Precarious employment for freelancers affects diversity of voices

Staff reporter

April 8, 2018

Nicole Cohen said precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media because it limits the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

The uncertainty and insecurity of the freelance life has major consequences including the elimination voices belonging to people who can’t afford such precarious employment and less investigative reporting, says author Nicole Cohen.

In her new book, Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age,” Cohen includes the results of an online survey of 200 Canadian freelance journalists. The results paint a bleak picture of life on the freelance front lines. The survey revealed that 55 per cent of respondents had intense workloads upward of 50 hours a week, only 20 per cent are able to set their own rates of pay, and that female freelancers are generally paid less than their male counterparts.

“For freelance journalists,” Cohen said, “precarity means not knowing where their next assignment or paycheque will come from or anxiety about uncertain futures, or social isolation, income instability, or a lack of access to mentorship or training, which can inhibit career development.”

Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, recently discussed the book, which was awarded the Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize, at a Ryerson School of Creative Industries and Global Communication Governance Lab event attended by about 100 students.

In addition to the survey, Cohen’s research explores the political, economic and cultural context in which freelancers work, and examines efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. She also argues that the ill effects of precarious work for freelancers extends beyond individual hardship: There are also implications for a just and democratic media system.

“Journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life,” Cohen said. “Because powerful corporate and political interests influence so much journalism today, freelancers are in a strategic position to produce independent, autonomous material free from corporate and government control.”

That’s the ideal. The reality, she argued, is that precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media by limiting the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. Of the survey respondents, 93 per cent identified as white: “Ensuring that journalism is accessible and sustainable to workers regardless of gender, race, or class is critical,” Cohen said.

“Those who produce journalism have great influence over what types of stories are told and from what perspectives. Our media system remains dominated by white men who can afford to pursue careers in an insecure industry that requires more to perform extended bouts of unpaid work.”

In the best of cases, Cohen said, freelancing can give journalists the time and space to produce investigative, critical and exploratory work that workers in understaffed, time-strapped newsrooms often cannot undertake. Quality reporting of this type, however, is jeopardized by low pay and irregular hours of work because freelance journalists can’t afford to do investigative journalism when they aren’t paid to do core reporting and research. The low pay and time pressures, Cohen said, force freelancers to produce quick-hit articles rather than more in-depth, quality journalism.

And the pay is low: Of the 200 survey respondents, 45 per cent of the freelancers reported earning less than $20,000 per year from writing.

“Many go into great personal debt to finance stories, as media outlets won’t pay for expenses,” Cohen said, noting that writers’ remuneration is determined by editors’ personal valuation of their work, word count or sometimes page views.

Freelancers are generally paid long after they do work and regularly chase late payment themselves. In such conditions, she said, it’s increasingly difficult for most to earn a living from journalism alone.

Cohen identified collective action by freelancers as one way to fight for improved pay and working conditions. In the United States, she noted, the National Writers Union just recently used legal proceedings to secure $80,000 in unpaid fees for 48 American freelancers who contributed to Ebony and Jet, magazines for African-American readers.

In the months leading up to the settlement with Ebony Media and the private-equity group that owns the magazines, freelancers took their complaints to social media using the Twitter hashtag #EbonyOwes to drum up public support, a strategy that alerted many to a not-so-secret reality that when companies struggle financially or when editors forget to file invoices, it is individual freelancers who pay.

“We have seen some inspiring movements and campaigns that are addressing these issues,” Cohen said, pointing to the growth of an intern labour rights movement internationally and the ongoing unionization of digital media workers over the past two years. “What these initiatives show is that the only way to address precarity and to improve writers’ rights is by acting together, not alone.”