The manicured hands of a Black woman sitting at a desk and signing a work contract
Image credit: Ridofranz on

A new US Department of Labor rule restores protections for misclassified workers and could help reduce the precarious status of freelance journalists, according to Samantha Sanders of the Economic Policy Institute. These protections are sorely needed in an industry buffeted by layoffs. Now, freelance workers are organizing to make sure that needed reforms like the new DOL rule stick.

The perilous conditions faced by newspaper staff these days are well-known. In 2023, through November, there were 2,681 editorial job cuts nationally according to the global outplacement and business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. Two recent examples starkly illustrate this point. The Arena Group, the publisher of Sports Illustrated, communicated its intentions to potentially lay off the entire staff over three months. Los Angeles Times management announced plans to lay off 115 workers, more than 20 percent of the paper’s reporting staff.

Labor reform efforts are gathering steam to set minimum work standards for freelance journalists.

Fortunately, amid these layoffs, freelancers are organizing. Such solidarity efforts in an industry undergoing drastic restructuring requires creativity, according to Abigail Higgins, a freelance journalist and co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project, the digital media division of the National Writers Union (NWU), focused on organizing freelance media workers. Why? “We are dispersed and face anti-worker laws,” Higgins said in an interview.

How does the creativity of which Higgins speaks show up? One way is through the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which became law in New York City in 2017. Forms of that law have followed in New York State; Illinois; Columbus, OH; and Los Angeles, CA. In the Golden State, a form of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act is on the legislative agenda, thanks to state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who introduced the Freelance Worker Protection Act (SB 988), on January 31. Such labor reform efforts are gathering steam to set minimum work standards for freelance journalists, create a comprehensive rate-sharing database for digital media workers, and strengthen their intellectual property rights.

The Struggle to Enforce Freelancer Protections

Eric Thurm, legislative coordinator for the NWU, said in an interview that the Freelance Isn’t Free Act requires employers to provide freelancers a written contract, full and timely payment, and protection from discrimination and retaliation for exercising such rights.

Knowing what fellow workers earn, all things equal, can create the conditions for improving everybody’s pay rates.

Without such labor standards, freelancers are subject to exploitation, including but not limited to late and partial remuneration for their work. “The core tenets of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act would not read as especially big guarantees,” Thurm said, “but I think that speaks to how precarious freelancing actually is. For example, getting a written contract for one’s work might seem obvious to people who have not freelanced.”

Protecting freelance media workers from employer retaliation if they try to negotiate higher pay or better working conditions with a publication is one important measure contained in these laws. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act also protects freelancers from a publication paying the agreed-upon fee late. “Generally speaking, payment is within 30 days of completion of the freelancer’s work,” according to Thurm. Publications that violate an agreement for prompt payment can be liable for up to twice the amount owed to freelancers under the Act.

Building a Pay Rate Database 

Information is power at work. For instance, knowing what fellow workers earn, all things equal, can create the conditions for improving everybody’s pay rates. When the opposite prevails, employers can and do hide pay information to decrease compensation. “It is hard to know if you are being offered a rate that is fair or not,” said Higgins, whose reporting centers on gender, inequality, and labor. “That makes it really challenging for freelancers to make a living.”

Take rental housing. A record half of all US renters experience unaffordable prices, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The sharpest rise in unaffordability since 2019 was for households making $30,000 to $74,999 a year, a bracket that includes many freelance writers. (As a freelance journalist for decades, this reporter has never earned an annual income close to $30,000.)

A challenging work relationship with employers has big impacts on freelancers’ capacity to organize as well. What can they do? “There are a few different things that we are doing about pay rates to improve that situation,” says Higgins. One is building a pay rate database that freelance journalists generate, similar to what art and museum workers have done. The data, Higgins explains, includes publication name, scope of work, word length, and compensation. Moreover, the database creates a simple and powerful tool for freelance journalists to read and learn what their peers earn from other publications.

What is unknown to dispersed freelance journalists disadvantages them, as working in isolation curtails communication with fellow workers. Under such labor conditions, chats around a water cooler, say, in a newsroom where full-time journalists ply their trade is not part of the freelance equation. In other words, labor remoteness is an employer’s dream and a worker’s nightmare. “A lack of pay transparency is the breeding ground for inequity,” Higgins said. That burden falls hardest on working-class freelancers who are female, non-White, and queer, according to her.

Low Pay Punishes Freelance Journalists

“There is a real lack of public awareness over just how difficult it is for freelance journalists to earn a living,” Higgins said. Accordingly, educating the public about this occupational economic inequality is high on the union’s list of priorities. Higgins noted that unpaid time to research and pitch publications is part of this equation. “Many, if not most, freelance journalists are unable to make a living with the earnings they receive,” according to Higgins. “A lot of us consult or work in coffee shops or other hustles and side jobs to make ends meet.” Some term this the “gigification,” or irregular pay, of the economy.

Intellectual property—or writers’ right to own their work—is another terrain of struggle.

More firings of journalists—like those at the Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated—are likely to further swell the ranks of freelance journalists. That can and does benefit employers seeking to harm labor and hike profits. “Layoffs of full-time journalists means that publications can contract with freelancers, who do not earn benefits and pay on a per-article, or piece-work, basis,” Higgins said. Freelancers by definition are responsible for paying the employer and employee share of Social Security, and because they are independent contractors, lack access to employer-provided health insurance. As Higgins pointed out, “The takeaway is to cut the cost of producing journalism.”

This situation cries out for increasing the amount of public information about the connective tissue between journalism and democracy. Reaching out in this way to digital and print news consumers with a focus on informing them about the labor conditions of the journalism producers is a potential bridge of solidarity, a critical part of social movements for progressive change. There are recent examples to emulate. As has become a refrain of teachers’ unions: “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” Likewise, journalists’ working conditions directly impact readers’ access to information.

Defending Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual property—or writers’ right to own their work—is another terrain of struggle. Harmed by news aggregators like Facebook and Google, many local publications are dealing with that loss of revenue in part by curtailing freelancers’ rights to their intellectual property. “There has been a proliferation of what [are] called ‘work for hire’ agreements,” Higgins said, “which basically strips freelancers of all of their rights to their work.”

“If a freelancer wants to take an article and turn it into a book or serialized podcast, or a studio wants to turn an article into a film,” Higgins said, “the freelancer has lost all rights to the original work. The publication owns the rights. That is egregious when we live in a world where freelancers spend days, weeks, months, and even years working on a story that earns them a few hundred dollars.”

Of course, strong IP policies are expected elsewhere in our economy; industries such as Big Tech and Big Pharma rely on strict IP protections to ensure massive profits.

“Freelancers should get fair pay and fair contracts,” according to Higgins, “and retain the rights for their work, with publications receiving exclusive or first rights for 30 or 60 days, but not forever.”

The Road Ahead 

Moving forward, freelancers are organizing to improve on their existing protections—and to respond more effectively to current challenges.

It is plain that employers will not concede such improved labor conditions for freelancers without a fight. The economics of this are straightforward, as hedge funds and billionaire-owned media shred news media infrastructure. Employers can and do tend to pay freelancers less than company employees, who are often unionized and covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

This is why union advocacy, such as the work that led to the passage of the recent Freelance Isn’t Free bills, is so important. These measures could be further improved by lowering the thresholds for how much work a freelancer has to do before provisions of the Act take effect. Another priority is establishing unemployment insurance payments for nontraditional workers, from home cleaners to freelancers—a measure briefly adopted in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but since rescinded.

Ultimately, as NWU’s Thurm contended, security for freelancers requires establishing national standards for freelancers’ working conditions.