Freelance Journalists Suffering in Second Wave of News Media Collapse
Rebecca Rosen Lum
Since slashing their staffs over the past several years, newsrooms have been filling in the gaps with freelancers. But a survey of Northern California independent journalists by Guild Freelancers suggests that remedy may not be available for much longer.
Many veteran journalists – the kind newsrooms can count on to turn over a story quickly – are leaving the field.
Most say they still love the news business and would love to keep reporting and editing. But falling freelance rates, coupled with skyrocketing costs for health insurance and other basic living expenses, are making continued careers in journalism feel increasingly unrealistic.
“For me, the freelance life is not sustainable,” said one respondent. “I need a job of some kind to support my journalism habit.”
GuildFreelancers, a unit of California Media Workers designed to support the self-employed, surveyed 116 independent writers and journalists throughout Northern California. While not a scientific sample, the responses offer a snapshot of a profession in flux, focusing on quality of life, the nature and pace of work, and the freelance marketplace. Respondents include writers, photographers, designers, filmmakers, authors, instructors and multi-media producers.
The results question whether society has yet felt the full impact of the past two years' savage journalism cuts.
Most survey respondents were veterans of print newsrooms with at least 20 years on the job, and were either laid off or took a buyout within the last two years. At first pleased with the flexibility and creative freedom freelancing offered, many are now feeling the heat as COBRA and unemployment benefits end, and are augmenting their earnings with work outside the field.
“Would I like to be a full-time journo and do what I love to do?” says one respondent. “Yes. Is that realistic now? No."
Cracked another, “Mothers: Don’t let your babies grow up to be freelancers.”
Most freelance journalists say they enjoy the flexibility and freedom of working independently, but struggle with feelings of isolation, an unsteady income, lack of health care, dated skills and a brutal market.
Many of those new to the game have to learn how to provide all the supports a news organization used to: health coverage, tech support, tax withholding, legal protection. Veteran freelancers appear more comfortable with the salesmanship and administrative tasks that go along with being self-employed.
An overwhelming majority say they treasure the greater latitude freelancing affords, but lament what can be a roller-coaster income. For nearly 75 percent, freelancing is their primary source of income.
It's not all bad: Fifteen percent say quality work is still rewarded with decent pay; slightly fewer say they have more places to pitch their work. Nearly a third agree with the statement, “My professional reputation helps me stand out more than ever.”
But 60 percent say freelance jobs pay less than they used to, and nearly half agree that freelance work is getting harder to find.
"A dollar a word was the gold standard for three decades (no cost-of-living raises, of course),” writes one respondent. “Then online publishing came into the mix and the bottom dropped out. I’ve been asked to write for as little as a dime per word. Hourly rates offered for copywriting and editing services have dropped as low as $10 an hour. Most online outlets won’t go over 50 cents per word. How can anyone make a living this way? I’ve been in the biz for 30 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Sixty percent say it is acceptable in certain circumstances to work pro bono – say, for a worthwhile nonprofit organization on a shoestring budget, or to acquire new skills. Yet half blame a downturn in the market on people who are willing to work consistently for free or for very little money.
“Every single time a writer works for little or no pay, we all lose,” says one respondent.
“The freelance pool is overcrowded – with what are apparently a lot of amateur writers and editors who don’t have the standards, skills and mindset as professional journalists,” says another. “It’s hard to convince an employer otherwise, however – most people hiring merely look at the bottom line and not necessarily the quality of the results.”
Asked which services would be most helpful in their careers as freelancers, nearly 72 percent said help finding work, while more than 64 percent cited group health insurance coverage. More than half said they need training – primarily in multi-media skills.
Now entering our second year, GuildFreelancers supports the needs of independent writers and journalists in all media, including hundreds of workers laid off by Northern California media outlets this year. Dues-payers are full-fledged members of The Newspaper Guild and Communications Workers of America, eligible for many union discounts and services.
Exploring the possibility of group medical insurance and other shared benefits remains a top priority for many founding members, who also have been working on strategies to raise the standard of pay for freelancers.
First and foremost, GuildFreelancers are a community of members committed to helping each other deal with the many hurdles that accompany self-employment, from social isolation to insuring equipment to preparing tax returns.
While some members began freelancing after being laid off from long-time jobs, others chose voluntarily to be their own bosses.
“I like being able to say NO to bad assignments on insane deadlines,” says one.
“I like being able to write at night or whenever it’s convenient (within my deadlines). I basically choose the subject matter,” says another.
As the freelance market erodes, the trade-off for some is simply to live more frugally. Others are supplementing their income, or relying on a spouse or partner to fill in the gap.
Nearly a third say financial stressors are weighing on their families.
One veteran freelancer put the sea change at about two years ago, when newsrooms began slashing staffs, and many publications went under or cut their freelance budgets.
“Over the last five or six years my income from my freelance work has steadily declined,” one freelancer says. “I used to get up to $750 per article and then I could turn around and market the same article to European magazines … Now I am lucky if I get $350 per article and of course, because of the Internet, I can no longer resell any article. On a daily basis I see offers from as little as $5 to $50 for articles! And worse, I know many writers who are submitting because they don’t have a lot of choice.”
Reporter Rebecca Rosen Lum has spent the past 25 years in the news business, most recently as the religion reporter at the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek). Now an independent journalist based in San Francisco, she serves as the chair of the freelance unit of California Media Workers, a union local that represents workers at Northern California's largest newspapers.