Is Freelance Journalism Obsolete?

Cohen, N.S. (2016) Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age.

At a time when, to quote Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ‘literally tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs’ and freelancing is becoming a permanent way of working for many creative workers, the publication of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age could not be timelier.

Writers’ Rights is a ‘study of the working conditions of freelance journalists’ in English-speaking Canada, the USA and the UK, an account of the context in which freelance journalists work and an assessment of the organisational strategies which they have used to deal with their economic circumstances and powerlessness vis-à-vis publishers (6). Under the term ‘freelance journalist’, Cohen – a former one herself – includes reporters as well as producers of non-fiction of all types, including features and corporate material. The study is based on the author’s own online survey of 206 Canadian freelance journalists in 2010, semi-structured interviews with staff and organisers within journalistic organisations and an interdisciplinary literature review (19-20).

Cohen begins by describing the working conditions of freelance journalists, which have deteriorated markedly with the arrival of digital journalism. Although one could argue that journalists are now living in a ‘golden age’ because of the explosion of online publications, Cohen provides a convincing exposé of worsening working conditions, including low or non-existent fees relative to colleagues on permanent contracts, inconsistent payment schedules, exclusion from social benefits due to the self-employed status of the freelance worker and the aggressive pursuit of copyright by publishers that leads to writers surrendering their  ‘moral right’ to be recognised as the author of a work via a byline.

In short, it is becoming very difficult to earn a living as a freelance journalist. Indeed, other sources would seem to corroborate Cohen’s assessment.  As a recent survey for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) shows, the mean salary of freelance journalists in the UK is £19,499 per annum (5), with 44 per cent reporting that they earn less than £15,000 per year (6).

But why should the comparative immiseration of freelance journalists matter? For Cohen, it matters because the way in which freelance journalists are paid influences the types of journalism that are produced. Where freelance journalists are paid by the word, per feature or work on a pro bono basis in order to establish their brand, investigative journalism, freelance war reporting or in-depth feature writing become prohibitively expensive. A recent survey by Project Word of freelance investigative reporters hammers the point home by reporting that 55 per cent of survey respondents ‘failed to recoup their expenditures from story revenue, grants, or donations’ (5). Cohen is therefore correct to argue that ‘journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life’ (7), and that its viability as a practice is being seriously compromised by the ways in which journalists are remunerated for their work.

Cohen is also persuasive when describing how falling payments for freelance work can lead to the fusion of work and leisure time as writers strive to maximise every hour of the day to create value (128). The representation of the journalist as a worker who is always tuned in to the possibility of a saleable story may be an ideal type – if of the negative variety. By contrast, the NCTJ survey shows that 43 per cent of respondents were working part time and 87 per cent thought that their hours were reasonable (5). The NCTJ survey respondents also didn’t tend to view their freelance status as an unwanted interlude between one permanent contract and another, with 82 per cent reporting that they were not seeking to leave freelance journalism (6). However, apparently contradictory survey results from other sources do not necessarily invalidate Cohen’s assessment of the economic plight of freelance journalists. As she herself acknowledges, freelance journalists can be characterised by variation in terms of their earnings, working experiences and levels of job satisfaction (15).

Cohen’s account of what it is like to be a freelance journalist is understandably influenced by the concepts she uses, which are drawn from Marxist political economy. Although she recognises that many freelance journalists conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs, she argues that they do not, in most cases, accumulate capital or own the means of production which are vital ‘in order to bring products to market’ (26). For Cohen, journalists occupy a contradictory class location between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie at the economic level and between the working class and the bourgeoisie at the intellectual level (35). In other words, many freelance journalists may endure penury, but identify with the objectives of the publisher.

Rather unsurprisingly, therefore, the book concludes by making the argument that freelance journalists can improve their economic situation by mass unionisation. In order to buttress her argument, Cohen refers to the Canadian experience, which shows that writers’ organisations can make tangible gains for their members. She therefore references a number of organisations including a literary agency (the Canadian Writers Group), a professional association (the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and a union (the Canadian Media Guild) that have indeed secured improvements for their members. The collective agreements that the Canadian Media Guild have secured with a range of employers is one noteworthy example as is their affiliation with the 700,000 member strong Communication Workers of America.

However, what is clear is that attempts by freelance journalists to organise collectively have been hampered by the sheer number of writers’ organisations. Cohen recognises this by identifying the different attitudes that freelance journalists have towards collective organisation. Should a writers’ organisation be a professional association offering services to its members like a mutual society? Or should it be a literary agency representing the most prominent writers? Or should the organisation be a union and engage in collective bargaining on behalf of a mass membership base? Cohen plumps for the latter option (230-31). Although she is correct to suggest that creating a large union might be possible, I’m less convinced that an organisation of this type would survive in the medium to long term for the reasons Cohen herself recognises: freelance journalists are a diverse group with differing aspirations and ideological positions that are not necessarily compatible. How, for example, could a union hold together a membership that includes journalists who identify as small business people and writers who think of themselves as creative workers with an affiliation to the labour movement? Yes, one could argue that the entrepreneurial language that some journalists use masks the reality of the power imbalance between freelance journalists and publishers, but the fact that some journalists regard themselves as entrepreneurs must surely influence the types of collective organisations that they join.

