Freelancers are precarious. When should they push back?

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THE WASHINGTON POST killed my story over a retweeted criticism. They told me I couldn’t pitch them for six months. Then they told me I might have an agenda against the paper. Then they went silent. Seven weeks later, when they learned I was writing about the incident for CJR, they told me they were terribly sorry; it should never have happened. In the pantheon of freelance horror stories, it’s hardly the most egregious. In my privileged position, I pushed back, I leaned in, I secured a commission and got my apology. Still, what does this say about the precarious state of freelance life?

To freelance is to put up with almost unending ignominy. Editors disappear for months after commissioning a piece. Some string writers along with endless questions and demands for more reporting, only to kill the story upon delivery. I did not get paid for more than a year by one prominent news magazine. Once, I waited 18 months to get paid a $500 “honorarium” for a 3,000-word reported story. These, of course, pale in comparison to the lack of protections facing fixers, translators and freelancers in in dangerous situations. But they are not meaningless. They affect how we work, what we can deliver and, ultimately, what stories can be told. The story that I pitched was not an “important” story. Spiking it has little impact. Creating an atmosphere that silences critics on issues of race and tone, though — that serves no one.

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In mid-April, I pitched a story about river terns to The Washington Post. The tern, which is endangered, is slowly returning to the Mekong’s waterways in Cambodia, but its survival is threatened by hydropower dams. To report the story, my Cambodian translator and I camped on a remote island for three days and traveled for two. I’d received a grant that covered reporting costs, but placing the story proved to be difficult. All freelancers have stories like this—pieces that seem like sure shots but never quite land.

When I tried The Washington Post, a foreign editor wrote back quickly. He offered me $500 and asked for 1,000 words. Fifty cents a word is good in this business; no one covers expenses. At the time, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Before I could start writing he sent a second email, entitled “Your Twitter.” It seemed to be dashed off from his iPhone. Weeks earlier I had “applauded” a Twitter thread pointing out flaws in a Post story. The editor asked if I could explain myself.

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The thread, written by Dene-Hern Chen, a colleague and friend who has reported in the region for seven years, underscored questions many Southeast Asia correspondents have grappled with for years. How to cover China’s rise in Cambodia, how to report a complex geopolitical issue with nuance, how to avoid racism or orientalism in our writing. In a few spare, pointed sentences, she highlighted how such reporting can fall short. She did not name the author of the Post story, nor did she linger upon the paper. I retweeted it with the words “good thread.” I was not alone. Among the dozens who retweeted and “liked” the thread were Southeast Asia scholars, Cambodian observers, and journalists who write for The New York Times, Reuters and, yes, The Washington Post.  

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I told the editor I thought the tweets opened an important discussion and highlighted one perspective. I pointed out that I did not write the tweet. He thanked me for my candor and said the Post would not be taking my story. The paper could not take such writers who supported strong condemnation of its work. In six months time—if all went quietly, I presume—I could pitch them again.

At a certain level, only journalists can really be watchdogs for other journalists. An ordinary reader might not pick up on inaccuracies or problems with tone and angle. This may well be why Twitter is full of these sorts of rejoinders. Thousands of journalists picking apart thousands of stories. Some pushing back, others staying silent. Editors hanging in the background, apparently, deciding whether to learn from the criticism or whether to attack.

I replied to the editor with a letter of protest, copying three other senior editors. I’ve burned a bridge, I thought. Might as well burn it well. I argued for a journalist’s right to free expression and said this short-term blacklisting seemed coercive. I defended Chen’s position. I asked what policy I broke.

The paper needed to be extremely careful, the editor explained, though she understood how this could be frustrating to someone who, she admitted, appeared to be a ‘legitimate’ journalist.

Our job, in this freelance system, is to stay silent. We protect ourselves with whisper networks of correspondents who quietly tell one another which editors to avoid, what publications to steer clear from. At the end of the day, no one wants to be the one to raise a voice. The stakes are too high; the scales too tipped.

I didn’t get a response. I assume they did not reply because they didn’t have a good answer. Perhaps they were counting on me, as the freelancer, to keep my mouth shut.

Two weeks on, I sent a follow-up asking which policy I broke. An editor at the Post’s Talent Network, responsible for vetting freelancers, replied. The commissioning editor disappeared from the CCs.

An acerbic criticism, explained the editor, could be proof of an agenda, “a la Project Veritas.” How could the Post know I was a real journalist? The paper needed to be extremely careful, the editor explained, though she understood how this could be frustrating to someone who, she admitted, appeared to be a “legitimate” journalist.  

What is the measure of legitimacy? Of worth? I have written for The Economist, Newsweek, Al Jazeera. In the weeks in which I was waiting for a reply, I had one story published in Time and another in HuffPost. I spent nearly a decade building up a career reporting and editing abroad. I’ve won journalism prizes and grants. None of this is hidden. But at the end of the day, it seemed to be insufficient. My colleague criticized an article. I retweeted that criticism. The writer and her editors were legitimate, worthy of internal defense and the backing of a powerful organization. Our value, as freelancers, decidedly lower.  

That was the final word until weeks later, when I reached out to the Post saying I would be writing this piece and asking for comment. Suddenly, the response was quick, and courteous. The original foreign editor emailed to say they would be in touch and to thank me for my patience. A managing editor reached out to set up a phone call. When we spoke by Skype, the editor, Cameron Barr, was unfailingly polite and apologetic. “I think we overreacted to your retweet,” Barr told me straight away. “I want to apologize for that, I think it was a misstep.”

Barr said the paper would entertain my pitches without delay, and that there wasn’t any “social media policy per se” apart from expecting professional conduct. “Even though there were some intemperate comments in that retweet, there were also some substantive criticisms of our work. And we’re not the kind of organization that wants to react like that, that wants to react harshly to someone who engages them in substantive criticism of what we do.”

They did not offer to take back the killed story, or to pay a kill fee, and I did not ask. I got the apology. That’s something, no? There is privilege in being able to kick up a stink like this and get an apology. If I were a younger journalist, or a minority, or more financially or professionally precarious, then my calculations may well have been different. “I wonder about other freelancers who maybe have had a similar thing happen to them at the Post and would never think to respond or push back in any way,” I told Barr. He said he did not know of other cases. I believe him, but I am also fairly certain if there were no mention of this article there would never have been an internal discussion, an apology, an admission that Dene’s thread may well have made some valid points.

And now that that’s been proffered, my airing of dirty laundry becomes poor taste. So you push back, as a freelancer, when you can. You know though that there is likely some cost.

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Abby Seiff is an award-winning freelance journalist with a decade of experience reporting and editing in Asia. Her writing and photography have appeared in Newsweek, Time, The Associated Press, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and more. Prior to becoming a freelancer, she served as an editor for several years at The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post.