The specifics of freelance journalism are largely a mystery to the news-consuming public, which means many Americans are completely unaware of the conditions facing the reporters who keep them informed. In the midst of a pandemic, these journalists are hanging on by a thread.  

Being a freelancer doesn’t mean you don’t have a boss; it means you’re juggling multiple bosses and deadlines at once. There are no sick days and no paid time off. Most freelancers go into debt covering their overhead while working on a story, which means they are dependent on a continual flow of assignments to pay for their previous work. When there is a large disruption to the regular news cycle—like a global health crisis, for example, or an attempted coup—freelancers aren’t just facing a dry spell, they are scrambling for basic survival. Digital and print publications usually pay per word, and only after publication. This means hours of work in the form of research, interviews, transcribing, and writing are unpaid labor, and freelancers often get paid for their published writing weeks or months after completing their story. It’s an incredible grind, and an overwhelming pace to keep up.

As a freelance journalist in Queens, New York, Rebecca Chowdhury is deeply familiar with these dynamics—especially because she covers workers’ rights. Many of her pitches focus on workers navigating underground economies, including undocumented laborers and sex workers. These communities have pushed Chowdhury to think about labor and economic systems differently. The 29-year-old said she is grappling with whether the journalism industry is capable of making the transitions needed to ensure that working class people of color don’t get pushed out of the field. 

“The pandemic has caused all of us to re-examine our lives. Grassroots organizations like Desis Rising Up and Moving are calling this a ‘portal to a new reality,’ but in order to be a portal, there has to be a push for economic systems that center the needs of working class Black and brown folks and I don’t see that happening in the journalism industry.”

Despite its working class roots, journalism has slowly morphed into an elite profession that locks out reporters from underrepresented backgrounds. For the journalists who do find full-time employment in the field, the industry is a disaster, rife with horrendous pay inequities, large scale layoffs, a lack of funding, resources, and support, and buyouts that gut newsrooms. In response, there has been a noticeable shift in recent years as journalists in every corner of the industry publicly begin to identify as “workers” and unionize to improve working conditions in their newsrooms.

This organizing work is not without risk. Even “progressiveoutlets engage in union busting, abruptly laying off of newly unionized reporters. Even more complicated, the journalists most in need of workplace protections—freelancers—are usually not included in collective bargaining units and contracts, though these reporters often spend years contributing to an outlet or sometimes enter into long-term freelance contracts with publications. If the journalism industry is a disaster for reporters with coveted full time positions offering a salary and benefits, freelance reporting is a “shit show,” as one freelancer told Prism, complete with low rates and no benefits, health care, stability, or guarantee that freelancing checks will ever actually arrive.

The pandemic has worsened these conditions, and decimated the journalism industry. TheNew York Times reported in April that 36,000 workers at news outlets had been laid off or had their positions reduced since the beginning of the pandemic. Both legacy publications and new media slashed their newsrooms. But as Poynter reported in June, these dire figures “fail to provide a complete picture of the devastation to the industry, because they fail to account for freelance journalists, many of whom have seen their livelihoods vanish overnight, and who do not have unemployment and other protections.”

An increasingly volatile industry

There are no exact statistics on the current number of freelance journalists, but two surveys cited by Poynter that were conducted by the Freelancers Union at the beginning of the pandemic in early spring provide some insight into the conditions these workers have faced. Of the more than 8,400 respondents encompassing a wide range of industries, 80% of self-identified journalists had lost work by the end of April and 51% of journalists who responded to the survey reported having lost more than $5,000 in income since the COVID-19 crisis began.

But it wasn’t just COVID-19 that impacted freelancers’ ability to get work; it was the double-whammy of the pandemic and the Trump administration. Chowdhury said the “absurd news cycle” has led to a drastic inflation in the number of stories published each day. But that doesn’t mean freelancers’ workloads have increased. Rather, the “currency of stories” has been greatly devalued.

“As the nationwide uprisings happened concurrently with the ‘reckoning’ in journalism, I wasn’t really holding my breath, but I thought maybe things would get better,” Chowdhury said. “Now we’re months and months into the pandemic and freelancing just feels like a very different playing field. Pre-COVID, I would have complained about how hard it was to land a pitch, but that now feels like the good ol’ days.”

As a woman of color reporting nuanced and necessary stories about social justice movements, Chowdhury’s work is desperately needed in the field, but she’s considering leaving. Her first year as a freelancer coincided with the global pandemic, and several weeks ago things got so bad that she chose to stop pitching freelance stories in order to devote her time to looking for a full-time position, which included applying for jobs outside of the journalism industry. Pitching—the practice of crafting concise and compelling time sensitive story ideas for individual outlets and editors—is a time-consuming and laborious process that isn’t compensated or even guaranteed to lead to work. (Editors are sometimes unresponsive to freelancers, only to assign their pitches to staff writers.)  

For journalists of color, there are often two complicated issues at play: their utter lack of a safety net, and the overwhelming whiteness of the industry. While organizing doesn’t fix these issues, it can serve as a crucial starting point.

The New York Times recently reported on a “new breed” of union activists changing newsrooms. Since 2015, a “frenzy” of newsroom organizing has elevated a new generation of activists. These millennial leaders’ experiences differ “sharply from those of the veteran newspaper men who had long run the unions”; their sensitivities were shaped by progressive politics, and they didn’t have faith in a “single, supposedly objective, typically white and male point of view.”

