Regarding the Senate and Assembly passage of AB5: Worker status for employees and independent contractors

We appreciate the very hard work that took place to craft AB5.

As representatives of the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter, we have a vested interest in how this legislation will affect our industry.

Over the past few months, as we watched AB5 mature into its final form, we spoke with dozens of stakeholders, including union leaders, independent contractors, managers, publishers, and others. What we found, overall, is concern that this bill, intended to right the wrongs of the so-called “gig economy,” could prove damaging to the already weakened state of journalism.

Journalism is unlike other newer industries. It has developed through the work of independent contractors since the first newspapers in the nation. And it continues to serve several valuable purposes:

  • It allows subject specialists to focus on single topics for multiple outlets
  • It provides flexibility for those who don’t want a part- or full-time job
  • It enables journalists to take on extra work if they have time
  • It enables outlets to hire people when they have temporary need
  • It supplements content for understaffed  news outlets

In its form passed by the Assembly and Senate, freelance writers, editors, photojournalists, and cartoonists will be allowed to produce up to 35 submissions for individual media outlets. We know that number came through many discussions and great deliberation, and it’s an important compromise.

But we have concern over other aspects of the journalism industry.

One that may not be so apparent is work produced through foundation and government grants that support much educational non-profit journalism. That funding enables outlets to take on special projects specifically designed to serve the community. For broadcasters, it supports not only reporting but also all of the associated roles that make that work possible. These can include project management, videography, sound engineering, live events production, and more. We’re concerned that AB5 may make it impossible to contract that critical work, thereby reducing the amount of meaningful journalism that can be created.

Many of the occupations that received exemptions or allowances from AB5 had lobbyists working on their behalf to ensure their interests were defended. That went for some people working in the journalism industry, such as newspaper publishers. But there were many others — notably freelance broadcast journalists — who did not have the benefit of representation in this discussion. We want to make sure they are not overlooked.

To that point, we thought it might be beneficial to share some comments gathered while AB5 was being developed and debated.

One freelance audio journalist said that, as a result of the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, one of his primary clients “essentially told me they feel we either have to break up or get married, and they can’t see getting married. The ensuing conversation continues to be confusing, but the result is I am now thinking about hanging up my freelancer spurs and have been applying for jobs outside journalism… The proposed legislation is, ironically, mainly protecting me from one of my best clients.”

Another freelance journalist said, “I think this bill makes important headway for protecting freelancers, but must not overstep and make it difficult or impossible for freelance writers to do their jobs and succeed as a small business.”

An independent newspaper publisher wrote “a labor arrangement that discourages freelance relationships could lead to publications hiring fewer people with less specialized knowledge, which would mean abandoning the depth of coverage they are able to provide by hiring experts in particular subject areas. That would have a deleterious effect on the quality of the journalism that journalism organizations — already under extreme economic duress for the last decade — produce, and make it harder to meet their mission of distributing information critical to the democratic process and holding the powerful in society accountable.”

Another community newspaper publisher wrote that if AB5 passes, “it would put us out of business. That’s what is at stake.”

While many perspectives we heard echoed those concerns, we also did hear from others who appreciated protections for freelance journalists who felt they were being exploited by the existing system. That, of course, seems to be the intention of the bill in general. We are hopeful that the negotiated allowances made for freelance journalists will help protect the industry while also encouraging responsible employment practices by media outlets.

Meanwhile, we hope that journalists can continue their work as best as possible. That includes those independent contractors working behind the scenes to help journalism happen, the small publishers and production houses creating community journalism, and anybody else who may be unintentionally affected by the passage of AB5. Over the coming months, as the law is publicized and scrutinized, some of the concerns we’ve raised may prove to be founded. If so, the legislature may need to consider further amendments or exemptions in an urgency bill, in order to protect journalism. It’s fundamental to a strong democracy.

We hope lawmakers will consider that while reviewing one of the most significant pieces of legislation to affect workers in recent history. We appreciate the effort.


Ben Trefny
Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists