Editors reveal their #badfreelancer stories

by Rachel Smith
24 August 2018

Last week we put a call-out to share the biggest insults you’d had as a freelancer, and the post we wrote up from the responses was hilarious and shocking in equal measure. This week, we approached the other side – editors and employers – to share their #badfreelancer stories. And it’s also a must-read… for guidance on what NOT to do and to ensure your freelance career continues to thrive!

Brace yourself, here we go…

“When I was dep ed at a high-profile travel and food publication, we had a set of amazing images of a ski destination in North America but no story to go with them. Lo and behold, there’s a famil going there. I tee it up with the PR that the journo we send will be able to visit a few of the places we have images of in the town so the story will match up. All good. ‘Why don’t you see if X can do the story?’ the ed says to me. I get in touch with him, explain what we need and give him the dates, including a reasonably tight deadline (ie a week after the trip gets back). ‘Can I take my new girlfriend?’ he asks. ‘No,’ I respond, ‘it’s a famil and that would be inappropriate.’ Off he goes, does the trip, deadline comes and goes, no story. I chase him and chase him and, finally, about 10 days after the deadline the story comes in, twice as long as the word count I’ve commissioned. No apology for the tardiness or not being able to write to length. We’re right on deadline so I spend all night cutting the story so we can get off to print. If only the story ended there. But it doesn’t. A couple of months later the PR calls me and apologetically says she has to tell me something that has been troubling her. Said freelancer took his girlfriend along. She’d arrived a day early and so somehow, knowing that the PR would surely also be there a day early, tells the hotel staff she’s on the famil and wants to check into the PR’s room. The PR arrives on a late flight to find a stranger asleep in her room. When she works out who it is, she graciously lets this woman stay in her room. The next day when the journalists arrive on their flight, she takes him aside and says, ‘I told you she wasn’t allowed to come, what’s she doing here?’ (Of course, I’d said no but he went behind my back and asked her anyway.) He acted as if she was being an absolute bitch then did what he liked for the week and expected all the expenses to be paid for his girlfriend. It caused massive tension in the group and although anonymous PR told me it all turned out OK and the others had a good week, she thought I should know. I have never been so mortified in my entire working life. Needless to say, that guy never worked for me or anyone I knew ever again and, in fact, now doesn’t even work as a writer any more. Are we surprised? Being an #$%^hole doesn’t make for a great relationships with editors.”

“On two occasions when I’ve been editing magazines I had freelancers just not submit commissioned work and then disappear off the face of the earth. One later got in touch to say she couldn’t send her story because she didn’t have a reliable internet connection (but it was obviously reliable enough for her to email me and tell me it wasn’t reliable). The other one just never replied to any emails or phone messages. The total lack of professionalism still makes me mad to this day!”

“I received a travel story from a writer – one I’d never used before – that was OK, but needed a bit of work. While I was fact checking, I discovered some interesting information that I thought gave the reader a bit more insight, so added a short paragraph. The proof was sent back to the writer for checking and captions, and nothing was said about the small addition. All good. Imagine my surprise then when another story about the same topic appeared in another publication – there was a different angle and this person’s a freelancer so they’ve got to sell multiple stories about a destination to cover costs, and I have no issue with that – but with the short paragraph I’d added attributed as a direct quote to a person in the story. For a brief moment, I wanted to contact the editor of that publication and let them know, but ultimately decided putting them on my blacklist was the way to go.”

“I once commissioned a big name freelancer to write a fashion-orientated story (not the core subject for the mag) for me, which she accepted. I had never used this freelancer before, but I had been a fan of her work. When it was a day late I emailed her to ask about progress and she told me that she couldn’t do it after all. I then had a huge hole in the magazine and I had to scramble around to find a replacement, who had to turn it around super-quick. Needless to say, I never used her again, but I did use the one who got me out of a hole lots more.”

“I had someone, who was continuously unreliable and inconsistent in their quality of work, ask me for a reference. Reluctantly, I did the best I could without lying. Instead of getting a ‘thank you’, I got ripped into for the useless reference I gave. Safe to say I withdrew it and will rarely give them out now.”

“I was associate ed on a lifestyle mag a few years ago and one story sticks in my mind. I had a freelancer who was doing the cover story. It was the scoop of the century. She was so late filing she was literally reading off her notepad and making me type it into the Indesign layout because the presses were waiting for the mag. The whole mag stopped printing because of her fuck-up. So stressful and cost us a fortune.  The only reason I didn’t get fired is because she was a contact that had been forced on me by the publisher. I refused to work with her again.”

“I’ve been on the receiving end of a serial ghoster who pitched my mag a few ideas. We commissioned two of them, she confirmed then we never heard from her again despite lots of chasing, including on her social media accounts. She also did it to a much more high-profile publication than us – a weekly and the deadline had passed. She ignored repeated emails, tweets and Facebook messages from the poor editor who had a hole in her section. Then the freelancer tweets that she’s by the pool in some far-flung locale and feels a bit guilty because she’s on deadline. Editor sees this and tweets back something along the lines of ‘Yes, that would be my deadline. Consider your commission cancelled and don’t ever contact me again.’ So, she was up to two publications she can no longer work for, then she publicly dissed another high-profile editor on a Facebook group when that editor didn’t answer an email within 15 minutes. And we’re up to three publications. I honestly don’t know how some of this people make a living.”

