All Work No Pay
Why freelancing is more precarious than ever
By Bren Doherty
AS DAWN BREAKS ACROSS A DESOLATE FIELD east of Sarnia, three activists slip into a fenced-off enclosure the size of a parking spot. A camera rolls as Vanessa Gray, one of the activists, cranks shut a steel valve wheel — separating Ontario from Enbridge Line 9 oil. She and her comrades, Sarah Scanlon and Stone Stewart, then tie themselves to the wheel and wait to be arrested. “We hope that we show that it’s easy for anyone to do,” Gray explains to the camera.
By the time David Gray-Donald awoke in Toronto that morning — December 21, 2015 — the video was already plastered across anti-pipeline activists’ Facebook pages. The bearded, long-haired freelance journalist and sometime tutor, who typically covers environmentalist and anti-racist activism, had a dilemma. While Vice Canada had assigned him to cover the story, the closest he was going to get was the video of Gray’s arrest.
Speed was part of the issue — Sarnia is a three-hour drive from Toronto — but so was his meager check: as he says, “I’m getting paid $200 for this story.” Thirty years ago, Gray-Donald could have reasonably expected a major news organization to pay him considerably more, as well as cover his gas money, incidentals, and long-distance phone calls. He might have reused sections of his Vice piece in a book on Canadian anti-pipeline resistance; as a freelancer, he’d only sell Vice the rights to his work for a few months at most. Today, $200 for a digital-only piece — the content of which Vice owns and can replicate, in any medium, for two years — is commonplace. And that rate is expected to cover not just a day’s reporting, but all of the accompanying social media promotion, professional networking, and email correspondence of a twenty-first-century freelance journalist’s life.
“I think it’s become virtually impossible to earn a living just from freelancing, especially from digital journalism,” says Nicole Cohen, an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology at the University of Toronto. Her book, Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age, is the product of a decade spent researching the state of freelance journalism in Canada, post-advent of the Internet. “I seek answers to a perplexing question,” she writes. “In a digital age when more media forms and outlets exist than ever before and when all require written material, why is it so difficult for freelancers to earn a living?”
It has never been an easy life. But, Cohen argues, “I think it’s pretty obvious that journalism has become a lot more precarious over the past few decades.”
“Precarious” also refers to what lies between a freelance journalist’s $200 assignments. Without employer-sponsored EI or health benefits, security is a modified version of Blake’s advice from Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Selling Stories. Freelance work kills weekends, evenings, even family vacations. “For many freelancers, at least the ones I’ve talked to and studied, they certainly feel like they don’t have a choice,” explains Errol Salamon, a post-doctoral fellow at the Fonds de recherche du Québec — Société et culture, the co-editor of Journalism in Crisis, and the labour editor of J-Source. Burnout becomes (more of) a concern. “I don’t have any medical evidence to support this but, I mean, you can’t be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. And while freelancing is often a choice, experts say that it’s actually closer to a requirement for journalists caught between contracts. “It’s an unfortunate reality that people trying to get into the business now are being forced to be freelance,” says Carmel Smyth, the former president of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG). “It’s even spoken about as if it’s a choice.”
What follow are some snapshots from the freelancing front lines.
The Pitch: Why it never ends
For a year and a half, Aidan Johnston spent his Sunday nights prepping a weekly barrage of pitches to editors at Vice, Now Magazine, Nylon, and others. He bar-tended Wednesday nights at a Parkdale restaurant and freelanced the rest of his week away. Those were long days. “Like, nine to midnight, just to fit it all in,” he recalls. “I had the energy for it. But it was just so jumbled, and it was hard to make plans all the time.”
Journalists tend to be workaholics. The need to constantly pitch is part of the reason why. But staffers, leaning over their editor’s or producer’s cubicle wall, get actual face time. Freelancers must maintain a constant email bombardment to people they’ve likely never met, and they must score hits. “Your whole life becomes a pitch, basically,” Cohen says. Sometimes, Johnston got no responses. Or, he’d get calls from editors in the midst of a busy week asking something along the lines of, “What are you doing this Tuesday?” “Everything gets consumed with the need to constantly find work,” Cohen adds.
