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Down and Out in the Gig Economy

Journalism's dependence on part-time freelancers has been bad for the industry—not to mention writers like me.

In 2009, in the paranoid middle days of the recession, I enacted a boomerang-child stereotype: I moved back home into my parents’ basement. Raised in privilege (son of lawyers, private schools, no college debt), I treated the move as a minor humiliation justified by the conditions of the times. Aside from the basement’s tendency to flood during the rare Los Angeles rainstorm, it was a fine setup, a linoleum warren of adolescent artifacts and piles of books that I ordered from eBay when stoned late at night. I worked a handful of freelance gigs—Hebrew school teacher, content farm contributor—applied for jobs, and wrote book reviews, the journalistic entry point for many young writers. On weekends I drank with my better-heeled friends and crashed at their apartments. A brighter era, I assumed, was yet to come.

One morning, I got what seemed to be a job offer from an editor at a literary magazine for which I had been writing. It was, and remains, the only time I’d been offered a full-time job in journalism. The exact contours of the offer were vague, but it involved my spending at least a few months going through the magazine’s archives and writing a kind of institutional history featuring one of the magazine’s early editors, a folklorist and general eccentric. I had graduated from college three years earlier. I had no entrepreneurial ability, an overriding fear that the economy would degrade into a more overt form of barbarism, and a desperate worship of all things intellectual. I emailed back, eagerly accepting the offer.

I spent days and then weeks sweating the editor’s response. A social coward, I debated with my parents the propriety of calling this tiny literary magazine’s office in an effort to reach the editor. It seemed like the most important thing in the world. Later I got over myself, placed the call, and talked to the magazine’s managing editor. He told me that the editor was traveling in southern California, not far from where I lived. I wrote the editor, offered to talk to him, drive to meet him, whatever was needed. I was ready to move across the country for this project. He didn’t respond to my messages.

Now the editor is a celebrated investigative journalist. I still haven’t gotten a job in journalism, and sometimes, I feel like I haven’t left that basement.

Draped in the rhetoric of accountability and meritocracy, journalism is an industry in unmitigated decline. The industry’s workforce has halved in the last 15 years; over that period, more journalists have lost jobs in America than coal miners. Cowed by the tech giants, publications collapse with the fickle movements of markets or Charles Harder’s client fees. For me and many of my peers, money continues to be elusive, something we occasionally stumble upon but never manage to earn in steady quantities. I get temporary gigs, but I haven’t spent more than a couple consecutive months in an office since 2007. (Most of my 2012 income came when I won about $38,000 on Jeopardy!, adding to my suspicion that income might be earned but is also largely contingent. A boss and a gameshow host differ only in the scale of their noblesse oblige.)

One of the problems with media, and the coverage of media, is its self-absorption, its chronic affinity for the navel gaze—a charge that this essay is no doubt guilty of. But this accusation sometimes carries a prophylactic quality that attempts to preempt valid criticisms of the industry. Journalists can be so pious about the suffering they cover, while also wearing a protective shield of cynicism, that they excuse the material conditions of their own lives. They kibitz and complain about their peers and bosses—they may even form unions (as encouraging a trend as any in this industry). But many also absorb indignities that no worker should have to go through. We need not engage in comparative suffering to understand that freelance journalists can be just as precarious, and as deserving of rights, as other gig workers. The deskilling and casualization of their work—the tendency to replace reported work with warmed-over takes or viral material ripped from social media—reflects trends in the wider economy. So too does the yawning earnings gap between the top and bottom echelons of the industry.

In truth, freelance journalism, as a career, is mostly an anachronism. Given the rock-bottom rates on offer, few writers actually support themselves with full-time freelancing. A lucky handful churn out features for the New York Times Magazine and GQ for $2 a word and then deliver half-apologetic aw-shucks accounts of their success on the Longform podcast, which dispenses romantic tales of literary striving to a mass of naive supplicants.

But for most of us, freelance journalism is a monetized hobby, separate from whatever real income one earns. The ideal relationship for a freelance journalist to their work becomes a kind of excited amateurism. They should hope for professional success and acceptance but always keep a backup plan or three in mind. They will likely not be welcomed past the gates of full-time employment. By year five or six, they might be rebranding themselves as “editorial consultants” or “content strategists,” realizing that any genuine fiscal opportunity lies in shepherding corporate content to life.

It’s worth asking what this dynamic does to journalism—the stories untold, the investigations never performed because a shift behind the bar pays better or because the publication won’t pay for a train ticket. Nor is there much room for career development or mentorship when editors, often operating under page-view or production quotas of their own, are disconnected from their labor force. But then, gig economies are ersatz structures, designed to skirt labor laws and offload risk and expense onto workers themselves. They serve the whims of capital, which—if the recent wave of private equity–led media takeovers is anything to go by—seems to be focused on extracting whatever last profits it can before leaving the news industry’s desiccated corpse by the roadside.

For workers, there are few reasons for optimism. A new Freelance Journalists Union, launched under the auspices of the IWW, has held a couple impassioned meetings in Queens. But material gains have yet to appear. There is little resembling forward progress or sustainability, nothing to make freelancers think they are doing anything but churning out generic, news-pegged content that will soon be automated or replaced by a TikTok feed.

For those who insist on building this bridge to nowhere, the disappointments are petty, frequent, and almost numbingly ordinary. Fees that somehow decline from assignment to assignment. The typical uncertainty about when pay will arrive, if ever. (If anyone from the skeleton crew managing The Village Voice’s Instagram feed is reading, you still owe me $600.) A speaking agent promising Gladwellian earnings, only to disappear when asked a question about the contract.