“I had a freelancer approach me at the magazine I was editor of, and very pushily tried to tell me she should be hired as our travel editor because she had all this experience and would be great at it. I declined as we had our travel pages in hand. Next thing I hear is she has gone over my head and approached the publisher to ask for the job! He was like, ‘Who is this person and why is she contacting me?’ Rule of thumb: maybe if you hear no, don’t go to that person’s boss…”

“One writer I’d commissioned weeks before to write a cover story for a magazine contacted me the evening before the deadline to say he was too hung over from an event the night before to write the story and would not be able to write it after all. He had had two weeks’ notice to write the story and when first contacted, excitedly accepted the story. We were right on deadline and so an extension was not possible. Even though I was at the same work function as the writer, and a little hungover myself, I had to take over the story and pull an all-nighter to get it done. Never used him again.”

“One freelancer is on mine and a friend’s very long black list because he answered a TravMedia call-out from her on a specific destination, filed it and it turns out he’d never been there so the story was littered with errors – most of which the sub caught but unfortunately one got through, a specific restaurant was outraged and that’s how she found out he’d never actually gone there.”

“We had a guest editor from overseas and all (okay, most) of her selected contributors were super snooty. I followed up with one whose copy was days overdue and she replied breezily, ‘It will be with you next week.’ No apology, no request for extension, no mention of the deadline that had gone whizzing past… I was pretty floored.”

“I was working on a design magazine a few years ago and gave a story to a young freelancer who was a great writer, but had done an English degree and was not a journalism grad. I expected the story might have some holes and it did, so I requested certain changes and he said he didn’t know how to find out the info and it was all a bit hard and he had other stories to move onto, if we didn’t mind. These changes were pretty basic and it was his story so I did mind quite a bit, but all I could do was offer a kill fee, finish it in-house and never use that person again.”

“I advised someone younger than me on various things as a friend, who then became a freelancer. He knew very well who one of my clients was, but messaged them on Facebook to tell them what he thought of their site, social media etc and how he could do better than whoever was currently doing it – he knew it was me. The client’s content was produced at a particular standard due to their budget constraints, so outputs were designed accordingly. Little did he know that the message would come to me as one of the page managers as well as the rest of the team – who saw that we were friends on Facebook so asked me about him. That was a year or more ago. More recently he has tried again by telling them a video they posted was bad quality, that they were ‘damaging their brand’ (they are a global company with hundreds of properties and this work is for one local property) and he could do better. Rookie mistake – slag off the client in an attempt to get work from them.”

“A new freelancer offered to do some work, and so I sent him a story about a new project that looked set to run for at least six months and would require regular stories. He wrote up the first two – both great stories that were right on target, but when I commissioned him to do the third, responded that he was now ‘over writing about that project’ and asked what else I could offer him!”

“My favourite was getting pitches for stories that had been in issues in the 12 months prior – not checking the product of who you’re pitching to is a common mistake and pretty much guarantees you won’t get commissioned.”

“This writer had a run of bad luck and came to me for some coaching on how to get her freelancing career on track. Wanting to help out, I also offered her a story for one of my magazines, and the story she sent through was terrific. Her reaction to the printed story was anything but terrific. She rang to state she didn’t like the layout, the headline font, the captions or the way the pics were used. She also was not happy with the way her story had been cut to fit. When I later offered some feedback on her behaviour at our next coaching session, she cut me off saying, “I was actually a little offended I didn’t get layout sign off in the first place.” I then understood why her ‘bad luck’ seemed to go with her from client to client.”

“I was working as a PR on a famil and waiting for the writers to meet me at the airport. One of the freelance writers, instead of coming herself, sent her teenage son along instead, like it was a free holiday or something. ON A FIVE DAY FAMIL.”

Got a story to add? Feel free to comment below, or on social media with the #badfreelancer hashtag!

Rachel Smith

3 responses on "Editors reveal their #badfreelancer stories"

  1. Petra O'Neill says:

    To add to this series – thank you it is very insightful – perhaps you could also ask freelancers and editors about their experiences with their chosen subject letting them down – the person who had agreed to be interviewed for a profile piece going cold, the person who asked you to come on that trip, with you then booking flights and accommodation only to then find they’ve changed their mind, to the person trying to influence you on how you write your story by involving a host of people you didn’t ask to meet. All hard to deal with.

  2. Elen Turner says:

    I was pitched a travel piece recently about a trek the writer had been on, but she couldn’t remember the names of the places she went… um…

  3. Amanda says:

    I’ve been on famils where a PR has taken her daughter as the “photographer”. This was a 10 day international famil. Daughter (under 16) probably snapped a few things on her phone but that’s about it. Articles were never published on the person’s return either. Another famil, a freelance journalist this time, embarrasingly unprofessional to the hosts, PR and other on famil seriously embarrassed, but journalist keeps getting asked to do more work. Don’t understand this one. Famils where people are constantly late and have all other participants waiting for them because they think their content and their time is more important.

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