Welcome to the second half of my Q&A with journalist and academic Nicole Cohen. Part 1 is available here.
Jaclyn Law: You wrote an article for Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, titled “Negotiating Writers’ Rights: Freelance Cultural Labour and the Challenge of Organizing.” You suggested that a union could be “the most effective way to challenge powerful publishers.” Unions for Canadian freelancers are a relatively recent development. Why, historically, has it been difficult to organize freelancers to take collective action?
Nicole Cohen: I think the history of PWAC as an organization is instructive here. When PWAC was forming in the late 1970s, there was a big debate about whether to become a union or a professional association. Ultimately it became a professional association, but at its formation the group was oriented to spirited resistance: it negotiated contracts with 19 magazines and twice threatened to go on strike.
That spirit faded over the decades, but recently we have seen renewed energy around organizing freelancers, both from the Canadian Freelance Union and the Canadian Media Guild, which has long represented freelancers at the CBC but is now organizing freelancers across the media industries. This is exciting, and I think the recent contracts introduced by TC Media, The Toronto Star, and other media companies are spurring freelancers into renewed action—they have had enough. There has been an increase in public outcry, meetings and campaigns in the past few months, which is promising.
There are, of course, challenges to organizing freelancers, but I wanted to begin my answer to this question by pointing out that it is not impossible, as most assume, and there are many historical examples of freelancers successfully organizing (see, for example, freelancers in film and television, in the visual arts, and the Freelancers Union in the United States, which is the fastest-growing workers’ organization in America).
That said, there are specific conditions that make organizing freelancers in Canada difficult. For example, freelancers work alone, isolated from one another, and often don’t know other freelancers (this makes it difficult to organize to withhold labour or services, for example). Freelancers have long had antagonistic relationships with unions, as newsroom unions worked to limit the amount of work contracted to freelancers (this is changing, as the CEP is now the parent union of the CFU). Legally, the structures of labour representation in Canada are built on a model of single-workplace bargaining, which makes it difficult to organize workers who work for multiple employers or on multiple worksites to collectively bargain.
What I found interesting is that the skills one needs to develop to be a successful freelancer, and the structure of freelance journalism as highly individualized work, mean that freelancers develop highly individualized coping strategies and particular occupational identities (as individuals, entrepreneurs and professionals) that are not conducive to collective action or organizing.
Finally, in a small industry based on reputation, many freelancers are hesitant to speak out or complain, for fear of losing work (Amber Nasrulla’s recent post on Story Board speaks to this problem).
There are challenges, of course, but it’s not impossible to organize freelancers to collectively confront the challenges they face. There is a lot of activity going on right now around contracts, which is encouraging.
JL: Many freelancers do traditional media work such as article writing and copy editing in combination with corporate work, which is typically work-for-hire—freelancers don’t retain copyright and don’t expect to, and they are often paid better rates. Is this the way of the future, in terms of having a viable freelance career? What could it mean for the profession of journalism?
NC: Freelancers have always done other work to sustain themselves, especially in Canada, where we have smaller media markets, fewer companies and lower rates of pay than, for example, in the United States.
What I found in my survey was that freelancers note that they are doing more and more of the corporate or teaching or non-journalism-related work and less journalism, and many express frustration at this because they got into freelancing specifically to do journalism. In my survey, most freelancers say they want to write long-form, investigative journalism or books, but most earn all or some of their living from corporate writing.
Of course, not all freelancers are journalists and many do not want to be. The problem, however, is that fewer people are able to earn a living doing journalistic work even though an increasing amount of journalistic work is being outsourced to freelancers. I think this has several implications. For one, it means that skilled journalists committed to their craft are leaving the occupation. It means that journalism will increasingly become an occupation for only those who can afford to be a journalist, which increasingly means being able to sustain oneself as a freelancer. This will have the effect of limiting whose voices and perspectives will be heard.
