Weekly reads from CJR for August 12, 2021

What’s the difference between freelancers and gig workers?

In 1819, when the term “free lance” appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe, it referred to a medieval soldier available for independent hire. For media workers two hundred years later, the lance has been traded for a laptop and the battlefield for a home office, but the title retains a whiff of roguish independence. Freelance work, the culture has given us to believe, is synonymous with self-employment; freelancers enjoy flexible schedules, choose their clients with autonomy, and set their own conditions of labor.

In reality, the proliferation of freelance work in the media industry—63 percent of writers were freelance in 2019—reflects the preferences of employers, not workers. As the industry has contracted in the past two decades, newsroom jobs including fact-checking, copyediting, Web production, and writing have been shunted to little-compensated and unstable independent contractor positions. To describe this increasingly common reality, a newer and more precise word than “freelance” has entered the lexicon: permalance, which carries a feeling more of exhausted defeat than romantic self-determination.

Maya Binyam, a freelance writer herself, calls upon media workers to recognize, and defend, their place in the collective precariat. In the words of Toni Morrison, speaking at the American Writers Congress in 1981: “We may be dreamers or scholars, we may need tranquility or chaos––we may write for posterity or for the hour that is upon us. But we are all workers in the most blessed and mundane sense of that word.” —Camille Bromley, story editor


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