How Freelance Labor Became the Unsung Casualty of Media Layoffs

When mass media layoffs occur, freelance workers are often left without any indication of whether or not their work will be published—or if they will even be paid for it.

When mass media layoffs occur, freelance workers are often left without any indication of whether or not their work will be published—or if they will even be paid for it. Unsplash/Elijah O'Donnell

It’s been a tough year for workers in the media industry. Though we’re less than two months removed from 2018, the first stretch of this calendar year has brought the familiar, ever-returning spectre of mass layoffs to media outlets in a merciless fashion. Reports estimate that since the year began, more than 2,000 media workers have lost their jobs in a “landslide” of layoffs. Columbia Journalism Review noted that while industry layoffs are a mainstay in the digital media era, the speed and depth of the current cuts appear to be increasingly severe.

But while the widely-reported job loss figures are admittedly staggering, they don’t account for the freelance work lost in the bloodshed. This is a metric obscured by both freelance workers’ lack of visibility in their workplaces and the station at which they operate—freelancers with media companies don’t enjoy benefits, insurance or severance pay like their staffed-up coworkers do. Even though freelancers account for a growing portion of the American workforce—a 2017 study found that 36 percent of the country’s workers are freelance, representing a 30 percent increase over the previous year—they remain an underrepresented group of media workers. In the layoff process, freelancers are at best an afterthought to the companies that employ them.

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And while layoffs are detrimental to all media workers, given freelancers’ especially precarious and disadvantaged situations, it’s important to examine how media layoffs are shaping—and enforcing—the nature of freelance labor.

The most immediate and obvious domino effect of layoffs extends beyond the immediate staff cuts to freelancers working below laid-off individuals. The guerilla-like nature of most layoffs means that workers, including editors, aren’t given any advance notice, leaving their assignments to be transferred to their remaining coworkers. But a number of current and former editors explained that there are few (if any) plans in place to deal with outstanding work. This unfortunately includes freelance workers, who are often left without any indication of whether or not their work will be published—or if they will even be paid for it.

“It has a direct negative effect on these freelancers that these places depend on,” said Brandon Soderberg of the layoffs. Soderberg served as editor in chief of Baltimore City Paper before it was shut down shortly after staff voted to unionize in 2017. “The editor gets fired or laid off, and the freelancers suffer. They’re all sent scattering around.” He explained that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: “They’re never going to replace that editor, so they’re going to use more freelancers to fill in that labor—the same freelancers that they’re screwing over.”

“A place like City Paper, we could only really exist with freelancers,” he added.

Kim Kelly worked as an editor with Noisey, VICE Media’s music vertical, for almost five years. Kelly, a freelancer and labor columnist with Teen Vogue, was laid off in late January as part of a 10 percent cut across all VICE staff; and without plans in place, her freelancers were redirected to other editors at VICE. Kelly did the work of alerting them to this arrangement—after she had been laid off. “It took me like 10 minutes to do, and I know people appreciated it,” she said. “We’re all in this together, and the fact that I was in a position of power relative to the freelancers I was working with means that I owed it to them to make things right. The last thing people needed was to unexpectedly lose income and a byline because some corporate monsters decided to get cute.”

Freelance writer Sarah MacDonald was an associate editor with Noisey Canada for almost two years before being laid off in 2017. She recalls a similar process of handing off her freelance commissions to another editor, and like Kelly, she reached out to her freelancers in the following days to ensure they were cared for. “My freelancers were made a priority after I left because I made them a priority to people who would listen to me,” she explained.

The work done by MacDonald and Kelly to look after their freelancers is commendable, but the fact that it was necessary points to a glaring oversight in the media sphere: when layoffs happen, no protocols are in place to ensure freelancers are compensated, so laid-off employees have to continue working to make arrangements. Kelly says that needs to change. “As a harm reduction tactic, it’s the least [companies] can do after disrupting their own workers’ livelihoods,” she said. “Freelancers shouldn’t be left hanging, too.”

These ad-hoc arrangements present complications of their own. The remaining editors are left with the extra work of tending to a group of freelancers they might not know, which often includes the mundane clerical work of handling their invoices. This strains editors who are already overworked, and as freelance writer Luke O’Neil explained, being handed off to a new contact can lead to poor results for both parties. “A lot of the time, you go to a place because you like the editor and you want to work with them, so to have the rug pulled out from under you can be stressful,” explained O’Neil, who in addition to writing for Observer has reported extensively on abuses of freelance labor via his newsletter Welcome to Hell World.

This hand-off is a best-case scenario, though. In the post-layoff shuffle, freelancers report having their stories pushed back for months—if they’re published at all. “It’s not uncommon at all for a freelancer who’s had a story in the works for a couple months to just be shit out of luck when their advocate is gone and the next editor isn’t too enthusiastic about the story,” said O’Neil. On one particular occasion, he waited “months and months” for a story to be published after layoffs hit a magazine for which he was on assignment. Eventually, he decided to pitch the story elsewhere, but that dead space represents a months-longer wait for payment. If a story has a timely peg, it’s even less likely it will be revived. “That sort of thing isn’t rare, and I think it’s probably getting worse as staffs are being cut,” O’Neil continued. “That’s only going to get worse as editors become more overworked, and there are fewer people on staff to help them with their workload.”

