In an era of journalism in which freelancers have grown accustomed to being treated like disposable cogs of news production, Vice appears to be in a league of its own.
Interviews with more than a dozen freelance journalists suggest the young, edgy news organization heralded as the future of journalism also has ushered in a new low for its treatment of freelance journalists. Freelancers–though characterized by the same independence and bootstrap attitude championed by Vice–are more vulnerable to exploitation, and Vice has taken advantage.
Journalists who have worked for Vice tell CJR that the company published their work without paying them for it, promised them assignments which were later rescinded, and asked reporters for their help with documentaries that covered issues they had written about without any plans to pay them for their work. There’s also the usual freelance complaint: late payments. As a freelance journalist, I’ve been through some of this with Vice myself.
Vice is aware that its treatment of freelance journalists has become a problem. Company sources say Vice has started to take steps to repair its relationship with freelancers. In recent months, for instance, the company has restructured its accounts payable department, installed a new invoicing system, and hired a new payroll processing company to ensure more timely and efficient payments. Vice also has brought in new leaders in editorial who want to mend fences with freelance contributors.
“We’re constantly taking steps to improve the experience for our freelancers, and we regret if the journalist writing this story didn’t experience the high expectations that we set and strive towards,” Vice head of content Ciel Hunter wrote in a statement to CJR. “Freelancers are an important part of a vibrant and healthy journalism community, and the industry as a whole needs to continuously evolve to fit their needs.”
Vice in particular has work to do.
After the 2015 terror attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Paris-based freelance journalist Maya Vidon replied to an email from a Columbia Journalism School classmate who was trying to help a friend. Her friend was a producer at Vice, and he was urgently looking for a fixer in Paris for a documentary about Islamic extremism in France. The Vice team was hoping to begin filming in two to three weeks, the producer told Vidon, but they needed help in pre-reporting and laying the groundwork for the shoot.
Over the next week, Vidon exchanged nearly a dozen phone calls and emails with a Vice producer who asked her to help his team gain access to radicalized Muslim youth in the Paris suburbs, and to advise them on how they should go about filming the elements they wanted to include in the piece. Vidon was ready and willing to do the work, but every time she asked about Vice’s budget, or about the day rate they planned to pay her, the producer either ignored the question or told her he would get back to her later.
Every time she asked about Vice’s budget, or about the day rate they planned to pay her, the producer either ignored the question or told her he would get back to her later.
Meanwhile, as emails reviewed by CJR show, the producer was playing the same game with another French journalist, Karine Barzegar, who had recently served as an associate producer for a 60 Minutes piece about the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Over the course of nearly a dozen emails and phone calls, that same producer asked Barzegar to coordinate the filming of police and counter-terror units, filming inside a prison, gaining access to a de-radicalization program, and interviewing a former ISIS recruit in the Paris suburbs, among other requests. Again, every time Barzegar asked about her pay rate, her question was tactfully avoided.
Maya Vidon and Karine Barzegar are both seasoned French journalists. Their work regularly appears in French print and television outlets. Vidon has extensive experience as a Paris freelance reporter and photographer for various English-language news organizations, including The Washington Post, USA Today, The Globe & Mail, Vanity Fair, and Al Jazeera. Karine has worked as a fixer, reporter, and producer for the AP, BBC, CBS News, Channel 4, and the Chicago Tribune, among other news organizations.
In their combined 40 years of freelance journalism, they said they never encountered the kind of treatment they experienced with Vice.
But it wasn’t just that one producer, it wasn’t just Vidon and Barzegar, and it wasn’t just Paris.
It’s one thing if someone’s contacting you because you’re a friend. It’s another thing when you rely heavily on someone to pre-produce your story, and then you just disappear.”
Aida Alami, a Moroccan journalist, was contacted by yet another Vice producer for a project there.
