To the editor:
Michael Miner's recent pieces [Hot Type, December 13 and January 10] on the Chicago Tribune's troubles with freelance writers move me to comment.
I head the contracts and electronic-rights campaign for the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). Copyright and intellectual property rights are the issue of the decade in our business. Thus, we offer regular reports via our free electronic newsletter, ASJA Contracts Watch, and counseling on specific magazine and newspaper contracts to all freelancers, whether our members or not. I am in touch with freelance writers nearly around the clock; my E-mail in-basket runneth over.
From that vantage point, I can say that if the Trib's travel editor thinks he has lost only one writer, he is wrong. I've heard from other travel writers who have pointedly declined to sign even the proclaimed "better" Trib contract, and from a gaggle of freelancers who haven't spoken to a Trib editor but have simply crossed the paper off their submissions list and gone on to other ways to make a living.
The editor says he and others fear losing the cream of the crop. They have reason to fear. Even among those writers who buckled and gave up their rights to the Trib with little more than a whimper, awareness is setting in, and with it, resentment.
Want to know why? At least three different sets of terms are offered by the Tribune, depending on who the writer is and what section of the paper is involved. The company's business minds have missed an important point: Folks they consider simply as "suppliers of content" differ from most suppliers of goods in that they happily and rapidly trade information among themselves--in the age of E-mail, much more rapidly than ever before.
It didn't take long for writers to figure out that if the Trib is offering Deal A to some, Deal B to others, and Deal C to still others, the paper is simply trying to get what it can get, in classic business mode. The guys making the rules and calling the plays learned in B-school that if you think you can get it, go for it. It's the editors who have to pick up the pieces and deal with the festering ill will. And there goes the publisher's credibility among the writers it professes to care about retaining.
What's more, in this case, even the so-called "best" deal is unacceptable. The Trib travel editor valiantly squeezes some extra dollars out of his budget to offer higher fees to writers who submit to their rights being taken from them by force. "I can't write it into the contract," he apologizes, so the contract still says electronic rights go to the paper automatically, for nothing. But to writers, the secret raise--as opposed to a separate fee attached to a limited electronic license--does more harm than good: It's a bribe to get us to legitimize the taking of electronic rights with first print publication, to letting the Tribune--which pays not a cent in employee benefits in our behalf--end up with virtually the same rights it has to staffers' works.
The man means well, but he's squashed by corporate ignorance.
The savvier, better writers are quickly learning to vote with their feet. Others will take just a bit of time to gain the confidence and the new markets for their skills; then they'll desert without so much as a glance over their shoulders. Oh, the Trib will find writers to sign their contracts and fill their pages. But are they the ones readers, editors, and even--yes--the B-school guys want?
Vice President/ Con-tracts
American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA)