Not Free As In Beer or Free As In Speech, Free As In Lance: Is Organizing Independent Journalists A Game Changer?

Friday morning, May 15

Host: Jeff Yang, Wall Street Journal Online


Valeria Fernandez, Independent Journalist

Bill Densmore, Reynolds Journalism Institute/InfoValet Project

Craig Aaron, FreePress

Esther Kaplan, The Investigative Fund, The Nation Institute

Martin Reynolds, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group (attended second half of session)


  1. An assessment of the terrain: legality of the low compensation, compensation models from other industries, what the current entities such as the Writers Union are doing, the history of efforts to sue the aggregators (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) for stealing content.
  1. A grant-funded audit of journalism workers by an entity with credibility in the space like Neiman, Poynter, etc. that would expose (1) freelance reporter/producer pay, rights, protections, benefits and (2) staff reporter/producer pay, benefits, workload/productivity.
  1. Exposing journalism sweatshop work through journalistic reporting.
  1. A Bill of Rights or common set of standards (possibly one for staffers and one for freelancers).
  1. We see a number of potential forms of leverage: lawsuits, regulation, public shaming, seal of approval for best practices, possibly rewards for that from funders, labor actions, funder requirements for disclosure or minimum standards.
  1. If we can get enough major players in place there’s the potential to create an industry standard.


Esther: Freelance rates have collapsed even as journalism staff salaries have more or less kept pace with inflation.

Jeff: And staff jobs are being converted into freelance jobs.

The common ground of the successful associations is they get powerful players to sign on to a common set of standards. Like the major studios or major sports franchises. Once they sign on it becomes the standard.

Val: I’d like this to include both print and broadcast freelancers?

Craig: What’s our leverage? How do you get others in the industry to advocate and pay in?

Esther: Could we pressure certain publications to pay in?

Jeff: Get a big player to put money in – for an outlet to get subsidies of their freelance rates you have to sign on to the agreement, with minimum standards. Five years to change your business model.

Esther: What if we look to the campaigns around unpaid internships?

Craig: Conde Nast faced lawsuits over their unpaid internships

Jeff: Sticks: lawsuits, public pressure/shaming, and organize the journalists to boycott

Val: Find the institutions/outlets that will be willing to sign on to a minimum set of standards

What about reporting about this to raise awareness? The conditions for immigrant journalists are terrible. We’re being paid less than minimum wage at the end of the day.

Bill: Legal challenges probably not winnable because the work is done offsite

Esther: But we should still look into the legal and regulatory challenges

Val: How would we determine fair standards?

Jeff: We also need to have a discussion of what is fair – what rights you preserve, what billing you get, royalties or revenues off of ads sold on your copy?

Val: We need to end signing your rights away eternally.

Jeff: Standards for people who write for free – what, tangibly, do they get in return? Do we need a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval for outlets, as well as a stamp of approval as a freelance journalist, which means you have to be paid.

Bill: What if we cut out the publisher middle man so reporters can go directly to their audience?

Esther: I strongly disagree with cutting out the editorial process – editors, fact checkers, copy editors.

Jeff: Funding to pay these wages for five years if you sign on to these standards.

Craig: There’s not enough money in philanthropy.

Jeff: The ecosystem is such that writer brands matter more than the brand of the outlet.

Craig: You’re asking the NYT to pay you for the thing even though you’re saying they don’t matter.

Esther: Can you green light several outlets that are already doing the right thing? AJam, Harper’s, etc.

Jeff: We might be able to get philanthropic money for an audit.

Val: Attach money to the seal of approval.

Jeff: We’ll subsidize you if you adhere to these principles, being that gives you the motivation.

Craig: Most funders want to support a project, say coverage of a certain issue. Maybe the funders have to sign onto the seal of approval, and say we’ll only fund you for this project if you’re doing best practices.

Val: Investigative reporting on freelance reporters could push the conversation forward. We also have to change the financial calculus to reward this.

Jeff: Minimum rates and standards for how you enter the game – look at pro sports and entertainment. You can do waivers and exceptions, but they’re written out and there’s a standard, a bill of rights. That’s the game changer – someone willing to enforce that stuff.

The funders seem key. Think about the pressure exerted on Nike and its production in other countries. They have no incentive to pay workers in Bangladesh more. But if you have retailers saying we won’t stock products made in sweatshops…

Esther: Some major outlets could respond to this pressure by deciding to eliminate freelancers entirely. That’s a risk. It happened with some internships.

