Freelancers resist precarity by sharing rates and organizing

For many workers, openness about pay has helped to make conditions more equitable. Still, they fear retribution.

In June 2019, Daisy Alioto, now the audience development manager for the New York Review of Books, tweeted that she had learned through freelance-journalists network Study Hall of a Vox contract explicitly forbidding freelance writers from discussing rates. The Freelance Journalists Union asked for Vox freelancers to privately share the rates Vox verticals paid them. The union then anonymized—and finally tweeted—around 100 different submissions, some of which revealed pay disparities for similar work. In mid-August, Vox distributed a new freelance contract without a provision restricting rate sharing.

Rate sharing is a popular practice in Study Hall, founded in 2015 by journalist Enav Moskowitz and writer Kyle Chayka. Study Hall keeps a member-updated database of editors’ contact information and rates writers were paid at various outlets. Members of the organization also share their rates on a one-off basis in the group’s listserv and Slack, according to Erin Corbett, who has written for The Nation and VICE and works as a Study Hall administrator. The practice, Corbett adds, is especially beneficial to “writers who wouldn’t normally ask for more money.” 

A few like-minded labor organizations for freelance journalists and writers have emerged more recently: in the spring of 2018, the National Writers Union (NWU), launched the Freelance Solidarity Project; and just last year, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) established the FJU (of which I am a member). Each of these entities encourages writers to disclose rates, and helps share them widely.

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Even in non-unionized workplaces, employees are legally protected if they want to discuss their pay with colleagues. Nevertheless, they are often discouraged from doing so, and so sharing rates is still considered risky or taboo. “We are discouraged from sharing rates because money is such a touchy subject, and that only benefits the people at the top,” says freelance journalist Taylor Moore, who has bylines at CityLab and LitHub, among others. Just before the end of 2019, Moore shared highlights from her year’s work on Twitter, along with the rate of pay for each one; a number of other journalists did the same.

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Knowing the rates offered by different outlets helps writers negotiate pay. Bradley Babendir, a freelance book critic who has been published in NPR and the now-defunct Pacific Standard, says that, as a result of seeing another writer post on social media that they were paid $1 per word for an article Medium published, he knew to ask for that rate when he successfully pitched the same outlet. Corbett says that rate transparency was especially helpful early on in her career, when she didn’t have an idea of what rates were fair to ask for.

Journalists have shared critical information about rates among themselves—through whisper networks, private databases in Facebook groups and among unions, and public, anonymous databases such as the website Who Pays Writers—for many years. But industry-wide turmoil makes this a particularly perilous moment for freelancers: newsrooms laid off thousands of workers (some of them non-editorial) last year, and a Pew Research Center report from July found that newsroom employment had plunged by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018. As publications shutter and the labor market fills with ever more writers living assignment to assignment, freelance journalists and writers have begun more earnestly seeking organized-labor protections for their precarious situations, and rate-sharing is a cornerstone of that effort. 

Chris Roberts, a freelance journalist with bylines in The Guardian, VICE, and The Verge—and a member of multiple freelancers’ unions—says there seem to be more freelance journalists and writers publicly sharing their rates in the recent past. Rate sharing, Roberts says, “has been much more vocal and open, and it’s happening in an era where there are multiple unions encouraging this kind of openness and transparency.” 

Still, while this openness has helped to make conditions for some workers more equitable, freelancers fear retribution. “Writers are scared of editors seeing them differently or refusing to work with them or being punished in another way because people are upset that they disclosed their rate,” says Babendir. Fear of retribution “seems to me like a rational reaction to a scary situation, but that’s why solidarity is so important.”

For many, rate-sharing is also a means to an end greater than personal enrichment. In particular, freelancers who spoke to CJR shared concerns around addressing pay disparities for women and Black writers. 

Najma Sharif, who has written for Fader and Playboy, says that rate transparency “sets a standard, especially white men and white women sharing their rates, so I can be like, ‘Hey why are outlets paying me so little, what’s going on here?’” Sharif says the next step is for freelancers to break down pay disparities between writers in terms of identities and try to determine industry-wide rates.

There are few studies of who exactly makes up the freelance journalism workforce. In fact, a 2017 survey about freelance writers from the job website Freelance Writing “made the decision not to ask” writers about their race, gender, or age. It’s information that labor representatives agree would be worthwhile, but compiling data about rates and writers’ backgrounds—let alone analyzing it—is a daunting undertaking, especially for relatively young organizations.

Efforts to establish more rate transparency and secure fairer rates for freelance journalists also lends itself to organizing around better payment processes. Colleen Tighe, a member of the NWU’s Freelance Solidarity Project and an illustrator, says that the Project is having “a lot of the discussions about things like working on retainer, or getting upfront fees, and figuring out the logistics of receiving money” in a timely manner.

A large and growing faction of freelancers believe that they can counter this sort of unfairness through solidarity. “As a writer I was sort of conditioned to think the pay is going to be shit,” Roberts says. “It’s a raw deal you get in exchange for this maybe-preferable lifestyle, [but] the only reason that’s how it is is because too many people accept it.”

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Elizabeth King is a freelance journalist in Chicago.