Freelancers Help Determine Quality of AAN Papers

Alt-Weekly Editors Deliver Intangible Rewards to Keep Writers Happy

Tammy Stezenski, laboring to fill a third or more of Wausau City Pages each week with prose from freelancers, says she has discovered freelance “gold mines” right under her nose.

As editor/publisher of this small, and small-market, alternative newsweekly in Wisconsin, Stezenski is often faced with writer-wannabes who don’t realize journalism requires talking to actual people.

“I’ve had so many potential freelancers who want to do a story about city government [but] who don’t want to make any phone calls or gather any facts. I ask them who they’re going to interview. They say: ‘Interview?'”

One of her treasures, however, is someone her own paper once interviewed — a blues musician, now retired. “He already was accustomed to writing his own PR materials and articles for a regional music mag,” says Stezenski. “And his insights into the local music/cultural scene are better than anything a staff writer could provide.”

Her other gold mine is the paper’s part-time employees — those outside the editorial staff. “Most people who work at a newspaper have some sort of writing itch, and are happy to get an extra assignment outside of their normal duties…”

She also discovered a gem in a local zine writer. “He actually was too intimidated to pitch us [with] freelance ideas at first. I imagine in larger markets there are plenty of these little publications with less-than-confident writers who actually are pretty talented. They just need some encouragement.”

At Colorado Springs Independent, Music Editor Noel Black’s best new freelancer is Joe Kuzma, a 22-year-old college student. Kuzma covers music for the University of Colorado branch campus paper but has no intention of making journalism a career. He never even intended to freelance, he says. Black remembers being wary when Kuzma introduced himself at a chance meeting.

“I gave him the usual ‘send me your clips,'” Black recalls in an e-mail, “and he did, and they were amazingly well-reported and smooth for a man of his age. I gave him a shot, he turned his copy in days early, and he’s been my most regular freelancer for two years. Lots of other writers who might have a greater advantage where style is concerned are complete prima donnas when it comes to what they’ll write about and frequently break deadlines, shirk formatting or turn out to be tedious flakes.”

Kuzma can write about any topic, Black says. “If I need something that’s outside his area of interest, he’ll go out and report it. He’s really saved my butt so many times, and he’ll turn things around in a day. He never blinks, not once. It’s like having a star reliever.”

Explains Kuzma: “The job for me is a piece of cake, and it’s fun, but what keeps it interesting to me is the people I get to work with. Noel’s a real good boss. He helps me with my writing. He’s flexible… He’s extremely understanding. That’s probably why I’ve been writing for the Independent as long as I have.”

It’s certainly not for the pay. “I’m a college student, so obviously I’m not trying to survive — and I wouldn’t be able to,” he says. “I’ve never complained about it. To be honest, I’d do it for free. Now, if you ask me that question once I’m out of college, I might give you a different answer.”

Finding and keeping great freelancers is a constant chore for many papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Just a dozen responses to a survey of AAN editors showed that freelancer use varies widely. Freelancers fill anywhere from 15 to 75 percent of a particular paper or one of its sections (usually the arts) each week. “They contribute to every single section in the paper, and help to diversify our voice along age, gender, racial, aesthetic and ideological lines,” says Jim Poyser, managing editor of NUVO in Indianapolis. At Tucson Weekly, the arts and music editors deal exclusively with freelancers and are themselves freelancers.

Non-staff-written pieces cost the responding AAN papers as little as 5 percent or as much as 55 percent of a paper’s editorial budget each year.

Research by the National Writers Union, which has gained a few labor agreements for freelance writers in the non-AAN alternative press, indicates that the experience of Black and Kuzma is about as good as it gets for both sides.

“The alternative press pays very low rates,” says Dian Killian, NWU senior organizer and former Cleveland Free Times freelancer. The usual low-end rate, 10 cents a word, “is poverty wages for a freelancer.” For a full-time freelancer to earn a living wage, “you’d need a dollar a word.”

Killian praises Washington City Paper’s 2002 agreement to pay its writers an additional fee for articles placed in the paper’s electronic archives and databases. “Considering the ethos of alternative publications, I’m disappointed more papers have not taken City Paper’s lead,” she says.

But AAN papers shine by offering freelancers more chances to work directly with editorial staff than they might have at mainstream publications. Concludes Killian: “My anecdotal experience is that most freelancers have favorable experiences working with editors” of alternatives.

Not that the opposite is always true.

Negative experiences have made some editors cautious about using freelancers. They told tales of writers whom they suspected of taking undisclosed payments from sources in exchange for flattering articles and of others who seemed to be using their connection with the paper to get unwarranted access to local celebrities or potential dates.

After being burned a few times while working at non-AAN publications early in his career, “I don’t use [freelancers] for serious journalism anymore,” says Bruce VanWyngarden, editor of the Memphis Flyer.

Then there’s the issue of dependability. Among freelancers at Mountain Xpress in Asheville, N.C., “sudden flight seems to be a common theme,” arts and entertainment editor Melanie McGee writes in an e-mail. “I’ve had A and E freelancers miss deadlines because they 1) got engaged over the weekend and were now living in Oklahoma; 2) were overcome with an out-of-the-blue urge toward activism and had hastily decamped to Guatemala; and 3) had, after a particularly successful phone interview, been invited to be a roadie/groupie/Web-site designer for insert band name here and were now officially on the road.”

But in general, editors see positives in their relations with freelancers — and find ways to keep them productive and in print.

“If you can guarantee even something as little as $50 a week, or $100 a month, something they can pencil into their budget, they’ll deliver quality work because they’ll set aside time for it,” says Sam Pfeifle, managing editor of Portland Phoenix. “They’ll consider it a ‘job,'”

Editors also have to know which freelancer needs a pat on the back and which a firm hand on the shoulder, says Jim Poyser. “Any way we can help them feel connected to the overall product helps, too, whether by invitation to company parties or cookouts” — a strategy used by several other editors. “Masthead honors help as well … One of our beloved freelancers, Ed Johnson-Ott, was named ‘film editor’ even though he is as likely to come to our office as Boo Radley would.” Meet with freelancers just to stay in contact, Poyser recommends — and help them get work with non-competing publications in town.

“No matter how close to deadline we are, I always run my changes past [freelancers] and ask for their suggestions first,” says John Threlfall, arts editor of Monday Magazine in Victoria, British Columbia. “I’m always surprised at how far simple courtesy will go towards making up for lousy rates.”

Bob Speer, senior editor of Chico News & Review and Reno News & Review, agrees. “What keeps freelancers coming back, once they’ve written for a paper, is how the story looks on the page and, most important, the quality of the editing and the editor-writer relationship. As a writer, I’ve worked with bad editors, but never for long. I’ll take a good editor for less money over a bad editor for more any day.” Talking over the story at length in the planning stages is a must, he adds.

“A good editor is patient, generous, supportive and skillful,” he concludes. “It also helps if he or she has a sense of humor and genuinely likes being an editor. Maybe that’s why there are so few of them. Writers know that and appreciate the good ones.”

Marty Levine is the news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper.