Freelancer's concerns on a Post-It wall in Perugia, including: no safety equipment, lack of travel expenses, editor sacked and story killed, low rates and slow pay, burnout, ghosting emails and unclear guidelines

What happens when freelance journalists, armed with aperitivos, come together to connect, network and workshop through solutions for our sector? This was the scene when the Society of Freelance Journalists organised an in-person meet-up at April’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

The society's co-admins – Laura Oliver, Caroline Harrap, Abigail Edge and John Crowley – did not know how many freelance colleagues would join our informal gathering and help us mark our fourth birthday. 

We were a little bit surprised when more than 50 people – a 'fleet' of freelancers to coin a collective noun – packed into the upstairs room of the Café Timbuktu just off Perugia's central piazza. Clearly, there was a demand to meet in a safe space to discuss the challenges freelancers face – from low, slow and no pay, to sustainability. 

Corinne Podger

A packed session at the International Journalism Festival, as 50 journalists squeeze into a room to discuss the pain points of freelance journalism

The SFJ was founded in March 2020 – a response to growing concerns about how covid-19 would affect freelance journalists’ work. For many members, the past 12 months have been some of the toughest yet as they feel the effects of slow global economic growth, mass industry lay-offs and closing publications.

So, as a kind of group therapy, we asked those joining us in Perugia for our first ever in-person event to tell us their concerns and quite literally nail them (or stick them on a Post-It note, at least) to the wall. Here's a selection of what our freelancers wrote:

  • "Burnout"
  • "No safety equipment or danger pay"
  • "No pay guarantees"
  • "Working on a story for six months, editors was sacked, story killed"
  • "Magazines cutting back on page numbers"
  • "No more space for long-form articles"
  • "Stretched comms with editors"
  • "Undervalued shifts cut at short notice"
  • "Dealing with the expectations of editors – they want juicy, less nuanced stories"

Safety concerns, getting accreditation as a freelancer, relations with stretched editors, the restrictions imposed by tight budgets, juggling multiple deadlines and unpaid pre-reporting with paid work were all common themes.

Despite the challenges, the mood in the room was joyous, celebratory and uplifting as freelancers from around the world mingled and shared stories. One leader of an organisation which supports freelancers was moved to tears at the camaraderie on display.

These concerns might not be new to any freelancers reading this, but it is important to say them out loud and share them. 

To our colleagues, we say this:

Freelancers feel taken for granted. If we stopped working en masse, the industry would collapse. Yet our cohort is often seen as the poor cousin of our profession. We are treated miserably – from being ghosted by commissioning editors to being paid ridiculously poor rates.

To our fellow freelancers, we want to work together to push for solutions to these problems. 

Opening up online and in-person safe spaces, such as in Perugia, helps our community to reflect on shared experiences and challenges. But to achieve real change far more needs to be done at an organisational and industry level. 

This includes but is not limited to:

  • Fair and timely payments to freelancers in order to eradicate an industry-wide culture of low, slow and no pay. 
  • Formal onboarding for freelancers doing regular work for a journalism org
  • Setting up regular (monthly) points of contact for freelancers to communicate share questions/updates with a place of work  
  • Giving freelancers access to work equipment and employee benefits 
  • Representation and inclusion at industry events and conferences where diverse, freelance voices can be heard.

We hope that the Society of Freelance Journalists, a vibrant online community with more than 3,000 members across the world, is a starting point for such discussions. 

As well as sharing work opportunities and offering support, solidarity and the occasional training event via its Slack channel, the society hosts a weekly coffee break on Zoom to which all members are welcome.

The SFJ is free to join and open to all freelance journalists – whatever level and wherever they are in the world (there are tons of other great freelance global communities too).

Let's use our community and space to keep these issues live, confront the financial precarity of freelancing and collectively discuss the practical steps we and our in-house colleagues can take to raise standards.

There is much still to be done – but we do know that by being together we can achieve so much more.

The Society of Freelance Journalists is an international Slack community of more than 3,000 journalists. It was founded by Laura Oliver, Caroline Harrap, Abigail Edge and John Crowley

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