New study “From One Division of Labor to the Other: The Relation between Beat Reporting, Freelancing, and Journalistic Autonomy” by Sarah van Leuven, Bart Vanhaelewyn and Karin Raeymaeckers of Ghent University in Belgium surveyed Belgian journalists in 2013 and 2018 about the consequences of cost-cutting in newsrooms.
The authors focused their study on consequences to beat journalism – on the organization of newsrooms by different “beats” centering on different topic expertise. According to previous studies on the topic, generalist journalism has been making something of a comeback, as newsrooms cannot afford to have specialist journalists.
The division between generalist journalists and beat journalists can be envisioned either as a dualistic relationship or a continuum. The authors compare the relationship to Sir Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor of hedgehogs (beat journalists), who know one thing very well, and foxes (generalist journalists), who know a little about many things.
Another division that the study focused on was the division between in-house journalists and freelancers. Like generalist journalists compared to beat journalists, freelancers were expected to be increasing in number due to the precarious economic situations newsrooms face.
The survey in 2013 contacted 4913 journalists and had 1640 respondents. The survey in 2018 contacted 5307 journalists and had 1302 respondents. Some respondents from the representative samples were disincluded on the basis of unemployment as a current status etc. The surveys consisted of three parts: socio-demographics, professional praxis, and opinions.
Between the surveys, the proportion of beat journalists had remained the same within statistical margin of error (67,2 % vs. 66,3 %). However, beat journalists in 2018 had more beats to cover in 2018. This was particularly clear in magazines: in 2013, 64,3 % had just one beat to cover while in 2018 the portion was 50,8 %.
When it comes to freelancers, their number had increased significantly from 2013 to 2018 (17,9 % vs 25,4 %). The increased proportions were particularly seen in print and television journalism.
The proportions increased both among generalists and beat journalists. The beats most likely to have freelancers were lifestyle and culture, while political beat had the fewest freelancers.
A significant finding was that between the surveys, 29,6 % of the freelancers only had one client. This suggests that for many freelancers, the position was not one chosen willingly but rather imposed on them by the employers as a cost-saving measure.
In summary, the proportion of Belgian beat journalists had not decreased significantly contrary to the assumptions of previous studies. However, journalists are more likely to be expected to cover multiple beats. When it comes to freelancers, the study finds support for Belgian journalism labor associations concern over lack of job security that comes with ‘bogus self-employment’, as freelancers working only for one employer are likely to have been pushed to the position.
The study “From One Division of Labor to the Other: The Relation between Beat Reporting, Freelancing, and Journalistic Autonomy” by Sarah van Leuven, Bart Vanhaelewyn and Karin Raeymaeckers is in Journalism Practice. (free abstract).
Picture: Work day by Adolfo Félix