This post is the sixth in a series called “E-Lancer Writes,” exploring the working conditions, rights, and collective organizing strategies of freelance journalists, interns, and other low-wage or temporary digital media workers.
By Errol Salamon
Before the Internet and World Wide Web became fully commercialized in the mid-1990s, freelance writers and photographers began using computer networks as organizing tools as early as 1992.
Even before rights-grabbing contracts became the strong concern they are today for freelancers in Europe and North America, and before freelancers launched social media campaigns to resist these contracts, they formed online networks to express their concerns.
Freelancers go online
British and Irish freelancers of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which has represented freelancers since 1951, launched an electronic communications network in 1992 called NUJnet. The NUJ became the first union in the UK to use online tools to communicate with its members and to encourage members to communicate with each other, wrote international trade unionist Eric Lee in his book The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism.
NUJnet was the first online tool to organize freelancers. It was created even before the Mosaic web browser was released in 1993 and helped popularize the Internet.
NUJnet co-creator Mike Holderness said at the 1992 Labtel Conference that the union launched the network to help overcome freelancer isolation. Freelancers have historically been difficult to organize because they are dispersed geographically. NUJnet was also intended to provide union members with direct and quick access to union representatives—issues members had previously raised.
According to an archived NUJ website, NUJnet provided subscribers with many services:
- “Secure, feature-rich e-mail for subscribers”;
- “Private bulletin boards for advice and discussion of issues, pay & conditions, union affairs, copyright and more”; and
- “Cheap access to commercial on-line databases such as FT Profile, and access to numerous Poptel/GeoNet bulletin boards.”
NUJnet gave freelancers access to 15 bulletin boards. They contained freelancers’ fees guides, job rates, and useful contact information. One bulletin board provided news of relevant labour conflicts, and another enabled subscribers to discuss the emerging issue of journalists’ electronic copyrights and rights-grabbing contracts.
Lee also wrote that freelancers could participate virtually in international solidarity actions in support of press freedom.
Despite these benefits, the NUJ was forced to deal with some critical issues. At its inception, NUJnet had hundreds of users, but it was dominated by the union’s male members, wrote Lee. While about 30 per cent of the union’s freelance members were female, NUJnet initially had no female members.
This gender gap was part of another problem: “The bulletin boards never really reached a critical mass of subscribers,” said Holderness.
One possible explanation for these issues is that not all union members had the means or time to access NUJnet.
By the end of the 1990s, though, freelancers were increasingly creating e-mail listservs to spread information quickly, discuss issues instantaneously, and inspire collective resistance, wrote the NUJ in the book Battling for Copyright: Freelance Journalists versus the Media Conglomerates.
“Freelancers with common interests and problems could communicate freely, cheaply and in far greater numbers than would ever make it to a formal meeting.”
In 1999, Business Week freelance photographers in San Francisco started the e-mail discussion and online campaigning group called EP (Editorial Photographers) to boycott a fees- and rights-grabbing contract. The online action helped the freelancers win a monumental pay increase so the magazine could reprint their works in foreign editions, online, and in advertisements.
Inspired by their American counterparts, British and Irish photographers established EPUK in late 1999.
Around the same time, the Canadian Media Guild Freelance Branch launched an e-mail newsletter to communicate with its members and complement other CMG publications.
In the late 1990s three Toronto writers — David Hayes, Alex Gillis and Jess Ross — also launched the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers [TFEW] email list to create a community and support group. The list has grown to over 900 members and is still active today.
Social media resistance to rights-grabbing contracts
In recent years, freelancers have used social media to refuse rights-grabbing contracts. Media companies have increasingly demanded that freelancers assign their copyrights to them and waive their moral rights that protect the integrity of their works. Companies can then redistribute freelancers’ works through any distribution channel and reprint them on any medium without paying freelancers royalties, which prevents them from reselling their pieces.
To fight against a TC Media contract in February 2013, L’association des journalistes indépendants du Québec and the Canadian Media Guild launched the #nesignezpas (#dontsign) campaign and created the Facebook group called Back Off, Elle Canada and Canadian Living Publisher. The freelancers’ social media campaign led TC Media to release an amended contract in Quebec in September 2013.
The International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists launched the Fair Contracts for Journalists Campaign to mark World Copyright Day on April 23, 2016. The groups called on their affiliates to denounce rights-grabbing contracts on Twitter with the hashtag #isitfair and share the fair campaign logo to show their solidarity.
“The right to be named as the author, to be able to oppose substantive modifications of one’s work, to receive additional payment when works are being made available in online archives are among the provisions we would like to see enforced in all contracts,” said European Federation of Journalists President Mogens Blicher Bjerregård.
Freelancers haven’t relied on online networks alone to organize, communicate with each other, or resist rights-grabbing contracts. But these networks have at least drawn more attention to freelancers’ rights and decreased the level of separation among freelancers.
Errol Salamon is a freelance writer and the work and labour editor of J-Source. He’s also co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press). You can find him on Twitter @errolouvrier.
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