The relationship between newsrooms and freelance journalists is in trouble. On one side are the newsrooms, which continue to lay off staff and shrink budgets. On the other side are the new journalists, bored of working full-time in a traditional medium. A relationship in crisis, in urgent need of change.
In the First Census of Freelance Journalists in Spanish, we found that 56 percent dream of operating — in the short term — their own independent media. Another 24 percent want to remain freelancers in the current model. And only 18 percent dream of working in a traditional media organization. In Brazil, the census found similar results from freelance journalists there. Of these, 45 percent dream of running their own business, and only 30 percent want to work in a newsroom.
Meanwhile, 70 percent of respondents said they feel that journalists have left the newsrooms because the media do not hire or pay very little. And, every day there is new news of a medium that has reduced its staff of journalists.
I came to Stanford as a JSK Fellow with a challenge: How to create an independent platform that connects these two sides: matching journalists without media (freelancers) with new media with few journalists (new newsrooms).
The result is a dating platform, where both parties can reconnect; a contact machine, whose name is: PortableJournalism
For my project, the first thing was to reach out to freelancers in Latin America, Spain and the United States, and find out what they think and how they work. We need hard data, because so far, there are no numbers.
I was important to put freelance journalism in the debate, in the conversation, in the talk about the future of journalism.
With this objective, I created the First Census of Freelance Journalists in Spanish. It was organized by the School of Portable Journalism, an international network of journalists that I founded in Buenos Aires eight years ago. We received support from different departments and programs at Stanford University: the Statistics Department helped me with the design of the questions and how to structure my results. University IT gave me technological assistance for the Census, and the Social Science Data and Software (SSDS) a group within the Stanford Libraries provided software for the final analysis of the data.
The Census was conduct throughout March 2017. Dawn Garcia, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and my JSK advisor, recommended adding a voluntary feature so that those who wished to submit their CV or resume along with their answers, could do so, and potentially find new homes for their freelance work. That addition was key.
In less than a month, we surpassed 1,200 responses. What was even more surprising was that these freelancers were not anonymous, and in addition, more than 700 respondents attached their CVs.
And this might be surprising, too: More than 70 percent said they are optimistic about the future of journalism. Two out of three said they chose to be freelancers as a personal and professional choice. A third of freelancers also have other work outside of journalism.
This fact is of great importance. Every day, there are more freelancers who do their journalism in their free time, paying their bills by working in other jobs outside of journalism.
A group of Brazilian journalists from the Orbital Media group, founded by former JSK Fellow Adriana García Martínez, wrote to me, asking us to conduct the census in Portuguese. In May, we launched the First Census of Freelance Journalists in Portuguese.
One hopeful sign: Some 90 percent of freelancers say that their relationship with news organizations currently is very problematic, but most
think it could be improved and even made more equitable in the future. That same sentiment motivates the PortableJournalism project.
By the year 2000, I had been working as a freelance journalist for three years, and I was not interested in working in a newsroom. I wanted to travel the world, write stories and support myself from that work. That vision, which in those years seemed so romantic and idealistic, is now common among new journalists. They do not want to be in newsrooms. This generation prefers to make their own money, control their own schedules, and travel the world.
Seventeen years ago it was more difficult. It was strange to be an entrepreneur, doing nomadic journalism. I made up a name for it: Portable Journalism.
In 2000, everything changed quickly. I earned $5,000 for an Amazon story I posted in Colombia. With that money I bought a digital camera, a laptop, and an air ticket from Chile to Spain. I told my editor I was going to Europe for four months to do Portable Journalism.
Those four months became 10 years, and when I returned to Chile, I had published several journalism books, given workshops on that philosophy of life for universities in Latin America and Spain, and founded the School of Portable Journalism, an international network of online journalists.
