Although I’m not a freelancer right now, I’ve been one for long periods of my working life, and for part of that, I was a member of the Freelancers Union. Because of my membership, I was able to get reasonably priced health insurance — which is one of the major concerns of independent workers, both in my experience and according to this article in the NY Times, written by Steven Greenhouse.
Things are a little different than when I was a member. Then, the Freelancers Union contracted with a number of outside insurance companies; now, it has its own clinic in downtown Brooklyn (and an agreement with Blue Cross/Blue Shield for those outside the city). Sounds like a really interesting setup, and one that I would probably seriously look into should I find myself once again an independent worker:
Historically, through the power of collective bargaining, labor unions helped reverse that equation, enabling many unskilled workers to earn middle-class incomes. But as traditional labor unions have steadily declined in size and power, groups like the Freelancers Union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United have stepped up, trying to give collective voice and power to often-marginalized workers.
I have a Google alert set on the phrase “freelance writing,” and it’s been picking up blog entries written about Nate Thayer’s answer to the Atlantic Monthly editor who asked him to edit down a previously-published article so they could publish it for free. As Thayer says in a later blog entry, this certainly seems to have hit a nerve, especially among freelance journalists.
One of the blogs that my search dredged up was a defense of the Atlantic Monthly’s policy (titled “Freelance Writer Sends Atlantic Editor Most Self-Righteous E-sermon Ever“) from a self-described “fairly novice blogger,” who is scornful of Thayer’s insistence on payment.
I was initially bemused by her comparison of The Atlantic Monthly to a “PTA Mom.” (I imagine the well-paid editors of that publication would be as well). However, I think the point of her piece can be summed up in this paragraph, which basically says that the quality of the content doesn’t matter any more; it’s how well you publicize yourself:
Because while I haven’t spent a ton of time as a freelancer, I am certain of this hard reality about being a freelance journalist in 2013: Your value has very little to do with how carefully you arrange your special snowflake words in a Word doc. It has to do with the impact you have on your audience, and, stock though it sounds, how well you forge relationships. Readership and network are your only capital. If you want to withhold your precious prose from the public eye as a stance against creative leeching, then fine, but you won’t be missed.
The idea that a writer feels that how she arranges her words (and, presumably, the research behind them) is of little importance is not only a nasty reflection of how many people see the craft of writing today — but I find it rather sad.
The recent incident where a journalist Nate Thayer was asked by an editor at Atlantic Monthly to edit down a piece for publication for free — and then blogged about it — has resulted in a good deal of discussion in the freelancer community, especially after a senior editor at Atlantic wrote a lengthy response.
I found an interesting discussion at a site called Branch.com between a group of writers and editors — called How Much Should A Writer Be Paid, If Anything? — and thought I’d link to it. There are some fascinating points made. Is it wrong for a beginning writer to work for free in order to build up a portfolio? What is the difference between being paid for a blog and being paid for a researched article? At what point does it become exploitation when a professional publication pays salaried workers well but drops its freelance budgets?
It’s an ongoing conversation, and this is an interesting piece of it.