Ultimately, the challenges freelance journalists face affect the quality of content in media. Low pay means that people focus on the stories that are faster to produce in order to make freelancers’ time worthwhile, and we will lose the kind of journalism freelancers have traditionally excelled at: long form, more creative, challenging types of journalism.
JL: Is there an upside to precarious employment? In an age of newsroom layoffs and outsourcing, could freelancers be better off in some ways—more adaptable, more responsive to the market? There’s been a lot of talk about the creative class, and recent developments like communal workspaces and the benefits of technology for mobile workers. Are these developments a good thing?
NC: I would never say there is an upside to precarious employment—research consistently shows that conditions of precarious employment have negative implications for workers across the labour market: lower wages, economic and social insecurity, no access to benefits or social protections, and risk of poor physical and mental health, for example. But I do think it’s important to recognize that many people do choose to work as freelancers and become self-employed—this is not entirely a top-down process (even though a quick scan of job postings and a look at the numbers of layoffs in media in this country show that it is getting more and more difficult to find employment in media, especially for writers).
Self-employment offers opportunities and advantages, and I think historically we can think of freelance cultural workers as refusing to engage in waged-labour and seeking ways to be autonomous and in control of their work and their lives. And the ability of freelancers to have access to workspaces and mobile technologies and, perhaps, even ways to self-publish, does show promising signs that workers can, potentially, liberate themselves from employers.
The challenge, however, is that in our economy, security is tied to employment, and although we have a rise of self-employment and freelancing, we are not seeing an increase in social protections and institutions to support these workers or this form of work—our social policy and security is tied to employment. And while many individuals do succeed as freelancers (interestingly, they are usually the ones advocating that we all become freelancers), self-employment is polarizing: most earn low incomes, experience insecurity, and would prefer secure work.
I think it’s important to look at the power relations that underpin freelance work: who is benefiting and at whose expense? And what do we need to do to make flexible work flexible (and secure) for workers, not just provide flexibility for companies to offload the risks and costs of production onto individuals.
JL: Can you talk briefly about your current research?
NC: My doctoral research investigated traditional realms of freelance journalism, specifically newspaper and magazine publishing. I am now beginning to research new publishing models that have emerged in the digital age, or digital-first journalism, and the production practices that are made possible by the rise and spread of a freelance media workforce. I am interested in examining what possibilities exist to improve media workers’ autonomy, opportunities and material conditions, and in investigating the social and power relations emerging with a new era of digital publishing.
I am also currently collaborating with Greig de Peuter and Enda Brophy on a research project we have called “Cultural Workers Organize.” We are investigating how cultural workers in a range of flexible employment forms (freelancers, interns, contract workers, the self-employed) in the most vaunted sectors of the creative economy (media, fashion, art, etc.) are collectively responding to precarious employment. We are examining experiments happening on the margins of the labour movement globally to respond to precarity (you can read more at our website, culturalworkersorganize.org).
I’ve long admired Nicole Cohen for co-founding Shameless magazine and for her research into the labour conditions of interns and freelancers. At the end of March, she gave a presentation about her academic work, including the results of her online survey about freelancing, conducted in 2010. I attended along with other freelancers, and I was stunned by her talk—I thought, “More people need to hear this!” So I invited Nicole, a recently minted PhD and, as of July 1, the University of Toronto Mississauga’s new assistant professor in the Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology, to take part in a Q&A.
Jaclyn Law: Can you tell me about your education and journalism background?
Nicole Cohen: I graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 2003 and planned to be a journalist, but wanted to learn more about the world, as I spent most of my time at Ryerson working on The Eyeopener and not in my classes. I was really excited about the prospects of working as a journalist in Canada. I had done an internship at Eye Weekly and was hired as a staff writer, had done a short stint in The Star’s Radio Room program, and was freelancing for several publications: The Star, This magazine, Eye Weekly and others. I had also co-founded Shameless magazine with Melinda Mattos in 2003, when we graduated from Ryerson. While starting my journalism career by freelancing, I was taking part-time classes at York University, which eventually led me to do a MA in political science at York. I decided to do a PhD in the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture, as York offers good funding for graduate students and I was awarded a fellowship and realized that graduate studies, oddly, was a more secure form of employment than freelancing, one that would also allow me to continue to write and publish.