The name “Portable Journalism” started as a joke. My editor in Chile recommended a wonderful book, “Brief History of Portable Literature,” by Enrique Vila-Matas. It’s a strange novel about a secret society of portable artists, founded in 1924 at the river Niger, that included Duchamp, Scott Fitzgerald, and Walter Benjamin. The requirements to belong were that one’s artwork could be put into a suitcase, to travel the world.
Duchamp, Scott Fitzgerald and Walter Benjamin were millennials a century earlier than the millennials of today.
“I’m going to do portable journalism,” I told my editor, saying good-bye. I want to make that Vila-Matas fiction happen in real life. And that’s what I keep trying to do.
The School and the “Nuevas Plumas”
I arrived in California wanting to design here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the next step of my project. In my suitcase I carried the School of Portable Journalism, which currently connects students from more than 150 cities, with online teachers from Latin America, Spain and the United States.
The School of Portable Journalism was also born by chance. In interviews for my first books, I talked about portable journalism, and was introduced that way. I quickly began receiving emails from young freelancers from various Latin American countries asking for advice, data, and help.
Along with the decision to create a school came the name: Mobile School of Portable Journalism. In the fifth year it reached its definitive name: School of Portable Journalism. I talked to several programmers, who all wanted to charge too much for the project. But one told me that if I had the idea, I did not need anything else; that the Internet is free. So I spent 10 dollars to buy the domain periodismoportatil.com, and everything else I got free off the Internet. I designed virtual classrooms on Blogspot with restricted access. I used a free Wordpress account to design the website. In the first years, we used the Tinychat site for group conversations. All free.
From the beginning, the portable project’s aim was to discover, promote and connect new voices of journalism in Spanish. So, at the School, we made agreements with the media in Latin America to publish the best works of the students.
Six years ago, we took another step: to discover, promote and connect new authors. With the support of the University of Guadalajara, in Mexico, and the Book Fair of Guadalajara, we launched the “Premio Nuevas Plumas” a prize for new non-fiction authors in Spanish. So far we have received unpublished works of more than a thousand new talents.
While at Stanford we made an agreement with the City University of New York (CUNY) and the support of Univisión, to choose the best story written in Spanish submitted by journalists in the United States. The Spanish-language journalism industry in the United States is very important for our project. After Mexico, the US has the most Spanish speakers in the world.
The School, the Prize and the Census, are the three important engines with which we are going to feed the Portable Journalism platform.
During my JSK Fellowship year, I passed the milestone of 20 years as a journalist. The first 15 years I was a freelancer, a portable journalist who traveled non-stop. The last five years, I was founding editor of a small newspaper in Santiago de Chile, part of the El Mercurio Group. So let’s say, I know the two parts of this strange relationship between media and freelancers.
Why does the media want to work with fewer and fewer staff journalists? Why do fewer freelancers want to work inside traditional media? These questions kept resonating with me at Stanford, while in conversation with other JSK fellows at Coupa Café, or while biking to a class, or chatting with JSK guest speaker.
During my year at Stanford I visited two U.S. journalism operations that were relevant to my project: The New York Times en Español, which has its office in Mexico City, and the Talent Network of the Washington Post in Washington, DC.
I was interested in the New York Times’ Spanish-language project for its model of operating with very few staff reporters and many freelancers. And I was curious to visit the Post, because they have an awesome freelance talent network. The Talent Network was a project of 2016 JSK Fellow Anne Kornblutt.
The Talent Network and PortableJournalism have some obvious differences but both projects were born at the JSK Fellowships at Stanford, and they share a spirit and vision of elevating the role of freelance journalists in the future.
I presented my project at the International Symposium of Online Journalism (ISOJ), at the University of Austin at Texas in April.
I displayed my first prototype of the platform at the JSK NewsFest at Stanford University. And was invited to participate in the Latin Summit at the City University of New York (CUNY).
I think this relationship between freelancers and media organizations needs to improve — and it’s important for that to happen. My dating platform offers one way for the two parties to reconnect. Afterwards, we’ll see if the date ends badly — or creates a great new love story.