There have been efforts to similarly organize freelancers, though some of these attempts have been maligned as resulting in little more than “impassioned meetings” with no “material gains.” But freelance journalists and organizers in the National Writers Union’s Freelance Solidarity Project say the pandemic has made it clear that organizing is key to freelancers’ ability to survive in the increasingly volatile journalism industry.

Consider the needs of every kind of worker

In 2018, a group of journalists began meeting at the Writers Guild of America, East offices to brainstorm. These were former unionized staff writers who were now freelancers and wanted to use the skills they gained during their respective collective bargaining processes to organize freelance journalists and fight for workplace protections. These early meetings were informal, but eventually the reporters joined the National Writers Union (NWU) and formed the Freelance Solidarity Project (FSP), a distinct division of digital media workers under the NWU. Member Dayna Tortorici told Prism that freelancers are often discouraged from organizing, largely because of how the federal government classifies these workers.

“There are a lot of reasons freelancers are discouraged from organizing and part of it is because we are classified as ‘self-employed,’ so organizing together is technically considered collusion. It’s a very different process than organizing a workplace,” Tortorici said.  

Tortorici has been a freelancer for more than two years and as the pandemic began to unfurl in the United States in March, she was unsure what would happen to the stories she was juggling for multiple outlets. After attending a NWU emergency webinar on how to apply for pandemic unemployment assistance, she decided to officially join the Freelance Solidarity Project. Without the webinar, she said, she wouldn’t have understood how to apply for benefits as a freelancer.

“When you’re applying for unemployment benefits or dealing with the unemployment office, you’re asked to list your previous employer and whether you’ve ‘worked’ that day,” Tortorici told Prism. “These are hard questions to answer for long-term freelancers because of how these things are defined and categorized. Unless you’re familiar with the system or the intricacies of labor law, it can be hard to secure payments you’re entitled to.”  

Clio Chang, who joined the NWU as a freelancer in 2019, said that working with other labor unions has been key to the Freelance Solidarity Project’s organizing strategy. Labor laws and employers have effectively separated freelancers and staffers into separate entities, she said, even though journalists vacillate between the two categories for the entirety of their careers. In other words: Everyone in journalism will be a staffer or a freelancer at some point, and there is no distinction between these types of work other than what the industry dictates them to be.

“There is a distinct difference in each category’s legal rights, but to make the industry sustainable we have to consider the needs of every kind of worker. If we all work in the same industry, we should not experience different standards,” Chang said.

As the pandemic worsens, the FSP’s most immediate goals are two-fold: educating freelancers on their rights, and calling on print and digital publications to adopt a graduated payment schedule and rapid reimbursement policy for freelance work in progress since January 1, 2020. In practice, this would mean that 50% of the negotiated total fee would be delivered when a journalist submits a draft, and 50% of the negotiated total fee on delivery of any work that is ready for publication. The NWU released information on best practices for outlets interested in adopting this payment structure. (Note: Prism has not adopted the use of graduated payment scales.)

Members of the FSP were tasked with sorting through the NWU’s archives for specific language to use around graduated payment scales. The labor union had a more than 30-year history helping journalists negotiate for graduated payments scales as part of their contracts with publications. In fact, graduated payment scales used to be a more common industry standard.

“When we were devising this campaign [for graduated payment scales], we could sort through this archive and see how there was a longstanding precedent for this, especially with magazine writing and alt-weeklies,” Chang explained. “With COVID, we felt like we had a real hook because so many freelance journalists had pieces suspended and they were left in limbo. They weren’t getting a kill fee and they had no idea if their stories would run. As the media was becoming newly-sensitive to labor issues and there was a lot of reporting on COVID solidarity and mutual aid, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit what should be a widely-embraced policy.”

The union has made some important leeway. After a series of meetings facilitated by the FSP, The Intercept published a series of principles to ensure that the needs and interests of freelancers are being met.

Angely Mercado, a Queens, New York-based reporter, told Prism she could “definitely see the value” in advocating for graduated payment scales and other policies that benefit freelancers. The freelance journalist was hit hard by the pandemic, losing her job in mid-March and moving back in with her family above her mom’s in-home day care—an experience she wrote about for CNBC.

As her career has progressed, Mercado said she’s had to become more comfortable talking about money. “When I first learned that as a freelancer, you can negotiate your rate, it felt revolutionary,” Mercado said. “For working class folks and women of color in the media, you feel like you can’t rock the boat when it comes to money. There’s definitely a lack of transparency and if you don’t have mentorship opportunities, you have to figure out all of these unspoken rules by yourself.”

Like Chowdhury, Mercado says her time in media may have “an expiration date.” The industry already makes it hard for women like her to succeed, but when you add freelancing during a pandemic, Mercado says it becomes impossible to see herself surviving in an industry that historically hasn’t welcomed people who look like her or come from her background.

The experience of working class women of color journalists presents a challenge for graduated payment scales. While the Freelance Solidarity Project puts the onus on print and digital publications to begin adopting this pay scale, chances are it will fall on freelancers to suggest it. For those who are interested, Tortorici and Chang invite freelancers to attend FSP meetings and get tips about how to begin advocating for the policy.

Mercado had her own advice for freelancers.

“Those of us who are working class freelancers of color are dealing with grief and all of the emotional labor that comes with being a freelancer living through a crisis. Every day that you get up and you do your work and get a byline, it’s a miracle in this environment,” she said. “You are doing your best, but if you need to take a break from this industry to survive, that’s not a bad thing. You have to fight for your own best interests.”

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.