Newsrooms freeze out freelancers moonlighting for brands

For the freelance journalist, the siren call of “brand journalism” is tough to resist. It’s a growth industry, and one that pays pretty well at a time when the $2-a-word magazine piece is hard to find.

But such brand work carries a cost: Many newsrooms won’t permit writers on the editorial payroll to write sponsored content for their sales counterparts, and vice versa. Gawker and The Wall Street Journal, for instance, won’t permit writers on the editorial payroll to write sponsored content. Condé Nast’s Wired draws a clearer line in the sand in using freelancers for its Amplifi native ad division. Freelancers can’t have contributed to the magazine in the past year and a half, vp, publisher Howard Mittman said.

Even a sponsored-content booster like Forbes treats brand writers with kid gloves. It too has a hands-off policy when it comes to hiring writers to supplement brands’ writing efforts.

“We have very strict guidelines. You cannot touch the editorial product if you’re working on BrandVoice,” said Forbes chief revenue officer Mark Howard. ”It’s one side or another. In the interest of making sure there’s no muddy waters, we don’t source through the newsroom.”

At digital native Quartz, said founding editor and co-president Kevin Delaney, “we generally wouldn’t use a freelancer who had written native ads for Quartz to write news coverage.” Quartz wants to make sure the journalists it hires are free of conflicts of interest and that readers aren’t confused about what’s editorial and what’s advertising. He added that there could be exceptions, “like a case where a significant amount of time had passed from the native ad work.”

Positions like these frustrate Stephanie Losee, a former journalist who is now managing editor of Dell Global Communications, trying to elevate the image of native advertising by paying top writers to blog for Dell. She said she can’t do that when publisher policies discourage journalists from moonlighting for the publication’s business side.

“In these early days, of course I see why any publication embarking on a native advertising platform would want to take care in keeping their newsroom and freelance staff separate,” she said. But, she added, “I would like to invite the strongest freelancers on my pages and not have any consequences for the main paper if they write for me.”

Sales-side execs like Howard contend that once a freelancer’s BrandVoice commitment ends, the writer is free to knock on the door of the newsroom. “I don’t think there’s any branded content purgatory they’d be put through,” he said. Similarly, freelancers would in general be free to pitch and accept assignments from Gawker once they stop working for the business side, said Megan Gilbert, content director of Studio@Gawker.

But privately, others say once a freelancer writes for the business side, they’ll be considered damaged goods by the edit side. For freelancers considering doing branded content work, they have to decide if that’s a risk worth taking.