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Low pay and few contracts make freelance journalism a bleak prospect in 2024

Low pay and few contracts make freelance journalism a bleak prospect in 2024

By Amy Thomas, University of Glasgow

Over the past two decades in the news industry, we’ve witnessed shrinking newsrooms, mass redundancies and the steady decline of regional news on a global scale. With fewer opportunities for steady employment in this undeniably bleak landscape, freelancing is becoming the new normal for prospective journalists.

Squarely in the remit of the digital gig economy, freelancers can expect to “rise and grind” in this new reality. Some may publish their own content using new monetisation platforms like Patreon and Substack, while also hustling for more traditional commissions from the established national and trade press.

This is a massive social, cultural and economic change to the production and distribution of journalistic content. Journalists are left wondering: how sustainable is a profession that relies on hustle culture?

This was the main question driving our recent survey into the earnings, contracts and copyright of UK-based freelance journalists. Funded by the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society in collaboration with the the National Union of Journalists, our survey gathered data on the earnings of almost 500 UK-based freelance journalists.

Funding and income

Our findings show that the vast majority of “primary occupation” freelancers (those who spend more than 50% of their time on freelancing) earn less than the minimum wage in the UK – typically £17,500 per year. This is hardly a lucrative career that can incentivise people to stay, or encourage newcomers to join. Our respondents confirmed that they would hesitate to encourage a young person to become a freelancer nowadays given the limited prospects offered in the profession.

Low levels of income for freelancers have been attributed to a range of complex factors surrounding new technologies and business models – particularly the move from physical print to digital media distribution. For this reason, regulators around the world are currently considering the extent to which online platforms that host news content, like Google or Facebook, should pay for the use of that content as a potential route to improving newsroom revenues (in theory, trickling down to journalists).

From the perspective of policymakers, making big tech take responsibility for subsidising the profession of journalism is an attractive prospect, given tech companies’ deep pockets. But our research suggests that big tech’s use of news content is just one (relatively small) factor among many affecting freelancers’ income.

Instead, we found that day-to-day earning potential is more adversely impacted by the inconsistent, and often predatory, business practices of press publishers. These are often the very same entities that outsource journalism to freelancers to begin with.

For example, we found that freelancers consider contracts – one of the most important legal safeguards – to be increasingly rare. Sixty-five per cent of freelancers have worked with informal contracts, ranging from WhatsApp messages and emails to “back of the envelope” agreements. More worryingly, we found that 40% have worked without any contract at all if none were offered at the outset of the commission.

Even where journalists did sign a contract, it’s hard to sell this as a positive development. As commissioners continue to view freelancing as a buyer’s market, a freelancer’s lack of bargaining power usually results in (unfavourable) terms being offered on an agree or walk away basis.

One respondent described these as “almost zero-hour contracts that provide no stability for the future or families”. Problematic clauses range from payment only upon publication, to ongoing stagnation of rates, late payment and the decline of “kill fees” (payment for stories that are not, in the end, published).

Long-term earning potential is also seriously curtailed in the race to rights grab, with almost half (47%) of freelancers signing away their copyright to press publishers upon publication. As a result, freelancers lose the capacity for future earnings through royalties or licensing fees for republications or adaptations of their work.

Who can be a journalist today?

Inevitably, the result of an unlivable baseline income and tenuous working conditions is that there are limitations on who actually gets to be a freelance journalist. Our findings indicate that freelancers need to rely on other sources of income, either from another job or from a partner to support their career.

This has created an expectation in the industry that everyone has an additional income, resulting in the “crowding out” of marginalised demographic groups. For example, we found that almost two thirds (63%) of respondents come from a background associated with the highest levels of social and economic privilege – compared to 23.5% in the general UK population.

This suggests that the income trajectory and diversity of the profession are closely intertwined: freelancers need to be able to “pay to play”.

Our research unequivocally calls for the support of sustainable, quality journalism with a view to supporting the future of democratic societies. We suggest that the high value of journalism should translate to – at the very least – a liveable wage.

But right now, the lack of regulatory oversight in the profession and disproportionate levels of bargaining power place the sustainability of freelancing at serious risk.The Conversation

Amy Thomas, Lecturer in Intellectual Property and Information Law, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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