Sprawling freelancer network pays dividends for The Washington Post

Photo: AP

At the height of the 2016 war between presidential candidate Donald Trump and the media, when the campaign withheld press credentials to his rallies from various national news outlets, The Washington Post had a secret weapon. Others on the blacklist were forced to rely on live TV coverage of the events, but Post political editor Steven Ginsberg could hop onto the Post’s Talent Network, plug in the town in question, and find a pre-vetted stringer to handle the event.

“Through that, we were able to have someone at every Trump rally we wanted to be at, even though we were banned by the candidate and couldn’t travel on his press plane,” says Ginsberg, who had stringers enter venues as members of the general public but identify themselves as Post reporters in all interviews. “If we didn’t have the Talent Network, we literally wouldn’t have been there in a lot of cases. And if you’re going to cover a presidential election, you’ve got to be there.”

The use of freelancers to fill in the gaps of staff coverage or to arrive swiftly at breaking news outside a paper’s usual readership area isn’t novel. But in the past 18 months, the Post’s ambitious, rapidly expanding system has modernized, organized, and professionalized the paper’s stringer operations in a manner that many longtime independent journalists–myself included–have never seen from a major media outlet. The sheer amount of freelance copy itself is also a revolution for the Post, which long had been impenetrable for all but the best-connected.

The online system for pitching stories, accepting assignments, and invoicing for payments–launched in June 2015 with an online call for freelancers to apply–serves more than 2,500 writers, editors, photographers, and translators.

In addition, the Post has assigned two full-time editors, Eva Rodriguez and Kathryn Tolbert, to vet new applicants, route pitches to the appropriate editors, and troubleshoot for freelancers waiting on answers to queries. What’s more, the system requires editors to respond to pitches within a two-week window, putting the onus for follow-up on editors rather than the stringers. (Disclosure: I was accepted to the Talent Network in September 2015 and have since written more than two dozen pieces for the Post, including stories for Style, News, and Business.)

“The level of organization that exists with the Talent Network, I don’t think, has ever existed before,” Rodriguez says. “Before, you’d get an all-newsroom email saying, ‘Hey does anyone know someone in Baton Rouge?’ Now an editor goes into the network, searches by location or subject area expertise and they know the people they find do work that meets the standards of The Washington Post. It’s been transformative for us.”

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While she declined to indicate how much the system cost to create and maintain, Rodriguez did note: “This is something that [Executive Editor] Marty Baron was excited about and saw the potential in, and it was something [Amazon CEO and Post owner] Jeff Bezos funded.”

Related: Revolution at The Washington Post

The launch hasn’t been perfect–some applicants complain about waits for acceptance, and some editors grouse about being forced to use it–but it is nonetheless the envy of other large, complex newsrooms. “God, I wish we had such an efficient system,” says Margi Conklin, Sunday editor for the New York Post. “Usually I get pitches either through other editors or contacts who have funneled people to me because they know what I’m looking for or, randomly, via our reception desk. People also seem to find my email online and pitch me on spec, which never works.”

The idea for the Talent Network emerged from just this sort of chaos. In 2010, when Anne Kornblut became the Post’s deputy national editor, “somebody handed me a file folder with a list of names and phone numbers of stringers around the country. It was a file folder. I put all of those into a document online. But even that wasn’t satisfactory because it was like, ‘Do we organize this by topic? Do we organize them by location? Can you do it by who you know really well? There are all these different ways.…We’d be like, hold on a second? Why does the Style section have this amazing person in Atlanta I’ve never heard of and I need someone in Atlanta and they love this person and that person needs more work?”

 

We want to be able to have a sense of loyalty from the best freelancers to keep coming back, and what’s the No. 1 important thing? It’s getting paid on time.”

 

In 2014, Kornblut landed at Stanford University for a Knight Journalism Fellowship with the aim of inventing a comprehensive, newsroom-wide stringer system to solve these dilemmas. She spent her year in Palo Alto, California, working with programmers and graphics designers back in DC on a system that Baron and Bezos promised to support with staff and expanded freelance budgets. While Kornblut didn’t take part in its launch (she remained in Silicon Valley after her fellowship to become Facebook’s strategic communications director), the Talent Network has several features–from a map-view for editors to click on when seeking stringers to an easy-to-use invoicing and payment system–that she says she insisted on.

“We want to be able to have a sense of loyalty from the best freelancers to keep coming back, and what’s the No. 1 important thing? It’s getting paid on time,” she says. “We wanted to make sure the whole thing didn’t break down there.”

Indeed, what’s striking about the Talent Network is how much thought appears to have been put into resolving challenges and frustrations endemic to the freelancer’s life. Frequent editor changes can be maddening for writers, who sometimes find themselves restarting their relationships with publications almost from scratch when new people are promoted, hired, or transferred into management. To Kornblut’s mind, that confusion leads to the loss of great story ideas and weakens a publication’s coverage.

