AB5 and the Uncertain Future of Independent Journalism
As of today, the world of independent, noncommercial journalism is turned on its head. Effective Jan. 1, Assembly Bill 5 limits freelance writers and photojournalists to 35 submissions per outlet in any given year. The alternative is to hire freelancers as employees, but as most people well know, independent news outlets are barely scraping by as it is — hiring on writers and photographers as employees is just not doable for the small guys in the current media climate.
The bill not only upsets the lives and livelihoods of freelance journalists, but it will have a direct impact on the quality of news readers can access, especially on hyper local levels. To make matters worse, it’s a downright awkward situation for many who support the bill’s target of corporate abusers, those who turn profits hand-over-fist while denying workers fair wages and basic labor rights. Rideshare giants, large commercial trucking companies and commercial media monsters have long been thriving on the backs of overworked and underpaid people who have little legal recourse as freelancers and independent contractors.
It’s a good thing to give workers the power to fight for labor rights and to put a check on the profit mongrels that have built empires on the devaluation of work. But this law also puts arbitrary limits on freelance writers and photojournalists that are already doing everything they can to just survive in a flailing industry.
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They hustle for low pay just to stay in the game…because they love it and hold out hope that if they remain relevant and sharpen their skills, they someday might land an actual “job” in the field they’re willing to suffer for. Media giants like Vox have used the opportunity to preemptively lay off piles of freelancers, throwing hordes of dedicated journalists out and flooding an already harsh market. Their actions are despicable, but they are not reflective of small, independent outlets that have given a home to great writers and photographers that just want the chance to tell the stories.
Those small outlets are often run by really great people that are wonderful to work with — they’re the ones who would be glad to pay employees very well, if only they could. But we all know that independent news and alt-journalism does not generate a ton of cash. Readers are hesitant to pay for any news at all, and advertisements just don’t carry the overhead they once did. Small publishers barely have enough in the bank to keep their outlets alive and current, but they are often the heart of local news, unowned by corporate overlords who dictate content.
There will hopefully be some positive change that comes of this uncomfortable transition. The situation will definitely bring laser focus on the plight of journalists and the untenable current financial models publishers are working with. It’s possible that, in the long run, things will improve because of this moment. But until then, readers will start to notice an inconsistency in local, independent news sites — regulars they’re used to reading won’t be so regular anymore and some will completely disappear, forced to give up their dreams of telling stories.
That is the saddest part of it all.
Good luck out there!
And since I have used up three of my 35 today, farewell for at least a couple weeks.