“I gave them contacts, explained to them what the story was, helped them formulate an itinerary, basically did the whole pre-production for them,” said Alami, estimating that the hours she worked for Vice over the course of several days amounted to about one full day of work. Emails between Alami and Vice employees, reviewed by CJR, confirm her story, as well as the amount of work she contributed to Vice. “This is something you typically get paid for, even if it’s just making a few phone calls. It’s one thing if someone’s contacting you because you’re a friend. It’s another thing when you rely heavily on someone to pre-produce your story, and then you just disappear.”
Alami has worked with nearly every major news organization, including CNN, Bloomberg, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and USA Today. She said Vice is unequivocally the worst media company she has ever dealt with.
I experienced this treatment first hand, and in fact that’s how I came to know Maya Vidon, Karine Barzegar, and Aida Alami. I, too, am a freelance journalist, based in Tel Aviv, where I’ve worked with various media outlets as a reporter and producer.
When the latest Palestinian uprising first erupted in October 2015, I pitched a story to Vice about the source of the tensions and their connection to the Temple Mount, the contested site in Jerusalem that is holy to both Jews and Muslims. An editor at Vice commissioned the story, we agreed upon a rate and word count, and I filed the story by my assigned deadline, which was the following day. The editor provided some vague feedback, and I sent a revision the next day. This is when the editor disappeared. After five days of unreturned phone calls and emails, she finally emerged, explaining that she had a family emergency. By then the story was no longer relevant, so she offered to pay me $75, the equivalent of 15 percent of our agreed-upon rate.
As an independent journalist, I rely on the stories I write to pay my bills, and I’d just spent three full days working on this one. I’ve written for over a dozen publications, including Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. Not once have I experienced this kind of treatment. Like any freelancer, I’m used to waiting a month or two to get paid, or having to hound editors until my check arrives, but never had I felt this utterly taken advantage of. After a month of feeling cheated and sorry for myself, I decided that the best thing I could do was share my experience with other journalists as a word of caution.
I typed up a quick email detailing what had happened and sent it to the Columbia Journalism School international alumni listserve. The subject line was, “Warning for freelancers re: Vice.” Within minutes, my inbox was flooded with emails from other journalists who had suffered similar misfortunes with Vice. Most of the stories were worse than my own.
Not all of the journalists referred to in this story were approached this way. After hearing only negative anecdotes from former employees and freelancers, I tried to find people who had something positive to share about their experience with Vice. I put a call out on Facebook and within my network of other journalists, asking people who had worked with Vice on a freelance basis, or knew people who did, to reach out and tell me about their experience, whether good or bad. Out of 25 people I spoke to, emailed with, or interacted with through Facebook, three said they had a positive experience freelancing for Vice. While they didn’t want to speak on the record, since they’d like to continue to write for Vice, one journalist who described her experience as positive said it took her two months and three follow-ups to get paid for a story she wrote. Another said he’s never been paid less for a freelance writing assignment than when he wrote for Vice.
I also spoke with a friend who still writes for Vice on a regular basis and didn’t want to be named in this story because she doesn’t want to burn a bridge. She said she’s happy working with them, but thinks she’s been treated more fairly than others because one of her closest friends is an editor there. The company’s director of communications also connected me with three freelance journalists who had good things to say about their experiences with Vice.
One award-winning journalist based in Europe, who requested anonymity for fear of backlash, told me Vice had promised him a job at a new bureau they had planned to open in his city. They asked him to write several stories, all of which were published. Vice’s management assured him he was their top candidate to head up the office once they opened it two weeks later. Yet after publishing his articles, he heard nothing for weeks. His invoices went unanswered, and only after several calls was he able to get half of the money he was owed. He didn’t want to press the issue, he said, because he thought he was still in the running for that job offer. More than a year later, those plans to open the new office never came to pass, and he still hasn’t been paid for half of his work.
Another freelance journalist who had worked with Vice for more than two years was asked to move to a different continent for a staff job with the company, though they refused to pay for the costly relocation expenses. Almost immediately after making the move, Vice laid the individual off. The individual refused to speak with me because of a strict confidentiality agreement with the company, but the story was confirmed by several former Vice employees.
