The company offers a valuable package of services to select journalists. But most of those selected appear to be those who need help least. [Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect a recent change in LinkedIn policy.]
Editor’s note: On September 13, three days after this article was published, LinkedIn wrote to the author informing him that the company was revising the admissions policy around its LinkedIn for Journalist webinars and upgrades, effectively opening them to all journalists, staffers and freelancers alike. These changes were formally announced in the below message sent to members of the LinkedIn for Journalsist group. News-to-Table applauds the adjustments.
By Benjamin Powers
When Erika Adams heard about LinkedIn for Journalists last spring, she couldn’t wait to join the group. At the time, she was working as a staff reporter at Skift, a business to business media company, and the program’s free Premium upgrade would help her do her job. Normal prices for LinkedIn Premium range from $29 to $59 a month, with annual costs running as much as $700, and she was thrilled to have access to its functions. “LinkedIn’s advanced search and messaging are great tools for finding sources,” says Adams.
Then, in mid-May, Skift shut down the restaurant trade vertical where Adams had been working. When applications opened in June for the LinkedIn reporting webinar that journalists must complete to qualify for the free Premium upgrade, she identified herself as a freelancer. LinkedIn rejected her application.
“I received a form rejection email,” she says. “[The attached FAQ] said that ‘participation is limited to full-time and freelance journalists with top tier national, global and prominent regional publications.’ When I replied to the email weeks later, asking what happened, as suggested in the rejection email, there was no response.”
When contacted, LinkedIn declined to name what national, global and prominent regional publications qualify under its definitions.
Adams is not alone. Interviews conducted for this article suggest that LinkedIn for Journalists is siloeing the program’s benefits among those who are still on staff, get paid the most, and generally need the help the least — those working for “top tier national, global and prominent regional publications.” In an ever-shifting industry environment in which more journalists are becoming freelancers by the day, by choice or by layoffs, this will leave a growing number of people out of the loop and unable to afford a key research tool.
And in a profession built on routine rejection, a stark “No” from would-be samaritans can sting.
“Journalism is this constant grind of knocking down doors and pushing myself into rooms where I feel like I don’t belong,” says Adams. “It just amplifies doubts about myself I already fight to suppress every day to have LinkedIn assess my experience and say, ‘Nope, she doesn’t qualify for this free service that we offer to working journalists’. The whole process just left me feeling shitty.”
The 25 percent decrease in full time newsroom jobs in the last decade — 3,200 jobs have been lost so far in 2019 alone — means that more journalists than ever must pay out of pocket for basic research tools. Spokeo, PACER, and Accurint, just to name a few, cost money. Even FOIA requests can add to routine freelancing expenses. It’s not just self-employed reporters that suffer, but also the public. How many articles and research projects are abandoned because freelancers can’t afford to do research? A Project Word study found that between 2010 and 2015, freelancers had abandoned several hundred investigations due to a lack of resources.
It may not seem like access to a career-oriented social networking site is high on the list of problems facing freelance journalists and staffers at smaller publications. But for those who routinely experience an acute lack of access to research databases and other tools employed in newsrooms, such denials — one more in a long line of professional punitive barriers — have a cumulative impact that can push people out of the profession.
Jake Bittle, who has worked as an editor and reporter for four-plus years, was initially accepted to the LinkedIn group. But after applying for the required webinar, he received an email saying he was being removed from the group.
“They wrote, ‘Unfortunately, your application does not meet the criteria for membership at this time,’” says Bittle. “I didn’t see any specific prohibition against freelancers on the guidelines, but maybe I missed something. Even so, a policy against freelancers is absurd in an industry where job security is hard to come by.”
When LinkedIn launched the program six years ago, freelancers weren’t allowed at all, and the webinar setup was somewhat different, according to Leonna Spillman, who leads LinkedIn for Journalists. Previously, the company offered a webinar open to anyone and everyone who wanted to participate. Post-webinar, there was evaluation process to see if those who had attended the webinar met the criteria, according to Spillman.
That changed in June of 2019.
“In early June, we rolled out this much-needed refresh of the criteria, the content, and the overall process,” says Spillman. “It’s actually more widely available to certain groups of journalists at this point that it was in the past. Freelancers, for example, are now totally qualified to apply.”
Spillman touts that now anyone can join the group itself, and they have created content to educate journalists about the ways to use LinkedIn. These are valuable resources, certainly. But the webinar that allows access to LinkedIn Premium is still behind a selective application process.
Nor do the recent changes make public what factors LinkedIn weighs most heavily, or what publications freelancers should target for consideration, or which journalism organizations should apply. The criteria remain completely opaque.
Spillman says journalists can always appeal the decision by replying to a rejection email, and that many of the people who were rejected might well have been overlooked and should have been accepted. But that’s exactly what Adams did, as well as other freelancers I spoke with. Their appeals were met with silence.
Aileen Gallagher, a professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, says it seems foolish for LinkedIn to limit the scope of the program, because LinkedIn’s clients ultimately want to be quoted by the media. Creating unnecessary friction and throwing up obstacles to that end — by making it easier for some journalists to reach clients than others — doesn’t make much sense, she says, unless LinkedIn is trying to do something else with this group.
“It may be that they want access to a pool of particular kinds of journalists, particular journalism institutions, because they can start pitching them or making demands of them,” says Gallagher, whose research focuses on digital media.
Whatever the case, LinkedIn can, of course, choose to limit the services it offers pro bono to journalists. That’s under its purview. But limiting who has access to its free services and who doesn’t will necessarily leave a large and growing portion of the journalism community feeling shortchanged. For freelancers and smaller journalism institutions, LinkedIn’s denial of services is one more limitation in a world of unequal and diminishing resources.
“LinkedIn Premium is probably one of the most powerful source-finding tools a journalist can have,” says Bittle. “Especially in looking for former employees or information about senior executives and officials, the site is invaluable because almost everyone lists their employment information there.”
Transparency in media and its supporting institutions often feels lacking for those without access to top tier outlets and the material supports that access entails. In limiting who it deems to be worthy of its resources, LinkedIn risks adding another brick to the wall.
Benjamin Powers is a technology journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, the Pacific Standard, and others. Find him on Twitter @benjaminpowers
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: September 7, 2019
Author: Benjamin Powers
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: LinkedIn logo / Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash