At the same time the owners of The Buffalo News pushed to have every member of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild take two weeks of furlough, newsroom management found one way to cover for having fewer workers around.
They got some freelancers to do more.
While Guild members were forced to stay home from work and give up paychecks, at least two digital freelancers increased how much they wrote for the News, according to the Guild’s research.
This is occurring even though Guild leaders shared concerns with management, just prior to the scheduling of furloughs, about the increased use of freelancers during this difficult time. In response, management assured us they did not intend to expand the use of freelancers and were looking to scale back freelance usage during the furlough period.
Yet what some freelancers have written has steadily continued to encroach on the type of work Guild members have done or are doing.
The Guild is aware of at least two cases in which Guild members pitched ideas to managers and either were told a freelancer had already interviewed the local source, or management just allowed a freelancer to write a story while the reporter was on furlough.
When Guild members who cover the Sabres started going out on furlough, the freelancer who’s written Sabres-related analytics pieces has been writing more digital content for the News.
Remember when newsroom management basically decided they didn’t need two full-time sports columnists? About a year ago, they started using a digital freelancer to write online columns, who they said would focus on “ex-pats,” Buffalo and Western New York natives who live in other parts of the country and the world.
Well, that freelancer isn’t just covering ex-pats. He’s interviewed local sources, localized national news stories and written about the Sabres and the Bills. These are topics and subjects Guild members should be assigned to write about, not freelancers with a clearly designated subject area.
While the Guild has long expressed concerns about the expansion of freelance coverage, it is tone-deaf for editors to permit this at a time when every journalist on staff is being furloughed. Management has denied that they are expanding the use of freelancers but has chosen not to provide the Guild any evidence of this. Guild leadership sent a memo to management regarding these concerns on May 27 and received no response.
The Guild understands management has rights when it comes to online jurisdiction, and we have no issue with the majority of freelance stories posted on BuffaloNews.com. We worked with managers to create an experimental digital content producer position in the newsroom to stave off potential conflicts. While management has said it was planning to hire two additional DCPs before the pandemic hit, the newsroom currently has only one, in sports.
We will not stand by and allow the erosion of work traditionally done by Guild journalists to go unchecked. We certainly will fight to protect the Guild’s place in the newsroom, especially in the wake of what happened recently in Cleveland. Last month, the Plain Dealer News Guild dissolved after 80 years of union membership.
Difficult times like these call for vigilance. We ask that every Guild member push back against any efforts to supplant or deprofessionalize the work of the reporting staff. And as we post statements regarding this issue on social media, we ask every Guild member to share and amplify our message.