Fellow Freelancers: Don’t Marry Rich, Organize!

Fellow Freelancers: Don’t Marry Rich, Organize!

Fellow Freelancers: Don’t Marry Rich, Organize!

The problem is systemic: Freelance life is underpaid. The solution must be systemic too.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

I was five years into a successful freelance career and several months into my first book deal when I began to joke about being a trophy wife. I’m not, in fact, a trophy wife. I am a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to The Nation while writing a book about the fall of Roe v. Wade. The jokes were my attempt to cope with a rising feeling of despondence about how little money I and my fellow freelancers make. I made about $23 an hour in 2023, which is seven dollars an hour less than the living wage in the city of Boston, where I live, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. Last year, I crunched the numbers from a database of freelance rates run by the Freelance Solidarity Project, a member-led organizing project of the National Writers Union, of which I’m a member. The results were bleak. Journalists were making as little as $140 or $150 for major publications, rates that simply do not add up to a livable wage.

When The Cut’s essay, “The Case for Marrying an Older Man” went viral, my FSP co-organizer Alexis Gunderson noted that its author sounded kind of like an unwitting comrade for our work trying to raise freelance rates. On its face, the piece is one of those shiny time capsules that manages to make an old idea seem new because a hip young person wrote it. “Marry an older man,” it promises, “he will provide for you.” The author is an itinerant freelancer who accessed a life of “ease” by marrying an older man who appears, far more crucially, to be a rich person. Now, she and her husband, who is 10 years older, play the lottery for fun in the South of France. Woven throughout the essay are allusions to domestic tasks the author performs for her husband, like folding his laundry, that made me feel like I was reading a slightly higher-brow issue of Good Housekeeping from the 1950s. Even as I scoffed my way through the piece, I felt a tiny, uneasy flicker of recognition. Am I like her? I wondered. Because, while I am not a member of the leisure class who plays the lottery in the South of France, my standard of living surely wouldn’t be possible without a partner who earns significantly more than I do. The author of this piece and I suffer from the same systemic problem, which she more or less encapsulates with the very last part of this line: “Mostly I get to read, to walk central London and Miami and think in delicious circles, to work hard, when necessary, for free, and write stories for far less than minimum wage when I tally all the hours I take to write them” (emphasis mine).

Bingo.

The writer had correctly identified the problem: Freelance life is underpaid. It was her solution I disagreed with. After all, there are individual and collective solutions to every societal ill; marrying an old guy is to labor organizing what girl-bossing is to feminism. (And marriage is not always an ideal individual solution, either; just ask Lyz Lenz, a fellow freelancer, who wrote a whole book about the pitfalls of marriage called This American Ex-Wife.) And even when you’ve stumbled on an individual solution that works it can still pay to work toward a collective one. So I have a call to action for all my fellow freelancers: Don’t marry, organize!

This year, with a subgroup of the Freelance Solidarity Project started by Alleen Brown, I’m helping to launch the Freelance Solidarity Challenge. The task is simple: Each time we complete a freelance media project, we will record the rate, the hours we spent on the project, and a few details about ourselves and the experience in the Freelance Solidarity Project’s anonymized database. At the end of the year, we’ll have enough data to prompt a long-overdue conversation about just how abysmally freelancers are paid.

Some of the top freelancers in the business have agreed to join our project because they understand that the stakes are high.

“Good journalism takes time. Research takes time. Reporting takes time,” Gary Younge, freelancer, author, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, and editorial board member of The Nation says. “In an increasingly casualized industry, when rates are low the burden for producing the kind of journalism you can rely on falls on the people with the least rights, security and the lowest pay. That’s not just bad for freelancers; it’s bad for all of us.”

Lyz Lenz, author of the aforementioned book on divorce, which you should buy, notes that we need more writers who understand parts of the country that aren’t New York. “When the industry has poor pay, it excludes important voices and perspectives,” Lenz says. “I lived through the ‘we didn’t see this coming’ narrative of 2016. And I know that if newspapers and magazine had more diverse sources and perspectives we could have seen that coming. But having those perspectives means paying people wages that cover the cost of reporting and allow people to live.”

How many of us are making it as freelancers? The sparse results we’ve collected so far are jarring. In the analysis I did last year, the average rate for a 1,200-word reported article was just under $643. If you assume that a freelancer writes a piece at that rate once a week, they would earn less than the living wage for a single adult with no children in at least four major cities, according to an analysis by my FSP co-organizer Khawla Nakua. (Again, this is a systemic problem, not an individual one, but I would be remiss if I didn’t casually mention that The Cut happened, in our limited analysis, to be a particularly egregious under-payer of freelancers.)

Rates can also be particularly low for culture writers, whose beats have been decimated or eliminated by round after round of layoffs and cutbacks. A group of book critics at the Freelance Solidarity Project who are working on a parallel study have uncovered more than two dozen instances of book critics’ being paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. While our rates are low, our ranks are growing. More than a third of working journalists are now freelancers, according to a major Pew survey of nearly 12,000 journalists conducted in 2022, before the media industry shed over 20,000 jobs in 2023. More than 20 media outlets have announced layoffs this year, according to the Institute for Independent Journalists, which runs a layoffs census that aims to uncover patterns in these cuts, including the impact on journalists of color in an industry that is still overwhelmingly white. As institute founder Katherine Reynolds Lewis points out, journalists from marginalized groups are less likely to have credit or savings to sustain themselves as “newbie freelancers.” “Time and again, I’ve seen talented colleagues quit journalism after a few months of freelancing because the start-up phase is so challenging,” she writes.