Earlier this year, more than a decade into what could be generously called my career, I received an email from an editor at a publishing house. The publisher was considering a book proposal about augmented reality and wanted to solicit my opinion, since I had written a book about social media and wrote for magazines about technology. In exchange for reading the proposal and answering a list of questions, I would receive $45 or three paperback books that the house published. I declined, saying that the fee was too low. The editor replied apologetically. “I’m afraid this is fairly standard,” she said, “but I’ve received approval on this occasion to increase the amount to $75.”

Sometimes you find a truffle amidst the shit. In 2012, after a piece I wrote about self-promotion on Twitter went viral, a website gave me a column; they canceled it after I turned in my first installment. The same piece got me a deal from HarperCollins to write a dissenting book about digital culture and life online (the ephemeral renown of virality is somehow considered a predictor of whether a book will be popular after it passes through a years-long writing-and-publishing process). Soon after I finished the book, my editor decamped for a better job, while my agent left the industry and moved to Indiana. The publisher assigned a publicist and a marketing director to my book; the latter skipped our first phone call and was mostly silent after that. The task of the publicist seemed to be letting me down gently as the publisher decided its promotional resources were better used elsewhere. My book was reviewed pretty well and sold poorly. I spent the next few years writing a novel, which a few agents declined interest in, and a new book proposal that didn’t sell.

These are the bitter reminiscences of a failed journalist and downwardly mobile millennial. Someone taught to believe that some form of knowledge work would always be available to him, that hard work, talent, and a dependable wage run in parallel stride. Every generation has its comeuppance. Ours lies in the vast field of disappointment that you land in after you run the gauntlet of privatized education, unpaid internships, and other markers of the prestige economy. There you find that writing ability or general intelligence mean nothing if you don’t have the right connections, or the ability to flatter those in authority, or a father who once held the same job. Those who have mastered these forms of soft power succeed while the rest learn the meaning of “precariat” and debate joining the Democratic Socialists of America.

When I don’t direct my anger at myself with indulgent acts of self-criticism, I have learned to resent every emblem of my private education, to see it as an act of gall in a world where resources are distributed so inequitably. I resent the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on my schooling, money that now seems like a great sunken cost (a concept that is itself a product of neoliberal, put-a-price-tag-on-everything thinking). Looking back on the last ten years, I see a foolish pursuit of an intellectually engaged life. As my friends became consultants, designers, and marketing experts, I thought I was going to be a book critic. It seems ridiculous, like announcing I was going to sell typewriters.

If I am to rant about the conditions of my pseudo-employment, I should not exempt The New Republic, a magazine for which I have written for seven-plus years and several ownership regimes without ever receiving a job offer. My overall relationship with TNR and some of its editors is like mine with a few other publications: respectful and amiable, with fairly steady work in the $250 to $500 range, the fees sometimes spiking higher. (I’m being paid $1,000 for this essay—generous in these straitened times.) The work is welcome but is never frequent or remunerative enough to pay my rent.

I like the staff, attend the occasional party, and am grateful when my pitches are accepted. They, in turn, seem to like me, seeing me as a reliable source of content. Our relationship extends little beyond that—a failure that is either mine, or perhaps indicative of how publications rely on vast networks of freelancers to produce steady content, like so many widgets, but don’t need to offer them any of the trappings of employment. These freelancer networks must be managed, but publishers and editors work from a position of relative power, doling out assignments to their friends while pleading poverty as their budgets are always overstretched.

Perhaps I should be grateful. Bylines, like exposure, have become their own reward. I should feel lucky to be published once a year in the New York Times. I am glad, and in my less self-loathing moments, even proud, to have written a book. In terms of SEO, I am by far the most successful Jacob Silverman. But I would like to make a living. I am tired of making $20,000 a year. I am sick of editors telling me, “You should pitch me sometime,” without offering anything more. I think I have proved myself as a writer deserving of a livable wage and yet I am nagged by doubts that my financial insecurity is a reflection of my essential unfitness for this field. I watch with envy as peers climb the editorial ladder, rising up the mastheads at various bold-faced publications, while I mostly accrue credit card debt.

All of this, I admit, is the sour refrain of someone speaking from the infantilizing cocoon of privilege. There is no trust fund in my name, but if I didn’t have the support of my parents, a partner who makes a steady but poor-for-New-York living as a social worker, and the occasional loan from a friend, my material conditions would be far different. Perhaps I would have wised up sooner, with financial desperation driving me to work on Wall Street or go to law school. That is, assuming that these places would have me. Selling out has proved harder than I envisioned.

Maybe I would still be working at the bookstore I spent a couple years at after my book money ran out. I earned ten dollars an hour selling New York-themed books to tourists. One day a New York Times writer, a woman about my age whose work I respected, came in looking for a guidebook on California. I had applied for the same job at the Times but never heard back about my application. After my book was published, she had once called me for comment on a tech-related issue but didn’t know my face. I was too embarrassed to say we had spoken before, when I was in better circumstances.

Recently I was talking to someone who works at a small magazine. We were friends but also colleagues, which meant that I resented her employment but also had been cultivating our friendship over several years, during which she occasionally floated the possibility of a job that invariably never materialized. I told her that I was once again looking for a job, any job. I no longer held journalism in self-defeating, sacred regard and would look widely. In fact, after I’d written critically about tech for years, it now seemed like the only area where I might find employment.

“I’m applying for a content job at WeWork,” I said.

“Don’t work for WeWork,” she said dismissively.

“I need a job, an income.”

She had nothing to say.