“It’s no secret that journalism is contracting. Particularly in print, with regular rounds of layoffs, hiring freezes and so on,” says Gerard Cunningham, a freelance journalist.
Paradoxically, this can make things a bit easier for freelancers in a way, as “all those gaps formerly filled by staff have to be plugged somehow”, says Cunningham, who is chairperson of the Dublin Freelance National Union of Journalists (NUJ) branch, but was not speaking on behalf of the NUJ.
Despite work being available, one of the most common issues freelance journalists face in the so-called “gig-economy” is the difficulty many have with payments – getting reasonable rates, and getting paid on time.
Rates have been frozen for over a decade, or have fallen, according to Cunningham, so freelancers are now often paid less than they were during the recession. And, although many companies are straightforward to deal with, with others, it can be hard for freelancers to collect even meagre payments.
Susan Boyle, who has been freelancing for 15 years, says she loves “being accountable and responsible for [her] work”. Most of the publications she’s written for have been great, she says, but there have been “a few bad eggs”.
“I’ve had a couple of seriously bad experiences for substantial amounts of money with people who should be able to pay but just don’t prioritise me because I’m freelance and just one sole trader,” Boyle says. “It ends up costing so much money, as it’s income you have worked for and planned for and then if it doesn’t come in you are in a real mess.”
Úna-Minh Kavanagh, a freelance writer and social-media manager, says that although she has always been paid for freelance work, some clients “completely disregard any agreement you have in place and force you to chase them”.
The chase can last for months, and it’s embarassing for both sides, Kavanagh says.
“One example was for work I did with an Irish magazine. I completed it quickly and on time and I had to chase a payment,” she says. “I sent it 5th December, gave 30 days and didn’t get paid until February the next year.”
“I rang the office multiple times and was fobbed off even though I could hear the owner in the background. My main issue was that there was no apology, no acknowledgment at the end of it for being late,” she says.
Freelancers “are at the bottom of the food chain”, says John Doherty, another freelance journalist. “Around here, they are certainly regarded as being journalists who weren’t quite good enough to get a staff job.”
In one instance, a Dublin business magazine hired him at a reasonable fee per word, and promised that once they were better-established, this fee would rise, Doherty says.
Instead, “After about four or five articles for them, they said they had since recruited a number of young freelancers and that I was getting paid twice as much as everyone else, so my fee was being cut,” he says.
It’s not uncommon for freelancers to be taken less seriously than staffers, says Lois Kapila, who worked as a freelancer in Ireland before founding Dublin Inquirer, where she is now managing editor.
That’s especially true “if they are starting out and don’t have connections in the media. Part of it I think, is that editors will see their staffers all the time face to face, and freelancers are remoter,” she says.
Not All Publications
Neil Cotter, head of news at the Irish Sun, says he relies on freelancers. “It would be very difficult to do what we do, seven days a week, without good-quality freelance contributors,” he says.
“We’ve built up an excellent working relationship with key contributors from all over Ireland and abroad, and it would be impossible to do that without paying people promptly and on time. If you want good people to come back, you have to make sure they get paid for the work they do,” he says.
The Sunday Times also pays freelancers promptly, according to its news editor, Colin Coyle.
“From an editor’s perspective, it makes no sense to delay payment. I want to encourage valued freelancers to continue pitching stories. If I don’t pay a freelancer promptly, I may lose out on an exclusive story,” Coyle says.
Kapila, of Dublin Inquirer, says “There have been times when I have forgotten to put through a payment and a freelancer has reminded me. I apologise and put it through straightaway. I try to be as communicative as possible.”
Rules and Regulations
There have been EU regulations in place for a number of years, protecting contract workers, like the Prompt Payment of Accounts Act, 1997, as amended in 2012 in the Late Payment in Commercial Transactions Act.
Under the 2012 legislation, a purchaser is required to pay a supplier within 30 days of completion, or by a forward-fixed date; if both parties agree, it can be 60 days.
It can only be further extended if both sides expressly agree, and if it is not deemed “grossly unfair” to the supplier – in the case at hand, the freelance journalist. What’s more, there is an implied term in every contract that interest is payable if payments are late.
Boyle says she has quoted this legislation to clients, “but was warned that if I included interest on my invoice, that was over a year unpaid, that I could trigger an internal audit and I might never get paid, so I didn’t risk it. Even if you know you are in the right what can you do?”
So why are there still issues with some companies paying late? “Contracts are rare,” says Cunningham. “Either you pitch, or they call you.” Similarly, Doherty says he has never been offered a contract by a publication, and therefore could be dropped at any moment.
Furthermore, says Richard Grogan, a solicitor specialising in employment law, “The problem with regulations is they are only helpful if there’s a cheap enforcement mechanism.”
If a freelancer wanted to make a claim, “Where do you bring it? You can’t use small-claims court, you have to use the district court,” Grogan says. (The small-claims court is for consumer cases rather than for chasing debts.)
The problem, he explains, is that the debt may not be big enough for a case. “There is the cost of issuing proceedings and the delay in getting cases listed and then implementation,” he says.
“We have a culture in Ireland of holding bills as long as possible,” Grogan says. “We don’t deal with bad debtors, and you can’t single out one group.”
Kapila says freelancers have never raised the regulations with her. They’re good rules, she says, but “difficult, perhaps, for freelancers to feel they can pursue action based on them”.
However, freelancers who maybe don’t feel they have the leverage demand their rights have another method of dealing with the problem of late or non-payment by publications.
“Employers need to realise that freelancers talk to each other and tell each other how the company was to work for,” says Kavanagh.