Based on my experience as a journalist and working in alternative/independent media, I gravitated toward communication studies and began studying political economy of communications, a critical approach to media and journalism that examines the power relations and social relations in these industries. It was then that I began thinking much more critically about my own experiences as a media worker and why, for example, I was spending weeks researching long, investigative articles for Eye Weekly and being paid $250 per article (of course now I realize that I should have negotiated a higher fee!).
At the time, around 2006, a lot of academic research was emerging that was paying attention to work and labour conditions in media and cultural industries, and this research intersected with research in political science and sociology on precarious employment, which has been spreading into growing numbers of occupations in the past few decades. At the time, I was part of a freelance journalist community that was experiencing low and stagnating wages and increasingly restrictive contracts for copyright. The Canadian Freelance Union was also emerging, which pointed to the very serious issues Canadian freelancers were facing in trying to earn a living—serious enough to establish a trade union.
It seemed to me at the time that it was impossible to understand contemporary media and journalism, as political economy aims to do, without understanding the material conditions of those who produce media and journalism. And so, when choosing a research topic, I chose to research what I knew and investigated the working conditions and labour conditions of freelance journalists in Canada. I defended my dissertation in February 2013. I wrote my dissertation as a book and plan to submit it to a publisher this summer or fall.
JL: Can you tell me about your academic work, in particular your PhD work and online survey?
NC: Broadly, I research in the area of critical political economy of communication, with a focus on work and labour organizing in media and cultural industries. My dissertation examines the working conditions of Canadian freelance journalists and freelancers’ efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. I spent about three years researching and writing the dissertation.
The empirical section of my work draws on an online survey I conducted in 2010 of self-identified freelance journalists across Canada. Two hundred freelancers responded. The survey consisted of a mix of quantitative questions (salary, hours worked, type of work, etc.) but also contained a significant qualitative component, where I asked a series of open-ended questions about how freelancers experience their work, what they like and don’t like about freelancing, their attitudes toward collective organizing and unions, for example. I can’t say the survey is an accurate representative sample of all freelancers in Canada (freelance journalists are very difficult to count, as it’s such a fluid profession, and each freelancer has vastly different experiences of and expectations from work than the next) but it does offer insight into the tensions and challenges that underpin the experience of freelancing in contemporary media industries.
To supplement the survey, I interviewed members and organizers of writers’ organizations and unions, including the CEP, CFU, PWAC, CMG and others (including the Freelancers Union in New York City, the National Writers Union in the US, and the National Union of Journalists’ freelance branch in the UK). The rest of the work draws on theoretical and academic literature in communication and labour studies. Overall, I look at the underlying processes, practices, and social relations that shape the work of contemporary freelance journalism and challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that freelance writing is inherently low-paid work.
The argument I make is that freelance journalism has been transformed from, historically, being a strategy of resisting salaried labour by journalists—an effort to gain some control over the terms of commodification of their labour power and autonomy over their craft—into a strategy for media firms to intensify exploitation of freelance writers’ labour power through two primary strategies: the exploitation of unpaid labour time and control of copyright to writers’ works.
JL: Freelance income rates have remained stagnant—and even declined—since the 1970s, and contracts are demanding more rights than ever before. What are some other challenges that freelancers face?
NC: Low and stagnant rates are a major challenge, as is the new contract regime that publishers have introduced, contracts that demand all rights to writers’ works, or rights in a bundle for a very small fee (including, recently with TC Media’s contract, moral rights). These two key aspects of freelancing mean that while there is lots of journalistic work available to freelancers, especially as media companies contract and layoff staff, this work is low paid and freelancers are not earning as much as they can from their works due to highly restrictive contracts. Publishers are buying rights to writers’ works for multiple formats and venues, and so it seems that writers should be able to earn increasing income from the stories they write. But this is not the case—publishers are in a very powerful position and most individual freelancers are in a very weak bargaining position.
