About 800 journalists so far have signed an open letter demanding an end to unfair and slow payment practices that damage freelancers’ livelihood. Launched by freelance journalist Anna Codrea-Rado on Feb. 5, the letter comes after about 2,100 media jobs have been cut in the last month, with layoffs at BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, VICE, and the closure of U.K.-based women’s online magazine, The Pool.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few months, that the way freelancers are paid doesn’t really make a lot of sense and makes [the] job quite difficult,” Codrea-Rado says. “[But] the closure of The Pool [added a sense of urgency because] there were a lot of freelancers, in particular, who were left with huge invoices that hadn’t been paid.”
As the number of staff at print and digital publications continues to shrink, freelancers have become an increasingly vital resource that the media relies on to function. Between 2008 and 2017, newsroom jobs in the U.S. dropped by 23 percent, while there has been an estimated increase of 3.7 million freelancers, across all industries, since 2014. In the U.K., a 2016 survey from the Office of National Statistics showed that out of the 84,000 people who identified as journalists in 2016, 34,000 were self-employed, up from 18,000 in 2015.
“I think we’re going to see more freelancers. It will be a mix of necessity and of choice,” Codrea-Rado says, having originally started freelancing after being laid off from VICE in 2017. Going forward, she believes more freelancers will work together, form collectives and fight together for better rights and recognition.
Codrea-Rado is not the only one moving towards collective action. Across countries, freelancers are starting to organize. At the end of January, Swedish freelance journalists obtained an agreement with several major newspaper publishers for a fee raise. In France, a group of freelance media professionals signed an open letter against low and late payments, on the same day that Codrea-Rado launched her call to action in the U.K.
In her letter, Codrea-Rado presented the U.K. media with three actionable solutions:
- An end to “payment on publication” policies through which freelancers are only paid once their work is published, sometimes months after it was completed. “We are calling on media outlets to pay half the commission fee upfront, upon submission and the rest upon completion of final revisions,” the letter reads.
- Respect for late payment fees. If media organizations do not pay freelancers within the statutory 30-day period, as stipulated by the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998., the letter suggests they should be held accountable.
- An update to inadequate payment systems that fail to handle or process payments to freelancers.
“I think all of the asks in the letter are realistic. That’s kind of the aim, to see if media organizations implement them,” Codrea-Rado says. She adds that the obvious next step would be to directly engage publications in a conversation about this.
"Anna's campaign is much-needed and hopefully will change this unfair system,” says London-based features writer Amelia Tait. “One of the things that most surprised me when I became a freelance journalist is that I can make more money a month than in my last editor role, yet somehow [I] physically end up with less money a month.” She explains that this is a result of waiting 60, sometimes 90 days to get paid for a job.
Angela Hui, a journalist who has been freelancing full-time since being laid off twice in 2017, also signed the letter. “For far too long freelancers have been treated like doormats, letting media outlets and individuals walk all over us in regards to payment, bad payment systems and bad excuses for not paying late-payment fees,” she says.
Hui recalls working with a company whose payment policy was 45 days after publication but would still be three months late, refusing to pay any penalty for that. Still, she didn’t really have any option but to continue working with them. “[I] didn't want to jeopardize our relationship,” she says. “I relied on that money to pay rent and food, and [for] general money to stay alive.”
Within the highly competitive and cash-strapped journalism industry, many freelancers find themselves unable to negotiate or decline unfair working and payment conditions. For freelancers like Codrea-Rado, and those that signed the letter, collective action offers an alternative that might make it possible to hold media outlets accountable for the power they hold over professionals that make a living working for them.
Cristiana Bedei is among the freelancers who signed the #FairPayForFreelancers letter launched by Anna Codrea-Rado.