It’s a vicious cycle

It’s hard being a freelancer in Canada at even the best of times

It’s a vicious cycle
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by Ryan Uytdewilligen

It’s hard being a freelancer in Canada at even the best of times. Rates are low, opportunities are sparse, and many readers prefer American institutions like The New York Times. Now a battle between the stubborn federal government and social media companies has made it even harder for those of us already scraping by to find any work. 

The federal government introduced The Online News Act (Bill C-18) back in 2022 because Prime Minister Trudeau felt wealthy companies like Meta and Google should compensate news publishers for their content. Not a bad idea (in theory), except for the fact social media giants called his bluff and completely shut down access to news stories of any kind on their platforms. Not only would they not agree to pony up extra dough, Meta doubled down and described it as a move to “curb the spread of disinformation and fake news.” 

As of June 2023, any Canadian news article published on Meta takes you nowhere. Really. If you dare click on such content, an unwelcoming blank screen awaits.

Many publications, for better or worse, built readership through social media posts. To their detriment, early hesitance to embrace the internet soon shifted to outright reliance throughout the 2010s. Once they were dependent on these platforms' reach, it was only a matter of time before the rug was going to be pulled out from underneath them.

For their part, Google has also been burying or blocking Canadian news in their search results. That means clicks have gone down, which leads to fewer advertisers. No money coming into the news publications means no work for people like me. Simple as that.

Population wise, Canada is a relatively small country, barely passing the 40 million mark. Yet there always seemed to be a disproportionate amount of writers looking to break news and share stories. It is, to be fair, even now, still a romantically alluring career. 

Profitable newspapers and positive promises of the early internet kept many of us comfortable, but up until the Covid era, competition was the biggest obstacle standing in a Canadian freelancer’s way. Hoping to become one of them, I went through a communication arts program in 2010. It was a strange time when physical film strip editing was still taught, and social media hadn’t quite been embraced by legitimate news organizations. 

For a while the odd freelance job padded my bank account and improved my skills until relationships I made with reliable blog and newspaper contacts allowed me to move into full-time freelancing. But that was then and this is now. I haven’t heard back from any of them in eight months. I had sourced a wealth of open pitches boasting freelance opportunities, but for the past half year, nobody has been actively open to submissions. 

If on the slim chance that they are, rates that once hovered around the $400 mark now pale in comparison. And even if you do manage to publish something, far fewer people will ultimately be able to find your piece, let alone share it with others, because of the dispute with the social media platforms. It’s a vicious cycle. 

Shut out of the market, any worthwhile freelance work is now found south of our border.

I’m not alone in this either.

Mariana Aramburu, a freelance travel writer, said the main traffic coming to her client’s sites was directed from social media, particularly through Facebook.

“Sadly, being freelancers makes us the first expendable option to cut off,” she explained. 

“Ten years ago, the pressure of the slow disappearance of physical, printed media made the freelance writing world challenging. Now, these new government measures make it impossible.”

If walloping already struggling freelancers with this bill weren’t enough, a smorgasbord of simultaneous problems eroding modern media almost guarantees no immediate chance of a comeback. 

Political polarization, particularly during the pandemic, made an enemy out of professional journalists, and the emergence of “artificial intelligence” has brought the very art of writing to an existential tipping point. Add influencers posing as “citizen journalists” who feed on cheap views and it adds up to a broken industry. 

Amanda Michalezki has watched the slow decline of the industry and says finding freelance work from legitimate companies hasn’t been easy. More often than not, she comes across smaller companies in Canada that aren’t well known and want articles done for free.

“There is a lot of value in being a journalist and a credible writer,” Michalezki explained. “But nowadays, there’s a misconception that trying to do what professionals do can be done by anyone, which isn’t the case.”

Perhaps one of the lone social media sites still allowing Canadian content has something to do with that. 

X (Twitter) has swiftly shifted into a somehow even worse cesspool of conflict and uncensored hate under Elon Musk’s watch. For a freelancer, association with that platform today runs the risk of tarnishing our reputations, which happens to play right into the hands of Meta and Google and their cries about misinformation upon the start of the whole C-18 debacle.

This decimation of the media landscape as a whole has only just begun. The LA Times layoffs received significant media coverage, but let it be known Canadian media is running the same gauntlet.

The CBC, Canada’s publicly funded broadcaster, axed 10% of its workforce at Christmas. Bell Media just announced the dismissal of more than 4,800 employees, leading to the cancellation of noon newscasts and longstanding investigative program W5, which had aired since 1966.

Conspiracy theorists might accuse the feds of orchestrating the whole thing to bury critical stories. But at the very least, Prime Minister Trudeau called Bell’s layoffs a “garbage decision that pissed him off.” Uncharacteristically harsh words, maybe this has finally provided proof that Bill C-18 was not as helpful as intended. 

If the message isn’t loud and clear, an impending election within the next twelve months might prove inspirational to repair damage done.

To be fair, the Canadian government just reached a deal with Google where they will pay $100 million annually to publishers and allow access to Canadian news. That’s halfway to what they had hoped to gain with the Online News Act in the first place. But it won’t be enough to make up for the disruption felt since last year. The damage is done. And freelancers won’t see much, if any, of that money.

When you lose freelancers, you miss out on differing perspectives – ones that aren’t tied to polarizing partisan identities to protect. That void blocks unique voices and removes stepping stones for up-and-coming writers. When publications lose freelancers, we all lose. 

I’m not foolhardy enough to believe it will fix everything, but the most Canadian way that I can describe this situation is that Bill C-18 is a beaver dam clogging up a river’s flow. 

Remove the blockage, help shrinking media companies move ahead, and at least provide a margin of chance for freelancers struggling to stay afloat. 

Ryan Uytdewilligen is a Canadian freelancer and author of children's picture books, novels, and non-fiction film history.