In journalism, a stringer is a freelance journalist, photographer, or videographer who contributes reports, photos, or videos to a news organization on an ongoing basis but is paid individually for each piece of published or broadcast work.
As freelancers, stringers do not receive a regular salary and the amount and type of work is typically voluntary. However, stringers often have an ongoing relationship with one or more news organizations, to which they provide content on particular topics or locations when the opportunities arise.
The term is typically confined to news industry jargon. In print or in broadcast terms, stringers are sometimes referred to as correspondents or contributors; at other times, they may not receive any public recognition for the work they have contributed.
A reporter or photographer can "string" for a news organization in a number of different capacities and with varying degrees of regularity, so that the relationship between the organization and the stringer is typically very loose. When it is difficult for a staff reporter or photographer to reach a location quickly for breaking news stories, larger news organizations often rely on local stringers to provide rapid scene descriptions, quotations or photos. In this capacity, stringers are used heavily by most television news organizations and some print publications for video footage, photos, and interviews.
The etymology of the word is uncertain. Newspapers once paid stringers per inch of printed text they generated. The theory given in the Oxford English Dictionary is that a stringer is a person who strings words together, while others use the term because the reporter is "strung along" by a news organization, or kept in a constant state of uncertainty. Another possibility is that, using a sports analogy, the freelance journalist is seen as a "second string", whereas the staff journalist positions are more of the "first string". (This in turn comes from music, where the first string is the premiere violin in the orchestra, the second string is the next most talented player and so on.)
Another possible derivation of the term "stringer": journalists at newspapers and television news stations sometimes use the expression "I'm still gathering string" to refer to the initial stage of reporting or fact-finding. Put another way, "Still gathering string" is newsroom jargon for the process of "looking for something that you can't yet name." The "string" being "the stuff that accumulates in a journalist's pocket." "String" may be used by journalists or researchers to describe a piece of information discovered in the process of looking for something else or "the anomaly that jumps out at you" while conducting research. The significance, however, of this serendipitous discovery has yet to be determined.
Another derivation dates back to the time when part-time reporters were paid for each column inch of copy the newspaper printed. An explanation once common in newsrooms was that editors kept strings (knotted with one knot per inch) at their desks as a flexible alternative to rulers. According to a variant version "At the end of the week/month, they [writers] would measure the space their writing occupied in the newspaper by a length of string. They'd turn in the piece of string, and would be paid according to how long the string was."