Whose Journalism Is It?

Journalists work hard to report the news and tell the stories of our time. They contribute creativity, energy, passion, critical thinking, doing their best to reflect their community’s diversity and behave in an ethical fashion. I’ve heard people making comments reeking of disdain of our profession, “It’s not brain surgery.” And I want to say, “Yeah, it’s harder.”
 
These critics should try covering an eight-hour council meeting or staying on top of a fluid election and producing a story that is accurate, fair, balanced, solidly reported and written with compelling clarity. News writing, as veteran author David Von Drehle once put it, “especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated — the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure.” Given those realities, it’s no surprise the process is called “The Daily Miracle.” It’s understandable, given all this hard work, that a sense of ownership takes over.
 
Especially when a book publisher or movie producer expresses an interest in buying the rights to reproduce a photograph, a graphic, or publish a magazine or book based on the journalist’s work. Heady as it may seem, the balloon quickly pops. For that’s when journalists discover, despite all their hard work, that they hold no rights to the material.
 
Their newspaper is free to sell the public reprints of photographs or special sections, or collect materials in a book. And what do journalists get? In a word: nothing. That’s because newspaper employees are governed by what’s known as the “work for hire” rule. That means everything you produce, collect, publish from notebooks to SD memory cards, and repurpose on the Internet, belongs to the company, which retains all rights.
 
You can read about the term “work for hire” and its implications at the Web site of the United States Copyright Office. It’s not any different for freelancers, says the writer advocacy group American Society of Journalists and Authors in a 2003 position paper, “RIGHTS 101: What Writers Should Know About All-Rights.”
 
“All rights” and “work made for hire” –- these contract terms sound simple enough. But what does it really mean when writers sign contracts containing them? In most cases, work-made-for-hire and all-rights contracts are a rotten deal for writers. 
 
There have been circumstances when journalists have been given the right to use materials in other settings, such as a book. In my experience, those arrangements usually reflect the relationship between the journalist and the company. After leaving The Providence Journal on good terms, for instance, I was given permission to use stories I had written for the paper in my textbook at no charge. 
 
But if you’re wondering, as some who have asked me, who owns your journalism, the answer is simple: not you.  
 
Who should own journalism, the journalists who produce it or the companies that publish it?

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