THE ICE WALKER
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I teach freelance writing, I start by putting these facts on the blackboard. According to a 1995 National Writers Union study, the median annual income of freelance writers is between $6,000 and $10,000. (In 1979, it was $4,775, so you can see how far we're come.) Only 15 percent of us earn over $30,000 a year. Our average hourly wage is $5.33. Only one of us is Stephen King.
My students usually laugh because there's a mystique and a romance to freelancing. Warren Zevon got it right in his song "Piano Fighter": "I'm a holy roller, I'm a real lowrider ... I'm a thin ice walker, I'm a freelance writer."
Outlaw swaggering aside, I find joy in freelance writing: the joy of meeting fascinating people, of hearing great tales, of seeing and learning new things, of having the freedom to think seriously, of enjoying the play of my mind in the field of words, and of maybe of having what I experience mean something to somebody else.
But when you have a calling, I think, the capitalist system takes advantage of it. It knows musicians will sacrifice everything to play, and painters to paint, and writers to write, and nurses to care for the sick, and teachers to teach. So if we'd do it for free anyway, why not pay us the bare minimum?
Last week, for example, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Ralph Gants threw out of court an important case for freelance writers: the Boston Globe Freelancers Assoc. against The Boston Globe.
The BGFA was formed in the summer of 2000, when the Globe told its freelancers - I was one - that we would have to sign away some of our rights under established copyright law for no additional payment. Just after that, I discovered that 33 of my Globe stories were already for sale online - without my knowledge and in direct violation of the 1976 Copyright Act.
The thrill of seeing my stories in the Globe Sunday magazine section faded fast. I refused to sign the contract, the Globe stopped buying my work, the BGFA was formed, I joined, we sued the Globe, and the paper fought us fiercely for over two years. Last week the paper won.
I haven't read the whole ruling, but Gant said that while the Globe action may have been "heavy-handed" and "likely to damage morale and loyalty among freelancers," the paper had not committed an illegal or unfair business practice under Massachusetts law.
Basically, the judge was right. The Globe, following the lead of its parent company, The New York Times, was acting legally, albeit immorally.
The suit was concerned with the future sales of already-written and archived stories, and the right of the paper to sell yet-unwritten stories online without paying the writers more, either up front or per "hit" - the way composers are paid per radio play.
Story resale is an important part of a freelancer's income. Stories that aren't resold still have value as history, which is why the Globe, among other papers, charges for access to its archives.
This kind of thing is a throw of the dice. If writers think their work isn't that important, signing away the rights is no big deal. The Globe contract actually splits rights with the writers, which is benign compared to the Times, which takes all of the rights for itself.
The National Writers Union took the Times to court over its all-rights contract; it won in the U.S. Supreme Court. But instead of negotiating with its freelancers, who were in the process of establishing an ASCAP-like royalty collection system, the Times chose to delete freelancers' work from its online record.
In other words, the newspaper of record destroyed its online historical record because it was too cheap to recognize the rights of its freelancers. (The Times may argue that the paper is intact on microfilm, but most research today is done on the Web.)
It's not as if writers can take their work elsewhere. Almost all media corporations have these contracts now; freelancers sign them or watch their careers die. Very few newspapers and magazines pay extra for the extra rights, although some do. My little contract dispute with the Globe is being played out in newspapers across the country and with the glossiest of national magazines; writers are being turned into little robots, or "content providers."
The odd thing is that most publications couldn't survive without freelancers. They're an editorial safety valve, a low-cost way to supplement the staff. They're also a great way to grow and train new journalists.
After Judge Gants issued his decision, Globe publisher Richard Gilman said that the paper values its freelancers' contributions (2,696 have signed the contract, he said) and that "the agreement is a fair one, more favorable than at a number of other newspapers." As if "more favorable" means right.
This is definitely an issue of might makes right. The papers and magazines are saying to writers, "You need to be published, we have the presses, we can do whatever the hell we want."
Newspapers like to talk about freedom of speech, the people's right to know, being the people's representatives to the powerful, yadda yadda yadda. Hey, writers are people too.
The principle here is that the people who make the work should be fairly compensated for making the work. That is a truism which applies in every field of endeavor. Why are Waltons five of the 10 richest people in the world? Because Wal-Mart pays its employees and suppliers almost nothing, buys from sweatshops, and generally tries to beat down every part of the business so it can make more money. That's why there were Wal-Mart protests a few weeks ago.
Newspapers are supposed to be the righter of wrongs, the fighters of evil, the defenders of truth, justice and the American way, and all those other ideals I passionately believed when I started in the business. I may be sadder and wiser now, but I still believe in all those things. But even if the pen is mightier than the sword, today the cash register trumps them both.
Joyce Marcel is a low-riding, thin-ice walking free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.