I asked our man Paul in Montpelier how things have gone since we spoke the other day. "Chaos," he said.
"We're personally still fine up here on our hill, but they are digging out of muck downtown. You could see oil slicks on the floodwater so all that mud is turning to dust with who knows wtf in it."
He also shared an entreaty from another friend. "Apparently Montpelier is on the national news, if you are able, please direct your funds towards organizations in Barre, Montpelier's much lower income next door city. So many folks there are now homeless, staying in the auditorium with no home or apartment to go back to. There was already an epidemic of houselessness in Vermont, and this great flood is making it all that much worse."
Here is a resource for people looking to send money or aid.
Also check out this interesting story about Barre electing Vermont's first socialist mayor and not the one you think.
2023 is already shaping up to be one of the worst years ever to work in media and that is keeping in mind that almost every year preceding it that I've been in the business has also been one of the worst years ever to work in media.
"It fucking sucks out here," one expert (me) has said. "It stinks!"
As of June 1 there were already 17,436 jobs cut industry-wide which is the highest year to date on record. That includes major layoffs at Buzzfeed and Vice and ESPN and many others.
As you probably know before I started my job writing sad emails I worked as a freelance journalist for about twenty years. It's a condition I've described before as waking up every morning and reapplying for the job you already have.
Some days you get a promotion and some days you get demoted and some days you hover in a sort of limbo where it feels like you don't even exist. Perhaps you never did.
And then once you've completed any actual work you may have been assigned you have to begin your second side gig which is making sure the motherfuckers actually pay you.
I tried to describe that feeling here in this piece from a few years ago.
Hours or days or weeks or however long the story they wanted to write takes to report and finish go by and the writer turns it in. Will it pass muster? Did the editor completely misunderstand what the intent was and no longer wants it? Was the story… a pretty good start and could the writer perhaps rewrite the middle? Could the writer call a few more sources? Could the writer add an entire section one editor wants to see but the next editor to look at it will end up taking out anyway? Of course they can.
At no point in the hours entailed here is the writer being paid, nor is there any guarantee they ever will be.
The editing process may go smoothly or it may not. It may not be going on at all for all the writer knows as they wait hours or days or months for an update. The editors might not have even begun thinking about editing the story yet. The writer will often not know this, and not wanting to be perceived as a nudge, they will sit there at home and stew. At no point in the hours entailed here is the writer being paid, nor is there any guarantee they ever will be.
While we're here it might also be fun to look back at this piece concerning my predictions for the future of media back in 2017.
Here is how it will go. Men with no fewer than four boats and at least as many divorces, whose monetary interests are best served by going entirely unreported on, will continue to purchase existing media properties, either gutting them, running them into the ground, or rendering them effectively toothless, as we’ve seen with numerous alt-weeklies and newspapers throughout the country in the past few years.
Sometimes we won’t even know whose hand it is pulling the lever on the guillotine. The publications who would’ve reported on who bought the publications won’t exist anymore.
Dailies who aren’t already well ahead of the game in terms of reverting back to subscription models, or of significant enough national prominence, or don’t find their own relatively benevolent billionaire owner, will continue to either be neutered or flattened out by conglomerates into content distributors. The ones that don’t will buy some time, but will ultimately become vanity projects read only by people wealthy enough to remain interested in the superficial comings and goings of other wealthy people.
Over the years I wrote for dozens and dozens of publications from the biggest and most prestigious to absolute dog shit ones I'd be embarrassed to include on a resume if I had a resume. Most frequently it was the Boston Globe or The Guardian or Esquire where – and this is a fun little wrinkle – despite being on the masthead and having a title and business cards and all that I was actually still a freelancer. A fun little trick that companies like Hearst do to further keep us on our toes.
In all those years where it probably looked from the outside like I was killing it publishing very good work and also some very half-assed work I never made more than around $50-65,000 a year and I still had to wait tables on the side.
The joke is that that is basically living like a king in freelancing. Winning the lottery.
Here's what I wrote in the first Hell World book about why I said see you later to all of that.
Here’s the thing about whatever this all is. Starting Hell World was as much about the things I didn’t want to do anymore as the things I could. I was sick of having to ask for permission to write about stories that interested me. I was sick of convincing an editor that a story would scale or do traffic. I was sick of waiting for something to be published based on marketing whims or business concerns I was not privy to. I didn’t want to have a timely news peg. I didn’t want to fit into the 800-1000 word count that is the norm for web writing. I didn’t want someone to edit out my jokes or worse add new ones in you’d be very surprised how often that happens! I didn’t want a billionaire to see me saying pee pee poo poo to human rights violators and decide my article was not deferential enough to the powerful and delete it which also recently happened as you may or may not have heard.
