Gig Journalism and Freelance Correspondents

Essay Highlights:

  • This is a no-frills essay about news organizations hiring full-time “freelance” journalists to report in dangerous places, and how this can be exploitative.
  • A number of prominent news outlets hire freelancers who are asked to work full time and, essentially, exclusively. In effect, they become employees without employee benefits.
  • The full-time freelancer saves news outlets money in terms of benefits not paid (no company healthcare, no 401k, etc) and tax perks.
  • Some full-time freelancers report from conflict zones and journalist-arresting dictatorships, compounding the problems they face.
  • News outlets like the The Washington Post had me report for them as a full-time freelancer during my decade in the Middle East, where I experienced PTSD, substance abuse and depression. I was interviewed about this by a British tabloid, which I explain farther down.
  • The trend of full-time freelancing translates to news organizations offloading the costs of journalism onto the journalists.

By Hugh Naylor

It was the sudden bitterness I remember experiencing the day Jason Rezaian was released from Iranian prison.

I was walking to the grocery near my apartment in Beirut, Lebanon when one of the editors on the The Washington Post’s foreign desk emailed with a request that I get to work, pronto, to see if I could obtain a comment from an official in Tehran. Turning back to my flat, obedient as ever, I could practically taste it. No, it wasn’t a bitterness about the end of Jason’s 544-day ordeal at the hands of an authoritarian regime that drapes its cruelty in an Islamic facade. His newfound freedom left me, like all his colleagues, breathing a sigh of relief.

It was that “Free Jason” pin attached to the lapel of the particularly powerful editor at The Post, the man who spoke in a mortician’s monotone and ever so enthusiastically joined his colleagues in calling for Jason’s release.

I thought of that “Free Jason” pin and wondered whether, like me, Jason got denied company healthcare by that powerful editor. When Iranian agents burst into his home in Tehran in 2014, arresting him and his wife, Jason probably didn’t have a 401k, either. Like me, he had the fancy title — Correspondent with The Washington Post — but he also likely didn’t have access to the newspaper’s union. 

Those of us who worked as The Post’s full-time freelance correspondents suspected Jason was one of us, a fellow “contractor,” as the editors referred to our benefits-free arrangements. If he was, the editors certainly didn’t announce him as such. It would have looked bad. After all, even though correspondents like me represented the newspaper’s “Haves-nots,” our trappings (deliberately) looked no different from the “Haves.”

Lots of news organizations nowadays do what The Post has for years done with its correspondents, compensating a number of them more like freelancers despite working them like actual employees. Although classified as freelancers, you see, these kinds of correspondents usually report exclusively for a single news organization. They work full time, often on weekends, and regularly pull off overtime because news doesn’t fit a nine-to-five schedule. Their editors delegate assignments and issue demands that can’t really be rejected because, even though formally freelance, full-time freelancers would risk losing their gig (emphasis on the word “gig” here).

Editors in these scenarios aren’t your clients or a one-off interaction for a particular assignment — they’re your bosses. So you pretend like you’re an employee, even when reporting in war zones and journalist-arresting dictatorships.

Heeding the demands of my “employer,” I tried my best to reach Iranian officials on that January day. No success, as expected, but I was focused more on Jason, anyway.

I’ve never met him. He seems like a nice guy. To this day, I wonder whether the money saved from (possibly) denying Jason healthcare went toward a salary increase to that powerful editor, the one who speaks in a mortician’s monotone. Maybe the savings from not offering him and others a 401k were diverted toward refurbishing the offices of Executive Editor Marty Baron. (Just a few months before Jason’s release, after all, the newspaper began moving into its gleaming new newsroom on K Street.) Maybe, I wondered, The Post won an Overseas Press Club Award for a lengthy investigation that was financed by the extra cash from preventing a number of its foreign correspondents from joining the union and, therefore, receiving the right to fair pay.

In the United States, it’s technically illegal for employers to use freelancers like employees. If your work for a particular organization closely resembles that of an employee, then the federal government and legal precedent say you should probably be compensated like an employee. (Note that journalists in America very much face the problem of full-time freelancing.)

But here’s the thing. When you’re a journalist abroad, when you’re hovering far away from the federal government’s remit, the legal avenues for demanding employee rights aren’t as readily available.

“Sorry, pal, but the Labor Department can’t help you when you’re in Tehran or Beirut or wherever.” That’s what Department employees tell you.

In this era of anemic ad-revenue models, decimated foreign bureaus and non-existent attention spans, editors today are obviously rather bottom-line obsessed. So, to cut costs, they’ve camouflaged a number of correspondent positions with the fancy titles while gutting them of the meaty (or, I’d argue, basic) benefits.

It’s a salty pill to swallow when you watch The Post’s union battling Jeff Bezos over improvements to benefits that you, the full-time freelancer, don’t have. The union people would decry their treatment by the world’s richest man, but didn’t seem to care much about advocating for those of us suspended in the paper’s “Have-not” category. You wanted to scream at them for help, but that risked getting you in trouble, maybe even fired by that powerful editor who wore the “Free Jason” pins.

