New UK report highlights the challenges of freelancing
This post is the eleventh in a series called “E-Lancer Writes,” exploring the working conditions, rights and collective organizing strategies of freelance journalists, interns and other low-wage or temporary digital media workers.
By Errol Salamon
New data confirm that the number of freelance journalists has increased across the UK since 2000 and their pay is lower than the national average.
A report published on February 13 by the UK’s National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) found that the number of freelance journalists increased from 15,000 to 25,000 between 2000 and 2015. Freelance—or self-employment—represents 35 percent of jobs for journalists versus 15 percent for all workers across the UK economy. These numbers are similar to the findings in the UK’s 2015 National Labour Force Survey.
The NCTJ survey data suggest the mean annual income for all freelance journalists is £19,499 ($32,099 CAD), while it’s £22,487 ($37,018 CAD) for all occupations. Freelancers may be paid less because a higher proportion of them work part time—43 percent compared to 29 percent of workers across all occupations.
“I also teach sometimes: this is a common source of income for mid-career onwards journos, so it’s important,” said a freelancer who completed the NCTJ survey.
Yet some survey respondents said their overall earnings have decreased in recent years.
“The basic problem with freelance journalism now is that the rates for the job have collapsed as has the amount of commissioned work publications will entertain,” said one freelance journalist. This freelancer said that the little freelance work that’s available is very low paid.
Some respondents said freelancers earn low incomes because of the increasing availability of free content online.
“The entry to the market of ‘citizen journalists’ who are happy to give content away in exchange for a credit – and the papers’ pursuit of this model – means that the hard work of committed working freelance photographers is further devalued,” said another freelance journalist.
While the NCTJ survey found that freelance journalists in the UK are equally balanced between men and women, they tend to be older and predominately white. These patterns reflect the nature of self-employment across the entire UK economy, except that the majority of all self-employed workers are male.
Comparable data on Canadian freelance journalism today isn’t readily available
In Canada, the percentage of self-employed journalists has actually decreased from 16.2 percent in 2001 (2,100 of 12,965) to 14.8 percent in 2011 (1,970 of 13,280), according to the 2011 National Household Survey, the most comprehensive and recent data available. Still, by comparison, self-employment for all occupations in Canada represented only 11.7 percent of workers in 2001 and 11.3 percent in 2011.
This data aside, however, Canadian policy-makers and media workers’ organizations have conducted few recent studies on the state of freelance journalism in the country. But there are historical precedents for such research.
Research economist Brian R. Harrison undertook an unprecedented survey in 1979, Canadian Freelance Writers: Characteristics and Issues, with the federal government’s now defunct Department of Communications. The survey was designed to collect information on the economic status of freelancers in 1978.
Harrison found that women freelancers earned less than men, and freelancers overall made less than their wage-earning counterparts. The median income of full-time writers was $12,500 compared to $14,225 for other wage-earners. But approximately 25 percent of full-time writers and 75 percent of part-timers took other jobs to supplement their income.
In 1984, the Department of Communications commissioned the management consulting firm Woods Gordon to study the Canadian periodical publishing industry. Woods Gordon focused in part on the low pay of freelance magazine writers.
“A major feature article of 2,500-3,000 words that in 1964 would have commanded $500 would pay $350 today,” wrote Woods Gordon in its report, A Study of the Canadian Periodical Publishing Industry.
In May 2006, the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) published a profile of the freelance writing sector in Canada. It’s still the most comprehensive and recent survey of Canadian freelancers.
The PWAC survey shows that freelancers earned an average annual income of $25,000 before tax in 1979 (higher than Harrison’s 1978 finding), $26,500 in 1995 and only $24,035 in 2005. This amount represents a decrease in income when adjusted for inflation. The majority of these freelancers were women, and their earnings also represent a gender gap: women have consistently been paid the lowest rates. In addition, only 37 percent of survey respondents said writing was their primary source of income.
Some key findings from these historical Canadian studies are thus consistent with the NCTJ’s findings: freelancing is low paid and freelancers have typically worked additional jobs to supplement their income.
More research could lead to improved policy
Still, more comparative and current research on freelance journalism could help governments and freelancers’ organizations develop policy for the media industries, along with financing and training programs that satisfy freelancers’ needs.
And that’s exactly what the NCTJ is doing with its research.
“Now that journalism has one of the highest rates of self-employment in the UK economy, the NCTJ must focus more of its work on providing accessible training and qualifications to meet the needs of modern freelance journalists,” said Joanne Butcher, NCTJ chief executive.
Some NCTJ survey respondents also said the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), a union representing media workers in the UK and parts of Europe, has a positive role to play in supporting freelancers.
“The role of the union is very important for freelance journalists, who are otherwise at the mercy of employers,” said a freelance journalist. “I haven’t needed to call on the union very often but the NUJ has been an important safety net for me; the website is full of vital information and help, and in the event of a conflict with an employer about payment or commissioning, they have always given me good advice and support.”
Errol Salamon is a freelance writer and a visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also co-editor and contributor to the book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @errolouvrier.