More than anything I didn’t want to start a podcast.
I also didn’t want to write a story from the neutered and dispassionate center that most mainstream publications require. I didn’t want to hear from a person suffering and then give space to the person causing that suffering to explain themselves. Something I wrote in one of the first newsletters I sent out was that my only promise to the readers is that I will never hear both sides and I think I kept that one.
It doesn't have to be this bad for freelancers forever though. That's the idea behind the Freelance Solidarity Project which is the digital media division of the National Writers Union. In May the group put out their New-to-Freelancing Resources Guide. As they describe it the guide includes "spreadsheets for keeping track of finances and tax info, grants for reporting projects, pitch guides for every freelancing niche, information about how much publications pay, tips to finding a freelance community, and many more vital resources."
The NWU and FSP are known for their work on the Freelance Isn't Free campaign. In 2017 the Freelance Isn't Free Act was passed in New York City and since then similar bills have passed or are pending in cities and states around the country.
Meanwhile the group has been organizing unilateral announcements with a variety of publications — like Defector, the Nation, and Hell Gate among others – in which the outlet makes a public commitment to fair practices in freelance agreements and contracts about things like rate transparency and paying freelancers quickly and letting them retain full rights to their intellectual property.
If you don't work in the industry you would be surprised how often writers get fucked over on that last part. The good news is your magazine story is being turned into a movie. The bad news is you're not going to be the one profiting off of it!
By the way Hell World pays between $2-500 for original freelance pieces. On the higher end for heavier reporting. Unless something has changed drastically that is about what I used to get paid writing for very famous and fancy publications for most of my career. I also pay immediately once the piece is ready to go. Feel free to pitch me if you like. Unlike almost every other editor in the world I kind of prefer a fully written piece on spec as opposed to a pitch but also ... whatever.
Here are some of the pieces by freelancers I published last year.
If you'd like to support this newsletter and help pay our great contributors please consider chipping in with a subscription. You'll also get access to subscriber-only pieces and everything behind the paywall in the archives.
To find out more about their new guide for freelancers and about what else the group is up to – and perhaps to renew my sense of solidarity with my colleagues – I called Olivia Aylmer of the FSP to talk me through it.
What is the Freelance Solidarity Project?
We’re the digital media division of the National Writers Union. They’re our parent union. The NWU has been around since the early 80s, founded I think in 1981. To put it simply, FSP’s focus is to raise labor standards for media workers, for all freelance and contract workers. I think, in many ways, the organizing that we’re doing today builds on and expands NWU’s founding mission, which has always been to improve working conditions for writers specifically…
Obviously the media landscape has significantly evolved and shifted since the 80s, and there are more people freelancing given the instability and scarcity of stable, well-paid staff jobs, and general labor protections in media. Of course that’s true of many industries, but especially media. I think there was a recognition on the part of the early FSP members that it’s not just freelance writers that need to organize to improve conditions, or that could benefit from that kind of organizing, it’s really media workers across different mediums and sectors. Anyone doing media work, whether it’s audio, photo, or graphic design, or what have you. How powerful would it be to create a space for all these different kinds of media workers to talk about the issues they were facing, and the parallels in their struggles? Not to mention the parallels with all kinds of precarious and contingent workers like food delivery workers, rideshare workers, undocumented folks, and formerly incarcerated people.
Now we’re thinking about all those workers that we have more in common with than we might have first imagined. I think it’s also about breaking through the isolation and alienation that can so often accompany the experience of being a freelancer no matter what kind of work you’re doing.
We’re still a relatively young union, but we’re at over five hundred members now. I’ve been a member since 2021 and it’s clear to me there’s just such a need to keep building this project. I think since 2018 conditions have even further deteriorated.
They sure have.
This is important for context. Freelancers are not able to collectively bargain at that moment. That is not protected under U.S. labor laws. Down the road that’s something we’ve talked about trying to organize a way to change. For now we have to get pretty creative and experimental in our approach to organizing.
I was a freelancer for around twenty years. You mentioned the isolation. That can be literal. But you also always feel like you’re not really connected to the places you work for, or to your colleagues. There was always a sense of competition rather than camaraderie with other freelancers. I feel like that has changed a little bit over the past few years.
We often say we don't have a shared shop. We have people contributing to outlets across so many different topics and types, large and small. I think in my experience that’s what made FSP so exciting to be a part of, and is also making us stronger. Again, we’re thinking outside of a more linear way of how to do this. We’re coming from different experiences and perspectives, years of doing this work. That is informing the strategy in all kinds of ways, and allowing the work we’re doing to have this ripple effect that’s bigger than any one place. And hopefully building cross-industry solidarity.