It seems like a bum gig, the way I’m describing it. But with so many down-and-out freelancers roaming our broken media landscape these days, you could see why the takers for such positions could quickly fill Madison Square Garden, probably twice over. What they’d lack in compensation, the world’s endless supply of ambitious freelancers would make up for in prestige by affiliation with an elite news organization — or so goes the thinking.

Maybe.

As for me, well, it’s disheartening to realize that your news organization essentially freeloads off your labor — the kind of labor, might I remind you, performed near an Islamic State-held Fallujah or in Sanaa as civil war kicks off in Yemen. More precisely, the freeloading is off the ability of full-time freelancers to save for retirement or put a downpayment on a house.

It’s more than just denying benefits. When compared to employees, full-time freelancers offer way more flexibility in terms of hiring and firing. Their flimsy contracts can be shredded not just on a moment’s notice but also for any reason, legitimate or otherwise. If your editor is racist, then he can just scrap his contract with the lone black freelancer. No explanation required. Or if your editor wants to brandish what he thinks are his woke credentials, then he can do the same to a white-male freelancer. No problem.

(If you want to get a sense of how ruthless this no-strings-attached system can be, I suggest you ask editors at The Post about their policy towards full-time freelance correspondents who are pregnant.)

About a year or two ago, The Post had about a half-dozen or more freelance foreign correspondents reporting at any given time, according to conversations I’ve had with people either still at the paper or who have since moved on. (I’m not citing their names or precise status because they could get in trouble.) A few have given precise numbers of full-time freelancers — including the lucky number seven — but it’s hard to know because, for obvious reasons, such information isn’t made readily available to the public.

Seven doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you factor in turnover in these positions over the years, then the number of journalists who’ve cycled through this form of gig journalism is probably dozens and dozens. And if you factor in other news outlets that have used full-time freelance correspondents, too, then we’re probably talking in the hundreds.

All of these journalists have amounted to one thing: solid savings for their news organizations.

Think two correspondents for the price of one.

Think all the great content for half the cost.

The savings come from, of course, refusing to pay for company healthcare and retirement. There’s also a tax benefit for news organizations that, lo and behold, the freelancer (or, in IRS lingo, the “independent contractor”) ends up having to pay.

What a bargain.

Here’s a rough estimate of the annual savings for a news organization that uses one full-time freelance correspondent. Note that the benefits might vary from news outlet to news outlets, and that this estimate is pretty bare-bones:

  • $7,000 less per year spent on company healthcare.
  • $10,000 less per year spent on 401k matching.
  • $20,000 less per year spent on salary. (Because full-time freelancers don’t have union access, their ability to bargain for fair pay is non-existent.)
  • $4,000 in reduced taxes.
  • I’m not including here company-provided perks, like laptops, housing allowances and such because, really, all full-time freelancers want are employee basics.

So that’s about $41,000 per year. If you have seven full-time freelancers on hand, then that’s about $287,000 a year. It might not look like a huge amount, but when reaped over the course of ten years, that’s nearly $3 million. That’s certainly more than enough to finance a Pulitzer-winning investigation or three.

So what do these savings mean for the full-time freelancer? You’re not on the brink of starvation like one of those underpaid Walmart employees who’s forced to rely on food stamps. It’s more like putting off important medical procedures because of what you’d pay out of pocket, or relinquishing the dream of homeownership, because:

  • The health insurance that you’re required to buy for yourself is generally cheap and therefore awful, so you avoid using it and incurring the extra costs. (In my case, I had to pay for a hernia-repair procedure in Lebanon out of pocket because, instead of the The Post’s healthcare, I had to buy a cheaper version that I could afford. What saved me in this case was getting the Indiana Secretary of State’s office to intervene on my behalf in the matter.)
  • The pay is enough to cover your rent, do some travel, have some fun, but not much more than this. (Which is why full-time freelancers cling to their positions, because one wrong move, and they’re unable to keep up with those student loan payments.)

Over my nearly two-and-a-half years with The Post, I saved its editors hunks of cash. So have the others. And so did Jason, I suspect, though he’s now definitely an employee — and a deserving one, at that.

After Jason’s release, I’ll admit to wondering if getting arrested by an authoritarian regime is what it definitively takes to get employee benefits. The Post, after all, never gave me or any of its full-time freelancers a criteria for how to become an actual employee. It was all based on the whims and favoritism of the higher-ups, from what I could tell. Most freelancers never made the transition to employee, and some have hovered in freelancer limbo for the better part of a decade.

My situation was tough. I had PTSD by the time I joined The Post, partly because my previous employer, The National, also treated me and its other foreign correspondents as full-time freelancers. (I’ll write more about this soon.)