“That should not be where anybody’s energy is being spent, figuring out the bureaucracy of a newsroom,” she says. “We leave a lot of things up to chance.”

And yet, it’s exactly how a great deal of energy is spent for would-be contributors approaching similar newsrooms with many departments. Efforts to figure out where to send ideas and how to grab an editor’s attention and engage him or her long enough to prove your abilities consume a substantial share of a freelancer’s time, and having to do so repeatedly for the same publication is, to use Kornblut’s term, “nutso.”

An informal survey of publications like the Post that use a lot of freelance work–The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Guardian and BuzzFeed News among them–found nothing akin to the Talent Network. In every one of those cases, freelancers query specific editors by email or phone and have no recourse but to badger them directly if they receive no response. Some, like the Times, have online invoicing systems detached from the pitching process.

Joan Nassivera, a former national assignment editor at the Times, says she “tried to formalize our system by looking at where we had gaps in people, reading local publications, and calling journalism schools, and just getting the word out there, but when I did get people I insisted I had to vet their resume, I had to have references, and it’s very time-consuming. As an assignment editor, it’s almost impossible.”

In the Post’s case, Rodriguez and Tolbert are tasked with the job of vetting for the entire newsroom. They read submitted clips, contact references, and call applicants for interviews. Folks with pre-existing relationships with the Post or who come highly recommended by editors or trusted writers can be “waved in,” Rodriguez says. They also occasionally dissuade editors from using journalists they don’t think have the chops or ethics. “The bar is fairly high here. It’s not a staff position, but when you’re out representing The Washington Post, we need to know we can trust you.”




The Talent Network now includes freelancers in all 50 states and 52 countries, with Rodriguez and Tolbert still receiving more than 100 applications per week. Astonishingly, about half the story pitches offered through the network are accepted, and many contributors come in via one section of the paper and then branch out to write for several, Rodriguez says. Editors can leave notes about their experiences with certain contributors as well.

“I don’t know if there’s officially a rating, but you can say, ‘This person did a really good job, he was able to get distinctive information,’ or in other cases, ‘We sent somebody to a rally but they didn’t write quickly enough, took three hours so the story was obsolete by the time we got it,’” Ginsberg says. “It’s been such an obviously good idea.”

The Talent Network’s priority at the moment is bolstering the ranks of foreign correspondents, Rodriguez says, which may explain the grousing of those who have waited in some cases for more than a year for responses to their applications. While the Talent Network does give editors a deadline to respond to pitches, Rodriguez and Tolbert have no such timeline for answering applicants.

Indeed, several members of UPod, an admission-only freelancer group on Yahoo and Facebook, have posted their annoyance and bewilderment over the Talent Network. “I applied and a few months later received an email that said they needed ‘several more weeks possibly’ to review my application due to the overwhelming number they were dealing with,” one journalist whose credits include work for Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and Mashable told CJR in an email. She requested anonymity for fear of “negative repercussions.” She added: “Five months later, I received another acknowledgement of my application and that they were still sifting through that ‘overwhelming amount.’ I never heard anything again and that was over a year ago.”

Another applicant, investigative reporter and photographer Erin Siegel McIntyre, who is based in Tijuana, Mexico, had a similar experience. She applied within days of the Talent Network’s launch, received two form emails over the subsequent three weeks, and then nothing. The first note, on June 25, 2015, explained that “due to overwhelming response, we will need quite a bit more time–possibly several weeks–to review all of the submissions.” The second and last note, on July 15, 2015, asked McIntyre to specify what she considered her primary journalistic role–writer, photographer, videographer, or translator. She answered the question, but that was the last she heard. “It was like the info was sent into a black hole,” she says in an email. “After the two form emails about how they were delayed, I never followed up.”

Rodriguez says she tries to be open with applicants about these delays. “In particular, because I’ve been doing this from day one, it gnaws at me that we haven’t been able to get back to every single person yet. I had someone querying me today–‘Oh hey, the network, somebody told me I should sign up.’ I encouraged him to do so but was honest and said we have a substantial backlog, and there are certain areas that are priorities for us right now. It may take quite a bit of time.”

While many Post editors, like Ginsberg, rave about the system and its ability to efficiently solve coverage problems, some grumble about having to share journalist contacts they’ve cultivated and feel it ought to be their prerogative how and when to answer freelance pitches. “One of my best writers, who I have worked with for years, has twice been too busy with assignments for other editors to do things I thought they’d be perfect for,” one Post editor tells me. “But I will say the invoicing system does make life a lot easier.”

Still, for those who have been accepted, the Talent Network offers an unusually seamless and user-friendly experience.

“The way it’s set up, I like that they show when you log on all the stories that have run by other people in the network,” says Estelle Erasmus, a prolific parenting-issues freelancer and 2017 chair for the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference. “You can pitch any section, or you can pitch individual editors if you want. So, that’s amazing. Nobody has that. Nobody.”

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Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.