Downtime becomes nonexistent. “It’s hard to draw any kind of line between a workday and free time,” admits Rhiannon Russell, a former Whitehorse Star reporter- turned-freelance-writer. Her myriad projects — a bi-weekly rental article for Toronto Life, articles for magazines like Maisonneuve and The Walrus, reported pieces for web- sites like TVO.org —fill her free time. She’s trying to ease up on the quick hits. “I was just getting busy and working really hard trying to juggle all of these really small assignments,” Russell says. “And then [I just realized] — you know what, it’s not worth running myself into the ground for something that isn’t going to give me a good payoff at the end.”
That reality finally drove Johnston to quit. “I just never got to the place where I was able to produce the quantity, or probably the quality as well, that was required to be at that level,” he says. Dollar-a-word assignments were never on the table. And while freelancing didn’t bankrupt him, it left nothing to sock away for long-term savings. When John St., a major ad agency in Toronto, advertised a full-time copywriting position, he got the job. “I love the steady paycheck and everything,” Johnston says, “but I miss the work I was doing when I was freelancing.”
The Sweat: Why you’ll never be paid enough
When Matthew Braga quit his job as Motherboard Canada’s editor in January 2016, he’d already done a stint at the Financial Post, contributed semi-regularly to The Globe and Mail since his j-school days, and even landed a National Magazine Award nomination for his Ryerson Review of Journalism profile of Adam Gopnik in 2012. For 10 months, he wrote about everything from the questionable viability of undersea drones (for Bloomberg Businessweek) to ReBoot’s prediction of the rise of CGI-TV shows (for BuzzFeed), and went on CBC as a paid tech commentator — and made a total of just over $30,000. “Pre-tax,” he adds.
Very few freelance journalists make 100 percent of their living solely from reporting. “It’s super-hard to do. I don’t even know how you’d do it,” Braga says, eyes widening behind his round glasses, as he sits in the spartan office of his own safety net — a part-time teaching gig at Ryerson University. This arrangement isn’t unusual: according to Writers’ Rights, over 70 percent of freelance journalists have other sources of income. Braga landed assignments for major international publications — yet, he still found himself eyeing the odd copywriting job. So when a position for a science and technology reporter opened up at CBC last October, Braga left full-time freelancing behind.
In 1979, three years after the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) was formed, the average freelance writer earned about $25,000. A PWAC survey conducted in 2006 found that the average take-home income of a freelance writer that year hovered at around $24,000 before taxes — in today’s dollars. The haphazard pace of freelance cheques actually landing in one’s mailbox only makes it worse. “You might not get that money for months,” Braga says. And what you get might not be worth the time spent on revisions, edits, and rewrites — as Aidan Johnston found with his own work. “You’d do two rounds of edits on it, and then you get a cheque for $150,” he says. “If I actually factor out the hourly rate for that, I’m going to be really depressed.”
The Momentum: When it’s easier to get more
“This is the way freelancing works,” says John Lorinc, leaning forward in a chair at one of his work haunts: a Starbucks around the corner from his midtown Toronto home. “If you ever find yourself in the position of being a freelancer, the most important thing is to deliver good first drafts, well reported.” He continues: Don’t fight editors. Show up for fact-checking. (“If they still do fact-checking, right?”) Say yes to absolutely every assignment. Be useful.
The now-veteran freelancer learned the hard way: a “hard-ass” editor at The Kingston Whig-Standard fired Lorinc from his summer reporting job in the early 1990s. He had mis-attributed a quote. Dejected, he returned home to Toronto. Between three shifts a week at Book City, he hustled for freelance assignments. Twenty-five years later, he has become a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Spacing, and sources and co-edits nonfiction anthologies for Coach House Books, among other things. “The vast majority of what I’ve done in my career, I don’t plan, it just happens,” he explains.
Momentum is critical for a freelancer. Landing a cover story for Toronto Life might lead to an offer from The Walrus, which might result in a regular web column. And momentum is handy, given how the industry works these days. As Salamon says, “I think more media companies are relying on freelancers now instead of full-time, permanent staff.” Those who already know top-notch editors on a first-name basis have a much easier time gripping the freelance ladder.
