Note: this essay is lightly adapted from a recent edition of UNCLE DAD, a sporadic self-published DINFONTAY newsletter. Sign up here.
If you work in media for any amount of time, you will find yourself on Twitter, which is where I first ran across Luke O’Neil. Luke is a smart, talented journalist; he’s also a freelancer. I always got a kick out of Luke’s fuck-the-Man tweets and stories, but once I went freelance myself, I gained a new appreciation for his relentless skepticism and cynicism towards the power structures that govern our little slice of #content paradise.
Take this piece Luke wrote for Nieman Journalism Lab as 2017 came to its brutal close, entitled “The End Is Already Here.” It is a zealously bleak perspective on the ever-imploding media hellscape, characterized at that moment by the folly of “pivoting to video.”
For example, here’s a passage nominally about the sociopolitical consequences of eroding accountability journalism that could easily be read as a lament about the shifting tides drowning the journalism businss itself:
With fewer checks on the remorseless, shameless, broke dicks on the local level, the worst people alive will graduate from their local grifting operations to the national stage unmolested by conscience or scandal, populating the halls of power with an even worse species of villain than we’ve previously imagined. Nothing anyone of us can now do will stop it. It’s too late. We’re pivoting and pivoting in a widening gyre.
Hell, yeah. That’s the pure shit right there.
As a salaried employee at a successful media company, I had some awareness for how rough the media game could be. I had survived a couple layoffs. I’d seen acquaintances get short shrift as their outlets were acquired by new parent companies, or folded after making ill-advised and harebrained grabs at new revenue streams once their ad dollars were hoovered up by Facebook and Google.
Don’t get me wrong: working at a media company full-time was not without its issues. (Hell, I helped organize my workplace specifically because of those issues!) But now that I’m out here, beyond the moat of direct-deposit and healthcare benefits and office snacks, Luke’s message rings even truer than before.
Which brings me to his latest coup: a story published to his new weekly newsletter “Welcome to Hell World,” which he publishes for free on Substack. (Substack is a pretty cool platform; check them out here.) “Payday Loans Are Coming For Us All,” it’s called.
You should read the whole story, but the gist is that WorkMarket, one of the myriad billing platforms that has sprung up to middle-man (sorry, “streamline”) the transaction between freelancers and publishers, has been running a payday-loan-esque scheme to extract expediting fees from freelancers who need their money faster than the glacial pace at which many publishers pay it. Luke even got someone from WorkMarket to get on the phone and “well, actually…” why this practice isn’t predatory. (Spoiler alert: it definitely is!)
From what I’ve read, seen, and experienced, it’s pretty typical for freelance writers to have to chase down payments from the outlets that they write for. (Insert an obligatory #NotAllPublishers here, fine. But it’s enough of them that it’s very much “a thing”.) Obviously, being forced to beg for money a company contractually agreed to pay you is humiliating. But so what?, you may say. Feelings don’t cost much. Fine, dick! But things like food, shelter, and healthcare do cost (and plenty), and for freelancers who don’t have access to longterm cashflow (either from savings, independent wealth, or other revenue), this slow-walk can be economically perilous, or even fatal.
For a billing platform to institute a practice like the one detailed in Luke’s story — which he took the time and effort to report, reaching out to all parties for an accounting of their behavior, on his own time/dime — is clearly predatory. For them to tout it as a competitive advantage is pretty fucked up! But I think the most nefarious thing about it is that it draws fire away from the root issue.
The only reason this type of vampirism exists is because enough publications have deprioritized paying freelance labor to the point where VC billing-platform grifters have identified the victims of that cavalier negligence/incompetence as a captive and lucrative target from which to wring additional fees.
In other words: there are no good guys here. Corporations drag their feet and exert their leverage, and the little guy (in this case, freelance writers) suffers. Same old story. But not this time! After publishing his newsletter, Luke amended it with two updates, both of which warmed my cold and jaded soul:
UPDATE: After this piece was published the Huffington Post has told me they’ve disabled the FastFunds payment option on their end.
UPDATE 2: ADP, the human resources conglomerate that owns WorkMarket tells me they have “decided to temporarily suspend WorkMarket’s FastFunds offer until we can review the practice more carefully.”
Score one for accountability journalism, baby! While I suspect ADP is just grandstanding now and will re-implement WorkMarket’s practice once the heat dies down, at least it’s gone for now. Even so, this still leaves us with the broader, and supposedly intractable, problem of publishers taking eons to pay freelancers.
It’s not cold fusion to process an ACH transfer or cut a check. Businesses pay vendors all the time, and if they don’t, many vendors penalize them with late fees or threaten them with lawsuits. I’ve heard freelance writers wistfully talk about doing the same. Maybe some have actually pulled that off, but I’ve never met someone who has. Who has the time or money for that sort of thing? Not a freelance writer. And companies know it.
In conclusion: WorkMarket may have been the “even worse species of villain” in this case, but our own homegrown villain — publishers that don’t treat writers’ invoices with the same urgency as making payroll, or even remitting other vendors’ invoices — ain’t no picnic, either. Congratulations to Luke for owning multiple companies with a single email newsletter. Subscribe to “Welcome to Hell World” for his bummer-inducing dispatches, and follow him on Twitter.
Most importantly, trust no one, and pay freelance writers promptly.