I worked hard, for a time, at least, and complied with every demand of my editors. I worked weekends for them, along with 12-hour days and when breaking news, well, broke. A suicide bomber blew up right next to the compound where I stayed in Baghdad. US embassy staff evacuated when I was in the Yemeni capital because it got too darn dangerous. I pressed ahead back then because my relationship was, in practice, exclusive and full time with The Post — if I didn’t obey editor demands to pounce on a story, then my job would have been even less secure. I’ll admit, though, to feigning interest in covering war zones to my editors and colleagues while actually clinging to my home office in Beirut. It’s one thing to cover war, you learn, but it’s entirely another to do so knowing that you’re seen as cheap labor.

I tried to push ahead even as I found myself slipping, struggling with substance-abuse problems, finding it harder and harder to work. I don’t know if it’s accurate to describe my use of Tinder in Beirut as one of an addict, but it certainly felt like it. (I should note here that lots of Western journalists, both men and women, straight and gay, white, brown and black, dated and hooked up with lots of Lebanese people. Some married Lebanese partners. I almost did, too, then my now-ex left me for a former boyfriend, a wealthy businessman. It was a different time back then, back in 2015 and 2016, before it got really bad there.)

I won’t get into my issues with depression in the Middle East, but it was bad.

Recently, I recounted some of these issues in an interview with a British tabloid, and people weren’t pleased. Close friends criticized me. “How could you go to a tabloid? And all these women? And the cocaine? Doesn’t look good, Hugh.”

Fair enough. I pitched the idea about full-time freelancers to other media outlets, but the response? “Thanks, Hugh. We’re gonna pass, but please pitch other ideas.” You might dis the sensationalism (and I myself am not a huge fan of the tabloid article’s headline), but at least the tabloid covered the bigger issue at hand. If I could go back in time, I would do the exact same thing again.

That’s not to say I’m proud of my behavior. Not at all.

My decision-making back then was off. I should have been spending my money on therapy instead of drugs and booze. In fact, I made some awfully unnecessary, reckless expenditures that put a damaging dent into my savings (and I intend to write about this, too). But in my warped logic, it made sense at the time. I thought I could just grin and bear the psychological stuff, power through the problems like a man. Rather than pay out of pocket for therapy — because, to my mind, this was an expensive outlay — I thought I’d go to the gym or take a run or get so blind drunk that I’d forget my problems. Let me emphasize: therapy was an expensive outlay, but one I should paid for back then anyway.

Also, I should add that I didn’t want my editors to know about my problems. I didn’t trust them, except for one, Tiffany, and I’m not sure why I didn’t tell her. I should have because she’s both an excellent editor and a wonderful person. I guess it’s because, when you’re a contractor, the bullies lurking in the newsroom can smell your weakness. The more ruthless ones look for reasons to pounce because, hey, office turf wars and ego-driven squabbles … they happen at any organization. If the bullies knew I had problems, I reckoned, then there was a good chance they’d have tried to have me canned. That was my logic, and I think the correct logic, at that, given what’s happened to other full-time freelance correspondents since I left the paper.

I resigned from The Post in late 2016 and left the region traumatized, exhausted, wanting to do nothing more than sleep on a couch for a month straight. I returned home after having spent a decade witnessing intense things — airstrikes, dead kids, bomb-severed body parts, a rebel pistol placed on my forehead — and this manifested, embarrassingly so, when I got slurring drunk in front of my parents at dinner party thrown in my honor.

Back in America, I slept on an air mattress for about a year, doing little other than watching Game of Thrones and smoking joints here and there. I signed up for business school but dropped out because I couldn’t concentrate.

Fast forward to now, and I’m doin’ pretty damn well. No more drugs. A drink or two at the weekend. Which is how it should be, if you ask me. I’m really enjoying work. Civilian life is relaxing. I’ve got a support network and have received the right treatment. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience all that I’ve experienced, even if it involved some of life’s scarier and darker and more harrowing aspects. Lucky to be alive, what with getting bombed in Syria and Gaza — repeatedly.

I haven’t felt happier.

A year ago, I started the process of writing a book about my experiences in the Middle East. And it was during this process I realized that I — along with so many others of my generation — endured journalism’s version of the gig economy. So many others have gone through what I went through, often experiencing even far worse circumstances.

It was during this process of kicking off my book research that I experienced a flashback to a moment of clarity, when I knew I had had enough of both The Post and gig journalism. I was sitting across from that particularly powerful editor who used to wear the “Free Jason” pins. We were at a restaurant in Washington ordering lunch, and with that mortician-like monotone of his, he told me I could stay on in my role — that is, as his full-time freelancer. No employee status. No benefits. Then he changed topics, telling me how he wanted me to cover one of the bloodiest, most dangerous battles in recent Middle East history: the Mosul offensive against the Islamic State.

At that very moment, I recall my mind’s eye seeing another pin fixed to his lapel. It read: “Hugh Naylor — Washington Post Cannon Fodder.”

Thanks, Hugh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s