But Lorinc rejects the idea that there’s a sparser freelance market today. “Like, there are lots of dollar-a-word opportunities, right? And $1.25 a word opportunities,” he argues. Momentum, experience, and age make freelancing a lot easier. But it also comes at a cost: Lorinc always has a project on the go. He must, in order to maintain his edge. His weekends are one day, tops, and often include a few hours of work. “When I was your age, I would not understand this notion — but, like, the long block of unprogrammed time doesn’t exist for me.”
The Unions: Why their hands are tied
Last June, one of the longest organizing campaigns of Karen Wirsig’s CMG career came to fruition. After six months, roughly two-thirds of 120 Vice Canada employees voted yes to a union. Unfortunately, not one of them is a freelancer. “We did exclude casual employees,” the staff organizer says — referring to short-term contract or free- lance workers — “because part of the problem for organizing a union under current labour law is you need to have a majority of the unit.” Labour organizers and those who cover their efforts insist that improving the lot of freelancers requires them to band together and pressure employers in much the same way that unions do. “The ability to collectively bargain is the most important thing that freelancers can do,” says Salamon. Except they can’t: freelancers, as self-employed individuals, negotiate their contracts one-on-one without an intermediary.
Members of unions like the CMG are doing their best to enshrine better protections for freelancers within their own collective agreements. Vice staffers brought the plight of the company’s freelancers to Wirsig’s attention during her organizing campaign. “Our own new members, working in there, were like: ‘We have got to figure out how to treat freelancers better,’” she says. Staffers, at least, have the capability to strike — and stand to lose if freelancers’ conditions erode further. “This is something that affects all media workers,” Salamon says of their increasing precarity. “Because if companies can increasingly rely on lower-paid freelancers, they’re going to continue to cut full-time, permanent positions.”
The CMG does its best to cover freelancers at the news organizations it represents: CBC is a good example. Smyth’s team tries to bargain for minimum pay rates for freelancers there, as well as access to benefits and less restrictive contracts. The erosion of freelance journalism as a viable, semi-stable career has consequences for the industry’s vitality. Wirsig — and the CMG as a whole — is rallying freelancers as best as she can to avoid this. “Everybody knows that freelancers, often now, get the shortest end of the stick,” she says.
WITH THE HYPER-ACCELERATION of freelancers’ issues — lousy pay, the blurring of work and life, lack of security — the gap between sinking and swimming widens. “As it becomes riskier and more expensive to freelance for a living, writing will be transformed into work even fewer people can afford to do,” reads a particularly grim passage of Writers’ Rights. Among the consequences: the inability for traditionally marginalized voices (women, people of colour, Indigenous people, and others) to enter the field; the gutting of time-consuming and expensive investigative journalism; a narrowing selection of alternative outlets. The list goes on, and on, and on — threatening the very ecosystem of Canadian journalism, freelance or otherwise.
“Freelancing itself isn’t new,” Salamon points out. “Freelancing precedes even the institution of journalism itself.” Until the mid-nineteenth century, most journalists were wealthy men and women who didn’t need to write — or work — to earn a living. Opening the ranks of the press required a stable class of career journalists capable of taking risks, developing sources, and keeping abreast of developments in their chosen beat. Freelancers today find it difficult to do this and, with a few exceptions, cannot devote themselves to journalism full-time.
David Gray-Donald has been fortunate enough to do just that. In mid-March, he started working as the publisher of Briarpatch. It’s a salaried, full-time, unionized position in Regina that has him approving contracts for the independent magazine’s array of freelance and contract copy-editors, fact-checkers, and writers.
His own pace will likely slow, but he hopes to devote himself to nurturing the many freelancers that keep Briarpatch awash in words. The magazine pays between $75 and $225 per story — not bad for a not-for-pro t publication with just two full-time staff members. But Gray-Donald believes Briarpatch could do better. “It’s no secret that we’d like to pay writers more,” he says. “We need to figure out ways to do that. That’s sort of my job.”
Brennan Doherty was an RRJ staff writer, copy-editor, and co-producer of The Markup. Follow him at BrenDoherty