Jeff Weiss, founder of Passion of the Weiss and co-editor in chief of the newly-minted Los Angeles publication The LAnd, calls layoffs and the ensuing chaos “the only constant” of working in journalism. “As a freelancer, that’s one of the worst parts of the terrain,” he said. Weiss was working as a columnist for the now-deceased LA Weekly when the left-leaning paper was bought and gutted by a group of Republican-leaning businessmen. “There was certainly no plan of succession or continuity. Every editor got fired.” Weiss said that his work has been jeopardized as a result of editors being laid off on countless occasions.

These scenarios enforce poor working conditions for freelancers by creating an environment where resources for them (like editorial contacts and freelance budgets) are cut—while also pushing more media workers into these murky waters. “Layoffs in this industry only further compound most of the general issues facing contemporary journalism,” said freelance writer David Turner. “There are more demands being made of freelancers, and of media workers writ large.”

“I think we’re experiencing a sustained effort on the part of media companies and management to systematically and continually devalue all work within the industry,” said Haley Mlotek, a freelance writer. She notes that the negligent treatment of freelancers creates unnecessary competition between media workers, “as though freelancing is the result of layoffs, or staff jobs are the reward for escaping freelance, neither of which is true. The interests between staffers and freelancers are entirely aligned: we want the resources necessary to do our best work, and an industry that respects all workers equally.”

The conditions that contribute to these quiet labor abuses seem to be proliferating. “I have a feeling it’s going to be happening more and more,” said Tommy Craggs of the layoffs and resultant fallout. Craggs, who has worked as an editor for Deadspin, Slate, Huffington Post and more, says he’s noticed an upward trend in freelance labor in media over the past 15 years due to its flexibility and affordability.

Whereas bringing on a salaried staff member with benefits and insurance costs tens of thousands of dollars, freelance labor is relatively cost-effective. Craggs noted that for multinational media brands, freelance payments are “a rounding error”—which makes the trouble of procuring these payments even more tiresome. Kelly agrees: “Those who hold the purse strings at [certain] publications know that, if they don’t want to bother paying for health insurance and salaries and the like, they’ll always be able to find someone (probably young and from a privileged background who can afford to write for pennies) to churn out content for cheaper.”

Like many others, Craggs thinks that publications have a responsibility to implement plans for treating freelancers fairly when they’re affected by layoffs. “The burden should fall on [human resources] to scoop up whatever stuff was left undone,” he suggested. “It’s insane to even say out loud that it’s their responsibility, but why shouldn’t it be their responsibility?”

These to-the-bone layoffs are occurring alongside a wave of unionization in staff rooms across the media industry, which has freelancers and their proponents thinking about how they can gain similar protections. Conversations about freelance labor conditions have cropped up more frequently as the pool of freelance workers grows and stories of freelance labor abuse spread.

In recent years, freelance workers have celebrated victories like the Freelance Isn’t Free Act that became law in New York City in 2017. The bill guarantees contracts for freelance engagements over $800 and mandates payment within 30 days, while providing freelancers with avenues to lodge complaints against employers that disregard these rules.

Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, shows a sign during a town hall meeting at the Summit on Worker Voice at the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 2015.

Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, shows a sign during a town hall meeting at the Summit on Worker Voice at the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 2015. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

David Hill, a freelance writer and first vice president with the National Writers’ Union, was part of the campaign that resulted in the bill, but he says a bigger issue is letting freelancers know it exists. “I’m continually shocked at how few freelancers know about it,” he said. Part of this is attributable to the isolated nature of freelancing. “The fact that we work by ourselves, for ourselves, means that we don’t have that much of a community,” Hill continued.

For many freelance workers, cultivating that sense of community is a critical first step. Turner explained that freelance workers have to view other freelancers as colleagues rather than competition in a race to a byline. “They have the same common interest as you, which is to get paid, to get paid well, to get paid on time, and to be able to establish some form of decent working conditions. There’s this giant pool of freelancers that are sitting out there. What can we do to try to help them?”

This community-minded approach, coupled with tangible tactical gains like the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, represents an almost radical shift in the contemporary freelance labor imagination—something Soderberg and Weiss feel is running at a deficit. “I think sometimes journalism suffers from a lack of imagination about what a union can do,” said Soderberg. “We all see it as a way to help us out when we’re fucked, money-wise, but it should really be arguing for a lot of smaller things as well. Before they were all cut off at the knees by this horrible capitalist system, they were able to argue for a lot of big and small things.” Weiss raises the stakes: “Journalists are going to have to reimagine what the landscape of journalism looks like, because if they don’t do it, it’s going to be done for them by anonymous executives in corporate suites.”