Although I’m less optimistic than Cohen about the possibilities for organising such a diverse range of creative workers within a super union, Writers’ Rights is an invaluable addition to the literature on self-employment in general and freelance journalism in particular. Lucid, informative and passionate in arguing that freelance journalists can both defend their profession and produce journalism which enriches the democratic debate, this book will be read by practising journalists and students of the media alike.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, March 2017

Bridge of Words

Schor, E. (2016) Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

Readers of Hong Kong Review of Books will, no doubt, be familiar with some of the great works of Chinese literature. Think, for example, of Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin,  Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Ba Jin’s semi-autobiographical novel The Family. What will be much less well-known is that these three classics of  Chinese and world literature have also been translated into Esperanto — the international language  originally constructed in the late nineteenth-century as an easy-to-learn second language for everyone.

Mention of the word ‘Esperanto’ usually meets with a number of responses which can range from complete indifference to condescending disdain. Esther Schor’s new book Bridge of Words:  Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language is therefore a welcome addition to the literature in this field which may help to disperse the thick cloud of ignorance which so often envelops the subject.

In a book which lucidly blends memoir, biography and history, Schor introduces the reader to the life of Dr L. L. Zamenhof — a polyglot Jewish opthalmologist who was born in 1859 in Białystok in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Mention of Zamenhof’s Jewish identity perhaps gives a clue to the circumstances which led him to ‘invent’ a language. He was born in a multilingual milieu speaking Russian and Yiddish at home, using Polish and German for business and chanting Hebrew in the synagogue. But he also lived in a part of the world where the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had led to pogroms against Jewish people and where different ethnic groups effectively lived parallel lives. However, because he was born into the cosmopolitan Jewish bourgeoisie (his father Marcus was a censor for the Tsarist regime), Zamenhof certainly had the cultural and linguistic tools needed to design a language which, he felt, could reduce inter ethnic tension.

Consequently, after flirting with Zionism in Moscow and Warsaw, Zamenhof was ready to begin his ambitious project. On the assumption that existing languages were just too difficult for most people to learn, he developed a language with a stock of words drawn from an international lexicon and a regular grammar with almost no exceptions to its basic rules. Particularly useful was the ‘agglutinative’ nature of the language whereby Zamenhof created roots with meanings which could be changed by adding a prefix or a suffix. Indeed, the agglutinative character which Zamenhof gave to the language was a stroke of genius because it meant that one could build up a large vocabulary from a relatively small word hoard.

Schor also shows how Zamenhof effectively set the language free by refusing to become the arbiter of how Esperanto should develop. In contrast to the autocratic control which Johann Martin Schleyer — the creator of Volapük —tried to exercise over his language project, Zamenhof’s approach was different. As Schor says, “unlike most language inventors, Zamenhof renounced the privileges of a creator…He is the only language inventor on record ever to cede his language to its users….” Zamenhof’s language was consequently published in 1887 in a Russian textbook  known by Esperantists as First Book or  Unua Libro using the nom de plume ‘Doktoro Esperanto’.  As readers will no doubt have guessed, this nom de plume — Esperanto — became the name which has been associated with the language ever since. Needless to say, translations of the book followed into other languages.

But Schor’s account of the genesis and subsequent history of the language is not unequivocally glowing. Indeed, she entertainingly describes the conflict between Esperanto speakers over the movement’s purpose, reforms to the language and inevitable personality clashes between people with strong convictions. In parts, so much of the book reads like the story of a vaguely leftist and ineffective groupuscule for progressive polyglots. The flipping back and forth between history and Schor’s account of her Esperanto studies and her worldwide Esperanto congresses attendance also makes the historical chronology difficult to follow at times.

Yet the interweaving of memoir with history does work because Schor manages to combine an account of the facts of the matter with emotive and insightful pen portraits of individual Esperantists. Moreover, Schor tells us that in well over a century of existence, the Esperanto movement — primarily organised around the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) — has established a translation programme, created original works of literature, built relationships  with the UN and UNESCO and established a small but vibrant transnational speech community.

Though Schor never unequivocably says that the Esperanto movement has failed, one could argue that Esperantists have patently failed to persuade the peoples and governments of the world to use the language as a universal lingua franca. Such a view of Esperanto and its speakers would be premature. Although English remains the international language of the moment, there is no reason to suppose that this will remain so in the future and, in any case, there is little evidence for the view that English — or any other large globally dispersed language — is spoken to an advanced level by anyone outside of its native speaker community or a comparatively small group of transnational elites.

