...in general, it's scary for us and not good for the reading public when freelancers and stringers begin to fill roles and space in the paper traditionally or formerly filled by full timers. Freelancers and stringers can be very talented, of course, but in the long run newspaper journalism, if it's to continue to attract talent and keep the quality high, has to be a steady gig that pays OK.Now perhaps I am biased as a potential Tribune freelancer, but the former computer programmer in me wonders, Why should you guys be so special? Why shouldn't you have the same anxieties about your decent middle-class jobs being farmed out to people willing to work without paid benefits? That's where the rest of America's middle class is right now -- either already outsourced, afraid of being outsourced, or working as a freelancer, consultant, etc. It just strikes me as naive to expect oneself or one's profession to be exempt from the new rules of American business. That is not to say that outsourcing is necessarily a good thing -- often it just plain sucks -- but it's a reality.
I also take issue with Zorn's contention that it is "not good for the reading public." There are plenty of magazines out there that produce consistent, high quality publications using mostly freelance writers. Why couldn't a newspaper achieve this? All it takes is an editor with a keen sense of his/her readership who can assemble a solid stable of writers. One could argue that readers benefit from a broader range of opinions. That's one reason the Tribune publishes guest editorials. And of course, freelancers cast a wider net, which is why the Tribune uses freelancers in sections like Travel. Undoubtedly benefits can be cited for staff and freelancers, but the claim that freelancers aren't good for the readers reeks of elitism (incidentally the same sort of elitist contempt that some journalists (not Zorn, to his credit) harbor toward bloggers).
At least Zorn admits that "it's scary" -- damn right, it's scary. Just ask my former colleagues in information technology. First employees feared losing their jobs to consultants. Not long after that happened, domestic consultants feared losing their jobs to consultants with H-1B visas (essentially indentured servants, they often work for much lower pay). And then when that came to pass, H-1B workers eventually lost their jobs (and their visas) when companies shifted to off-shore resources. (One could compare this to the progression of factory jobs from union to non-union to Mexico/China.) For me the writing was on the wall when I started seeing consulting gigs that began with six months here and ended with six months in Bangalore (the latter to be paid in Indian rupees!). At least newspaper journalism is safe in that respect -- it would be hard to write about Chicago from New Delhi.
What about the original outsourced journalism, wire services (i.e, Associated Press)? While I appreciate reading a diversity of voices telling a story, each offering a different take and employing a different mix of facts, one could argue whether there is much to be gained by multiple newspapers paying their own reporters to be on the scene when they could run wire copy instead. I suspect that many newspapers with smaller budgets or less competition do just that. And of course, columnists are often syndicated, which is just another flavor of freelancing. The Tribune uses plenty of Associated Press stories and syndicated columnists already.
I know that Zorn wants to justify and keep his job. But the attitude that staff cannot be replaced is such a tired lament in the 2000s. Many professions went through this in the 1990s, and factory workers have been behind this eight ball for 20-30 years. Outsourcing can be done well or poorly, but it is virtually inevitable in today's business environment. When freelancers are writing 90% of the articles in the Tribune, will we look back at Zorn's words the way we look at those of American autoworkers who once claimed the Japanese would never build better cars?