*Article Courtesty of the European Journalism Centre
Are you fed up with the tedious working hours in your cubicle? And don’t you have to admit that the news editor is a walking nagger whom you cannot stand? Would you rather be your own boss? If so, freelancing is obviously the way to go.
Being a freelance journalist in Lithuania, however, i.e. handling your time the way you want and taking on gigs you desire, might turn out to be quite a different experience from what it means in a Western European country or the U.S.
“Sometimes I have the impression that Lithuania is the only country where throngs of pensioners and kindergarten teachers resort to freelancing in a desperate attempt to add some extra income to their low pensions and salaries,” says Paulius Tumosa, Programme Director of European Radio, a radio station in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Tumosa has been trying hard to establish himself as a freelancer in print media, but has now given up the fight.
“It just does not make sense to be a freelancer in Lithuania,” he says. “The sheer majority of newspapers opt for relying on their in-house journalists, whom they pay a salary of LTL 1000 litas (EUR 289 euros), rather than commissioning stories from freelancers.”
In the crisis years 2008-2009, when most financially-hit outlets axed their journalists, Tumosa had hoped that the demand for freelancers would increase. This, however, did not happen.
“On the contrary, editorial offices, after cutting their full-time journalists’ salaries nearly to the minimum wage, let go of their freelancers, and had all the writing done by their in-house staff,” Tumosa explains.
At the peak of his freelance career, the 24-year-old journalist was not able to work for more than three to four print outlets at a time.
“One website which was initially interested in publishing my stories ended up deciding that it did not need any external help in filling up its content. The editors did not even explain to me whether there was something wrong with my stories. They simply let me go,” Tumosa says.
He declined to mention the name of the news site, fearing “adverse consequences in the future.”
Another outlet, a regional newspaper in the industrial town of Taurage in the southwest of the country, kept commissioning stories from him for a while, paying LTL 100 (EUR 28) per a piece. With the crisis worsening, however, his honorary was slashed more than twice, down to LTL 40 (EUR 11) per a piece.
“My self-esteem would not allow me to continue working for such poor pay. I just quit writing. Sadly, a grocery shop assistant earns more than most Lithuanian journalists, especially in the province,” says Tumosa, who graduated from Vilnius University’s Institute of Journalism.
He believes the editors of the provincial newspaper would only commission stories that its in-house reporters did not wish to take on.
“I felt that some journalists would avoid certain topics for fear of possible reprisals from the people quoted in their stories, who often tended to be the local big shots,” Tumosa said. He also contributed as a freelancer for the major daily Lietuvos Rytas for a while, until he was waived.
“We see the future of our newspaper with our in-house full-time journalists,” one of the editors told him. “We are not interested in freelancers’ stories, unless somebody comes up with some explosive stuff.”
Tumosa says he is not aware of any print media freelancer who would be able to make ends meet by freelancing only.
“I have heard that the New York Times pays USD 1000 for a feature piece. Sure, most print media outlets in Western Europe pay less, but none as little as in Lithuania, where you receive USD 20 or less for a feature story. How many of them do you need to get published if you want to make a living as a freelancer?” Tumosa asks.
“The Lithuanian media market is too small,” he says. “It relies exclusively on full-timers. In addition, there is no freelancing tradition.”
Ramune Ramanauskiene, editor and director of the Taurages Zinios, a weekly newspaper in Taurage, says she works with several freelance journalists.
“One freelancer steadily contributes to our sport section,” Ramanauskiene says. “I commission some stories from him and he proposes his own ideas as well. I like his style and work ethics. I don’t know, however, if he fits the description of a Western European freelance journalist, as we, unfortunately, can only offer him a very symbolic low fee. I believe freelance assignments should be met with a certain competitiveness in payment, an aspect which is missing in Lithuania.”
In Ramanauskiene’s view, freelancing in Lithuania is for the most part not as much about a certain lifestyle and a career choice as it is about earning some extra money.
“There is no way a freelance journalist could make a living from freelance writing in the province, as all newspapers rely on their in-house staff,” she says.
According to Ramanauskiene, provincial editors rely mostly on retired educated people and low-paid professionals, such kindergarten teachers, to fill up the space in their newspapers. “I would rather call them contributors than freelancers,” she says.
“I am not sure whether they can be called freelancers, because not only is there a lack of competitive compensation, but the other aspects of what I cannot imagine freelancing without – professionalism and quality – are also missing. As amateur contributors, they, as a rule, lack the in-depth skills that a professional freelance journalist, I assume, must have,” Ramanauskiene argues.
She points out that, traditionally, journalists in Lithuania, especially in the regions, feel more secure when they are “attached” to their editorial offices.
“They want to go and work at their editorial offices every day and occupy their desks the way their parents and grandparents did,” Ramanauskiene explains. “True freelancers, I assume, enjoy their independence. It is the core of the business. In Lithuania, most contributors usually write for one newspaper. I believe that old-fashioned editors would not allow them to write for other newspapers.” She says that she is aware of successful freelancers working for the most popular television programmes. “As far as I know, however, they come from other fields of life, such as politics, economics and show business. Only very few certified journalists work as freelancers,” says Ramanauskiene.
Dainius Radzevicius, chairman of Lithuania’s Journalist Union, says there are dozens of people working for honoraria in the Lithuanian media.“Only very few have established their careers as freelancers. Most write for small honoraria to somewhat increase their wages. I would not even call them freelancers. The salary is the line that separates Lithuanian from Western European freelancers,” Radzevicius emphasised.
Aronas Bagdonas, a former freelance journalist in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, says he put an end to his freelance activities because he was unable to make ends meet. “I was lucky to find a full-time job as a translator,” Bagdonas reveals.
Genoveita Burneikiene, a former lecturer at Vilnius University’s Institute of Journalism, says that freelance journalists are still relatively “a new thing” in the national media landscape. “Most editorial offices, particularly in the province, are still dominated by senior editors reminiscent of the Soviet era, who organise their newsrooms the way they did twenty years ago,” Burneikiene says. “Many of them are afraid that skilled freelance journalists might overshadow their in-house staff, and even themselves,” she adds. “That is the essential difference with Western news outlets, who build their reputation on the prominence of their journalists, usually freelancers.”
*Original article published by Linus Jegelevicius and the European Journalism Centre, September 9, 2011.