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In Defense of the Noble Freelancer

Big media outlets claim to speak for the powerless, so why do they treat their own employees like trash?

The media come in for all kinds of flak these days: for not being objective enough, for being too woke, too reactionary, too left-wing, too right-wing.

And there are clearly cases where the media go too far in either direction. But given the Fourth Estate’s role in speaking truth to power, there does need to be an anti-establishment tilt that sometimes manifests itself in an old-school left-wing stance. Society needs that, a voice against the status quo and controlling interests.

By the same token, given the increasing sway of social media and progressive groups, the pushback from some conservative media is no bad thing either (and clearly not here!).

It’s all part of the system of checks and balances. The problem I have with media—the industry within which I write for food—is that so many succumb to the pitfalls of big, faceless organizations.

While presenting themselves as noble and egalitarian, representing the “underreported” and downtrodden, in reality many media groups are as fickle and amoral as the rest of them—if not more so, given the pace of the news cycle and the constant need to feed the beast.

This is most starkly illustrated by their treatment of freelancers and non-contractual workers.

I’ve been mulling this over since I started freelancing in 2012, writing across a wide spectrum of media. That’s a reflection of my own desperation but also the nature of my work. I cover multiple countries—I worked in the Horn of Africa between 2013 and 2017—and a wild gamut of beats, ranging from the emerging local rap scene in Ethiopia to blackfacing by Virginia politicians to immigrant Catholic churches in Texas.

In Ethiopia, I began comparing with another freelancer the range of dismissive replies we’d received from editors. We laughed about them—it was that or face despair—and competed over who had received the most demeaning takedown. I won easily with my callous replies from the editor of a global development section of a well-known and lauded British newspaper.

It was then that I noticed an inverse relationship between how noted an outlet is for sticking up for the wretched and forgotten and how it treated its own freelancers. On the worse end of that spectrum were editors who ghosted, scrubbed stories for no compensation, didn’t pay expense costs, basically showed indifference to the fact there is a human at the other end of the exchange who is just trying to get by.

This isn’t just seen in their exploitative practices of non-contractual workers. Often those on staff are suffering. When Al Jazeera America went down, there was much talk at the time about its culture of fear and poor morale. That doesn’t appear to have been a one-off. Over drinks in Washington with a group of successful journalists—as in they were or had been on the staffs at big name media—one of them mentioned that she’d left a famous NPR show because it was so depressing. Another had opted to freelance after working at the London office of the same British newspaper from which I’d received my dismissive replies in Ethiopia, describing it as like a “nest of vipers.”

That’s a long way from the kind of workplace the philosopher Roger Scruton says we should be striving for, one where “people with genuine skills take pride in their exercise, and combine with others to form the kinds of community of interest that grow through the professions.”

I find the existence of such negative work environments really odd, and even odder the fact that nothing is done to address it. Such incredulity—quite possibly naïve—is born of being ex-British Army. I come from an organization that was one of the world’s best practitioners of man-management skills and duty of care to employees.

Management of staff is a bit like making a gin and tonic: it’s not hard to do, and when you do it right, it turns out excellent. At the same time, people often get it wrong, and then the results are dreadful.

I don’t expect editors to treat freelancers exactly as they would their own staff (though increasingly I wonder whether I’m getting treated all that much worse). Nevertheless, there is a professional relationship, and it should be grounded in basic respect and fair treatment. Plus workers do a better job if they think they’re being treated correctly—perhaps not in the short term, when they are spurred on regardless due to economic anxieties and necessity, but increasingly so over the long term.

Yet these days many media aren’t interested in building relationships with freelancers. They just milk you for stories, then once you’re dry, it’s on to the next freelancer. They regard man-management the same way an apathetic bartender regards a gin and tonic.

This, of course, reflects a wider problem with the gig economy. Self-employment in the United States is likely to triple to 42 million workers by 2020—a trend driven by Millennials—according to a recent study.

On the one hand, I take my hat off to such self-employed strivers. But there’s also so much false hype around being a “digital nomad,” unshackled from the drudgery of office life. Because you also unshackle yourself from benefits, pensions, camaraderie, mentorship, and much more. That’s why too many employers are merrily welcoming freelancers: it lets them off-load all those benefit-related costs.

One of the most galling aspects of this is how the use-and-abuse strategy often produces fine work. The journalistic output of some of the most unfriendly and abusive media is often consistently outstanding, featuring fantastic reporting and writing about underreported topics in far-flung, even dangerous locations.

Hence, I am left thinking: to achieve greatness, does an organization or an individual just have to be brutish and treat people badly?

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Do you have to be a jerk to be great?” David Brooks discusses sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who “produced masterworks that millions have treasured,” while at the same time being pretty horrid people, especially to their wives and children.

He put much of their bad behavior down to their unwavering focus on their artistic convictions. I wonder today whether some editors succumb to a similar fallacy in their devotion to the story.

I don’t want to get all Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol on you—though it is getting closer to that season—but what will have been the point of all those sharp elbows and ruthless devotions to the job? A bunch of bylines and web exclusives that will live on once we’re all gone?

All I know is that there will be a bunch of freelancers fist bumping at the pearly gates while casting keen looks towards the editors trying to get in—assuming the latter aren’t already languishing somewhat further below in warmer climes.

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.

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