Friday, January 15, 2010

Beware the new staffing models

Once upon a time, we knew the lingo.

If you were a reporter, you were on a newspaper's payroll, and received a salary, vacation time, and health and retirement benefits for your 40-hour workweek. If you were an intern, you were an unpaid reporter-in-training, likely a college student earning academic credit while you learned the ropes. If you were a freelancer, you weren't on the payroll, but worked on a per-story basis for the paper.

There were permutations, of course -- a unionized reporter might work just 37.5 hours a week; an intern might be paid -- but the jobs had generally recognized definitions.

These days, you need a playbook to figure it out.

For instance, one New York City business newspaper advertised this week for a real estate reporter. The beat is deemed "important" by the paper and is targeted for expanded coverage, but the job is listed as "full-time freelance" and "offered on a contract basis, with some health insurance benefits," according to the job board posting.

Wait. How's that? You want to beef up your real estate coverage, but you aren't willing to add to your permanent payroll to do it?

Here's another: A New York City electronics trade magazine advertises for an "assistant editor," but come to find out, it's a 12-hour-a-week unpaid internship for the spring semester. "Duties will include the writing of daily news stories, including byline opportunities, copy editing of staff-written features, and posting material to our newly redesigned Web site," says the ad.

Whew! That sounds like a lot of work and responsibility for a college student over just 1½ days a week.

Sure, the economy is pulling out of a recession that started in December 2007. Newspapers laid off thousands last year as they grappled with declining revenue, and magazines lost a quarter of their ad pages. But businesses that have begun to feel at least a little optimistic are adding temporary workers before they commit to permanent hires.

So perhaps that's what the New York City newspaper is doing: adding a freelancer now who might get an on-staff gig later. (Many times, though, employers will state that: "This is a six-month position with the potential to extend the relationship to a permanent position based on the performance of the candidate and client need," according to an ad for a marketing post I saw.)

But what about the many intern postings on job boards lately? Yes, it's the season to line up spring or summer interns. But, then again, there have been instances when it appeared budget-conscious papers used college students to augment their decimated staffs.

And then there are the experiments involving new online news platforms and two graduate schools of journalism, at the City University of New York and at the University of California at Berkeley.

Next week, the CUNY graduate school will take a lead role in The Local, the New York Times' community news site for Brooklyn, which has been affected by buyouts and layoffs at the newspaper. Students are expected to be involved through a hyperlocal news course new to the curriculum this semester.

On the West Coast, the UC Berkeley school is involved in the Bay Area News Project, a nonprofit collaboration among the school, KQED Public Media and philanthropist Warren Hellman to supplement news coverage thinned by cuts to San Francisco's reporter ranks. Students will work there, too, an aspect of the project that has raised some hackles. The effort has yet to launch, but is staffing up.

Let's be clear that internships are an important real-life experience for students interested in journalism, and over the years many reporters have been hired by the newspapers where they interned. And let's recognize that freelancers fill a valued role for many publications -- especially when special supplements or new ancillary products are piled on in an attempt to improve revenue.

But let's be careful that neither interns nor freelancers takes the place of the full-time reporters who make their living as journalists.

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