On research, exposure and rates: The effect of paywalls on freelancers


It's undeniable that paywalls could provide an important new revenue stream for cash-strapped media outlets, but they also pose unique challenges—and perhaps some hidden opportunity—for freelance reporters. 

By Alexandra Posadzki


It's undeniable that paywalls could provide an important new revenue stream for cash-strapped media outlets, but they also pose unique challenges—and perhaps some hidden opportunity—for freelance reporters. 

By Alexandra Posadzki

It's an increasingly frequent phenomenon: you're doing background research for a story when suddenly you're stopped dead in your tracks – by a paywall.

Erin Hudson, a budding freelance journalist in Montreal, says she was trying to dig up a five-year-old story about the Olympic committee in the Boston Globe's archives when she hit the wall. All that Hudson could see was the first paragraph.

“If you're trying to research the history of an issue to get a broader sense of what you're trying to talk about, it's frustrating that the archives are limited,” says Hudson.

It's undeniable that paywalls could provide an important new revenue stream for cash-strapped media outlets, but they also pose unique challenges for freelance reporters. Freelancers will have to rethink how they conduct research and promote themselves to adapt, but many of them say it's worth the headache in order to support an industry that's struggling to find a viable business model.

Toronto-based freelancer Kelli Korducki says her first encounter with The Globe and Mail's paywall, implemented last November, came while she was searching for one of her own stories to send to a prospective editor.

It's not an uncommon occurrence among freelancers, says Korducki, recalling how a colleague of hers recently tweeted about a similar experience.

“I actually just ended up subscribing, which I feel great to do,” says Korducki. “I probably should have already been subscribing.”

Chris Riddell, a writer for The Grid, Torontoist and the National Post, says he thinks some of the struggles that freelancers are experiencing are growing pains.

“I think this is really just a transitional time,” Riddell said. “Things are changing. It's where the business is going, so you've got to go with it.”

Riddell says he often hits the cap of 10 free articles on The Globe’s website while doing background research for stories. It's fairly easy to avoid the paywall using a number of means, including finding similar content on a non-paywalled site or accessing the story through social media, which, in a number of newspapers’ cases, is exempt from the paywall. But with more media outlets poised to start charging for content – The Toronto Star and the National Post are expected to go behind paywalls some time this year, joining The Globe and Sun Media dailies – the number of free alternatives is likely to shrink.

“It does worry me a bit, because that is going to make things more difficult for freelancers,” says Riddell. “We might have to seek other ways of doing research.” But ultimately, he contends that paywalls might be a “necessary evil.”

For David Hains, a Toronto-based freelancer who writes for The Grid, Torontoist and Xtra!, it's not the ability to do research or get access to his own clippings but the shrinking exposure that's worrisome.

“People are generally really creative when they need something like good research,” says Hains. “I believe that they'll find ways to make it work.”

But Hains is concerned that implementing a paywall will decrease traffic, and this could be challenging for freelancers who are just starting out.

“Particularly when you're starting out as a freelancer, having those eyeballs on your work matters a lot,” says Hains.

Of course, there are ways to get around many of these issues. Korducki says she often uses her free Toronto Public Library card to search for news articles through a database called Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies from the comfort of her own couch. Many public library systems offer a similar service.

The only caveat is that the articles aren't formatted the way they are online and you can't see the pictures or multimedia content.

If you need a copy of your own work and you've already reached the maximum number of free stories you can access – The Globe allows ten articles per month – an editor or a friend or family member who is behind the paywall should be able to help you get a copy. And to combat waning exposure, Keith Maskell, a staff representative at the Canadian Media Guild, suggests trying to sell or license their content to additional outlets.

“I actually think that the responsibility is on the freelancer to try to push it to as many markets as possible,” says Maskell.

Emboldened by the success of The New York Times subscription model, newspapers have increasingly been turning towards paywalls to make up lost advertising revenue.

“It's a new cost of doing business,” says Maskell. Just as a freelance reporter might have to occasionally buy a new copy of the CP Stylebook or new batteries for a recorder, digital subscriptions may soon become part of that list.

But if paywalls are successful, Maskell says reporters could try to negotiate slightly higher rates in order to offset some of those new research costs.

“If the company is actually gaining revenue from your work, it's not completely unreasonable for you to mention that when you're talking about compensation, and maybe a taste of that additional revenue can come to the person who's actually providing the content,” says Maskell.

Vancouver-based journalist Erin Millar, whose work has appeared in Reader's Digest and The Globe and Mail, says she already routinely does this.

“There is a cost associated with researching, just like a taxi to go for an interview, and I need to take that into consideration when I'm budgeting for my year and when I'm negotiating what should be paid for my articles,” says Millar.

Like many of her colleagues, Millar agrees that despite any potential headaches caused by paywalls, it's important for journalists to support the venture.

“For the sustainability and longevity of my career, I need these publications to find alternative business models,” says Millar,

“I don't think paywalls are the ideal solution, but they're something that definitely needs to be tried and I want to support that.”