These two challenges to freelancers’ incomes are linked to a host of other challenges freelance journalists (and, arguably, all freelance or self-employed workers) face: because rates per word or per article remain very low, freelancers must work longer hours to earn higher incomes. Although most freelancers say they are freelancers because they want flexible schedules, or more control over their time, most work long hours and have intermittent but intense workloads. Work is experienced in feast-or-famine style: too much work tempered by stretches of no work at all. Freelancers must take on multiple projects at once and always be hustling to find work. Self-employed workers have limited access to benefits and social protections, such as EI, pensions, or parental leave.
These challenges have been experienced by freelancers throughout history, of course, but they have intensified in recent decades, as more people are working as freelancers than ever before and, as you note, rates of pay in Canadian journalism remain absurdly low. The freelancers I surveyed, most of who report enjoying the work they do, say the aspects of the job they like least include marketing and promotions, the constant and relentless pitching, and not having control over how much work they have or how much money they will earn (most freelancers do not set their rates for the work they do). Many are leaving journalism, or taking on more and more non-journalistic work, even though many say they became freelancers in the first place to do more interesting work.
JL: In your 2012 paper for tripleC, “Cultural Work as a Site of Struggle: Freelancers and Exploitation,” you’ve applied the framework of Marxist political economy to freelance writers, pointing out how independent workers experience the exploitation typically associated with the employer-employee relationship. Can you talk about the ways that freelancers are exploited?
NC: In my work, I look at how freelance journalists, like all workers, are exploited under capitalism. I use the term in its technical sense: as Marx explained, workers are exploited because they produce more value (surplus value, or profit) than what they are paid, and that surplus is controlled by an employer.
These relations become difficult to see in the case of freelancers, who are self-employed workers, yet workers nonetheless. For one, freelancers sell single pieces of work to a publisher, so it appears that they are not paid for their time at work, like other workers, and freelancers’ names are attached to their articles and to the invoices they submit for payment, further emphasizing that freelancers work for themselves. But with low and stagnant rates of pay, it is becoming increasingly clear that relations of exploitation underpinning freelance journalism are intensifying in contemporary capitalism.
I outline two primary areas of exploitation in my research: one, unpaid labour time, and two, copyright. Freelance labour is very cheap for publishers. By purchasing finished works, for which freelancers are paid an arbitrary per-word or per-article rate, publishers don’t have to pay for the time it takes to develop a piece, research, do interviews, rewrite and edit, and all the tasks that are necessary for producing journalism. For freelance writers, this includes the time of developing ideas, networking, pitching, running a business, invoicing, promoting—a very long list. This unpaid work is critical for the work of writing, yet the low rates writers are paid—rates that have remained stagnant for decades—mean that the cost of writers’ labour power is lowered, or, exploitation is increased. And this is for writing that is paid. The spread of free writing, or writing for “exposure,” on major news sites like the Huffington Post increases the generalized exploitation of freelancers and further lowers the value of their labour power.
The second aspect of exploitation is through contracts for copyright, which are demanding escalating rights for minimal pay and limit writers’ abilities to resell and repurpose their works. Media companies, on the other hand, retain all rights (in perpetuity, throughout the universe, in formats yet to be invented, as most contracts now stipulate) to endlessly exploit a piece of writing. These exploitative practices have generated highly unequal conditions for freelancers in Canada.These practices, of course, are not evenly applied across the media landscape, as there are many publications in Canada that do not exist simply to earn profit, ranging from activist media to not-for-profit and independent publications. But the majority of newspapers, magazines, and websites in Canada are published by large, converged media corporations that are very, very profitable. Key to their success has been offloading of the risks and costs of media production onto individual freelancers who have little power to negotiate for higher rates of pay and improved contracts.