South by Southwest (SXSW) is a technology/music/film festival that takes place annually in Austin, Texas in March. The event brings tens of thousands of people to this hip college town, and each attendee has a story to tell. You’d think capturing those stories would be easy – prime content-creation fodder for the enterprising freelance journalist.
You’d be wrong.
Let’s first quickly examine the freelance writer’s plight…err great professional situation.
The problem is that many people feel differently. They feel that rules don’t apply to them, the Internet never tells a lie and everyone who can turn on a computer or camera is a media maker.
If that were the case, PR agencies would be going out of business as more articles and content came from the masses. While this is partially true, the vast amount of news and information still comes from journalists and news outlets. So, how does the freelancing equation fit in here?
Media makers are changing editors’ perception when it comes to freelancers. These media makers are also ruining the conference circuit for these same freelance journalists.
To wit, if you want to cover the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, you need to do one of a few things. If you’re a staffer on a major news outlet, you just need a letter from your editor saying you’re there to cover the event.
But, if you’re a freelancer – no matter who you write for or how much experience you have – you need multiple letters of assignment, proof of past technology articles, links to past SXSW articles (see the irony here) and your ‘cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die’ promise that you’ll write and promote stuff about the festival within a couple weeks after the conference.
And SXSW isn’t the worst offender when it comes to putting up hoops for freelancers. Some of the major sports organizations do the same thing. From a personal perspective, I’ve covered PGA, IronMan and Tour de France events. I’ve been on radio stations and TV talking about these assignments and my longevity as a journalist. None of this matters when pitching event and conference organizers these days.
I was looking to do some photographic coverage of the MotoGP event in April. The form online requires dozens of types of information, references, links and letters of assignment. These are put in place by RedBull – the title sponsor – to ensure folks covering the event have the highest level of connections in the media.
That’s a nice attitude, but unless a freelancer can cover some of these events, the type of coverage you start to get is vanilla and generic. It turns into the locker-room old-boy network that you get in the NFL…where none of the columnists for a team ever ask the tough questions of the coach.
Going back to SXSW as an example. I’ve covered the event now for five years and have only once signed up for credentials. That was the first year I attended. These days I just jump in with all the media makers and I can get the same stories and access I need to sell content to the news outlets. I’m also not held to any embargoes or promises SXSW makes their credentialed journalists agree to.
But I’d still rather be doing this on the up and up…because as a journalist I’m trained to be on the front lines. I know how to interview people, how to meet deadlines and how to create content. My product is professional, while that from media wannabes is often clearly second-tier.
As a life-long freelancer, I’m clearly biased. I trumpet the unique value we bring to the table in terms of balance, professionalism and broader coverage. If media makers are allowed the same access we used to have – or if freelancers are continually asked to jump through hoops to get credentials – then the end product is going to suffer.
Jeff Cutler is a freelance journalist, social media trainer and content specialist who curates and writes for more than a dozen blogs. Jeff has written for NPR, The NY Post, Technology Review, Mobile Magazine, Gatehouse Media and more. To see Jeff’s world, go to http://jeffcutler.com or connect to Jeff via social media channels using the links at the top of his website.