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You just keep me hanging on: stringers.

Ah, freedom. Freedom from fluorescent-lit newsrooms, monotonous news beats, hovering editors and full-time fatigue. Stringers can work odd hours at home, vacuum the rug while waiting for return calls, and accept a variety of assignments from a variety of clients.

Nice work, if you can get paid enough for it. Most stringers, alas, cannot. Staff jobs at major newspapers pay upwards of $30,000, plus benefits. Stringers typically earn $35 to $225 a story, get no benefits, and pay their own expenses and the 15.3 percent self-employment tax to boot.

Annual income tops out at around $25,000, and many of the more financially successful pieceworkers supplement their journalism incomes with technical, public relations or advertising writing.

While editors and the common wisdom suggest that stringers deserve lower pay because their work is inferior to that of staff writers, labor representatives call that a rationalization. Whatever the truth is, the stringer remains uncomfortably dangling between the editor's rock and labor's hard place, with neither the prestige nor the security of a staff position. The Gulf War exacerbated the situation for many, squeezing out space that might otherwise have been designated for the second-tier news stories stringers usually write.

Still, many fine journalists prefer working with no strings attached and even make ends meet doing so.

The word "stringer" means different things to different news organizations. Some, like The NEw York Times, have full-time reporters working in bureaus who they call stringers. Most often, however, a stringer is a freelancer who has an ongoing relationship with a news organization, working as needed. Often, the stringer covers a region where the organization lacks a full-time reporter.

Journalists who choose to string usually are seeking one of three things: flexibility, experience, or a change from the corporate pace.

Ann Bancroft of Sacramento fits into the first category. She was a staffer at the San Francisco Chronicle for six years, but when her son was almost three, she says, "I decided it wasn't worth it. I wasn't seeing him enough."

She took a six-month leave, then eased back into the working world by freelancing, job-sharing at UPI, stringing for AP and The New York Times. It was, she said, a "catch-as-catch-can life that didn't provide enough income to survive on."

Now, Bancroft works 30-to-35 hours a week stringing for her old friends at the Chronicle. She picks up her son at 4 instead of 6, catches the occasional school play and makes up the lost work time in the evening. She's not making as much as she would on staff, bunot power lunching, paying for parking, buying nice clothes or indulging in "compensatory spending" for working so hard all the time, either.

In the category of stringers seeking experience is Anne Sutton of Jamestown, in California's Mother Lode country. Sutton, a product of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, worked at the local paper for a year before deciding she needed beefier clips if she was going to move up. The journalism school put her in touch with the Chronicle's regional editor, Rob Haeseler, who was happy to get some stories out of the fast-growing region.

"I felt like I stepped in there just after a meeting where they said, 'We should broaden our coverage,'" Sutton says. Stringing for the Chronicle enables her to continue living in rural -- and inexpensive -- Jamestown, while she ponders her next career move.

Frank Brown, 26, has been stringing for The Philadelphia Inquirer for six months. He equates the experience to "going to j-school and earning a little bit of money for it." By "a little" Brown means $80 per story, $55 for night meetings, and $105 to write up the polikce blotter. During a very good 60-to-70-hour week, Brown will write four or five stories and make as much as $700. An average week is more like $400.

"Given the fact that you pay your own Social Security and your benefits, it's a pretty tight squeeze," Brown says. "Stringing is not something I'd like to do for very long because it takes its toll on you and I don't want to get bitter about journalism." Unlike other papers, The Inquirer does not string its stringers along with the promise of eventual staff jobs. Brown's editors have made it clear to him and his 24 colleagues in the paper's South Jersey bureau that if they want full-time jobs, they'll have to look elsewhere.

Tom Goldstein, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, encourages his students to string to facilitate their professional development and brighten their job prospects. Money, what there is of it, is a secondary benefit.

Besides those who freelance to escape the confines of a staff job and those who freelance for the experience are people like Mark Osman of Mill Valley, California. Osman left what he considered a sweet job as the water sports writer at The Honolulu Advertiser to write a book about the Honolulu Marathon.

"Since I wasn't made a millionaire by the book, I needed a job," he says. There was nothing doing back at The Advertiser so he moved to California, freelanced unprofitably a while, then crossed over to "the other side of the tracks from journalism -- public relations."

