Obtaining press credentials for freelancing journos is not always easy, unavailable

By Natalie Beckerink, SizingUpTheSouth.com reporter, Auburn University

Independent journalists may have a hard time getting access to sources and events they need to cover for freelance assignments.

Freelance journalism, like any career, has evolved over the years, said Susan Catron, executive editor of the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Photo right: Susan Catron

“Just like in any other industry, the gig economy is real,” Catron said. “People are working shorter hours and more jobs. Freelancing is one that has become fairly well known over the years.”

Freelance writers do not always work for one specific publication and usually juggle several editors. And while freelancers cover the same topics as credentialed employees of large news organizations, freelancers can have a more difficult time obtaining press credentials to prove themselves.

Large publications usually provide credentials to their writers or are rewarded credentials from outside organizations, said Leroy Chapman, deputy managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The AJC, because of our reputation and that we’ve been in business for over 100 years, people know us so we are usually awarded credentials to get into places with the expectation that we are going to cover it. and it’ll go to a mass audience,” Chapman said. Photo right: Leroy Chapman LinkedIn Photo

It can be different for freelance journalists who don’t have access to an official press credential, whether that is a laminated badge or a signed letter. Some organizations or officials might block access to undocumented reporters.

Lynn Walsh is former SPJ National president and assistant director of the Trusting News Project. LynnKWalsh.com photo

When it comes to access, freelancers have just as many rights as anyone else, said Lynn Walsh, former Society of Professional Journalists national president.

“The rights I have as a journalist are the same that any member of the public would have.”

Lynn Walsh, former SPJ national president; assistant director, Trusting News Project

Walsh said. “If my mom were living in California and I’m in California as a reporter, we have the same rights. I don’t have more rights as a journalist in regards to access.”

Freelancers need to have proper identification, but they also need the publications who hire freelancers to support them, Catron said.

“I do think it’s important for newspapers to help their freelancers with access when they make assignments,” Catron said.

“I feel like that’s part of the deal, in my mind, that you make with a freelancer. If I’m going to ask you to do this story, then I’m going to help you with access.”

Susan Catron, executive editor, Savannah Morning News

Ruth Thaler-Carter, a full-time freelance writer for 35 years in St. Louis, Missouri, has always gotten proof of her legitimacy from the organizations she has worked for and agrees that it is a good idea that freelancers have a way to identify themselves.

“I do think it’s important, or at least useful, to have some sort of credentials because there are so many non-professionals calling themselves journalists nowadays, and the process of gaining access can be obstructive and onerous,” Thaler-Carter said. Photo right: Ruth Thaler-Carter Naiwe.com photo

“None of my clients have objected to providing an assignment letter. I send it to the event host by email and take it with me to the event, just to be safe.”

Ruth Thaler-Carter, freelance writer, St. Louis, Mo.

As freelancers get more name recognition, it becomes easier for them to get into different events, sources said. Savannah, Georgia, has a multitude of known freelancers, Catron said.

“When you’re in a town, now it depends on the town you’re in, but even in Savannah people know the regular reporters,” she said. “They know the names. They know the people who are usually there.”

Professional photojournalists sometimes run into not having access to events if they do not have press credentials, yet some journalism organizations do supply credentials for journos. Flickr photo

Consistently working in St. Louis has given Thaler-Carter name recognition, she said.

“I’ve had a press pass for many years, thanks to freelancing for a St. Louis-based newspaper in the past and belonging to a regional writers’ group, so I’ve usually been able to manage access even if I didn’t know ahead of time that I’d need credentials,” she said.

For freelancers who are just starting out, it can be more difficult still, Chapman said.

“If you’re a freelancer, it’s tougher, because if you’re freelancing and it’s not under the umbrella of a legacy media outlet or some other outlet that’s well known, the credentials process becomes much more difficult,” he said.

Leroy Chapman, deputy managing editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“At that point, whoever is holding the event essentially has to make a decision on whether or not this is mass media, or if it’s so small that the person won’t reach as many people,” he said.

The vetting process exists for a reason. Sometimes people impersonate freelancers just to benefit from free items, Thaler-Carter said.

“When I was in D.C. years ago, I was the media contact person for a couple of associations in different professions, and we started asking for assignment confirmation because several people showed up at national conferences just to take advantage of the snacks in the press rooms,” Thaler-Carter said. “That’s a classic: people claiming to cover your event but just there for the food and – in the old days – free phone lines.”

Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. nbeckerink.spj@gmail.com

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