- Writers' Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age by Nicole Cohen
Public discussions, articles, and anecdotes about precarity in contemporary journalism and the cultural industries more broadly abound. For those still in doubt that such precarity actually exists as well as those seeking to explain it, Nicole Cohen provides a timely and compelling confirmation – as well as an interpretation of freelance labour in these industries as exploited labour. The key goal is to unlock readers' understanding of labour relations in journalism rather than exploring questions of professional identity and subjectivity among workers – which is what the fast-growing literature on workers in the creative and media industries has overwhelmingly focused on. This study is (at least to this reviewer's knowledge) the first book-length account in the English language of freelance labour in journalism, tracing the phenomenon from its beginnings in pre-capitalist times to the digital era. In 250 pages, based on an online survey of over 200 freelancers as well as interviews with those trying to collectively organize freelancers, Cohen comprehensively explores the struggles of writers in nonpermanent employment in Canada.
Cohen starts with introducing the frequently found paradox of freelance cultural work as generating professional enjoyment in the midst of precarity, calling it "freedom's double edge." (3) A chapter on the labour history of freelance journalists demonstrates aptly that their working conditions have often, if not always, been insecure and characterized by low income. However, it also brings to light that freelancing has been a strategy by media workers to perform their craft outside of the constraints of a standard employment relationship, especially during and after the rise of modern capitalism. This historical context makes understandable why freelance journalism today still is imbued with an idea of autonomy. One key insight from the book is that this persistent idea of worker autonomy masks the deep power imbalance between publishers and freelance writers, casting freelance journalists as independent entrepreneurs when they are in fact dependent on parameters set by publishers.
As Cohen's principal interest is in the political-economic structures that shape freelancers' struggles, Marxist and autonomous Marxist analysis are used to dissect current working conditions in freelance journalism. "Media capitalists" give freelance journalists freedom at the idea creation and realization stage of the production process. This resonates with the idea of worker autonomy while enabling the exploitation of freelance [End Page 308] labour in the next stages of the production process. Media corporations extract surplus value from freelancers by using two main strategies. First, they only pay freelancers for the finished product, not for the time required to research or write an article. Second, they impose restrictive copyright regimes that prevent freelancers from re-using and re-selling their writing while corporations exploit their works across platforms. Additionally, recent contracts that force freelancers to surrender moral rights to their productions indicate that freelance journalists, despite their own perceptions of freedom, have little to no control over their work. Indemnification clauses now often make freelancers responsible for costs from potential legal challenges arising from their work while protecting media corporations. As a result, freelance journalistic labour is precarious. It is a cycle characterized by low incomes and unpaid work time, leading to the need to work more and faster, while having to shoulder not only the costs but increasingly also the risks of media production that publishers offload onto individual workers.
While the author's principal argument is original and convincing, some of the intriguing questions raised by the book could have been addressed more clearly. First, the relevance and importance of the book is at least partially rooted in the fact that freelance journalists (versus other freelancers or other types of cultural or media workers) are examined. This is a group of workers who are "essential for meaningful participation in democratic life," upholding a "public service ethos" and monitoring the powerful. (7) Hence, their difficult working conditions should be of concern not just to academics or workers themselves, but to citizens at large. However, despite using "freelance journalism" in...