Rise of the freelancer in a “sharing” media economy

July 1, 2016

In the so-called sharing economy, new technological platforms are exploiting regulatory gaps under the banner of progress. Corporate heads are taking advantage of this and good jobs are disappearing. We’ve seen a version of this experiment in the recent past. Before Uber, there were unpaid internships, layoffs and downsizing, and start-up agencies vying for a piece of the traditional journalism pie. Together, they transformed the industry in a process that continues today.

In 2013, the Canadian Media Guild estimated that in the five years previous, 10,000 journalism jobs evaporated. Since then, more jobs have vanished and some newspapers have even ceased printing. Some of those jobs were replaced by freelancers or interns. Some are gone for good. The gaps have been filled by independent journalists, bloggers and new media start-ups.

For an industry that’s been hit hard by an advertising revenue slump, it’s easy to see why media owners and even journalists themselves have been so quick to jump on what has since been termed “the sharing economy” model. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing have broadened who can do what under the banner of journalism. When a cell phone can take high-quality photos and record interviews, anyone with a desire to broadcast has the capacity to do so cheaply. According to a study from the American Freelancers Union and Upwork, nearly one out of every three Americans did freelance work of some kind in 2014.

While the technology can be liberating it is not without costs to media workers. Average wage increases in journalism have lagged behind overall wage increases, says Errol Salamon, a co-editor and contributor to the 2016 book, Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada. “While journalism organizations have remained profitable, they have exploited the labour of journalists by making them work for less than the standard market value that is generated from their labour,” he says.

Many newspapers have outsourced layout and copy editing to Pagemasters, a corporation of The Canadian Press that is, in part, owned by several major Canadian news outlets. Writing for the Canadian Media Guild, Jan Wong spells it out: “the top union rate for an editor [at Pagemasters] is $48,000, compared to about $85,000 at the [Toronto] Star.”

Is there a private sector solution to this race to the bottom? The corporate model of journalism has always been fraught. As Robert McChesney argues, a free press owned by powerful and rich corporate interests is hardly free. The corporate ownership model is more at fault for the state of things in journalism than is the emergence of new technologies.

But looking to government to fix journalism is a different kind of bad. While governments should be pressed to enforce workplace standards within media industries, government intervention into corporate media isn’t likely to fix the most fundamental issues, or be popular with anybody. Ultimately, saving journalism is a fight that journalists themselves must take on.

Most journalists at mainstream outlets are unionized and there is a long tradition of unionization in Canadian newsrooms. Unions provide a formal mechanism for journalists to work together, though they have sometimes reinforced inequality. “Labour unions have enshrined exploitative and underpaid internships by writing them into collective agreements,” writes Salamon. “Nevertheless, various union locals have fought to establish paid internship programs and collective agreements that have also guaranteed interns entry-level salaries.”

There is an increase in union efforts at other non-traditional news organizations, like Huffington Post U.S. and Gawker. Journalists at Vice Canada have filed for representation with the Canadian Media Guild (see the article in this issue by Jeremy Appel). Journalists who are locked out/on strike at the Halifax Chronicle Herald have launched Local Xpress, a news website that could very likely live past the labour dispute (see Andrew Biro in this issue).

There is also my union, the Canadian Freelance Union, a community chapter of Unifor. While we have no legal recourse to protect our members, we offer some basics such as opt-in insurance programs, a press card and various other kinds of support. In the past three months, we’ve compelled two contractors to pay up. In both cases the member wasn’t able to get a reply before the union got involved.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we monitor freelancer life—from changes in government policy to gathering research about average wages to advocating for freelancers and advertising union freelancers. We can loop our advocacy into the broader campaigning work of Unifor’s Media Council, a division that represents 12,000 communications workers in Canada. The CFU isn’t alone; the Canadian Media Guild has a robust freelance wing as well. Thanks to the size of the membership at the CBC, the guild has managed to secure some freelancer protections in collective agreements.

Halifax-based CFU members issued statements compelling freelancers to not scab for the Chronicle Herald, messaging that was broadly seen as supportive of striking workers but also freelancers who are most hurt by the race to the bottom. It was an example of the power and importance of bridging the divide between the old and new worlds of journalism.

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Quebec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement, and is the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media. 

This article was published in the July/August 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.