There aren’t many freelancers who do what Justin Ling does. The Ottawa-based journalist spends his days in the Press Gallery covering the news coming out of Parliament Hill. He’s had his work published in the National Post, the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s Magazine and the Ottawa Citizen, but there are unique challenges that come with working as a freelance political reporter in Ottawa. Story Board phoned Ling last week to ask about the ups and downs of freelancing on The Hill.
Q: When did you become interested in writing about politics?
I’ve been into politics since I was a kid, it’s always kind of been a passion. I drifted around a while about whether I wanted to go into the staffer side of things or the reporting side. But a couple years back I decided that I’d rather tell truth for a living than lie. So I went with the journalism side once and for all. I’ve been freelancing solidly for the last two years or so. It’s fantastic. It’s not always been easy, but I’ve enjoyed it.
Q: Are you interested in getting a full time job at a paper?
Not really. I think this kind of happens when anyone starts freelancing, where you feel like it’s a temporary thing and you’re just doing this to pay the bills while you wait for someone to offer you a job. But I think in the current context nobody’s offering anyone jobs out of hand anymore. And a lot of the jobs you get offered are not exactly the glamorous gigs that we were promised in j-school. So a year back all I could think about was that day the Globe would call me and offer me that glorious reporter job that I’ve been waiting for. But I’ve given up on that. It’s at the point where I don’t want that job anymore. What I’m doing now is exactly what I want to be doing and it’s paying the bills much better than I thought it would ever be. So I’m entirely content.
The only problem is that the rest of the journalism industry still has this view of freelancing that freelancers are either too untalented to get their own job or are just waiting to get hired somewhere else. So that’s the biggest barrier. Being a freelancer is a pain in the ass. Mostly because of how people treat you, not so much what the job actually is. What I do from day-to-day is roughly the same as any staff reporter except that I’m probably filing more copy than they are.
Q: What do you like about freelancing?
I’m still doing the day-to-day breaking news stuff, depending what day it is. But I also get the time to work on whatever I want. I get to do investigative features, I get to file longform copy. I get to choose where my stuff goes, I get to choose what I write about, who I call, how I do it. Everything from the reporting angle is decided by me, not an editor. The editor only really gets to see the finished product. So I have the complete autonomy to work on what I want, when I want, how I want. And it’s really liberating. I always call it the purest form of journalism. There’s no oversight, I get to do it my way. I’m working in the Hot Room on Parliament Hill, so I’m sitting next to all the staff journalists but I get to decide my own schedule.
I mean, to be fair, I end up working more. I come in on evenings and weekends all the time. It’s not uncommon to get stuck here for 12 hours on a day. But it’s good.
Q: What are the biggest challenges of working as a freelancer on The Hill?
It’s great if the people you’re dealing with have dealt with you before. But when you first say that you’re freelance, people translate that to mean “you have no job and it’ll never be published.” A lot of the time when you call a government department they have this little form they have to fill out to process your info request and they usually ask you: name, phone number, email address, and then publication. And if you tell them “freelance” there’s always a long pause. They say “yeah, but where?” and you say “well, I’m doing this on spec” which is how a lot of this stuff works and they don’t understand. It doesn’t process for them how freelancing works. So that’s just an example of one of the attitudes on The Hill.
But there are also some policies that make it hard for us. I found out yesterday that CTV does not allow freelance journalists onto their political shows. I have lots of friends and colleagues who go on either as regulars or fill-ins to do commentary and analysis and that’s something I’m apparently not allowed to do because I don’t have a “real job.” There are also some very archaic and arbitrary rules in the press gallery that apply not just to freelancers but to several other journalists, where if you apply for press gallery membership you are not allowed to get immediate accreditation. You have to have a six-month temporary membership during which you have all sorts of arbitrary and useless rules applied to you, like not being able to take books out of the library in case, you know, you make off with them, or something.
And this applies also to small publications. Publications like Blacklock’s Reporter and iPolitics have similar rules applied to them. I guess with the advent of the internet there’s a whole bunch of journalists who are making it, for the first time, as freelancers or as employees for smaller publications and the rules haven’t caught up. There are all these really inane, useless, archaic, anachronistic rules that just limit our abilities to do our job. Parliament, by definition, I guess, is out of touch but sometimes it can just be annoying.
Q: The Press Gallery list has some of the reporters for those smaller publications listed as freelancers even though they’re staff, is that right?
Some of the smaller publications do let those employees work as freelancers but for all intents and purposes, those are just regular staffers like anybody else, but they’re treated as a lowly freelancer because their publication is not as, I guess, well-reputed or well-known as some of the others. Which is kind of hilarious to get bumped down to this lowly class of “freelancer.” It’s a little bit demeaning to actual freelancers, who feel like we’re a second-class group of journalists.
Q: Do you think freelancers are looked down on in the Press Gallery or by the mainstream news outlets?
Not necessarily. I think it’s the institution that looks down on us more. Most staff journalists on the Hill run into freelance journalists every day, people like me and a couple of others who are here, so I don’t think they look down on us necessarily but it’s definitely annoying to deal with certain institutions who don’t see us as important. I get published nationally all the time, but for some reason the fact that I publish nationally is less important because I’m self-employed. It would be nice if there was kind of an overhaul of some of these rules and people realized that freelancers are not just unemployable hacks and that some of us choose to do this for a living. I feel like a sex worker sometimes. Selling myself. And not all of us are trapped here against our will!
Q: Tell me what happened with the CTV program Power Play.