Susana Ferreiera, another award-winning journalist, said she feels awful now for being the person who first put Maya Vidon in touch with Vice. She later had an almost identical experience when she was asked by a different Vice producer to help out his team for a documentary in Haiti, where she was based at the time. After she inquired as to what her pay rate would be, she never heard from him again.
“I’ve heard again and again (even from former employees) that this is a fairly standard Vice approach,” Ferreiera told me by email.
The organization runs on the notion that the people inside of it are the ‘coolest’ and most important people on the planet, so the very idea of feeling guilty about neglecting to pay an outsider like this would be preposterous to them.”
Three former Vice staffers who managed freelancers said in interviews that all of these examples represent a fair and accurate depiction of the company’s attitude. According to one former associate producer for Vice on HBO, who declined to be named, “The organization runs on the notion that the people inside of it are the ‘coolest’ and most important people on the planet, so the very idea of feeling guilty about neglecting to pay an outsider like this would be preposterous to them,” the person said.
Another former Vice staffer, who requested anonymity, quit due to what she called ethical problems with its journalism, which she says requires fair treatment of journalists, regardless of whether they are on staff. “There’s a problem with the culture of the place,” she said.
On several occasions, she worked on shoots in which they relied on local journalists as fixers. In two such cases, they were filming in dangerous locations. One fixer didn’t receive payment for months, and another was left to deal with a hotel bill that Vice left unpaid. “It’s not a place that values people very much,” the former staffer said. “Yet everyone outside of Vice thinks it’s awesome. When I told people I quit, they thought I was crazy.”
I myself was so shocked by my experience with Vice because I mistakenly thought the company’s independent streak would translate into more respect for an independent journalist. Many of the journalists I spoke to for this story said they believed Vice capitalized on this edgy reputation in its abuse of freelancers.
If I was a 23-year-old, young, budding journalist who’s dying to work for Vice, I probably would have killed myself to get everything they wanted. And that’s a problem.”
According to Karine Barzegar, the French journalist who was asked by Vice to arrange interviews with former ISIS recruits in Paris without any promise of getting paid, “When you’re a 40-year-old, experienced journalist and someone like this calls you, you understand pretty quickly that it’s bullshit. But if I was a 23-year-old, young, budding journalist who’s dying to work for Vice, I probably would have killed myself to get everything they wanted. And that’s a problem.”
Three other freelance journalists, whose names were shared by Vice, tell a different story.
New York-based journalist Brian Moylan has been freelancing for Vice since 2012, and also writes for The Guardian, New York, and Time. Moylan offered a glowing review about his work with Vice, particularly of his editor, whom he said pushes him to be a better journalist by encouraging him to call more sources and to be more fair and balanced in his reporting. Moylan said he’s always been paid fairly by Vice, adding that in general, “I have no complaints with them that I don’t have with everybody else.”
Stan Donaldson, a former staff reporter at the Detroit Free Press and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has been freelancing for Vice since 2015, most recently serving as a fixer for a documentary about a Cleveland serial killer. Donaldson told me he was treated exceptionally well by Vice staff and was paid fairly for his work on the project.
For plenty of others, that has not been the case.
In March 2016, the Canadian Media Guild put a call out for Canadian journalists to share their stories about working with Vice, which was founded in Montreal in 1994. Karen Wirsig, a Vice union organizer at CMG, had heard from Canadian employees who were concerned about how freelancers were being treated by the company.
More than a dozen journalists contacted Wirsig, detailing various experiences, most of them related to extremely low rates or overdue payments. One journalist said it took him seven months to get paid $60 for an article. What she found most shocking, though, was how many people working for Vice are freelancers.
“I think people expect more from Vice,” said Wirsig. “It has a reputation–or it preys on a reputation–of caring for people and being edgy. But it’s a fundamental problem when you’re not making commitments to people, and not appreciating the risks they take for you. That’s not edgy. That’s just shitty.”
Correction: A previous draft of this story misstated Maya Vidon’s work experience.