I’m one of the (relatively) lucky ones, because I have a contributing writer contract with The Nation, an outlet that voluntarily signed a Unilateral Announcement negotiated by the Freelance Solidarity Project that establishes a set of baseline rates and terms for freelancers. The Nation pays me well enough that I’m able to turn down almost every other freelance offer I get, including from big-name places that need to do some serious soul-searching about paying so much less than an independent outlet. Still, last year, thanks in part to a book advance, I made about $48,000, which is less than the lowest staff salary my colleague Khawla Nakua found in her analysis of 16 major outlets with collective bargaining agreements. Even though I feel like I’m at the top of my game professionally, my salary would only be enough to afford the median rent in the city where I live if the vast majority of my entire paycheck went to that rent. The math works because of my computer science professor spouse, who happens to be three years younger than I am. And since losing my last staff job in 2018, I’ve lost not only much of my old paycheck but also my right to collectively bargain in the traditional sense. The National Labor Relations Act does not protect organizing by freelancers the way it does for staffers—and employers can even retaliate against us by using antitrust laws. Nonetheless, freelancing is a life that I love and don’t plan to leave. I like being able to choose my projects and not ask a boss if I can go read a book to my son’s class in the middle of the day.

My point is that the problem is not limited to any particular person or publication. This is a systemic issue. Our entire industry, like many industries around the world, from transportation to food services, is increasingly reliant on freelancers who do not make a living wage. It’s time for all of us to reckon with that.

If you’re like me and you read the article in The Cut with that secret tiny flicker of recognition, that reckoning may be fraught. I’ll admit that I tend to avoid tracking my hours and rates because I don’t like doing things that make me depressed. What makes me even more depressed is working in an industry where, even amid mass layoffs, CEOs take home tens of millions of dollars and top editors routinely make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It’s perhaps no coincidence that my joke about being a “trophy wife” came out during a journalism conference where I’d been listening to two former male media bosses hold forth on such tired topics as “Why Objectivity Isn’t Racist and Sexist.” When a conference attendee asked the champion of objectivity, former Washington Post editor Martin Baron, about the Israeli siege of Gaza, he started his answer about the need to cover all perspectives on this “really difficulty story” with a remark that was, at least, honest, if not a little surprising given that he was in a room full of journalists amid one of the defining humanitarian crises of our time. “Gee,” Baron said. “I was really hoping nobody would ask that question.” Because I have a personal commitment to causing disturbances in these spaces that becomes especially pronounced during times of genocidal violence, the next day I asked another retired media boss, former editor in chief of The New York Times Dean Baquet, about the paper’s widely criticized coverage of Gaza.

“I actually think the coverage has been good,” Baquet said. “It’s a hard story…. Have there been mistakes? I think the Times has talked about some–a headline that was a mistake. Yeah, I think they would own up to that.” He glossed over some of the more noteworthy mistakes, like how, according to The Intercept, an episode of the Times’ flagship podcast had to be shelved after serious questions emerged over the paper’s reporting on alleged rapes by Hamas.

This kind of disingenuousness does something to a journalist; it creates an irrepressible appetite for the truth, and maybe also for wine, which is how I found myself, at the end of this conference, in a circle of total strangers, all of them women, all of them suddenly my friends. Soon we were bitching about these men and then emitting from our guts the most primal of our truths, about miscarriages and bad husbands and infertility and how we love our children like we are actual bears, and that’s how I found myself saying the most secret truth on my tired heart: “Am I a trophy wife?”

“No,” one of the women laughed, with just the right mix of indignation and recognition. And I felt just a little better because I wasn’t alone, and if I wasn’t alone, I didn’t have to solve this on my own. Changing the way we work is up to everyone involved in this exploitative economic model. If I have a religion, it’s this: the way intimacy with strangers can create a collective space where we end up speaking truth to power while spilling our guts, where we are vulnerable and yet somehow trust that, in the sanctity of the collective, we are safe. Under the best of circumstances, these collective spaces lead to organizing, to action, and to change.

Which is why I’m glad I’m not standing alone as a freelancer demanding a conversation about rates. I’m standing with journalists like Victoria Law, who says: “All [of my articles] entail research, reporting and…rely on the knowledge and connections I’ve made over decades of writing about prison issues. Knowing how much time each piece takes—as well as what an outlet is willing to pay others—is crucial to negotiating for rates that don’t undervalue our work in exposing injustices.”

I’m standing with folks like New York City–based freelance investigative journalist Sean Kevin Campbell, who writes: “As with any other industry, the veil obscuring how much freelancers are paid for their labor only benefits the people in power who need money the least. Independent journalists give newsrooms the flexibility to pursue projects that are beyond the scope of their beat writers, and provide perspectives that are outside the typical office dynamics… We are a vital component of a healthy news ecosystem, and we deserve to be treated as such.”

“I dream of new structures,” the author of the piece in The Cut wrote, which is great. She’s almost there. But you don’t help anyone, not even yourself, if you stop at dreaming. At some point, maybe half-tipsy on wine and rage, or maybe at a protest in the lobby of a publication you once dreamed of writing for, or maybe sitting at your desk after finishing a project for which you were paid 50 cents an hour, you’ve got to be honest. And then, my fellow freelancers, my fellow inadvertent “trophy spouses,” you’ve got to organize.

So join us! Sign up for the Freelance Solidarity (aka the Don’t Marry, Organize!) Challenge here.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.

Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy
x