“Hamsterization” and what it means for freelancers

Matthew Lasar, writing for Ars Technica, asks: “Has the internet ‘hamsterized’ journalism?

Coming across an article examining what the internet has done to journalism is as easy as finding LOLcats online, but this one is worth a closer read. The headline’s terminology piqued our interest, so let’s start there.

What is “hamsterization”? It’s a term the Federal Communications Commission used this week to describe the ever-widening array of tasks that journalists are expected to perform. In addition to filing stories in text form, many reporters are also adding their stories to social media sites, taking photos and making videos, producing add-on content in blog form, and recording podcasts. And, for many newspaper reporters, the days of a single daily deadline are gone.

The so-called “rolling deadline,” where a story is posted online before it is printed and updated on the site afterward, is where the “hamster” part comes in. Dean Starkman, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, first made the connection between a journalist’s perpetual content product and a pet rodent’s relentless scurrying in “The Hamster Wheel” (so it seems the FCC, more accurately, didn’t coin the term but legitimized or “bureaucratized” it (as Lasar points out).

“It’s motion for motion’s sake… volume without thought,” writes Starkman. “It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no.” The hamster-wheel effect pushes journalists to push out more stories, with less depth but with a good enough hook to bump web traffic. Starkman is worried about the stories that don’t get covered as a result: “The Hamster Wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed.”

But how does “hamsterization” impact freelancers?

The implications for non-staffers, at first glance, might seem less significant. Freelancers don’t deal directly with keeping a publication’s website traffic up or meeting content quotas. But it’s not hard to see, when it comes time to assign stories, how a trend towards “filler” content will negatively impact freelancers. Rolling deadlines are workable for staffers, who can continue to follow a story and keep a story current online with minute-by-minute updates, but typical freelance arrangements — where payment follows the publication of a “finished” story — don’t necessarily mesh with this type of storytelling.

There is also the issue of the broader range of skills expected of journalists today. For freelancers, that pool of skills and tools may have to be even wider than for staffers, since they will encounter a broader range of expectations and demands from their multiple clients. One publication might ask for a podcast to go along with a story, while another wants photos, or a social media element to the story to engage readers online. These added elements are huge draws on freelancers’ time (not just creating them, but learning the tools to create them), and we’re not sure how well freelancer contracts and compensation are reflecting this added work.

We don’t have all the answers, though, and perhaps your own experiences don’t match our predictions. What, as a freelancer, do you think about this concept of “hamsterization”? Is it affecting your work, and if so, how? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted on June 14, 2011 at 11:59 am by editor ·

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  1. Written by Don Genova, Freelance Branch President
    on June 15, 2011 at 11:10 am
    Reply · Permalink

    ‘Hamsterization’ is exactly what has happened at the CBC and we know that the trickle-down effect of this will get to freelancers, who are already being asked to provide promos to run with their pieces or tweet on their own or CBC accounts. At this point a joint committee of the Freelance Branch and CBC management are meeting on a regular basis to figure out how to value the new way in which our work is used and change our collective agreement to reflect it. But there’s no magic formula to apply to: ‘short news piece plus studio tape-and-talk plus tweet plus blog plus photos’ in a way that satisfies both parties…at this point. Suggestions are welcome!

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