Amid mass layoffs in the media industry, what should freelancers do?

Mar 5, 2019

The headlines in late January were ominous: BuzzFeed was laying off 15% of its work force, even after a successful 4th quarter in 2018. As a result, 220 people would find themselves without full-time employment.

According to a New York Times article, profitability was not the determining factor. “In an email to the staff before the firings, Mr. [Jonah] Peretti wrote, “Unfortunately, revenue growth by itself isn’t enough to be successful in the long run.”

Unfortunately, the BuzzFeed layoffs were not outliers. Luke Ottenhof of The Observer notes that:
“It’s been a tough year for workers in the media industry. Though we’re less than two months removed from 2018, the first stretch of this calendar year has brought the familiar, ever-returning spectre of mass layoffs to media outlets in a merciless fashion. Reports estimate that since the year began, more than 2,000 media workers have lost their jobs in a “landslide” of layoffs. Columbia Journalism Review noted that while industry layoffs are a mainstay in the digital media era, the speed and depth of the current cuts appear to be increasingly severe.”

But it's not just employees who are feeling the brunt of these layoffs. Freelance writers rely upon these outlets to accept our pitches and to pay for our written content. For many, it is a significant stream of income. A change in structure affects not just the bottom line, but also calls into question what is fair and ethical.

Ottenhof explains this with great clarity:
“The most immediate and obvious domino effect of layoffs extends beyond the immediate staff cuts to freelancers working below laid-off individuals. The guerilla-like nature of most layoffs means that workers, including editors, aren’t given any advance notice, leaving their assignments to be transferred to their remaining coworkers. But a number of current and former editors explained that there are few (if any) plans in place to deal with outstanding work. This unfortunately includes freelance workers, who are often left without any indication of whether or not their work will be published—or if they will even be paid for it.”

Prepare for the Unknown

I have experienced this in a couple of different ways. An editor once greenlighted an article. I spent a significant amount of time preparing it, just to find out that the editor was laid off. The new editor did not like the article and spiked it — that iteration never made it to print. Because they did not use it, I was not paid for it.

In my case, I vested significant hours into creating evergreen, original content; thankfully, I was able to make some tweaks and use it for another paid project. I was lucky. When outlets pay only upon publication, writers may not get paid for their work.

In another instance, changes internally at a platform determined the amount of content that was required of me. This is not uncommon as some places, in an effort to conserve money, will require more of their ful-time employees and less of their freelancers. As such, it is plausible that a freelancer may go from contributing on a biweekly basis to contributing on a monthly basis — without any, or little, notice. Again, when your livelihood is determined by anticipated income, this can have a detrimental effect.

Stay informed

None of us can control an outlet’s bottom line, but we can control how we see our value and worth as freelancers. Protect your assets and be willing to diversify. There is a need for good writers and good content developers, but where that need is sourced from changes and it is often dictated by market trends. I’ve been freelance writing, in various capacities, for over ten years now and what was required in 2009 is not necessarily what is being asked of me in 2019.

The key is being willing to grow and evolve which leads to a greater likelihood for job security. What are you willing to write about and which outlets are you willing to write for? Also, think about negotiating the terms of your invoicing and payment. I will no longer accept pay upon publication. I now invoice monthly, especially since there can be a significant lag time between when a writer submits something and when it is published.
Pay attention to trends and how they affect those who freelance in that industry.

I will be honest, the first time that I read the announcement about the BuzzFeed layoffs, I didn’t think about the layoffs in terms of those who were deep in the trenches and how those layoffs, ostensibly, touched freelancers. The more I read, the more intrigued I became, especially when BuzzFeed employees recently announced that they planned to unionize. Following this case, amongst others, will help anchor me in understanding and responding to various shifts in the industry.

Stay the course

As someone who has experienced the ups and downs of freelancing (and still loves it), I can’t emphasize enough the importance of not relying exclusively on just one platform as your sole or primary source of income. Unless you have signed a non-compete clause, you must be cautious of never getting so comfortable that your entire existence, at least from a freelancing standpoint, is in someone else’s hands. Our industry can be too capricious for that.

As much as many of us would love to write solely about topics that we are well-versed in and/or deeply passionate about, we have to be mindful of supply/demand. And, most importantly, figure out our value proposition and stay the course.

Tyra Seldon

Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.