The Freelancers Resistance
I’m so tired.
I’m tired of clients who don’t pay on time. I’m tired of clients who pay less than living wages for stories. I’m tired of clients who punish freelancers for speaking out. And I have a feeling that I’m not the only one. I’m tired of freelance labor being devalued. (Yes, it’s a real job!) I’m tired of feeling like freelancing is a choice between living one’s dream and living a stable life.
I could tell by the statements put forth by Study Hall and some members of an online network for women, trans women and gender nonbinary freelancers. The two collectives (each of which I’m a member, full disclosure) put out their statements decrying the actions of The Outline, a news site that had recently laid off six employees, including the site’s two remaining staffers for the site, two developers and an office manager, according to Adweek. The decision came after the site closed $5 million in funding.
Josh Topolsky, the Outline’s editor and founder, told Adweek that the site will continue using freelancers, which “make up the majority of our output,” and that the company will hire more editorial staff, including writers, “when the business realities will allow it.
Look, as a freelancer, I am a one-person company. So I have no clue what it’s like to run a company with employees. But I do know that the Outline is not the only publication within the past year to lay off a bunch of journalists. Our industry has shrunk so much that layoffs have become a new reality for journalists. So on some level, these outcries from freelancers are not just aimed at the Outline. They’re also a pushback against an industry that has relied on freelance contributors to skirt the costs of hiring full-time journalism professionals. And as staff jobs shrink, so are freelancer paychecks.
Most of us were taught never to bite the hand that feeds you, which is why it’s so hard for freelancers—often with precarious incomes—to speak out against their own clients. That said, it was brave for the collective of freelancers to come forward with this, as Study Hall pointed out in its statement:
“We are not happy to do this. Many of us have contributed to the site, which has a unique voice and, unlike many publications, pays both decently and promptly, rarities in this industry. But we cannot allow Josh Topolsky and his investors to rely on our loyalty to The Outline’s vision when they choose to devalue writers’ work and treat our ability to survive as externalities.”
Part of the reason why freelancers don’t rebel against their clients often is because they don’t want to damage their reputation and be ostracized by the industry. But after freelancers have united against other publications, including Ebony magazine, I have hope that freelancers can speak out against publications who mistreat creatives and get what they deserve.
Kudos to Study Hall, Danielle Corcione and the freelancers who have stuck their necks out there to make sure their counterparts are treated fairly. When I started freelancing a few years ago, freelancers were not supportive. More experienced freelancers would withhold editor contact information, for example. On some level, I get it. I charge consulting fees for freelancers who want me to work with them one-on-one. But on the other hand, I kept hearing the same questions from aspiring freelancers who saw my ability to pitch and land cool bylines. So I started this blog as a free resource for aspiring freelance journalists seeking basic information.
Thanks to U.S. antitrust laws, freelancers can’t organize the way that staffers can. But there’s a growing recognition that freelancers must do something to get some sort of protection against client exploitation. Here are a few other ways that freelancers can ban together:
Warn other freelancers about bad clients
Early on in my freelance career, I wrote for a local newspaper that had a reputation for not paying its freelancers on time. After I started writing for the publication, a mentor of mine warned me about others who hadn’t gotten paid. Of course, by then it was too late, but I appreciated her candor and knew that I had to fight harder for my pay. Eventually, I got paid and warned others about this publication, too. If you get burned by a client, let your fellow freelancers know. Warn others in freelancer networking groups and one-on-one conversations. If you find out that the company has repeatedly stiffed freelancers, calling them out on social media is an option, too.
As is true with full-time workers, many freelancers feel uncomfortable with publicly sharing their earnings. And as is true with full-time staffers, rate secrecy benefits publications, not creatives. If a fellow freelancer asks you what your rate is at a publication or your overall income, it’s okay to talk about it. In fact, by not doing so, you may be contributing to the freelancer gender wage gap. Want to share rates outside of tight-knit whisper networks? Post your rates for any publication at sites like Who Pays Writers.
Report bad clients
Thanks to the Freelancers Union, New York now has the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which holds companies accountable for not paying their freelancers for services rendered. Under this law, freelancers can contact the New York Office of Labor Standards, which will send a certified letter to the company outlining their contract breach with the freelancer. After that, freelancers can sue the company for lost wages and attorneys fees, and New York can face penalties of up to $25,000. The huge hurdles here are the attorney costs as well as media companies outside of New York who aren’t subject to this law, as The New York Daily News points out. Since many media companies are based in New York, though, at least sending in a complaint can help freelancers get paid faster.
Support creative organizations
The Freelancers Union is just one organization that provides services on behalf of independent workers. There’s also the National Writers Union, which stood up for creatives that Ebony magazine owed. I personally am working with the Chicago News Guild to build out a freelancer group, Working Journalists. If you know of efforts to support freelancers in your locale, whether it’s Study Hall in New York or your local networking group, you can volunteer or donate to those causes.
Often, working as an independent journalist feels like an uphill battle in the pursuit of fair and timely payment for our work. But these days it seems like freelancers are more open to helping each other out. As more people become freelancers, we have to stick together.
What are some other ways that freelancers can fight exploitation? Share suggestions in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.