Schor therefore leaves the reader with the impression that the community of Esperanto speakers  is a small but global collection of people in diaspora. What could transform Esperanto into a language spoken by millions is the increased uptake of teaching opportunities which have, in many cases, moved to the internet, combined with acquired prestige for the language among the governing elites. Insofar as the internet is concerned, Schor refers to the websites lernu! and Duolingo which have proved to be very popular. Although Humphrey Tonkin — “an eminent man of letters in the Esperanto world and a professor emeritus of English Renaissance literature” — notes that Zamenhof may have inadvertantly created a language which is even less prestigious than the Yiddish which was spoken in the streets of Białystok, mass uptake of the language may concentrate the minds of the powerful. One only has to recall that Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Union Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, gave a speech in Esperanto at a Conference on international language policy in July 2016 to see that the tide may be making an unusual turn in favour of Esperanto.

Review originally published in Hong Kong Review of Books, December 2016

The ESRC, 50 Years On

Walker, D. (2015) Exaggerated Claims? The ESRC, 50 Years On

This book looks at the role of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and its relationship with academics, non-university researchers, policy-makers and government.

David Walker, a journalist and former head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences, argues that the ESRC’s founders were inspired by a vision where policy and practice-relevant social science research would be produced by both university and non-university research centres. In contrast, what materialised, so Walker contends, is a council which often funds knowledge which is “antinomian, autistic and disconnected” from the other parts of the “state apparatus” which conduct research.

Walker does recognise that Michael Young and Andrew Shonfield – the first two chairs of the ESRC – were keen advocates of “social science as policy science”. He also convincingly argues that consumers of research do not necessarily give priority to academic work but rather make use of all information that is materially relevant to their field of interest. The implication of this view is that the focus of research projects should be less influenced by what researchers themselves find interesting and more influenced by a genuine, multidirectional partnership between the various constituencies who are interested in research.

This erudite, eminently quotable and thoroughly iconoclastic book tells the story of opportunities lost; it is not an account of unequivocal failure. It is also about much more than the ESRC, as Walker has issued a clarion call to all those who believe in interdisciplinary working.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 13:4 45, doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00943.x

Social Physics: A New Science

Pentland, A. (2014) Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread  – the Lessons from a New Science

Alex Pentland’s book is a hugely readable introduction to “social physics”, which the author defines “as a quantitative social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people’s behaviour on the other”. In contradistinction to what the author defines as conventional “individual-centric economic and policy thinking”, Pentland suggests that the primary drivers of cultural evolution in our wired world are “social learning” and “social pressure”.

Pentland entertainingly describes a range of studies which he and colleagues have conducted that are both interesting and counterintuitive. He shows, for example, how equal “conversational turn-taking” is the most important factor in predicting “group intelligence”. Other studies focus on trading and the determinants of political opinion. Indeed, there seems to be nothing which is outside of the purview of social physics.

But Pentland’s enthusiasm for his subject carries an overtone of hubris. For Pentland, constructs like “market”, “class” and “capital” should be replaced by the concepts he outlines in the book. Moreover, he gives a very partial interpretation of history since the Enlightenment, which is puzzling because he simultaneously extols the virtues of Adam Smith and John Locke while suggesting that conventional economic concepts are redundant.

In order to gain a more nuanced view of what drives cultural, social and economic evolution, my advice would be to imagine Pentland in a dialogue with economists, historians, sociologists and philosophers and then to form your own view of the truth of the claims made in this book.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 12:6 45. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2015.00871.x

Multilingualism

How can people most effectively talk to each other if they do not share a common first language?

In a fascinating lecture, Italian interlinguist Professor Federico Gobbo introduces us to a unique, but little known, phenomenon: the international language Esperanto.

The full citation for the lecture is:

Gobbo, Federico (2015) Interlinguïstiek, een vak voor meertaligheid. Interlingvistiko, fako por multlingvismo. Interlinguistics, a discipline for multilingualism. Oratie 532 van de Universiteit van Amsterdam. Uitgesproken bij de aanvaardiing van het ambt van bijzonder hoogleraar ‘Interlinguîstiek en Esperanto’ aan de faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen op vrijdag 13 maart 2015. Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA.

Read my review here.

Creative Communication

What creative methods of research communication can help scholars get their message ‘out there’ effectively? In Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp offer a new guide which will be accessible to researchers working across the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. Wilkinson and Weitkamp successfully blend the theoretical and the practical in an approachable manner in an excellent book full of interesting and relevant content for academics and non-academics alike.

Click here to see my complete review in LSE Review of Books.