Freelance Writing’s Biggest Obstacle Is Meritocracy

Poor wages are merely the tip of the iceberg.

A viral Twitter thread containing anonymous accounts of poor freelance pay by various outlets, ranging from the all-too-prestigious New York Times down to SEO grifters made the rounds recently, prompting renewed discourse around the merits of working for inadequate compensation, and how the media environment has been built to privilege outlets’ own writers over outside contribution by their freelance counterparts. What that discussion has been largely missing however, is a systemic analysis of what conditions freelancers to settle for so little, and why it is so hard for workers of the white-collar variety as a whole, to bolster their claim for better pay, especially as union enrollment in that sector is ever-so-steadily on the rise.

Working in the media space, much like other labor, has been constructed in such a way that the barrier to entry is intentionally steep only for the most stubborn to dare piercing through. The prevailing myth out there is that if you have good clips, you’ll inevitably have a chance at making it into an outlet and earn a living wage, but the truth of the matter is, working in media is currently one of the most unstable ventures as more workers have been let off from the sector this year than from 2014 to 2017 according to Business Insider. So with the prospect of unemployment on the horizon, why does working in media still continue to woo masses its way?

Answering that question has to do with both the image media has projected of itself in our culture, and the expectations writers have from it in response to that perception. Media has been glamorized as a most-precious darling of truth-delivery, a sound of clarity midst the chaotic quibbling of its readers. Those who identify with making sense of a barrage of information see their ascent into a media job as a natural progression of their aspirations. The media establishment however doesn’t perceive things in pure matter of skill — if it was, you wouldn’t have trolls like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens anywhere near a platform as big as the New York Times — what it does, is it creates the illusion of meritocratic hiring standards, and builds the profile of its writers based on what it needs and wants, not what they’re poised to provide.

To go back to Weiss and Stephens for a bit, they don’t work at the New York Times because they’ve got any claim to the paper’s reputation — far from it — what role they serve is that solely of a fishing rod for potential conservative readership–an appeal to false impartiality if you will. If the highest standard for media employment bar-none would assign more importance to its editorial agenda than providing readers the best content they could read, the rest of the media establishment doesn’t fall too far away from the tree.

That’s why freelance writers — especially novice ones — feel particularly discouraged when advancing forth their pitches and premature drafts to bumptious editors, who might discard the possibility of featuring their work for the sole reason they can’t recognize them from anywhere else in the media space. As much as the whole concept of the opinion section — to which most freelance work is dedicated — has been built around the implicit understanding that the writer’s ideas do not represent that of the organization, there seems to be as much asked about potential pitchers as there is from rank-and-file media types. It’s almost as if you have to build up the skill for writing, with none the training and guidance that comes from working with a proficient editor at a media outlet.

This is why meritocracy isn’t a reliable index of writing skill, despite what the qualifications for the job might otherwise suggest. To enter the media establishment — and succeed — writers are expected to have committed their earliest work to obscure magazines and little-known outlets before they can ever move up the ranks. It puts writers at a particularly tough spot given they’ll be faced with either the decision to be diligent and negotiate their pay, or pass up their opportunity to the next sucker who’ll gladly take the low price of admission for increased exposure. What this essentially does, is it acclimates writers to accept poor pay, and not refuse to settle for anything less than a livable wage when the time to accept a stable salary eventually comes.

Coming at it from my own personal perspective as a blogger and an occasional writer-for-hire, it doesn’t surprise me the slightest that the system often ends up — despite its claim to the contrary — giving an unfair advantage to privileged social classes. As such, the American media establishment is particularly receptive to straight white men taking their shot, and not losing much when failing. On the flipside, women and people of color are held to a much higher standard, and as their financial situation would often dictate, they’ve a much less reliable fall-back than their straight white male counterparts. What this effectively does, is it culls the media for any interest taken by its least privileged groups, and institutionalizes a disproportionate advantage for its most privileged.

Talking about poor wages of freelancers is a fraught subject in the mainstream media space. If anything, it puts a mirror to their hypocritical assessment of the social order, wherein the only people they’re tasked to cape for are those who they may never foot the responsibility of paying. As coverage of labor reform intensifies amid the Democratic primaries, and a new-found appetite for welfare programs rose ashore after candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang made the case for basic income guarantee, the labor market must not forget that its cyclical logic for requiring experience when acquiring it can only be done after significant financial shed, is the main reason why many workers find themselves settling for scraps when they could be earning so much more. Media outlets are decidedly about as culpable as bad actors in the labor market they so accuse of mistreating their workers.