Craig: It could be a basis for solidarity with staff reporters, because they’re basically working in a sweatshop as well.

Jeff: How about setting a cap on the amount of copy a staff reporter can be required to produce?

Craig: This is crucial: we need a bill of rights for the staffers as well. Otherwise we’re pitting staffers and freelancers against each other, and they’re both part of the same system.

Val: How do you get the Buzzfeeds etc. to be part of the audit?

Jeff: Audit needs to include staffers and freelancers. Some way to reward the good actors. Make that the viral way that both outlets and journalists sign onto this. Tipping point is where this becomes self-sustaining.

Val: Explore the quality of the journalism in relationship to the exploitation.

Craig: Tell the story of the journalistic sweatshops. Allow the places that are not operating sweatshops to be visible.

Jeff: Fair Trade model – that exists for products and goods but not services.

Craig: The research becomes really key. Think about the New York Times piece on nail salons.

Jeff: Even if people aren’t getting sick like nail salon workers, the rise of plagiarism etc. is directly a result of this sweatshop dynamic. A piece, possibly in Gawker, that was by a former Daily Mail reporter, and it was about what it’s like to work in a journalism sweatshop.

Val: In Spanish we used to call it the Fabrica de las Tortillas. In some publications a staff reporter has to produce 20 to 25 stories a week. From 700 words to a front page feature.

Jeff: At the Village Voice, which was a union shop. It was a militant union – we’d even go on strike. In order to protect staff from layoffs and overdependence on freelancers, we had a concept called the Bargaining Unit Freelancer – BUF. They had protections and rights as union members.

Craig: If this idea has legs, the study is clearly crucial. It probably also makes sense to talk to the Writers Guild (mostly Hollywood), the Newspaper Guild, the Writers Union, the Authors Guild.

Jeff: Whenever there’s a movement between platforms, there’s some leverage. Now that we’re moving off of websites to apps, which need shovelfuls of content. And in that moment of change you have a chance insert a new way of doing business.

Craig: One of the key questions is how do you address the same question facing musicians, etc., of: How do you get paid for your work? Everybody’s messing with this. Nobody has the answer. So if you can figure out how to make these working conditions and basic protections part of that conversation.

Esther: For example, royalties could be introduced into the model.

Jeff: With photos, music, other forms of creative content, the creator nominally retains control. Journalism is the only one that doesn’t have that.

Craig: There’s a research piece there that would be helpful. What are the existing legal protections and existing mechanisms outside of journalism for how people are getting paid?

Jeff: Some sort of standards for aggregators.

Val: There’s a problem with compelling the people on the top to care about it – the publications, the aggregators. What’s in it for them?

Craig: That’s what I like about your moment of change point. It’s our only shot. To make the point that the content producers have a value that’s not being represented. Inserting the voice of the writers and producers.

But the content in the walled-off app is a specialty item. The brand identity is fading. Most people are still clicking through for free through social media.

Politico Pro model – super expensive specialized reporting that people pay $5,000 a year for.

Val: So where’s the opportunity in the new way of doing business?

Jeff: Imagine you’re a shovelware writer. Twenty items a day. But you retain the rights after an exclusivity period.

Esther: What about Facebook?

Jeff: Facebook is now paying the NYT and a few other outlets to have original content that resides on Facebook. This is an interestingly disruptive moment.

Esther: Reporters – staff or freelance – are journalism’s idea machines. Overworked editors depend on them for that.

Val: How could we get access to the real production going on? Combining reporting about this with the audit, we make visible what is going on.

Jeff: The Writers Union has no carrots and no sticks. That’s why getting this audit going is the disruptive point of entry.

Martin: One of the funders said I can’t even see having the capacity to drill down far enough to learn this or provide oversight.

My wife’s a nurse and there’s a range of pay for nurses. There’s been a floor for RN’s that’s been set by the industry. So how could something like that be replicated?

Jeff: The acquisition of certain skills should be credentialed and compensated.

Martin: How realistic is it to try to establish that credential? Is it even doable?

Also, is public shaming workable, given how broke some of these organizations are?

Craig: Can we get the workers to the table?

Jeff: Why can’t content producers create their own HuffPo?

Martin: It’s time for journalists to articulate the value that journalists bring to the table.