I do TV somewhat regularly, unfortunately it doesn’t always pay because a lot of the time I’m going on as a source. But someone suggested I go on and offer myself to some of the bigger players, so I did. And the first email I got back was saying “yep, we’re always looking for fill-in hosts, you looks great, I’ll pass you along.” And then the next email I get back is saying “sorry, we don’t use freelancers for our panel show, I hope you understand.” I, of course, didn’t understand at all and I don’t know why I would understand naturally that I’m not allowed on these shows. So I emailed back saying “that’s ridiculous and arbitrary. Why?” And didn’t get a response.
So maybe I’m just undesirable and they don’t want me, which is fine, they should have just said so. But it seems to me that this is an actual policy. I can’t remember the last time I saw a freelancer on one of these shows. There are freelancers in Canada who are probably more versed to speak on some of these stories than the panelists on there. I’ve had my stories discussed on these shows. I know other freelancers or writers for smaller publications who have had their stories discussed on the show but for some reason we’re not allowed on to talk about our own stories. If a Globe and Mail journalist writes a big, national breaking news story they’re invited on to discuss it, but we’re not because, for whatever reason, we’re not well-versed enough.
And I’ll give some news stations credit. Sun News, for example, is more than happy to take on independent journalists to discuss their stories and to offer analysis and whatnot but some of the older boys, I suppose, aren’t quite so liberal in that respect.
Q: Do you think it’s changing?
No. There’s no reason for them to change it, so why bother. In their view, there’s no pressing need. And this is definitely born out of some level of selfishness on my part, but I’ve always been fond of seeing new voices in the media and I don’t want to demean any of the journalists who do these panels or go on to contribute. But spicing it up is always nice, and spicing it up is not exactly what’s been happening in the last couple of years.
Q: What do you think freelancers bring to political journalism?
Newsrooms have been shrinking and shrinking recently, which should surprise exactly nobody, and journalists are being overburdened with stories. Staff journalists, not surprisingly and not to their fault, are getting thrown into the same loop of doing breaking news, and you’re definitely seeing a dearth of investigative reporting and long-term features to some degree. There’s certainly some journalists who still do that reporting, but that’s less political journalists, more security reporters and whatnot. So it’s nice that freelance journalists get the time to work on a story for two months or three months, and it would be nice if some of those stories had the proper forum to be discussed and talked about and they really don’t.
I think it’s useful to have alternative voices. There’s a limited number of staff political journalists in this country, I don’t see why you wouldn’t open that door a little bit and let some different voices come in. There’s more than enough TV for all of us. It seems arbitrary and useless that only those who are supposedly good enough to be in the newsroom are the voices that are picked to go on air. And of course that’s not their fault and they do a good job. I don’t want to demean the fact that those reporters are on air but it’s just annoying for those of us who work our asses off but who are made to feel less talented than the rest of them.
Q: Why are there so few freelancers on The Hill? Just because it’s so difficult?
Getting into Parliament Hill is kind of a pain. It’s a tough gig to get stories every day as a freelancer. But there’s definitely freelancers across the country working in BC, Toronto, Halifax, who do national reporting and I think would also be good voices for these shows and would be good voices to recognize more appropriately, but they’re definitely not.
Vancouver has a whole slew of reporters who have versed themselves on energy politics in a way in which a lot of other national reporters haven’t done, including myself. And their voices are incredibly useful when we’re talking about pipeline regulation or the oil sands, but we don’t hear from them. We hear from a reporter in Montreal who may be fantastic but who doesn’t understand the intricacies of BC energy politics. And that applies for a whole slew of different things and I think it would be good to branch out to different brain trusts to get more analysis on these stories. But panel shows are kind of the same four or five faces who might be very smart at analyzing the Ottawa bubble but who don’t always give the most depth as could be had to a story outside Parliament Hill.
Journalism’s is always reticent to change but that’s not always working. Sometimes change is for the best.
Q: What other changes would you like to see for freelancers on The Hill?
The press gallery rules need to be changed. They definitely put up a barrier to getting freelancers in. I mean if you look at Patrick Brazeau, he was denied accreditation as a freelancer recently, maybe for the best, but that’s a good example of how the rules can be stringent at times.
And I think just having chase producers or editors seek out alternative voices on either side of the spectrum and those who don’t have any bias or agenda. It would also just be a nice change and I don’t think it’s being done enough. I guess that’s the primary change that I would like to see happen. Even if they don’t call me, that’s fine. Call somebody else. But freelancers could use a step up.
I think freelancing is going to become more the norm as time goes on. Contract work is going to be the preferred alternative to replacing some of these cut jobs in newsrooms so as there’s more and more freelance money to replace staff journalists, you’re going to see more freelancers. And I think it’s only fair and only right and only logical that we be given a space in the national dialogue. Because I think there’s lots of freelancers out there doing amazing work and it’s not being adequately recognized.
Q: Do you think the challenges of freelancing on The Hill deter others from trying to get into it? It seems to me you need an exceptional amount of drive and passion.
I figure there are so many challenges to freelancing, that the institutional barriers are just a part of the problem. By the time you’re on The Hill, you’ve probably developed a hard head for this sort of thing.
The worst part about these problems — arbitrary press gallery rules, discriminatory broadcast rules, or what have you — is that it just makes your job harder, and increases the likelihood that you just give up and take a staff job.
It’s frustrating when you need an audio file, or a hansard transcript, only to find that you’re not allowed to have it because you’re on membership probation, as you’re not on staff with a larger publication.
You need drive, yeah, but moreso you need to be stubborn and stupid.
You can follow Justin on Twitter at @Justin_Ling.
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