Do media companies still employ that ‘we-are-affected-by-the-pandemic’ rethoric to hire cheap labors?

On an assignment. Photo by Iqbal Kusumadirezza for New Naratif

We are all affected by the pandemic. No doubt about it. Businesses collapsed and millions are jobless. But does that mean the companies have the right to hire and squeeze us to the point that we have to survive under the minimum wage? There’s no justification to that and never will.

Three things have gone passed my Twitter timeline in the past couple of weeks: the problem with unpaid internship, unpaid employment at startup companies (ridiculous), and how a media company attempted to restructure its management by pooling freelancers with lower-than-market-price compensations. I would focus on the latter as it was based on my own experience.

However, the three shared one thing in common, how corporations attempted to create sweatshop culture under the pretext of being affected by the pandemic.

When I lost my job in June last year, the world of freelancing is an unknown territory to me. It’s like a strange dark creature; cold, menacing, and unmerciful. But I have no choice but to tread in that uncharted territory. It’s like walking the dark tunnel.

I didn’t know who to contact to. My name is barely noticeable out there.

Then I started looking for editors’ contact at social media. I sent five different pitches each day. Few responded, many turned down my pitches, and many more are completely radio silent. It’s okay and completely normal, I thought to myself.

I disseminated my portfolio; build a website, actively tweeting, and ‘show off’ my works on Linkedin.

My first freelancing gig was doing a feature at a regional media company with presence across Southeast Asia. I got $50. I did it because the editor reached out to me first shortly after I got kicked out.

Then it was a feature story for $200 for another Southeast Asia’s publication. Then another $300. $400. $2,000. The amount goes on.

I learned not to turn down an offer whenever I can, because I realized I need my bylines to be on as many publications as possible, not to mention that I have to support my fam. So even it’s a $50 gig, I wouldn’t say no.

But things went out of hand in December. Long holidays made it difficult. I was jobless throughout December. Freelancing is not something you can rely on. I didn’t know if I could get an assignment next month, yet the bills are something absolute.

In January this year, my first mentor and an old friend of mine offered me a job as a contributor at one of the oldest publications in the country. I immediately said yes. Who wants to refuse this kind of opportunity at this difficult times? No one.

The said media company underwent major overhaul in late 2020, citing financial difficulties. To get out of the financial restraints, they need to rebrand themselves to reach out the younger audiences particularly the tech-savvy Gen-Z, which accounts for more than 75 million.

In order to do that, more than a dozen of young freelancers, who represent the millennials and Gen-Z, were ‘hired’ as fixed-contributors to do unique, out-of-the-box, refreshing, feature-style stories.

We have to submit as many pitches as possible per week. Some did around one-two stories per week or four to five works per month. We got paid flat for each story. About $60 per story and around $10 for a single photo.

For younger people who have other steady jobs, that amount may be enough. Or for younger journalists who need their bylines out there, that amount may be enough too. But for me who got no other skills and source of income plus a family to support, how am I suppose to survive with that salary if my time was occupied by the 5-story-per-month job?

This is a full journalism work, not that kind of confessional essays (though this is also allowed). Meaning you have to reach out sources, do research, and sometimes you have to go out there to meet your subjects.

There’s no benefit outside that flat rate. None.

What’s the logic behind this? Was it that in order to save more money while boosting unique feature-style stories to get as many readers as possible you can hire freelancers to do full journalism work for cheap?

It’s unacceptable.

For decades Indonesia have struggled with this kind of culture. Some journalists have to produce dozen of article per day with minimum wage. Many journalists were underpaid, despite Independent Journalists Alliance (AJI) attempted to standardize journalists’ salary, and some of them have to look for other ways to survive (including taking ‘gifts’ from the ‘powerful’).

I know doing business is hard, but that doesn’t mean we can be hired for cheap. There are a lot of ways we can benefit each other.

Let’s start by asking these questions.

What do the young people need? Do they need faster, unique, interactive multimedia pieces? Do they want to be involved in the storytelling? Do they want their voices to be heard? How can we give great benefits to journalists that in return will file great stories?

The problem is, Indonesian media companies failed to adapt with the fast-changing world. If media companies do their homework by allocating certain budget to build more compelling stories for the young generation, there is more chances to survive.

Being adaptable is crucial these days. Build interactive multimedia stories. Make more videos. Post relatable social media card with compelling captions. Make good podcasts that allow audiences to feel they are being there in the middle of the story.

Be fair. Pay journalists for their high-quality works well. Don’t use the pandemic as an excuse. If you pay them well, you don’t have to ask for more quality works, because they’ve already done that.

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Adi Renaldi

Jakarta-based freelance multimedia journalist. Award-winning and award-losing. Has written for various publications around the world. www.adirenaldi.com