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Freelancers Aren't Free: Herald Columnists Out Of a Contract

Writers wonder why newspaper is playing hardball

by Ben Sichel

Herald readers may feel as though something's missing from their paper.
Herald readers may feel as though something's missing from their paper.

This Sunday, after 13 years of being published weekly in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, Silver Donald Cameron's column only appeared on the author’s personal website.

“I’ve been rolling along for 13 years with a one-page contract,” says Cameron, author of 17 books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, many with environmental themes. But in February, he, like dozens of other Herald freelancers including stalwarts like Ralph Surette, Sandra Phinney and Harry Bruce, received a new 5-page document from the newspaper in the mail.

It was a “horrible, exploitative” contract, says Cameron, stipulating that writers would be held responsible if anything they wrote caused the newspaper to be sued (even if this was due to the newspaper’s own edits); that writers would not be paid until after a piece was published – even if publishing was delayed or cancelled; and that writers were not permitted to discuss the details of their contract with any other writers; among other “obnoxious” clauses. (The full contract is posted at www.howenow.ca.)

After making contact with a number of others who had received the contract, Cameron asked the Canadian Freelancers’ Union (CFU) to step in and help negotiate on behalf of a loose group of about 30 writers.

“To their credit,” says Cameron, the Herald was willing to negotiate and “corrected a lot of the most egregious stuff.” Clauses were re-worded to make them more palatable to the writers, while still “achiev[ing] all their stated objectives,” said Mike O’Reilly of the CFU.

But there was one point on which the parties could not agree, and which spelled the end for at least 5 of the Herald’s regular columnists: copyright.

According to Cameron, the Herald was insisting on owning “all rights..for the use of your work in any way, worldwide and in perpetuity. They’re not paying a cent more for it…but now they’ve got the right to do anything with it, edit it in any way they want, sell it separately, put it into combination with other things.”

It was too much for the writers to swallow.

“I’m a writer…but I’m also a business person,” says Chris Benjamin, a freelancer and environment columnist for the Coast who says he will not pitch any pieces to the Herald under the new contract. “I try to set a fair price for my work that also allows me to make a living. I don't give things away for free. The Herald is replacing its old contract (which was very reasonable) with one that demands new things…from writers, but offers no additional compensation…They want more? They should pay for it.”

Benjamin points to a study by the CFU showing that freelance writers’ average income has declined slightly from about $26,000 per year in 1979 to $24,000 in 2006 – in which time the cost of living has gone up more than two-and-a-half fold.

The Herald’s deal “kills syndication writers,” he says. “I repackage stuff all the time and sell it to other publications…that's the only way I can make money as a journalist.”

“I call myself a member of the ‘highly specialized working poor,’" he notes.

Dan Leger, director of news content at the Herald, says the writers’ new contract is necessary for the paper to survive in the digital age.

“Our previous freelance contract…was designed and written for the print-only days. It worked fine for that,” says Leger. “But now, we have a need to archive our materials and readers expect us to provide content that lasts longer than seven days on the web.”

It’s important to note that “the Herald is one of the smallest media companies in Canada,” adds Leger. “We are independent, family-owned and locally-owned. But we are literally competing against the world, against Google, the New York Times and taxpayer-subsidized services such as the CBC. In Halifax, a company owned by a European multinational and by Transcontinental Media gives away free newspapers in competition with us…And we are trying to keep up with the dizzying pace of change in the media world.”

Cameron is not without sympathy for Herald management. “They obviously need some additional rights to enter the digital world. We understand that,” he says.

But he counters that their proposal, which he says would allow them to edit and re-publish columns in any form – for broadcast, or for a book, for example – goes too far.

“We’re basically saying two things: one, specify the rights that you need, and two, compensate us for them,” says Cameron.

As a freelancer, “[y]ou invest in the research -- and then you sell it over and over again,” wrote Cameron in a recent post on his blog. That's what subsidiary rights are all about. And that's what today's publishers want to take away from you.”

“These rights are what you have instead of a pension and a medical plan. You wouldn't let corporations seize your RRSP, would you?”

According to Leger, Cameron’s fears of the Herald re-selling his work without compensation are overblown. “He's saying that we're going to have some sort of magic right to all words and ideas of these authors,” says Leger. “All this contract language applies only to items done for the Chronicle Herald. If we buy a piece, we own that piece. We pay full market value for it.”

But “that’s news” to Silver Donald Cameron. “Copyright includes a whole bundle of rights, and for the last 13 years they've been buying only the first North American serial rights,” he says. “I do have clients who acquire all the rights to pieces I do for them – but they pay eight times as much per word as the Herald does. If he wants to pay at that level, let's talk.”

Bruce Wark, retired professor of journalism at the University of King’s College, wonders if “playing hardball” with its senior freelancers may be part of a strategy to modernize the newspaper’s content.

“I suspect that the Herald wants to shed older writers in favour of younger ones,” says Wark, noting that he has “reason to believe that younger freelance writers are able to negotiate a modified contract.”

Indeed, according to Leger, 37 of 42 “regular writers” have signed the new contract.

But Wark notes that this is “an editorial marketing strategy that may be questionable in a province where Herald subscribers tend to be older.” 

Silver Donald Cameron has his own ideas about the Herald’s reasons for the new contract.

“This is all speculation,” emphasizes Cameron. But “there’s been some suggestion that [the Herald] is being gussied up for sale. It’s almost the only newspaper in Canada not owned by a chain,” he says. “Irving would dearly love” to own it.

As well, says Cameron, since the Herald cut 25% of its newsroom staff in 2009 there’s been “more serious unionization with the newsoom.” Giving the paper more rights over freelancers’ work may make it so that “if they had a strike in the newsroom they could use our stuff to scab,” he says.

Dan Leger dismisses Cameron’s theories as being “without any merit whatsoever.”

“[Herald President and CEO] Sarah Dennis is deeply committed to maintaining the Herald as an independent, family-owned company with its deep Nova Scotia roots,” says Leger. “And as to this business about strikes, we have a legal collective agreement and a good working relationship with the journalists' union…I doubt very much whether the freelancers will find much sympathy for their cause among union members at the Herald.”

Motives aside, it seems regular Herald readers – two thirds of Nova Scotians, according to Leger – will have to get used to a new roster of columnists. And it’s one that critics say douses important local voices.

Sunday’s paper “will be much weaker without Silver Donald and Harry Bruce,” says Bruce Wark. “Both are excellent writers with a lot to say and they typically said it with wit and humour.”

Ralph Surette is Nova Scotia’s “wisest” journalist, he adds. “It's crazy that the Herald would ditch someone with his experience and qualifications, especially given the fact that his columns cost them a lot less than if he were a staff employee…He's adept in both English and French and lives in an under-reported rural Nova Scotia that the Herald has to serve…And he's an expert on the fishery, a defining way of life here.”

Chris Benjamin agrees. The loss of its veteran writers tilts the paper “further toward being another [Associated Press] and [Canadian Press] rag with no original content,” he says. “This hurts Nova Scotian democracy because it removes a powerful voice of political accountability.”

“What a local newspaper has to sell now is local coverage,” says Cameron. “You don’t buy the Herald to hear about Osama Bin Laden. It’s the major paper that pays attention to the province of Nova Scotia and the city of Halifax.

“This is what we buy you for,” says Cameron.


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1459 words

Comments

Comprehensive article

Thanks for presenting both sides. I would have like to have heard from Ms. Dennis as well, to help balance the number of voices on the pro-freelancer side.

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