you, honey." They went back to sleep holding hands.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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