I worked in various corners of media and the arts since 2015 when I graduated college. I’ve been a freelance arts and culture writer for nearly a decade, then expanded into non-fiction podcast production over the past few years. I was on staff at AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and that was my entry point into discovering FSP. This past year was my first year as a freelancer without a full time staff role. I was interning in media as early as 2012, and it was an era of unpaid internships or very low paid internships being the norm. No one, at least that I knew, was talking about organizing. That concept was not on my radar at that time as a young person trying to break into this industry. I had no clear examples of it. Which isn’t to say there weren’t many people doing that work in the media before I joined, it just wasn’t common parlance. I think it's really exciting that we’re creating this foundation where people just starting in the industry now – and it's kind of hard to ignore right now with the WGA strike – to have this foundation of what organizing can look like as a media worker. That would have completely transformed my first decade.
Maybe like ten or twelve years ago I was pretty busy as a freelancer, and I decided to post all of my rates from each specific outlet I wrote for. Which nobody I knew had done at the time. It was the kind of thing where editors I worked for said take that down. We don’t do that. That’s much more common now, I know a lot of people do it on [freelancer message board] Study Hall at the end of the year now, but back then there really was this sense from bosses and editors, like in many other jobs, that you don’t talk about your salary. That’s just another way of keeping freelancers competitive with each other and isolated from one another.
Exactly. I don’t think that staff layoffs are going to stop happening any time soon, so it feels nearly inevitable that at some point, if you work in media, you will have to turn to freelancing out of necessity or circumstance. I just hope that the work we’re doing, and specifically this guide, will reassure people that they’re not alone, there are so many people figuring this out right now, and that organizing alongside fellow workers and freelancers, whatever industry you’re in in media, is one way to confront some of the loneliness and alienation and some of the biggest challenges the industry is facing. And to stay energized for the long haul. I think that is also really hard to do. Where do we find the well of energy to not just fall into utter hopelessness? Which I know is kind of running throughline of your newsletter. That tension between despair [and the desire to make things better].
I seesaw back and forth between the despair and the determination for a better future, as a lot of people do. So it depends on what day you’re talking to me on whether or not I’m on the despair side. Although I did just see a story about how right before they declared bankruptcy a lot of the Vice executives gave themselves big bonuses, meanwhile a lot of freelancers still haven’t gotten paid.
That would probably push me over to the despair side for a little bit!
Right? So give us an overview of this guide you all have put together here. What sort of resources, and what can people get from it, whether they’re newer freelancers, or, I think there’s probably stuff in here that even people who have been doing it for a while probably don’t know.
Absolutely. The idea for it came about earlier this year, specifically in the wake of the massive layoffs at NPR. I’m part of this year’s steering committee for FSP, and I’m also the lead of our AV sub-committee, so that includes all of our members who do photo production, video, graphics, all of that. With a fellow union member, Abbie Higgins, who’s one of FSP’s co-chairs this year, we started brainstorming about what we can do in the short term to support all of these audio workers that had just been laid off. That was far from the first layoffs of the year. There are some layoff trackers that are floating around. I checked the one Forbes has yesterday and it said 194,000 people have lost their jobs in more than 150 major layoffs this year. Media has been a big part of that, from Buzzfeed to Vice...
We asked ourselves what would we have wanted to have access to when we were first starting out as freelancers? And how could we centralize the resources FSP members have built over the years, as well as resources across the internet and organizations that have been doing great work as well? The idea expanded to be a little more holistic to be this new to freelancing guide. Here’s where to start when you don’t know the first steps.
With a lot of collaboration and contributions from my fellow members we collectively shaped this first version and launched it in mid-May. It’s already very clear to me, again, not that nothing like this has existed, but that more things like this should exist… There’s this ongoing need for widely accessible resources for people to figure out, not just how do I survive, but also how to push back against exploitative labor conditions and demand better.
One tangible way to do that, and to navigate these awful conditions that we’re enduring is to talk to each other…
What are some specific examples?
You were talking about rate transparency, so one of things we have is our rate sharing tool, where people can submit their rates. That’s an ongoing project, and any of your readers should feel encouraged to do that, and hopefully that data will inform bigger future campaigns we plan to organize. We also included our guide to fair principles and baseline principles for how we believe media workers should be treated by publications. Then there’s also just lots of practical resources, from job boards and opportunity newsletters and grant-funding guides, mentorship opportunities. Over time we’re planning on releasing updated versions of the guide. We have a couple members working on how to navigate healthcare resources as freelancers, which, I can say is something I’m still actively figuring out. I need that to exist. We also have members working on annotated contract resources. Kind of like here’s the worst version of a contract, and here are ways you could negotiate for better.
