8/16/2005

Outside Contributors: In The Times, but Not of The Times - New York Times

THE bylines and photo credits in today's Travel section look no different than those throughout the newspaper. Yet nonstaff contributors produced every major feature article and almost all the photographs in the section. Or consider a typical Escapes section. About 80 percent of its content comes from outside contributors.

These contributors, who are commonly known as freelancers or stringers, provide a hefty chunk of the content for the newer and expanded sections in The New York Times. They're essentially independent contractors, often with other jobs and commitments, usually remote from the newsroom culture.

The paper's high aspirations for the freelance corps is clear in the opening sentences of its formal guidelines for them: "Times readers apply exacting standards to the entire paper. They do not distinguish between staff written articles and those written by outsiders." But perhaps for now, my fellow readers, you should.

Monitoring and maintaining the paper's ethical and reporting standards among the growing and far-flung army of freelancers is a crucial and complex task. Two years ago, The Times acknowledged that it needed to do a better job of checking out new freelancers and requiring them to pay more attention to the paper's ethical and reporting standards. But the goals are proving tough to achieve.

While there's no concrete way to compare the overall quality of the work of freelancers with staffers, several editors at the paper whom I talked to say they spend more time getting the average freelance article ready for publication. The freelancers range from young journalists eager for exposure and experience to talented and acclaimed veterans - just as there's a range of talent across the some 1,200 employees on the newsroom staff.

Most of The Times's freelancers are writers, but the ranks of outside contributors include photographers and illustrators. They typically are paid by the article, photograph or illustration. A few more-experienced freelancers or former staffers have formal agreements that require more consistent contributions. (Freelancers abroad exist in a distinct world that I intend to explore in a future column.)

The increased spending for freelance writers is a sensitive subject at The Times. What was the percentage increase from 2000 to 2004? "Proprietary," was the word from Bill Keller, the executive editor, who would say only that it has increased "significantly." During that period, the regular staff has grown about 3 percent - roughly the same as the increase in space devoted to news content, according to William E. Schmidt, an assistant managing editor.


Outside Contributors: In The Times, but Not of The Times - New York Times

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