What we’re really saying when we won’t say anything about money

Over the course of my fellowship year, I’ve explored the state of freelance media work today, from the perspectives of both independent journalists and the editors who hire them.

From green local gumshoes to grizzled foreign reporters, independent contract work has been a staple of the media industry for decades. But as publishers race to produce more content while spending less money, the field has expanded in recent years.

This is a documented trend across industries — between 8 and 33 percent of American workers are freelancing full or part-time now, according to researchers. And results, so far, are mixed. While Bureau of Labor and Pew Research Center studies, as well as surveys by freelance booster organizations, claim independent workers prefer to remain independent, the federal Government Accounting Office found that contractors were more likely to be unhappy with their work conditions, and were paid less on average than employees.

While a glut of beleaguered Uber drivers have sent the nation into a moral panic as of late, the labor of freelance writing is perceived differently — the realm of more comfortable, educated workers with presumably more agency in their work. But when the rhetoric around independent work is stripped away — “freedom,” “precarity,” “running your own business” — it’s clear what the real issue is here: money.

Of 198 freelance journalists I surveyed from a range of locations and markets, the sheer anxiety around pay stood out as the greatest issue facing this group, far beyond other issues that arise from working independently, from office space to safety while reporting abroad.

When you “run your own business,” you are not subject to minimum wage laws or any other labor protections. For some, the freedom can be quite lucrative — the highest paid respondent in 2015 said they earned approximately $90,000. The lowest, on the other hand, made “$300, barely.” The median reported income was $20,000, and more than two thirds of respondents earn less than $35,000 — lower than the 2015 median annual salary of $36,360 for news reporters and correspondents according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than 36 percent of respondents said they rely on a spouse or partner’s income to get by; another 6 percent receive assistance from family or through trust funds. More than one person reported waiting more than nine months to receive payment for their work. Another wrote, “I’m still waiting for a check from a Very Major Publisher.”

These broad disparities in pay highlight not just a labor issue, but a failure in — of all ironies — communication and information sharing. Determined to not finish my fellowship year without having accomplished something more than ask people about how rough they have it, I worked with Manjula Martin to revamp the site she founded in 2012, Who Pays Writers, which compiles anonymous reports of pay rates at newspapers, magazines, and websites for various forms of journalism work. Who Pays Writers has proved an invaluable resource to writers who may have no basis from which to begin a conversation about wages with a new publication. It is also itself a statement on the current state of the industry, where one writer may receive more than twice as much as another for the same work.

More than 80 percent of the 42 editors I surveyed said they have room to negotiate rates with workers and do not exclusively offer a set fee. But 54 percent of surveyed freelancers said that they rarely, if ever, negotiate for higher pay. Said one respondent, “work seems scarce and money seems scarce and I don’t want to come across as difficult.”

But it’s impossible to know what “difficult” may even be when we have no agreed upon standards. Of surveyed freelancers, 32 percent said they do not share any pay information with colleagues, either directly or through anonymized sites like Who Pays Writers.

Sharing real pay information, as varied as it may be, is vital to creating solidarity and community among independent creators who are intrinsically competitive with one another. We limit ourselves when “new business models” means only “new revenue streams,” and not new ways of thinking about how and why we are doing this work, and what we might change to do it more efficiently, responsibly, and equitably. Even if that all starts with just asking: Who pays writers?