Standards for how freelancers should be treated is an important thing. If you go on Study Hall – and I used to be like this when I was earlier in my career – you’ll see people being like “Uh, this editor made me rewrite the story five hundred times, and they said they’re gonna pay half of what they promised. But I'm afraid of burning a bridge by saying something.”
That always breaks my heart because there are so many people who are scared. It’s such a precarious job, so they’re scared to talk about how they’re being mistreated. It’s like, no, you are obviously being mistreated by this editor. Your instinct that something is wrong here is correct. I think we need more of that, for people to be able to say, no, fuck you, I’m not doing a twentieth draft of a story I’m getting paid $200 for.
What you’re saying is so real because there is so much fear for young or lesser experienced freelancers. I think a lot of publications almost rely on a certain amount of unawareness or ignorance around what is actually in your contract. There's almost an expectation that you’re not going to actually read it or fully understand what you’re signing on to. That’s a huge issue. Also there’s the sense of how do I push back as one individual person and not potentially lose this relationship? Relationships are such a huge part of navigating the industry as it currently stands. I think there’s a shift that can happen when it goes from, like, me as an individual trying to pushback on a practice I know is wrong, or is materially negatively impacting me, to what if that’s 500 freelancers, and it’s a more collective voice saying this is wrong. This needs to change. This is no longer an acceptable standard. Suddenly that is a very powerful shift you almost can’t go back from. It’s like, oh, I didn’t have to be doing this alone the whole time?
Over the past few years of being a part of this, that’s a totally new lens through which I’m seeing how I can approach a challenging situation I’m in. And it doesn’t entirely fall on me. I can talk to other people, and through organizing, figure out how to approach that.
Another thing that’s important, there are always questions about getting paid. Not to talk about Vice again, but when the bankruptcy news came out, my first thought was, haha I guess I’m not getting that $150 they owe me from ten years ago. Because a lot of these places, they don’t pay you, or they take forever.
It’s important to say that $150 is not an insignificant amount of money to a lot of people. That is the difference between a bill being paid or groceries being purchased. That layer of classism where people are like, it’s not that big a deal. It’s not that much. For a lot of people it is. Or it’s limiting who can do this work in any sustainable way.
For sure. On that topic, you all were involved in the Freelance Isn’t Free legislation?
My fellow member Eric Thurm leads our legislative subcommittee, and they and a bunch of members work on lobbying state lawmakers to secure basic freelancer rights. One part of that is the Freelance Isn’t Free act. It provides basic protections to freelancers that might seem extremely obvious or second nature, like getting paid period. Or within thirty days. Or the right to a written contract. I think people assume those things are so basic they must be happening, but in so many cases they’re not. So that legislation has already passed in New York City and Columbus, Ohio, and there are versions of the bill under consideration in Los Angeles and New York State. We’re going city and statewide at the moment, but the future goal is this would be nationwide.
There’s such a dearth of information about this stuff among freelancers themselves, I wonder sometimes if the general public knows that this is what it’s like to work in media? I know so many people hate the media now, for many stupid reasons – unlike the good ones I hate the media for – but I wonder if people even know by and large how hard it is to wait to get paid like this. A lot of other professions you might have to chase down an invoice, but in media it’s just standard that you don’t know when you’re going to get paid, and you might have to assume an entire second job trying to make sure you get paid for work you already did.
That’s a good question. I think it probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to many people, but I can’t speak for the general public on how much people know about the inner workings of how this work gets done. I think it maybe goes back to the alienation and isolation thing. Unless there’s a shift in the framing of how labor issues and media organizing is covered, people are not necessarily going to know about the conditions beyond what they just read about layoffs and bankruptcies. I do think people can probably surmise, well, things don’t look good.
I don't know if you’ve seen the solidarity pledge that some of our members put together around the WGA strike. It’s a group of entertainment critics and journalists and editor members who put together this pledge. It includes things like considering the framing of your coverage during the strikes. Asking, you know, does my piece center the narrative of striking workers, and their economic and labor conditions, rather than the profitability of the networks or the inconvenience to the audience. That project, which launched about a month ago, is all about how do freelance critics use their power and their platform to try to shift conversations about how the strike is being covered, and how labor conditions are being centered in the story rather than the conditions of the bosses or the companies themselves.
If people want to get involved what do you suggest they do?
The new to freelancing guide will only be more useful to people if people weigh in on things that they want to see in it, or existing resources they think could be incorporated. There’s a form linked in the guide for people to submit suggestions. People can also reach out by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if they have thoughts or questions or are interested in organizing alongside us. Freelancers of any kind of work. The more people join us the more we’ll be able to get done.