Transcontinental and the freelance union oxymoron

Over the past few years, a group of Canadians fed up with increasingly restrictive standardized freelance contracts from large print publishers (combined with stagnant or even declining freelance fees) has been toying with the idea of starting up a union.

It’s not clear what form such a union would take, since the entire point of being “freelance” is to negotiate deals on your own. But the media environment that has developed, with just about every magazine and large newspaper owned by one of only a dozen or so major media companies, has meant that freelancers face a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that leaves no room for negotiation. Groups of professional freelancers have been looking at banding together to get these standard contracts changed so that publishers have to pay if they want to re-use freelance content on other media, particularly on the Internet or in electronic databases.

This all came to a head this week when the Canadian Writers Group, the Periodical Professional Writers Association of Canada and a bunch of other similar groups called on all freelancers to boycott Transcontinental, which publishes Canadian Living, Elle Canada and dozens of regional newspapers. The press release is here (PDF).

The groups argue that the so-called Master Agreement (PDF) that Transcontinental is forcing all its writers to sign is over-the-top, even to the point of licensing TV rights for free.

The move prompted reaction from Transcontinental, which said it was surprised and it thought the contract was fair. It argues that the language is misunderstood, and that the rights grab is only for properties tied to a particular brand, and that Transcontinental can’t re-use content across brands (read: magazines and their associated websites) without paying an extra fee. The writers’ groups dispute those arguments.

So the campaign has begun, and writers are asking people to boycott anything published by Transcontinental. They’re even asking people to unfollow The Hockey News on Twitter, since it’s a Transcontinental publication.

This is all coming at the same time as Transcontinental is considering a lockout of its employees at community weeklies in and around Montreal. Not a good week for the company.

Freelance for free

The problem with this boycott campaign is the same one that has caused these contracts to be put forward in the first place: writers are a dime a dozen, and so many of them are willing to work for peanuts that publishers find they can demand more rights for less pay and still have people climbing over each other trying to get a byline.

The erosion of freelancer rights has already hit newspapers, where Canwest, Sun Media and others have forced their freelancers to accept these terms or stop contributing. Now Transcontinental is trying to move this to the magazine world (with a contract that’s still much more generous to freelancers than the newspaper freelance contracts), and the professional writing community has said it’s not going to take it anymore.

Even with a writers’ boycott in place, expect plenty of journalism school students, part-time writers and others to jump at the chance to take the place of the professional freelancers for the few bucks an article that Transcontinental will offer them.

This slide to mediocrity won’t end because of a boycott by the cream of the crop, it’ll end when either publishers decide that the content they’re paying peanuts for is too crappy to justify the savings, or when young status-hungry writers figure out that an eight-point byline nobody will remember and a cheque for $100 isn’t worth all the work they’ve spent crafting a magazine feature.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for either of those to happen, unfortunately.

2 thoughts on “Transcontinental and the freelance union oxymoron

  1. Craig Silverman

    Hi Steve,

    I appreciate you writing about this issue, and let me disclose now that I’m a member of the board of PWAC. On that note, the organization is the Professional, not the Periodical, Writers Association of Canada. Also, the idea of a freelance union is no longer and idea, as the Canadian Freelance Union is holding elections and its inaugural meeting today to formalize its bylaws and leadership.

    You’re right in saying that Transcon will still find writers to work for its publications, and you’re also right in noting that these contributors won’t be the cream of the crop. Most of them won’t even be professionals, and that’s kind of the point.

    Transcon is basically saying to freelance writers that this contract represents the way they will do business with us, take it or leave it. There was no notice or effort at negotiation. We professional writers also run businesses and the bottom line is that this contract is abusive to our business interests. Why continue a relationship with a client who doesn’t offer any value and acts in such a manner?

    For me, this is strictly a business decision: the contract makes writing for Transcontinental a losing proposition for any professional writer. It takes just about everything in terms of rights and offers the same pay we were getting 20 or 30 years ago.

    Who knows what will happen in this specific case, but at a certain point you have to do what’s right for your business and livelihood. I hope my fellow writers will see it the same way, and I hope folks out there will consider choosing an alternative magazine or newspaper when faced with a Transcon publication. As a company, they simply don’t value high quality reporting and writing.

    Best regards,

  2. Kristine

    Having opened one of my Google alerts today, I was directed to this page. I’m not familiar with the publication nor the new organization discussed here, but as a freelance writer of 30 years (yes, all of them independent), I “join” Craig in his comment. Too many times those of us who keep our cupboards filled by the words we write are thought of as “free” ..lancers. Few people (clients) understand the amount of time we put into research and learning curves that are not usually billable hours. Much of the time if one is bidding on a job that is out of his/her knowledge line we even research, sometimes for hours, prior to making a bid. That’s part of business, but while the doctor is commended for his keeping up to date on the health news, the freelancer is often expected to pull information out of a hat for no pay.



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