O’Neil, too, feels a sea change from when he began freelancing 15 years ago. “We’re having these conversations on a big scale for what feels like the first time,” he said. He points to Study Hall, a Patreon-powered collective of freelancers sharing resources, information and contacts, as a positive iteration of this movement. “While it might not be a formal union, people are talking about [their] rates, about outlets that treat writers poorly… It becomes a sort of ad-hoc union.”

The work of reimagining this landscape has already begun. Weiss and Soderberg both spearheaded successful campaigns to establish new, grassroots alternative weekly papers in their cities (Soderberg’s community-facing Baltimore Beat aims to return this March), and elsewhere similar shifts are taking shape. Anna Codrea-Rado, a British freelance journalist and former news editor with VICE property Thump, began the #FairPayForFreelancers campaign with an open letter addressed to the country’s media outlets. Initially posted on February 5, it quickly garnered support across the United Kingdom, and now counts over 900 signatures from freelance writers across the country. The campaign advocates for three objectives: ending the practice of ‘payment on publication,’ enforcement of the country’s late payment fees, and updates on slow payment systems.

“I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable in those three asks,” said Codrea-Rado, relating her experiences with content marketing companies that pay half a freelancer’s fee upon submission of a draft and the rest once revisions are complete. “They’re all quite basic levels of treatment. It shouldn’t be the case that you can’t do your job as a journalist because of something as frustrating and bureaucratic as not being paid on time.”

These awkward conditions drove The Hard Times founder Matt Saincome to develop OutVoice, an alternative to sluggish invoicing and payment systems. OutVoice is integrated with content management systems, so that the button to publish an article also triggers payment to the writer. “I’ve always felt as a freelancer that there were some people who make their systems so bad that the point was to convince people not to invoice,” he said. He hopes that as more publications adopt OutVoice’s speedy model, more freelancers will take their labor to these outlets—a shift that could pressure others to implement similarly competitive pay systems.

Weiss thinks facile skepticism is a primary stumbling block for media workers. “Journalists are naturally really skeptical, and I think that sometimes holds us back, because they don’t believe that something can get done,” he said. “They assume the reality they’ve been presented is the truth because that’s a natural thing. I think history has taught us completely otherwise.” Hill, too, points to a long line of successes in labor organizing as proof of concept, recalling when former National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini brought a successful lawsuit against The New York Times to gain digital copyright protections for freelance writers.

Six freelancers, led by lead plaintiff Jonathan Tasini, brought the copyright infringement lawsuit in 1993. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the freelancers 7-2.

Six freelancers, led by lead plaintiff Jonathan Tasini, brought the copyright infringement lawsuit in 1993. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the freelancers 7-2. Photo Illustration by Mario Tama/Getty Images

“[That history] teaches us two lessons,” he explained. “The first lesson is it teaches us this can be done, because people before us did it. The second lesson is, we have to look at why did it not persist? Ultimately, what was the failure?”

Hill points out that freelancers might need to adopt different organizing strategies than their staffed-up comrades. “I don’t think that the model for freelancers organizing is the model that exists among staff writers who are unionizing in a very traditional way,” he said. “We don’t have shop floor power, so to speak. We have to find other ways that we can use our collective power to get what we need.” He praised the tactics embraced by the restaurant worker-led Fight For $15 campaign, which include strikes and work stoppages alongside sustained local politics and corporate leverage.

Kelly highlighted that solidarity efforts can and should begin anywhere, especially in our immediate communities. “I’d encourage freelancers everywhere to start talking, start organizing, start sharing rates and start thinking of ways to exert our power, because we are many, and they are few,” she said.

These efforts will not alway be successful. “Sometimes you’re going to have to take the L,” said Soderberg. “I think we can all understand that it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. That doesn’t mean that we should accept it. Organizing can change those stakes.”

It’s widely accepted that progress won’t come overnight, and Hill relates that meaningful, long-term shifts in freelance labor conditions will require “the difficult and unsexy work of thinking through the long term.” Turner posited bluntly, “How do we remake the basic foundations of labor that did exist at one point?”

These are existential questions that face freelancers who are trying to build a more equitable and respectful working environment—a proposition that still seems far away given the current imbalances in the media ecosystem. But even with stacked odds and a gilded upper echelon of media owners who lays off staff indiscriminately, community and history fall on the side of collectivized workers. It is necessary, at least, for us to try to combat these conditions—not just for ourselves, but for future generations of workers.

After all, absent any efforts to staunch the bleeding, the industry is unlikely to correct course. Weiss likens the equation to his college baseball days. For him, the worst possible outcome of an at-bat was to strike out looking. That’s unacceptable, he said.

“Fucking swing the bat.”

How Freelance Labor Became the Unsung Casualty of Media Layoffs