Freelancers’ Dues: Getting Paid in the Digital Age
by Nicole S. Cohen
Back in October, freelance journalist Scott Carney launched Word Rates, a website for freelance journalists to pool information about publications’ pay rates, editors, and contracts (the site claims it’s like Yelp! for journalists). Carney, who has long been critical of the low fees magazines pay writers, told Contently that “… people really need to understand that writers’ work is valuable, and that fighting for the value of your work is not against your interests.” The site, established via a Kickstarter campaign, has a feature called PitchLab, which enables freelancers access to mentors to hone their pitches and work toward publication—for the best rates and fees, of course.
Word Rates is the latest effort by freelance journalists and writers to collectively share information in a bid to gain some power in their fragmented, highly individualized negotiations with publishers over how much they will be paid and terms of copyright and contracts. Who Pays Writers?, “an anonymous, crowdsourced list of which publications pay freelance writers, and how much,” began life in 2012 as a tumblr, after freelancer Manjula Martin had another discussion with friends about why writers don’t know how much other writers are paid. She realized that secrecy about rates only benefits those who sign the cheques. Who Pays Writers? offers first-hand reports of what publications pay: $250 for a personal essay, $143 for an opinion piece, $1 per word for an essay (which includes giving up all copyrights), for example. While these online projects give writers some leverage in negotiations with editors, more importantly, they make visible the often invisible labour of writing, particularly the ongoing devaluing of the work of writing. Quick math suggests how many hundreds of thousands of words one would have to write per year to make a decent living in online journalism.
The challenges of earning a living as a freelancer, particularly for online media outlets, have come to the forefront in recent years thanks to freelancers increasingly speaking out about their conditions. Although more people than ever are working as freelancers, it remains difficult for most to earn decent incomes from journalism alone. Freelancers work without the security of regular paycheques, benefits, and labour protections. They work long hours, rarely take time off (working through vacations has become a perverse point of pride) and perpetually chase late payments. Many of the challenges freelancers face stem from the very low rates of pay publishers offer (per word or per article) that often aren’t negotiable. Publishers offer freelancers restrictive contracts that demand escalating rights for minimal compensation, preventing writer from reselling works in different markets, which has often made up for such low rates paid per article.
Legally classified as independent contractors, freelancers are unable to unionize and collectively bargain under existing North American labour laws. And so in lieu of traditional organizing, freelancers have in recent years engaged in visibility projects online, or advocacy campaigns and collective efforts to improve freelancers’ conditions, of which Word Rates and Who Pays Writers? are examples. Another visibility project is Pay Me Please, which names-and-shames media companies into paying writers money owed. The site consists of a running list of missing payments, including the media outlet (from small websites and magazines to large media organizations like the Associated Press, the CBC, and Fox news); money owed (from tens to thousands of dollars), what the work was for, and the number of days a payment is overdue. Anyone can add a missing payment, and most entries include the writer’s name. Freelance journalist Iona Craig launched the site after being owed payment by various BBC outlets. She says that many payments are made after being listed on the site—sometimes just the threat of being listed is enough to get a company to pay up.
Other visibility projects offer collective moral support for refusing low-paid gigs. Freelancers use the popular Twitter hashtag #dontworkforfree to publicize and deride postings for unpaid work, to express anger at being repeatedly asked to work for free, and to encourage other cultural workers to refuse. A US-based freelancer anonymously tweets from the handle @crapwritinggigs, broadcasting snarky jabs at online freelance ads: “Hey @MapQuest, you and your $25/post rates can go back to 1994 where you belong.”
Visibility projects are cathartic, but they are also examples of what Enda Brophy, Greig de Peuter, and I (2015) call practices of counter-publicity, whereby media and cultural workers create media texts and appropriate communicative technologies as tools to publicize their labour conditions. Counter-publicity serves to undercut freelancers’ sense of individual frustration and isolation and plays a vital role in developing a collective response to labour pressures. Visibility projects are also acts of solidarity that can counter the competitiveness and individualization fostered among freelancers.
More significant, however, are freelancers’ efforts to collectively push back against publishers’ practices and engage in the difficult process of collective organizing. Recent victories include Canadian freelance writers’ campaign against magazine giant TC Media, which introduced a blanket contract in 2013 that asked freelancers to “waive their moral rights and grant TC Media full copyright across all of its brands, in all languages, on all platforms, for eternity.” The campaign was led by a coalition of organizations representing freelancers in Canada: L’association des journalistes indépendants du Québec, the Canadian Media Guild, the Canadian Freelance Union, the Canadian Writers Group, and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. That there are five organizations advocating for and representing freelancers in Canada is significant. While professional associations for Canadian writers have existed for over a hundred years, now two media trade unions are determining the most effective way to represent this constituency outside of a collective bargaining framework.
The Canadian Freelance Union, founded in 2009, is local of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union. It recently launched its first-ever freelance organizing drive and seems to be gaining momentum among young freelance media workers. The Canadian Media Guild launched a Freelance Branch and its parent union, the Communication Workers of America-Canada, runs an Association Member’s program, which offers training in skills and labour rights to emerging media workers, freelancers and interns. While relatively new experiments, these collective efforts hold great promise in enabling freelancers to access benefits, share information, receive legal counsel and fight bad contracts. Hopefully one day they will pressure publications to collectively negotiate for decent rates and contracts. To that end, it’s useful to consider the possibility that the wave of unionization underway in digital media newsrooms (workers at Gawker, Salon, Guardian US, Vice, and The Huffington Post unionized in recent months) holds promise for adding freelancers’ concerns about rates and contracts to negotiations. As media work becomes increasingly fragmented, technologically mediated, and precarious, freelance media workers are proving that the most effective way to protect their rights will be by acting together for change.
Nicole S. Cohen is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her book on freelance journalists’ labour conditions and organizing efforts is forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press.