That started an alternating two-year cycle of working in public relations and "going crazy," then freelancing and "going broke." Two days after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, Osman gave notice at his latest public relations job: "I felt I didn't want to die doing PR." The next day he was covering the quake for the Marin Independent Journal.

Last year was a good one for Osman. Stringing mostly for USA Today, he made 60 percent of what he would have made had he stuck with public relations. Osman, 38, wouldn't mind a full-time reporting job, but the last one he was offered paid $16,000 a year. He turned it down.

"At some point," he said, "your love of journalism and your love of life conflict."

Kathleen Furore of Chicago is another refugee from the business world. Furore put in nine years writing catalogues and doing marketing and PR for Sears, Roebuck and Co. She was eased out in 1988 and started stringing, first for small, neighborhood papers, then adding the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. She also keeps one foot in the corporate world, which accounts for 60 percent of her income and 40 percent of her time.

Last year Furore made $37,000. When she left Sears she was making $40,000. The little papers p[ay $35 to $50 per story -- a pittance, Furore admits, but at least they provide a steady base income. The bigger papers pay from $150 to $225. This isn't exactly megabucks, either, but the clips, Furore says, lead to other work.

"I can't imagine going back to a 9-to-5 job," she says. "I get nervous if I go a month or six weeks without having something kind of big in the works, but it's nothing compared to having to get into a routine."

Labor and management both regard stringers as a necessary evil. A newspaper like the Chronicle could not call itself "The Leading Newspaper in Northern California" without people like Anne Sutton in the hinterlands. The Chronicle uses about 20 stringers in northern California, according to Regional Editor Haeseler. He can think of two who have joined the staff in the past five years.

The Northern California Newspaper Guild recognizes that newspapers cannot afford to keep people on the payroll throughout the extended region they cover, says Executive Director Doug Cuthbertson. But the Guild takes a dim view of the arrangement when editors rely on stringers at the expense of staff jobs. Using a stringer not only saves the publisher a staff salary but an additional 30 percent or so in benefits.

Haeseler was reluctant to talk about his stringers' pay rates for fear of fomenting jealousy among the troops, but he defended the generally low rates on grounds that the overall quality of their stories is inferior to that of his staff writers.

"By and large, stringers require an enormous amount of work to get their stories in shape," Haeseler says. "There are few stringers who write letter-perfect prose. Those who do are a very rare find."

Cuthbertson dismisses such arguments as rationalizations. "I've had editors at the bargaining table tell me stringers are a dime a dozen," he says. "As a class, they tend to be much more exploitable."

Dean Goldstein says his student-stringers constitute a bargain for news organizations, and adds, "The fact is, there are more people out there than good jobs." He does not encourage students to freelance as a way of life. "There may be some people it suits, but it's hard."

As if stringers don't struggle enough, along comes the war against Iraq and the recession. Osman noticed his USA Today assignments drying up when the paper devoted more of its pages to the war and less to domestic reporting.

For the most part, the stringers who make the best incomes demand decent money, work efficiently, and endear themselves to editors by getting work in before deadline and rewriting when necessary.

Gregg Levoy, a former reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer now writing a book on the business of writing, says a former editor once confided that he was astonished at now seldom writers try to negotiate a better rate than the one offered.

Levoy, Bancroft and Osman all stress the importance of hustle. When you're being paid by the piece instead of by the hour, you need to be conscious that every hour you work reduces your hourly rate. To speed things up, many stringers not only have computers and modems, but fax machines.

Levoy's own freelance income, derived mainly from magazine work, stands at $25,000. That's about $10,000 less than what he was making at The Enquirer, but he says business expense deductions available to the independent contractor mean it works out about the same. The serious money, Levoy said, is in books, movies and "corporate America."

"My advice to kids coming up?" Osman said. "Don't do this."

If you do, says free-lancer Eric Hubler of New York City, "you have to have the bankroll. It would terrify me to go freelance without some savings."

Russell Frank and Martha Freeman are freelance writers based in central California.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Society of Professional Journalists
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: Journalism vs. the Economy; includes related articles on journalists' salaries and freelancing
Author:Frank, Russell; Freeman, Martha
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:Bright lights, big city ... low pay.
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