Are you feeling vulnerable about freelancing? There is help available to guide journalists

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By Stell Simonton, freelance journalist based out of Atlanta, Georgia; SPJ Georgia member

Five years ago, I left my job as a producer/digital editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Suddenly, there was no set monthly paycheck or even any real guarantee of work. I pursued individual assignments and eventually gained contracts with a couple of publications, including the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University.

I love the independence of freelance work, but the vulnerabilities are great.

One in five American workers is an independent contractor. – NPR/Marist poll

As more and more journalists work untethered from publications, and more people in general work as freelancers in the “gig economy,” they have fewer legal and financial protections. A January NPR/Marist poll found that one in five American workers was an independent contractor.

That’s why Keith Herndon at the University of Georgia and Sara Horowitz, founder of Freelancers Union, are taking action on freelancers’ behalf.

Keith Herndon mug
Keith Herndon

Changes in journalism have “created an information gap” for journalists, said Herndon, director of the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership at UGA. As newspapers downsize and squeeze their staff, reporters who leave to freelance may not know to put aside money for taxes or they may be unclear about insurance and how to set themselves up as a business, Herndon said.

They worry about how to protect themselves legally,” Herndon said.

That’s why he helped set up the Independent Journalists Resource Coalition in 2016 in Georgia, initially to provide training and support to freelancers, but now with a focus on connecting journalists to existing sources of information. The coalition may also offer small grants in the future.

For independent journalists, “the threat of being sued is real,” Keith Herndon said. “That threat can have a chilling effect if they don’t have legal resources.”

For independent journalists, “the threat of being sued is real,” Herndon said. “That threat can have a chilling effect if they don’t have legal resources.”

To avoid this, Herndon says freelance journalists should consider setting up an LLC, or limited liability company, which can protect their assets if they are sued.

Freelance contracts
All independent or freelance journalists work within a contract, which might include financial compensation, editorial deadlines, journalist’s work ownership,  business payment schedules, and legal rights as a professional freelance journalist.

Freelance reporters who are denied access to public records or shut out of public meetings might not have the legal resources needed to push back or to get clarification on open records and open meetings laws, Herndon said. However, helpful organizations include the Society of Professional Journalists, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the Student Press Law Center.

We want to be able to point people to these resources,” he said.

Herndon said the Independent Journalists Resource Coalition found that freelancers have a need in three areas:

  • pricing and pitching
  • negotiating skills
  • legal information

These are not simply individual problems for freelance journalists. If journalists are on shakier financial footing and face greater legal liabilities, journalism as a whole is weakened. Powerful organizations that want to shut us up can find it easier to do so.

Freelancers insurance launching in Georgia

To Horowitz, who founded Freelancers Union in 1995, income unpredictability is the big difficulty for freelancers of all types.

Income is so episodic and it goes up and down. Freelancers have to figure out how to cope with that themselves,” Sara Horowitz said. “The biggest problem is when you have an accident or an injury and it turns into a big financial catastrophe.”

Income is so episodic and it goes up and down. Freelancers have to figure out how to cope with that themselves,” she said. “The biggest problem is when you have an accident or an injury and it turns into a big financial catastrophe.”

Sara Horowitz
Sara Horowitz

That’s why she left Freelancers Union, secured investors, and created a company, Trupo, to provide affordable “income insurance” for freelancers. Trupo is launching for freelancers in Georgia first, prior to expanding in the nation. For a monthly premium of $20 to $50, Trupo will replace up to half of a freelancer’s income for about three months in the event of illness or injury.

Another problem for freelancers is getting paid in a reasonable time, Horowitz said.

Freelancers Unions spearheaded the Freelance isn’t Free Act in New York City, which took effect there in May 2017.

If payment is late, freelancers can contact the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, which will contact the employer on a freelancer’s behalf. The employer is legally obligated to respond.

Freelancers can go to small claims court and can get double damages and attorney fees if a judge finds in their favor, Horowitz said.

It really changes the balance of power,” Horowitz said.

Philadelphia is now considering similar legislation, Horowitz said.

Freelancers Union studies show that freelancers invest heavily in their own skill development. The problem is that they pay for it themselves, Horowitz said.

Since it’s in the public interest to have a well-educated workforce, Freelancers Union is looking at ways that government can aid training, she said. This fall, Freelancers Union, the New York City Mayor’s Office and the Independent Filmmaker Project are opening the Freelancers Hub in Brooklyn at the Made in NYC Media Center. It will offer educational events, access to legal and financial resources and free co-working,

New York City is showing how it can be a freelancer-friendly city,” Horowitz said.

Stell Simonton
Stell Simonton

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionWashington Post, Christian Science MonitorAl Jazeera America and Georgia Health News among other publications. Simonton writes frequently for Youth Today and has special knowledge of youth development, social/emotional learning and innovative work with young people. She has also contributed to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, and recently begun writing for How Stuff Works. Simonton is a former digital editor-producer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she worked for 19  years. She began as a copy editor for the newspaper. As a full-time freelancer for the past five years, Simonton continues to think a lot about the best ways to work as an independent journalist. 

In addition to SPJ and SPJ Georgia, she is active in the Journalism & Women Symposium, a national organization of women journalists. Simonton is a member of the SPJ Georgia Freelance Community and writes a quarterly column for SPJ Region 3’s SizingUpTheSouth.com

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