AB 5 hurts student journalists

by Charlie Vargas, Staff Writer

For journalism students graduating this spring in California, or writers merely looking to work in the state, there is a new law that will affect their standing in the freelance workforce. On Jan. 1 2020, Assembly Bill Number 5  will be implemented as law. 

The legislation stems from the California Supreme Court decision, Dynamex Operations Industries v. Supreme Court, that took place in 2018. The ruling came down on gig economies, aimed towards businesses like Uber and Lyft, who rely on independent contractors and are considered “nonemployees” who carry out the services of a company for short periods. 

The ruling resulted in the adoption of a guideline referred to as the “ABC test.” It consists of three parts: “A) The worker is free from the employer’s control or direction in performing the work, B) The work takes place outside the usual course of the business of the company and off the site of the business, C) Customarily, the worker is engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession, or business.” 

The decision inspired AB 5 to strengthen the ruling by adding some specifications to an independent contractors’ profession, and among them were freelance writers who are associated with the “B” component of the test. AB 5 requires news outlets to hire freelance writers as workers if they write more than 35 submissions for a news outlet. 

Alexia Fernández Campbell wrote one of the best takes on this situation in her Vox article. She wrote that two things could be accurate. The first isbeing that the vulnerability of journalists are at the hands of the companies who hire them, while avoiding paying them benefits like Social Security. The other was that limiting a freelance writer to 35 news submissions each year is disruptive to their livelihood. 

The bill comes from good intentions by seeking to provide labor protection for workers. It was authored by assemblywoman and labor leader Lorena Gonzalez, who represents San Diego’s 80th district and has been vital in strengthening labor laws in California and setting the standard nationally. According to a Hollywood Reporter article, Gonzalez collaborated with freelancers while writing the bill in attempts to ensure that they would have better labor protections and would not be used to break newsroom unions. 

The Hollywood Reporter piece also referenced a Business Insider article that an estimated 7,200 jobs in media were lost just this year. These losses are what make this situation increasingly complicated, especially when considering the state of journalism.

On the one hand, it’s a monumental win for worker protections in California, but on the other hand, it may put a strain on already struggling institution. The business model of the news has been in trouble for some time now. Journalism used to rely on advertisements in its print editions, which kept it stable. But the digital age disrupted that, and it is still having trouble adapting. Journalism is losing advertising revenue, facing governmental antagonism and newsrooms are shrinking

It is a challenge that faces news outlets that are dependent on profits for their survival. Journalists understand that their jobs can be in jeopardy at any moment if their news outlet’s financial well being is threatened. Their termination becomes the means for news outlets to stay afloat. That is why there is a sense of anxiety from freelancers about AB 5 because, like every other company that is threatened, the first cuts to stabilize survival are often its workers. The assumption and concerns are that companies who don’t have the money to hire more staff will utilize freelancers less to save money. 

For student journalists, freelancing is a way to build up a resume and experience. Student journalists should be aware of this law and continue to use their college resources to secure their experience. Some ways to do that are by continuing to write for their college newspapers, interning and joining press networking organizations. These strategies may be the only ways student journalists remain competitive. AB 5 will likely increase competition between rookie freelancers and experienced ones. It could lead to a decrease in journalists because those who can’t find an opportunity for better standing might be drowned out. 

In a democracy that is strengthened by a plurality of voices in the press, a stimulation of decline in those voices is serious. The ramifications of this bill won’t be known until 2020 progresses, but it will undoubtedly put a strain on an institution that will have to decide if they can hire more writers without endangering the news organization financially. The question that remains is whether that survival will come at the expense of freelancers and writers’ livelihood or come out of their profits. 

As of right now, it is not looking too promising. 

Charlie Varags is a senior studying journalism. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieVargas19.