UofG report describes freelance journalism as a ‘wild west’ profession

Published: 18 March 2024

Freelance journalists in the UK earn less than the minimum wage, despite journalism being commonly perceived as a privileged profession, according to a new study of freelance journalists led by the University of Glasgow.

Freelance journalists in the UK earn less than the minimum wage, despite journalism being commonly perceived as a privileged profession, according to a new study of freelance journalists led by the University of Glasgow.

In responding to the survey, led by CREATe (the Centre for Regulation of the Creative Economy), a ‘surprising’ number described how freelance journalism is becoming a ‘wild west’ profession, lacking regulatory oversight and increasingly sparsely populated.

Findings also show that black freelance journalists earn seven times less than white freelance journalists (a typical median income of £2,500, compared with £17,500).

‘A survey of earnings, contracts, and copyright’ gathered data on the earnings of 500 UK-based primary occupation freelance journalists, including factors that affect earnings, such as contracts and copyright.

This research was funded by ALCS (the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society), in collaboration with the NUJ (the UK National Union of Journalists).

The study’s concluding report was launched at the AGM and All Party Writers Group Reception Westminster on Tuesday 19 March.

Anna Codrea-Rado is a UK-based freelance features writer. She said: “I'm a journalist, author, newsletter writer, podcaster, public speaker, consultant, copywriter, workshop facilitator, and one-time model in a Eurostar advert.

“If that list of job titles sounds exhausting, it's because it is.

“The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society report hammers home a harsh reality: freelance journalism pay cannot sustain a livelihood. It doesn't for me, nor scores of my freelance colleagues.

“As a freelance journalist, I’ve built a patchwork of income streams in other fields to finance my journalism. Far from being a savvy business decision, my portfolio career is a necessity. After 15 years of industry experience, including prestigious bylines and awards, writing feels more like a hobby than a viable career. As a freelance journalist, I’ve covered stories that hold power to account and yet the income from that work doesn’t cover my bills.

“Pay issues in the profession are endemic and financial insecurity has become so normalised that I’ve stopped telling young writers to ‘charge your worth!’ because I know that few - if any - media outlets actually will. When journalists ask me when they should give up their day jobs to go freelance, I tell them categorically to not do it.”

Overall, freelance journalists earn a typical median income of £17,500 per annum less than minimum wage in the UK (assuming a 35-hour work week). As a result, many subsidise their income with ‘day jobs’ or from other household members.

Disabled journalists earned significantly less (£11,500) than their non-disabled colleagues (£17,500).

The survey also found evidence of evidence of informal, ‘back of the envelope’, contractual practices between journalists and news publishers. Off-hand emails, WhatsApps, and oral agreements are routinely employed in this industry, which lessens the security of a freelance journalist if they are exposed to a dispute.

Lead researcher Dr Amy Thomas, of CREATe, said: “The metaphor of freelance journalism as the Wild West is a telling one - respondents are telling us that this has become the lived reality of the modern freelance journalist. With shrinking newsrooms, mass redundancies, and the decline of regional news, freelancing is becoming the new normal. But, between tenuous working conditions and unstable sources of earnings, we find that the high value of journalism, in promoting a politically informed citizenry, does not translate to a commensurate award in the form of a liveable wage.

“This trajectory of overall low earnings is also intrinsically related to our finding that 60% of journalists come from a privileged socio-economic background. There appears to be an industry expectation that journalists can supplement their income from another source as a result of their social or economic privilege. The risk is of course that journalists from lower socio-economic backgrounds are not meaningfully enabled to begin, or sustain, a career in this industry, worsening the level of diversity in the profession overall. This expectation can be used to justify harmful industry practices, such as working without a contract, or withholding pay until publication of an article.”

Professor Martin Kretschmer, Director of the CREATe Centre, said: “The series of surveys we have conducted since 2006 reveal a picture of creative labour markets in the UK that is uncomfortable, and changing in the wrong direction. In part, this is due to crisis factors, such as the financial crunch, Covid and Brexit. But underlying it is a trend towards a digital gig economy that policy has not been able to address.

“Our latest data on freelance journalists indicates a still strong reliance on earnings in traditional media organisations. Whether new digital business models can deliver sustainable quality journalism is one of the big questions of our time. It matters for the future of democratic societies.”

Chief Executive of ALCS, Barbara Hayes said: “As ALCS prepares to distribute more than £31million to over 100,000 writers, we are shocked to see so few freelance journalists benefit from the new and emerging online reuses of their work. This report reveals some worrying trends for the profession, including low pay and informal work practices. While digital platforms and artificial intelligence present both risks and opportunities for freelance journalists, the Government must do more to empower these creators, by supporting mechanisms to negotiate compensation for the use of works in the platform economy.”

First published: 18 March 2024