Will Ebony settlement be ‘start of something big’ for freelancers?

Hazel Becker

Hazel Becker is resources coordinator for the SPJ Freelance Community.

The news that 45 freelance journalists will receive their fees for unpaid work published by Ebony magazine is more than welcome – it’s cheer-worthy! Hats off to the National Writers Union (NWU) and to the freelance writers, editors and designers who will receive 100 percent of their owed invoices to settle their claims against the publisher.

On Feb. 27, the Chicago Tribune broke news of the settlement, reporting that the agreement calls for the magazine’s owner, CVG Group, to guarantee payment even if financially strapped Ebony Media declares bankruptcy. The agreement settles a lawsuit the union filed in September 2017 on behalf of more than 50 freelancers, including six writers who settled for about $8,000 before the agreement was reached.

For these and other unpaid independent journalists, this settlement represents a start in addressing the problem we all face when we contract in good faith with publishers and broadcast outlets who, for whatever reason, don’t honor our invoices after using our work. The problem seems to have grown over the last few years as clients are cutting their freelance budgets and rates – effectively bringing the sustainability of freelance journalism further into doubt.

But is it, as the old Steve Allen song goes, the “start of something big” – a real change in how independent journalists are viewed and treated within the journalism world? That remains to be seen.

In a press release about the Ebony agreement, the NWU mentioned it is working on other cases. In fact, the union has settled a non-payment grievance filed against science magazine Nautilus. Also, the union is representing six writers who are owed more than $20,000 by Uptown magazine, which publishes city-specific editions in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The owner, Uptown Media Group LLC, based in New York, is under the jurisdiction of the Freelance Isn’t Free Act that came into effect last year.

Both of these grievances were initiated after the Ebony lawsuit was filed, when freelance journalists with unpaid invoices from the two publishers approached the NWU about their situations. Union president Larry Goldbetter told the Trib: “We consider it a pretty good outcome, even though it was totally senseless to have to go through all of this.”

Senseless, indeed. Freelance journalists agree in good faith to work for news and feature outlets with the expectation that they will keep up their end of the deal: pay our invoices on the schedule agreed.

Having to chase clients for our pay, let alone file a grievance or lawsuit, should not be expected of freelancers. So yes, the settlement is a first step. But until publishers and editors treat freelancers as partners in producing good journalism, it will be only a step. There’s still much work to be done.

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